Category Archives: talk

boundaries of play: game design and kink

here’s a talk i gave at qgcon today:

In game design, there’s a concept that game designers sometimes call “the magic circle.” The idea is that the magic circle is a space created by the rules of a game, and within which the normal rules and imbalances that define social interaction do not apply.

A safe space, essentially, where the player can play roles, can enact negotiated aggression and power imbalances without – if the players involved are respectful of boundaries – consequences to the players’ relationships outside of the circle.

19th century robber barons were monstrous figures who exploited hundreds of lives and stole millions of dollars, but within the safety of a game’s rules, players can explore the dynamics of trying to maximize profit by running a system as cheaply as possible, setting other players against each other, driving train companies into the ground and then dumping them on other players for maximum gain and minimum loss.

These are, after all, dynamics that are fascinating and complex, but to explore them outside of the magic circle would have real consequences for real lives.

I’m setting up a comparison here, and though I would never suggest something as simplistic as a one-to-one exchange, I’m keenly aware of and deeply interested in the similarities between one of the roles I play – game designer – and another: domme. As in – and again, this is a bit of a flattening of the complexity of the role – a person who consensually beats up other people.

Most violence occurs in the context of oppression, of one party policing another’s behavior or trying to exert control over that party. You’re beaten up for not fitting cultural expectations for masculinity. Most power imbalance is not consensual – you work at a coffee shop where you serve tech dudes because they control the resources you need to survive. Your choice to tolerate their demands is weighted – you do not have equal power in negotiating the relationship.

Within the boundaries of kink, though, is a safe space for experiencing unequal power dynamics. My girl serves me because it is intensely fulfilling to her to be devoted and attentive, not because I have any kind of economic power over her. It’s a safe space for experiencing violence – consensual violence, within boundaries that have been negotiated by all involved parties, is radically and essentially different than the kind of violence that is inflicted by one party upon another unwilling party.

I’ve acted out forced sex fantasies with partners who were sexually assaulted. I’ve beaten up partners who were beaten up, as kids, without their consent. Within consent, kink can become a place of recontextualizing, of processing, even a place of healing. Kink is a transformative space. And so is all play.

In my work, at least, I’ve gotten a lot out of thinking about the similarities between one type of play, GAMES, and this other type of play, KINK. Let’s talk about role-playing games, because those have some clearly-defined power imbalances right from the start.

Depending on which metaphor means more to you, think of a game like Dungeons and Dragons or Apocalypse World. Those games both have an Emcee or “Dungeon Master” role – someone who invents situations that put the other players in conflict and challenge them to develop their characters. A big responsibility.

The single piece of advice for new game masters that I’ve heard time and time again is: remember that the players aren’t your enemy. Even though you could force them to fight a herd of minotaurs at any time, you’re not trying to defeat them – you’re trying, if anything, to enrich them. D. Vincent Baker, author of Apocalypse World, gives this advice: “‘Make the characters’ lives not boring’ does not mean ‘always worse.’ Sometimes worse, sure, of course. Always? Definitely not.’”

I see a lot of digital games from beginning designers that seem as though they were designed to “beat” the player. To prove, on some level, that the author is smarter, more clever, or more hardcore than the player. In this conceptualization of play, games are quantitative machines which produce a win state.

This is not the reason most people play games, though. Bernie DeKoven’s 1978 book The Well-Played Game (recently back in print) contends that most players are less interested in victory for its own sake than they are in establishing a strong dynamic. Victory is nothing without a struggle – it’s not about being allowed to win too easily, or being made to lose too hard, it’s about a strong back-and-forth, a dynamic that challenges and empowers simultaneously.

It’s easy to see this in kink when we think of kink as a game in which the winner or loser is already decided – which doesn’t necessarily describe all scenes or dynamics, but generally does mine. The outcome isn’t what we’re playing to find out. We’re playing to create, perform and explore conflicts – we’re not trying to see who wins, but to understand the dynamics, and ourselves, better. I’m allowing a bottom to explore vulnerability in a situation in which they know they are ultimately safe.

That’s something we could stand to do more in games: to make the player feel vulnerable rather than superpowered. Well, “make” isn’t the right word here. It’s more accurate to say that we’re doing is CREATING OPPORTUNITIES for the player to feel vulnerable.

I designed a party game recently: it’s a note-passing game where the none of the players are aware of the rules until they receive the note. Everyone who receives the note is required to draw a weapon on it and pass it to the next assassin, thus inducting them into the game. If the “target” of the assassination notices the note at any time, the player holding it is required to expose the failed assassination attempt.

The rules leave a lot of room for expression and negotiation. What counts as a weapon? At what level of detail should my drawing be? Can I hide in a bedroom while I draw my picture? The things that the rules leave undefined are as calculated as the things the rules make explicit. In essence, I’m giving players the opportunity to perform as dangerously as they feel safe doing.

Don’t think that kink is merely about punishing people. It’s also about giving them opportunities to show their strength.

This is why having space around rules in games is so important – that’s the space where negotiation happens. And that’s part of why I’ve been moving away from the single-player digital game lately, aside from the fact that they’re usually really boring. Digital games are generally interested in having airtight, strictly-enforced rulesets.

What does negotiation mean in the context of a digital game? Let me suggest it DOESN’T mean an “Easy,” “Medium” and “Hard” setting. Those labels, offered to the player before they’ve even played the game or developed a context for it, are meaningless.

One of my favorite examples of player negotiation in a single-player digital game is the game Asphyx by Droqen. In this game, one of the rules is given to the player to keep. The player is required to hold her breath whenever her on-screen avatar is under water.

Naturally, in keeping that rule the player is given a lot of room to make her own rules about how the game will be played, to set boundaries. How strict am I going to be about the breath-holding rule? If I lose my breath but I’m about to get out of the water, do I let it slide? Do I ignore the rule entirely because I can’t hold my breath for shit?

Consider that as a designer, your role is more complicated than just “the one who wields all the authorial power.”

As a responsible “DUNGEON MASTER,” it’s not as much about the experience that I want to create as it is about the experience the player creates. It’s not about dragging a player kicking and screaming through my masterpiece. Responsibility does not begin and end with a conversation about limits.

I am at my most attentive, my most reactive, when I’m topping. And this is where the metaphor starts to strain, because when we’re designing we’re creating a set of rules to act in our place when we may not be there. But I think it’s useful to think of a game not as a show that the player is lucky to get to watch but as an experience we’re allowing her to perform, a conversation.

I once heard a definition of being dominant that really impressed me. It was: a dominant person is someone who “receives submission.” I like that definition because it doesn’t mention control or power. It suggests instead that while there isn’t equal authority within a D/s relationship, there is an exchange.

I want to suggest that a game designer isn’t someone who creates or packages a product, but someone who allows play to happen. You are a player; I am someone who receives play.

well played

indiecade was this past week. i was asked to speak on a panel with nick fortugno about. well, no one was really sure what it was supposed to be about. game criticism? the value of game criticism? my friend naomi clark moderated. nick and i each gave a short spiel, and then we responded to questions. i wasn’t interested in some point-counterpoint format where we go back and forth attempting to punch holes in each others’ arguments to win some rhetorical victory, and so i’m going to refrain from trying to summarize his presentation. here’s mine:

Last GDC I ran away from a game designer. It was pretty cool. I ran away from a game designer who had written about how parts of a game i had made could have been made in powerpoint. (which is a really weird argument because parts of Gears of War could have been made in Powerpoint, you can embed movies in Powerpoint.)

