Friday, April 4, 2014

Into (and Out Of) The Belly of the Beast

you know, i'm a strong woman. i'm realizing this more and more every day. i don't care what anyone else might have to say to me about it.

i'm a woman. whatever objective definition may or may not exist of that word doesn't matter at this point, because that's how i'm seen now. that's the role i embody. and i actually feel a lot more comfortable with it, as arbitrary as it might seem at times. and now i'm standing in the middle of a swanky apartment in SF holding a rum and coke in a room full of women (and some non-binary people) who work in the game industry or connected fields, wondering what the hell this is all about. i only got into this party because i was in the right place at the right time the night before - and the guy at the front didn't even see my name on the list, but he let me in anyway, saying "i'm just out here as a formality, honey" warmly and laughing. up until a couple years or so ago, i'd never felt like i'd been at the right place at the right time for anything.

i spend so much time and energy just trying to stay human, and yet i usually feel like the token alien lifeform in any given group of people. the whole week of GDC 2014 i'm occupied with thoughts of my impending homelessness at the end of the week. it seemed like a bit of a cruel joke, with more potential offers for money and work coming my way than ever before. everything was falling apart, but something new was also coming together. i feel so hopelessly inept at living my life in so many ways, yet so extremely confident in others. and now, suddenly i'm a part of a community. suddenly everyone seems really nice to me and tells me they respect my work. suddenly i feel much less guarded towards them, and, for the first time, believe they're being sincere. and yet i still don't know where i'm going to sleep at the end of the week.

i'm spending the week incessantly handing out my obnoxious business cards to everyone i meet, advertising my obnoxious game - the game no one's supposed to like. a game about upsetting shit a lot of people never want to think about. i was secretly hoping that i'd push some of them away or offend them. and nearly everyone is saying "wow, this is so cool!" i doubt they'd feel that way if they spent serious time actually playing the game, of course. just yesterday Cara Ellison told me "your games make me feel really bad" in (presumably) the most flattering way she could muster. it's a hard thing to hear from anyone, but it's what i've gotten used to hearing.

being a woman - defining and reevaluating myself as a woman, leaves me in uncertain territory. there are less examples for me to look to. buildings previously built up by all the things i've looked to in the past crumble, and now i see how flimsy they were in the first place. i struggle to feel i'm really occupying the same space as these women, but i'm definitely feeling a positive vibe i didn't expect to feel from them. maybe it's that women in games are so intensely targeted and marginalized, they couldn't help but emotionally support each other and try and birth something new and interesting. not that those women aren't often equally lethal towards each other - a reality i'd became increasingly acquainted with all too well in the past year. or maybe this is just how things really work in creative communities - that just because i'd never really heard many stories of women in male-dominated worlds didn't mean they hadn't existed all over the place.

presumably i'm some sort of Game Designer or Game Thinker or whatever, but i don't pretend like there isn't a lot i don't know about games. so i go to heavily praised talks like The Experimental Gameplay Workshop at GDC and i see boys with toys. i talk to highly educated, articulate academics who've spent their careers studying videogames and i see boys with toys. i see boys with toys everywhere. i see them skimming along the surface, endlessly posturing. and i just can't get myself to care. but a lot of people seem to love to throw money at them. so i guess i should care. a few of the younger men - ones i've met before who seemed nice enough, if naive, are being hit with walls of paranoia and depression from all the unexpected attention directed at them from their massive commercial successes. they don't seem particularly wise or powerful, they just seem like insecure young people. and there's nothing wrong with that. but because of that, they don't have psychological mechanisms for dealing with the increased scrutiny placed on them as newly successful 'indie game' celebrities. they seem guarded, and not in good emotional places despite their new-found wealth. meanwhile others who i might respect, who are used to relative marginalization or obscurity next to these celebrities shrug their shoulders and continue doing what they do. no amount of demographic breakdowns and marketing analysis can mask the fact that it's all so deeply arbitrary, and more people seem to be realizing it.

i don't have any respect for the videogame industry as an entity. i have no respect for its labor practices, nor its artistic aims, nor the imagery it worships, nor its treatment of women or other minorities, nor the parasitic relationship it has with its consumers. i think it's disgusting and abhorrent. so i can't say that i respect GDC, as a business conference that stands to represent the values of the videogame industry. nor do i support the IGF, in its endless hype and favoritism, nor in its aim to award 'indie' games with (for the most part) already the highest levels of cultural exposure. but individuals often start to change, even when the worlds they occupy remain as stubborn and stagnant as ever. i appreciate when Brandon Boyer says onstage in the IGF awards that he supports people involved in games fragmenting off and pushing in whatever directions they want to push in, even if he doesn't understand it. i appreciate it when i can have an honest conversation with a deeply professional woman who's spent much of her life in the game industry, even if she might not ever really understand what i'm trying to do with a thing like Problem Attic.

a small one-day conference called Critical Proximity, the day before GDC, mostly made up of young people, seems to be much more interesting and relevant than nearly anything at GDC - despite the appearance of a "videogame criticism" conference sounding like a comically narrow focus from the outside. there was a lot of talk about how to maintain supportive communities, yet in the final talk Ian Bogost (or "Old Man Bogost" as i've come to call him) still seemed intent on breaking up any kind of delusions of community love that might have been held over the course of the conference, or anything that distracts videogame critics from doing the thing videogame critics are presumably supposed to be doing. and fair enough - maybe there is no community. maybe we don't want community. others, like Samantha Allen, made this point too. maybe things will continue to shift and fall apart unpredictably. but even if there is no community, there is a lot of genuine sincerity, and genuine desire to support other people - and that's a thing that doesn't just materialize out of thin air.

then - walking into Moscone Center for the third year in a row, i knew enough to know what i was going to get this time around. i knew the way places like the Bay Area or LA or NYC like to mythologize themselves. i knew that the interesting stuff is most often happening outside of these events, and outside those cities. that is, unless maybe you're David Kanaga or Pippin Barr and you're doing genuinely exciting, genuinely cutting-edge experiments at the intersection of performance art and games. and then, a lot of people are probably either very confused by or very indifferent to you. or if your name is Tale of Tales, and your sustained visibility over the years hasn't done much of anything to move you out of a strange, liminal, heavily marginalized space between the overly stagnant, overly stuffy art world and the overly commercial, overly nasty game world.

