When Pac-Man 2 came out, there were already several Pac-Man sequels, spinoffs and remixes. There was Ms Pac-Man, Pac-Man Jr, Pac Land, a really complicated looking Pac-Man boardgame, Pac-Man conversions to every platform available, and more. But none of them was an “official” sequel. Suddenly in 1994 we finally get a NUMBERED sequel to the original game. Apparently the first direct follow up to the original arcade hit. But instead of an arcade maze game, Pac-Man 2 is a completely different genre. It is a weird combination of simulation and point-and-click adventure. How weird? Well for one thing, you don’t actually play as Pac-Man. You play as yourself.

I don’t mean you create an avatar that explores Pac-Man’s world or anything like that. I mean you literally remain you, outside the TV, when you enter the world of this game. You don’t take on any role, and you can’t directly control the protagonist. Instead, you can fire slings from outside the game into the game, and hope that the things you hit affect Pac-Man’s mood in the correct way. Sometimes its obvious, shooting an apple out of the tree into Pac-Man’s path means he’ll eat it and get happy. Others are less obvious, like shooting a hot dog vendor who gets angry and dumps condiments on Pac-Man’s head as he passes, making Pac-Man depressed. Pac-Man has four basic emotions; happy, angry, scared and depressed. Each emotion also has different levels of intensity, so while a happy Pac-Man will be more likely to respond to your suggestions, an OVERLY happy Pac-Man will be so self satisfied he may ignore you completely and even pull dickish stunts.


Very few games acknowledge you existing outside the game. There is a somewhat obscure RPG for the Nintendo DS called Contact where you simultaneously control a young man and yourself outside the game, while a cartoon professor from a world in between both yours and the young hero’s acts as an intermediary. The classic game Earthbound features an ending that asks the player to enter into the game in order to change the narrative in the heroes’ favor. But really, that is about it. Almost every video game involves the player interacting with a digital world, but few actually make a point of making that the purpose of the game. When you use a character to explore a digital world, you are usually asked to control and identify with them, using them almost like a digital limb, not to cooperate with them.

With you and Pac-Man being separate, and with Pac-Man having a (very simple) mind of his own, the game can sometimes take on a weird existential quality. This is exacerbated by the idiosyncratic missions and solutions. The game has its own internal logic that feels very removed from our own, and things don’t behave exactly like you would think they should. But the more you play and observe, the more it feels like the game’s logic is alien even to Pac-Man’s world. To Pac-Man and the other beings of his dimension, you are this bizarre creature of indescribable geometry who acts almost at random. Your actions are just as inscrutable and bizarre to them as theirs are to you. No wonder Pac-Man has to jump through such bizarre hoops to do something as simple as buy some milk or pick a flower, the barrier between his world and another dimension has collapsed and nothing makes sense anymore.

Looking at Pac-Man 2 not as a weird adventure game, but as a tale of existential horror, I wrote a short Twine game placing you in the role of a character caught between their own limited free will and the all-powerful being from beyond comprehension who isn’t quite omnipotent enough to effectively control events.

So enjoy Pac-Man: The New Adventure


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Castlevania: Symphony of the Mike Part 3 – Inverted Hassle

In Part 1 I used my experiences with tourettes and OCD to look at Dracula.

In Part 2 I looked at Alucard’s history of abuse and how it has marked him.

Now in the final part of this series, I’m going to look at Alucard’s childhood home, and the location of nearly every entry in the Castlevania series. What can we glean about Alucard from exploring Dracula’s castle and interacting with the creatures therein?


At the second meeting between Alucard and Maria, she remarks on how different the castle is from what she saw as a child, a meta-commentary on how a series with 14 previous installments, all taking place at least partially in the same castle, can have different stage layouts. Alucard then reveals a clever bit of justification: the castle itself is a living being of pure chaos. It changes from game to game because the castle is alive and responding to the moods and whims of its master. Maria accept this quickly (but then, she’s presumably dealt with stranger information before) and remarks that this means they can’t trust their memories. For her this means the memories of the previous game, Rondo of Blood but for Alucard it means something more.

What are Alucard’s memories of growing up in Dracula’s castle? What was it like living in a castle that shifts and rearranges itself. We don’t know how often the castle takes on a completely new layout. Year to year? Decade to decade? Could each day offer a surprising new room? Is there even a pattern at all? How much of this castle does Alucard even recognize? For that matter, how many of its denizens does Alucard recognize?


When Alucard starts the game, he is decked out in the most powerful equipment. He carries a sword, armor and shield all bearing his name, a special cloak for vampires, and a horned helmet belonging to Icelandic hero Egil Skallagrimsson. He easily cuts a swathe of destruction through the introductory section of the castle, knocking down giant wolves in a single blow and shrugging off zombie claws, up until he encounters Death itself, who strips him of his inheritance and leaves him a puny weakling.

Death is a reoccurring character in the Castlevania series, usually Dracula’s right-hand man. He always first appears as a stereotypical grim reaper figure. Death’s Japanese name, Shinigami, refers to a collection of death spirits/gods in Japanese mythology, but his appearance in this game is clearly that of the singular Western representative of death. There are many, MANY personifications of death throughout European folklore and history, but the skeletal grim reaper figure we know today has its roots in the Jewish tradition of the Malach HaMavet, or the Angel of Life and Death. This is the figure that reaps the firstborn of Egypt. It is worth noting that this Angel of Death is not an evil creature but rather a force of nature under God’s control. Non-biblical Deaths from the area were psychopomps that guided people to the underworld, and were often positive figures that eased pain and helped guide people to where they needed to be. The event that changed how the average European viewed death would take place in the late 14th century. The black plague was a pandemic unlike any other than Europe had experienced. 25 million people died in the initial outbreak, and millions more died in the centuries that followed with an estimated final death count as high as 200 million. Death was no longer an abstract, but reasonable condition. It was now something (or someone) that came indiscriminately and constantly, taking everyone you knew and loved in the most painful method possible and clogging roads and cities with dead bodies. As a result of this, the transformation of Death from an angel to a skeletal figure took place around the 15th century. No longer the servant of God from the bible or the helpful psychopomp from pagan lore, Death was now mowing down people like grain and not giving a shit about anyone or anything. Death’s weapon was originally a crossbow that it would shoot at individuals, but this changed to a scythe to better represent the huge swathe of indiscriminate destruction. The Polish incarnation of the Grim Reaper, Smierc, is a female skeleton, and many pre-plague personifications of death from Europe are women, but in most other incarnations the medieval Grim Reaper is male.