This guy was trying to draw me into a long-winded clarification of what he said to make him look less like the bad guy i’d made him out to be by -quoting him,- when my girlfriend grabbed my hand, and pulled me away, and we ran down the street together, hand in hand. I felt young again.

There are conversations we don’t necessarily need to be wasting our time on. And it’s my girl who always reminds me that on Twitter, the block button is RIGHT THERE. A lot of the Kind of Dudes who have Serious Opinions on what a Videogame Is think they’re naturally entitled to the time and energy of people with what they probably think of as Oppositional Viewpoints.

You know what, though? They’re not. You DON’T have to participate in a conversation about FORMALISTS VERSUS ZINESTERS, this nonsense dichotemy that was made up so a few guys could get more blog posts out of it. “Zinester” was a word I used for my book because it was a useful metaphor at the time. The “Formalist versus Zinester” debate isn’t a debate anyone was actually having, until someone decided that they were and then just sort of expected the “other side” to defend themselves.

The FORMALIST VERSUS ZINESTER debate is as real as the NARRATOLOGY VERSUS LUDOLOGY debate, which is to say not at all.

We don’t need to defend our work. We don’t need to prove that the things we’re making are Games and not “interactive art.” My new Twine game I’m calling “a digital Choose Your Own Adventure book.” Who gives a shit? Roger Ebert died without believing games are art. Who cares? Why did we invest so much energy trying to convince him in the first place? Would Grand Theft Auto Five be any different if Ebert had admitted that videogames are high culture instead of low culture?

Here’s what we do when we enter into these debates about the value of our work: we concede the right to determine the value of our work to others: typically, to people who have a vested interest in undermining that value. Of course self-described formalists are bristling at the arrival of all these games that don’t fit their definition of games: they want to keep being able to write blog posts from a position of authority.

Of course Warren Spector is going to complain that there isn’t any real games journalism being done. He has a vested interest in being seen as an intellectual in a field of shallow and simple people. Warren Spector cannot, politically, acknowledge that Mattie Brice exists.

“X isn’t a real game” is NOT an apolitical statement. It’s a statement designed to serve the status quo. It is, in fact, nothing more than a stalling tactic. The status quo is drowning. By entering debates with them, by agreeing to speak in their terms, we’re just allowing them to feel important for another minute. It’s not their world anymore.

When I originally wrote this speech, I used Grant Theft Auto as an example of the kind of mainstream shitpile we don’t need to spend our energy or attention on. We KNOW Grant Theft Auto is gross; do we really need to spend that much time on it? But since then I’ve seen so many transphobic images from Grand Theft Auto posted that I think we SHOULD be having a conversation about why Rockstar hates trans women so much, and why they’re allowed to call that “satire” and get away with it.

All the same, I don’t feel like I need to be part of that conversation. I don’t need to give Rockstar the sixty dollars for the privilege of being able to see Rockstar’s transphobia for myself. Instead of writing another blog post about it or adding more angry tweets to the chorus, what if I write about Problem Attic or Perfect Stride instead? Ten words about Game X is worth a thousand about Game AAA.

We need to stop letting the Establishment decide where our conversations happen, and in what vocabulary. A purely mechanical analysis of my game Triad will reveal that it is a will reveal that it is a game about moving and positioning tiles and that there are rules about where those tiles can be in relation to other tiles that are not initially disclosed.

Is that critical language equipped to discuss how Triad is a game about relationships and how human beings and bodies relate to each other? Is there room in a mechanical analysis of the game for a conversation about conflicts in polyamorous relationships?

If that kind of discourse fails for Triad, which is on some level a familiar kind of spatial puzzle game, how will it fare when describing Twine games that are, mechanically, just clicking on links? How much of the experience and power of these games is erased by a critical analysis that ignores context?

We need to invent new languages for describing these things. We need to create new standards for valuing experiences. While we’re writing endless posts about AAA games, who’s writing about gender politics in online worlds in the 90s? Who’s writing a history of the shareware movement? Who’s covering Twine games made by kids in classrooms?

Games have trained us to be so reactionary that we’re spending all our energy trying to fell giants that are already dead instead of cultivating the things that are alive. We can stop playing their game. We can redefine the boundaries of the conversation.

Running isn’t always retreating.

difference, games and class

difference, games and class is the keynote speech i gave at no show conference this past weekend. it’s about exactly that: the intersections between difference and queerness and class, and the ways in which game culture marginalizes and erases games from below the poverty line.

the slides were created as a zzt game which i ran in zzt, in dosbox. if you want to follow along: in the transcript below, [NEXT] means “enter the passage to the next screen” (a colored box with a = on it), and [TOUCH whatever] usually means just that, touch an object that’s on-screen. or you can just watch the talk. the entire conference has been recorded and put online for free, and mine is the very first thing.

one of the things no show did that i wish other academic conferences would adopt: gave us a 10-15 minute break between talks (and a two-hour catered lunch break). at different games in brooklyn, my partners and i had a hard time keeping up with the pace of the conference, even though we’re able-bodied, and zonked out halfway through the incredibly dense second day.

other cool stuff from the conference: chris klimas talked about making twine, losing it, and finding it again (should be in the last video), mattie brice talked about alternate reality games, and shared some she had designed about poverty and gentrification in san francisco (you can see her in one of the thumbnails), and liz ryerson spoke about, well, everything worrying about the direction games culture is taking (a transcript of her talk is available here).

text of my own talk follows. one thing i felt i failed to address is how culture in general and games culture in specific is consolidated into a tiny number of power centers (new york, los angeles, bay area) and the extent to which that makes it hard for people who aren’t american or live in middle america to access and participate in that culture. (liz talked about this.) i also ignored an opportunity to talk about gentrification: i’m feeling the effects of tech dudes’ colonization of san francisco (it’s driving up my rent, even in oakland), but i’m also a white person who moved across the country to live in the bay area, so i’m part of gentrification. (mattie talked about this.)

 

DIFFERENCE, GAMES AND CLASS

1. problems

so we talk a lot about the problems that exist with games – specifically digital games – and there are a lot. videogames are overwhelmingly homogenous and they produce a homogenous culture in which women, people of color, and queer and trans folks don’t always feel safe.

and while i don’t want to speak for all the people at this conference or narrow the scope of the discussion, i feel like it’s fair to say that this is the central problem that we’re wrestling with at this and other games conferences, like different games, lost levels, gaymerx. a lot of new games conferences have been springing up lately. well, i feel like there’s a reason why.

so we’ve been talking about this problem over and over, we’ve been trying to figure out how to make games better. but i think there’s a big hole in the middle of our discussion [NEXT], and so all we seem to do is circle that hole over and over.

2. college

i was originally going to do an experiment. i’m not going to, because i don’t want to single people out. that’s how certain i feel about what the results would be and what they would mean, and how people would be judged for them.

[NEXT] the experiment was going to be – NO ONE ACTUALLY RAISE YOUR HANDS – i was going to say “raise your hands if you have a college degree.”