i don't know what will happen with videogames in the next ten years. i don't know to be excited about what will happen in them or not. i almost don't care. so much ground is gained, so much ground is lost. so many things have been changing surprisingly quickly, so many stay the same and show no signs of ever being different. i still don't understand why people who make videogames need to separate themselves out from other creative communities creating other forms of digital media, and justify why videogames are more exceptional than them. nor do i understand why those other worlds continually seem to fail to seriously engage with videogames. either way, a lot of people who make videogames are certainly here, and certainly don't seem to be going anywhere any time soon. and neither am i - nor am i homeless anymore, by the way. thank you, patreon!

i'm a woman and a human being who wants to make art. i never saw this as being particularly controversial. nor do i see my need to not limit myself to one medium as being particularly unusual, in an age of easy access to a plethora of different digital tools. and so i'm always shocked to see how much confusion seems to come from that. either i'm overextending myself, or i'm ruining my chance at a establishing a real career by going too far up my own ass. but here i am, still strong as ever. now able to pay rent. and i'm not changing, nor am i going anywhere. and whether or not my need to feel human makes me an alien to others, i'm happy to receive all the support and love i have from this community - strange as it may be, nonexistent as it may or may not be.

and so i say this sincerely, from the bottom of my heart: we might not always understand each other or be on the same page (or even in the same book!) as each other. i might find game culture endlessly infuriating and puzzling. but i know your support is genuine. and i'm really, really flattered. thank you so much, everyone. =)

Thursday, March 6, 2014


why does it always have to be about fucking videogames? why can't it be about art? or anything else?

here you are again. in this seat. neatly arranging and configuring all your pieces into one very particular, very precise setup. arranging your toy blocks in a discrete manner so that you're in the just right position to fall in the most catastrophic way possible. setting yourself up to fail as miserably as possible. then defining, redefining, and falling and failing once again. there - and then, at once, not there anymore. you once seemed like you owned this world, but now - go away. go home, you say. i don't want anyone to see me like this. OK, it's about art. see? that was easy. i don't care to map the inner workings of your head as a Videogame Person or a Whatever Person anymore, your silly head you haven't bothered much to peer inside, so colonized, so many tubes and wires feeding into it you won't ever acknowledge. you wince slightly in pain as you move your hand over to caress those tubes every day, unthinkingly, but you will never see them. you routinely extend no compassion but scream and cry at others to have it for you. you're here living out all your rage inside of boxes within boxes. Liked, Faved, and then forgotten. but the truth is that life isn't defined within these borders, not the screens nor the smaller screens within screens. there's never was anything on the screen anyway, you projected everything there. your projection, itself, reveals a depth of imagination you will likely never even approach acknowledging. it was there all along, except no one ever told you how to see it. and so, you obliged them.

now, here we go:

FUCK MARIO. fuck mickey mouse. fuck bugs bunny. fuck star wars.

analyze, interrogate. study with intently focused eyes at these pathways, these secret passages that map the inside of your head, your consciousness. study their contours. they seem to be infinite, to delight, to surprise, to be an endless joy. what is this joy? the joy of an experience? what is this "fun"? this fun allows you a freedom of some sort that you may have never been able to experience otherwise, and engages with it so thoughtfully and compassionately? this fun that manifests itself as an emotionally fraught, intense ride, yet also a somehow, surprisingly gentle one? this fun, -- and then the ride ends and then the bad guy dies. but who even cares about the bad guy, the bad guy was never there in the first place. who is that guy anyway? he's no one. just a dude who tries to steal credit for the ingenuity of these mazes he never had anything to do with in the first place. a pointless figurehead. a cardboard cut-out. he could have never come up with that himself. someone else must have had a hand in it all.

what is this "fun"? this fun allows you a freedom of some sort that you may have never had otherwise, and engages with it so thoughtfully and compassionately? this fun, --- and then it fucking pukes on your shirt and pisses on your shoe and slaps you in the face as it tells you to BUY MORE TO UNLOCK MORE ADVENTURES and to WATCH THIS TELEVISION SHOW SO THAT YOU CAN BE INVESTED IN THIS FICTIONAL CHARACTER'S FICTIONAL LIFE and EAT THIS CEREAL and ARE YOU PART OF THE SUPER CLUB? this fun, this fucking vampire. this threatened social ostracization. this beast. this inescapable viral infection. this fucking fantasy of life, this lie that no one could ever hope to live. this meme, this deferred pleasure. this compartmentalized joy. this ultimate laziness, this empty narcotic.

these pathways that ultimately lead on a circuitous path to nowhere. the end boss being nowhere. an insultingly anti-climactic, empty fart. an unceremonious dump-off point somewhere in the middle of nowhere. a rude awakening. these secrets that offer no way out, that tell you they know something when they really know nothing, that pretend to just want to hug you but don't, or won't, see that you're bleeding all over them.

and then the wound doesn't heal but somehow you're still here, walking around, for some reason you can't understand. so put on a suit and tie. go to a conference of "like-minded" individuals. revel in an invented past. shoot that shit. drink yourself to death. and then hysterically cry and moan when a little 8-bit bunny saunters across the television screen in front of you, in a magenta palette, doing a cute little 4-frame dance. he owns your past, not you. he is the monolith, the power. group therapy sessions are needed. more meds prescribed, meds sponsored by Nintendo, to help you through this difficult time. we're all here for you.

live your life inside the small, fenced-in with barbed wire chicken coop you've been placed in. stake your claim, and murder and scream for that one little mound of dirt inside the coop. dominate others, form factions. swing your dick around. survival of the fucking fittest, bro-dawg. all under the watchful, bemused eye of your farmers. but sometimes you even baffle them. sometimes they think you must be plotting to overthrow them - you must be! how could you not be! but even they will grow surprised, even disgusted to see you're just trying to kiss them. to lick them. to get to know them. even they won't understand how and why this has happened.

they have created a monster they don't know how to control anymore. they scramble and run around and check their charts, but can't come up with any kind of reasonable hypothesis. in your disgusting naivete, you might actually be onto something big, something scary. but that something only remains a possibility for a split second before you smash it helplessly into pieces. you can't help it. that glimmer is always beaten back into line by your programming. you're being farmed, not shown how to love. you can't escape your programming, silly. and so, live your life inside this pen and try not to do anything bad, sweetheart - if you can help it.