Yet even in this time, there were depictions of Death that carried different connotations. A post-plague play by Johannes von Tepi, Death and the Ploughman, features a dialogue between a farmer and Death over the purpose and meaning of life and morality. Death is not evil in this play, and resents the ploughman reprimanding him for the death of his lover. Death argues that his existence is the great equalizer, coming to even the most powerful, and that his existence is what gives life meaning, while the ploughman is quick to point out that he found plenty of meaning with his beloved before her death, and that the sorrow of her passing is not the origin of their joy but the end, tainting his happy memories with bitterness and sorrow. He also points out that, despite his claims as being a great equalizer, Death is not guaranteed to come to the wicked before it comes to the virtuous, and so Death’s attempts at claiming neutrality are actually anything but. Rather by being “equal” Death renders good and evil moot, as morality is then not a guarantee of a good life. Death counters this by noting that anyone expecting a reward for being moral is not moral at all. In the end, their debate reaches an impasse, and God watches both from on high and notes that neither is able to see beyond themselves to the true reality of the world. This play is considered to be one of the literary foundations of the later humanism movement. In the tarot deck, Death is the thirteenth Major Arcana. While still depicted as a skeletal figure, it represents transition and transformation. Death is followed by regeneration, and the death of a negative part of the self can allow the positive parts to grow. Death is merely change, and change can be positive or negative.

Death is without a doubt a negative figure in Castlevania both in the abstract sense and in terms of the actual character. Death of the player means failure, and Death the character is an enemy that can only be engaged with through conflict. However, there is some thematic connection to Death’s positive features as well. Death’s first encounter with Alucard is certainly a transition, stripping away the physical connection Alucard has to his past in the form of his equipment and forcing him to relearn and rediscover his power. By stripping away the powerful equipment, Death forces the player to define Alucard themselves and forces Alucard to understand himself. In terms of the larger plot, their encounter gives us a few hints into Alucard’s past as well. He tells Alucard that he won’t ask him to return to the side of darkness, indicating that he is familiar enough with Alucard to know he has made his decision. Other than that, he speaks to Alucard in the manner of an authority figure reprimanding a disobedient child. Alucard’s previous history with Death is never stated, but we can infer a lot about their relationship based on the few snippits of dialogue. Presumably, Alucard was tolerated as Dracula’s offspring, but little else.


There are only two other residents of the castle Alucard has direct communication with, the Succubus and the Librarian. The Succubus is not a figure from Alucard’s past, but he clearly recognizes and remembers the Librarian. Alucard speaks to the old man with more affection than he does anyone else (albeit still not much). While the Librarian will not move against Dracula directly, he has no problem selling Alucard weapons and magic, and Alucard knows him well enough to suggest this arrangement in the first place. Perhaps young Alucard spent a lot of time in the Long Library. Growing up in a haunted castle without any peers, it is easy to imagine Alucard as a shy, bookish child. While Dracula was off ranting about humanity or raising an undead army, perhaps Alucard slipped away to the library to read about the outside world. Through reading, perhaps Alucard was able to first learn and connect with the human part of himself that Dracula neglected.

Tellingly, this is the only part of the castle with any implied relevance to Alucard’s past. Alucard does not communicate with any other denizens nor does he remark on any other section. However, there is one way for Alucard to interact with the castle. By pressing the up button in front of certain chairs, Alucard will sit down and relax in them. There is no gameplay purpose to this act and it does not affect Alucard’s stats or abilities in any way. So why include this feature? By letting Alucard stop and interact with the furniture, the game creates a little moment for the player to stop and reflect if they choose. What is Alucard thinking when he sits in a chair along the castle’s Outer Walls as opposed to sitting in the Marble Gallery? What memories do these locations bring to mind, if any? Alucard is revisiting his childhood home, one that has changed a great deal since he left. This is an experience nearly every player can relate to, especially those of us returning to the game as adults. In some cases, we may even be playing the game while we sit in chairs (new and old) within our own childhood homes. Through this simple, “useless” mechanic, the player can see and connect to Alucard’s story behind the battles and monsters. The story of an estranged child returning home.


Dracula’s castle has many wings dedicated to specific uses. He has his Alchemy Lab, his Marble Gallery, his Colosseum and even a Chapel (and odd choice for a dedicated servant of darkness and chaos). What it doesn’t have is Alucard’s old bedroom. If the castle is changing depending on the needs of the inhabitants, it may simply have swallowed them up once Alucard left. It could always create a new bedroom if Alucard ever returned to the fold. However, it is implied that the castle changed based on the whims of its master rather than its own desires. If this is the case, than it represents a deliberate cutting of ties by Dracula. Alucard chose to stand with Dracula’s hated enemies, and while he did so in response to abuse and neglect at Dracula’s own hands, Dracula is not by nature a creature of self reflection. To Dracula, Alucard is a traitor first and foremost. The destruction of Alucard’s old quarters speaks volumes on how Dracula thinks of his son. He does not expect, nor apparently desire, Alucard’s return.

There is another possibility, that Alucard’s room IS still there, just not in a form we recognize. After all, Alucard has been gone for hundreds of years, and while Dracula was dead for large periods of that time, its also possible that he kept Alucard’s room as it was for awhile. Once he knew Alucard was not coming back, he did what all parents do once their children establish independence: he converted the room. Maybe Dracula’s apparent alchemy hobby came about once he was able to turn Alucard’s wing into a lab, or maybe he converted it to showcase his collection of marble statues and grandfather clocks. Or maybe Dracula rented out the space to a new lodger.


Of all Dracula’s castle, the most inexplicable wing is Olrox’s quarters. The entire wing is nearly bare, with none of Dracula’s usual art or style adorning its walls. Further in, there is only a collection of jail cells filled with lonely ghouls. There is a courtyard where the player can see an empty village in the background, but that is about it. Even the enemies here are pretty bare bones (pun not intended) with only a few skeletons, zombies and dead warriors. The only room with any decoration is Olrox’s banquet hall, where the player can stop and (you guessed it) sit at the other end of the table before engaging Olrox in battle.

Olrox is a vampire and clearly meant to invoke Count Orlock of the classic 1922 film Nosferatu. The film was made before Bram Stoker’s Dracula entered the public domain, so the studio attempted to get around the copyright issue by creating their own vampire. Their tactic failed, and Stoker’s heirs successfully sued, resulting in almost every print of the movie being destroyed. Olrox resembles Orlock, a tall gaunt figure with long fingers and a bald head. The fact that his battle takes place in a banquet room calls back to the famous scene from the original movie where Thomas Hutter (who is totally not Jonathan Harker!) first suspects Count Orlock’s supernatural origin (Thomas cuts his finger slicing bread and Orlock immediately grabs Thomas’ finger and jams it into his mouth. This leads Thomas to suspect that maybe the nobleman frantically drinking blood from his finger may not be what he seems). Just as movie Orlock was a movie Dracula-rip off, Orlox fights like a lesser version of Castlevania’s Dracula, complete with his own final, true form.

Nosferatu 6

As a child, I had assumed Olrox must be a powerful ally or friend of Dracula to get his own wing. Now I wonder if he was just a squatter or lodger. This bare, empty wing of the castle seems to be forgotten by Dracula. If this is where Dracula leaves things he’d rather forget, it would make sense that he’d make it the quarters of his neglected, half-human son. Alucard reminds Dracula of his failures and his enemies, so he stuffs him out of sight and out of mind. This is all speculation of course, as this part of the castle has a distinct lack of interesting items as well, giving no hints as to Alucard’s connection, if any, to the area.

