Tuesday, December 30, 2014

On Being A Marginalized Content Creator On The Internet

The house Notch just bought for seventy million dollars
It's that time of year again, when I scramble to follow the tacit assumption that I need to sum up my work of the past year. But my problem is my sense of individual years as disparate units inherently separable from each other has all but disintegrated. I don't think we're necessarily any closer to answering the questions that have been posed around the games or social justice twitter debates of the past few years. More voices are popping up to the surface than ever before - people of color in particular, and while some issues (like harassment) may have finally broken into the mainstream consciousness - most big videogame press outlets like Polygon or Kotaku or Giant Bomb have consistently shown that they're not really interested in engaging with or even trying to have a real understanding of discussions that are happening in these communities. Videogame culture, whether it stands for or against a thing like Gamergate, is still not a welcoming place for, or particularly interested in hearing the expression of most marginalized people.

So marginalized people who exist in the game world are put in an awkward place. You're supposed to stick around making stuff, and perform that action of being an important voice of outrage whose existence offers comfort to other people - and you might receive some kind of material or social support for that. You might even be asked to speak at conferences. But never is your voice seriously entered into any kind of lasting or larger debate. The reality is that Polygon or Giant Bomb or Kotaku aren't particularly interested in hearing your voice. And don't hope, by the way, that your work will seep out into other, potentially more welcoming, spheres of the internet - because the reality is that they're not particularly open to or interested in any of the work being done in games, let alone yours.

That's not to forget that, of course, Patreon is a lovely thing that has allowed people like me to survive and be able to overcome issues like homelessness. That has been a major positive development of the past year. But sometimes it's hard to decipher whether someone is funding my Patreon because they want me to keep talking, or if it's that they think the money will finally satisfy me enough to shut me up from being challenging to my audience, or talking about issues that make them uncomfortable.

There are these unwritten rules if you want to be a successful content creator on the internet: Making scheduled announcements & holding to them, always keeping your following organized and up to date on whatever you're doing next, being present on all forms of social media, playing to your fanbase - these things are expected of you to be successful. But what this really means, in this day and age, is - be safe and reliable. Don't rock the boat. Follow pre-approved methods of distribution and dissemination of your work. Don't challenge your audience. 

Mainstream press outlets act as if someone as popular as PewDiePie has done a great and amazing new thing by finding the following he has, but the reason he's been so successful is exactly because of how much he plays to his audience and does exactly what they expect of him. Success on the internet is, without a doubt, inherently tied into endlessly stoking a certain kind of predictability and formulaicness to your audience. No one who really wants to foster new and interesting expression could truly argue for this. This is not any kind of admirable model for an artist who cares about the uniqueness of their work to follow. We are always, always destined to fail when put up against someone like PewDiePie.

So we must fight for whatever scraps we can get. We must write our articles to be viral, frame something else we want to talk about around whatever is the latest hot-button issues on our social network, if need be. Just get noticed. And when we do, don't expect that it's anyone's real obligation to follow or engage with our work beyond the week or so that we put it out into the world in. If we don't consistently and predictably do it completely for other people and play 100% into their biases, then we can't expect or feel obligated to their attention.

But it's okay. You can do it for yourself. Keep making stuff, keep being present, and maybe some people will be into your work! But don't feel that anyone is obligated to engage with your work, or respect what you have to say. You have the freedom to do whatever you want! You have the freedom to do whatever you want -- as long as you understand that you're disposable, and if you don't walk exactly in between the lines painted for you, someone else will. And he might be the next Notch or PewDiePie.


The world we live in is unstable. I guess there's nothing new about that. The difference is that we're beginning to see that more and more clearly now. 2014 was a particularly intense and upsetting year for a lot of people in many ways. Maybe there was nothing new, but the fact that the world was watching was new. Ferguson is not new, but the twitter discussion and protests around it are. And that's comforting. Things move forward and change because they should move forward and change. There is still plenty of time ahead for us. And thank God for that, because we've only just begun. And we will find our voices. Wherever and whenever and however that might be, however, still remains a mystery.

Friday, December 19, 2014

On "Comprehensive Game Criticism" and Plastic Ghosts of the Past

"we need more comprehensive game criticism" is something i remember seeing a lot of people say on the twittersphere a couple years ago, partly in response to me writing some of my Wolfenstein 3D level design posts. mostly this call seemed to come from dudes who were really into first person shooters. as such, i was already skeptical that they even really understood what i was trying to get at in the first place. this was not about looking like a "serious critic" or raising videogames' cultural clout, just offering some new ways of looking at something strange from the past that interested me. Brendan Keogh's Killing is Harmless seemed to embody the exact opposite of the kind of criticism that i wanted to do - something that fetishized details in the story or game world while willfully ignoring admitting to the bigger picture. the point was to be acutely aware of all the shortcomings while still giving respect to the stranger and more resilient parts of a game, not to pick for little details until i've created an interpretation that i can disregard the overall experience with completely.

ok, i admit that i generally feel anxiety about writing nuts and bolts criticism of things like level design because it never really seems to appeal to anyone outside of a niche audience - namely, people who are fans who are already intimately familiar with the source material, or other game designers. and videogame insularity has become increasingly tired and boring to me.

not to mention writing this kind of stuff gets you immediately lumped in with all other writing of this kind done of the past, even if it's only vaguely related. the biggest problem with many of the level design critiques i've read online is how undiscerning they generally are, and how unwilling they are at interrogating decisions made in the games as anything other than examples of "good design" or "realism" or "atmosphere" or any other vague concept that usually never gets articulated. there's generally no real point of view in the analysis beyond a bunch prescriptive, cliched assumptions you've heard a million times before. detailed game analysis usually just serves the purpose of reaffirming the status quo, through the old traditional (and highly stale) modes of thinking about games.

fact is, videogames have that ineffable "magic" thing for its players, that thing that makes its faithful start to tear up when they think about those grand old game campaigns they took part of. that thing that makes them think they are greater. that make us think we can fix everything. well okay, only if we're the type who hasn't had very many experiences outside of them. but nevermind the outside world, it's about the games, man. it's about the technology. that's the magic key that'll fix everything. we say this as people on the outside watch as we continue to stare endlessly fascinated into these unchanging flat computer-generated approximations of crystals on the TV screen, wondering what's so hypnotizing about it all. and when we can't come up with any new or more decent argument about why we keep staring so intently, it sure doesn't make us look like we know what we're talking about.

the presence of things like level design pieces all end up just feeding back into the same kind of nostalgia tourism - it's a curiosity. it's not the kind of writing we're doing regularly these days. it's boring, it's "necessary", it's a chore, but it's not something that feels altogether very relevant. broad generalizing statements about game culture are in, nuts and bolts are out. maybe a big reason for that is because people doing nuts and bolts writing don't know how to make it feel relevant to the current cultural climate. or maybe it's because most people still just don't really respect games that much. maybe they still have a good reason for that.


i never really expected that i'd be writing anything about Perfect Dark. Goldeneye is much more memorable to me now - it's more streamlined, and much better evokes the feeling of freedom that comes from old smeary lo-res 3d geometry and elegant compromises that arise from awkward technological limitations. on the contrary, it's hard for me to even think about Perfect Dark without thinking of slow framerate and awkward aiming with the N64 controller; or the bizarrely long insta-fail missions with equally bizarre and cryptic mission objectives. strange that so many resources got poured into making something on a system that seemed to be fighting it every step of the way.

the first word that comes to mind when i think of Perfect Dark: "bloated". it wants everything, it awkwardly grasps at achieving more robust and serious and weighty storytelling than its predecessors, yet its still unhappily caged within its smeary, lo-res plastic shell. it's also highly hypocritical, game design-wise. you have detailed mission objectives to follow, you have voice acted cutscenes, it seems like you should understand how to proceed intuitively but things are still not really clearly communicated. often it seems like the game is punishing you for no real reason, just MISSION FAILED because you didn't insert an item correctly into the right slot. and this might be interesting if it felt in any real way intentional. it mostly just feels stressful and tense, and like the game wants you to conform to its arbitrary and quite frankly poorly-conceived design to proceed. the Goldeneye-esque no save point missions make even less sense here, as they are much longer and harder and full of bizarre details you must keep track of. it just seems like that format was imported unthinkingly, without much attention paid to how it affected the game.

yet if you look past the game constantly hitting you over the head for not meeting its largely un-telegraphed expectations, there are still some moments of beauty in there. i guess that's what Zolani Stewart senses in his "Let's Crit" videos of Perfect Dark. there are spaces in between the bloat that manage a kind of levity, that feel very intentionally constructed.

