More Than a Beard: How Hot Ryu Turns Thirst Into Critique

If there is one particularly awkward conversation in media critique, I would give the award to discussion surrounding the sexual interests of women, and tangentially, anyone attracted to men. Codified on the ‘obviously bad’ platform of media activism, the objectification and sexualization of women calls into question the pervasiveness of pandering to men’s interests by emphasizing sexual dimorphism based on men being powerful and women being their objects of pleasure. Besides the arguments of this outright not existing or doesn’t matter, the focus on sexualization brought up other inquiries: Can men be sexualized? Should men be sexualized? How exactly do we handle the sexy in our media? As straight women and queer people of all stripes became more visible and part of conversations in games, amorous and sexual interests that veer from the typically televised began to seep in, sometimes turning straight men into subjects to be looked at and allowing others the agency to look and express interest. But what is it that a critic or artist could learn about media and sexuality from the increased visibility of marginalized people? Like a burly angel sent down from on high, “Hot Ryu” shows that not only do people in games want attractive depictions of men, but that men need more thirst-inducing depictions of themselves to battle the toxic masculinity produced by the media, typically by other men.

It might be a little befuddling why there is such a big deal being made out of Hot Ryu. Ultimately, the only difference between him and any other depiction of Ryu is a beard, and sure some people like facial hair on a guy, but why the daddy cat calls and particular interest? So far, the pervasive conversation on sexualization in the media is very narrow in what aspects of a person could be considered sexual and therefore exaggerated to be a main point of focus for viewers. This focus is in line with men’s socialization, that body parts made to be covered up and only hinted at or revealed during intercourse are what can flag as sexual. However this isn’t the whole story, particularly since how men believe they are sexualized in the media, having muscular chests and arms, are not taboo to reveal in public. Because men often control the depiction of their gender in the media, they are looking for other men to identify with their characters, and men are not socialized with the expectation to be looked at sexually. Instead, they are depicted with a physical relationship with power, and men subconsciously expect other people to be attracted to that power. The hiccup is everyone isn’t necessarily attracted to the power men depict for themselves, rather traits that signal what kind of person they are especially as it relates to amorous and sexual activities. Coming from an American-centered industry, the beard, then, evokes qualities surrounding lumbersexuality, a fashion trend of ironic, exaggerated rugged masculinity that often centers around having a beard. It’s important to point this out because the main qualities of lumbersexuals are irony and reference, awareness that straight masculinity is crumbling under its own weight yet refuses to move and save itself. Despite Ryu being a Japanese character in a Japanese game, he can be co-opted into this particularly white American trend by simply being viewed by English-speaking audiences with American-influenced sensibilities, aided by the anime and Japanese video game convention of mukokuseki, or depicting Japanese characters as non-ethic-yet-vaguely-white. While bara conventions surely can be read into Hot Ryu, the lumbersexual is a prevalent mode he’s being interpreted by English-speaking communities accustomed to white-centered beauty. Hot Ryu doesn’t have to be actually white to exist in this context, and can co-exist with completely different reactions from other cultures, like Japan’s, whatever they may be.

Hot Ryu sparked a combination of this ironic masculinity with amorous interest despite what seems to be just a simple addition given the prevalence of grizzled white men in video games. Timing and broader familiarity with feminist analysis plays a part in this. Fighting games are notorious for sexulized depictions of women characters, and with Mika returning to Street Fighter, discussion was back around talking about unnecessary fanservice in an industry that should know better by now. Then out comes Hot Ryu, looking burlier than ever, in a way prepped to be looked at sexually much how the women are. Except it doesn’t work the same, rather, it’s absurd that just a beard would completely change how you see someone. But when beards are tightly wound in lumbersexual discourse, one is inclined to both roll their eyes yet lust after the wearer at the same time. When Hot Ryu became a meme and trend on social media, it wasn’t simply because he was hot to look at, but because his new beard entered him into ironic masculinity. The memes juxtaposed his hypermasculine persona, now moved into commentary because of the beard, against fan imagining of a sensitive and caring boyfriend, a trope contemporary men struggle with and parody through methods like lumbersexuality. Along with a sub-designation of Hot Ryu being Daddy Ryu, evoking the lumbersexual allowed those who like men to extrapolate fantasies in public through the irony men set up for themselves. Because there is a general lack of sexual flagging by straight guys in the media, people who like men outsourced that flagging to other symbols to engage with. Like wearing a red hanky in your right back pocket means you want to get fisted, having a quintessential lumberjack beard might mean you’re struggling with contemporary masculinity by making it a caricature. This means that the basic, yet uncommon, act of making men a subject, not object, of attraction is in itself a kind of critique.

So how does Hot Ryu change the sexualization conversation? Just on the (his) face, we see a reversal of standards on what constitutes something as sexy for consumption, namely complicating the power vs attractive object binary based on men’s socialized and marketed tastes. Instead we see audiences imbue agency through a knowing consumption, making a character a sexualized subject instead of object. The distinction is important, like the difference between retaining agency through choosing objectification, being the objectified subject, and being perceived as inherently an object for use. This creates a basis of critique of masculinity that isn’t solely on straight, cisgender men’s terms, as they resist being objectified through identifying with power and interpreting how they could be consumed through that lens instead of what actually is the case. Most importantly, this appropriation allows alternative visions of masculinity that are uncommon in media dominated by men depicting themselves but will likely relate to men through less exploitative ways as we continue to imagine future masculinities independent of oppressive power structures. The beard isn’t the end-goal, as it is wrapped in a lot of regressive politics, but when looking at strategies to challenge contemporary masculinity, we can cite these sorts of reactions and conversations for men on the ground level to reassess what men in power tell them masculinity is, and how masculinity functions in the everyday lives of those they affect.

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Trying to Unpack Victimhood

Outside, someone is playing the trumpet. It’s sunny, cars are frequenting by, and children are wrestling in the grass. I’m in a loose bathrobe, staring at the people on the other side of the bay window of my apartment, counting to thirty only loudly enough to confirm I haven’t trailed too far off into other thoughts. Steam and a note of smokiness twists from the spout of a bright yellow teapot on the counter, contrasting the worn white and blue tiled counter in my kitchen crowded with earth-colored spices. Shocking Yellow, I believe is the more specific term, if the car dealership I got my first and only car at shops at the same paint factory as the tea shop. I’ve come to miss that car, or driving, being able to just pick up and go somewhere when I wanted, to wear whatever dangerous shoe fit the occasion, to just visit whatever friend is too lazy to leave their house. When I finish counting, adding on a few extra seconds in case I went too fast, I pour my tea and go to sit in my room, prepared to do something productive and intellectual. Take notes while reading the academic canon of game design, play out tarot cards like a modular table top game, write an article. Instead, I feel like I’m pouring hot liquid into a hollowed out shell, who might reach for her new 3DS, but most likely just sit and stare out her window.

This is my unglamourous road to recovery. Instead of event planning, or going on dates, or creating something, I sit in my room and drink tea. I will try to convince myself to cook, but will most likely order thai from a mediocre delivery place that doesn’t have a minimum. I wish I could say I’ve learned something profound, that in my own way, I am advancing the craft and critique of play while I play hermit. It’s not the case.

I feel like I survived something, where, at least, years-long adrenaline have subsided enough for me to feel pain endured for a while. From before games, when I struggled to live, when I struggled for safety. I have something mundane that I’ve be scraping for my entire adult life, some form income that takes care of my necessities that doesn’t completely sap me of my energy. It took me leaving social media, the circus it is, to realize I had something, that I could, for a little, just stop, and not feel guilty over drinking tea.

But I do. I’ve found that, as much people on social media are quick to recognize victimhood, and construct a narrative for them, there is little support, and possibly understanding, on how to help someone not be one anymore. Instead of guiding people through a healing process to surmount victimhood, they disappear the moment you don’t hold that position in the right way. It’s like, people empower you to be a righteous victim, instead of empowering you to be yourself again. At times, this feels like people aren’t interested in you once you lose your status of being a victim, and emphasize your pain to keep you in cultural consciousness.

Finding out who is and isn’t a victim is a preoccupation of those only concerned with justice, not the social or restorative parts. It’s ultimately determining rightness and reparation equal to the offense; but what if there is no real way to weigh and dole out justice that will actually make any feel good? With this method, victims are essentialized, since the search for truth is for one that cannot contain many perspectives, only the one of judgment. I find that justice is not what I need as someone deeply wounded, rather, for others to enable me to recover. Cutting down someone else isn’t going bring back time lost to pain. What we need is healing and prevention, taking care of the wounded and making sure things like that can’t happen again.

Systems that wield justice without a clear path to recovery for everyone involved, to mend back community that can and will turn on itself, are violent, no matter how well-intentioned. That conversations stop at identifying the offender and aggrieved demonstrate the reactive rather than proactive nature of the common manifestation of social justice in contemporary mediums. Reaching for the status quo, even when the nominal is fucked up. In the end, there is only enough attention for a certain amount of victims of certain degrees of victimhood. Those that don’t fight to keep the attention are forgotten, sometimes despised.

As I heat up more water for tea, it is night time, and I haven’t done much else. I think about what could help me, get me back to work, to living again. It usually takes a day for me to just decide, you know, I’m just going to get my shit together. I’m just going to write this piece, I’m just going to call that friend, I’m just going to finally check my email. And that’s the advice I often get from other sources, that ultimately, you have to just do what you need to do. Yet, so much goes into ‘just’ doing something when you’re burnt out from pain. There’s learning healthy habits again, there’s the mystical process of having energy to do basic tasks of taking care of myself. My culture’s lack of care for mental health haunts me. Instead, it tells me to just get over it. A self-determinism that at first seems empowering, but instead heaps onto you all the garbage society doesn’t want to handle itself.

I admit, this is just me venting. Writing to get money, slowly but surely trying to piece my life back together. It’s, well, embarrassing. I feel infantilized and surveilled, quarantined yet lost in the desert. This is an exhale, this is me trying to survive. I wish I had a solution, some moral of the story, a tried and true method to restorative practices for the people we find victims of violent systems. Yet my mind already grows tired, and it is difficult for me to concentrate. If anything, I just want others to not feel alone and hopeless, and to further push awareness, even if I can only do it a little at a time for now.

 

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Our House

Community. Strangely, now, a dirty word in the context of social media. I’m not entirely sure what’s going on with it, when it comes to games. Maybe it’s going through usual gestations, a process that completed cycles before I was ever a twinkle in Twitter’s eye. History and repetition and all that.

It wasn’t until some hindsight that I realized how much of my involvement in social media was novel for my time in games. It’s easy to forget that people have different relationships with social media, where some, like myself, see it as a complete lifeline and was the birth of my involvement in games, where others only use it to keep up on the news when they have the chance to look at their phone and have no idea about the culture that has bubbled from it.

I remember a friend describing that one day I just walked onto Twitter and there I was, doing my thing to get where I am now. Still haven’t processed that ‘where I am now’ bit, but I can’t ignore it’s in some form successful and atypical. The access of social media meant I could almost literally will myself into existence and relevance, and that willpower has to continue in order to retain it. My path is nothing short of strange, I was crowd-funded to go to GDC only 5-6 months after I started writing blog posts, and continued with that momentum to travel all over the world to speak to and meet many different people.

The idea that my exposure was mostly from just effort and charity enabled by social media wasn’t something many people, including myself, understood very well. That, just through engaging in enough conversation, in participating in the ever spinning cycles of current events, I could gain legitimacy, or notoriety. And it compounded on itself, picked up in speed, until I finally crashed into a wall my body couldn’t handle.

In my journey, I’ve met many people who’ve gained recognition in a more typical manner, by working in the industry or academia or media for a very long time and going through the grind. The idea that my name or work was known in some manner, back in 2012 and maybe even today, connotes I’ve done something similar, that I have the social and monetary backing of my perceived success. In a way, we were ‘equals.’