The only other creature Alucard speaks with is the Succubus impersonating his mother. From this encounter we learn what happened the day of his mother’s execution, and how his mother asked both him and Dracula to forgive humanity. We also see Alucard get actually upset for the first time. The veil of aloofness drops, and Alucard expresses shock and emotion at seeing his mother once again, followed by disgust and anger at the deception. Surprisingly, we also learn that the Succubus wasn’t even aware of who Alucard was, only suspecting he is Dracula’s son after she is killed. The Succubus wasn’t part of any plan to win Alucard back to Dracula’s side and wasn’t acting on Dracula’s orders, but was rather just a demon messing with someone who wandered into her lair. Again we see evidence that Dracula does not give much of a shit about bringing his son back to his side.

As for the hundreds of other demons, spirits and undead in the castle, if Alucard recognizes them he doesn’t give any indication. It stands to reason that growing up in the castle as part of Dracula’s dark army, he would have known a few monsters. We can only speculate what this would have been like. Did Alucard play games with fleamen? Smoke cigarettes behind the Outer Wall with Slogra and Gaibon? Share a first kiss with the top or bottom half of an amphisbaena? Is he slaughtering old friends? But then, even if he did have monster friends growing up, who is to say they’d still be alive (or undead) today? Getting the good ending results in meeting every enemy just as it results in seeing every part of the castle and mastering every one of Alucard’s abilities. But just as before, what’s important to know is the fact that Alucard is relearning the castle, not what he specifically thinks and feels about it. The specifics of what he feels and what his encounters mean is unknowable, expressed only in player theory and how they choose to control their version of Alucard.

Artist's recreation of a young Alucard hanging out with another teen monster

Artist’s recreation of a young Alucard hanging out with another teen monster

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Tarot and What Is Winning Anyways?


I’ve been thinking about Tarot more than usual these days, in no small part due to Mattie Brice’s recent writings on the subject. I think what is most interesting to me about her recent exploration on Tarot is how it connects to two more “traditional” games I love in an abstract sense but have never really enjoyed playing in a modern, competitive environment.

I don’t believe in divination, but I love doing Tarot. The “fun” is not in being able to detail the future, but in constructing meaning and narrative within the rules and confines the randomly selected cards create. Each combination of cards creates a different series of ideas you must connect, but also slowly creates more and more limits which force you to really examine the narrative you are creating and how it fits together. Once I realized how Tarot actually worked, I was able to “divine” all kinds of interesting ideas and insight into my world and myself. Each card of the deck was carefully illustrated and designed to convey a specific series of emotions. As long as one enters into a Tarot reading with the intent of creating meaning, it is all but impossible not to somehow be pushed towards thinking about larger problems or issues within your life. Because your goal is to connect each card drawn, but to do so within the specific meaning ascribed to each card and image, it is therefore a useful tool for forcing yourself to think about your problems in a new light. It is a kind of play that is inherently creative, forcing you to create stories and link ideas. It is also a kind of play that almost no other card game has.


When I was a young lad, Magic the Gathering was released onto an unsuspecting world. My elementary school received a few decks to give out to the students as a promotional event. It was a pretty clever business move, as the promise of free cards meant that nearly everyone in my class got hooked and soon ran out to buy additional cards of their own. I, being the young ecology nerd I was, was drawn most strongly to the “creature” cards. You had all your standard fantasy tropes, but also intriguing new creatures. As more and more editions came out, you also had more and more variations on the standard tropes. There was never JUST a “goblin” or JUST a “dragon” but always some more specific and intriguing variation. There were yetis and chimera from multiple countries and regions, each with their own attributes and forms. There were endless varieties of dragon, each suited for a different fantasy eco-system. There were dwarves, merfolk and elves of every occupation you could name, not just the standard Dungeons and Dragons classes. Even the made up creatures like the wonderfully alien thallids and thrulls had seemingly countless variations. There were kingdoms of diverse biomes, cultures and food chains, and it was CONSTANTLY growing. Today there is what, several million unique cards across dozens and dozens of expansions? Billions upon billions of card combinations to choose from and therefore worlds to create! So why was it such a bore to actually play?

The backstory for the game is that you are a Planeswalker, a wizard of unimaginable power who travels countless dimensions. When you encounter another Planeswalker, you duel, with the cards representing the spells you cast. Planeswalker spells aren’t any normal kind of magic, but instead involve the Planeswalker remembering the lands they have visited, drawing mana energy from those memories, and bringing pieces of other dimensions to aid them. You’re not merely summoning a monster or casting a spell, you’re bringing part of your home out of your past and into the world you’re battling on. A “deck” is supposed to represent an incredibly personal collection of memories and experiences, unique to each Planeswalker. But in reality, what it is is a collection of cards chosen by the player to be most effective in defeating their opponent and winning the game. The results of each game are binary. You win or you lose. If you choose cards around any theme other than winning, you are more likely to lose. So thematically your deck is supposed to be an incredibly personal and individual collection of experiences, but you end up penalized by the game for treating it as such.


As a kid, this was frustrating. I would spend hours creating decks based on specific worlds I’d dream up. I chose creatures I wanted to see living together over those which could combo well, and I chose spells which could be used to create a sense of narrative rather than ones which allowed complex tactics. But when it came time to then actually play with those decks, it wasn’t fun anymore because there was no way to “win.” So instead I’d go back and try to create “playable” decks that used the right cards in the right combinations and took into account what other players would probably be playing. It was no longer fun, so I stopped playing and collecting pretty quickly.

This is not to say that there is anything WRONG with playing the competitive Magic metagame, or with having fun coming up with unique and unexpected combinations to defeat your opponent. But for me it took some of the magic out of Magic. It even made the cards less fun to just collect and discover outside of the main game. At first it was exciting buying a sealed pack of cards and seeing what new stories or adventures came to mind from the randomly assigned cards within. But when you’re playing only to win tournaments, buying cards at random is pointless. Better to just buy specific cards after you’ve done the research.


This experience is mirrored in the Pokemon games. You have all these monsters, but not all of them are “playable” in the competitive game. You have no choice but to evolve your bulbasaur if you want to win, or to replace your favorite hypno or parasect with a more powerful “tier” of Pokemon. The game is no longer about personal choice or engaging with a fictional world, but in math simulations. Which, again, is perfectly fine but it goes against what the games themselves claim to be about. You’re not discovering a world or creating a relationship with alien creatures, you’re choosing the most powerful weapon for a specific outcome in a game of chance. I think its telling that the online Pokemon battle simulators which strip the games down to JUST competitive battling without any of the world or roleplaying are actually more fun and interesting in regards to the metagame and battles than the real games are themselves. Because the real games are caught between two different goals, without any real desire and understanding how to bridge them.