Zolani eschews some of the usual prescriptive analysis and mostly tries to focus on the game's strangeness. he talks about how Perfect Dark oscillates between being disorienting in its design in an interesting way, and just being obscure in a bad way. he also asserts that Perfect Dark isn't really a shooter, or really best looked at as a shooter anyway, but instead is more interesting as a place to explore strange spaces. i would be less generous, as a lot of the spaces often aren't really strange in an interesting way, just awkward series of hallways that add nothing to the missions at hand other than adding a more "realistic" or robust feel, and as such feel antiquated in a way that something like Mario 64 with more overtly abstracted spaces don't. i will say they do feel much more alive with detail and colorful than Goldeneye, though. their range certainly isn't something i've seen attempted in similar kinds of titles.

it generally feels like he's letting some nostalgia tint the game in a softer light. i mostly can't agree with him on Perfect Dark not being a shooter either, for example, as the game does try to reassure you pretty consistently that it is a shooter, often throwing an absurd amount of guards to shoot as meatwalls to your progress. i will agree with him in part, however - the variety and construction of environments, particularly some of the Area 51 levels, or the final Skedar level, does achieve a sort of abstract but highly detailed sense of place you definitely don't see in games these days. and the juxtaposition of these environments with all the bizarre requirements thrust upon you give Perfect Dark a feeling unlike other games, for better or for worse.


but let's compare and contrast. my favorite Goldeneye mission is called "Surface 2". a snowfield thoroughly shrouded in a disturbing red fog. it's like a bad omen swept over Surface 1 (an earlier level)'s bright snowy fields. there are more security cameras planted on buildings that and lots of enemies will wander in and out from your view, but both the fog and the N64 limitations make it difficult to make either of these things out until you're really close to them. even the indoors are shrouded in this dark fog. inside a big satellite building (still seemingly shrouded in the same red fog) where you previously had to shut down a satellite dish in Surface 1, you now have to blow it up. hitting B will just cause you to activate it, failing the mission. no remorse. just a big feeling of evil.

or Statue - a graveyard of abstract geometry filled with smudgy greys and brownish greens, and shapes you only half-make out, and sometimes unwittingly get stuck on. the actual design of the map is linear and feels too long for what it is, especially when there are plenty of places to get lost in which becomes especially infuriating as you have to run back through with a time limit and shotgun guards are flooding in. it's like a disturbing train ride into a deep and dark part of James Bond's past. looking back there's something bizarrely beautiful and singular about it.

both of these missions precede your character getting captured and held prisoner in the next mission. it's as if these missions exist as a dark omen clouding over the rest of your story.

the closest parallel in Perfect Dark is the "Chicago" mission (Zolani also acknowledges this as well in his video on the level). you're in a Blade Runner-esque perpetually raining neon cityscape at night, except it's only a block of a cityscape. and you can't even enter any of the buildings (except as an Easter egg), they're just a weird-looking backdrop. as a piece of grand ambitious realism this mission fails. but somehow the little world in it also feels a lot more robust and dangerous than other missions in PD. FBI spies that will report you that look nearly identical to civilians you're not supposed to kill, which almost seem to outnumber the actual guards in the level. also there's a security drone wandering up and down the block that somehow knows who you and you alone are and will start shooting with lasers and shout "STOP WHERE YOU ARE" in a scary robot voice when it sees you. when trying to remember details of mission, the robot felt like such a strange part that i thought i must have made it up completely.

the mission objectives also don't seem to make much sense and force you in uncomfortable and awkward positions, like a taxi you have to scan for several seconds to create a diversion that happens to be right in the street where the robot patrols. but because of all the elements at play there, there's a palpable feeling of tension to the mission. because the environment is small you can visualize it and develop strategies for how to deal with it. the feeling of anxiety and lack of control you experience feels very intentional and fitting for a futuristic dystopia, not arbitrary like other missions.

and i mean, i can still think to the aforementioned hallways of Area 51 which kind of have a lost, forlorn feel to them even as they're populated by guards or annoying drone guns. or the aforementioned final Skedar mission, which is highly linear but has a much stronger and more unique sense of place clearly constructed to work within the limitations of N64 hardware than anything else in the game - and also features very tense fights with the Skedar aliens. their different anatomy and behavior make for a much more entertaining enemy to fight than the same old meatwall guards. these environments work when they work in tandem with, and not against, other elements of the game.

contrast that with a mission like Air Force One, which is filled with awkward hallways, triggered story events and empty dead-end rooms. the level certainly looks a lot more like the actual Air Force One might look like, but not really to its benefit. or the Pelagic II, which is just a series of pretty but boring hallways. or the even more generic green alien hallways of Deep Sea. or even the Carrington Villa, which might be a fun place to explore if the game ever let you and meaningfully interact with anything else in the environment aside from shooting guards. the game often seems afraid of its abstraction, desperately grabbing for more detail and gravitas to lift it out of its abstract, formless shell. it has to be a shooter, it has to try and justify itself to you, it has to be taken seriously. it's an awkward adolescent, trying to do so much more without understanding what made it work in the first place.

mostly (and rather unsurprisingly) Perfect Dark just feels like a combination of half-realized ideas with mixed levels of execution made within the genre limitations of a FPS game made in the late 90's. it's sad, but beyond that, i don't know if there's really anything else to say about it


Goldeneye was regarded by its development team as a crappy licensed game until its surprise success. by contrast, Perfect Dark was hyper-ambitious, hyper-resourced, hyper-followed by eager fans.

around 2007 i remember sadly peering through the glass case in a corner at my local videogame store that contained the N64 cartridges. there was something sterile and empty feeling about all of them. all the life and possibility that sparked within me from seeing N64 games when they were new seemed all but left behind, only their husks remaining, like little ghosts. still, i remember seeing Mario 64 sitting gleaming at the top of the pile, or an occasional copy of the original Super Smash Bros that would usually quickly disappear. and then there were the multiple copies of Perfect Dark sitting at the bottom, all labeled for 5 dollars. it was almost eerie.

i spent a whole summer with Perfect Dark back in 2000 when i was young, and a whole year prior to its release on Perfect Dark forums feverishly checking for any new info about the game that i could. it seemed like something i could get really lost in. it was the newest, greatest, biggest experience. but now all that content, all that time and energy, all that had built up to the release, was now sitting at the bottom of the shelf in its plastic grey shell for 5 dollars. the newest and greatest never seems to be as new or great the second time around. that bloated, awkward monster of compromises made just for us - the fans, now looks like nothing more than a little glimmer of the past. but now the fans are elsewhere. they've moved far, far beyond it. and meanwhile those grey shells are still somewhere at the bottom of the pile, collecting dust, sitting next to Madden 98, or Ridge Racer, or Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, or any number of other husks of disposable grey plastic that look just like it - all neatly sealed-off and lined up in a row, as if they were gravestones.


(note: you can support my work on Patreon here: http://www.patreon.com/ellaguro)

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Embracing the New Flesh

(this is a heavily revised version of a talk given in the "Influences" session at Indiecade 2014. spoiler alert for the plot of Videodrome)

there's a tendency that i keep sensing popping its head up indie games that i call the "boy genius syndrome". it's about being the first to carve out and colonize a new idea space in the digital world. it often takes the form of being really hung up on a particular type of easy-to-convey technological innovation. it's about willingly reducing your ideas to one easily-sellable hook in order to get further and brand yourself as an innovator. it's, of course, an extension of larger patriarchal values - but in this case specifically tech culture's values.

i think this works particularly well because the standards are still so collectively low as far as interesting or unconventional approaches go towards games, that anything that stands out as at all strong in the field gets amplified by those participating on the more progressive end of the culture as this new great thing - BUT ONLY as long as it's relatively easy to communicate what it's all about. then, simply knowing about it and being associated with it becomes a form cultural currency that also increases your status in the culture. the boy genius projects an image of power and knowledge that makes him attractive to be around.

maybe not so surprisingly, this means a harder path for a lot of games that are aiming for more nuanced, or harder to interpret, or convey experiences. this expression, and these fights people in the progressive game sphere are waging against a dominant culture defined by intense conservatism become seen as a novelty, almost a sideshow. work is made to embody one idea only. our expression is always being re-framed by outside cultural forces that are trying to make sense of our work and file it into an easily understandable category. articles about games, in the end, still garner much less traffic and general interest than other cultural phenomena. serious discussion that happens in the videogame sphere is largely disregarded as niche and unimportant in broader cultural conversations - much to the frustration, by the way, of those of us who do see games' ubiquity and value. and so, in the absence of larger serious cultural attention, the boy genius rules as king.

the boy genius thrives from identification (either feigned or genuine) with the norm of videogames as lower culture and sees himself as selling back the most beautiful parts of it to his new, tech-savvy world. the boy genius does not challenge the idea that games are overwhelmingly a culture built from corporate ideology that has manufactured and heavily pushed this idea of "gamer" and "game culture" as active ways of entrenching themselves in the market. the boy genius merely tries to carve out a space in this market, to get another piece of that pie. the boy genius may try to resurrect what are now considered anomalies of the medium's past that don't fit this gamer culture, particularly old PC games or physical games, but only in order to "rediscover" and rebrand them for the present culture. this, in itself, is not bad - except that in the end, the boy genius does not seek to challenge, but merely seeks ways to repeat to us what we already know in different, newer forms.

in the movie Videodrome, an eyeglass corporation that serves as a front for an arms manufacturer for NATO creates a weapon which takes the form of video of an extreme BDSM porn - dubbed "videodrome". the extreme sexualized violence depicted in the film causes deep bodily effects on the person exposed to it, like a brain tumor, and also heavy delusions and hallucinations - eventually re-wiring their body by forcing it, quite literally, to take out their will, and then killing them. the subject in the film they expose it to, under the guise of a pirate transmission, is Max Renn (played by James Woods), the owner of a seedy tv channel, who the corporation is targeting to get him to show it on his network and broadcast it to the kind of seedy people who watch his channel and get them all to carry out their bidding.