somewhere deep inside, travelling through those endless tunnels. those neural pathways. wandering through the mazes and puzzle worlds of your mind - there is a paradise. a heaven. a floating city. a mysterious gold palace. a sexy neon futurescape. a life on mars. a sun-soaked land with waterfalls and canyons and birds singing.

you spend your days building houses within houses to store all those pieces and parts you see of yourself and everyone around you. the houses are haphazard, and half-built, and improperly wired, and laying in strange positions on unstable land. but they're good enough, right, so that you can continue plotting and mapping some kind of impossible route - a route many others, in actuality, have already mapped - to that paradise. but you will never acknowledge that. you see this as a gold inside you, as something so pure and beautiful that no one will ever take from you. you will never wear it on the surface, but inside you're feverishly, desperately trying anything and everything to realize that fantasy, that Eden, running towards that horizon, towards that light at the end of the tunnel - but that land is only really there in your mind. it's only there playing on a screen inside the walls of a particular room on a particular floor of a particular apartment building, somewhere on the edge of a strange, faraway town. it's all been paved over now, and there are a million buildings just like it dotting the landscape. it's somewhere deep in the past.

but you don't seem to notice - nor do you care once it lands down in a very particular position, on one very particular plot of land, only seen and experienced in one very particular way, by very particular people. or that it's Faved, Liked, then forgotten. because, anyway, you still smile smugly at yourself. you know not-so-deep within yourself that you have that space colonized, that you really got one over on them. and they know it too. you are the master of that domain. you've escaped it all, and everything around you, you distilled in the best way possible. you're free. future generations will know you and sing your praises. you are standing atop of that little mound of dirt, and you will kill anyone who tries to take it from you now. don't fuck with me, bro, you say. i'll fuck you up. sunglasses on, cigar in mouth, rolling down the street in a limousine, uzi's blazing, while some girl in a bikini gives you head. you own the world - at least in that one moment.

and then, as you're drifting off into sleep on some cold and lonely night, as distant sirens wail and the homeless people outside your window hack and cough, and as the wind is howling (maybe not outside, but in your dream) and suddenly you're drifting into a confused, strange nightmare, you hear a voice appear in your ear that says "it's-a-me". and, for a second, you smile softly. because you see those levels of those videogames you played arrange and rearrange themselves, and superimpose themselves atop of others. and you think back to who and where you were then fondly. but then, suddenly, they begin to morph and look stranger and stranger, and like they're from some videogame you've never seen before, on some system you've never heard of before, in some language you don't understand. and then those levels begin to mold and intersect themselves with places you've been and things you've seen and experienced in the flesh - so much so that it's impossible to separate them anymore. and now all the puzzles can't be solved anymore. and the exits are all in the wrong places, and your jump key doesn't work sometimes. and the power-ups all hurt you or change your body in strange, uncomfortable ways. and all the level designs make no sense. and the keys always break when you put them in the locks. and the princess never needed saving in the first place, nor was there ever one. and all these neatly constructed little scenarios seem to hollow themselves out and flop over, like the poorly constructed backdrop of some elementary school play, or something.

and then, as you shift around restlessly in your bed, the camera zooms out on you, in your sparsely decorated apartment, in that big city - and then, eventually - still sitting on that same small plot of land, still back in that same chicken coop, still being watched by those same farmers, still fighting tirelessly and endlessly for that same little mound of dirt.

fact is, you can't buy your way out of this one.

Friday, February 28, 2014

How To Be A Nice Person On The Internet And Not Speak For Others

this is a response to some discussion threads happening on twitter recently among some queer games people that center around a bunch of tweets made by a transwoman, which i have quoted in full below. the tweets led to a discussion about exclusivity in queer circles, in this case the queer gaming one - and the perceived endless infighting and divisiveness among it. i talked a little bit about some of my experiences with this a couple months ago on this blog, for those interested.

the below quote will probably be upsetting and/or triggering for some to read. and so i'm going to place a TRIGGER WARNING! on this whole article for that reason, for that and for some of the things i'm bringing up later. i understand that several people might not want them to be brought up again, but i think it's important to look at the language of the offending tweets for the ideas they represent so that we can better understand how these things often manifest themselves. i'm not interested in singling out or calling out the person who posted this or saying they're a bad person, or whatever. i'm not going to name them either, and i don't believe it's important to anyway. i also understand that people can be inclined to say more upsetting things than they usually would in the midst of angry tweeting, but that doesn't change the overall sentiment, which is something i've heard multiple people i know express to varying degrees.

note that i cleaned up some of the spelling and shorthand of the tweets a bit so it's more obvious what's being talked about:

for anyone who hasn't spent tons of time around angry, jaded trans women, here's a vocabulary term you might not know: "theys"

"theys": white skinny FAAB (female-assigned at birth) intellectually-genderqueer women's studies students who think being trans is a contest to have the most intellectually rigorous gender identity, who experience masculinity as a fun thing they can put on to experience liberation and privilege, but can still totally fit themselves into women's spaces, and for whom "visibility" is the foremost goal, who think they're more oppressed than trans women because not everyone understands their gender.

The Theys think that because They're trans, They're not implicated in transmisogyny.

In reality, They're the most direct descendants of the original post-gender transmisogynistic early feminists.

Now, just as I hate all men but have a couple men in my life that I love and trust deeply, I also dislike Theys but have some in my life.

In fact, one of my best friends is a They.

That said, my rules of preemptively disliking and distrusting Theys has always paid off. I recommend it to all women, especially trans women.