[NEXT] the people who make the conferences, the people who make the initiatives, invariably are people who are coming from either an academic background or from an engineering or coding background. and so i feel like what is generally lacking in the resulting discussions is an understanding of how class affects our access to means of creation, and how class dictates what methods are available and unavailable to whom.

[NEXT] to tell you a little about MY perspective: i’m a college drop-out, a freelance game designer, and while i’ve gotten lucky in that i showed up early in terms of some demographics i belong to and was able to get attention that may be harder for some of the folks after me. but being asked to do keynotes doesn’t mean that you have money, and for at least six of the months out of the last year i needed help making rent because i and the people i was supporting did not make enough on our own.

3. filters

we often set up this dichotemy between the “AAA” and the “indie” game developer that positions the latter as an alternative to the inaccessibility of the former. [UP] well, let me try and dispel some myths about the accessibility of being the kind of indie game developer that appears in indie game: the movie.

[NEXT] my game dys4ia was a finalist in the igf, the independant games festival, last year. being involved in the igf is a costly process. let’s talk about some of those costs.

first, there’s the entry fee – the “filter.” [NEXT] filters exist to cull the number of entries that the judges have to look at. usually these filters are achieved through the imposition of a fee: the idea is that asking a person to pay a 95 dollar fee – that’s how much the igf’s entry fee is – will filter out people who aren’t “serious.”

Remember when Steam instituted a one hundred dollar fee on its Greenlight platform? Just to be allowed a CHANCE at a Steam listing? [NEXT] Remember when Jonathan Blow challenged folks to name a single developer capable of making a “Steam-quality” game but who couldn’t afford the fee?

[NEXT] what this kind of filter actually accomplishes is to weed out people for whom a hundred dollars is a nontrivial amount of money to invest in a crapshoot. but at this point in my career i have enough social capitol to find someone of more means willing to pay the fee for me – that was mike meyer and i’m super grateful.

[NEXT] so i had my fee taken care of and it turned out i was a finalist. but there were further costs: the cost of travel, for example. i’m in the east bay and the igf is in san francisco, so that’s a bus trip – $2.10 – plus a bart trip – from Lake Merritt to Powell is $3.15. So that’s over $13 both ways. A day. [TOUCH $]

The expo floor is open for two days, during which a finalist is expected to show up and display her game (on a computer that she provides). Then there’s the night of the awards show, which is when you find out whether you’re actually being paid for all this. And the Independent Game Summit, that’s another two days. I guess those are technically optional, but you have to schmooze, right? So five days at 13 bucks a day, that’s $65. [TOUCH $]

Then there’s the cost of finding food in Soma, the most expensive part of San Francisco, which is where GDC and the IGF take place. I’m just going to estimate a hundred dollars for the week, for food. [TOUCH $] Easily more than that, if you want to go out drinking with people, which you will probably feel pressured to do if you want to make connections that may help your career.

[TOUCH $] So that’s $260 to participate in this thing. And yeah, that’s assuredly a trivial amount of money to Jonathan Blow, but maybe it’s not a trivial amount if you’re not working a tech job, if you didn’t graduate college, if you’re trying to scrape by on the kind of money you make if you don’t have a degree.

4. difference

[NEXT] As I’ve said, I live in the Bay Area, since travelling across the country to get away from my family (uh, I’m cool with them now though). Since I’ve lived in the Bay, I’ve met plenty of queer and trans castaways fleeing from families, from abuse, from places where they were unsafe.

The trans narrative is not homogenous: in the Bay Area, there are plenty of white trans women working in tech. Not every trans person is visibly trans before they start a career.

[NEXT] But for those who have been cut off from family support for being trans, for being queer, for being gender-variant, what are they going to do? Even for folks who get to go to school, we’ve got this model where young people are expected to move back in with their parents afterward, get a job and save up until they can afford their own place. What if your parents have cut you off because you’re trans? What if your parents have abused you? Where do you go then?

[NEXT] If you’re working for a tech company where you work with the same people day to day, where you’re less replacable, it’s not impossible to convince them not to misgender you. but when you’re working a shitty retail job where you interact with strangers all the time and your bosses aren’t even obliged to show a pretense of respecting you? How do you correct a person who holds that much economic power over you and feels so little obligation toward you? Well, it becomes very hard to work even that kind of job consistently.

[NEXT] According to a 2009 report from the Transgender Law Center, transgender residents of California are twice as likely to be below the Federal Poverty Line than anyone else. One in five of the people they surveyed said that they’d been homeless at some point since being trans publicly.

[NEXT] You think a person in that situation can shell out a hundred dollars for the “Professional” version of Game Maker? The $260 required to participate in the IGF? Does that person have the time to commit to learning Python? Does that mean this person isn’t “serious” about game development? Does that mean this person doesn’t have anything valuable to tell us about play, about the human condition?

5. twine

No. It just means that this person is going to have to find another way to tell us what they have to tell us.

[NEXT] Here’s what I’m getting at: Twine is a reaction to poverty. Obviously Chris Klimas didn’t make Twine from a position of poverty and not everyone who uses Twine to create is impoverished. [NEXT] But Twine manages to circumvent several critical obstacles to accessibility: [TOUCH CHECKPOINT] ONE, it’s free, and publishing Twine games online is free. [TOUCH CHECKPOINT] TWO, it doesn’t require any investment in learning any kind of code.

[NEXT] As such, it’s uniquely suited to being one of the few channels to game creation for people without the capital to pursue more traditional paths. We notice how Twine is unique among digital games as a space where women’s and queer and trans voices not only are heard but proliferate. Well, here’s part of the reason.

Class dictates how people are allowed to make games. Class is an important factor in who’s making what kind of games, and how. And yet we have such a hard time including it in our conversations because the majority of us come from academic backgrounds or from tech backgrounds, and the former have a lot of shame about discussing their privilege, while to the latter it’s all but invisible.

6. tech

[NEXT] We say that we want more people to become involved in videogames, but our expectations for games is overwhelmingly oriented towards technology. We privilege games with graphics over Twine games in almost any discussion. When we call for experimental game submissions, what we’re usually looking for is games with interesting physics simulations, not games about being a trans person of color.

We must recognize that our preconceptions for what games look like and what they should do come from our tech backgrounds, and filter for the kinds of games that are technically polished, technically impressive. It’s one thing to say “we want more games by women at EVENT X, or we want more games by queer people or people of color,” but it’s another to recognize that we’re continuing to look for games that look like the games that cis white tech dudes make.

[NEXT] If you didn’t go to engineering school you’re probably going to have a hard time building an elaborate physics simulation. Cultivating real diversity requires reexamining those expectations that keep our discussions centered around games from a single demographic. It means actually making an effort to recenter games by non-cis non-white non-straight non-male people in those discussions, in our exhibits and our Gamasutra articles and our conferences.

[NEXT] If marginalized folks have to make things that look like the kinds of things that dominate games culture in order for those things to get attention, what’s the point of including marginalized folks in the first place?

7. activism

[NEXT] So much of what we consider games activism privileges Representation over empowering marginalized communities to actually participate. This is why we heap so much praise on Mass Effect for including gay softcore porn scenes even though the game is still a blockbuster pile with gross ideas about romance and human relationships.

