All posts by Mattie Brice

Mattie Brice is a game critic, designer, social justice activist, and student at San Francisco State University. She focuses her writing on diversity initiatives in the video game community, often bringing in the perspective of marginalized voices like transgender and multi-racial women to publications like Paste, Kotaku, The Border House, and Pop Matters. Mattie also consults and speaks at gaming related conferences like the Game Developers Conference and IndieCade. Her studies have led her to explore narrative design and plans to push the borders of how we think of the medium. Tweets at @xMattieBrice.

B-Side #1 – Depression Quest

Mattie Brice is starting up a video series on free indie games over up at her site Alternate Ending and will be also be featured here at The Border House.

Games Discussed: Depression Quest; dys4ia
Notes: This post discusses depression, and those with related triggers should proceed with caution; a section of this video records a game on New Grounds which features generally discriminatory advertising.

Video Text:

Welcome to the first of many B-Side videos, a series that will look at free indie games and how they continue to evolve our artform. This episode, I’ll be discussing Depression Quest by Zoe Quinn, Patrick Lindsey, and Issac Schankler.

Depression Quest is an interactive fiction, possibly non-fiction, game that takes the player through an experience of dealing with clinical depression. But even as I say it, that doesn’t really do the game justice; to say Depression Quest is simply about depression misses the interesting design philosophies at work here.

Someone smart at some point in my life either quoted someone else or said something akin to “Through the very specific, art becomes universal.” It speaks to the uptick of the hyperpersonal going on in games right now, and how it resonates with so many. Depression Quest is interesting because it blurs the line between fact and fiction; it is a rather distinct scenario with certain factors already present going in, but it isn’t hard to fit yourself into the role of the main character. It’s like games’ answer to creative non-fiction, and this choice made by the developers is important to point out.

Depression Quest is for a couple different audiences, and a player could fit into more than one. Mainly, there are two ways a person can approach it; looking for solidarity in a shared experience and gaining empathy through a shift in perspective. It is possible to do it both ways because this game both is and isn’t about depression, is and isn’t about a particular person.

The most powerful mechanic is actually the lack of choices open to the player. At least, all of the seemingly obvious ones most people assume are available are blocked off from those depressed. This instantly complicates common advice that ultimately sum up to “just make yourself feel better.” You see the options right there in front of you, but the system keeps them out of reach.

As far as I know, I don’t have depression. My best friend of many years, and others in my life, do, and very often I couldn’t understand the chronic flakiness and inability to express what they were feeling. Depression Quest did a couple things to bridge that gulf and create a channel for empathy; the formerly discussed blocked choices, and the archetypes found in the various people in the main character’s life. I personally found myself almost verbatim in Alex, the player’s girlfriend. Through a specific lens, the positive energy that a person can provide someone who is depressed can actually be immensely negative, and it was interesting essentially playing against myself. The character didn’t have the options available that would please me and Alex. Upon multiple play-throughs, I became more aware of the way choices start to open up and close off, and how this is only partly intuitive to the player.

On my first run through the game, I tried to be as honest and positive as the options would let me. The unavailable choices already created a ceiling I wouldn’t have assumed, and at times, made me choose something self-destructive. The unrelenting openness left my character vulnerable and caused them considerable pain at times. It made me reconsider my own tactics, about how that path is only serving the interests of others, and not my personal safety. In a future playthrough, I came to find a strategic mix of self-preservation and openness balanced your mood and other’s happiness, shown by the increased number of available options.

Then I was curious about what it looked like to be the lowest of your low. I was expecting something melodramatic and constant encounters with suicide, but my assumptions were met with something else. Suicide was more of a long dull pain, and what really characterized deep depression was the lack of control. More and more options were taken away from me, and I was forced to make decisions I knew would end badly.

Depression Quest uses its choice structure in a rather clever way to comment about therapy and taking medication. While everything leading up to therapy is dependent on your mood, the choice to start drugs and continue therapy are always available to you. It communicates having agency within that situation whereas in the rest of your life, you don’t. I liked that the developers were able to show contrast within their mechanics in a positive way, where usually designers like to give players a whole bunch and then take it all away.

