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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