[NEXT] We’ll scold Mike Krahulik for saying that trans women aren’t real women, but who’s gonna lift a finger to teach poor trans women to make videogames?

My partner and I have been leading Twine workshops in radical spaces and feminist spaces. We have a lot more work to do: I want to reach out to impoverished kids, to people in prison. But teaching a disempowered person to make a game is so much more valuable an act than getting a privileged person to acknowledge the existence of the underprivileged. Also: it accomplishes that goal as well.

8. tactics

[NEXT] We need to rethink our tactics if we want to actually change videogames. An all-access pass to this conference is a hundred dollars. I would never have felt like I could spare that amount of money for a private conference. But there are sponsored tickets, and the person keynoting this conference doesn’t have a degree. How often does that happen?

[NEXT] A lot of our conversations about games take place behind closed doors, or behind tollbooths. This conference puts its recordings online for free: that’s way more valuable and accessible than GDC dumping all its sessions in a pay vault. Not that most people have much to gain from GDC panels.

[NEXT] Here are some things I love about Indiecade and about Lost Levels: they take place outside, in public spaces. How can you be inclusive of outsiders when you’re not physically including outsiders? We need to take these discussions out of closed rooms, out of Microsoft conference halls, and into the streets. People wandering by Lost Levels or Indiecade, EVEN IF THEY HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH VIDEOGAMES, could listen, could hang out, could get involved, in the case of Lost Levels could speak themselves if they wanted to!

I know conferences that have a policy: for every Academic or college-educated speaker they book, they also make sure to book a speaker who doesn’t have a college degree. Imagine what a games conference that had that policy would look like!

[NEXT] We talk about making people feel safe at these conferences: we take great care in crafting our anti-harassment policies. And that’s great. But the truth is that class is also a factor in whether people feel safe. I’ve had friends and partners express anxiety that they would be judged for not being college-educated in academic spaces like this. That’s why I decided not to do the hand-raising thing earlier. I’ve had friends express fear that people would expect them to go out to expensive restaurants afterward, and judge them for not being able to afford to eat there.

[NEXT] We expect people to participate in discussions of the latest AAA games, and to do it while they’re fresh – which means buying them new, not used, not after the price has been reduced – because by that point discussion’s moved on. We still have that “next shiny new thing” tech mentality because the people who guide the discussions can afford to buy every game at launch. Terms like “casual gaming” came into existence to shame the behavior of people who don’t have the money or leisure time to consume in the way that’s expected of them.

[NEXT] games have a class problem and we’re not talking about that. nor are we acknowledging our own complicity in perpetuating that problem. if we really want games to welcome people from all perspectives, we should think about the ways economic expectations keep people from participating in game-making, and the ways in which our own technical biases cause us to filter folks who ARE making out of the discussion.

[NEXT] well: this is a conference. let’s keep talking. and let’s keep talking after this. and let’s examine who we’re allowing to participate in those conversations and who we aren’t.

[TOUCH SUNBURST]

how to make games about being a dominatrix

so i was invited to speak at the first-ever different games conference in brooklyn, april 26th and 27th (at the “nyu-poly” campus, WHICH FELT ODDLY APPROPRIATE). let me tell you, first of all, some cool things they did. shortly before the conference i emailed them, concerned about their security policy which required folks to wear badges carrying the names on their government id cards (for a lot of trans people, not the names they go by). probably nyu campus policy. they immediately responded by negotiating with security to have their own printed badges, bearing the conference attendee’s chosen name, count as security passes. also, they converted two bathrooms into gender-neutral bathrooms. see: it’s not hard to make your conference more welcoming to trans people.

the other thing that i really liked about the conference was its use of the word “difference” as a really inclusive, intersectional term, encompassing race, gender, ability, queerness. it made me think about the language i use, how i frame my own work. what also made me think: i realized during different games that no one’s really talking about class and how it affects people’s access to game development tools, and what tools. (fer example: lots of underprivileged queer folks use twine because it’s free and because they never had the opportunity to go to tech school and learn to code.) different games is an academic conference, mostly attended by academics – it’s not really surprising that the class conversation doesn’t come up there, or at similar conferences.

what did i actually say at different games? i was on a panel with robert yang, mattie brice and haitham ennasr, some of my favorite geniuses. we each gave a short talk and then we took questions. my talk was called “how to make games about being a dominatrix.” instead of slides, i had my slut illustrate my talk live using transparencies and an overhead projector. i didn’t let her look at my speech ahead of time. people seemed to like it, though the projector burnt out close to the end. you can watch all four talks and the panel here – that’s another cool thing about different games, they recorded all the talks and put them online for free. anyway, have a transcript of my talk:

as people who spend a lot of time making and discussing games, we talk a lot about the rules of games – we develop a mechanical understanding of them. and rightly so, because we create play by designing rules. tetris’ whole trajectory comes from the rule that only complete lines are eliminated from the screen – mistakes and imperfections remain, making it harder to create complete lines.

the ways that the rules of tetris interact to create a meaningfully stressful experience are fascinating and beautiful, as true an expression of art as anything you’d find hanging in a gallery.

but as a queer game designer i find that most of my work isn’t motivated strictly by a pure abstract desire to play with the form. most of the time, my games are motivated by imperatives to represent aspects of my identity, or to provide criticism, or to interrogate politics.

so i’m going to talk about context: the ways in which we frame our rules and communicate them to the player.

here is the first thing to know about context:

CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING

in 2009 i made a game called MIGHTY JILL OFF. the protagonist of mighty jill off is submissive in a latex suit who jumps really high, and has to jump all the way up a tall tower in order to prove herself to her queen, the recipient of her devotion and lust.

if you’ve played mighty jill off, and if you’ve also played a nintendo game called MIGHTY BOMB JACK, you may have observed that they play exactly the same. the bomb jack games are about outmaneuvering enemies using elaborate in-air acrobatics. jack can stop jumping on a dime, giving him perfect control of the height of his jump. he can hover in mid-air, giving him greater horizontal mobility during a jump. the player can hold UP or DOWN when initiating a jump, controlling the parabola of his jump.

i was really fascinated by these games for a while. when i made mighty jill off, i stole the entire vocabulary of rules for in-air motion from bomb jack. the mid-air break, the hovering – i didn’t keep the holding up and down because it didn’t seem necessary.

so we have two games whose most important rules – the rules from which the play comes – are identical. do we have two identical games?

we don’t. mighty jill off is about the relationship between a submissive masochist and her domme. what i’m talking about, though, isn’t a superficial reskinning: mighty jill off is informed by my person experience, it’s based on my relationship with my collared submissive.

that experience provides a context for the play: the difficulty of a game like that, the trust the player puts in the designer to adequately prepare her for any given challenge, the need to push her limits without breaking them, the player’s desire to prove herself to the game by meeting the game’s expectations for her – these things resonate with my own experience as a domme and a top.

mighty jill off is a game that communicates ideas that mighty bomb jack does not. it does contain a set of rules which interact with one another in ways that are interesting and meaningful to the player, but it frames those rules and their interactions in a way that relates (and encourages the player to relate) to my personal experience.