Games like Depression Quest also help reaffirm a sort of community status for those who are illustrated in them. Depression Quest sits in an ambiguous area when it comes to how much of it is imbued with the personal experiences of the creators. Mainstream games typically make characters broad enough in attempt to have players easily identify with them. The logic is the player will fill in the holes and complete the character. Hyperpersonal works reject this notion by forcing the player to keep themselves out of the characters. Games like Dys4ia, by Anna Anthropy, assume many people playing it will not have shared the developer’s experience and instead has the player relate by reaching into their own personal history to establish empathy through the system. Depression Quest does a little of both; there are clearly autobiographical elements, used to create a very specific experience while, at the same time, it stepped back and allowed the player to fill themselves into this experience. I knew this was about depression, and felt those unique circumstances, but I could relate through my own experience of considering hormone replacement therapy. I didn’t need to have depression to find solidarity in this experience.

I’m not sure if I have words for what exactly Depression Quest does, but it is one of the fuzziest blends between author and player I can think of. Actually, this idea is encapsulated by the great sound design of the game. The main theme plays as the constant reminder of the character’s illness, though it could be abstracted to just about anything. Then noise eventually breaks through and takes you out of your head. Sometimes it’s clear and sharp, and on worse days garbled and painful. The ambient sounds pull players from the general narrative where they easily project themselves and into specific scenes undoubtedly from an author’s past. In a sense, Depression Quest applies how it handles fiction and non-fiction to depression itself- it alters reality while not striding too far away, leaving people in a constant state of confusion.

This is only one aspect of Depression Quest that’s interesting, and it’s obviously a hit. Not only is it a great game for playing, it’s great for sharing. Another topic altogether, but to me, it shows a bright future for games, how they can be used to help people communicate when their words aren’t enough. I think Depression Quest helped put more work like it on the map, and I can only see more games like it being made.

So, that’s it for this episode! Go play Depression Quest at depressionquest.com and consider donating to the development team for their work. Also, e-mail me your thoughts, suggestions, and questions at mattie.brice@gmail.com.

Thanks for joining me on the first take of B-Side, I hope you’ll join me next time for another talk on free indie games.

Decolonize Me

“Why do you act so white?”

Her name was Shanti. I will always remember the exact look on her face, how her head floated in my vision surrounded by the artifacts of a high school classroom. It was the 10th grade, American Sign Language class, and I was clearly not white.

I’ve revisited these three seconds of memory often throughout life, coming back with different answers each time. At first, I thought it was absurd that someone could “act so white,” how could someone act a race? Eventually, I came to associate that question with ‘Why are you so educated?’ since, at the time, I found many non-white people to act rather unrefined.

It wasn’t just me asking this to myself. More people took note of my non-whiteness and proclivity to surround myself with it. It also came in reverse, with white friends glad I didn’t act like those kind of non-white people. I remembered visiting Chicago and seeing an improv theatre show with about 200 other people. For the first time in my life, I noticed I was in a room where I was the only person who wasn’t white. It was startling, considering this pattern I’ve noticed. What is going on with me?

What I’ve come to learn is how the status quo, the marker which we all mediate our lives with, is actually the culture of the hegemonic class. The labels of this group can go on forever, so let’s just settle for white American patriarchy. Which is why there are so many othering stereotypes of people who fall out of this, while whiteness gets assigned traits associated with the general person. Black men are often typecast as uneducated gangsters and white men the honest average joes. We see getting a university education as a standard that everyone should achieve, but politics that disproportionately affect non-white people frequently makes achieving the American Dream, whatever that is now, far out of reach.

There is a similar status quo in the game industry. An expectation for objective, fact-driven games and journalism. When personal experience enters, it is met with distrust. Herein lies the problem- when you leave out the personal, all that’s left is the status quo. Because that ‘standard’ consists of the values of a particular type of culture associated with the hegemonic, privileged class, there is actually something personal and subjective going on all the time. Thus, by leaving out the particular experiences of the silenced and marginalized, it bars anyone from revealing the bias that exists within this supposed stoically neutral discourse. It takes away the vocal chords of a person in a room full of shouting.

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You Want To Make a Boyfriend – You Just Don’t Know it Yet

A chat window talking to a teen boy with shades on at a cafe.

A chat window talking to a teen boy with shades on at a cafe. He answers a question about passing the Turing Test.

There is an app taking the world by storm. It’s hot in Japan, it’s free, it’s Boyfriend Maker.