Brian O'Blivion, a prominent academic researcher, fought to create a counter-attack to videodrome before succumbing to the tumor he gained from being exposed to it. his counter-attack was to embrace the form of videos and reframe it as a new extension of our own flesh, as a way of communicating the dangers of videodrome, in making thousands of videos, oftentimes many a day. towards the end of the movie, when Max finds out that he has been exposed to videodrome, he is ordered by Barry Convex, the president of the arms manufacturer that makes videodrome, with taking out Brian's daughter Bianca. Barry orders Max to do this by quite literally inserting a fleshy videotape into a slit that has formed in Max's stomach. Max also is given a flesh gun from inside his stomach that fuses permanently with his hand. he uses this to, not under his own control, kill the heads of his network. Max then tries to kill Bianca but she understands deeply how videodrome works and manages to catch him before he does and reprogram him, again by pulling out the old videotape from his stomach and inserting a new one. he repeats this new phrase dictated by her: "I am the video word made flesh. death to videodrome. long live the new flesh."

this "new flesh" is as another way of looking at digital devices as extension of our bodies - and embracing them as body parts we exercise full autonomy over. because if we don't, we can easily fall under the order of strong, powerful cultural programming that favors the aims of corporate ideology and the military-industrial complex.

this is a very real and very intense battleground happening right now, in 2014, and i think it might be most easily illustrated by gamergate.

just compare the extreme violence of videodrome's BDSM porn to a hyper-violent FPS - the violence serves as particularly strong and powerful physical current for ideological indoctrination from larger forces to enlist their ultimately disposable subjects. and so we have disillusioned, small-time males pushed into carrying out acts of violence against counter-contingents which represent the most serious opposition against all this ideology - in the case of games, usually women.

i don't think we understand just how powerful videogames are- but the military does. the military and arms manufactures relationship with the triple-A industry has been increasingly documented. the tactile bodily effects and feedback of games make them a particularly effective indoctrination tool. even in tech, Facebook understands the power of a new technology like VR when they bought Oculus Rift and that it benefits them to be in control of technology so powerful.

the problem with fighting back against the tide of all this powerful cultural programming is we're often bad at envisioning and embracing this new flesh as a tool of progress amidst these vast corporate structures colonizing the internet. in his movie A Pervert's Guide to Ideology, Slavoj Zizek looks at the many apocalypse scenarios increasingly saturating popular media of the last ten years and asks: why is it so much easier for us to envision in the cultural consciousness a total apocalyptic collapse of society than it is to imagine a fairly minor-shift in our ways of understanding and constructing the reality of our situation?

the answer is that is the logical endpoint of the ideological path we're following now. and there is something intensely painful about, in the midst of this, realizing our own bodily autonomy, and our ability to make even a subtle a shift in our understanding and construction of reality. it's a struggle, and it involves experiencing a lot of pain.

i'll do another one for you. i used to hate Stanley Kubrick's movies. i hated The Shining. i thought it was really cold, and alien, and manipulative. it all seemed like to come from this really cynical masculine perspective. i felt upset and used after watching the movie, and i didn't know why. it was very painful for me.

then after reading some deeper analysis, i started to see a voice come out of that movie. the things i had originally observed, instead of misreadings that went against against the surface narrative of the film like i had originally assumed, were actually intended readings. that source of pain became a window into something deeper. it lingered much more than any other films which went for shock value that i saw. and then i saw that it has a philosophy, it functions as a critique of ideology - just like Videodrome. Jack, the father, is never ever meant to be anything less than terrifying in the film, in contrast to the book. the film is a punishing critique of, among other things, the nuclear family structure, and white male imperialism. i think i understood this at some intuitive level, but wouldn't have been able to conceptualize that a horror film like this has that level of depth, because it usually never does.

this way of looking at media - with a deeply critical eye, against the grain of the surface narrative, is one that takes most people tremendous effort to learn and recognize as valid. corporate ideology implanted into media forces us to want to identify with our characters as a way of building a strong (but pre-defined) relationship with them in order to help us feel better about ourselves. getting past the role of media to help you feel better about yourself, and understanding that a piece of media is much more effective when looked at with an intensely critical eye, is tremendously painful to do. we see our natural state as one without ideology, and thus stuff that upends our natural state is seen as ideological. misogynistic gamers see feminism or LGBT rights as an ideology being enforced on them, rather than a critique of an ideology they implicitly, unthinkingly accept as valid.

once you are able to see the ideology underlying the need for escape and comfort, it opens you up to everything else. once, as Zizek in The Pervert's Guide To Ideology says of the movie They Live, you put on the sunglasses and see the true ideology underlying everything, you're not able to go back to normal life again. once i really looked at The Shining, the gears started turn in my brain. and i felt my capacity to understand increasing. but this involved confronting and dealing with pain - that involved willingly putting on the sunglasses, unafraid of what i might see through them.

game culture is so thoroughly built around identification with your character avatar that seriously challenging surface reading comes off as a direct antithesis to the conventional wisdom that exists within it. and that's not to say that big budget games haven't tried (and failed) to muddy these waters ala Bioshock Infinite or Spec Ops: The Line. but they failed in part because of a large part of the ideology of corporate game design is that players are never allowed to feel serious pain for more than the shortest period of time. and i don't mean pain to your character avatar, but pain to you, through design ideas which challenge your assumptions or your patience or your perspectives. often people approach games as some sort of sacred escape space defined by a complete lack of ideology. the almost spiritual, religious fervor that gamers approach games with makes it an excellent breeding ground for intense ideological indoctrination. this isn't rigidly and aggressively applied, but one that is seen as natural and normal state of games to occupy. but that level of deep, almost spiritual comfort games provide make it even easier to actively ignore how strongly constructed that idea of 'enjoyment' is in the first place. it also makes that much harder to wage any kind of serious, sustained counter-current against it.

while most media tends to flatten and flop on the ground upon further analysis, films like Videodrome or The Shining continue to just unfold like an infinitely-layered flower and have a life far after their making. and that's because The Shining or Videodrome embrace their form. they embrace the plasticity of it. they love their images, and their symbols. they love every detail and shot composition. they know their experiences are transparently not real in the pure factual sense (whatever that means, really), that therefore makes them much more real than equally-constructed depictions of "realism" in media, particularly in serious television of the last ten years. they instead, embrace the ideology of media. they embrace the new flesh. "death to videodrome!" they knowingly assert.

so does David Lynch. this simple but effective image is from his film Inland Empire. both the color red and lamps are continually used throughout his work - in this case the red lamp stands like an oracle that shines light into a violent memory. broken down into a series of fundamental symbols and constructions, his work re-examines deeply troubled psychological landscapes; and the deeper, more fundamental forces that flow through all things and communicate much more about who we and how we operate are at a much deeper and more intuitive level. his films, like Kubrick's and Cronenberg's, embrace a highly fabricated world as a channel to something deeper.

the point being that this realm of innovation for innovations sake, of the boy genius, ultimately aims for further entrenchment into existing ideologies. if we hope to win this war, we need to jump out of that realm and into the one of a spiritual healer or oracle. we need to jump out of the brain and into the body, to the larger picture. we need to not be afraid to feel pain. we need to look at media with a more critical, but also empathetic eye. we need to put on the sunglasses and not be afraid of what we might see through them.

because when we don't - not only is the end result co-option and re-entrenchment, but the end result is violence against those who openly resist this ideology, both in the metaphorical and literal sense - because the end result of adopting patriarchal and colonialist worldviews is always violence acted out on the bodies of the marginalized and powerless.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

On 'Gamers' And Identity

(this is, in part, a continuation of my "on right-wing videogame extremism" post from a couple weeks ago)

when i was in sixth grade, shortly after the Columbine shooting happened, i remember having a strange conversation with my mom. after seeing a report on TV, i said something like "i just don't understand why these school shootings...." before awkwardly trailing off, unsure what i was trying to say. she asked, completing my thought "you don't understand why they happen so often?" i paused briefly, thinking, and then replied "no, i don't understand why they don't happen all the time."

disillusionment was an everyday reality in rural Ohio, where i grew up. i felt it as a tremendously overwhelming truth, a constant feeling of being trapped in an infinite sea of identical houses, churches, fast food. this sea was constantly breeding fear and paranoia, and the communities that did exist here all seemed to be religious and usually relied on making members of their community feel terrible as possible. i didn't want to have anything to do with them. but there was a thing for someone like me, who wasn't very into Christianity and didn't feel very connected to her body and didn't want to damage it through drug use. you could easily find some connection to other people in the area through media and, in particular, videogames. i remember my deep, knowing nod when a friend's coworker at a bar in Ohio simply responded with "Mario 3" after i told him i liked videogames. it was this great universal truth i immediately understood. even in the biggest cultural wastelands, geek culture seems to flourish somewhere - through Magic: The Gathering tournaments or local game stores, even sometimes at places like Walmart. when there is nothing else to base your identity on or invest creative energy in, things like videogames easily become your life. they're a drug, the thing that keeps you going, feeling free, feeling connected to people, and feeling like you're someone.

being a "gamer" becomes your identity.