At the time, I admit, I was full up on this prospect. This isn’t to say I slacked my way into my position, I had to output a 1000+ word article a week, pro bono, on top of my low-wage job, where I dealt with people and their tantrums over the exact weight of whipped cream they wanted on their coffee. But that those who many people respected because of their legacy and influence, somehow, now respect me in some capacity because I’m extremely persistent on social media? Yes please.

I was taught two things: first, fake it ‘til you make it. Especially in the jungle of social media, there are so many voices that people will only really take time to consistently read you if you’re considered interesting but more importantly an expert. I’ve come to find most people, especially in the media but definitely all over, are doing this. Like some secret of adulthood is that everyone is pretending to know exactly what they are doing and they are expecting you to at least put up the front of having your shit together, or better yet, can tell them how to get their shit together. I feel like this is particularly needed and damaging to critics who primarily use Twitter for their wellbeing and lifeline to games conversations. They have to put themselves forward if they are ever going to get read. I’m sure there are many critics of the way I do things, and that I come off as cheating the system and rather self-important. If you want to get any amount of capital from social media, you have to do this. Yet, it has its consequences. Games twitter is like a cul-de-sac that has neighborhood rules and on top of that each house has its own set. The cool house with all the radical critics and activists is the house with the most amount of rules, most paranoid about assault and trespassing, and constantly swarming in a forever on-going conversation of what’s wrong and how to fix things. But on the outside, they try to keep up with the high standards of the cul-de-sac, mowing their lawns just right, making sure things look like professionals are around, not poor, struggling artists. Which leads me into the second thing I’ve learned, summed up by a mentor, of “believing your own bullshit.” Imposter’s syndrome is abound, and these voices are continually dismissed and overlooked, so in order to overcome feelings of not being good enough when we actually are, we have to believe the image we put out, that we ARE experts, we ARE successful, we ARE whatever that will make us be treated the way we want to be treated.

These two things cycle endlessly on one another, where emerging artists and voices can’t ‘rise,’ they can’t ‘emerge,’ they must act like that final stage of what they envision of themselves. It wasn’t until someone else had told me “it must be terrifying doing all this on social media, you are forced to grow with everyone watching.” It wasn’t until recently that I found out I haven’t been growing because I was too busy trying not to be overlooked and dismissed.

And we’ve been doing a good job of this. Radical creators output a lot more, smaller pieces of work than people who are traditionally successful, so everyone is always seeing what we’re up to. And while they might not exactly consider us the same kind of successful as them, the ability to have many people see a lot of your work so easily does look like extremely successful and in a way, and equal to what they are doing.

So when an academic or auteur-dev sees our house, sees that it looks like his from the outside, so it must function the same inside as his, he just walks in and says what he wants. Cue the slow head-turn in unison and reaction of the hivemind that believes it is under attack. This collective unconscious is brutal, it’s even been used against people in the house, yet it is also one of the only things that keeps any semblance of protection from the constant threats from the rest of the neighborhood. It could be ultimately unhealthy, but really, where exactly were our ethics and healthy organizing on Twitter talks from our parents? We are the ones, now, being invited to talks about advocating and creating on Twitter, and I’m sure a lot of those seminars look grim.

Here is what I know, and I realize I am in a good place to do this and it is why I have this knowledge: the people who do walk into the house, ignorant, are well-meaning and confused. Confused because they don’t realize what starting your presence in a field on Twitter does to you, and what kind of warped communities and practices exist they aren’t inoculated to. In our effort to be taken seriously, our presentation gives off signals that others pick up on as being a part of the same circles, therefore customs and situations must be relatively the same. They quickly find out how wrong and wrapped up in power dynamics these assumptions are through weeks of trying to understand how a group of 20-somethings know to say the most cutting and divisive things. I’ve seen this happen over and over and over again these past few years, where someone established really wants to come over, but the culture is so different and requires them to be self-aware about things they aren’t asked to be before, that their only option is to blunder into den of protective foxes with really great hair.

One could say, because of this, and because of my weird travels through social media into the offline lives of many people, that I sometimes act as a liaison of sorts. I see the difference between the person on social media and the one in reality. I am actually really excited to have conversations with them, especially when I can express myself and my concerns in the middle of conversation instead of in a manifesto after a Twitter storm. This is because they have had a chance to cultivate something with me, personally. That doesn’t stand for social media communities, I have no city keys.

Which is to say, I really prize efforts of inter-generational conversation, because there is history and resources the established have that could have a mutually beneficial effect with social media radicals. Just, few of these efforts have gone very well.

To give my fellow critics and creators a break, we are constantly on the defensive for a good reason. The consequences of this behavior is weighty and under-discussed, for sure, but so far is the best strategy for survival people could come up with.

Instead, I want to encourage and challenge people in established positions in the industry to learn more about our house and the people who are in it, and understanding how we came here and the particular pressures we face. In a way, you have to build trust first before you can fully engage. This takes time, you have to hang around and reference their work and show in more than just words that you actually know their thoughts and positions and value them. I know this seems like a tall order since we are constantly putting out writing and constantly bickering on Twitter, but, as the metaphor stands, it’s our house.

Right now, many of us see the media and other thinkers profiting off of our work and culture. Twitter is milked for topics to discuss, but the progenitors of those conversations won’t ever be asked to write for a fair rate. People will give talks that reference or combat our ideas, but we won’t be invited to give talks for a fair wage. We spend countless hours raising awareness and battling the sludge of the industry others profit from, but we won’t be given awards, recognition, jobs, or anything. And that’s sad, it’s a series of missed opportunities.

I know that to people on the outside, radical creators and critics seem unapproachable and out of touch. We want everything of yours to burn down while we redistribute the remaining resources. But really, what I think is going on, is we’ve have a growth of talent and no room made for them, and the pushback against them only gets stronger. There are already interlopers, the ones who show up to our scrappy events, or link our articles, or RT us. Believe me, we see who is involved and who doesn’t seem to bother themselves to show up in non-confrontational ways. I know there are many people who want to reach out, be involved. Get to know us as people, as comrades, and I think we can change things, together, with our powers combined.

 

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More Than My Pain

You often hear games conferences described as industry Christmas, seeing many friendly faces for the one time a year you get to see them. I think it’s why there’s as much buzz as there is around them, more than the actual conference or games really. As Christmas or any other holiday does, it affects people in different ways, and usually for me, it’s an uplifting, energizing experience.

The conferences I’ve been to this past month, and probably the ones for the next few, were somber and claustrophobic. It felt like people found out before I did that I only had a few more years to live. I was walking a procession of my own funeral.

My decision to leave the games industry is seen as something between giving up and a loss. I made my decision based on what made sense to me: the industry wasn’t providing enough sustenance and support to continue receiving abuse in its stead. Moving away from mainstream games culture and focusing on the edges of play allows me to create and write about topics I’ve been interested but wouldn’t really capture a large audience. It’s a healthy move.

What I’ve realized during my time engaging with the online community surrounding games media and development is that minoritized voices often only get visibility and resources when they are talking about their pain. This is particularly true for people who aren’t men, who on top of doing good work, they must put themselves out there enough for hordes to harass them. As is seen with turf wars with games journalism, people are looking for personalities in their media, and the technologies we converse on emphasize these tendencies. In a way, social media is reality TV the audience gets to heavily participate in and shape.

By continually engaging with the people of hate campaigns, people within the games community and industry reify this TV dynamic, often without the consent of the people who will be affected by it. Those on social media who feel like they have little political power are ultimately organizing in the same way these harassers are by just lashing out with memes and Twitter shaming tactics, which exacerbate the issue. This line of thinking seems to come from a couple of factors from what I can see: the ‘logical’ one of if society can see that people in the hate campaign are awful people, they don’t get credence, and the selfish one, that they want to do something but can’t bring themselves to a level where they feel like they can make a real difference. There’s a lot that goes into these two feelings, but simply, society already sees games culture as aberrant and horrible, and therefore doesn’t need to see it get worse to be convinced, and this entire conflict isn’t about gamers and wanting to feel like you’re a good person, it’s about the continual victimization and marginalization of minoritized people in games. It was in the beginning, always is, and yet there hasn’t been any real, healthy effort to counter this. Instead, people waste their energy dealing with people who can’t be convinced, and make bloodsport of it.

I say a “healthy effort” for a reason, because a part of this reality TV aspect of social issues is how fan culture creates personas out of people and groups and cheers them to battle against each other. We’ve created idols of victimhood out of people who are much more than their pain. And when we stop to talk about it, of course we don’t feel and think this way. In our actions however, there is an encouragement for victims to become martyrs incarnate for public catharsis by constantly engaging with the antagonists of the show, or even having in-group drama to shake things up for a boring month. Attention, connections, and resources goes to the ones most visibly being attacked in a very zero-sum manner, where if you aren’t also being cut apart and challenged in public along with your usual work, the industry and community very quickly forgets you.

Don’t believe me? Look up the name of any person now campaigned to continue heading into the abuse to somehow save games in the media. Try to find pieces that critically engage with the work they do, and you will see what I mean. Because the crowds can only talk about the drama and pain, and not about how or why this person matters to them, minoritized people in games will always just be chess pieces for dominant culture’s side of the diversity game. I’ve been doing what I do for over 3 years, and I can count on one hand how many times a major publication or conference asked me to talk about my work, because the dominant narrative will only let us exist if we are victims first, then humans. These past few months, 99% of the interview and speaking requests I’ve gotten were to retell my stories of pain. And how the community reacts to hate campaigns plays straight into that; instead of engaging the people who can actually change things (heads of companies, VCs, activist organizations), the community goes into a turf war with anonymous trolls more experienced at harassing people. How many times have you read that unlike the past, these particular past few months have been getting worse, not better? I am more than my pain. I am more than my pain.

I’ve already wrote pieces on how you can help; they are not the dramatic displays that social media encourages you to do, but they are things that actually work. To be honest, I throw up my hands in the air now when it comes to how little people actually turn to do these things. I feel like the community WANTS the social drama, you WANT the reality TV. Which has caused me a lot of pain these past few weeks to realize, with how few people in my life have offered substantial support these past few months. If you want to change your behaviors to actually help people, talk about how they matter to you outside of their ‘bravery.’ Quick tips:

1: Have you actually actively engaged with this person’s work? Have you not only experienced their work, but thought about it past a gut reaction? Can you explain to another person why this person’s work is unique outside of them being a minoritized person? If you answered no to any of these, you need to go and respect that person you claim to be fighting for and actually engage their work so you can appreciate them as a whole individual instead of just a icon for martyrdom.

2: Stop goading hate campaigners, because the end result is more harassment for already victimized people. If you want to show the public a different face of games, show them the work of people who condemn these cultish and discriminatory aspects of games culture. You are not painting a different image about games by making harassers and criminals resort to even more extreme tactics. Instead, publicly engage with the work you respect, whether it is to agree with it or criticize it. You don’t undermine them if you genuinely want to add onto their work from your perspective, assuming you’ve taken the effort to critically grapple with it.

3: Don’t assume that because someone has more followers on social media than you that they are somehow set for life. Many of us are broke, don’t have experience that institutions respect enough to give us jobs, are expected to give a lot of free labor for the community, suffer from multiple oppressions. A tweet is nice but gone from my timeline within a couple of minutes. If you care about a person and really want to be involved with their safety and well-being, take more than a couple seconds to reach out to them. Always respect boundaries, of course. At this point, however, the silence from so many people when I am struggling with pain is crushing.

I am more than my pain. I am more than my pain. I am more than my pain.