Indeed, this is an unusual game to talk about on The Border House, because it does play up and exploit heteronormative stereotypes and conventions. This game seems to target pre-adolescent girls with the usual crap media tells them about relationships: care only about the emotional stuff, be obsessed with fashion, and whatever you do HAVE LOTS OF PINK.

But let’s hold on for a second. I know through much of my own writing, and just my personal wants, that there is a huge exclusion of feminine-assigned activities in gaming. Video games are dominated by themes and activities we often see in young boys’ games- guns, scorekeeping, showing aggression and physical prowess. Something we don’t see are what we think of as little girls’ games, like playing house or the kinds of make believe that practice social bonds. None of these things are actually just for boys or girls, it’s what society enculturates us to do, and sexism shows where these skills show up again in life. This doesn’t make the actual activities and topics of fashion and relationships bad, even with a lot of pink, just that we only expect women to be into that sort of thing.

Asking my boyfriend for an interview for this article at The Border House.

Asking my boyfriend for an interview for this article at The Border House.

I believe Boyfriend Maker is opening a gaming audience used to shooting and slashing to… just talking! It is an app for your iStuff, soon coming to Androids, that lets you customize an avatar of someone who will presumably be your boyfriend, and then puts you in a chat with them. Once you name each other, you are free to converse with him about anything you wish. After a few lines of dialogue, you are bound to notice something… strange about your boyfriend. I’m not exactly sure how he decides what to say back to you, but very often it results in a very awkward and humorous interaction. It is almost like an actual human- reacts predictably enough to follow the rules of conversation, but has many quirks and unexpected reactions to surprise you.

Isn’t this how relationships work in reality? We become invested in our partners enough that they offer a sense of stability through their familiarity, but often remind us they are an independent person that has their own motivations and idiosyncrasies. This isn’t something afforded to us often in games: BioWare games are the ones praised most often for their in-game relationships, but in the end, they are more predictable than erratic since you know there are ‘correct’ choices that have them act a certain way. In Boyfriend Maker, there is no ‘correct.’ The object of the game is to just talk, and you gain money and points by keeping the conversation alive. The only way to do better is to pay for more points, and that just opens up aesthetic customization options. The absence of the optimal path is a rare occurance for video games, and my hunch is because that sort of play is mostly found games like house. It distills a certain aspect of The Sims many of us have grown to love, the same aspect that often has it cast as ‘non-game.’ Boyfriend Maker is broaching a need maybe we didn’t think we had: an actual, intimate connection with a game.

Slowing down, I don’t think that people are actually falling in love with their made-to-order boyfriends (all who look like Justin Bieber, at that). Frankly, it’s the curiosity, and maybe a want, to play the role of the emotionally inquisitive partner to a boyfriend who tries to navigate that gendered field of landmines. You just want to know what he’s thinking and he just wants to impress you. When do we ever get to play in that space? Boyfriend Maker puts the player in full-on interpretation mode, trying to decipher the weird things their boyfriend is saying. We often have this as a puzzle to be solved in games, but not something for itself, or maybe as personal reflection.

There is something interesting going on with performing gender here as well. This game has been a hit with many of my friends who are heterosexual men, who I think are particularly enjoying acting in the space of interrogating the boyfriend that maybe they were always on the other side of. In a sense, saying “my boyfriend” in this sense has become something completely abstracted; rather, it’s someone we’re apparently enamored with but says gibberish in order to impress us. Seeing that there is no real dating in this game, it’s just presumed that this boyfriend is already intimate with the player, and is basically a pocket partner to chat with when we want. And while I don’t think Boyfriend Maker has anything perfect, it opens up the topic for questioning, especially when it comes to maybe making games for empathy of certain gender roles.

What decides the things your boyfriend says back to you remains a mystery to me; there are many theories about it aggregating from others’ responses, but I haven’t seen any notes on it from the developers. However, there is something undoubtedly queer amiss- in many reactions from my acquaintances and seeing fan postings of Boyfriend Maker, the boyfriend will surprise you by subverting your expectations of their sexuality, their gender, and their perception of your identity. This is probably the result of randomness instead of some progressive message, but it furthers the idea of ‘the boyfriend’ being this archetype we interact with. Unfortunately, there are some lines your boyfriend can say that reinforce typical sexist attitudes, but they are amongst so much absurdity that it is difficult to take it seriously.