Tarot came directly out of competitive games of chance, but also from players using games of chance to create art and poetry. What if more players were willing to use existing games in new ways? What if a game of Magic was less about who won, and more about exploring another person’s created world? What if the goal was not about dominating another “planeswalker” but in trying to use both player’s selected “memories” to communicate or gain insight into each other. What if every Pokemon was useful not just in “battle” but in exploring and understanding the world you explore and the game rewarded you for connecting with whoever you felt like?


Obviously there is space for the players to make those changes on their own and create their own games within existing games. But I see myself as someone who is both a developer and a player, and I think we developers all too often get stuck in ideas about what “winning” and “losing” is supposed to be. When we do offer other ways to play, they are usually still tied into those same ideas. Take the various, half-assed attempts to create other ways of playing Pokemon such as the “Pokemon Contests” which resembled talent shows or the movie filming mini-games of Black and White. All these mini-games did was change around which Pokemon were viable, and were still all based around a binary win/lose formula. Even the non competitive mini-games required you to play them “correctly” as opposed to personally. As such they all tended to be significantly less interesting variations on the normal battling, and most players end up ignoring them in the long run.

Of all AAA commercial games, it is surprisingly Smash Brothers which seems to offer the best look at what developers can do to combat this. Smash Brothers offers multiple ways of playing competitively, but even better offers ways of using the same fighting game rules and system to create and play in other ways. Sometimes it involves using the familiar mechanics in another familiar competitive game way, like the Angry Birds-inspired variation of the 3DS version or the “Metroidvania” platformer of Subspace Emissary. But it also lets you use the fighting game system to create photos and movies. How do you communicate, choreograph and create something new using this limited series of animations and models? To me, that is a really interesting question and challenge. While it is not the focus of the series by any means, and it is still a series based almost entirely on a simple win/lose formula, it at least gives its players one way of defining their own play and goals without forcing them to do everything on their own.


In some ways, I’m becoming less interested in “games” and more interested in spaces for play, story, creation and discovery. Games can be a vehicle for these spaces, and as we see in Tarot their use of systems and rules are what helps drive that play and discovery. But when we only allow one outcome for play, we limit the power these spaces can have. It isn’t even a case where we players or developers have to choose between giving space for multiple goals and ideas of “winning” or staying within a familiar definition. The space is already there, no matter what rules we build into the system. All we need to do is think about what we can get out of choosing to use that space. All we need to do is realize that everything is playable.

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Scribbly Walrus


Scribbly Walrus is a quick game I made to help me get over some of my generic-tortured-artist ‘oh I can’t release/ask for money/care about my art because it isn’t polished enough.” Abstract ideas of polish are the enemy of art. Sometimes you just need to flipping MAKE something. So I drew all the assets in a day and put it together the next. Not all my future games will be put together so haphazardly, but its nice to just create a small little world once and awhile.

Something I’ve been exploring lately are the old Nintendo Game & Watch devices. They are incredibly simple games, but many of them are quite lovely and elegant. Despite the primitive hardware and EXTREMELY limited animation, the little Mr G&Ws are incredibly evocative and charming. While a character in a G&W device may only have three frames of animation, each one is given a great deal of attention and design. You end up with characters that resemble playing a “real cartoon” even more than later games with fluid animation would be capable of.  I want to take lessons from these early pieces, and other simple LCD devices like tamagotchis. Sometimes it is fun to go on and on and let a piece spiral out of control, but there is something to be said for being able to convey everything you want in as simple a means as possible. These games have only a single screen and limited animation, but someone can figure out what to do and have fun just by looking at it.

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

I also like how many Game & Watches involve mundane or everyday activities. Games about cooking sausages, caring for goldfish, mixing cement, being a fire-fighter, swimming in the ocean, and caring for a greenhouse. I like games that give you a little moment to enjoy, and that kind of format is good for games about animals.

Scribbly Walrus isn’t as polished as a Game & Watch (by design!) but it does give you a single screen to explore as a simple character. Like a real walrus, you can relax on an ice floe, play in the sea, and use your sensitive tusks and whiskers to find hidden shellfish.



Walruses are not exactly having a great time right now. Man made climate change has led to a huge decrease in arctic sea ice. Walruses don’t have a lot of stamina, and need to rest on those ice floes in between foraging. Without ice to rest on, they have no choice but to flee inland, resulting in 35,000 walruses rushing the coast of Alaska all at once.

Walruses aren’t the only marine mammal in trouble. As of this moment there are only 97 vaquita porpoises left in the world. Vaquita are the world’s smallest porpoise, and their numbers are plunging due to unregulated gill-net fishing and demand for the shrimp and fish that share their habitat. If you are able to, consider donating to help the vaquita now before time runs out.

Scribbly Walrus can be played online for free at Gamejolt

Or download it for Windows and Mac OSX at

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Castlevania: Symphony of the Mike Part 1 – OCDracula

Dracula.(Castlevania).full.295042Is it fair to retroactively psycho-analyze fictional characters? Perhaps not, in the sense that I am in no way ascribing motive to Koji Igarashi or anyone else who worked on Symphony of the Night, but as each player takes on the role of Alucard each player must take on the role of creator in deciding how Alucard acts and therefore, to an extent, define their specific incarnation of Alucard. Just as a theatrical production is a collaboration between writer, director and actors each translating and interpreting the work, each play-through of the game is a collaboration between the designers and the player(s). Not every game need be (or, arguably, can be) viewed as a collaboration in this way, but games such as Symphony lend themselves well to this form of play. Also, perhaps, at this moment in my life, I am also particularly disposed toward analyzing Alucard and his father through a particular lens.

Each player’s Alucard is unique. How they fight, what items they use, how they explore the castle, even the skill they demonstrate will all vary from player to player. Of course, all Alucards have some shared experiences. Every Alucard will be an physically 18 year old half-vampire with flowing hair and fabulous capes, for example. Nearly every Alucard will also end up something of a packrat, as players grab everything that isn’t nailed down. Alucard’s cloak will end up stuffed with potions, dozens of swords, a restaurant’s worth of food, and enough clothing to outfit a small village. But no matter how obsessively the player collects items and hoards their inventory, it will always pale in comparison to that of Alucard’s father, Dracula.

Dracula’s habit of hiding items around his castle has become something of a running joke for fans of the Castlevania series. The idea that you could whip a centuries old castle wall to find perfectly edible, healthy pot roasts and turkey legs is pure old-timey video game nonsense. Symphony of the Night continues this tradition with gusto. Dracula has continued placing food in his walls and hidden rooms, but he has expanded his menu to include everything from cheesecake to dim sum. There is not a single candle in his castle that isn’t home to at least one coin, with some containing sums as high as five hundred American dollars. Adjusted for inflation, that means any given candle could have contained the equivalent of $6746.38!

What exactly IS Dracula’s obsession with hiding things in candles or stuffing his home with meat? Why does Dracula fill his castle with piles of daggers, swords, books, bottles, lightning-shooting guns, Lord of the Rings memorabilia and almost countless other bric-a-brac? Is it possible that Dracula suffers from hoarding disorder?