that’s important in the face of the games culture that brought us bioshock infinite. bioshock is a game that forces you to watch images of racialized violence – there’s a part where you watch a man of color pecked to death by crows, begging for his life. and then a minute later you gain a power-up that lets you have crows peck people to death.

bioshock infinite is an EMPATHY-CHALLENGED game. the culture of videogames is an EMPATHY-CHALLENGED culture. videogames needs stories of racism from people who experience it, not bioshock infinite.

context is everything. in 2011 i made a game called TRANSGRESSION that is essentially a “find the hidden object” game. but what you’re trying to find is a woman who has a penis at michigan womyn’s music festival. this game would be trivial without the context. (and let me add as a disclaimer that i really like where’s waldo books.) but the entire purpose of TRANSGRESSION is to illustrate the absurdity of michfest’s “womyn-born womyn” policy by reducing it to as simple and transparent a system as possible.

do you see what i’m saying? context is a tool we can use for visibility, representation, empathy and satire. as marginalized people, the contexts of our lives are political.

as creators and critics, we have every right to investigate and to play with the friction of rules bouncing off each other, to explore in the abstract the dynamics and systems that the interaction of those rules creates. but as people whose social existence is driven by dynamics and whose lives involve struggle with systems of oppression that are invisible to the privileged, we have a unique opportunity to give our dynamics and systems contexts that are informed by our lived experiences.

in march i made a game called TRIAD. it’s a puzzle game about sliding weird-shaped tiles around to try and fit them in a limited space. but the space is a bed, and the weird-shaped tiles are three people who are trying to sleep together successfully. this is one of the fundamental problems i’ve encountered as someone who is poly – someone who has multiple partners.

the sliding tile puzzle is an old game, but it’s the context, again, that creates a meaning for players that doesn’t exist in games with similar puzzles. i’m not saying that i don’t believe in games as places for abstract mechanical exploration. i just can’t afford it.

to refuse to take a political stance is itself a political stance – it’s to stand with the status quo. and the status quo of videogames is alienating, is racist, is misogynist, promotes rape culture. it is important to me that my games exist in visible opposition to that. and a conversation about games, a criticism of games that is purely mechanical, that erases context, erases my identity.

as a trans woman, i exist in a society that is continuously trying to erase my identity. context, in my games, is the voice through which i speak my name.

context is everything.

(photo via charismaphone.)

dys4ia post-partum

after friday’s romero’s wives reading, i unwound by delivering a post-partum of my game dys4ia with liz. parham gholami was gracious enough to not only record the thing, but to edit it – my slides weren’t quite working, so there was a little fumbling. you can download the audio recording right here, and the transcript is below. thanks to parham gholami again for creating a transcript of liz’s talk.

i also gave an improvised talk on thursday at the lost levels unconference which was held in the park next to GDC, for free. my talk was on zines and rethinking game distribution. it was recorded, along with a bunch of other talks, although many of my friends’ brilliant talks weren’t. you can see it near the beginning of this video. lost levels was rad, especially in opposition to a conference that charges thousands of dollars for admission – i want it to happen every year.

DYS4IA POST-PARTUM

this is going to be a post-partum for dys4ia. not a “post-mortem.” i know that videogames are really violent most of the time but your game isn’t dead when it’s finished. in fact, when it’s out in the world being played, that’s the only time your game is alive. before that it’s merely gestating, deaf and blind. only when it is interacting with people does a game possess life.

that’s lesson 1.

LESSON 1
YOUR GAME ISN’T A GAME UNTIL SOMEONE’S PLAYING IT

so what is dys4ia? or

WHAT IS DYSPHORIA?

well, to wrap it in a cute, accessible videogame metaphor- actually, it’s hard to put in videogame terms, because videogames are one of the few places in life we’re asked “what gender would you like to be? what would you like your body to look like?” dysphoria exists where that choice does not: it is seeing the reality that has been shaped around you like a wax coccoon, and feeling utterly helpless to change it.

but i did attempt to put it in videogame terms.

WHAT IS DYS4IA?

dys4ia is an autobiographical game, or “not a game” if you ask someone with a thick enough beard. raph koster called it “a powerpoint presentation.” by his definition, a game is a puzzle to be unraveled. it is a system to be understood. an enemy to be defeated. a country to be conquered. but

DYSPHORIA

is none of those things. what it IS, i need to believe, is a relatable human experience. and what a game actually is is

LESSON 2
A GAME IS AN EXPERIENCE CREATED BY RULES

this is why, if you were paying attention, your game isn’t a game until someone’s playing it. because someone needs to be EXPERIENCING it. well, the experience of

DYSPHORIA

- and the experience of dealing with the gatekeepers one has to go through to start dealing with dysphoria – is one that’s characterized by FRUSTRATION. and i expect i don’t have to prove to anyone in this room that the rules of videogames are capable of creating the experience of frustration.

so to be explicit, dys4ia is a game about the experience of being a transgender woman, which i am, and undergoing hormone replacement therapy, which i have been for over a year. at the time i started making the game dys4ia, i had been on HRT for a few months, and by the time i finished it, i had been on it for about six months. the game became a record of all the different frustrations and transformations i was experiencing, it made sense for the game to be constantly changing scenes, shifting to different facets of the experience. i reached to warioware as a model, because that’s a game that borrows from the player’s existing learned vocabulary of videogames to establish a format that’s in constant flux and yet playable.

so yeah, dys4ia was conceived as a game in the same format as warioware and so, unsurprisingly, it borrows some of the same tricks that warioware uses to be accessible despite its constant flux. here are some of those tricks.

LESSON 3
ESTABLISH BOUNDARIES AS EARLY AS POSSIBLE

every scene of dys4ia is different, plays different, has a different context. one scene is about shaving, another’s about navigating a maze, another’s catching pills in your mouth. but what’s consistent about the game is what buttons are used to play it: just the arrow keys.

the game may have just changed into something completely different than it was a few seconds ago, but the player has some idea of where to start, because the same buttons she used in one s ccene are the same she uses in another. and the arrow keys are buttons that suggest things, because they represent ideas about space that make sense in a two-dimension image.

the arrow keys are established as the player’s means of input as early as the title screen. instead of press ENTER to start, or SPACE, or click the word “START” with the mouse, i put the player’s hand on the place the game needs it to be. if i had used the spacebar as the “start button” game, that would have introduced the possibility that SPACE is part of the game’s vocabulary of input. every screen, the player would try the spacebar before she tried the arrow keys.

if the game involved pressing the spacebar, i’d have opened the game by making the player press the spacebar. if it involved HOLDING DOWN THE SPACEBAR FOR THREE SECONDS, the game would begin with the player holding down the spacebar for three seconds. if the game was about clicking on brightly-wrapped christmas gifts, you can be the game wouldn’t start until the player clicked on a brightly-wrapped christmas gift.

the frame screen, the screen from which the player selects which acts of the game to play or re-play, is also designed to emphasize, and to be navigable with, the four keys that the player uses to play the game. i want the player’s fingers to stay on those keys, remember. i see a lot of games that play exclusively with the keyboard, and then ask the player to remove her hands from the keyboard between stages, to click on the next stage with the mouse. and then to move her hands back to the keyboard. don’t do that. if the game is designed to be played with the arrow keys, let the player advance the game with the arrow keys.

at this point in writing this talk i had to pause and swallow a spironolactone pill, a testosterone blocker. i take two a day, every day: one when i wake up every morning, and one at eleven p.m. every night. i have an alarm set on my phone to remind me.