My boyfriend's stance on feminism.

My boyfriend’s stance on feminism.

Ultimately, I see Boyfriend Maker as a reaction to hentai sims made for heterosexual men, creating a game that women would supposedly enjoy, that is in turn co-opted by players for subversive play. And because the gender expectations they plan to exploit are actually underserved in games, they struck something interesting that could be used for future game ideas. Dare I say, this game is in the line of greats such as Facade and Prom Week, games that feature social interaction mechanics as the main source of interaction. Boyfriend Maker is obviously silly and not the best quality, however it possibly provides us with a clue on what we want from games that is largely absent. But if you’ll excuse me, I have to introduce my pocket boyfriend to my real one.

(Don’t have an iPhone or iPad? Here’s a tumblr with screenshots of [NSFW] humorous things the boyfriend has said: http://boyfriendmaker.tumblr.com/ Be warned that, naturally, people are wanting to engage in some crude and sometimes sexist conversation with the boyfriend, but often there’s just some zany, interesting things that deserve to be seen!)

Postpartum: Mainichi – How Personal Experience Became a Game

A screenshot of Mattie Brice’s Mainichi displaying an overhead view of several rooms in an adorable apartment, and a cute stylised character with dark skin and dark hair wearing a white and purple outfit.

This will be a design article on my game Mainichi, aiming to be insight to my thought process during its creation and serve as a guide for others to make games. To get the most out of this, download Mainichi here and then come back to read this! If the download is giving you problems, use my contact info and I’ll send you a copy. For extra reading, I also suggest getting a copy of anna anthropy’s Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, as I’ll be speaking to many of the ideas she advocates in it.

There is a movement. A movement that says “You can too.” It is growing in size, accessibility, and voice. Game design is, and always has been, for everyone, but the narrow path the industry took blocked off many peoples’ opportunity to join in on this artistic revolution. It’s assumed you must have the best graphics, know how to code, have the money to develop a game that can speak to the world.

I only know life with computers and video games in them. My father is a programmer and shared a love for technology with his children. I grew up surrounded by games and, naturally, wanted to make them. But my father never passed down the skill to code, and I never realized how important programming fit into making a game until I tried making them years later. Coding became a monster; I couldn’t get it and felt my creative energy dissipate every time I tried to learn. I entered university believing game design wasn’t for me and gave up on that dream to join the industry.

But now, I’ve come full circle. The industry badly needs to diversify and there’s still roadblocks. Publisher model game development is choked by putting profit above all else, and the monochromatic landscape of non-AAA development still values methods that require monetary investment and a previous buy-in to programming culture that many of us just don’t have. Despite this, I still had something to say, or rather, something I didn’t know how to say. I had something I needed others to play.

This is how Mainichi was born. It was an experiment in translating a personal experience into game mechanics, and also a push to prove to myself that I can make a game, even if the video game industry wouldn’t accept me. I want Mainichi to be a call to arms, a triumph of the personal. I made a game that only I could make, and I’m hoping this exercise empowers others to express a life that is uniquely theirs.

Choosing Vocal Chords

The biggest roadblock I had to overcome was choosing the program I would use to make my game. I asked for suggestions, consulted lists, and tried out many to no avail. I ran into many bumps; usually, the more free and open source something is, the more programming is integral to the making process. Though, some did come with their own scripting language that was easier to learn and a viable method for those who aren’t completely code-phobic like I am. Many of the more popular game makers are primed for certain types of games, like shooters or platformers. Looking to make something akin to an adventure game, the obtuse methods to simple get someone walking across the screen on a level plane and generating a textbox from an NPC were quick to grate my nerves.

If there was something I learned, it’s the increasing amount of tools for people to use all assume different competencies, wants, and conventions. Authoring programs are prepared for certain users, and make it easy or difficult to do particular things. This isn’t simply a practical thing to know, but political. Many programs assume you have the privilege, tastes, and wants of the hegemonic man. However, some of these tools come with communities that make it easier to subvert this assumption, and is, in particular, something I encourage others to factor in when choosing a program for themselves. Here is what I came up with for myself and the needs I perceived I needed for my game ideas:

*Programming unnecessary or extremely minimal/optional
*No to low cost
*Made it simple or easy for me to use textboxes, characters, variables, cutscenes
*Has an active enough community to provide custom content