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Our Flappy Dystopia

I’m going to get right to it: any critique or reporting on games that doesn’t include an intersectional perspective on the presence of capitalism in games is incomplete. There’s little else more avoided than the topics of anti-capitalism and class politics in games press and conferences outside of the usual fetishized rags to riches fables. Having money to start with is already a large part of this, but how our societies are organized by valuing people and things by their monetary value above all else structures how we talk about games. It says who gets listened to, who gets noticed, and who is valued.

Why mainstream spaces have a tight lid on these issues is simple: they would be at the very center of critique. There is something unspoken, that of COURSE we’re all run by money. But to say it outloud is taboo, and it’s seen as rudely airing someone’s dirty laundry. That we are aware that the methods of how many institutions make money are unethical but are okay with keeping it just below the surface since we know others are doing it is a cause for extreme alarm.

We, as global, national, and artistic communities, justify a lot of shitty things on the premise of making money. This industry justifies sexism, racism, and all forms of discrimination and oppression because of some unwritten right to make money. Why can’t we have equal representation of minorities in our media? Because someone wants to make money. Why aren’t there more minorities writing about minority issues in a time of heightened social justice on sites that pay fair wages? Because someone wants to make money. Why are the weird free games made commonly by minority artists that play a huge role in changing how we think of the medium excluded from news coverage and conference talks? Because someone wants to make money.

It doesn’t sound nice when it’s constantly called out, does it? Because it isn’t. There is a price tag to participating in games. The mainstream culture of games development demands you are from a class of people who could go into computer science or digital art training and have enough resources to handle an industry that has a terrible track record with labor issues. The standard success story of someone in the games media is a person who can afford to keep up with the newest products and has the resources to write for free or low-wage for about two years. Important conferences, even when you’re invited to speak, often cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars to attend. Knowing that poverty and other forms of economic discrimination disproportionately affects minorities, not including anti-capitalist critique effectively erases the struggle people face on the uneven plane we all convene upon in this community. This is why people at the top shrug at their homogeneity; they are unwilling to see the effects of capitalism on their hiring and creation practices, and even more unwilling to enact change, often with a ‘I got mine’ attitude.

Capitalism is informing what creations are considered good and of value, and what are bad form and derivative. Gamers and others see quality in games that show high production value, and defame games that seem to be a waste of money in this model, EVEN IF THEY ARE FREE GAMES. The idea of success outside the conventional method of capitalism, which is intersectional in its effects, is met with contempt. ‘Success’ is also very dubious and misguided; simply having a lot of attention for a period of time is considered successful, even if all that attention is harassment and you are not better off personally or economically for it. As much attention as the DIY ethos had in the past few years, minority creators are still impoverished while indie games that incorporate marginalized themes and design philosophies into the acceptable model receive praise like pets at dog shows. It’s not necessarily their fault, it’s that the system chooses what looks like it from the margins to seem adaptive. In the end, the system is perpetuating itself, only allowing games and people complicit with how things are going to thrive.

Now let’s enter in Flappy Bird. For some context, Flappy Bird was a mobile game that became the focus of ire and slander because it had pipes in it, similar to those in the Super Mario Bros. series. Or, more precisely, it was making a lot of money off what was billed as theft. I say was because it’s now removed from the app store after the creator, Dong Nguyen, received endless harassment. Jason Schreier’s article and Twitter reactions best embody how the conversation started, though as you can see from some of the edits, there’s been a change of tone. Robert Yang already did a great summation of what was wrong with how Jason and others handled the issue; what interests me the most is how this extreme situation exposed the capitalistic influence in games and the manner it excludes and defames.

Unfortunately, this settles on what’s considered a ‘real’ game, an obsession many people at the top of the community and industry occupy themselves with. The conversation of what is and isn’t a game is often, intentionally or not, used to assign value to already established gaming conventions that benefit the established system and marginalize works that do not look like it, and therefore threaten it. Mobile games are often slated as ‘casual’ games, which people in the gaming press and development overall side-eye as a genre of games mostly just looking to grab people’s money. Except, well, that’s ALL of AAA games, such as the hype around how much Grand Theft Auto V made despite that it was profiting off of flagrant sexism and racism. Mobile games, on the other hand, do not often pander to mainstream gaming audiences’ tastes, and seeing that they go for mass appeal, obtaining fortune is always seen as a negative thing. Sophie Houlden pointed out this contradiction in a recent confluence of events; King, developer of the viral and profitable Candy Crush Saga, acted in a way that is considered unsurprising for mobile developers by trying to trademark and bully other games that have the words ‘candy’ and ‘saga’ in them. The games community was, of course, quick rise against perceived soulless developers and protest with a game jam. But then, a game makes money off of having a reference, maybe, to a ‘real’ game, Super Mario Bros., and is now perceived as stealing. ‘Candy’ and ‘saga’ can’t belong to developers, but green pipes are rightfully Nintendo’s. A quick google image search of Jonathan Blow’s Braid can not only reveal that the indie darling also uses green pipes, but also uses analogues, very obvious references, to Mario’s enemies, mechanics, and story line. It’s entire premise is predicated on people having played Mario, yet we don’t have publications saying Jonathan stole from Nintendo.

Dong is considered an outsider. Who is he? From Vietnam? Oh, that explains this ‘knock-off’ rhetoric people are using. Indie creators are notoriously capitalizing on the nostalgia of the late 80s and 90s gaming culture, with difficult puzzle platformers and action side scrollers as far as the Steam library can go. No one is accusing these devs as stealing from Nintendo and Sega, despite the lineage being extremely clear and borrowed as homage. It’s because the gaming community set up a success narrative for certain indie, mostly white, mostly men, mostly from English-speaking countries, developers who strive to make smaller games competitive with the big dogs. Ultimately, indie games play into the same capitalist model, to the point where many are attached to big publishers on distribution platforms like the PS4. Most indie games strive to be addictive entertainment just like AAA ones do and employ similar kinds of people with a shared background. Indies can stay because they don’t threaten how big business works; instead, they merged right in with it. To this industry, using those green pipes was sacrilege, with the horrific possibility that, in Jason’s words, “some kids might grow up thinking these are ‘Flappy Bird pipes.’” What, exactly, is so bad about that?

The anxiety the industry is facing pairs with its diversity problems. Video games backed itself into a corner by becoming highly specialized for a very particular audience, ‘hardcore gamers.’ They developed conventions, genres, marketing tactics, merchandise, PR cycles, and an entire culture that serves a very narrow idea so they could easily profit off of it. Because of social justice activism and outside pressure from a society that sees gaming as grotesque, awareness about how exclusionary games are is at critical mass and the industry is scrambling to answer. It has no fucking clue how to market to and include minority members of their community and in the world at large. So when Farmville, Peggle, Candy Crush Saga, and Flappy Bird appeal to this mysterious audience big budget and scrappy indies can’t seem to tap, it’s foul play. They are exploitative and unfair. But this same attitude is applied to more avant-garde work that comes up against what it means to be a ‘real’ game, such as Analogue: A Hate Story, Problem Attic, and dys4ia. If games that came from the general DIY movement represented a new standard, it would reveal the institution of video games to be a huge scam. A scam that exploits its workers, exploits the suffering of minorities, exploits the complicity of consumerism. For money not to affect design and coverage anymore would completely change the landscape of games, both how we interact with and speak about them. Simply dispersing the focus on the conventional game design aimed at certain kinds of players would turn the industry upside down.

Be wary of any piece of critical writing and reporting that doesn’t expose and interrogate how capitalism is at work. Not accounting for how the industry moves money and to whom and why keeps us groggy as to why we have the problems that we do. We know this isn’t a meritocracy, that this system values us by our monetary worth decided by its own standards. If we really want to move forward, if we want to remove oppression and breathe life into games, we can’t take the industry and throw in some brown people and queers, we have to establish a community that is inherently inclusive from the get-go. A community past capitalism.

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On Anger

Natural to the turn of the new year, there is reflection on the progress we’ve made and where we see ourselves going. I’ve been reading and listening to a lot of retrospectives in social justice, what 2013 was like and new goals for 2014. In games, I think it goes a little something like this:

2012: Off of the work of many obscured social justice activists (mostly centered around The Border House), games media hit critical mass with enough education and protesting of marginalization that many incidents were highlighted and discussed. More public figures felt comfortable talking about discrimination, more people started to speak up on social media, more PR and games were called out. It was the year of it becoming irrefutable that there is a problem, and it needs to be solved, documented ultimately by #1ReasonWhy and #1ReasonToBe.

2013: Everyone is trying out their social justice hat. Some are inexperienced, others more so. It is expected, on some level, that you are savvy with feminism. More and more people are joining the conversation, and with intersectionality, more critiques are added in. It was the reaction year, on a ground level and industry one. GDC had the premier of their advocacy track of talks, and there were at least 4 games specific conferences with strict anti-harassment and diversity/inclusion policies.

2014: Seems to be the acknowledgement that there isn’t a code of conduct for social justice on social media, and there is a strong need to cut down on toxic meanness and peer abuse. It’s finding the answer of how discuss and educate that progresses our field while respecting the suffering of those waiting for the privileged to learn. More on this soon.

This new year, I made a resolution to be critical without the negativity. I brought a lot of my negative feelings to social media, completely valid negative feelings, that set a tone for people to interact with me. It was conflicting with my goals as an activist; I want people to feel comfortable coming to me and speaking about issues, but I obviously was always stressed, down, bitter. Who wants to open up and expose themselves to a person like that? To a person who looks like they don’t need another burden on their shoulders? I am making an active effort to privately journal my negative feelings and find out different self-healing tactics that involves getting away from Twitter. I want to be more approachable, I want people to feel encouraged around me. I want to be a safe space, if you will, and have the ability to make where I am a place of respectul, earnest discussion.

But, on day 2, I might have already messed up. Before I jump into my rambling trying to figure this out, I want to own up to where I feel like I’ve failed. I’m concluding that I don’t think personal attacks are useful when critiquing someone. By that point, it’s mean, and doesn’t help. It is the misuse of anger, which passionately communicates to people deep truths you feel. Insults are meant to hurt, to inflict pain. I believe expressing anger is vital to discourse, but I don’t condone insulting other people to be mean. This tweet summarizes elegantly what I feel, reminiscent of Aevee’s “Anger isn’t violence, violence isn’t anger:”

anger

I witnessed personal attacks happen in the name of social justice yesterday, and no matter how complicated the issue, I didn’t say anything even though I felt uncomfortable. I was wrong not to say anything and I sincerely apologize for my hesistation. What we need is more nuanced discussion, and what happened was more of the same. This feels like a good example where valid anger is misused in the name of social justice.

It all started with Ben Kuchera becoming the editor of the opinions section of Polygon. I can best describe why this matters through literally what I saw on Twitter. In my set up, I have two timelines that concern video games. One is my personal following list of people I somewhat regularly talk to in games, and the other is of people I don’t really talk with or follow closely, but are important enough names in the industry to look at. This industry list has a lot of similar people with similar enough ideas about games. Mostly white men (among other similarities) who make a living wage off of games and most people involved with games would know who they are. When Ben got this new job, this side of Twitter was congratulatory for the most part, not really thinking much of it. The other side of Twitter, filled with personal friends, social justice activists, radical designers, critics of diverse backgrounds, was outraged. To this side of games, Ben is a person who consistently antagonized social justice activism, spouted problematic ideas in the name of games journalism, and defended his bosses, Penny Arcade, when they, or I should say Mike in particular, contributed many a faux pas. Since Penny Arcade Report is down, I can’t link to any of the stuff he’s written, but trivializing rape culture, diminishing women journalists when speaking of sexism in the industry, and downplaying transphobia while defending the problematic aspects of brony culture are among the things he’s known to do.