"theys" as a descriptor strikes a pretty strong chord, since it's the most direct way to signify an other ("they", by definition, signifies a group of people who is not you) and it bears an uneasy resemblance to xenophobic language used against immigrants and PoC, especially when the author says their "rules of preemptively disliking and distrusting Theys has always paid off". in this case, it's also a snarky way to redefine and disrespect the language of people who choose to identify by "they". By portraying "theys" as privileged, skinny, white women's studies majors it also presents a caricature of queer people that is similar to the one portrayed hatefully outside the West as the embodiment of queer culture - endless privilege, excess, entitlement, and self-righteousness. the choice of language is what probably makes this the one of the more extreme examples of this sentiment that i've seen expressed online.

still, i'm going to have to admit this is a sentiment, however ugly it's worded here, that i've felt in the past was true a lot of the time - even if i never really openly expressed it (at least on these terms). there is a general sense among many transwomen i've known that women's spaces are traditionally built as a haven for "FAAB" people, not for us and our concerns, and therefore there's less willingness to trust or identify with things that happen in women's spaces. this is a very valid concern, because it's a thing that still seems to happen. even if transwomen are now treated with much more respect and compassion than we have been in the past, there's still a lot of misunderstanding and white-washing of our experiences in ways that can be, quite frankly, insulting and dehumanizing. there's often nearly not enough room in these spaces to allow for differences of experience to where every individual person feels comfortable being themselves. and so maybe transwomen dominate queer game and tech spaces, but we are much less of a presence elsewhere. and we have much less likelihood of being accepted by and taken into dominant cultural narratives that traditionally fetishize "FAAB" people's bodies but still (in the end) will probably see us as disgusting impostors.

but also - creating an exclusive community to cater to our supposed experiences as transwomen doesn't do much of anything fix the problem of spaces lacking inclusivity! in actuality, it even excludes a lot of transwomen! there are many different axes of oppression, after all. what about race, what about immigration status, what about disability, what about sexual trauma, what about income level, what about body image, what about culture? you may think you're doing a great service by righteously speaking for people who fit your particular group, when in reality you're speaking for maybe 10-20% of the people who do. you might not, in fact, be very aware or conscious of their experiences at all. but that sure seems like a lot if you're well-connected on social media! and so the idea of a universal transwoman "experience" may be a nice thing to entertain to feel connected to others with some similar experiences, but it starts to evaporate the more deeply you go into exploring all these different axes. people continue to feel excluded, and then they create their own exclusive communities catering more to their specific concerns, and then they make someone else who fits some but not all of those categories feel excluded again. and it just goes on, and on.

and let's talk about the fetishization of "FAAB" bodies. if you feel like you find both "female" and "male" cultural conceptions of gender incredibly limiting because of the way they've directly enforced an idea of acceptable and unacceptable behavior and presentation on you, what should you do? accept "i am a woman", or "i am a man" and all the implications that may or may not come with that, both internally (to you) and externally (to any other people)? or maybe you choose a term that at least, hopefully, somewhat better expresses your indifference towards these narrow conceptions of gender that are having a limiting effect on who you are and what you can do. and maybe that term isn't perfect, but maybe it does help you escape some of the ideological barriers placed around you.

i understand (firsthand) that gender dysphoria is a different thing altogether from just feeling alienation from abstract cultural constructions of gender, yet they're so often so deeply intertwined that it can be hard for many to understand how and why they're different. i identify as a woman, but i fully admit that the idea of "woman" wasn't shoved down my throat growing up in the way that it is for FAAB people, and because of that i was allowed more of an opportunity to create my own definition of what that means for me. i also feel like i probably fit the stereotype of "woman" better than a lot of people - i often feel much more comfortable with a more traditionally "femme" appearance. FAAB people are often taught that there are things you just can't or shouldn't do, because you're supposedly this idea of a "woman", which supposedly means you just can't do some things - like big creative things, or science or mathy things! i experienced something much different - feeling like i had to be a Big Deal and Super Smart for anyone to care about me or anything i said at all. both of these are oppressive ideas to implant into people early on, and it's often hard for one side to see the other's experience as being truly oppressive.

speaking of bodily dysphoria, one very big reason a person who identifies as genderqueer but who does not experience gender dysphoria in the way trans people do might do so because of past trauma involving their bodies - like, say, rape. this is NOT to say that all of their identity is necessarily a response to that trauma - but that it can be a factor a lot of people overlook because of outward signs of privilege. i understand that this is a dangerous issue to bring up because it's used to shame and dismiss a lot of queer identities, but i want to remind others that by dismissing FAAB folks in the way the original tweet does, they might be participating in rape culture. bodily dysphoria is a thing that happens to a lot of people for many different reasons, not just ones related to a particular gender orientation. so some "FAAB" folks may not feel like a "man" in the full-on gender dysphoria sense, but they may desire to have the sort of power that was inflicted on them instead of feeling like a powerless victim (as well as experiencing less ideological barriers placed on their identity, etc). and so, adopting a genderqueer identity might allow them to feel less like another victim of rape culture.

when dominant culture fetishizes your body, and fetishizes this very idea of "femininity", and conditions males to see women as sex objects and prizes, i can see why you might have some pretty fucking legitimate concerns - even if you not necessarily experiencing gender dysphoria - for not wanting to identify as a "female"! especially when it is directly triggering to a very real traumatic experience you've undergone. this is something people who've not had this experience will, fundamentally, just not understand. this is also an 100% real and valid way to respond, and does absolutely not mean you're "making up" these feelings or anything like that, nor does it mean you're not experiencing dysphoria for many other reasons. as a survivor, there is nothing i could say that would ever really come close to describe the enormity of pain i've experienced. and, of course, i'm not saying that plenty of MAAB (male-assigned at birth) people don't experience rape too. particularly transwomen. i'm one of those people, after all. but because of that, i feel like i have more insight into how rape culture can define the terms of this discussion than people who haven't gone through it do.

let's talk about terms, also. i understand we make FAAB and MAAB distinctions so we can talk about existing power dynamics. but like, it certainly doesn't feel good for me to be described as MAAB, and i can't imagine most transmen feeling good about being called FAAB either. and so maybe they are nebulous distinctions that only exist because of cultural conditioning and we shouldn't be giving credence to them? maybe by using them we end up falling back into the "Language of Our Oppressors" category?

look - many people feel excluded, and many people experience horrifying levels of pain and suffering at the hands of a dominant culture that erases, oftentimes actively destroys their being, their autonomy, their existence. and so maybe we can have a little empathy and acknowledge that it isn't always about us - and we even may be complicit in someone else's suffering on one of those axes we hadn't thought about? maybe we can also recognize that making generalizations or broad statements about the experiences of us and others is what directly creates the sorts of environments that lead to exclusion and infighting?

instead, as a rule, whenever making broad statements, how about we just always assume there are any number of people outside our own experience who will have insight on many issues that we, fundamentally, just lack? this is something we sure don't like seem to like doing, particularly in the "first world", because it feels better not to think about it.

and hey, okay, it's great that you feel empowered for saying that thing but maybe your empowerment doesn't have to always involve making someone else feel like a piece of shit! it'd be nice to see a lot more effort made to understand the nature of those experiences outside our own, to understand that they are not an attack on our being and to not speak for them, or over them, or defensively in reaction to them, because we recognize the kind of spaces that creates: ones defined by infighting, exclusion, silencing, repression, emotional outbursts, defensiveness, misdirected rage, and hurt feelings. this goes for anyone and everyone. it doesn't feel good for anyone involved to have those spaces, so why do we keep making them that way? we need to listen and empathize to create the kind of spaces we wish had been created for us. and that means: have some fucking respect.