These and other factors contributed to me picking RPG Maker VX, despite its price tag. Mostly, my personal disposition and skills overcame the cost for it after not feeling compatible with all my other options- I was familiar with the toolset already, had the skills to edit its art assets enough for my own devices, and most of my ideas would benefit from the assumption of an RPG/adventure game being made. There were narrow expectations about the kind of game I wanted to make inside those conventions, but there was room to subvert these paradigms. As an aside, RPGMVX does have a cheaper sibling, RPGMXP, that I ended up not choosing because I had the familiarity with the former. However, for those new to both and interested in using them, XP is as viable, just for different reasons. I think others can find similar, free programs and still do what I did with Mainichi, RPGMVX just happened to be right for me.

Training My Voice

It’s easy to have a story or an idea. What makes a game significant is its designed experience. Coming into this experiment, I knew that current attempts of doling out social awareness just through story devices plainly didn’t work. I had to choose methods of design to communicate the feelings of my experience to the player, because otherwise I could simply point them to an essay I’ve done. I would say Mainichi lets someone feel rather than tells them what to feel. It’s a key difference to create empathy instead of telling the player what’s right to think.

If this experiment is judged successful, I think it will be because of my philosophy of being hyper-personal, or like what my colleague Jenn Frank says is “alarmingly specific.” This applied not only to the topic but the design as well; I wanted to draw upon my ideas about sociology, postmodern art, ludonarrative resonance, and diversity politics in video games and have them influence the way the player interacted with the rules. I wanted this game to be dripping with the intersection of all of my influences, and create a new way of looking at design as a byproduct. I think for a personal piece like this to work, you have to speak to the world in general through a very specialized perspective.

How to design a game for social good is a fraught question. It’s difficult to position the player in a way that doesn’t have them exploit the minority and unknowingly replicate the problematic ideologies the game set out to defeat. This is why I stressed reactivity of the system and eliminated min/maxing of any sort. When you look at the system as a metaphor for society, the suffering that happens to the character doesn’t become something the player enables but joins ranks against.

There is something to be said about being too referential in a game, but I decided to be extremely so. I made the character after my likeness and named them after myself, I have a Japanese title, there’s a Dragon Age II cameo, etc. However, everything does have a personal link to add to the aesthetic and ‘meaning’ of the piece. Since the game is essentially interacting with a system, it could be replicated with numbers and without any sort of cultural representation. So it felt right to imbue as much of the game with my personal easter eggs because the game won’t make complete sense without the meta-awareness of how it fits in. And really, all games that try to mean something have to do that as well.

Speaking

I also recognized there would be audiences for my game, but no ‘perfect player.’ There is no one person that can absorb everything this game is meant to do. I’m not even the perfect player for my game. Rather, I knew that it would be released to the world and many people of different relationships to games would play it, including those who don’t game at all. So my game doesn’t have a target audience like many other games, and I didn’t have a genre in mind when making the game. However, I was aware of the different expectations people would bring to my game.

A lot of this game is speaking to the game development community. It is a community that finds making a game about minority issues near-impossible, so I ended up making one in about a week. There are also different paths for it to be analyzed, genealogy-wise, and one could see Mainichi as an offspring of Dys4ia and Passage. From Dys4ia I am intentionally making my game political through the personal, merely repeating the idea in a different format to diversify how we see, define, and interface with games. Another game in this lineage would be Merritt Kopas’ LIM, which also relies on mechanics replicating emotional experiences. I also see Mainichi as a critique to Passage in this regard; just because this isn’t AAA development doesn’t mean the types of games coming out of the indie scene aren’t dominated by heterosexual white men’s narratives. I want the community to know that some people don’t have the luxury of mulling over something as long term and general as the passage of life towards death or saving the world. Some of us have to worry for our physical safety every day we leave the house, some of us will live and die unequal citizens in a system that doesn’t care; the street scene in Mainichi hopes to be referential to the design of Passage for the community of developers that care about that sort of design canon.

