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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.)



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.



  1. Andrea wrote:

    An excellent keynote.

    I feel like there’s a small point at which there is a disconnect though.

    There is a desire here to see thematically-diverse games (“games about being a trans person of color” – where “about” is the most important word, as it is purely thematic) – but I think it might neglect the other 50% of the gaming experience: The visual design, the sound design, the user-interaction.

    Calling for diversity in authorship and theme is definitely key, but asking that the emphasis on this other 50% is either disregarded or toned-down might be arguing against the foundation of the genre itself.

    I suppose this is more tools-oriented; with better code-free technology, the visual / aural aesthetics of a non-technical author can be conveyed.

    I would probably suggest that this is the true front on which the first battle should be fought: Creating better tools, as opposed to… modifying the expectations of the audience.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking piece!

    9/19/2013 at 4:12 pm | permalink
  2. What would you suggest as an alternative to an entry fee when it comes to things like IGF and Greenlight?

    9/19/2013 at 6:52 pm | permalink
  3. Jake wrote:

    Inclusive spaces aren’t necessarily safe spaces, as Newgrounds demonstrates.

    Having a policy for harassment is more of the law enforcement concept of moderation, solving the crime after the damage is already done rather than preventing the damage in the first place.

    Otherwise I greatly agree except the part about privileging twine. Ironically twine is exactly the kind of thing that chris crawford has been trying to invent for decades.

    9/19/2013 at 11:10 pm | permalink
  4. HideyHoe wrote:

    I really enjoyed reading this keynote, thank you for putting the transcript up- vastly prefer to read than listen to a pre-recorded talk as I sometimes find it difficult to follow what’s being said.

    9/20/2013 at 1:39 am | permalink
  5. kirkjerk wrote:

    Yeah, I liked the talk very much, even as a person who is acknowledging much more affinity for toyness / mechanic than message / communication in games.

    The “serious” gatekeeping via entry fees is tough. I agree that making it cash is sort of terrible, as is the general concept of “well these games are not worth our time”. But I also see why they’d have a need for SOME way of preventing spams of jokey hack games; as much I love the aesthetic of Glorious Trainwrecks’ 2 hour GOGOGO, I could think it reasonable to say that in a forum with limited resources for getting people to take in games, not every one of those 2-hour-wonders deserves the same kind of consideration as works that reflect more time and thoughtfulness and emotional input.

    I’m at a loss to know what would filter would be workable. Maybe ask for an essay for each one, combined with an honor system estimate of time spent on it? It’s almost like that Dead Poets Society “bad” method of judging a game– time spent on one axis, heart and soul poured into the other, geometric area is the realness of it… if one value or both values are large, the game seems more like a “real thing” instead of a joke or a “threw something against the wall, saw what stuck”.

    9/20/2013 at 7:03 am | permalink
  6. auntie wrote:

    looking over the notes i’d written prior to writing the speech, i realized one of the thing’s i’d meant to write about was crowdfunding, and how it too isn’t the meritocracy we’re always told that tech culture is supposed to be.

    some people, merritt kopas often points out, are better trained to navigate the channels to accessing money that others. people from privilege, people who’ve interacted with corporate hierarchies, people with academic backgrounds. asking for money – and the steps you have to take to ensure you receive it – is easier for some people than for others. women and queers and people of color are often taught to feel guilt and shame around asking for money.

    9/24/2013 at 11:48 pm | permalink
  7. Jake wrote:

    I know I got taught to be ashamed for asking for money by my lower-class parents. Eager to teach me to have some kind of work ethic in alignment with the U.S. narrative so I’d survive, the only money I ever got was in exchange for work or in the form of presents.

    In my experience with children of upper classes, asking for money is much easier, since the parents in these situations have the money to afford to give to their children and are generally less invested into the U.S. narrative w/r/t bootstraps since they believe themselves to have already made it.

    I think this was one of the more interesting themes of Arrested Development. All of the characters are accustomed to an upper class lifestyle so the concept of asking for money both from other family members and from external groups of friends or shareholders is routine and commonplace. Sometimes it’s dressed up in the guise of a “job” but these jobs are understood to be in name only, except in the case of Maeby, who arguably has a strong work ethic just to spite her parents.

    The intersection of poverty and women and queers and people of color (that is to say they’re more often than not also poor, Dink urban gays notwithstanding[and having demonstrated themselves to be totally fine with demanding money for their insular causes]) in the U.S. with the U.S. narrative about bootstraps still guiding lower class philosophy has strong bearing on being taught not to ask for money. They are of course taught this not only by those without adherence to this narrative, but by other women, queers, and people of color.

    That’s my experience, anyway.

    10/5/2013 at 10:54 pm | permalink
  8. HideyHoe wrote:

    I agree- kickstarter and crowd funding in no way approaches any kind of merit-based entry point.

    After all, the most reliable kickstarter hits seem to be “Industry Veteran with industry contacts and media savvy promises to make that game you totally wanted him to make like, ten years ago”

    (i.e., planetary annihilation, mighty number 9, planescape, elite, etc)

    Crowdfunding, like all things, is just playing a different game- people from less privileged backgrounds are going to be less likely to have all the snappy media resources to produce a kickstarter campaign that looks like you already have a ‘product’ to ‘sell.

    PLUS- not everyone has money to gamble on kickstarter projects which may or may not fail.

    so in addition to having the middle/upper classness to put together an appealing pitch, you also need to be appealing to the people who can afford to fund you- in most cases, more middle-upperclass people.

    THAT BEING SAID- I do appreciate that kickstarter exists, I just strongly agree that it’s not a silver bullet for the problems of diversity and access in the Tech World.

    10/7/2013 at 9:41 am | permalink

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