Saturday, January 19, 2013

why we talk about ourselves

why do we talk about ourselves when we talk about videogames?

over the past ten years or so, confessional writing in the spirit of "the new games journalism" about deep emotional attachments we have formed around games has taken hold. those who share these experiences have wanted to show how something as seemingly crass and commercial as a videogame could end up inextricably, deeply entwined into fabric of a person's life. in very recent years we've had writing from women, in particular, who have felt awakened to a feeling of being increasingly belittled and marginalized by the games they once loved. Mattie Brice's article "Would You Kindly" is a recent example. Mattie characterizes games of today as a former lover who makes no effort to try to understand the suffering she has to face every day as a transwoman of color. she says the violence in a game like Spec Ops: The Line doesn't look anything like the violence she encounters every day, and that games increasingly just seem the realm of privileged males who are cynically speaking to other privileged males about things that have nothing to do with her own experiences. her being who she is trying to make it in a white male-dominated tech field in a mecca of rich tech-careered males like San Francisco probably has intensified her own feeling of disillusionment, i'm sure.

Greek indie game designer Jonas Kyratzes took objection to this and wrote his response "Would You Kindly Not". he picks up on that Mattie's criticisms of recent games might not be as smoothly made as they could be, and that there are many different kinds of violence that exist throughout the world - not just the ones transwomen or women of color face. i think his larger point of contention is he wants to bring to light his own experiences of violence he's had to face every day, as a former citizen of Greece. and i understand where he's coming from there, to the extent that i can. yes, we all experience our own kind of suffering and violence. yes, transwomen or women of color are not the only people to face violence in the world. yes, it can feel like when one descends into the realm of talking about identity, one speaks as if one's own personal suffering being brought to light is the only thing that is important. yes, not all white men are the perpetrators, or in positions of power. 

but when he tries to make the point that games like Bioshock and Spec Ops: The Line are relevant to people like him who have been through very real experiences of gun violence, he seems to be seeing a phantom. i don't want to question his own emotional investment in those games, but it must be said that most of the people who are making the creative decisions on these big-budget games don't have the kinds of personal experiences, nor have they done the necessary research to really understand the complex issues a game like Spec Ops tries to tackle. Mattie's characterization of those game developers as privileged is more or less correct - because even if they, themselves, are not the ones benefiting from that privilege, they're still buying into the dominant cultural narratives or what games should and shouldn't be - namely, big-budget FPS games. but even if they did approach any real understanding of the complexities of real-life warfare, i'm very skeptical of any triple-A game's ability to make any sort of substantial, coherent criticism of any part of society when shackled by massive team-sizes and market research and having to somehow manage to be enough of a cynically marketed FPS to make a profit within the current market. it just doesn't seem possible. and yet, we have set the bar so low that we're willing to convince ourselves that it is. that, i believe, is pure delusion.

at the heart of Jonas's criticism, though, is a larger issue. why the sudden, endless descent into discussions of identity on game websites? why are there so many game journalists sharing intimate details of their own lives, and what relevance does this kind of writing have to do with the games themselves? there is an immense danger of us failing to look at games critically because of our level of personal, emotional investment in them. we, as Jonas does, regularly see phantoms. we project ourselves onto these games, to where the games become much more about us reaching our own sorts of emotional catharsis than anything to do with the actual content of the game. we tend to explicitly make games with this aim - to be projected onto. and yet, we still try to say that it's the game that took us to these heights, and it's not about us - but it was always about us and everything we brought from ourselves into the game, and not the game itself. 

when i write about games i don't like to let my own experiences dominate the conversation, or let them be fuel for people to feel better about themselves for a fleeting moment. i don't believe i could to any degree adequately convey the emotional complexities of any events of my life, nor do i have really any interest in doing that on a website about videogames. my object is to use my own personal emotional experiences as a tool to highlight things which are already present in games, but are being ignored or not articulated. in the end, when i talk about myself in the context of videogames it's not really about me, but the games themselves.

still, i cannot and will not devalue the emotional experiences other people have with videogames, or try to say it's not genuine or valid to write about them, because that misses the point entirely. it's increasingly impossible to ignore the culture that games have arisen from, and the sort of stranglehold that culture has on all the discourse that occurs. transwomen who want to get into games find themselves on a difficult path (and women in general, but i'm speaking in reference to Mattie's article). most transwomen experience the sort of social isolation and ostracization that many people who get really into videogames experience, except tenfold. videogames represent spaces and experiences separate from our bodies that we can form our own associations with, free from pressures of social identity, while still participating in an activity deemed "socially acceptable" for those categorized as males. games are rife for emotional projection of whatever kind of role you wish to occupy onto them. i can't ignore that they can be excellent tools of self-discovery, and i think this is a big part of why so many transwomen are so passionate about games, and technology in general. yet i also find this to be very dangerous.

i'm not going to make any claims of speaking for all transwomen here. but when, as a transwoman, you find yourself digging through the rubble of the past and trying to discover what kind of person you genuinely want to be, you might find that you still desire very strongly to be a part of these worlds which you've spent most of your life invested in, even when it's not considered socially acceptable anymore. you might also find that these worlds come with an intense oversaturation of anger and ignorance and self-absorption and a lack of basic empathy for other human beings baked into them. transwomen who involve ourselves in videogames have to consciously deal with the transition from one being of the "us" of nerd culture to one of "them", a target of all this misplaced nerd rage, whether we want to or not. this is a very scary feeling, one that male-identified people who have fully built their lives into the socially-accepted role of nerd culture have not experienced. so how do we articulate this fear to an audience of people who have been trained to measure self-worth by the amount of money they make? how do we make them see that the values of success and hard work don't really apply equally to us? how much have these games we've formed such intense emotional attachments to over the course of our lives trained us all into believing that our lives are things that can be gamed?

there is a disturbing amount of rage bubbling underneath the secure pockets of technological introspection that so many of us try to escape into when we want to avoid dealing with each other. i believe it is one that will boil over soon enough. if we don't want to all kill each other, and kill the planet in the process, it's time we who like videogames learned how to start being human - and how to start empathizing with one another.