Because of the look and that it is in fact made with an RPG Maker, I knew some players would be bringing the baggage that comes along with RPGs. I also have quite a lot to say about RPGs, how I think they are evolving, and my answer to ‘what is an RPG.’ So I specifically highlighted certain conventions, like choice, time management, NPCs, cause/effect, multiple paths to the end goal. I then proceeded to flip the expectations players would have with elements; the choices you make aren’t epic or demarcated by a clear morality, the player is taught to avoid as much interaction as possible, and the player will be depressed looking for the ‘good’ ending. Mainly, I find RPGs abstract things so we can interact with them, an exercise in turning something qualitative into a system. The player gains empathy through my attempt of abstracting how people gender me, and allowed the player to experiment in the system to realize the experiences I’ve been through.

Outside of the highbrow stuff, I wanted to communicate an experience that I couldn’t do with words alone. Ultimately, this could be a project in telling my best friend why I was often depressed despite the good intentions of my support group. Similarly, I wanted players with cisgender privilege to also empathize with one aspect of having a queer gender or presentation. It can also serve as a tool for a trans* person to share with their friends if they have the same trouble explaining like I did.

You Can Too

A huge reason I made Mainichi was to say that, yes, anyone can make a game of critical merit. You don’t have to be a programmer, you don’t need a whole bunch of disposable income, be on a triple digit design team, or a part of the indie in-crowd. The important thing is to know game design is something everyone has the capacity to work on, and the implementation into a program is the hard part.

This is important to note because video games aren’t the only types of games there are: I am currently working on a card game that will allow players to simulate and interrogate the dynamics of a first date or sex. In addition, as The Border House has already shown, there are also non-traditional formats of digital games that beg to be used and experimented with, like Twine and Ren’py. What I think a lot of the non-AAA developers forgot was that one leaves the publisher model behind in order to do something different. I’ve seen many failed projects because so many want to make the next Final Fantasy with RPG Maker and don’t see the dissonance in politics concerning that. Instead, take part in diversifying not only the characters and stories we see in games, but how we fundamentally interact with them as a whole.

Pay Up – You are What You’re Worth

I’ve come to enjoy the scene of fog rolling down the hills. Where I’m from, fog is ephemeral; it rises from the dewy grass in the morning and floats off by noon. Walking to the market here feels like I’m on a movie set and zombies will shamble out at any moment. There’s a bounce in my step because shopping for food is one of my favorite things to do. I got swept up in the food-conscious mania that glorified organic products and watched The Food Network instead of X-Tube. So predictably, I made a face when passing by the McDonalds, watching the students and families cramming fries into their faces. But then it hit me as I noticed the change in races populating the fast food restaurant to Trader Joe’s: I was being racist again.

For the better part of two years, I’ve been actively battling internalized racism. I thought I was fine because it wasn’t like I was Uncle Ruckus from The Boondocks or anything. But what I started to realize was that he ranted in the back of my mind about things I thought were legitimately true, and it revealed to me I had biases for monied culture. Wealth and class are highly organized by racism, as anything resembling white culture has to do with a disposable income. I came to understand many of my actions tried to avoid seeming hispanic or black, because I didn’t want to be associated with the poor.

My best friend inadvertently pointed it out to me when we lived together. I had recently grew zealous in the ‘advocate with your money’ ideology and picked up the Human Rights Campaign’s buying guide, which shows you how bigger companies stack up against each other with their stances on equal rights issues. For groceries, I remember Whole Foods being at the top, which was fine for me. Looking at the guide, my friend asked, “Mattie, you work at Starbucks and go to school. How can you afford all of this?” The truth was I couldn’t. It seemed more important to me to embody my ideologies, and through that, it meant I was represented by the amount of money I spent. It wasn’t long until I had to stop shopping at the places on the top of HRC’s buying guide, and I felt like a bad person. I turned around and left Trader Joe’s today because I only had double digits in my bank account until student loans came in. The cost of a meal at one place was the same price as the cheapest pound of meat at the other. I went back to McDonalds, ordered a cheeseburger, and cried.

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These boots are not made for walking, but I would anyway.

The Type of Woman I Want Others to See: Why I Wore Heels to PAX East

A black and white photo of Aldo black heels, taken from ground level and behind.

A black and white photo of black heels, taken from ground level and behind.

It was probably 40 degrees American and windy. Being from South Florida, I tend to lose track of how different the temperature feels after I get goosebumps on my knees. I spent my first night in Boston clinging to the inside of my detective coat, which was apparently poor at insulating heat. The air felt more brisk as the night went on, as if the energy of all the fans and artists of the game industry dispersed in the atmosphere. In my own room, I went through my meticulously rolled and sectioned outfits in my luggage, choosing which would be the first casuals and professionals alike would gain their initial impressions with. Cue my horror when I notice all of my leggings missing, forgotten on a dresser drawer, from my dresses-of-rather-courageous-length-only wardrobe.