Seems legit

Seems legit

Compulsive hoarding was first defined as a mental disorder in the 5th edition of the DSM in 2013. It is still not entirely understood, and it is unclear as to whether it is merely a symptom of another condition (such as OCD) or truly a separate, isolated disorder.

The first criteria for diagnosing hoarding disorder is “Persistent difficulty discarding or parting or parting with possessions, regardless of the value others may attribute to these possessions.” It is safe to say that Dracula falls under the first criteria. His collection includes incredibly old objects, some of which have been in his possession for centuries. The oldest items in his collection include a dagger owned by the artist Hans Holbein from the 16th century, a katana made by the Japanese swordsmith Masamune in the 13th-14th century, and a garment worn by the biblical Joseph sometime around 1800-1500 BC! While these and many other items in his collection are valuable, he also hoards random cloth tunics, knives, and other worthless items.

The 2nd criteria, “This difficulty is due to strong urges to save items and/or distress associated with discarding,” is impossible to assess based on the little we see of Dracula in the game. However, Dracula definitely fails to meet the 3rd and 4th criteria, that of his hoarding making his home unusable and interfering with his social welfare respectively. There is no part of his castle that unusable because of his hoarding. For example, there is an entire wing filled with grandfather clocks, but they are all neatly arranged and do not hinder movement in any way. While some floors may have random objects littered across them, every room in the castle is still usable for its intended purpose, which means that Dracula fails to meet the 3rd criteria. He also doesn’t seem to meet the 4th criteria, as it does not seem to impair his social standing with the other undead and demonic entities in his social circle. It could be argued that his hoarding does create an unsafe environment for others, as it gives vampire hunters who wander in the weapons needed to cause grievous injury to other monsters, but that isn’t exactly what the DSM means. It seems pretty clear that Dracula’s candle-and-meat fixation is not specifically due to hoarding disorder.


So if his hoarding is not due specifically to hoarding disorder, could it be the symptom of a different condition? For years, hoarding was considered a symptom or subtype of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Full disclosure: I suffer from Tourettic OCD and so have some understanding of the condition, but I do not for a second consider my experiences to be universal to every form of OCD. The difference between hoarding associated with OCD and Compulsive Hoarding, as I understand it, is in motivation. Hoarding due to OCD is fueled not by the stuff itself, but by a compulsive fear or superstition. A lot of people misunderstand what OCD is like. OCD doesn’t take over your body and force you to do something. Rather, you have this repeating, obsessive cycle of thoughts that tells you over and over that if you DON’T do something, it will cause a disaster. Someone I knew who suffered from bad OCD had to shout “five!” every time anyone counted to four because the feeling that a four “left alone there” would cause horrible things to happen to them and their family was overpowering. They knew it wasn’t logical, but the feeling of dread was real regardless. The compulsive fear or worry is not always a specific superstition, such as in my own case. Sometimes when I have tourettes tics, I have to repeat the tic after its finished because my body just “feels wrong” if I don’t. Suppressing a tic makes me feel like my body is going to collapse into itself. People who hoard as a symptom of OCD do so because it has become tied into some negative thought loop.

Dracula hoards very specific things. He collects weapons, armor, money, rations and drugs. These aren’t the 19th century equivalent of junk mail, even if the items aren’t particularly valuable or useful. Their intended purpose seems valid for Dracula’s interests. Keep in mind that Dracula has been literally killed at least once a century since he was born. He always comes back, but who is to say what he is going to come back to? If you knew you were going to be staked through the heart and lose another few decades, wouldn’t you want to make sure that you were set when you came back?

Dracula is obsessive and paranoid. He hoards and hides money and goods because he knows sooner or later he will be attacked and staked again. What better way to make sure that no one steals your money while you are waiting to be resurrected by your evil followers than to hide it? What better way to plan for a long siege of heroes than to have emergency rations covertly stashed around your home? Having an arsenal in every corner of his castle means no matter where he is attacked, he can defend himself. He did not count on the Belmont clan being so thorough in its destruction of his home, but even now that his hiding places are well known, he can’t stop. It has become more than a ritual or a desire, but a compulsion. If he doesn’t put some coins in his candles, it starts another negative feedback loop, obsessively playing terrible, negative thoughts in his head.


A puppet that I am probably related to

Dracula would certainly not be the first OCD vampire in history. Many vampire legends around the world depict the undead fiends as suffering from arithmomania, or an obsession with counting their actions or surrounding objects. In several stories, the heroes escape the vampire by scattering seeds or grains across the floor, forcing the vampire to stop and count them before resuming the chase. Of course Count von Count, one of the most famous pop-culture vampires of all time, is famous specifically for his arithmomania. Vampires also obsessively perform superstitious behavior (refusing to move through running water, avoiding certain religious symbols, refusing to cross a threshold until certain prerequisites are met) that also seems to be in-line with OCD symptoms. Whether vampirism supposedly causes OCD or these were people who had OCD before turning undead doesn’t matter. All I’m saying is that those of us with OCD and OCD tendencies can fairly easily see aspects of ourselves in these monsters. A precedent is set to see Dracula in this particular light.

By sheer coincidence, my own genetic origin of OCD and Tourettes comes from Transylvania. My ancestors who passed these conditions down the line were originally Czech Jews from Prague (supposedly they were rabbis who served under the Rabbi Loew of “the golem” fame, but who can say for sure). When the Jewish community was expelled from Prague during the Habsburg reign, my ancestors fled to Romania, and settled in Transylvania. There they found kinship and intermarried with another disenfranchised community, the Roma. From what I can gather, this is unusual, as while both the Jewish and Roma communities of Europe suffer ongoing bigotry and abuse to this day, the two groups were often set against each other by those in power. However, when doing family research for school as a lad, I learned that Transylvania was home to a number of intertwined Roma and Jewish communities. The groups that settled there were mostly craftsmen, entertainers and artisans and it was apparently hard to pit two hardworking blacksmiths against each other. Before the holocaust began, my Romanian ancestors fled to the US, where they intermarried with other members of the Jewish diaspora who had arrived in the US from Germany and Russia. The Jewish and Roma people left behind almost all died in what followed.

My family history is one of fear and struggle on all sides. The fear of genocide, the fear of persecution, the fear that everything could be taken away from you in an instant. Multiple generations had to leave their homes under the threat of violence, leaving their entire lives behind. My ancestors were lucky to have skin the right shade for America, so that when they arrived they were declared “white” and did not need to fear the same level to violence as back home (unlike those the wrong shade, who still today live with that fear in America). But family stories get passed on. Patterns emerge. The guilt that comes from knowing those left behind died so you could escape is not something that goes away easily, nor is the knowledge that no home is guaranteed to be permanent. Certain fears got passed down to the children of my family without anyone even realizing it. Horror left its footprint, and we were all but born wary. If our genetic tendency to OCD and tourettes exacerbated some of those fears we were instilled with? More’s the pity.