"'gamers' are over" is a sentiment i've seen circulated around a lot in the past week or so in response to the horrible misogyny and threats that have come out of this whole #gamergate thing, but i think it might just be talking around the heart of this issue. i don't blame anyone in the press or game devs for feeling unsafe, feeling angry and losing their patience, even quitting games. but the constant harping on gamers as 'entitled manbabies' (while perhaps true in one way) is just using the same old lazy language employed against games in popular culture and misses out a lot of the dynamics that are actually going on here. (not to mention calling them insane or deluded or deranged uses the same sort of tactics the harassers use on women). the disillusionment people on the gamergate hashtag people feel is real - one borne out of the industry's bloat and creative stagnancy, the sudden turns towards social consciousness in the media, a loss of a feeling of greater 'consensus' in game culture because of the splintering of media and, especially, feelings of inaccessibility into spaces that are now influencing game culture at large.

Cameron Kunzelman's frustrated conclusion after engaging with a #gamergate tweeter is telling: "It seems to me that the participants in #gamergate are all there for different reasons and that it is mostly an accidental coalition that has formed out of a sense of being wronged." the aforementioned long, rambling conversation between him and #gamergate tweeter Adam Haux which was mostly about game reviews, ended in this exchange:

many of us connected to games see many details #gamergaters have espoused about the connections between game journalists and game devs as comical (because of how little they understand how much everyone is actually connected), random, or arbitrary. this well-circulated graphic linked by Gameranx editor Ian Miles Cheong (supposedly from 4chan), for example, lists SJW (social justice warrior) game journalists to boycott. the reasoning behind this list seems arbitrary and to only have a surface awareness of what's happening, as there are women writers who have written socially-themed articles for those websites that are not included, whereas some other people on there might have never written any socially-themed articles for said websites at all, or have poor reputations for it (ala Ben Kuchera).

in this one (via Leigh Alexander, apparently taken from a #gamergate tweeter though i can't find the original source), people in the games press are linked together, often with barely tangential, small threads. some of the information on here is probably not true. i, for one, do not fund Jenn Frank on Patreon (but i might start!).

at heart of this mapping, however arbitrary, there is the idea that a group of people they have no real access to or influence with is changing videogame culture. this is, in fact, exactly what is happening. they may be ignoring the obvious, ever-present problems that continue to plague videogame culture and culture at large, like (male) friends hiring or awarding (other male) friends. or the persistent problems of inaccessibility and exclusion in indie game circles i've talked about in previous articles. or, even more present, the game industry's buying out of the press which has been a documented controversy for years (which Lana Polansky talks about in her recent piece on payola), most notably embodied in the Kane And Lynch review scandal from 2007, or how way the "Doritogate" controversy brought to light the "tragic, vuglar image" of game journalist's relationship with game companies of two years ago. these are real issues that have been affecting the industry for a long time, but they're not ones that this group seems to pay much attention to or care about.

instead, they're choosing to focus on deeply misogynistic conspiracy narratives of lone manipulative women or queer people using their sexual prowess to manipulate and define who gets recognition or awards. and these narratives are made even more bizarre with their intersections to much deeper and more pervasive conflicts of interest that veer hard right, seemingly for no logical reason, towards deep misogyny. many of these people, like the guy who made the above video, might be frustrated gamers rushing to take advantage of this whole controversy while it's still in the cultural consciousness and find an audience for themselves. women and LGBT people are the already strongly established outside interlopers to their culture, and slut-shaming and victim blaming are deeply ingrained past-times in the language of pop culture. so the sudden presence in the media is taken as the most obvious explanation.

however, as writer Daniel Joseph suggests in a tumblr post from over a year ago, there are other, more basic social tensions happening in all of this conflict:

"...videogames have become one of those 'spheres' that was supposed to separated from 'real life', which explains, once again, why 'gam3rz' are so virulent in their defense of sexism, separate spheres, border patrolling, racism etc. It’s that 'private sphere' that they shared with others which was conceived as their private garden, their summer cottage...

...The bourgeois class created the private because it had the resources to manufacture a world distinct from the aristocracy and the monarchy while the previous classes, farmers and serfs had no concept of the private. Think about how brands are supposed to be private - they are families you bring into your kingdom because they are lifestyles and ideas and whatnot embodied as subjects - even if those subjects are just commodities. Brands, rather than products, become citizens of sorts and are represented by their various manifestations in your private kingdom. 

...Remember, this separate sphere is all we have outside of work itself. It’s this private sphere that is supposed to lend true meaning to our lives - not our shitty job that we grudgingly wake up for every day. This is where shit matters and as it happens when things are under your care you give a lot of damns when something appears to attack them.

So what comes out isn’t so much entirely about a hatred of women (though much of it is) but also about the reaction against the drive of a more communal impulse to challenge that hegemony of the private sphere. To move against bourgeois values means to attack, in one sense, that autonomous sphere of production and reproduction of the monarchy of the home. It means to rip that tiny sphere of sovereignty that so many people, robbed of any other space of control in their lives through rampant capital accumulation, have. It also shows how the economic movements of our world come around and viciously react against things they seem so far away from."

in other words, #gamergaters are afraid that new progressive communal challenges to the one small private sphere of the home they've been socially permitted to exercise control over and feel freedom within will cause them to be erased. as such, "'gamers' are over" may sound more like a declaration of war to them than anything else. 

let's be honest - the industry has failed "gamers" because our culture has failed them. for me, being in a place like rural Ohio was so tremendously unempowering, and made me feel so much like i was so far from being able to ever influence the larger culture that i felt like i at least deserved the videogames everyone else i grew up around seemed to get to cope with all of it. that feeling, like you're "owed" media, is the default response of our culture to not being able to exercise any kind of other real autonomy or control over any other aspects of your life. critical personalities who cynically evaluate media from entitled perspectives like Yahtzee Croshaw or TotalBiscuit or JonTron, therefore, speak tremendously to these sense of values and shared culture. other popular media constantly reinforces and echoes these ideas until they become a phenomenon, a consensus, a way of looking at your existence, and when pushed, a venue of life and death.

i'm worried, as always, venturing into writing about this subject again. the problem is that those private gardens of videogames are no longer merely private gardens, but real, tangible territory with real causalities - where real harassment, doxxing, hacking, and violence happens. fantasizing about committing acts of violence on the people who you perceive to be the architects of your misery is one of our grotesque cultural pastimes, one that the culture of aggressively-masculine marketing around videogames has certainly only just added fuel of the fire of - one that's constantly enacted on the beings of the weak and marginalized.

and yes, i remember how ridiculous the rhetoric about violence in videogames around an event like Columbine was to me as a sixth grader, how they don't understand how abstracted and silly the violence in a game like Doom was, how it was all simulated, how little of a basic understanding they had of how games work. but as those debates have largely dissipated over the years, videogames have only become more violent, have only ventured much further into simulated realism meant to more convincingly substitute for a disappointing and dis-empowering reality, have only catered much more deeply and pervasively to the entitlements of their users, and have only become more ingrained and ever-present in culture. where we stand now, videogames have deeply entrenched themselves as the primary venue for dis-empowered people to elect themselves as servants and act out the sociopathic fantasies of the ruling class. videogames literally train soldiers. if you feel disillusioned, if you feel not particularly smart or skilled, videogames are there. no surprise, then, that this learned rhetoric is further blurring the lines between fantasy and reality and creating a battleground in such a seemingly arbitrary part of popular media. no surprise that this battleground is very real.

the problem is these violent impulses are self-destructive at their core. they're not actions of autonomous actors, they're culturally programmed. they're the impulses of a suicide bomber throwing himself into a crowd of people. they're deeply emotional, deeply disconnected, and deeply afraid of what's happening in the world - and that's what makes them scary, and very real. and that's why we need to see them for what they are - fear, and understand how and why they're deeply intertwined with our culture.

if we want this stuff to go away and stop being a problem, in whatever form it takes, then we need to be able to map the source of it, to provide context, and to understand that at some fundamental level we're all in this together.