Friday, February 21, 2014

simulated memories

here i go, trying to Write Something For A Website again.

but those words - they don't come. words that do come, come slowly and unsurely. with trepidation, i try slowly rolling back over doing something that seemed to come so easily before, but i hardly get anywhere. shoveling ground that can't be shoveled anymore. the ground is hard as rock, all frozen over. things look strange and different now. i see people i don't recognize, or their faces seem to have changed somehow. the landscape is strange and alien. i feel sick all of a sudden. i get more headaches. i'm unsure what i was really saying or building up before was of any good use, or if it wasn't just me puffing myself up. wasn't i just hoping for something, some recognition? something to get me out of the hole i'm in? someone to save me? ...huh? where am i? what is all this?

hey, here i am, somewhere, so i might as well try. what else do i have? survival comes before all else, in a panicked frenzy. nervously laughing at the sun and the sky, hoping they don't catastrophically fall. and yet even survival is just barely met. the light is much too bright outside for me to look at for very long.

i get images, like this image that keeps coming back from the beginning of episode 2 level 4 of Wolfenstein 3D:

it seems so gray, looking at it again, and so empty. you thought it was yellow, the color of the ceilings in a lot of the other levels. or dark green. or i thought it was yellow. you, i, they become the same.

hahaha, you're so stupid for thinking about this. but you would. your mind would go there, you little bitch. you're so pathetic. what about all the people who didn't have what you had, you fucker? they didn't have fucking videogames to escape into. you and your fucking simulated memories.

in this particular area, there are two sides of the hall, yet i specifically see the image of the left side in my mind's eye. the left side is where the exit lies, and on the north side of the map. is that what it is? an interesting opening idea, and certainly memorable because of the zombie you shoot at the start (off-screen). is it that zombie? he's evil, he's scary, he's unknown. he's grotesque, and he only appears at times. the slimy vines on the walls are an unknown. or are you confusing the green slime on the walls with the vines on the purple walls in the game? those vines, they're a representation of something, something else. they tell me something else. they're telling me to think, but i don't want to think. hahaha, that's not true, i say. i'm better than this. i will not let it get me down. i will not do this again. i refuse. i'm putting my foot down.

but then, inevitably, there's an unbearable darkness - one that i keep wanting to cry when i try and think about it too deeply. it's not there when i look back at it now on the outside, but it's still there somewhere. i want to point it out frantically and shout that it's there. why can't anyone else see it? where is this coming from? i remember that specifically playing this level is attached to a traumatic memory of mine. a dark time, dark thoughts. one that i would rather not explore anymore. one i would rather not think about. the barbed, scaly tendrils of time close up around it and rapidly overtake it in a dark fog as i recede outward from it. i cannot smile and act like i'm still there, that little child. the sadness comes, and it is overwhelming. i have to close the door after too long.

over time, things should fade. and yet here it still is staring me in the face, just as intently as ever. i can't even crane my neck to look away for a second. it is bolted in place.

it's not just this space, it's all of them. they're all there. episode 5 level 4, the completely symmetrical level. haha. the beginning. mister officer. the police guy, the fucking blue one. he has a machine gun. he's gonna shoot me. more and more of him, the same everywhere. always the same. but they're just meat. not even meat, digital meat. weird, funny little impulses. they don't mean anything, really. 

what are these spaces? why are there here? i look for a reason, but none comes. i cry at the infinite abyss, and people laugh or are confused, or they laugh, confused. they don't know and they never will.

it's not about me. it's about something else entirely. product worship. so pathetic. no real memories. no real hopes or dreams. always inside a machine. always living life inside a machine, because outward life doesn't exist. it's horrible. you're just part of a fucking stupid culture. a fake fucking culture. a subculture. don't try to look for support, cause you're not gonna get it. don't try and understand, because it can't be understood. it's all about anger, and product worship. it's all about the hatred, and the gnashing of teeth. the beast that snarls and howls and pulls apart the flesh those that get in its way. those people fight for their simulated memories tooth and nail but you can't fight for yours, because they seem so stupid and indefinite. so silly. so ridiculous. so childish.

everything's looping back on itself. circles and circles and circles again. circles and circles and got to stop spinning.

try to resurrect, rebuild. reconstruct these memories. try not to laugh at myself for how silly this all is, and how silly i am. how stupid must i be. i can't speak, not like i used to. instead of grasping at anything and everything i can, the truths now seem to float above my head, loudly proclaiming themselves and i am overwhelmed. hahaha. i can't. the thoughts come - indefinite, incomplete. unsure how to manifest themselves. dancing a strange little dance. sometimes violent. sometimes they calm down for awhile and let me look at them.

take your memories and your pain and hastily paint BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH over top of them until you can only see little bits and pieces of those partially obscured memories, with smiley faces drawn all over them. Winking Emoticon, *nudge* *nudge*, you guys. boy howdy, will you look at that. i don't want it to be this way, but it is undeniably this way. here you are a part of this world, this infinite series of little uniform patterns and grids, shuffling along, gradually erasing what was underneath and starting the same pattern anew.

and so, take all the complicated emotions you felt and try to distill them so that anyone in the world will understand. don't hope that anything will be maintained in the translation. don't even try to be true to them in the first place. no one will understand if you do. they'll squint their eyes slightly in the way they do and cock their head, perplexed. they must be feverishly following those shuffling patterns, hanging on for dear life. "huh? wtf am i reading?" wtf is this bullshit?

you're just crazy. 