Its hard to imagine that Dracula would get too much help for his condition either. I had a hard enough time, and my tourettes is mild enough that many people don’t notice my outward tics. Being seen as “neurotypical” means I get to hear people talk about OCD and tourettes (as well as other forms of mental illness) as though I don’t have those conditions. It means I get to hear good people talk about how some people shouldn’t be born, or how resources are “wasted” on them, or how they’re just “difficult” or “faking.” Psychology today is more advanced that it ever has been in Western medicine, we know more about how the brain works than we ever have in history, and we can treat conditions long considered untreatable, yet still the average person thinks you can cure depression by thinking yourself happy. I’ve been told, by people I loved and wanted to trust, to just “stop having tourettes” and that the existence of my condition meant my experiences did not matter. Each time this happened, I died a little inside, and retreated further inward into that same siege mentality. I know other people who retreated further, some retreating so far that they lost all contact with the world outside themselves. The stigma associated with mental and neurological illness is very real, and it kills. But as frustrating as it is today, I believe Dracula would have had it worse than I do. When Symphony of the Night takes place, phrenology and mesmerism were still considered viable practices. When Dracula would have been raising Alucard in the 15th century, the term “psychology” had only just been coined by Croatian humanist Marko Marulic and the obsessive and intrusive thoughts associated with OCD were considered to be the result of demon possession. The fact that by pure coincidence Dracula DOES associate with demons wouldn’t have made it easier to get an accurate diagnosis. Even if Dracula and Alucard had the vocabulary to talk about their possible conditions, it is highly unlikely they would have turned to any of their contemporary “experts” for help.


or a neurological anxiety disorder.

I descend from communities called monsters, demons, animals, inhuman and even, specifically, vampires. I descend from people told that they were defective, that their minds were defiled by actual demons, and that they were not fit to be with “normal” people. It is easy to see Dracula in a more sympathetic light this way. How many families were destroyed because of those labels? How many people were killed because it was all too easy to call someone a monster when you have a whip in one hand and a cross in the other? Each new generation of Dracula that is reborn carries the memory of persecution and violence the previous generation of Dracula suffered. Dracula’s story could very easily be retold as a metaphor for my own family, and the families of countless others.

But Dracula’s story isn’t being retold, and as we will see in the next update, there are limits to what this potential sympathy will buy from us. Dracula is a victim in some ways, but he is also an abusive figure in the game’s narrative. His son, Alucard, not only witnessed the tragic murder of his mother at the hands of an angry mob, but was then raised by Dracula to hate himself. While each player has control over how their Alucard explores the castle and how he responds to the obstacles he encounters, the aspects of Alucard they cannot control show clear signs of a victim of emotional abuse. Next time we will look at Alucard, and how a history of abuse has shaped our “half-monster” hero.

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Recognizing those who take hits so that we may play

Several important, talented writers and designers have quit games recently because of harassment. There has been a coordinated attack on women that a group of people have decided are “enemies” of games. You can read the copious chat logs where these people detail their plans to create fake controversies, stalk and harass individuals, and attempt to manipulate the created discussion through astroturfing. I’m not going to get into the talk about “game ethics” because, frankly, its a fake debate. There are real issues with the game industry and hobby, but those aren’t being discussed right now, and it is not the intent of this current mob to discuss them. The amorphous, ever-shifting argument about what “gamergate” is actually against will always shift and change to avoid scrutiny, and engaging it at all seems fruitless. There is no good faith on one “side” so no actual discussion can take place. Anyone paying attention knows that the controversy is manufactured, and that there already are places to discuss real issues of ethics within the sphere of games. Anyone still pretending otherwise is doing so out of a frankly Brobdingnagian level of cognitive dissonance, and is not going to have their mind changed here. What I want to talk about is what it means to lose voices, and hopefully acknowledge how important the voices we are losing are.

When I first started grad school, I had no interest in making games. I had returned to school because I hated my job teaching and wanted to gain a stronger background in biology and ecology. I wanted to find a way to connect my artwork (then primarily illustration and comics) to issues of conservation and human rights. I ended up thinking about games largely by accident, I had been reading Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed at the exact moment I was taking a class on the history of activist art. We were looking at many artists who were taking inspiration from Boal’s work, as well as from Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, in order to foster social change. There were amazing examples of how clever activists had used painting, sculpture, photography, radio, animation and even, in one very notable case from Brazil, fireworks as a means of getting people to connect to the world around them and create real, functional progressive change in their communities. Looking at all of these examples, and reading the theory behind it, a single thought popped into my head and refused to leave: “what would a Pokemon of the Oppressed look like?” Before long I was asking this question for every kind of game I could think of.

I grew up with games. I came into the world a few months after the Famicom was first released. I learned to draw by lying on the floor with open copies of Nintendo Power and Ranger Rick side by side and a sketchbook full of levels and mazes based around whatever animal I was most interested in at that time. I wrote Secret of Mana fan fic for my fourth grade creative writing class and was designing my own Pokemon before Pokemon had even officially been released. I read all the early gaming webcomics in highschool, and knew all the “gaming cultural touchstones” or whatever you want to call them. But as my teen years faded and I got more involved in my college work, I stopped identifying as a “gamer.” I still played games, a lot of games, but I didn’t keep up with news or read articles, and had no interested in the new generation of game humor, webcomics, youtube personalities or streaming. I had no idea on what game developers thought about when designing games, or what video game criticism (the kind I was studying in my theatre and art classes) looked like. So when I began digging around in earnest two years ago to see what kind of games theory and writing existed, I didn’t know what I’d find. As far as I knew, no one was doing serious academic of critical work regarding games. I was delighted to find myself wrong in this regard.

That was how I stumbled onto several articles by Mattie Brice. I was blown away, here was the kind of stuff I had wanted to find, the kind of writing I had assumed didn’t exist yet in games, and it was right there. Here was someone who designed games, played games, wrote about games, but was not locked into just games. Her articles drew inspiration from other mediums and from real experiences. There was a willingness to play, not just within the rules of a game but within her own thinking and writing that I found inspiring. Even more amazing, Brice wasn’t the only one. From reading those first articles I found the work of Anna Anthropy and her amazing book, Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, which put into words so many stray thoughts I had been juggling on my own. I found other game creators who were eloquently writing about their own process and the larger culture that surrounded their games like Merritt Kopas and Zoe Quinn. I found the wonderful curation of writing that is Critical Distance, through which I found more writers like Kris Ligman, Samantha Allen, Lana Polansky, Aevee Bee, Jenn Frank, Pauli Kohberger, Elizabeth Simins, Zoya Street, and so, so many others. Here were people deconstructing games, reconstructing games, finding new ways to play, thinking about systems, thinking about control, connecting games to other mediums, connecting games to the larger world, challenging existing ideas, bringing back voices and ideas from the past, making new games, and I was hooked. It was amazing to find so much knowledge, all there to be explored and appreciated. It became clear: there was not only room in games to do what I wanted to do, but there were already people doing it.