Friday, August 22, 2014

On Right-Wing Videogame Extremism

exhausted by hearing reports from people i'm acquaintances with of being harassed, their accounts hacked, personal info spread, phone numbers called, front doors showed up at (in one case) by random MRAs (Men's Rights Activists), 4channers, Redditors or whoever the fuck it is, i decided yesterday to finally look on 4chan for more insight what is actually going on. i share the fear with a lot of other women who work in the realm of games but have less exposure of what will inevitably happen from getting more exposure. a lot of us look to someone like Zoe Quinn or Anita Sarkeesian and the image of more cultural visibility is not exactly very appealing. living with no privacy is not appealing. living in fear for your personal safety all the time for doing what you want to do is not appealing. i have my whole life ahead of me. i'm still working through tons of issues with depression and anxiety. i don't want that to be ruined by a few people who can't get a fucking life and leave me alone. these couple tweets by game writers Lana Polansky and Patricia Hernandez pretty much sum it up:

just this evening, one or numerous people who presumably were going after Zoe have begun to target several indies who are her friends or acquaintances. and now several indies and anyone tangentially involved in the scene are are scrambling to two-factor authenticate their accounts, change passwords, and lock their twitters. there's a feeling that there's been a war declared on indies, especially social-justice focused ones, and a lot of people are afraid. at the time of writing, a twitter hashtag - #welovegamedevs, has recently just showed up in response to all of this. 

in a recent 4chan thread on /v/ (which was deleted), a picture of Phil Fish's homepage claiming to have been hacked by "a leader of Anonymous and head moderator of /v/" posted his bank account info and phone number and, among other things, said he was targeting other SJW (Social Justice Warrirors) and indie devs. the thread was filled with commenters proclaiming that Phil Fish must have been so desperate that he had faked it all himself, and that it could never be anyone from /v/ because there's no such thing as a head moderator there. i guess the possibility of someone intentionally writing inaccuracies as an inside joke and/or to convince more people on 4chan that it was faked didn't occur to them. the level of victim-blaming was pretty astounding to me to see - ESPECIALLY given that his personal bank account info was shared on the page. many posters seem desperate to take the blame away from 4chan and their complicity, all while still seeing no irony in their readily sharing of doxxed info. i guess even they didn't want to believe that people among their ranks were actually doing these things, because they knew it would only hurt what they see as their "cause".

so what exactly is their cause? from reading through several of the threads, it's not entirely easy to tell. 4chan is an intensely attention-deficit subworld that is known mostly for chaos with little accountability or sustained serious discussion. that's presumably its primary draw for a lot of people in the community. nonetheless, the best summary i got was from these two posts (click to enlarge):

the source of this latest, greatest internet shitstorm seems to all stem from a bitter, narcissistic, hyper-detailed tumblr post from an ex, Eron Gjoni, of Zoe's (search for "the Zoe post" if you really want to know, but you probably don't) which lays out in minute detail their relationship and posits that she slept with several different game journalists and game festival people for favorable coverage while in a relationship with him. regardless of what whether Zoe did was ethical or not, the post indifferently shares a frightening level of private details about their relationship and private IM and facebook conversations between him and Zoe, presenting it as "evidence". 

this post spawned several youtube videos invoking her sleeping around for favorable coverage as some kind of indie game/game journalism conspiracy, like this one (which to this date has 500,000+ views on youtube and a very good likes to dislikes ratio). John Brindle breaks down the twisted methodology of this video and others like it far better than i could in detail here (click to enlarge):

the full storify of his tweets is here. the most striking thing to me, beyond the bizarre level of arbitrary detail their relationship is documented in Gjoni's post (e.g. "I had my first panic attack Apr. 29th"), is that he uses the language of games and rules sets to intensely analyze the potential outcomes of situations he felt he was put in in their relationship. as John Brindle observed, the talk of puzzle pieces and investigation seem like some perverted version of the protagonist in the popular game Braid. they also recall the kind of universal strategies and "truths" about the opposite sex developed and disseminated by pick-up artists, but in a way they originate in game language - and game culture, in how games disembody and dehumanize subjects. 

unsurprising, then, that these gamers seem to have no problem taking the side of a bitter ex that seems, in no uncertain terms, set out to destroy her and bring as much harassment her way as possible (as it is now doing).


so i'll admit - when i first heard about Depression Quest, i had a pretty mixed reaction. i was glad to see a more visible game examining serious issues that come with a thing like depression, and i knew enough about Zoe to know that she'd been sincerely and openly struggling with it. she has, in fact, claimed that making the game saved her life. but i was also skeptical because i felt like it was taking some of the more abstract themes of lots of personal Twine games that were being made around the time and branding them in a more universal, surface, mainstream way. "depression" is such a broad cultural concept that originates from any number of sources - the idea that it remains this inherently abstract, alien idea that must be navigated through and corrected doesn't let us deeper into the very real sources it usually stems from. the fact is, depression is unfortunately a pretty normalized way of life. we live in a world that heavily encourages people towards developing intense anxiety and mental illness. and so i felt like other games had looked more into the source of these issues from more interesting angles, but weren't being recognized by the culture because they weren't so aggressively marketed.

regardless of my misgivings, any situations that have since developed around this game have digressed so far beyond any of the game's original intentions and shortcomings and into a strange, terrifying sort of cultural battleground. something about Zoe in particular - maybe that her game was all of a sudden ubiquitous, maybe that she was a woman who openly and unapologetically shared her image online, maybe that she seemed to be everywhere, triggered the killswitch in the greater consciousness of this reactionary gamer contingent. and as such, Zoe has become the scapegoat for every bit of internalized misogyny and misdirected rage these people felt. she appears to them an amorphous assemblage of everything that is viewed as wrong with women - manipulativeness, sluttiness, being an 'attention-whore'. the idea of trusting the word of a frighteningly narcissistic ex who's out to ruin her reputation is fine with them, because it meshes with their worldview. suddenly they have a convenient situation that explains away all their disillusionment and misgivings with themselves and game culture. suddenly it's about all game culture at large and ethics in game journalism, as in this post:

that's not to say that there aren't some grains of truth in these criticisms. the indie scene is often cliquish and entitled. it does benefit you tremendously to know the right people, and there is a lot of incestuousness and possible conflicts of interest that come into play with game spaces, so it's not a huge stretch to make that criticism. but focusing on a boogeyman of this seemingly formless, evil master manipulator woman who uses any tools to her advantage to gain positive press and reviews (which, btw, never materialized in at least one case - Nathan Grayson, a Kotaku writer she allegedly slept with, never wrote a review of Depression Quest) says a whole lot more about fear of women than it does say anything about any of the (numerous) problems in game journalism and the indie scene. nevermind that so much industry coverage, even from their beloved youtubers, functions as glorified PR. the fact is, most game journalism is already tremendously confused and broken, and at a much bigger and more fundamental level that these people think this Zoe Quinn "scandal" is.

for one, my big criticism of this new indie culture - that it's an extension of tech culture and is ultimately product-driven despite it often grasping for another image, that it's not nearly as open to new people or new ideas as it wants to believe it is, that a lot of the interesting things that are going on in independent games (like a lot of free games by people like increpare and stuff on gamejolt or warpdoor or forest ambassador, for example) are not really recognized as part of the "scene" or given much of any coverage from mainstream outlets, that writers who do focus on devoting their time to looking at more interesting aspects are constantly marginalized and ignored inside and outside the scene, that a lot of what comes out of the visible indie scene just reflects the same triple-A, game industry values despite people purporting to be more progressive/feminist/whatever, is totally absent from these criticisms. these people don't really care about lack of recognition or coverage for interesting new games made by outsiders. they care about getting back this abstract, indefinable feeling of a shared culture created and fostered by corporate media that seems to have been lost to them. they are tremendously scared and frightened people. ironically given what they say about their targets as whiny and overemotional, they are far more irrational and overly emotional in their responses. they care only about acting out on their numerous emotional triggers in whatever way possible, and using whatever tools they can. they are tremendously paranoid.

one of the biggest sources of paranoia i took from reading through my first 4chan thread about this issue is that social justice activism will inevitably destroy communities like 4chan. these people feel so disempowered in their lives that they head to communities like 4chan or reddit to be able to feel some sort of empowerment, to act out on something, to feel part of something bigger. this is where the whole mythos of Anonymous comes from. that a lone person with a computer has a tremendous power to take down the shadowy elite. but in that act, there's no accountability, and no moral code. anyone with the resources can mobilize people to target anyone they see fit. sometimes it attacks against the interests of power, but just as often it's a conservative, reactionary anger that comes out of disillusionment and fear, and gets constantly externalized onto marginalized people, especially women and queer people. 

they struggle to understand and adjust to a rapidly shifting cultural landscape, in and out of games, that's moving away from traditionally catering to them and their empathy-deficient values into something more culturally sensitive and aware. and so they find simple explanations for these complex phenomena that fit within their bigoted worldviews - boogeymans of evil, manipulative and misleading women like Zoe Quinn or Anita Sarskeesian. they view themselves as anti-authority and anti-power, even as their actions are tremendously conservative and tremendously serving of the interests of power. they view social justice activism (and indie games) as a product of the rich, elitist, and entitled who is using their agenda to infiltrate into major media outlets and ignore the common gamer market as an audience. they look to "normal guy" personalities like JonTron or Totalbiscuit, or Penny Arcade - who don't serve any kind of larger journalistic ethics aside from "being funny" - to reflect their perceived values and lifestyles. they employ the same logic that you see applied against LGBT and marginalized people that leaders in power in places like Iran or Russia do - social justice is a realm of Western entitlement and indulgences that are actively destroying the ways of lives of average, common people. they continually assert that these social justice issues don't matter compared to large political or global conflicts, and use it to justify their behavior. because social justice is the not a "real" realm, but one of the entitled babies who don't care about global issues, their bullying is justified and will come to no real consequence in the end. the internet is, then, a playground for them to angrily act out their own paranoia and insecurities onto.