tell me you're crazy, maybe then i'll understand. you say this to everyone around you, silently. they don't hear it, even if you say it.

but that's because it's all been taken over, isn't it? it's all been colonized. colonized memories. digital support groups sponsored by Pepsi and Mountain Dew and Doritos. evil entities that cannot help themselves. digital lions. big square machines on a strict schedule of complicated circuitous routes that take in and poop out at an alarmingly fast and strange rate. their patterns appear so erratic and convoluted to look like they cannot possibly be maintained, yet they somehow are for the time being. and no one notices, or wants to notice. snack like you can never snack again, because it's no more, that space is no more. it's just a memory, that's all.

and then, proud statements i make come back to me. i see myself as silly little thing. a silly, sad little thing. it's all a lie. what a joke. but maybe there's also something there. maybe they can't see. maybe they never will. you tear up slightly thinking about it. maybe that's all there is.

it's time for you to do something, but what? tell the world? what? what do you have to say? what will it mean? what ways can it be aggregated and related and complicated and juxtaposed and rearranged? what conceptual frameworks can you be made to fit into? what trends are you seeking? what is your target demographic? where is all of this going? why am i reading this? why is this on my feed? who are you? why should i care about this? when will you ever stop being this way? what headaches are yet to come, ahead of you? what people are you yet to deal with in this arena? where will you be in fifty years time? where will you be in one years time?

it's all a mystery. just a mystery. not something you can even think about, or pretend to think about. you entertained a notion of it before, but that is gone. it's not for you, not your life. you strongly suspect it isn't really anyone's life either. probably not. yeah, that's a good thought. that's progress.

anyway. whatever. yep, whatever. hmm. well, whatever. 

oh well. time to erase and try again.

Monday, February 3, 2014

sound as a commodity

note: this is cross-posted from

my favorite thing about making music is exploring sound. arguably that is entirely what making music is. sound is wired deep into human consciousness. the right combination of sounds can be so utterly ecstatic and unique that experiencing it makes words seem like empty, impotent signifiers. but because of this ability to almost instantaneously stir up deep emotions, sound is really commodifiable. it didn’t take long before the dubstep “sound” to become a complete cliche in the public consciousness, but at one time it probably came off as really fresh and energizing, even revolutionary to the people who were early fans. distorted electric guitars were once kind of terrifying too, but now i can’t think of any sound that’s more establishment-friendly. listen to the first chords of The Who’s “Baba O’Riley”, a progression that’s been in way more movies and commercials than i could ever have any desire to count. it’s such a ubiquitous sound, i guess because of how simple yet emphatic it is, that it can easily signify hundreds of different emotions. because of the overuse, using it now means absolutely nothing at this point other than reminding the listeners they’re listening to the opening of Baba O’Riley.

this is one of the areas where i think folk music has a vast advantage, because it has a very long-standing tradition of complex, multi-layered lyricism about life and love, generally performed very simply. there’s a sense that the lyrics in the song are getting at some vast truth not immediately apparent until you reach the ending. whereas a lot of electronic music feels like a static object that says what it says or does what it does and then leaves. it’s like candy - and that’s how a lot of people see it. a lot of people i know on rock music messageboards certainly do, anyway - and tend to like rock music (beyond it being something they grew up with) for ostensibly similar reasons as folk music - the immediacy and emphatic directness of a band’s emotions seems much looser and less easy to commodify. if there are walls imposed on the band, its members can brake them nearly instantaneously by descending into a huge cacophonous mess of sound. they are purely humans and exert their own control over the sounds that come out of their instruments.

but once any music is recorded, it becomes a “sound” - even when it’s just solo piano, or a voice and acoustic guitar. and it’s probably impossible in the current culture to not be commodified once your music reaches a certain part of popularity. whether or not M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” is a song satirizing xenophobic attitudes about immigrants, 15-year old white kids from rich US suburbs can still take it at surface value and try to look cool imitating the gunshot sounds in it when it hits no #1. that cacophonous mess from a rock band can also still be chopped up and used to signify whatever cultural ideas in advertisements and films an editor wants. nothing is safe. not to mention that these days, with audio software being so immediately accessible to anyone with a computer, it’s impossible to not be confronted with constantly thinking about the sound of the thing you’re making.

with that in mind - when making music, i tend to want to look for creating sounds similar to sounds from music i like as reference points. they’re the sounds that most immediately evoke stuff in me. the plinky, arpeggiating synths in the opening of The Knife’s “Silent Shout” or “Forest Families” does a lot to me with very little. or the tentative, almost comically sparse handclaps in James Blake’s “The Wilhelm Scream”. there’s a sense of confidence, of something much deeper filling in the spaces of those very simple sounds. i would say that it also makes them less commodifiable but that’s not really true, as weird new sounds generally have a way of becoming cliches quickly once they become popular.

anyway, i start this process of coming up with a sound, but then i get sucked into the wormhole of worrying about whether the sound i’m doing is interesting enough, and if it really signifies what i might think it does. i end up spending so long worrying about whether i’m saying something or not with the sound that i lose track of the central idea and get so frustrated i give up in the early phases. the sound has to be “perfect” to me or i can’t continue.

the thing is, no sound is ever perfect. no piece of music is ever perfect. and i know this. it’s not about me or my identity as a good or interesting artist, it’s about making a piece of music that evokes emotions in me. i know this too. but it’s still been my biggest struggle - struggling with feeling like i’m doing something interesting enough sound-wise while also worrying about whether what i’m expressing is the deepest, best expression of me, instead of just trying to get something down. i’m able to avoid this making the visual art i’ve been doing lately because i have no preconceived notions of talent or skill, but with music i have all kinds of baggage.

ultimately my goal is creating a piece of music that explores unique sounds but uses them as an extension of the emotions the music is intended to express, like folk music. i want to feel like the sounds are all there for a reason, not just meaningless pretty dressing slathered over everything - and that they’re getting at something deeper, something massive by using whatever means. and that’s very hard, and it’s been extremely easy to psych myself out. not talking about this with people has also been tremendously hard for me, as it has for me to find anyone to talk to this about who’ll get what i’m saying. i don’t think there’s a lot of conscious critical thought about sound, even among people who are working musicians. i don’t think a lot of people want to think too much about it, even. people want to think music is something intangible and magical, not a bunch of math. but it’s always both!