Why does this matter? Polygon is on record saying they are striving for a diverse staff and to have diverse perspectives with their content. As of this writing, there is mostly white men as editors, no women, and I’m sure there’s other homogeneity there. Polygon isn’t short on talented talented minority writers, Tracey Lien and Danielle Riendeau in particular have done absolutely essential work in games journalism and I enjoy them dearly as peers and friends. So it can’t be helped to say why, why another from the old guard to be an editor when you are committed to diversity? Why a person who has a bad track record with diversity in the section of your site that has the best chance of talking about diversity? We don’t have all the information of what went into this decision, but these are valid questions when a hire goes against what you claim to be. Is there literally no one else, within or outside, that can fill that role and challenge the status quo at the same time?

Asking these questions is legit, and I don’t think Polygon is going to ever really comment on it. But things like these serve as a litmus test, to see what people are feeling about certain community happenings. Two years ago, when Polygon formed, they got critiqued for starting their publications with only men. There was back and forth and debate, and it showed everyone that we need a diverse set of writers at a publication to get diverse content. Also, with the rise of social justice, minority writers are not only more likely to bring up the topic of discrimination, but are also more likely to get it right since it’s their lived experience. Continuing to only hire people similar to the usual games journalist, usual game developer, usual gamer doesn’t contribute enough of a divergent viewpoint to unpack all the problems that come with marginalization in our community.

While I feel in general the critique was valid and tame, the tone quickly shifted when this blog by Jeff Kunzler was posted and shared widely. It took me a long time in reflection to realize I really don’t like what this was doing. It has anger coming from the right place, but it isn’t directed in a critical manner. It is mostly mean and disparaging. It generalizes and glides over the nuance is does bring up to return to the insulting. I silently approved of this and shared it.

This is what I would call 2013 social justice activism. In the end, Polygon is definitely up for critique when observing this event through the lens of social justice. They deserve to be held accountable and answer for their actions, and be criticized if they don’t. However, if we look back up to that tweet, this post made the conversation hostile. The moment people feel unsafe to speak, we lose authenticity. We lose the honesty of anger. This isn’t to say I think the line was crossed when the first person from the industry side of Twitter said they couldn’t handle the negativity. There will be people who invalidate anything that’s isn’t served with a spoonful of sugar, and that’s a usual step in the phase of getting over privilege and complacency. I also want to point out that, on its own, that post isn’t harassment or abuse, though I was told there was harassment on Twitter as a result. It was straight up mean, and I gave it a nod and passed it on. Righteous anger humbles people, moves them, and unites people for a change. Meanness is toxic, it makes everyone uncomfortable and afraid to speak up, even if they are your allies and agree with you. In the end, critique is a call for change, and all that was there was meanness. I really hope Jeff follows up with a better critique, unapologetic in their intent but sorry for its demeaning nature. It is, like they say, so 2013. In 2014, we want to find more critical, constructive ways of activism.

However, to give this whole thing more nuance, I feel like I need to detail why, at first, I was fine with that post representing the general dissent of Ben’s hire. Because while we don’t want this sort of advocacy to dominate 2014, we must address the suffering from which is it born. I want to tell you of my time in games criticism.

I began actively blogging in August 2011. I was picked up by publications like The Border House, Nightmare Mode, Game Critics, and PopMatters. I think people describe me as someone who ‘came out of nowhere’ because suddenly my pieces were in many places and I was advocating on Twitter constantly. Eventually, using The Border House as a platform, I challenged Kotaku on some comments the editor-in-chief at the time made, and eventually wrote a piece about why games publications like Kotaku are unwelcoming to minorities. This is when games media started to find out about who I am, and because of this, I think, I lead a successful campaign that allowed me to travel to GDC and PAX East. During this time, I was working as many hours as I could at a Starbucks while applying to grad schools. It became apparent with the time I spent writing on games, I needed to start getting paid. I was constantly exhausted, especially because I was still getting used to the abuse that comes with speaking up about social issues in games. My work was regularly featured in Critical Distance, I got some pieces in Paste, and my writing was in printable magazines like Ctrl+Alt+Defeat. I don’t say this to blow my own horn, actually the contrary; I’m really bad at self-promotion, but I feel like this was evidence that I was doing good work.

When seeking advice from friends, I knew it would be hard to get a gig anywhere, especially as someone who only does opinion pieces. For the next year, up until a few months ago, I pitched to many (all?) publications, who all ended up turning me away for different reasons. My work has been called too feminist, too risky, too weird. Every single editor tells me, privately, they love my work and want to see me do well. But they can’t publish me because of money and risk-averse attitudes. I’ve been told I’m not notable enough, not a Leigh Alexander or Ian Bogost, to have my opinions go up without first rising through the ranks like everyone else. I’ve been told time and time again I must first do news and shitty reviews before I can get an op-ed anywhere. I tried doing news and features, but I’ve concluded I am simply not a journalist; I am a critic. By this time, games writing has taken over my life. I’m in grad school and barely know anyone in my program. I’m now known as ‘that girl who goes to video game conferences’ and will be leaving this program with the bare minimum of what I came here to do. In 2013, I spoke at 14 different events in 3 different countries, attempted my own games criticism publication, co-founded and -organized the successful Queerness and Games Conference, and am one of the few people who can say games criticism pays my rent. Polygon even named me one of the top 50 newsmakers in games last year. I was living off of less than $10K while doing all this and living in San Francisco, a notoriously expensive place to live, but the place of opportunity for games writers. Again, this isn’t to boast. This is me building a rationale of not understanding why people won’t hire me. Why won’t people commission my work? Why am I not important enough? What else must I do to earn the right to make a living wage in the games world? Am I not allowed to be frustrated and angry?

My relationship with Polygon is weird, to say the least. When they had a panel at PAX East about their name reveal, I put them on the spot to answer for the diversity criticisms they’ve received. They consulted me privately in email and didn’t really heed anything I had to say about what they should do to attract diverse talent and promote diverse content. They didn’t hire me when I applied. I am friends with Tracey, Danielle, and Phil Kollar, while one of the four people I have blocked on Twitter is an editor there. There are people I barely know and some I’d like to get to know better. Polygon is just progressive of center in their content but rather old guard in the way they handle journalism. I had a good opportunity to do a feature piece for a great rate that didn’t pan out, and I was given a very low rate when pitching criticism for their opinion section. So when someone like Ben comes in as an extra person to the opinions section where there was apparently not enough funds to give me a proper rate, it felt like a slap in the face. A slap in the face by someone who is notoriously dismissive of minority perspectives and out of touch with social activism. A person I could never pitch a piece to.

This isn’t just about me, and this isn’t just about Polygon; games criticism overall is a very impoverished space. We have many talented writers who aren’t allowed into games publications and are trying to scrape on by. People in the media and those who consume it are always encouraging these people, like me, to not give up, that our voices are valuable. But because we don’t want to, or can’t because of life situation, do news and feature work, we are kept out of the process. We aren’t only kept out of games publications, but we’re also kept out of more general ones like the New York Times because we don’t have the connections. Notable game critics as a group happen to be a more diverse set of perspectives than current mainstream games media. Gating the opinion section of your site from game critics is the first way to limit new, different critical voices from getting into the media. Hiring someone known for having problematic views on minority issues is dissuading minorities from pitching to your publication. Again, not just Polygon, I’ve had similar experiences with The Escapist, Rock Paper Shotgun, Gamasutra, and other places.

When I see that other people, the same old people, get hired and given work, I get bitter. I get bitter because I most likely didn’t eat that day, was a shut in from not being able to afford makeup that week, because I face harassment and exclusion on my own dime and time. I am angry that the games media keeps me out while saying it, as an institution, thinks I’m valuable as a person. They show this by asking me for free or low-rate work. I am deeply frustrated, and tired, of fielding the same offenses time after time, with people telling me to be quiet and not talk about games journalism. I have to talk about the institution of games journalism, my very well-being might rest in it.

What’s the solution? The obvious thing is for publications to change, and make it very public what and how they are going to change. But if that was an option, that would have changed things a while ago.

Instead, I am curious about how individual efforts are going. As I mentioned earlier, I get supported by the community to write games criticism, and as of now get around $400 for each piece. That’s about 3 times the highest rate I’ve ever been offered by a mainstream publication. This is obviously bittersweet; I am getting paid more than games journalism thinks I’m worth, but also, the media doesn’t think I’m worth a livable wage. I still don’t make a livable wage, and many others with funding pages don’t either, but it’s still a lot more than the nothing places like Polygon are offering us for criticism.

Meaning, it might be the best option to listen to separatist feelings. It’s possible it’s time to just end this connection and be a community that is adjacent to instead of squashed by games media. As independent critics, we can follow our own rules and communicate directly to our readers. Readers support the styles they like and know they are helping someone who is most likely socially disadvantaged survive a little more off their craft. Maybe the mistake all along is trying to integrate into a system that doesn’t want us. Of course, that assumes this individual crowdfunding trend sticks around, and that has yet to be seen.

We do need to keep in mind that we’re fighting the system that uses people to marginalize others, not the people themselves. Attacking people at Polygon does nothing to critique or dismantle the system of oppression that influences all games media. However, it does stand as a good example of what is wrong with the systems the media functions under. Polygon strives to be the best and made that their image, which means they also have the daunting task of dealing with our field’s discrimination issues, some of which their publication was founded on.

I am scared this will come off pedantic and prescriptive. I want there to be helpful, respectful conversation. Respectful where the oppression and suffering of minorities are taken into account, and where polemic anger is low rumble that shakes people at their bones instead of an acid wash over their face. I want to be known as honest and critical, as approachable and productive. I regret both the actions and inactions that have led to my corner of the community to be hostile and unsafe for others to speak. I want to figure out how to recognize the uneven plane we enter in these discussions without disregarding each other as humans. People in places of privilege need to recognize marginalized voices come into the conversation having suffered abuse and impoverishment. To respect connection or separation when that’s what someone wants. Activists to understand that anger is wanted, but not cruelty. That personal insults just haven’t been working to change anything, and they will continue to not work.

It’s unfortunate that the year has to start off rocky, but it’s good to course-correct as early as possible. In the coming year, I want to see discussion and experiments on constructive, passionate uses of anger for social justice and change. I want people to express themselves honestly and without the degradation of others. We have our journals, our personal friends who understand us to be petty with. This doesn’t need to be an artificially happy place, but I’d like it to be somewhere no one is afraid to speak their mind and learn. I hope people who disagree with me contact me and let me know what they think, because I am ready for a change for the better, whatever it is we decide, as a community.

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The Meritocracy of Video Games

I hate video games as much as the next person. Not necessarily the objects or the artistic form, but the institution of Video Games. The chimera of conventions and attitudes that, intentionally or not, gatekeeps what creations and people are valued. As Simon Parkin neatly outlines in this piece about gamers, who is called a gamer, who self-identifies as a gamer, and what the broader cultures surrounding games imagines a gamer to be are in conflict, most typically over gender and age. I feel like the nuance surrounding the angst of gamer identification is well covered by the time you read through Mary Hamilton’s defense of identifying as ‘gamer’ and Brendan Keogh’s splicing of the personal use of the term from how it is wielded in discourse. My personal opinion is to eject the concept of gamer into the cold unforgiving vacuum of space, but that is neither here nor there.

Simon’s philosophical argument, because unfortunately people don’t find the moral imperative of ‘discrimination is bad’ good enough these days, rests in his belief that game spaces are egalitarian and intrinsically accepts and treats everyone the same. Hence, how gamer culture is often exclusionary based on social identity is dissonant with the basic accepting nature of games. I’m going to contend with this, especially because my game appears (gratefully! surprisingly!) as an example of educating from within games. The surrounding rhetoric reminds me of the utopia-spinning of late, neo-meritocracy through technology. This usually comes in around the problematic viewpoint of games ultimately being a creative expression of math, and that numbers don’t discriminate between players.