traditionally they've been right on that last point. i think what we are seeing now, though, is that the actions of this conservative extremist contingent finally is coming to a larger consequence. social justice issues certainly aren't going away in game or media spaces, and the amount of hateful material received by industry people all across the board are getting more and more attention in the larger media sphere. this event, in its extremity, might be crucial in bringing it into an even larger consciousness. 

this all seems, in a way, to be a last gasp of desperation from the weak and empathy-deficient against the inevitable turns towards progress. it's an intensely self destructive act - it's as if they know they've lost in the end, so they're trying to take down anyone they can with them. and all i can really do, in the end, is just feel sorry for them.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

status update

so i'll be better about this - i'm trying to work on an album this and next month. i have this idea i want my voice to sound like (namely a lot better/stronger than my own), but i might just have to accept what i have in the short term... at least until i can get vocal lessons or something. i really don't like it, and have intense dysphoria about it. i feel like a gross guy most of the time. i might just have to accept it though.

i'm a huge perfectionist, and have been using that as an excuse to not doing anything for years. i have a lot of little incomplete demos and i feel like i immensely over-intellectualize the process of making each of them, to the point where it's no fun to actually get into them. they probably sound 1/8 as good or interesting as they should be. i think i'm going to bypass this by just making a bunch of new project files and not even messing with the old ones. i might try and use a different program from Reason (what i usually use) but i don't know.

i'm thinking this album might turn into an EP of about 20 minutes long, because i need to be more realistic about what my plans are and what i want to do.

i have problems with feeling like everything i do naturally is not interesting, not challenging enough. that there's some kind of scary level of conservativeness embedded within it that i have to constantly fight. i'm not sure where i got this from. i guess when you make a big production about things you do it's easier for you to convince yourself everything is going alright. it's also easy to challenge when you're firmly entrenched on the outside, not in a weird liminal space in between. now i feel like that's all wrong, but i can't find motivators to just do small things. i just feel immensely inadequate in the face of things i really like. i feel like there's no way i'll reach that level. i feel like the people who make that stuff are just better people. more in tune to things, less angry all the time. less unstable, more respectful of themselves and other people than i am.

i've been feeling trapped the past few months, and for no good reason. i'm able to pay rent, and i feel immensely shitty that i've been unable to get myself to do anything but art. i guess i need to get over that feeling of guilt. i'm almost thinking of suspending my patreon just as a way to motivate myself to do my own thing instead of 700 dollars of what i think other people want, but i need to pay rent. i'm trying to challenge myself, but it's gotten into an unhealthy level of me taking stuff out on myself. i feel like i'm fading away, or receding into mental illness, and i have to fight that. i'm really scared for myself. it might sound like i'm being overdramatic, but it's been so tremendously hard for me to keep myself motivated. i feel really stupid and privileged for being in the situation i am and not able to take advantage of it. it feels like it's all my fault. i've been in a very bad place and it's hard for me to see a way out. i guess when things feel like they're stacked against me, it's a motivator to try harder. when there's a normalcy to it, it becomes really scary to me.

i'm also scared that doing what i want to do isn't going to get me any further. i think the response to Problem Attic, both positive and negative, kind of encouraged this. my motivation to do a lot was the idea i'd eventually get famous for it, but now i'm seeing how unhealthy that is. i can't get over myself, and i feel so stupid for that. i can't depend on getting famous, especially as a queer transwoman. i can't depend on more than 10 or 20 people caring about what i do. maybe i just have to give up the idea of being popular at all, but it's scary. my feed is filled with people who ostensibly are supportive, but i don't really know a vast majority of people on there at all. they're really all acquaintances and i don't trust most of them because of that. i hate how interacting with someone on twitter convinces a lot of people that they're entitled to friendship from you. i'm actually a really private person, and it takes a tremendous amount of strength from me to be open about myself in the ways that i do. honestly i feel like being open has been more self-destructive than anything else.

maybe most of the people around me just aren't going to understand me or they'll think of me as a "freak" or inhuman and i'm just going to have to deal with that. i don't like that - i want to be seen as normal. it hurts me immensely. but that's always how people have treated me, so i can't imagine it happening any different.

the more introverted i feel, the more it makes me feel like i'm escaping into the image others have of me, rather than the image i want to have. i hate it. i feel like everything i do is met with an expectation in other people, and they're going to filter it the way they want to - and filter it so it's about my own "weirdness" and not about actually listening to what i have to say. i don't like not having control, but i feel like it's a fight with people every time to not fall into that image they've created and then they act like you're being unappreciative and uppity. it's always a fight, and you always end up looking like the one who's being an ungrateful prick to your fans/supporters.

even making a post like this - people won't read it and see the human being. they're coming in with a preconception, if they're coming in at all. there's only interested in you and how far as you can take them. at least that's been my experience. the videogame world is not a healthy world to be in. the power dynamics are weird, and the barriers between friend and networking point is non-existent. it's gross and i don't care about so much of it at all, but i'm stuck on that treadmill regardless of whether i want to be or not, every time i'm in a social group around it. and for outsiders i'm always going to be seen as part of the "videogame" world, even though i don't want to be part of it at all. i hate it.

i'm not sure what to do with all these feelings right now. i feel really intense hatred for a lot of things, but i'm unable to articulate it in a way that makes sense or other people understand. i feel like i'm always about to burst and have no outlet for it. i'm tired of other people, and want them to leave me alone - but then i want to be open about everything to so many people. i don't know.

Monday, July 28, 2014

my GaymerX talk - "Why You Should Think Differently About Games"

GaymerX was a great time - it was great to see a lot of friendly faces, and i was really proud of Toni Rocca and co. for organizing a fan conference specifically catered towards making a safe space for LGBTQ gamers, a thing the industry normally gives next to no shits about. the video of my talk should be going online in the future. in the meantime, though, enjoy the text. 

also if you like my work, support me on Patreon! as part of my Patreon i have an exciting music-related development planned in the next month that should be forthcoming, so stay tuned. thank you all so much!

This is from an excellent article by James Bridle from the Guardian last week:

The first electronic general-purpose computer, the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer), was built at the University of Pennsylvania between 1941 and 1946. It was designed to calculate the range of heavy artillery for the US army. The size of a couple of rooms, it had thousands of components and millions of hand-soldered connections. The computer scientist Harry Reed, who worked on it, recalled that the ENIAC was "strangely, a very personal computer. Now we think of a personal computer as one which you carry around with you. The ENIAC was actually one that you kind of lived inside. So instead of you holding a computer, the computer held you.

Reed's observation is more apt, and more persistent, than he lets on. The computers haven't really got smaller; they've got much, much larger, from the satellite relays we consult every time we get GPS directions to the vast server farms in windowless sheds on ring roads which we have chosen to call "the cloud". That this computation is less visible than it was in Reed's day, when an observer could follow the progress of a calculation in blinking lights across the room, doesn't make it less pervasive. The digital is both the infrastructure and the mode of our daily communication, and shapes our culture at every level. In the majority of the developed world, it is the foundation on which our personal lives are built, and multinational corporations operate; it underpins global communications and global wars. It is, in essence, in everything.

Given this, it seems crucial that it is also accessible to all; not merely engineers, scientists, politicians and policy-makers, but also artists, commentators and the general public. There has never been a greater need for critical engagement with the role technology plays in society, but there's a corresponding problem with that engagement, as severe now as it was when CP Snow diagnosed it in 1959: the lack of understanding between the sciences and the humanities.