  1. Something that I consider a kind of goal and statement of principle for myself is to seek out more perspectives and actively try to "break reality" by enjoying the weird things in life. A major motivation for this principle is that I want to become aware of my flaws, and correct them before it hurts a relationship. It has had some success.

    But one of the underlying themes that comes up in this process is that I have to get away from essays (and similarly bulky mechanisms for communication) in the search for perspective, because the long form encourages an avoidance of perspective. The bigger you go the more wrong or unclear you can become, and you only discover that it fails after so many hours of writing.

    I have clung so strongly to real-time or near-real-time online systems like Twitter or IRC because when I try to say something using them, I can't go too far away from where I started. Someone will stop me first, and act to keep me within the critical path of the conversation.

    Ideas around videogames, transgender issues, and struggle seem plentiful right now, but the problem of long form being leaky is essential - if people jump to writing too ambitious essays too quickly, perspective gets lost, the conversation breaks and people get hurt, as we just observed. As I suggested to Mr. Kyratzes, attempting private dialogue first would strengthen the public dialogue.

    You may notice that I don't do a lot to directly reference the situation or your words in this comment. Your essays are such good writing prompts and provoke a number of feelings, and I always want to say something after reading them, but have to spend time reining myself in or risk exactly the leakage problem outlined above.

  2. one thing about this piece i maybe wanted to clarify that i thought were implicit but are maybe not clear to other people: when i write about myself i am writing about me and my own emotional experiences, but when it's in the context of videogames it's framed in such a way to where it has some sort of relevance to the larger point i'm trying to make about games. no one person experiences a game in a vacuum, and people's emotional responses are all a little bit different from each other's. and that's a wonderful thing that i think should be nurtured greatly.

    but my intention, specifically in the "adventures in level design" series, was to use my own personal observations and experiences as a way of trying to discover some kind of more articulable, quantifiable vocabulary for games that exist outside ones own subjective experiences, because i think this is an area that is hugely responsible for how one reacts to games, and yet it's ignored. games clearly do use mechanisms that communicate emotionally in certain ways, and articulation of that is extremely important. it's not all subjective, and it doesn't exist just for us to project onto it - because that devalues the way the experience is directed towards certain kinds of feelings/reactions by the designers behind the scenes.

  3. "it must be said that most of the people who are making the creative decisions on these big-budget games don't have the kinds of personal experiences, nor have they done the necessary research to really understand the complex issues a game like Spec Ops tries to tackle"

    I wonder about this.

    Not because I like the "resulting games" or not.

    But because you're making broad assumptions about a great many people. Maybe you know them! I don't.

    Even if you do know them... does it matter? The intent or experiences of those developers doesn't have much to do with their work. If that work speaks to someone, it does. Right? It doesn't really matter if the author is Greek, or a soldier, or a transwoman, or white, or anything. Does it?

  4. don't mean to be brash - but i think we might be living on different planets! the one i live on, people's experiences and their values do a great deal to define what choices they make and what kind of works they produce. i don't see how you could argue that this is not the case without getting into a full-blown philosophical argument.

  5. Great read, thanks for sharing this! I read Mattie's article and Samantha Allen's response to Kyratzes first, and this was a nice follow up. I just wanted to throw something out there, as a sort of thought experiment. Maybe this will interest you, maybe not but here goes anyway. At one point you remark that: "my object is to use my own personal emotional experiences as a tool to highlight things which are already present in games, but are being ignored or not articulated. in the end, when i talk about myself in the context of videogames it's not really about me, but the games themselves."

    And I couldn't agree more with the logic of this approach. However, I think it may work better for film and literature than for games--media that are fixed in their content and limited in the potential narrative paths. To make this point in more positive terms, I think games, by their digital, algorithmic nature, can better adapt to the identity of the individuals engaged with them. And so I can't help but think that the strongest response to these mainstream titles that reduce the identity of the player to a very narrow caricature of a human is not so much pointing out what is ignored (Big Gaming is market driven after all, and will seemingly only support the homogenized identity of their largest consumer base) but by coming back at them with a game that resists reduction.

    I agree implicitly that mainstream games are often typified by an "oversaturation of anger and ignorance and self-absorption and a lack of basic empathy." But doesn't your objective consign you to consistently playing foil to a broken system? And so, my point, at last (!), is: what if games criticism isn't writing about 'ignorant' games but creating/proposing enlightened alternatives? It's often said that you don't need to be a novelist to critique novels. But I wonder if you need to be able to design games (not necessarily create) in order to argue system against system, philosophy against philosophy. Kyratzes, it seems, already has games that he can identify with (lucky him!): what kind of game would you identify with? If it doesn't exist, what would it look like?

    [I hope that didn't sound arrogant. I'm genuinely interested in your response and I often write similar pieces that look at the excluded or ignored possibilities. I'm just thinking out loud here.]

    - Steve Wilcox (@thedewlab)


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