Game design is political. Not just the field (that’s another minefield to go through), but the designs that makes up each game. How a game allows a person to interact with it is extremely loaded with discriminatory politics, because they are usually made for particular players in mind. Simon gets to this in his piece, games are often made for gamers. Who are gamers? What do gamers know and like? What is the usual canon of games for gamers? I want to add onto what Simon seems to be implying: not only do we need to stop the stereotype perpetuated by assuming people who play games are ‘gamers’ at our events and in the representational aspects of our games, but we also need to interrogate how, even if all of these were solved, games assume a certain kind of player is playing it.

The most apparent angle is that of gamer literacy. Controllers are a learned convention, so is WASD, as well as game genres like shooters, RPGs, platformers, RTSs, and so are all the references to geek culture. I bring these up specifically because even though games are played by a very diverse demographics, the game industry makes an effort to separate ‘real games’ aka ‘hardcore games’ from the rest, where the gamer identity is formed. Companies making those games and the people who have the most voice are the stereotype of gamers, a stereotype catered to for at least 20 years that would have a strong knowledge of game conventions. What is good in games comes from the iterative response from a small group of interests, and our current engagement with play is accosted by this fundamentalism. If we want the ‘gamer’ out of games, we need to address what we consider to be good design and how it is informed by the gamer paradigm. A lot of blame rests with the media, which is hesitant to dig into and highlight non-commercial games and smaller projects that explore past the usual models of play. The media plays a huge part in games being included in any discourse, and looking at what’s covered (this isn’t directed at Simon), no wonder everyone, including the public, thinks games are in-club toys. When games like Candy Crush Saga or The Sims are brought up, it’s only because of the profit they’ve made and not why they are great models of design. For instance, imagine if video games took to The Sims as a model to iterate on instead of Halo or GTA III. Maybe 60-second loops of fun and player agency wouldn’t be so central?

Things like explicit goals, conflict, combat, fun, empowerment, points, achievements, and systems feel required in order to make a good game. How often are designers questioning how we got here and where these values come from? This is when my game Mainichi is a useful example. The topic is novel, unfortunately, but I don’t think that’s the most interesting part about it, or at least in what it contributes to design. I’ll sum it up in an anecdote: after its release, some teachers taught Mainichi in their classes. They were a mix of classes, game design, gender, media studies, etc. There was a split in reception of the game distinctly on the lines of whether the class was dominated by gamers or non-gamers. Gamers questioned whether Mainichi was a game, implying it was bad for failing to live up to their idea of what a game entails. They disliked the lack of goals, little to no ‘action,’ lo-fi yet not retro graphics. To classes with mostly non-gamers, students found my game as a new way of engaging with a person, building empathy. They adopted a bit of my mentality and viewed the world in my perspective. The point for them wasn’t to necessarily accomplish anything, but to understand. It’s because my goal was to say something personal to the player, and if someone doesn’t view games as something for communication, they are not going to engage with it that way. It seems to me that gamers are more likely to dismiss artistic expression in games than non-gamers. All games aren’t designed for equality nor played on equal grounds. I don’t think Mainichi is that complex or groundbreaking, but it sticks out because it steps outside of the design paradigm that we use for games. However, it is rarely covered in the news and didn’t receive critical analysis outside of smaller blogs. Similar games that are pushing boundaries of how we think of design share the same fate, not to mention non-video games that are often ignored in this conversation.

To look at the universality of games, we’ve have to step outside of mainstream video games and discourse. I think meritocracy is usually a veil for privilege, which it is in this case. Video games are escapes made for certain kinds of people, and others can join if they can put up with it. I think this deserves more conversation, especially in public. Do we want games to be accessible to everyone? To be a general artform and media to experience? We have to do more than calling ourselves something different, we have to extract the baked in assumptions of how we design and speak about games. The reason video games can be so nasty is because they aren’t often seen as personal works of the creators’ with their attitudes and perspective on display. They are a reflection of the self, or the team or company. Change starts with self-reflection, and how we individually affect games, good and bad.

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End the Video Supremacy of Games

Remember where you were at the start of the of the last console generation? I drove to an early work shift at Target in Tallahassee seeing a line snake itself around the store, ready to rush towards Electronics and nab a PS3 or Wii. Despite working 40 hours a week, $6.40 an hour with rent and food to take care of kept the PS3 well out of my reach for another four years. Today, I am selling it to help make rent. I’ve come to terms that I will not be getting a PS4 or any other sort of future technology for a while, and I know I am already in an advantaged position with access to video game playing devices.

What does it mean when critics and creators can’t afford to keep up with the tech race? If the past year showed us anything, it’s the need for a wider, diverse set of people playing, making, and talking about games. One main barrier to entry is based on class and money; technology is rapidly advancing, and the culture surrounding video games requires professionals to be on the bleeding edge. Ultimately, the unspoken attitude for creators and critics who can’t keep up is to get out. It only takes a look at what the media covers, and the relative success of these games in festivals and other arenas.

I’ll come out and say it: the culture around video games is strangling the wider conversation of play and games as a medium. When people say they play/don’t play games, they mean video games. And not every kind of digital game, but the ones discussed all over enthusiast press sites. They could have just played RISK last weekend, just came from soccer practice, and be playing a match 3 while talking to you and still say they don’t have much to do with games. It’s easy say that video games are their own thing, and other people can do what they will on their own, but that’s not at all how game ambassadors are pitching it to the world. Jane McGonigal’s famous talks encourages the world to become more like (video) gamers to be a better place. Eric Zimmerman’s vision of a Ludic Century is a world where everyone is engaging play chiefly through technology. When countries confirmed games for art endowments, they mostly send funding to video game ventures. All other forms of play cling to the margins of video games when we say ‘there’s room for all.’

This is a technophilic narrative of play and games, where we ‘evolve’ from Chess and Go to Mario and Halo. It’s a misnomer; design hasn’t advanced in a way that makes video games particularly special outside of being new. I find many of the questions and problems thinkers face is because we look to video games and the mainstream discourse on them as the totality of what can come of games.

It’s low-fi digital games doing something other than fun.
It’s board games that explore shared, communal play artifacts.
It’s tabletop RPGs messing with non-quantitative relationships.
It’s LARPs acting as intense empathy flooding.
It’s ARGs reimbuing our spaces with hidden stories.
It’s physical games rapidly populating exhibits.

While it’s true video games aren’t always mindless dribble, we stymie our understanding of the vastness of play with them vastly dominating our attention. The above does poke its head in video games, but how much the conversation is controlled by the forward momentum of technology and consumerism cannot be ignored. It is imperialistic to use the model of mainstream video games to bring the knowledge of play to other spaces. Really, everywhere there exists a play culture, it just doesn’t look like what we’re often sold.

I know people are going to read this thinking that I view video games as worthless and should be completely subjugated. That is a reaction of comfort, of something that benefits from being the norm and risks losing something by existing in an egalitarian manner. There are so many things to explore and talk about, and whether something or someone is important shouldn’t be tied to financial success. Frankly, I don’t think there is a lot new to talk about with video games because of the rut it’s in. Mainstream video games is more in a state of fixing and reinventing than it is innovating. This is clear when you go to a festival like IndieCade and see the different kinds of engagement non-digital games are doing. They blow many ‘it’s hard for games to do x’ arguments right out of the water. Things like rules, goals, systems that seem like a given but are done away with or morphed beyond recognition elsewhere.

Which brings this around to my main point: accessibility. By allowing the conversation around play and games to broaden, we allow participation and perspectives that video games currently struggle to respect. We don’t have anything to gain by ghettoizing and exalting video games; instead, we’re currently suffering from its homogeneity. I don’t see technology as our savior but rather only one part of a balanced diet in understanding play. Even those I’ve mentioned above are designers of multiple kinds of play beyond the digital, and examples of video games that do push at how we think of play often come from interdisciplinary spaces. Why are we allowing the rhetoric of tech business dominate play? There are things video games can’t do, and are inappropriate for. One of those things is a model for the next phenomenon the people of world are mediated by.

How can play be used by the poor to take back their neighborhoods?
What does play say about how our political identities interact with one another?
What does it mean to internalize design?
When can play recontextualize our life problems?
What is the unique emotion we can express through play?
How do the craft of everyday objects imply a game?

I know many people just want their entertainment when it comes to console generations, but we should take a hard look at the unsustainable burnout the hype machine is producing. Only certain types of play and games are legitimized within and outside the circle of video games when this tech fetishization goes unchecked. I would hope that the media would be a great place for this change to take place, but I have a feeling, like all else currently marginalized, it will be up to those ignored to create a space where these conversations can happen. But if you are someone who sees the value in other play outside of video games, to bring in that perspective to a usually tech-dominated discourse.

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Take Me Personally, Babe

I’m going to write about my personal experience writing about personal experience.

Context: I’ve been dragged to this point, by my hair, thrashing with my mascara running. I conducted myself publicly in a manner that would avoid having to make a post like this, but in order for things to stop and straighten itself out again, I feel like I need to document one of the many ways I deal with being a public persona in games criticism, and the game industry overall, as a minority. I know many people have quibbles with identity politics, and the definition of minority and the way American-centric discourse uses it, but this is a situation based on power relations where I am disadvantaged because of my identity, and not simply because of my actions or opinions in a vacuum. This is about a ‘conversation’ that involves me but I was never a part of. All of this is of consequence of other people and having me face the fallout.

It started with a reaction piece to my own. Jonas Kyratzes picked apart a piece I did on Nightmare Mode, Would You Kindly. Before I even got the chance to read it, the confrontation was on. Jonas linked his article with a quick caveat akin to ‘this isn’t transphobic.’ This instantly set many people in the social justice ring on edge, mostly because when someone in a place of privilege has to put out a warning like that, there’s usually something fishy going on. This, and his article, started an argument between Jonas and some of these people who are my friends that would set the tone of what would become a longer debate. The argument quickly became louder queer voices versus a subset of critics who typically have issues with said voices over how me and my work should be treated.

I had no say in how this conversation would go and what my opinions were.

What I’m trying to say is there is a lot games criticism, let alone journalism, writing overall, and the industry has to learn when dealing with minority issues. I really don’t like it when I’m forced to be the lamb on the alter to make that change happen.

More people continued to dog-pile into the conversation because they found it interesting. Overall, I find everyone involved well-meaning. However, because this discussion got intense quick, it became black and white and I was guilty by association. I really appreciate my friends, in the queer movement of sorts in games. They are good at certain things I’m not, have a perspective and disposition I don’t. There are many times I disagree with how they do things, but I think it’s important to have that diversity. I find many of my friends’ anger and mistrust rational, even if I don’t share it and find it frustrating sometimes. I can understand that when Jonas tried to absolve himself from transphobia, that they smelt the BS and got on that. I don’t think what they did was necessarily wrong- just not what I would have done. The rest of the debate is framed in that way, in the way they deal with oppressive culture and how they move in the industry. It isn’t their fault they are discriminated against and oppressed, it isn’t their fault they found methods for safety that are considered abrasive and uncompromising. I will never, ever judge someone for their survival tactics, because that’s literally what it is. At the same time, this debate about me, surrounding me, was with my body on strings instead of my actual self because of how it was postered by my friends and the reaction by all sorts of people.

As well, it’s made worse by Jonas’ article actually being informed by cissexism he seems to refuse observing (I’m differentiating transphobia and cissexism on purpose; I don’t think Jonas is transphobic, but I do think he is blind to the cissexist aspect of his arguments). In essence, his thought experiment of a transgender person considering not transitioning or not transitioning in the way they want to quell a cisgender partner’s insecurities of being discriminated against being equal or better than a trans* person expecting their cis partner to get over themselves can only be logical by any stretch of the imagination in a thought process informed by cissexism. To consider the transgender person is being selfish for wanting to be who they are in a cissexist and transphobic culture is only possible in cissexist logic. You are equating one person fundamentally changing who they are because of the pressure of a discriminatory culture with a person who never has their identity questioned in such a way, and who could easily move through life without ever having that demand asked of them based on that aspect of their identity. With Jonas trying to absolve himself from confrontation, he actually became a model for how many allies and otherwise progressive people try to say they are such without acting it. He was stating he isn’t transphobic without considering how transphobia works within his own logic.