If anything, digital technologies have rendered this problem even more acute, as the vast and smoking industrial architectures of the 20th century give way to the invisible, intangible digital architectures of the 21st. If technological literacy is going to rise, it's going to need the help of artists to enlarge its vocabulary, and the leadership and guidance of cultural institutions to frame the discussion.

i know this is a videogame conference, but i really wanna stress that this talk is not just about videogames. this is about the way that we interact with the world, through these digital architectures. this is about finding ways to use and reclaim expressive tools to empower ourselves, and to speak out against injustices in the world, and to escape oppressive ideology. this is about being scientists as well as artists. this is about human struggles of the 21st century, and games are sitting in the middle of it all.

so where do we start?

i'm choosing to do this talk at a fan conference, and not at an industry, or a professional, or an academic one, because I think there are serious issues of accessibility in game spaces - both in the past and in the present. it's there in what is and isn't talked about, and who was there to see it, and who was speaking. and i'm not just talking about mainstream 'gamer; culture spaces, but also indie game culture and academia that studies videogames, and digital art spaces, even in queer and marginalized game spaces. there's not only issues of racism and sexism and transphobia and homophobia and ableism, but things like classism and regionalism that play in who is there to enjoy and experience what, and who it speaks to.

that's not to say that there isn't a lot of progress being made towards inclusivity in a very short period of time, and a lot of voices are at least given some support and allowed to speak openly when they weren't before - queer people, trans people, people of color, women. and we have some events like this one here springing up, that focus on particular marginalized groups or ideas.

but these voices speaking at these conferences also are speaking to a much smaller number of people, because they're not given the kind of mouthpieces that industry figures are. or when they are, the few who are, they face an immense amount of harassment, and put themselves in great personal danger every time they speak up. it's not a safe place to be. and because of that, these worlds outside the mainstream - indie games, queer games, etc. can seem insular and overly inward-directed to outsiders - or more like social groups than movements. it can seem like knowledge of them is used as a currency, or like they're "pretentious", or like everyone is giving themselves a pat on the back for making a cool new thing. a lot of games are made, a lot things are written about, and without relevant signposts it's hard to tell who is aligned with whom, who is talking to whom, and where this is all going.

i will say right now in these progressive game spaces there seems to be a spirit of collective exhaustion. events like Independent Games Festival have more-or-less fully calcified into a groups of haves and have-nots, with the vast majority of recognition and financial success still being dominated by white males. this is especially, by the way, true in areas of expertise not immediately related to "gender equality" or activism - if you look at the Experimental Gameplay Workshop at GDC from this past year, for example, there was 1 woman on a panel of over 20 speakers. even those very the small number of games that do aim towards a mass-market receive immense amounts of backlash from gamers who charge them with ruining videogames with their social justice activism. for an example, check out many of the Steam reviews for Gone Home.

it's true that more women and queer people and people of color are being invited to conferences - but they often don't have the positions of financial security to where they can afford to actually speak at them, especially because a lot of conferences won't pay their speakers air fare or lodging costs. Mattie Brice, for example, wrote this year about how she spoke at 14 different conferences but was still struggling to make any kind of living because of taking out loans for school and living in SF. we think of someone with that level of ubiquity as having "made it", right? but the usual providers of that security - the game industry, and the games press, - salary jobs with benefits, essentially - have continually shown a lack of commitment to promoting actual equality or job security in their fields, and a lack of interest in hiring people that may in any way actively challenge the status quo.

this is from an industry survey, originally from Game Developer Magazine,  featured in an article on the game industry last year in Jacobin, which i will quote from heavily later:

The job with the most female representation, producer, clocked in at just 23 percent and an average salary $7,000 less than males’. Female programmers stand at 4 percent; QA, the front door to a career in the industry, at a woeful 7 percent.

the games press is currently undergoing the same issues.

a month or so ago the site Giant Bomb announced they were hiring. there were several visible female journalists that seemed very qualified and likely to join a crew that's historically been guys - including people like Cara Ellison, Mattie Brice, Kris Ligman, Maddy Myers, but they chose to go with another guy - Dan Ryckert from Game Informer. this ended up igniting an already running controversy on the twitterverse about how marginalized game writers - ones, especially, who are putting a lot of effort into listening and writing about less-covered voices and games - can't seem to find sustainable salaries, but are expected to keep working while struggling to make any kind of living off what they're doing.

this is a quote from a post by Samantha Allen on tumblr:

I have to ask myself every time I write a piece if I’m emotionally prepared for the comments and if that toll is worth a freelancer’s pay. My orbit might be more stable but I’m still one comments section away from giving up. One day, I’ll ask myself that question, “Is it worth it?” and the answer will be “No.”

Patreons—imperfect stopgaps that they are—keep popping up while the jobs keep going to the boys. There’s only so many times we can hear “next time” before we know they’re lying.

Something’s changing in us, I think. We’re through living in between “next times.” Those of us, like me, who have financial support elsewhere and are doing this out of passion are starting to wonder whether our passion is misplaced or, worse, dangerous. Those of us who have tried to secure support within the system are realizing we probably won’t find it.

but this problem is not just a matter affecting marginalized writers. the structure of the industry actively inhibits this kind of growth from happening in the larger culture, both in the ethical problems with the way the game industry operates and the way it uses the signposts of a shared geek culture to manipulate people's desires.

from the aforementioned article on Jacobin, which is called "You can Sleep Here All Night"

There’s a dearth of rigorous coverage of the industry. The video game press, such as it is, remains mired in a culture of payola and ad revenue addiction, outside of a few outlets. The one television station devoted to industry news, G4 (which has moved away from covering only video games), seemed committed to proving every gamer stereotype true, with an endless parade of uncritical corporate press releases punctuated only by sophomoric oral sex jokes.

All of which is a shame, because something in the industry is wrong. Here, as in few other places, we see the kind of exploitation normally associated with the industrial sector in creative work. Already subject to lower wages when compared to the broader tech sector, video game studios’ management maintain the status quo by consciously manipulating the desires of writers, artists, and coders hoping to break into a creative field. The profit vacuumed up goes to ever more bloated management salaries and the unremittingly glitzy, tacky spectacles churned out by gaming’s PR departments.

The exploitation in the video game industry provides a glimpse at how the rest of us may be working in years to come.

he goes onto talk about his coworkers past experiences when he joined the industry as a QA Engineer at Funcom in 2007:

Most of my coworkers viewed their gigs at Funcom as having “arrived.” Almost all of them had come through Red Storm, one of the most respected studios in the country and an industry linchpin in North Carolina. The stories they told were galling: gross underpayment, severe overworking, and middle management treating the cubicle farm as a little fiefdom all their own.

Red Storm at the time employed the bulk of their QAs as temps. Lured in by promises of working their way up the ladder, scores of college kids and young workers would come in, ready to make it in the new Hollywood of the video game industry. The pay was minimum wage. The hours were long, with one of my immediate supervisors casually stating that he regularly worked at least 60 hours a week during his time there. Being temps, there were no benefits.

This would go on for the duration of a project, usually the final four months or so. When the temps weren’t needed anymore, it was common for groups of them to be rounded up, summarily let go without notice, and told that a call would be forthcoming if their services were needed again."

this, by the way, is a common scenario on the industry. there's an article on Kotaku recently that covers a lot of the recent big layoffs in the industry and how its affected employees. i recommend checking out. anyway:

"There were other stories – strange and mean ones, like the producer who waltzed into the QA office and asked if anyone was heading for the dumpster. When no one answered, she dropped a big bag of garbage in the middle of the floor, snarled, “I guess I’ll just leave this here, then,” and stalked off; the QA lead chewed them out since the woman was a producer, a project manager.

Everyone who came through related the same story of QA’s complete sequestration from the development team; nobody was allowed to speak to a “dev” directly, only through intermediaries, nor to enter the dev side of the building. The QA temps were a clear underclass on one floor, while full-time “real” video game workers occupied the other.

At the time, I didn’t understand why someone wouldn’t leave such a situation. The pay was awful, the hours too long, and it sounded like a rotten place to work if even a fraction of the stories I’d hear over lunch breaks were true.

But everyone kept returning to some variation of the same theme: it was their dream to work in the video game industry.

you might not be so surprised to find out that this sentiment is echoed throughout the industry:

paraphrased from the article: in a 2008 panel at the International Game Developers Association, while serving on the board, then president of Epic Games Mike Capps...

...stated bluntly that Epic would not hire people willing to work for less than 60 hours a week; that this was not a quality of life issue but a matter of Epic’s corporate culture, and that it was patently absurd that anyone getting into the industry shouldn't expect the same.

this caused a firestorm at the time, but then when you look in the much more recent industry figures reported by Game Developer Magazine:

A whopping 84 percent of respondents work “crunch time,” those notorious 41+ hour work weeks which line up with the end of big projects. Of those, 32 percent worked 61-80 hours week (and usually goes on for months).

indie games also are not much of a viable alternative to many:

Indie games, the only currently viable ticket to breaking the stranglehold of the big studios, are a ticket to poverty. The average indie worker made $23,000 a year.

the article talks about how these things are commonly justified because through the idea of passion, and having passion for games

Again and again, when you read interviews or watch industry trade shows like E3, “passion” is used as a word to describe the ideal employee. Translated, “passion” means someone willing to buy into the dream of becoming a video game developer so much that sane hours and adequate compensation are willingly turned away. Constant harping on video game workers’ passion becomes the means by which management implicitly justifies extreme worker abuse.

And it works because that sense of passion is very real. The first time that you walk through the door at an industry job, you’re taken with it. You enter knowing that every single person in the building shares a common interest with you and an appreciation for the art of crafting a game. Friendships can be built immediately – to this day, many of my best friends arose from that immediate commonality we all had on the job.