exploring interesting new sound is so completely important to me that i feel like i easily lose sight of the real important thing, which is just making something that is an expression of my emotions. and that’s, in the end, the thing that i respond to most in the artists i like - and what makes me keep coming back to their music. they endure even when their sound becomes a commodity. so i think that’s the most important thing for me to remember - to just try stuff out without preconceptions and hope for the best. sometimes just hoping for the best has created some of the most beautiful, enriching art made by humans. it’s hard to remember that when it’s just you sitting on your laptop and staring at a bunch of grids, though.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

on "queerness" & making things for yourself

since the beginning i've had immense problems with the label "queer games". i understand the reasons it's been adopted - visibility, increasing awareness, empowering others. but what are we supposed to do with it? so much of it has been about getting recognition, but it's only ever recognition given on the terms defined by the people oppressing you. once the story turns into "we all just want to be treated like you" it becomes the same old narrative of assimilation and undermines any kind of subversiveness "queer" might have been supposed to stand for in the first place.

another problem is one i witnessed at QGCon in Berkeley this past year, where no one speaking really seemed to know exactly what they meant by "queer" but they sure were all very eager to adopt it to mean whatever they felt like. i guess what i could boil it down to, if anything, was "difference". as in, how does this "queerness" offer us a fresh new perspective on this particular previously mundane, stagnant area of study? how does it provide us with the necessary techniques for dealing with a changing landscape for how we evaluate art and culture? or how we evaluate ourselves? these all presumed "queerness" to be some kind of substantive, identifiable thing they could use instead of the very vague, amorphous term it is. there was a lot of talk on why a lot of the ways we traditionally talk about things are problematic, but none on why "queer" is problematic, or why "problematic" is problematic, none on how terms often turn into meaningless panaceas easily tossed around or used to shut down any meaningful discussion from happening, none on how they're used by the more-privileged-underprivileged to define all the terms of discussion amongst themselves and shut out the less-privileged-underprivileged.

much of online social justice's image has been come to be defined by young confused people engaging in the complete contradiction of wanting to be fierce outsiders and wanting to go viral for it. several recent pieces by queer games writers like Mattie Brice, Aevee Bee, Zoya StreetKat Haché, and Katherine Cross have called for SJ activists online to curb some of their anger and engage with others more civilly - a completely justifiable response to all the nastiness and pettiness of communities on tumblr and twitter (over the last year or so especially) and the emotional fallout it's caused in so many people actively working to make these areas better. but i can't say that i think anger's really the problem at all. there's a lot to be angry about, after all, and precious little outlets for letting it out. how we use the anger, however, is another issue entirely - and it's most often used by people who are more interested in gaining followers or visibility for themselves than engaging in any actual debate with other people, as Katherine Cross talks about in her piece.

i've supposedly been part of a "queer games scene" in the past year or whatever. ostensibly it was a community of mostly transwomen mostly living in the bay area. leading up to GDC last year we joked about a "trans hive mind" and being mistaken for each other because the public assumed that there can only be one queer trans person who makes games. things seemed to be moving so fast, and so unsurprisingly they ended so fast. a few days ago, i joked to an acquaintance that we all hate each other and don't talk anymore. that's an exaggeration, but only a little bit of one. it wouldn't exactly be a great tragedy that people moved on from this community that was having negative effects on them and did what they needed to to care for themselves, except that we never had a community in the first place. we had a social group.

and after all the talk about sisterhood and women not fighting each other, we never actually did much of anything to ensure those things happened. everyone seemed too infatuated with the idea of being a scrappy outsider infiltrating an oppressive space, more in love with the image they were coming to be seen as than anything else. because in reality - deep emotional scars, lack of trust, and bad communication broke stuff up before it could ever really begin. there was nothing ultimately sustainable there.

i'm offering that not as a cautionary tale but as one way to show why i feel ambivalent at best about the eager adaptation of these kind of labels. i don't believe in "queerness" because i don't know what that really means. i don't desire to make things "more queer". they're just words to me, words that have caused so much pointless jockeying that i really couldn't give a fuck. i desire to be more honest to myself and others. if i believed in making new year's resolutions, that would be mine.

how many people really want to be outsiders in the first place? i feel we have no meaningful way to distinguish "outsider by circumstance" with "outsider by choice" in this queer games community. the line between them, of course, is very hazy. being trans or queer or a person of color can force you into the position of outsider regardless of whether you've chosen it or not. many adopt the label "activist" because it works better for them but may only be marginally engaged in it. what does it even mean in the context of online? "activist" is another "queer", another panacea used to talk over those with less of a voice.

how much of this conversation about hot-button topics that goes on, across different blogs, on the twit-o-sphere, etc just the image of a conversation happening in just the image of a community, just different young insecure people positioning themselves for potential career advancement? how much is it that in the end, they just want to be recognized, just want to feel like they're a worthwhile human, and feel like they've done something valuable with their lives, because that's how society has taught to them evaluate their own worth? how much of it is hoping that this period of economic instability will just subside and lead to a secure, happy job doing what they want to do? these are entirely reasonable and justifiable feelings, but they have absolutely no bearing on the meaningful actions we take for others. in the end they just amount to us helping us feel better about ourselves.

we can't control much, but we can control how we treat ourselves and others. and that is, honestly, really the only thing that matters in the end.

i sense Mattie's struggle, in particular, but i worry a lot about the toll it might take on a person's sanity. sometimes you do so much just to get recognized, and then when you're passed over you feel you must have done something horribly wrong. Mattie says in her article that she spoke at 14 conferences in 3 different countries and co-founded QGCon while still living in SF on money made from game criticism. that, by absolutely no stretch of the imagination, seems like any lack of effort on her part. it actually strikes me as a little insane (not that that's always a bad thing). but so much of our culture is resistant to letting in meaningful structural change, and what gains are made get made painfully, with great sacrifice, over a long period of time. sometimes you get lucky and break through, sometimes you don't. it's not always up to you. sometimes the game is just rigged.

sites like Kotaku and Polygon are funded by empires built on advertising money. they're only interested in outsider voices insofar as it helps their public image. whether or not individual people who write for the sites stand for those ideas or not is not the point. their employers are the ones who call the shots. they might tell Mattie they love what she's doing, but it still would be too big of a "risk" for them to hire her. transwomen talking about being transwomen don't make them money. these venues have continually shown they're only interested in an appearance of openness, not doing much of anything meaningful to bring it about. the same goes for conferences like GDC or PAX, or groups like the IDGA.