This is just the beginning that will be lost as the debate marches on, but it’s really important for me to point out. It shows the almost deterministic projection of everything, how someone excuses something problematic by hand-waving its legitimacy is up against an extremely vocal and quickly damning oppressed group. They both saw each other as lost causes before any understanding actually happened, and that my name was in it all, I was party to it, despite not having entered the scene.

I didn’t want to respond to Jonas’ article publicly. I offered to have a conversation with him in email, but eventually his frustration with those fighting for me had him unfollow and disengage with me, despite I only contacting him once for that email offer. Outsiders to this scuffle really wanted me to respond, and add to this ‘conversation.’ The problem is that this whole thing was being framed as a me versus Jonas debate, but no actual exchange of ideas came between us. It went to the point where I had to just snap at people because it didn’t seem to get through to the general public I had little to do with the drama going on.

There’s one main reason why I didn’t want to respond to Jonas’ article with another: he pretty much misinterpreted my article and ran with it, then creating this echo chamber of arguments that I would both have to undo and counter. It basically was turning into an ‘argument on the internet’ segment I really didn’t want to get to. Nuance is often lost, comments are polarizing, people are stricken with confirmation bias. What as the payoff for me? I get to deal with more people who disagree with me and get more support from those who already do? There would be nothing productive of me going through Jonas’ piece and correcting him besides for others’ rubbernecking pleasure.

For one, no where in my original piece did I trivialize the realities of war or the people in it. A large part of Jonas’ article is a strawman against a false reading of my piece. What I had critiqued were people who were not at all involved with war and the violence associated with it co-opting it for a ‘real’ kind of violence. The privileged class glorifying a false retelling of war to entertain them. It’s because this privileged class doesn’t often experience violence, especially systemic violence, and so they export that to a reality they can relate to a la socialization by culture. But by the time his article hit the internet, this aspect was parrotted like nothing else, and I before I could actually respond to parts of his article that were interesting, I’d have to unpack all this BS that I really didn’t feel like engaging. By this point, so many of my opinions in this argument were made up by other people, no joke, a mythology was created of who I was and what my viewpoints were, that I honestly didn’t have an interest in it. People just fell on a predictable divide of those who often identify with the ideologies surrounding identity politics and those who don’t. People began to criticize my lack of engagement, and it’s literally because nothing interesting was actually going on, at least, not with me.

But I did feel the need to write about something. Conversations about personal writing have been going on for a long time now, even before this article now treated as a touchstone for a critique against personal writing. I am interested in the politics surrounding personal writing and personal experience used in games. But people so badly wanted me to be a part of the ‘conversation’ that they didn’t look at what I’ve been critiquing with my recent work: that the current way we deal with criticism in both games and writing is marginalizing. We are constantly applying standards that are political and unquestioned. We aren’t looking at how and why personal experience is used, just questioning its existence. We want things in boxes all nice and neat and don’t realize we value one box over another because of inequality. I didn’t want to address anyone in particular because one or two people didn’t sum up my counter-argument. The framework to dive into the nuance of this argument is completely unappetizing, because of how polarized the topic is- most likely, people who already saw my points will continue agreeing with me (to be clear, there are people who talked about my arguments and understood them without me having to explain/engage about them, so I know it wasn’t just that my articles were simply bad or completely unclear) and those who won’t be satisfied with my explanations no matter how detailed I am. The best case scenario would be some in the middle might find it interesting food for thought. Yay.

Now if all of that existed in a vacuum, maybe people would have a hard time seeing why I wouldn’t engage with it. The problem is, every single time I post an article on touchy subjects, I am harassed, belittled, and marginalized. In an industry who values and wants my work to exist but won’t pay for it or offer me any way to live or feel invested in for the long-term. This is on top of the discrimination I get every day of my life, both the standard fare on the street and the systemic kind enforced by society. All of this, and then I deal with all the things that come with being a public figure, with people wanting my time without consideration of me having my own life. There are people actively campaigning against me, there are people who email me rape and death threats, there is an industry who wants to look progressive but won’t actually act that way.

Where am I in all of this?

In essence, my critique of the personal is rather too apt for comfort. The most obvious thing people could be discussing and thinking about, me, is completely left out. Irony has its ways.

Ultimately, it’s because of a discomfort of the personal. We’re in these discussions of ‘why are these feelings in my logics?’ because people aren’t interrogating themselves with how the personal experience relates to them. Which is why after it all, this well meaning response really put me over the edge. Here is me, being put up as an example, about how I’m doing this whole conversation wrong. The conversation I don’t want to be a part of. The conversation I was never a part of. This is when we’re getting to masturbatory levels, the debate for debate’s sake, when debate over the internet with people who really don’t give two fucks about processing others’ feelings is, surprisingly, not that appealing to me. An overture on how this entire mental exercise, or thought experiment as Jonas puts it, is still entangled in a value system that discounts the voices of people like me. No, I’m not going to sit online and play teacher with unwilling students. I’m not even going to with willing ones, I’m too busy trying to figure out how to make use of putting myself in debt so I can actually get paid, seeing the game industry doesn’t want to throw me a dime. Want me to write thousands of words on a particular topic with extensive specificity while dealing with the discriminatory backlash that always happens? I’d love to, pay up.

I don’t know what else to say really. Was this entire debacle worth commenting on? I needed to get this out of my system, and to show that the neat, simple things people think are just friendly debates are never that way for me. There aren’t papers for me to cite that speak to my personal experience because it is systemically pulled out of many a discourse.
As for my philosophy of it all, I do see things swinging towards hyperpersonalization, and I like it. It’s something I wish people could wrap their heads around already instead of deeming it lesser than the established way of doing things.

Sorry for all you Christine Love fans drawn here by the title, I got nothin’ for ya.

Take us seriously, but please, none of that highbrow shit

The light was shining straight into my face. I didn’t complain because I was standing on a stage, addressing a section of the game design vanguard at IndieCade with Christine Love in a maid outfit sitting next to me. Instead, I was one of the first that weekend to speak about the political impact game designers have when making their games, whether or not they had an ‘agenda.’ I started off my talk with a Salman Rushdie quote, akin to ‘Art isn’t entertainment. It’s a revolution.’ More talks on the same stage would pound in the idea that game developers are artists; their work is political. There are many who are still resistant to this idea, that they design merely for fun and nothing else. I would say that’s the ideology of the majority of game developers even though we like to bask in the benefits games being called art gets us. Eric Zimmerman gave ten or so tips on game design which were basically ‘how to manage being an artist,’ and Mary Flannigan reconstructed a history of computer science that showcased innovators striving to find beauty and meaning rather than technological advancement.

The gaming community, or let’s say the ones with voices- popular developers, media, and maybe celebrities if we have those- have a cake eating problem. We want to be taken seriously as an artform but don’t often value critical analysis. Game criticism and academia are held in disdain and shoved in corners, dubbed inapplicable. Recycling the same themes, mechanics, and ideologies of game design passes through reviews and feature articles without scrutiny. We are very happy to wallow in the same when all of the attention we get is for being something different, something new.
This was nailed in for me when I saw the reaction to Lucy Kellaway’s article on Financial Times, “Game theory.” Mostly, we get an outsider perspective on the cultural relevancy of video games from someone, actually a panel of people, who doesn’t really play games. She goes through her experiences, and ultimately sums up that for a non-gamer, she didn’t feel like there was much to talk about. This made a large section of gaming’s conversation upset, because of COURSE she just doesn’t GET IT. It’s like an illiterate critiquing the written word, the blind complaining about the irrelevancy of a Renoir.

Why, instead, didn’t we all stop and ask why? For instance, what would something of cultural relevance look like to her? To the general public that doesn’t play games? Or really, to anyone who actually analyzes games in any manner, since most people who play games know shit-all about game design. That all of the things that ‘require’ her to ‘get it’ are extremely inbred conventions that don’t mean much outside of navel-gazing rationalization? Why should someone be familiar with an X-Box controller (I’m not) to be able to comment on video games? Why should someone intuitively understand platformers (I don’t) to critique video games? Why should someone just understand that they have to empathize with a gun toting character that never has their sociopathic behavior commented on (still boggled about this)? Really, with all of the ways contemporary art and philosophy makes statements, video games very very very rarely do this. Notice in her analysis, she most connects to Proteus and Journey, the two games explicitly tagged as ‘art games’ in our gaming subconscious.

The honest truth is that we’re not at all in a stage to make a statement like Ulysses because we’re barely even trying to do as such. If affecting a person, if embodying philosophy was our intent as game designers, any person familiar with art and aesthetics would be able to get it. Video games are not in some special reality, they aren’t so different that you need some arcane knowledge to get it’s messages. Rather, we have many superficial, unexplained, and frankly discriminatory barriers to entry that have no reason to be there other than ‘that’s just how things are.’ Let’s not pretend that AAA games are looking to be artistically profound with every other motivation secondary, and hell, that goes for most non-AAA games too. With most games not being about reaching that artistic peak, it is honestly knee-jerky and myopic to be defensive.

If gamers are the only people who can decipher games, then there’s something on the game developers’ shoulders to address that. Art balances between the universal and specific- there is often a connection of the personal, special occurance through the accessibility of general experience. If someone ‘doesn’t get’ a painting or a movie, it’s not because they were unable to experience it, but in games, that’s where we’re at. Something tells me Lucy is a lot more acquainted with critical theory and philosophy than most developers, and if there was something to dig up, and she was allowed to, she would have. I think it’s possible that it’s us that doesn’t get it.

We talked about voice. I asked Christine and I asked the audience how we silence minority voices. We craft definitions and conventions that naturally exclude many people; game mechanics that imply the player is a boy or man, controllers for those experts at handling them, conventions that require an understanding acquired over years of gaming. Can you blame Lucy for shrugging her shoulders at something that is continually marketed and designed for 16-24 year old boys? Is that really the marketing demographic for things that are culturally relevant? We need to stop screeching at those who ‘don’t understand us,’ because we’ve made it that way. Instead, it’s time to open up this medium and actually work at making it say the things we want it to.

Pay Up – You are What You’re Worth

I’ve come to enjoy the scene of fog rolling down the hills. Where I’m from, fog is ephemeral; it rises from the dewy grass in the morning and floats off by noon. Walking to the market here feels like I’m on a movie set and zombies will shamble out at any moment. There’s a bounce in my step because shopping for food is one of my favorite things to do. I got swept up in the food-conscious mania that glorified organic products and watched The Food Network instead of X-Tube. So predictably, I made a face when passing by the McDonalds, watching the students and families cramming fries into their faces. But then it hit me as I noticed the change in races populating the fast food restaurant to Trader Joe’s: I was being racist again.

For the better part of two years, I’ve been actively battling internalized racism. I thought I was fine because it wasn’t like I was Uncle Ruckus from The Boondocks or anything. But what I started to realize was that he ranted in the back of my mind about things I thought were legitimately true, and it revealed to me I had biases for monied culture. Wealth and class are highly organized by racism, as anything resembling white culture has to do with a disposable income. I came to understand many of my actions tried to avoid seeming hispanic or black, because I didn’t want to be associated with the poor.

My best friend inadvertently pointed it out to me when we lived together. I had recently grew zealous in the ‘advocate with your money’ ideology and picked up the Human Rights Campaign’s buying guide, which shows you how bigger companies stack up against each other with their stances on equal rights issues. For groceries, I remember Whole Foods being at the top, which was fine for me. Looking at the guide, my friend asked, “Mattie, you work at Starbucks and go to school. How can you afford all of this?” The truth was I couldn’t. It seemed more important to me to embody my ideologies, and through that, it meant I was represented by the amount of money I spent. It wasn’t long until I had to stop shopping at the places on the top of HRC’s buying guide, and I felt like a bad person. I turned around and left Trader Joe’s today because I only had double digits in my bank account until student loans came in. The cost of a meal at one place was the same price as the cheapest pound of meat at the other. I went back to McDonalds, ordered a cheeseburger, and cried.