The more I learned, the more I was inspired. The more I looked, the more I found. There were people thinking about games and play in amazing ways even predating video games. I found articles by sociologists examining how games had been used in the past for psychology, work by fine artists creating variations of chess or tarot to play new games with their audience, theatrical troupes using games to transform anyone into an actor or writer, research by biologists exploring how other animals played and what that meant about us (if anything), paleontologists using games to help understand a world they could never truly see, ancient activists using play to subvert dictatorships and oppression, and modern activists using play to build connections between ideas and movements. The world of games and play was larger than I had ever known. Not only was there room for me, but I was already part of it without even realizing. All this time, play had been the glue that connected the seemingly unconnected fields I wanted to study. These writers I found gave me the language to describe this play and recognize how it connected ideas.

I wouldn’t be doing what I do if not for the writers and designers that came before me. That is what makes the fact that we’re losing so many voices so sad. I’m not worried about Mattie Brice, Jenn Frank, Samantha Allen or Lana Polansky in the sense that they are brilliant writers and even if they’re no longer going to be writing about games, they will be creating brilliant work (Hell, in the end they’ll probably end up being much better paid for it!). But I am worried. I’m worried about the toll others must pay so that I can be inspired and protected. I’m worried because of the next generation of brilliant writers and designers, who will miss out on so much. I’m worried about the voices preemptively silenced by seeing how a toxic community treats people it considers threats. I’m worried about the journals and websites that refused to stand with the writers they took work from, and what that means for future writers and readers. I’m worried about how seldom we acknowledge those who take the blows for us. I’m worried that every time new spaces are created that work with play or games, they are attacked and invaded by selfish, spiteful people. I’m worried about the cultures within the label “gamer” that cares more about protecting the perceived honor of a self-granted title than they care about protecting people who play and make games.

To be blunt, conversations about “what is a gamer?” rank somewhere far, far below even “what is a game?” in terms of conversations I am interested in having. “Gamer” is a pointless term. If it means “one who plays a game” then it does not serve as a particularly useful descriptor for a culture. If it means “one who loves games” then suddenly we have people arguing over how “love” is defined and what games “count” when deciding gamerness. If it means a specific community, then we run into the problem that there are multiple communities that adopt that label, few of which share the same ideology beyond “Mario is fun.” Am I more of a gamer now than when I simply played jrpgs on my DS but didn’t follow discussions and debates about the medium? Am I less of a gamer now that I think about how games connect to other mediums and social issues, or am I more of one?  “Gamer” is so meaningless a term that its definition can be shifted to be whatever the speaker wants it to be. There is a group that sees an “attack on gamers” that somehow leaves out the attack on people who love and play games when its women they don’t like. This simple fact that “gamer” is so amorphous has been abused by a vocal segment of self-identifying gamers who despise specific women and wished to coordinate harassment against them. Endless debates over the identity of “gamer” obscure and confound the simple fact that a toxic level of abuse has been taking place in the name of protecting a very specific, narrow view of the world. That and the fact that social media companies, the game industry and media actively courts and emboldens the idea that this is a “real” debate with “two sides” in an attempt to profit from suffering and hatred.

I don’t care about the culture or lack-thereof of gamers or about an identity based on consumer habits. I care about people. I care about acknowledging the people who inspired me and fought for me. I care about how people play and how people explore ideas. Like I said above, I have every confidence that the people who stepped away from games this week will never stop doing great work. But that doesn’t make the fact that they were harassed into leaving alright. I don’t want them forgotten, and I don’t want the abuse they suffered ignored. I don’t want the people who choose to stay to have to face constant abuse either. I don’t want people to think play ends with a small segment of games. I want work and inspiration recognized.

Here is my links page, it contains a bunch of important people worth reading. I’ll be adding more as well. Everyone there has helped me in some way become a better writer, a better designer and even a better player. These people matter, their work matters, and when we begin losing such voices, we need to seriously look at how we have failed.

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Conflict Minerals and Games

Trigger Warning: Rape and sexual slavery

“The DRC’s greatest curse is its wealth.” – Jean-Bertin, Congolese activist, 2012

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is one of the most resource rich places in the world. It is home to massive reserves of gold, tungsten, tin, cobalt, copper and diamonds. Its forests are full of precious woods and rubber. It is home to 64% of the worldwide reserves of coltan, an ore from which tantalum, a metal used to make capacitors for electronic equipment, can be extracted from. Tantalum and cassiterite (a tin ore used in circuitry) in particular are currently in high demand and are extremely valuable. 18% of the world’s production of tantalum comes from the DRC.

Yet despite all this natural wealth, the DRC was ranked last place in the 2011 Human Development index. The resources are being extracted and sold, but no one in the DRC are seeing the benefit. What is happening here?

The history of exploitation in the DRC goes back to the Congo Free State of 1877 to 1908. It was then that Belgium ran a genocidal campaign of ivory and rubber production that led to the brutal deaths of around 10 million Congolese. The horrors of the Belgium occupation are legendary, the most infamous being the practice of cutting off limbs to enforce rubber quotas. This pattern of violent exploitation and corruption would unfortunately follow the region from then on, no matter who was in charge.

Today the region is wracked by ongoing civil war. Millions have died in the conflict, even more have been displaced from their homes. Children are kidnapped and forced to fight as soldiers. Sexual slavery and violence is rampant, with a recent study estimating that as many as 400,000 women are raped in the DRC every year. The warlords and armies fund their war with those valuable minerals, and many of the bloodiest battles are waged over the mines.

The miners are kept in semi-slavery conditions, offering barely enough to live on and no safety. Child labor is exceedingly common, and millions suffer from health problems as a result of mining. Many of the mining companies utilize debt-bondage slavery, loaning food and supplies to the miners at a price they can’t hope to afford from mining. Other mines are more overt slavery operations, with entire villages being forced to extract minerals at gunpoint. On an environmental level, mining is also catastrophic. It destroys local ecosystems, renders land unusable for farming or living, facilitates the spread of disease, and destroys local water supplies.

As previously mentioned, tantalum is used in almost every modern electronic device, from mobile phones to game consoles. There is a demonstrable link between the price of tantalum and violence in the DRC.1 In 2000, the release of the Playstation 2 and subsequent demand for the system sent the price of tantalum skyrocketing, causing the proportion of mines attacked to jump from 13% to 40%.2

This conflict and connection has largely been invisible to us in the West until recently. An early attempt at raising awareness between consumer habits and exploitation was the “Dona tu movil” campaign, started in 2004 by Congolese activists in Spain. The purpose of the campaign was to encourage people to recycle old phones and become more aware of the conditions in the DRC. As of 2012 the campaign has recycled 732,025 devices and raised a million euro. Sadly, the demand for tantalum outstrips what little recycling can offer. The current climate of phone consumption encourages people to upgrade and replace phones as often as possible. This is mirrored in the video game industry, where the lifespan of consoles is ever shrinking in favor of increasingly incremental upgrades. Even activist groups admit that recycling, even on a colossal scale, can not approach meeting the current demand.