LESSON 4
PIGGYBACK ON EXISTING GAME VOCABULARY

here’s one of the reasons warioware is as accessible as it is, given that the player has seconds at most to internalize the objective and rules of any given scenario. it’s because it puts those rules in the context of games the player’s already familiar with. that’s why a third of warioware’s scenes are based on basketball and volleyball, a third of them are based on nintendo games like super mario, and a third of them are based on everyday tasks like cutting hair and washing dishes.

the player who comes to your game has expectations and learned knowledge that can be exploited.

the first scene in dys4ia is about fitting a tetris block into a hole in a wall. this is my metaphor for dysphoria, and the reason i use this metaphor is because it’s one that gives the player expectations: about what to do with this block, about where to put it.

the “i feel like a spy when i use the women’s bathroom” scene contextualizes anxiety over using the woman’s bathroom as a stealth game. the player expects that the goal is not to be seen.

in another scene, my nipples are flashing and moving through a field of spiked balls. players know that flashing objects are sensitive and spiky things are dangerous.

the reason you want to communicate the rules of your game as quickly and succinctly as possible…

LESSON 5
FUCK EXPOSITION

…is so you don’t have to resort to exposition. exposition is when you interrupt your game to explicitly tell the player something you could have guided her toward learning yourself. it’s when you have a portrait of THE COMMISSIONER pop up the screen and say “by the way, agent, word’s come down from on high that you can use the UP button to leap over obstacles that might get in your way.”

never explain to the player how to move the story forward if you can lead her toward moving the forward herself. partly this is a matter of choosing stories that you can tell through the vocabulary you’ve established: “cutscenes” mark those places where designers have failed to do this.

on the subject of vocabulary, let me provide an important corollary to my earlier lesson…

LESSON 4
PIGGYBACK ON EXISTING GAME VOCABULARY

…about piggybacking on existing player knowledge, which is: exploiting player knowledge is different than being dependent on it. when the game requires certain knowledge on the part of the player, that makes a game less accessible. and, frankly, i’m sick of games that require twenty years of previous videogame-playing experience in order get anywhere. there are enough games in existence that pander to those people. i’m more interested in making games for the people who who don’t have a master’s degree in strafing while shooting. and on that subject,

LESSON 6
DON’T MAKE FUCKING PORTAL REFERENCES

if you’ve played dys4ia you may have counted the references to the valve software game “portal,” for example jokes about cakes and about deception involving cakes. there are ZERO. when you put a portal “joke” in your game, and hopefully you can hear from my voice that “joke” is in quotes because there’s nothing inherently funny about the phrase “the cake is a lie,” what you’re actually saying is “i want only nerds to play my game.” if that describes you, i suggest you leave because the things i have to say will hopefully be of no use to you.

LIZ TALKS ABOUT GAME AUDIO

I just have a few minutes here, but I wanted to talk about doing the audio for the game, because I believe that audio is extremely important and something that a lot people don’t really take seriously. It’s kind of like an afterthought and a lot of times it’s contracted out. I think it’s important especially in serious games. There’s a tendency in so called “serious games” to be very heavy handed with the audio and try to manipulate people emotionally. I wanted to have something that was very emotionally resonant, and very emotional; but, not manipulative and very true to the experience.

So, I had to take from my own experience as also a trans woman, who has been through what Anna’s been through to some extent. I don’t really want to talk about the original inspiration for the audio right now, since that would take up too much time. But basically, the audio combines Anna’s voice sounds, which are the sounds that bring you through the game, that respond to the actions that you’re doing and then, in the background, there’s a soundtrack, which is a meshed together blob of ambient noises, talking, closing doors, and there’s this tentative melodic thing that starts and then as you move through the game, I treat it as one continuous piece, but it’s split into four parts– five, including the title screen. It’s all part of the same progression, the same instruments.

By the end, when she’s starting to feel more like things are starting to move forward, a melody takes over. This game is sort of a patchwork-like game; it’s very difficult to score something like this. I wanted to just do something that encompassed that patchwork-like feel in the audio. It’s frustrating because this is a game that does something that other games have not done before and because of that people focus on that. But, I think that the aesthetics, both the visual style and audio, are extremely important. It’s always frustrating to me that people don’t really talk about it; don’t really understand how to talk about it in a vocabulary that makes sense. Hopefully, in the end, it really contributed to the experience and made it more emotionally resonant with people, even if you haven’t been through that. Anyway, that’s all I wanted to say.

LESSON 7
DEVELOP YOUR VOCABULARY

think about the rules you introduce in your game as characters. characters develop, characters grow and change, characters face conflicts and are transformed by the experience. we can watch a character develop over the course of a story.

in dys4ia we revisit characters, symbols. try having the player move around your “level select” screen the same way she moves around the levels. the practical benefit of this is that you get to reuse things, and that’s economical. you don’t have to redraw this brick wall, you don’t have to code a new way for the player to move a character around. the benefit to the player is that she’s actually watching the characters and her relationship to them grow.

i could go into how super mario bros. is actually about the developing relationship between mario’s horizontal movement and mario’s vertical movement, but i think i’ll leave that as an exercise for you instead. play the game and notice how the relationship between moving left/ right and jumping develops over the first world alone.

LESSON 8
BE SUCCINCT

dys4ia takes five to ten minutes to play. that’s exactly how long it takes to express the ideas in the game. in a contemporary super mario game, once you’ve figured out how to grab the bomb from over here and carry it all the way back over here and throw it into the boss’s mouth during the short time that it’s open and hurt it, you still need to repeat the same sequence of actions five more times before you can go on with the game.

an eighty-hour game is one hour of ideas padded out with seventy-nine hours of bullshit. i want you to get past the idea that “more play time is more value.” the most valuable thing a player has is time. the most harmful thing a game designer can do is waste the player’s time.

LESSON 9
GO OUTSIDE

and here’s my last lesson. when i started working on dys4ia i was only a few months into hormone replacement therapy. i had no idea how the game was going to end. but i kept taking time off from the game – to spend time with friends, to work on other projects, like KEEP ME OCCUPIED. when i came back to dys4ia, time had passed, things had changed, and i knew how to finish the game.

this industry has unreasonable expectations for the time and labor of all of us. we’re taught that working hours and hours of unpaid overtime without seeing our families is part of the culture – “crunch time,” we call it. but it’s not part of the culture, it’s not a rite of passage or a mark of pride. it is corporations disregarding our human needs. let’s not be naive and let’s not be fooled.