This is analogous to my experience with my work in video games. The worth of my writing and advocacy is constantly augmented by my relationship to money. In order to keep up with critical conversation, I must constantly buy games. And not the cheaper ones, but the sixty dollar hits that many of my peers get for free. I feel compelled to constantly add to the sprawling Steam library and Kickstarter backing lists. Despite the growing debt, I have to get a new TV for my consoles, buy a gaming rig, and consider obtaining one of the latest handhelds. And for what? Gaming criticism, the one bastion for minority writers in games media, isn’t seen as valuable enough writing to pay. The only time publications want to talk about discrimination with any regularity are the ample gaffes developers give them. The paying stuff has little to do with the experiences and skills you yourself don’t invest in monetarily. Your self-worth is constantly measured by how much you make, or, if editors feel like you’re worth paying. Covering events is something you back yourself and hope you see return on, reviews mainly interrogate ‘should you buy this?’ The amount of white people in the higher paying brackets of the media isn’t coincidental.

Money also frames my activities with social justice activism here. Don’t click on Kotaku. Fund GaymerCon. Don’t go to PAX. While I believe in a plurality of methods to challenge oppressive systems, valuing activism by money makes someone of my socio-economic background powerless. Giving weight to financial power over other methods is problematic, because it often excises the contributions of people who care by their wallet. Making this the battle of the dollars gives disproportional agency to white people against other white people. If I only have twenty bucks on me, how can I significantly factor into that fight? This doesn’t invalidate the very real influence of money, but it challenges us to change the battlefield to where more can participate. We are constantly looking for more diversity in activism, but continue to use resources linked to finances as our main plan of attack. Choosing where your money goes seems like an effective tool because it’s easy; you continue living your life, but instead of going to Dunkin’ Doughnuts you go to Starbucks. Unfortunately, not everyone can afford coffee, especially the ones making your drinks.

The structure of games media and activism only leaves me the path of martyrdom, of sacrificing things I shouldn’t really give up. Why is it that we require a section of people to give up their well-being to be a significant force in things they care about? We wonder why writing and social justice is so white-washed; it’s because many can’t afford to pay the dues of these clubs.

My body is rejecting the McDonalds I ate, used to years of organic and specialty foods I shouldn’t have bought. The only method of eating three meals a day that factors in walking everywhere I go, arranging plans to network, and readying myself for school makes me want to throw up. I feel terrible, unable to write the pieces I won’t be paid for anyway. The fog outside hangs from the power lines like drapes of cotton, and I can’t tell where the sun is. None of my iPad games are entertaining me and I wish for the tech to play my PC games again. I want to do anything that makes me feel like I’m contributing to society, though I can’t help but make a face seeing its price tag.

Something tells me you’re offended that I’m offended.

The topic of being offended has cropped back up, with comedians who favor rape jokes and ableist memes. The latest iteration, in response to being offensive, is often a cry out against sensitivity and censorship, that offended parties want a dictatorship with thought police. Making this relevant to our interests here, Colin Moriarty over at IGN adds in that what he describes as political correctness stifling out creativity and the exploration of controversial material.

Let’s get to the meat of this and save the nuance for dessert. As the existence of this post implies, there are many flaws about Colin’s approach to this topic. I will first meet him at his “Let the free market decide!” slant, which is both problematic and hypocritical. For one, the public saying they don’t like certain content isn’t censorship or any threat against the US’s (because Ben Franklin doesn’t speak about the constitution of the whole world, you see) concept of free speech. Our laws protect us from the government telling us what we can or cannot do, but businesses bend to consumers because of, wait for it, the free market! And, as well, businesses don’t bend to consumer pressure also because of said free market. Game developers can ignore as many angry people as they want and continue making problematic material, but some don’t because of whatever business model or philosophies they ascribe to. So let’s stop throwing around faux-intellectualism, no one’s country-given rights are at risk here. What’s at risk is things people like Colin enjoy might go away to the pressure of another force, and they don’t like that. Which leads me to how crappy it is to use the “free market” stance in the first place. It equates ethics and individuals’ value with money in a system that favors the rich. Gaming isn’t and hasn’t been a cheap hobby to upkeep, so to say those with the money should decide the kind of content of games is plain lazy when that is mostly white heterosexual men. The problem here is that the old guard is backed up against the wall as a diverse market demands games to change, and you get pieces like Colin’s resorting to arguments of privilege.

Moving on, Colin also makes the mistake of creating a straw man of the activism surrounding problematic material in games. We’ll use his example of the Tomb Raider mishap: Talking about rape isn’t what needs to go away. The possibility of games depicting rape isn’t bad either. What is the problem is developers handling complicated issues without understanding how it affects the audience. What Ron Rosenberg said fired off many alarms, that this is most likely another fudged attempt at using rape as a theme in a game (I understand that some who demoed it feel better about the game, but the argument centers around material the public has access to). Context matters here, because our society trivializes rape and there isn’t a game in my memory that properly utilized rape. And with gaming culture under large scrutiny for homogeny in development teams and sexism, the comments Ron made were legitimately criticized. It was all the language that settled back into using rape as a plot device and not treating it with the gravity it deserves. The problem here is that Ron and everyone else related to the PR of this Tomb Raider didn’t mean to be offensive. I would say the vast majority of the cases that people criticize games and publications for being offensive, the accused didn’t mean to be. THAT’S THE PROBLEM.

Without getting into theory, it is becoming more obvious that society has engrained problematic attitudes and behaviors into our everyday mentality, so we accidentally do and say sexist (among other) things. And none of these people want to be sexist, nor want to offend gender minorities. This is what needs to be fixed, and why people continue to mobilize whenever these topics arise! There is a difference between being unintentionally offensive and being intentionally so. When you accidentally offend someone you care about, you apologize and amend your behavior. But when you intentionally offend someone, you don’t care if they are offended and are doing it for a particular reason. This mobilization of activism isn’t targeting people who want to be offensive, rather, those saying things aren’t offensive because they themselves aren’t offended, so no one should care. Sound familiar? If we continued to ignore things we didn’t like, nothing would change. There are many things and people I want to offend. I don’t care if I offend those who are anti-marriage equality, shame kinky sex, or think the Men’s Rights Movement is a legitimate cause; I intentionally craft my messages to offend such people. However, if I found out that things I said offended people with disabilities, in poverty, of another nationality, or any other non-ideological descriptor based solely on these said qualities, I would apologize and change because I didn’t mean to and wouldn’t want to again unintentionally. That said, most MRAs can go fuck off.

Also, what is cute about the “save creativity!” angle is how much people like Colin are protecting incredibly old, entrenched attitudes. There’s a push against how video games deal with sex because it is incredibly UNcreative. Scantily clad women with no other purpose than to be so? What is creative about that? There is nothing creative of our western culture appropriating and exotifying other cultures, we’ve been doing that way before free speech was written into law. Or the glorification of a war we had no business initiating as another excuse to shoot brown people? Something tells me that’s not the “fresh” Colin is looking for. The people that Colin’s article represent don’t want anything to change, unless you consider figuring out how to get a girl as close to naked as possible without financial retribution creative.

This didn’t even get into the workings of the sexism, racism, and other problematic aspects of video games. And it doesn’t have to, though reading up on that conversation would probably have saved Colin from writing that piece. The reality is that it is becoming more and more unprofessional to be sexist and racist, even unintentionally so, and the public is making publications and developers aware of this social change. And as a company that focuses on games as things “guys enjoy,” IGN should take some notes.

The State of Diversity Criticism and “do your fuckin’ research”

Alright folks, strap on in, because we’re going to be hitting a lot of points today. While this topic encompasses many writers and publications, the main focus of my post is a recent piece on 1UP by JP Kellams on gender topics in videogame criticism.

The theory in the middle is mostly okay stuff, but those who regularly engage in the critical circles of videogames will find them all rather familiar. JP starts and ends his piece basically saying that he hasn’t really looked into feminist critique enough, but there isn’t really any critical lens used in the gender debates currently going on. The loudest social justice members, apparently, are histrionic, irrational, and polemic in their efforts to discuss diversity issues within this great art form. JP goes on to posit some ideas for “rational” discussion, like the male gaze, concept of the Final Girl, and that the homogeneous makeup of development teams creating a very narrow range of games for other people to enjoy.

I’m just going to come out and say it: way to go, you are just another dude in the game industry who thinks they are saying something Smart about gender issues for the First Time that social justice proponents have been harping on and on about FOREVER. JP can find solace in that he’s not the only guy regurgitating critical lenses; it’s actually quite an epidemic.

I wanted to know why this kept happening. I figured that if JP was interested enough in calling the current social justice initiative ineffectual, he would at least be following the conversation? Ironically, the only person I saw him following on Twitter (where most of this discourse happens) that had anything to do with the English speaking diversity activism he was addressing was Kate Cox, who did a fucking three part piece on the male gaze as it pertains to videogames. The people writing, curating, and publicly promoting diversity discourse are more than aware of the concepts JP talks about, many trained academically in critical theory and consistently use it. It’s there, and people who aren’t paid and are constantly ignored by bigger publications tirelessly engage developers and publications with problematic material using critical theory. If anyone is skeptical, you can go ahead and gander at my collection of writing, all unpaid and on my own time.

So, if publications like 1UP and Kill Screen (not the only ones, just showing the breadth of sites with this problem) have men reiterating what minority activists have been saying all along, or worse, positing ideas that rely on stereotyped, shallow knowledge of minority issues, what is the cause? Why is it 1UP would commission a piece about gender theory discourse from JP, who admits he’s not the best person to ask in his preamble, and not the many people in the trenches who ARE the experts? Why are the publications that do, like Kill Screen and Kotaku, continue to produce problematic material in opposition to these writers?

For one, there is this assumption that diversity issues are just a bunch of inflammatory/liberal opinions not really based in anything but feelings. Many of these men who are writing on social justice don’t do any research on it, despite being writers and having that as a part of their job. This activism is backed by years of research and critical theory with evidence and solid philosophical groundwork. There is a deserved amount of anger in this movement because despite all of this evidence, people dismiss minorities as self-serving. It’s not until a dude comes along with a stoic and detached demeanor to say something that it’s given any credit.

Risking alienating some of my friends, a lot of this lies in publications being structurally built against culture criticism and the minority writers who would be providing this rich and compelling argument for diversity initiatives and being extremely hesitant to change. Here’s the real talk: it doesn’t matter if behind closed doors you are totally sympathetic with minority issues; if you can’t publicly and systemically promote diversity issues, then you are part of the problem. And, yes, I know all the excuses; people need money, they need to keep the immature audience that reads their material, and bosses find talking about these issues too risky in the face of increased profit.

There is no way the community is going to become familiar with the critical side of social justice if publications continue to devalue this sort of discourse by barring culture critics exposure and pay, qualities decidedly considered being “professional.” The stuff that “actually matters.” Instead, people with the position to enact change exploit social justice circles by only reporting on and discussing extremely emotional and inflammatory topics. They look for the offended, they look for the victims, and ignore those continuing to work to change the discriminatory nature of videogame culture.

So, why is it that articles like JP’s happen? Because they are part of a “Gender, Sexuality, and Videogames” week. That means they are niche and only important for a small amount of time then get tucked away before anyone gets funny ideas. The painful part of this is that 1UP is churning out some really good stuff on this topic. But we don’t want a version of Black History Month, we want positive representation of diverse identities in our development teams, mastheads, and games.