Geek culture takes such strongly held commonalities of interest and consumption far more seriously than most other subcultures. I recently wrote a piece for this publication which was, in part, about the replacement of traditional class, gender, and racial solidarity with a culture of consumption. Here, in the video game creation business, is the way capital harnesses geek culture to actively harm workers. The exchange is simple: you will work 60-hour weeks for a quarter less than other software fields; in exchange, you have a seat at the table of your primary identifying culture’s ruling class.

this 'passion' is not only used to justify industry abuse towards workers and general bad industry practices, but it's used to create and maintain an idea of a culture that benefits those in power. it's used to exclude minorities and women. it's used to define the lines of people's behavior, and their preferences, and how they see and construct themselves and their identities. videogame culture is an extension of this larger fan or geek culture, most of which comes from large media empires that come from large fictional fantasy universes like Star Wars or D&D - their vagueness and openness lets their fans project themselves onto the world pretty much in any way they can imagine. and these worlds can be really powerful and useful imaginative outlets to lots of people. but the really insidious thing is that they're so much at the control of corporate entity to change and exploit the means with which they can do that at a moment's notice.

Katherine Cross yesterday was talking about she essentially transitioned through WoW - that it was one of the few outlets that let her express her identity. but when Blizzard decided to make take away the anonymity it made that no longer possible for others to do that and be stealth. the control of one of the few places that allowed the safe expression of queer or alternate identities was now eliminated. out of a supposed effort to clean up the community make people more accountable online abuse, they erased an entire population who was using it for refuge.

to go back to "passion" and videogames - the first time i saw Mario 3, when i was 3, it seemed so real and tangible. yet there was something unreachable about it - and videogames in general. it was a luxury object for the richer kids. my parents would never buy me current generation systems, so i had to desire them from afar. and that felt really shitty. i felt like i was missing out. they felt like this real culture i wasn't experiencing in the isolated place i grew up in. full of fun and colorful worlds constantly played up by advertising on all the cartoons i'd watch. desires were, more and more, being implanted into me as a vulnerable child by the world around me. and they were desires defined by genuine creative impulses, but they were being exploited.

i felt owed videogames - because they felt so real, because they felt like they'd compensate for other bad things in my life. they were taking part in that shared culture i never got to experience otherwise. years later i'd tried to collect old games, and download a bunch of rom-sets and enjoy what i wasn't able to in the past, but the feeling was never the same. the idealized image i had of them was gone.

at a certain point down the pipeline, the desire that was created in me by the culture around me became way more about preying on my emotional insecurities than about any inherent, genuine creative spark or passion. i felt entitled to more, but after awhile everything seemed boring - not immediate enough. not cool enough. the desires created a deep, untenable sense of entitlement. an entitlement that we see manifesting itself all over videogame culture in many different forms. it's one that the companies that helped tremendously to foster it into existence are having an increasingly difficult time maintaining with any degree of stability.

the fact is, videogame companies - and Nintendo in particular, took advantage of the fact that they were using an exciting new technology, the genuine creative impulse that exists people have to explore outside their world (in a culture that can be pretty oppressive as far as creative outlets are concerned), and the youngness and impressionability of its target demographic, to create this sense of entitlement.

and then, when you try to challenge them. when you try to interrogate them, you find out that they don't actually give you a way into them. a game like Mario 3 may let you look at it from 100 different angles, when most games will only let you look at them from a few, but it will still never let you inside. it will never let you look into the machine and break apart the game into its component parts. it's tremendously enjoyable. it's an alluring and complex object, much moreso than other games, but it's still a closed one. and that's no secret. it's how it's designed - it's a product. it's a toy.

companies like Nintendo and Apple are very good at marketing towards the technical anxieties of their users. they make closed boxes, and they make those closed boxes tremendously sexy. they make them into a larger idea, a lifestyle. they make it fun, and they make it a toy, or a fashion accessory - but you have to actively subvert the will of the company to actually get inside it.


contrary to Nintendo and console games, i have more lasting memories about the PC games i'd play when i was young. these are the ones that, at the time, i felt like i was stuck with, and that it was hard to find people who'd heard of. the weird knock-offs of more successful titles. Commander Keen and Jill of the Jungle and shareware games. that world, if only because it was less ubiquitous in culture, ended up becoming my world, and the one i come back to much more often.

the PC has a long history of being a subversive box. when i saw Doom, in particular, for the first time on a friend's computer, it felt like something incredibly new - not just in the violence and in the game's darkness, but in the depth. it was upsetting and scary for someone my age - but i had a traumatic childhood, and this felt more real than anything else. it wasn't just about "fun" or challenge - they were trying to get inside your head. but it was not only this, but in the fact that there was an active modding community. the fact that you could play multiplayer. you could play it different ways. they willingly opened up the box and let you change things around inside. they encouraged it. and maybe it took away from some of the enclosedness of it, but in exchange you got an active community of creators and modders doing whatever they wanted with it.

as it turns out, Doom's spirit of letting the user in didn't originate with id software, or DOS. the 80's was a boom for personal computers like the Commodore 64 or ZX Spectrum or Apple II. while none of them had the mass appeal of the NES, they featured tools that let you program your own games. magazines would print out code you could compile to your own program. it gave you a power - one that was limited to people who could afford it, of course, but one that was there. it was from this that the developers of Doom, and many of the people who changed the industry, came from. maybe those C64 or ZX Spectrum games weren't so smooth or as complete a package as Mario, they were looser, much different - and as such maybe more exciting when you look back at them.

that's not to say that a lot of these games didn't have serious problems. or that there hasn't been a huge strain of libertarian white dudes ideology dominating the spaces around these games. but our gaze is different in 2014 than it was in the 80's - and looking those older games can help us escape from the, quite frankly, suffocating ideology behind what is a "game" and what isn't that we're stuck with in the present.

On Summer Games Done Quick - a speedrunning stream, the speedrunner Cosmo did a run of ZZT a game by Tim Sweeny from 1991 (the founder of Epic Games). on the couch, one of the other runners and volunteers at the event spent the entire run laughing at the game's ANSI art style and saying stuff like "is this even real?" and "did you make this up?" and "this is not even a videogame". no one on the stream really seemed to bat an eye. in 1991, ZZT was most definitely a game. in 2014, it's no longer a game. sorry. these games existed in smaller worlds, where a pretty big breadth of things things co-existed, and where people didn't really care too much if there were other people who wanted to do something different from them.

i think we've let the winners write the history for us, and use its machinery to devalue and erase most of the threads of the past. which is why we need to pay extra close attention to the past, and use what we can from anything we can find to our advantage. we can use that genuine passion from playing a Nintendo game as a kid to our advantage too, instead of just using as a way to conform in the same ways to what is essentially corporate ideology. we can look deep at the design of it and what makes it tick - and interrogate it, and challenge it, and appropriate it, and apply it to a more free and open space.

even something like modding an old game can be a revolutionary act in today's culture depending on how we use it. for those of you who follow me on twitter - i've mentioned this many times, but there's a Doom mod named A.L.T. that i'm particularly fond of because of the way it uses a very unconventional and challenging style of design to tell a story. the story, in itself, isn't anything too amazing, but playing through is levels almost has the feeling of experiencing a manifesto for what can even be achieved in a simple framework like Doom's gameplay. there's a sense urgency to it. it both speaks to the experience of playing a game like Doom and something much deeper and more intangiable. its instability and restlessness is exciting.

i feel that same sense of urgency when i look at some more recent demoscene art. particularly of PWP, also known as viznut, who has written on his website about aiming to use demoscene art - which has been traditionally a way of showing off technical prowess - to make social or cultural statements. in a video like this one you see old videogame styles and iconography gleefully co-opted to make an anti-authoritarian message. it's powerful and its direct, but it doesn't come off as pretentious. it's something more strange and intangiable. and exciting.

that sense of urgency is also something i see when i look back at some old net art from the 90's like is mentioned in the Guardian article i quoted from at the beginning..

My Boyfriend Came Back From The War by Olia Lialina was a piece of art in 1996 that pretty much in every way resembles a Twine game from authors you see today.

or there's http://wwwwwwwww.jodi.org/, not assigned a specific name beyond the strange URL and serious of cryptic symbols and navigation on the pages. but then, if you use the browser's option to view the source code, you see what sits behind the system - a detailed schematic of a nuclear bomb. the idea of this very sinister undercurrent hidden behind the seemingly unparseable surface presentation that defines our way of life, of sinister oppression beneath layers of obscurity and legalese. that there is an immediate and obvious truth, but it is hidden in the intentionally obfuscating nuts and bolts of the system.

these are art of their time, defined by the technology of their time, in the particular scenes of their time - and you know, fine art spaces do have a way of keeping a lot of people outside those worlds from getting into them. but also much more prescient and ageless, and speak a lot more to videogames than most "gamey" games do. they are oddly also seem to be more relevant now than they were at the time.

that sense of urgency, that kind of aggressive adventurousness, that willingness to use any means possible to break out escape oppressive ideology needs to permeate into our art and into our games now. the fact is, the lines have been drawn. digital architectures run the world now. stuff like social media is a game, and one that, built into deep into their structure, is being played against us. and if we hope to change the way the game is played, we have to look straight into the machine and make sense of how it works, and use whatever tools at our disposal. we need to think very very consciously be thinking about the means we make it in, how we disseminate it. how we advertise it. or what tools we use. because those are the kind of things that have a deep, and powerful effect on other people - and ultimately what will hollow out these oppressive ideologies that have held such a strong grip on people's consciousness - and make the world a more empowered, more compassionate, more exciting, and more livable place.