so let's offer a less inherently self-destructive proposition than the "i must be recognized as soon as possible or i will not be able to survive" model. let's plan long-term. how do you continue to make things and survive in spite of the disdain or disinterest of others?

one is there are plenty of publications not funded on big money like Kotaku and Polygon are, and there are plenty of conferences not funded on big money like PAX or GDC are. several people seem to be having luck lately with Patreon as a way to crowdfund their work (p.s. i have one too!). there's still a lot of fertile ground in bringing what's happening in the progressive games community entirely outside of game spaces and into other art spaces, though no one seems entirely sure how to do that at this point.

all i can offer ultimately is this: support yourself any way you can. don't buy into the idea that success comes with money or online followers. don't feed any more time and energy into the PR cycle of places like Kotaku or Polygon or credence to the idea that being recognized by them legitimizes your existence. don't slow yourself down for the sake of others. do what you need to do for yourself. then, and only then, will it become clear how to help others.

the game may be rigged, but that doesn't have to stop you. the game goes away, but in this moment you are eternal - and you have the entire universe in front of you to explore, not just some tiny little niche community on the internet.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

2013: my year

in 2013 i did 3 things i'm particularly proud of:

1. Problem Attic. i'd never done a real, honest-to-god project i felt proud of. finishing this lifted that weight off me. it also confirmed a lot of things i already knew. there were a lot of things that hurt me in the past year, and a lot of drama that caused ripples and split a lot of people i've been around apart. the time when i finished the initial version of PA felt like the epicenter of all of it. it's been really hard for me to deal with that feeling, like you have something you're trying so desperately to say but you're being ignored and swept under the rug by everyone around you because you're not as loud as them.

all this led me to feeling suicidal for maybe the first real time in my life. i guess the price you pay for doing things your way is feeling increasingly alienated from people around you. i spent several months being upset that many people i knew didn't even seem to want to go near my game, let alone entertain the idea that there might be something more there. the IndieCade rejection form was another blow, especially when a couple judges assumed i made the artistic choices i did in the game because i was inept. i'm also preparing for the inevitable disinterest from the IGF. i'll probably submit it to the Experimental Gameplay Workshop at GDC next year, if only because it's free, but i'm not hoping for much. and then i'll probably call the whole "attempting to get exposure for it" quits.

i've felt increasingly like everyone i know thinks i'm crazy and self-absorbed for harping on this game so much and just wants me to give it a rest. but i'm a stubborn person, and that deep stubbornness is what made that game, and is what motivates in general me to keep going and doing what i do. so that's what's i'm going to do.

i'm very proud to have made this game, and i think it's probably one of those things that will gain in reputation over time. i felt really overjoyed to see that there are some people (people i don't know at all, too!) who feel the same way. it makes me feel like i'm not so crazy for believing this after all. my dream is still to make it as an electronic musician, but maybe i'll keep trying to give this games thing more chances.

2. the three extended tracks i did on the MirrorMoon EP OST. i've struggled a lot with music for many years, and these have felt like by far the most cohesive things i've done in recent years. though if you want to give me money, you should do so on my bandcamp.

3. the two talks i gave: Re: Fuck Videogames and The Abstract And The Feminine. the former is a response to a bunch of different things going on in games around 2013, and i think more people need to read it if they can deal with eye-fucking and a few typos i'm too lazy to fix. the latter talks about a lot of issues surrounding gender (gender and art in particular) that a lot of people seem to ignore, so i think it's important to check out.

i'm not really a natural-born speaker and i still have a lot of dysphoria about my voice, so speaking at both conferences was a real challenge. at No Show in Boston, where i gave Re: Fuck Videogames, Courtney Stanton (the organizer) was nice enough to cover my flight and her and her husband Darius Kazemi were gracious hosts for someone like me who otherwise never would've been able to afford flying out to the east coast. unfortunately for the talk itself, i wrote everything in my talk out in article format, which makes for better reading than it did saying out loud. aside from that, i think No Show was an excellent and well run conference and i may attempt to submit a talk there next year .

my QGCon talk went a lot more smoothly, and i think i was able to convey all the thoughts i wanted to in the time allotted. i hope it came off for the people watching it. the conference itself i was happy to see exist, especially really close by, and meet some new faces. there were also several really good talks! but it also felt a little more jumbled and unfocused around several different ideas of what different people thought of as "queer", and some of the talks were basically just boring student dissertations (including a talk about Japanese representation of queer people in games that really bothered me and some other people). also, i hope they fix the audio on the stream next time around so people can actually hear most of the talks!

and of course, GDC and IndieCade were in 2013, both of which i have the benefit of being close to. both were, in themselves, a whirlwind of interesting people and experiences (IndieCade moreso than GDC), even if i feel less than enthusiastic about their overall aims as events, to put it lightly.

other notable things:

- i'm still broke as hell. if anyone likes my work and wants to give me money or help me find gigs doing music for games or whatever else, email or paypal me at liz dot ryerson at gmail or buy my stuff on bandcamp.

- you should play A.L.T., which is the best Doom mod i've ever played. also read my article about it on Unwinnable if you need convincing.

- a few articles i wrote on this blog ended up becoming pretty popular or whatever. i still like this one called "why should i love them?" the most.

- SCRAPS is an album of a lot of old kinda-embarrassing stuff of mine hopefully made less embarrassing by the super cryptic format

- i did the music and sound design for Crypt Worlds and Triad, which was fun.

- i got interviewed in RPS, which was pretty neat.

- i do plan on finishing my Doom videos eventually, but they're not a priority.

- speaking of that, apparently people kinda like it when you pretend to talk about whatever big current AAA game, even if what you're saying is not related at all.

- i wrote a couple more Wolfenstein 3d level design articles early this year, for anyone who might have missed them.

- i made Responsibilities w/Andi McClure at the very end of last year but you should still play it!

- i finally updated my website (, which is still very much a WIP. i'm fond of the icons.

- i'm posting assorted other bits (like the glitch art stuff i've been doing the past couple days) on my tumblr,