Now.

And how do you do it? I dunno, maybe you can include the people who talk about it every. single. day. into your plans.

PS: Don’t even think of trying to tell me what’s “practical.” Practical is often code for intentionally settling for less because the ideal takes too much effort.

ETA: I am not the only nor first person to say something about the erasure of minorities from critical discourse. Check out this blog post written by Alex Raymond nearly three years ago basically critiquing the same thing. That slowly but surely change is taking its sweet ass time.

ETA2: I spoke with JP on Twitter, which was basically him using Tone argument to devalue my piece, that if I was nice and polite, he would have a conversation. This is after his original article that said the social justice movement is hysterical and irrational.

He also wanted to make clear that he wasn’t “taking sides” and was being even handed between social justice and the skeptics. He said I was turning it into a social justice thing and he never intended that. So he literally had no idea of the discourse and fell into every trap of dude trying to be logical where women cannot. And this isn’t even considering how super problematic a lot of his statements were, especially with Bayonetta. This whole “play it safe” without actual research on what has been done really needs to stop.

Here’s the deal: There ARE very valuable things people in a place of privilege can do and say that would contribute to this discourse. I would say the social justice movement badly needs more cis straight etc men to further grow its philosophy and reach. And there are already really awesome guys who are a part of it and I what I love about them is that they LISTEN FIRST. There’s usually a gut reaction, but after listening to what bothers a person, or what has already been said, they avoid the usual trappings of privilege. They also ASK QUESTIONS about their position and what they can do. I love my straight cis dude friends, and I’m learning more angles and skills because they help diversify the movement.

The Type of Woman I Want Others to See: Why I Wore Heels to PAX East

It was probably 40 degrees American and windy. Being from South Florida, I tend to lose track of how different the temperature feels after I get goosebumps on my knees. I spent my first night in Boston clinging to the inside of my detective coat, which was apparently poor at insulating heat. The air felt more brisk as the night went on, as if the energy of all the fans and artists of the game industry dispersed in the atmosphere. In my own room, I went through my meticulously rolled and sectioned outfits in my luggage, choosing which would be the first casuals and professionals alike would gain their initial impressions with. Cue my horror when I notice all of my leggings missing, forgotten on a dresser drawer, from my dresses-of-rather-courageous-length-only wardrobe.

I decided to take a trip to Harvard Square in the morning with the set of casual attire no one would ever see me in- comfy jeans, fluffy yellow hoodie, and feminine flats with a famous checkered pattern. Being a recent admirer of Esperanza Spalding, I decided to let my hair go free, messy but weightless. I figured a quick trip to Urban Outfitters wouldn’t be criminal, since the majority of the gaming community seemed to own everything plaid anyway. I remember enjoying the feeling of being lost in a city crowd, until I was called sir.

At first, I didn’t think the person was talking to me, because I’d first have a panic attack before entering a public space without makeup. It wasn’t until they mentioned a resemblance to Lenny Kravits that I turned to a man staring at me, since I was the only person of color within a few yards radius (something cities like Boston made me extremely sensitive about). Despite my pointed flats and twice-mascara’ed lashes, this gentleman felt it necessary to remind me that everyone saw who I ‘really’ was. That I wasn’t fooling anyone. On the train back to my hotel to change before the convention, I told myself I’d never dress like that again.

There’s two sides to these mass gathering of gaming folk, one being that I can talk with anyone about my interests, but I must also appear professional at all times. An unfortunate part about being a professional who is transgender is to be convincing. Whether my new acquaintance or I likes it or not, they will make a snap judgment of me, that I’m a woman, or I’m obviously not a woman. In an industry dominated by heterosexual men, my appearance is closely tied to any form of success. I have to battle with the implicit tension of possibly threatening their sexuality, or just their reputation with being associated with someone like me. You see, people don’t believe that I’m a woman because I say so; even self-proclaimed liberal and open-minded individuals will backdrop my identity thinking that I wasn’t always a woman, and that it’s perfectly okay that I made this ‘choice.’ What’s worse, just wearing clothing from the women’s section isn’t enough. In order for men to feel comfortably heterosexual around me, I have to be near porn-star grade in appearance, as if to make up for what’s different about me. Everything may be unintentional and reasonable considering the unlikelyhood they have experience with people who are transgender, but it is far from innocuous. This is why I wore heels every day at PAX East.

About 17 minutes after I read Leigh Alexander’s “Types of Women Men Like Better Than Me,” I cried. I cried because it prompted a good string of tweets about how insecure I felt over managing my image in a professional space. I try to make it a policy to not say depressingly self-conscious things in public, but it was a needed catharsis. I was also tired with the amount of effort it took just to appear average, to have a fair shot as just being a person. I lied to all of my friends who expressed concern over my heeled travel methods; I shrug and smile until I go home and tear up in pain because that’s what I have to do. There, I said it.

I wore knee-high laced up leather boots to the “Death of Vox Games” panel, where the group metamorphosed into Polygon. Standing in line during Q&A, I was anxious because I was only woman going to engage the panel. I wondered if my dress was too short, if my hair was okay, and if I was legitimate enough to press the Polygon staff on their growing but still lacking diversity. This isn’t unique to Polygon, but most publications both paid and hobbyist. They took a bold step of attempting to set a new standard for writing about games, and are self-aware about the precedent they should be taking on this issue. What shocked me about their response was the small amount of women that applied to write for them. Upon memory, out of about 650 applications, 12 were women writers. Doing some quick calculator work, that’s not even 2%. Assuming their newest recruits were headhunted, I was in the physical presence of a quarter of the women applicants that very day (I included myself in that). Why is this? Obviously, since there was a mess over Polygon’s opening line-up, people would aim to fill this need they have, right?

It wasn’t until I went to another panel that day that someone recognized me from my question. She told me that she aspired to write about games but, after her foray into the scene, bowed out because of the homogenous mastheads of online publications. Since videogame culture started from an angle that marginalized minorities, she found staff that didn’t explicitly support diversity issues to be the ones to hand wave these sorts of concerns. Having now personally met some of Polygon’s staff, I’m confident that their representation of diversity is definitely a concern. However, I can see how their involvements with past publications show they stayed either silent or blissfully unaware of minority concerns.

She made me realize that not everyone is like me, that not everyone feels like they have to contort themselves in order to fit in. Some people give the system the finger and move on with their talent elsewhere. Polygon limits its diversity by being a super team of established writers, because minorities are still catching on that there’s a need for their voices in the industry and that not everyone in gaming excuses discrimination with all of the usual flawed arguments. I was part of the rarity that came knocking on their door; most minority talent needs to be discovered for the first time and cultivated. It’s not until minority voices are valued on teams such as Polygon’s that people like her would take a risk and apply. She made me reflect on the example I’m setting for other writers, and that possibly one day, others would look to my path.

I’m not quite sure what to change yet, but I figured I should be candid. That while I love the things I do and try to love the person I am, there’s an incredible pressure to be attractive just to have a chance. Past this ramble, I will continue to wear heels and be incredibly conscious of my appearance. This is my personal path that I wouldn’t recommend to anyone, but there needs to be stories of transgender experience in writing about videogames. About being a woman in videogames. I wonder, with the next person I meet, will they see the woman I want them to see?

Why I Don’t Feel Welcome at Kotaku

Tamagotchi. Remember those?

They became popular when I was in 4th grade. Sometimes my mother took me to a nearby Target to pick a toy- she told me it was for good grades, but I knew it was because I got bullied often at school. One of these times, I raced to find a Tamagotchi, as all of my friends were getting them. I liked the idea of something with me at all times, to take care of it and make me feel like something needed me.

And there it was, a whole wall of glittering purple eggs. I remember that exact, uncreative display panel to this day, and my mother stopping me. She told me to wait, that my aunt wanted to get that for my birthday when she visited. I protested, but the answer was the same: be patient, you’ll get it soon enough. We went a week later and all of them were gone, sold out from every toy store in our area. For some reason that memory is lodged in my brain. I brought it up to my mother recently, but she’s forgotten.

The stray times I visit Kotaku, it’s like I’m seeing an empty panel that the reward for my sitting, smiling, and internalizing should be. I was supposed to find somewhere to escape to, maybe even a place that needed me a little. You told me to wait, and I did. Where’s my Tamagotchi?

There is only a wrong way to go about this. So let’s just get to why I’m here:

Me too.

I’m part of the gaming community, but Kotaku doesn’t see me as a gamer. No, instead I’m a multi-racial transgender who-knows-sexual possibly-feminist woman gamer. A boogie monster. Someone who uses too many –isms and –ists in their daily tweets to actually enjoy anything. I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone ask what it’s like to be me in this pocket of society.

You know that invisible ink in detective movies? If you could get an internet lighter, you’d find “This site is for heterosexual white American men gamers.” Kotaku will never include me until it’s figured out that “gamers” is skewed to one identity and asks me to deal with that. No. Me too.

Gamer culture isn’t Kotaku’s fault. That skewing Japan as a land of weirdoes is humorous. That gamers like to look at galleries made up of T&A shots of women in cosplay. So what if someone like me doesn’t fit in with typical gamers? The editors are just providing what gamers want, how is that a bad thing? Are you using that lighter?

When I wasn’t bullied as a child, I was creating games. My favorite thing to do was to give my friends superpowers based on their personalities. When we played, they were empowered to be themselves. It was always fun because each one of us mattered. I mattered. Ever since, I knew I wanted to be involved with games, maybe even make them. I contemplate what I would say to kid-me now that I figured out what a gamer is. What kind of treatment I would receive if I ever got into the industry. Would it be more humane to convince my past self I didn’t actually matter?

I’ve turned away from Kotaku because it doesn’t like my answers. There’s a reason I can’t find you bountiful resources of sexually liberated cosplayers not posing for straight guys. Why there’s a scant amount of criticism of manchild culture. How the LGBT community is still the elephant in the room. We haven’t thought of what a gamer community that assumes diversity instead of homophobic adolescent dudes looks like. There are plenty of stats of who the “average” gamer is, what the actual demographics are. However, the image in our mind hasn’t changed in decades.

There’s a taboo against saying that. Me too. It’s radical liberal talk, an attempt to kill everyone’s fun. The common denominator response is “Why won’t you just go somewhere else?” I usually do. This attitude polarizes the community between large, mean-spirited marches of “the old guard” and a few impenetrable bastions of rigid but progressive niche philosophies. I’ve run to places like The Border House because “me too” isn’t deliberated upon, it’s the law. I turn away because Kotaku doesn’t ask me “Why are you leaving?”

Me too.

I’ve stared at those two words and deleted them often enough that I forget what they mean. I can’t say those words here without preparing myself for the sling-fest, and some days I just can’t summon the strength. This is after I go through my life dealing with crap society presents me just because I exist. And you know what sucks? That many times, my words are shrugged off, or given the fatal “I’ll think about it.” That isn’t inclusivity. Being benign doesn’t help. Letting commenters spew toxic isn’t inviting. Looking to defend yourselves doesn’t solve anything when it’s so obvious there’s a problem. I’m not looking to shame you, I just want to set things right.

Must I be a martyr? Must you be a machine? Are our only choices to become symbols and lose our humanity? Do you understand what you’re asking of me when you tell me to be patient? Do you know how long I’ve been waiting?

The games I play now won’t let me be myself. No game dares to feature a transgender character that isn’t on the wrong end of a joke. Sometimes I pretend that my party members know, but are too scared to ask. God, I don’t even know if most actual people know what it means to be transgender. Or multi-racial. Or anything other than what they are. I don’t know if they know it’s okay to ask. Then maybe we could figure out what a gamer really is. Halfway isn’t enough, but I will accompany you on the journey.

I wish Kotaku would tell me “We don’t want you to go away.” You’ll have to scroll down a bit to see if that comes true.

Me too.

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