RESIST CRUNCH

the story that i like to tell is when i was working on lesbian spider-queens of mars. the game was almost finished – i had just added the boss and was getting ready to show the game to adult swim. i was so close to getting the game complete. i had work to do.

my partners begged me, pleaded, dragged me muttering and protesting and snapping at them to a beach house on a cliff at sunset beach. the next morning, instead of tweaking numbers on my computer, i was building sand dongs with my loved ones on the beach.

what we need right now are videogames made by human beings, not machines. people care about dys4ia because it’s a personal game that drawns from my personal, human experience. when we lose our ability to be human, we lose the ability to create games that are relatable by other humans. let’s remember to be human beings. don’t let corporations dehumanize us. this is my last advice to game developers: go outside. kiss someone who loves you.

romero’s wives

the GDC of the past week – the annual game developer’s conference in san francisco, but this year i decided it was going to stand for GIRLS DEMAND CHANGES – has been the most stressful of my life. it has also been the most empowering of my life, the one where i felt the people i care about had the loudest voices, the one where i finally felt i wasn’t alone, token, a novelty or side-show attraction. on monday, porpentine opened GDC by talking about outsider games and the powerful marginalized voices they transmit. on friday, i decided, i would close GDC with my friend cara ellison’s poem, romero’s wives.

i ended up writing my own version of romero’s wives, or rewriting hers a little. being a queer trans woman has given me a slightly different perspective than cara’s, and i wanted what i read to reflect that. every day of GDC gave me a new line to add to the poem. my one GDC regret is not punching cactus when he told one of my best friends she could give him a blowjob, or not punching him a minute earlier, when he snuck up behind me, grabbed my shoulders and screamed. mojang hired women escorts for their party even though it led to a woman being sexually assaulted last year – then denied that they had. brenda braithwaite resigned from the igda after their gross party featuring scantily clad women dancers.

brenda was in the audience for my reading of romero’s wives. she was among the first on stage to hug me afterwards.

slut recorded a video of my reading. CLICK HERE TO WATCH ME READ ROMERO’S WIVES. below, the transcript of the version of the poem that i read.

There comes a time when you’re more angry than tired
There comes a point where sitting in silence is more terrifying than standing and speaking
The games industry is a man in love with his libido
I have a libido

Had to be joked away at conferences
Had to be scrolled past on internet forums
Had to be hissed under your breath
Had to be leant over a keyboard at 3am
Had to be seen in the statistics
Had to be segregated in schools
Had to be guided away from the sciences
Had to be a self-taught programmer
Our apathy and the games industry are in cahoots

Had to be Jenn Frank’s endless patience
Had to be Leigh Alexander on a Bombcast
Had to be Mattie Brice making a game so she could finally be the main character
Had to be Mattie’s game misattributed to Merritt Kopas
Had to be Merritt’s game misattributed to me
Had to be unable to make room for more than one trans game designer
Had to be Lara Croft shipwrecked on an island of rapists
Had to be David Cage’s sex bot begging for her life
Had to be protected by a man
Had to be marooned on Makeb
Had to be games where women moan when they’re shot
Had to be Remember Me rejected because a woman protagonist makes it gay
Had to be Rhianna Pratchett asking “but what if the player’s female?”
Had to be a Mojang security guard asking “what do you expect me to do?”
Had to be the forty hottest women in tech
Had to be fake geek girls

Brenda Braithwaite can’t bring her daughter to E3

Had to be moaned through knees in the bath
Had to be screamed into a pillow
Had to be rewritten a hundred times
Had to be deleted before I clicked “send”
Had to be in fear
Had to be fat, ugly or slutty
Had to be told I’m really a man
Had to be asked why my name doesn’t match my ID
Had to be a feminazi slut
Had to be an attention whore
Had to be obsessed with my own sexuality
Had to be on display
Had to be a torso on a shelf
Had to be mistaken for a booth babe
Had to be told to stop talking about it
Had to be told “this isn’t an intelligent conversation”
Had to be told to get your husband’s permission before posting on the internet
Had to be verbally abused
Had to be clogging Patricia Hernandez’s inbox
Had to be Lana Polansky scared to talk about sex
Had to be Tracey afraid to comment on her own site
Had to be Dani Bunten denied her own name
Had to be the indie game developer who told my friend she could give him a blowjob
Had to be Adria losing her job because she said “no more”
Anita Sarkeesian’s face is bruised

Had to be rage
Had to be fear
Had to be scared to use the bathroom
Had to be silenced
Had to make a rape joke
Had to put it on a t-shirt
Had to get your wife to insist that you’re not sexist
Had to refuse to call Dys4ia a game
Had to deny that Tentacle Bento is a game about rape
Had to leave two hundred comments on an open letter to Destructoid
Had to hate other women because you were taught to
Had to call us “females” like we’re another species
Had to give me a panic attack
Had to push me out of the chair and play the game for me
Had to take away my agency
Had to take away my identity

Had to be John Romero’s wife
Had to be John Romero’s wives
All had to be John Romero’s wives
All had to be John Romero’s wives

now we have voices

at indiecade in october, i gave a presentation entitled NOW WE HAVE VOICES: QUEERING VIDEOGAMES. it was recorded, but as i have been unable to get an answer from the indiecade organizers as to when the recording will be online, i present here the text and slides (represented as numbers in brackets – click on them to see the slide) of my speech. what’s missing is the question & answer session following my presentation and the amazing discussion that came out of it. (an audience member asked my opinion on a criticism he’d received on the way a game of his presented what, according to the critic, were false gender choices; as i answered, i realized i was talking to aaron reed, and that i was the critic he was referencing.)

also, here’s the text of a speech i gave in november at the sf art institute.

NOW WE HAVE VOICES

[1]

queer games are important. we’re going to stop and meditate on this slide for a moment. read it to yourself, mouthing it silently. or read it out loud. internalize it, absorb it into your mind-brain, allow it to influence the discussions and conversations you are going to have here at this conference and after you leave.

queer games are important. i think there are people who recognize that fact, because a number of queer games [2] were invited to be part of this games festival, to be recognized as being among the most important games of 2012. Or, rather, the most important INDEPENDENT games of 2012. Each of these games was, in fact, produced by a handful of people each. [3] almost all of them.

queer games, it may shock you to discover, are NOT coming from the mainstream videogames industry. that’s because the industry’s model doesn’t allow for them. that model is:

[4] straight white developers produce games [5] that straight white games journalists market to [6] straight white “gamers,” some of whom will be recruited to be the next generation of game developers and produce the next generation of the SAME VIDEOGAME for the next generation of straight white gamers.

this is the industry model, or, if you prefer, we could call it a VORTEX, or maybe a BLACK HOLE. but when i think of all the amazing things we COULD be doing with games, “prison” seems the most accurate.

naturally, a system that privileges only a small minority of people – in fact, the one group of people that has the least experience of oppression – is not one that’s going to produce art informed by a very wide range of human experiences or perspectives.

[7]

mainstream games are monolithic.

[8]

in fact,

[9] i wrote a book about it. [10] the most that the mainstream games industry has to offer queer folks is [11] tokenism.

mass effect presents a world where the bro-dude commander shepard is more thrown by someone claiming to believe in god than by a man casually speaking about his ex-husband. in this world, “gay” is a checkbox on a character sheet, a boolean, a binary bit, not an experience that greatly changes one’s life, identity, and struggle. token characters are not the product of queer experiences.

actual queer experiences offer perspectives on identity, on struggle, and on romance that could be entirely different. [12] my friend mattie brice wrote about this very thing: she argues that most straight games are interested only in the pursuit. once the girl (or if you’re playing a bioware game and you’ve hit the right checkbox, the boy) has been won over, the game stops being interested. whereas queer games tend to explore the actual dynamics within the relationship.

her sample games were christine love’s DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY, BABE, IT JUST AIN’T YOUR STORY and my ENCYCLOPEDIA FUCKME AND THE CASE OF THE VANISHING ENTREE, both games with tremendous names.

oh, and mass effect 3 was the control group.

games by queer people, people of color, people who aren’t able-bodied, people who are women – because in 2012, women are still a marginalized voice in the games industry – have a great deal of perspective and experience to offer an industry [13] that is incapable of producing games from those perspectives.