A more recent campaign targeted specific companies and pressured them to address the issue of conflict minerals. In response, Apple and Intel both announced that they would no longer buy tantalum from the DRC in 2011, with Nokia and Samsung vowing to phase out DRC tantalum shortly after. These promises are good, but it is very easy for corporations to make such a promise without actually accomplishing anything. Tantalum is produced by smelting coltan ore, and as long as companies claim that they asked the smelters if the coltan was purchased legally they can claim it is not their responsibility. In fact, coltan smuggling is so rampant that it is difficult to prove that codes of conduct are followed. Neighboring countries facilitate the smuggling of resources out of the DRC in order to benefit from the demand, and corporations aren’t particularly willing to investigate too deeply where their cheap tantalum is coming from.

A prime example of the lackluster response to this issue can be found in Nintendo. In 2012, the Enough Project ranked the major electronic companies on their commitment to phasing out conflict minerals and to the creation of a clean mineral trade. Nintendo was ranked dead last3, with the report stating “Nintendo has made no known effort to trace or audit its supply chain.” In response, a number of viral campaigns directly targeting Nintendo launched and were picked up by the wider media, eventually forcing Nintendo to respond. In the fall of 2012, Nintendo announced it had made progress in removing conflict minerals from its Wii and 3DS products, and they addressed the conflict mineral policy directly on their website.4 However, activists were not terribly impressed, as Nintendo made a lot of promises to investigate and audit without actually promising anything concrete or showing any specific plan. Suppliers would be given a questionnaire, but otherwise Nintendo was not requiring its suppliers to use conflict-free smelters. The Enough Project responded, “Nintendo’s statement is a meaningless piece of paper without concrete steps behind it … Without that bare minimum, Nintendo is only putting a fig leaf over serious issues of war and slavery.”5

Nintendo is certainly not the only company talking more than acting. While there has been some demonstrable progress (Intel is currently developing a new conflict-free microchip and several companies have come together to form the Public-Private Alliance for Responsible Minerals Trade), there is still a lot of resistance from corporations against deeper auditing of supply chains. Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act directly addressed the issue of conflict minerals, requiring all national and international companies to report annually to the SEC with supply chain analysis on where their minerals come from. This measure has been under constant attack by corporations who consider it too bothersome and difficult to investigate. The companies argue that after decades of no one keeping track, investigating the supply chains is expensive and time consuming.

The first of these supply chain audits were released this past spring, with several electronic companies such as Google admitting that there was a “potential presence” of DRC conflict minerals in their suppliers.6 Other companies such as Disney and Sony reported that they were unable to determine if any of their suppliers used conflict minerals. Like Nintendo, many companies elected only to send their suppliers a questionnaire, and either accepted the responses at face value or shrugged their shoulders if their suppliers elected not to report back.

Section 1502 originally required companies to label whether their products were “conflict free” or not. However, this part was struck down by the US Court of Appeals in March, 2014. The court declared that requiring corporations to display this information violated their freedom of speech. Without this label, there is no real consequence for doing a half-assed audit. The information is technically available, but consumers who want to learn if their product contains conflict minerals have to instead wade through long legal documents or wait for another source to do it for them.

It should be noted that there are legal mines in the DRC and attempts by the local government to reform mining conditions. Companies could quite easily support these mines without any huge cost. Tantalum is also found in other parts of the world, in fact until recently Australia was the world’s largest tantalum producer. It shouldn’t be difficult to create a conflict-mineral free device, and despite corporate claims it would not be prohibitively complicated or expensive.

Honestly, this is subject that games journalism could be talking about more. Apple, Nintendo, Sony, Google and Microsoft all use minerals in the production of their gaming products that could be coming from the DRC. Video games are a huge economic force, and we’ve already seen how the demand for one system directly led to more violence. But other than short reports on the campaigns against Nintendo, there has been very little investigation into this issue by the game press. Why is that? I don’t think its entirely because people don’t care (although there is certainly a great degree of “who cares, just give me games” entitlement to be found). Rather, I believe the main problem lies in how removed we are from the products we buy.

When you go and buy a phone or a 3DS or a PS4, you don’t know who built it. There are no “game console artisans” or anything like that. You may know the name of a few game developers, but you won’t know the factory it was made, or the materials that went into its creation. Most of us have no idea how any of these products work on a technical level beyond the abstract. We don’t know the names of the factory workers who put the pieces together, or the names of the workers who smelted the ore into the metals, or the names of the miners who extracted the metals. It might as well be magic to us. A nebulous corporate brand simply made a magic box appear in our stores and we exchange paper or the electronic promise of paper for them. Then we go home and play and don’t think further. This applies to us designers as well, the games we make are made on devices built from slavery-derived minerals, even if all we do is produce digital content. Even the corporations are caught in this commodity fetishism, with no one working at the companies knowing where the materials and products they use come from either. If Sony and Nintendo don’t know where their magic boxes come from, what hope do we have?

But that doesn’t change the fact that we are complicit in the suffering of the DRC. I want to take a moment to comment on what I mean when I say “complicit” because I think many people tend to bristle at what they think this means. No one is claiming that you, average Joe and Jane consumer, are intentionally trying to hurt anyone, or that you alone can undo over a century of war and exploitation, or that you specifically are guilty of murder, rape or slavery. But regardless of our intentions and beliefs, we all have contributed and take part in a society that enables atrocities to happen in the name of convenience. Electronic companies and our demand for electronic goods are the driving force behind mineral production. All video games are made and played on these electronic devices, making it not merely an industry or consumer problem. As things currently stand, the entire medium has become complicit.

As of this post, it is not possible to buy a guaranteed conflict-free phone or game device. No matter how much you want to, you can’t play a video game without increasing the demand for conflict-minerals. This isn’t just a game problem, complicity cannot be avoided because of our very day-to-day life. How can you participate in our society without a phone? So then how do we work toward change if we have no meaningful choices other than buy a blood-phone or not be able to get a job or socialize? The crisis in the DRC is complicated and fueled by many sources. Cutting armed groups from the supply chain and helping promote safer alternatives helps, but won’t magically solve the problem. The idea that the electronics industry alone could end the human rights abuses in the DRC is naive (and pretty white-savior-y). Likewise a complete boycott of all Congolese minerals doesn’t help any of the miners there who need the little they get from trade to survive. But the idea that we should do nothing if we can’t do everything is a rather shallow deflection of responsibility.

Complicity does not innately mean fault, but it does mean responsibility. We have a responsibility to demand more information on what we buy. We have a responsibility to understand how our lives impact other lives. We have a responsibility to question how important our consumption really is. We have a responsibility to help build more open supply chains. We have a responsibility to insure the people we depend on for our goods are being treated fairly. We have a responsibility to demand that our companies live up to their commitment.

More Information:
Raise Hope for the Congo
Enough Project – Conflict Minerals

Update: Above I mentioned Intel’s work on creating a conflict-free microchip. Intel has announced that all their smelters are using conflict-free minerals and that they have stopped working with any that refused to change or allow an audit. This is currently being verified by 3rd parties, so it isn’t EXACTLY a guarantee yet, but it is still good news and proof that creating a conflict-free device is nowhere near out of the realm of possibility.

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