[14] so if mainstream games culture has no place for these perspectives, where do they go? [15] mainstream games having no space for them, marginalized people have to CREATE a space for themselves in videogames. and that’s exactly what they’ve done, by inventing new communities and repurposing existing tools.

[16] this is a program called TWINE. it was created in 2009 by a guy named chris klimas. [17] it’s a hypertext tool – chris used it mostly to make simple branching stories: click on a link, see another passage in the story. [18] this is what the program looks like on the inside. it doesn’t look like code, notice. the tech community is pretty famously misogynist, remember: women aren’t generally encouraged to pursue tech careers in the first place, and once they do, they’re discouraged from staying by a hostile culture of entitled men. [19] but twine doesn’t involve coding. it doesn’t require the author to create additional assets, like GRAPHICS and SOUND. and it’s free. if you can type a short story, you can make a twine game.

and queer and women authors, strongly discouraged from participating in mainstream games culture, have made twine their own.

[20]

[21]

[22]

[23]

i’ve been curating an ongoing list of twine games, [24] and what i’ve noticed is that most of the people who are making them are women, queer, trans, genderqueer. compare THIS [25] to this.

it’s an entirely different picture, a “videogames” that looks completely different. this “videogames,” informed by perspectives and experiences that are often very different from these guys’, deals with subjects [26] that are very different than those we usually see in mainstream games. [27]

communities like this exist because of the inventiveness of marginalized people and their will to be heard even when the system is committed to silencing them. [28] but they also exist because of programs like twine, because of free blogging services like twitter, because of the internet. all these things have contributed to the DECENTRALIZATION of the means to create videogames. and that’s what’s letting people outside the mainstream – outside the small minority who are allowed to make videogames – get their foot in the door.

the more people we allow to make games – the more people we EMPOWER to make games – the more voices we add to the chorus. and in a form that’s so homogenous, we need those voices so badly.

[29] in a form that’s so dominated by senseless, gratuitious violence, it took a game like [30] LIM, by merritt kopas, a simple, abstract game about colored squares, to remind me that violence in videogames can be harrowing, can make me FEEL, can connect with my own fears and struggles and experiences. violence doesn’t have to be chainsaws and aliens and sniper rifles.

LIM is a game about a color-changing square in a world where most squares are either brown or blue, and react with hostility when your color doesn’t match theirs. by holding a button, the player changes color to blend in with the squares that are closest, though this causes the player great psychological stress, and it becomes difficult to maintain the illusion indefinitely.

[31] it’s such an abstract game that i am reluctant to diminish its power by ascribing any one meaning to it. but to me, as a trans player, the metaphor i see is one about passing, about being slippery in a world of rigidly defined genders who will smother, silence, or destroy what doesn’t fit.

it is the kind of experience straight, white, able-bodied cis-gender men are LEAST equipped to give us. and our games, our form, the boundaries of our experience would be smaller, dimmer, without games like this. the more voices speaking, the more games begin to look like you, and me, and all of us.

for lack of voices, all we would have is silence.

i leave you with my closing thought:

[32]

arse talk

so the theme of arse electronika, an annual conference about sex and technology, was “games” this year. they gave me a lifetime achievement award. it was a plastic model of a black knight on a horse. the thing took place at the kink dot com armory, which is gross. i wore a sparkly skirt i found at a thrift store for four dollars yesterday. i gave the speech below.

HEY, i’m going on tour tomorrow! i’ll be speaking at the radical books pavilion of baltimore book festival on saturday at 5pm, with craig saper. then it’s on to indiecade, san jose and toronto. there’s a link on the right you can click on to grab a list of my tour dates. come see me talk!

anyway, the speech:

so i’m standing here at arse electronika, the “sex and technology” conference, surrounded by what are undoubtedly a lot of silicon valley tech dudes. we’re here to celebrate the intersection of sex, games and technology, but i want to tell you: there’s something more important to games about sex than technology, and that’s ACCESS TO TECHNOLOGY.

almost all of the queer people i know, including myself, live in poverty. the bay area is an expensive place, and there sure are a lot of castaways and runaways who find their way here. i live paycheck to paycheck, and because i’m a freelancer, i have no idea when the next paycheck is. i have an ipad because someone DONATED one to me, not because i could ever afford one.

most of my games – the games that, i assume, got me here – are made with free software. i do my mixing in audacity. i get my graphics from google image search. and ALL of the games i’ve played about real sex in the last six months have been made by queer people using free software. in most cases, it was a program called twine, which creates hypertext fiction and generates self-contained, ready-for-the-web html files.

technology that only a small minority has access to is useless.

let me tell you about a game i’m working on right now. it’s called SPANK OR DIE. it’s a rhythm game, kiiiiind of like guitar hero, except that you play it by spanking a real human butt at the right time. the butt is the peripheral. the computer knows when you spank the butt.

what technology am i using to register butt input? i don’t have access to a lot of technology. i’m not rich and i’m not an engineer. i’m using a device called a “makey makey,” a simple, labelled circuit board that plugs into a usb port and comes with alligator clips. the player holds one clip, the other is attached to anything that can conduct a signal – a coin, a banana, a piece of clay, a person. when the player touches the other object it completes a circuit, and the computer registers a key press.

it’s designed to be simple enough that a kid could use it. it’s for everyone. it cost me forty bucks.

the only way that we’re going to see more, and more meaningful, games about sex is by giving EVERYONE the technology to make them.

thank you and good night.

anna anthropy vs frank lantz

as part of the tour for my beautiful book, i went to nyu’s game center to talk with frank lantz in front of an audience. frank is an old friend – we see eye to eye on a lot of things. but in many places we walk separate paths: for example, he’s a formalist and i’m a genius. i want to empower people outside of games culture to tell weird, personal stories and he works for zynga. it is this subtle antagonism that flavors frank’s and my talk, which i enjoyed a whole lot and which i’m excited to be able to share with you.

HEY. while we’re at it, let’s have a MEDIA ROUND-UP. here’s an interview in capitol that’s pretty cool albeit having some continuity errors: my slut never “laughs shyly.” here’s a feature in the verge with a lot of good pictures from my HARPY DIEM show (taken by sara bobo, who i yanked the photo of frank and myself from). and here’s a recording of my talk at dorkbot chicago that i’ve posted before. and if you wanna hear me talk dirtier, watch for my forthcoming interview with autostraddle.

THE FUTURE: i’m going to get posters for indiegogo donators sorted soon, release an updated version of DUCK DUCK POISON, announce when the next leg of my tour happens. also, i’ll be speaking at san jose state university next wednesday the 25th at 7pm! if you missed my panel at diesel books last night with sparky, alex kerfoot and mickey alexander mouse, you should come to san jose state and listen to me ramble some more!