I decided to take a trip to Harvard Square in the morning with the set of casual attire no one would ever see me in- comfy jeans, fluffy yellow hoodie, and feminine flats with a famous checkered pattern. Being a recent admirer of Esperanza Spalding, I decided to let my hair go free, messy but weightless. I figured a quick trip to Urban Outfitters wouldn’t be criminal, since the majority of the gaming community seemed to own everything plaid anyway. I remember enjoying the feeling of being lost in a city crowd, until I was called sir.

At first, I didn’t think the person was talking to me, because I’d first have a panic attack before entering a public space without makeup. It wasn’t until they mentioned a resemblance to Lenny Kravits that I turned to a man staring at me, since I was the only person of color within a few yards radius (something cities like Boston made me extremely sensitive about). Despite my pointed flats and twice-mascara’ed lashes, this gentleman felt it necessary to remind me that everyone saw who I ‘really’ was. That I wasn’t fooling anyone. On the train back to my hotel to change before the convention, I told myself I’d never dress like that again.

There’s two sides to these mass gathering of gaming folk, one being that I can talk with anyone about my interests, but I must also appear professional at all times. An unfortunate part about being a professional who is transgender is to be convincing. Whether my new acquaintance or I likes it or not, they will make a snap judgment of me, that I’m a woman, or I’m obviously not a woman. In an industry dominated by heterosexual men, my appearance is closely tied to any form of success. I have to battle with the implicit tension of possibly threatening their sexuality, or just their reputation with being associated with someone like me. You see, people don’t believe that I’m a woman because I say so; even self-proclaimed liberal and open-minded individuals will backdrop my identity thinking that I wasn’t always a woman, and that it’s perfectly okay that I made this ‘choice.’ What’s worse, just wearing clothing from the women’s section isn’t enough. In order for men to feel comfortably heterosexual around me, I have to be near porn-star grade in appearance, as if to make up for what’s different about me. Everything may be unintentional and reasonable considering the unlikelyhood they have experience with people who are transgender, but it is far from innocuous. This is why I wore heels every day at PAX East.

About 17 minutes after I read Leigh Alexander’s “Types of Women Men Like Better Than Me,” I cried. I cried because it prompted a good string of tweets about how insecure I felt over managing my image in a professional space. I try to make it a policy to not say depressingly self-conscious things in public, but it was a needed catharsis. I was also tired with the amount of effort it took just to appear average, to have a fair shot as just being a person. I lied to all of my friends who expressed concern over my heeled travel methods; I shrug and smile until I go home and tear up in pain because that’s what I have to do. There, I said it.

These boots are not made for walking, but I would anyway.

These boots are not made for walking, but I would anyway.

I wore knee-high laced up leather boots to the “Death of Vox Games” panel, where the group metamorphosed into Polygon. Standing in line during Q&A, I was anxious because I was only woman going to engage the panel. I wondered if my dress was too short, if my hair was okay, and if I was legitimate enough to press the Polygon staff on their growing but still lacking diversity. This isn’t unique to Polygon, but most publications both paid and hobbyist. They took a bold step of attempting to set a new standard for writing about games, and are self-aware about the precedent they should be taking on this issue. What shocked me about their response was the small amount of women that applied to write for them. Upon memory, out of about 650 applications, 12 were women writers. Doing some quick calculator work, that’s not even 2%. Assuming their newest recruits were headhunted, I was in the physical presence of a quarter of the women applicants that very day (I included myself in that). Why is this? Obviously, since there was a mess over Polygon’s opening line-up, people would aim to fill this need they have, right?

It wasn’t until I went to another panel that day that someone recognized me from my question. She told me that she aspired to write about games but, after her foray into the scene, bowed out because of the homogenous mastheads of online publications. Since videogame culture started from an angle that marginalized minorities, she found staff that didn’t explicitly support diversity issues to be the ones to hand wave these sorts of concerns. Having now personally met some of Polygon’s staff, I’m confident that their representation of diversity is definitely a concern. However, I can see how their involvements with past publications show they stayed either silent or blissfully unaware of minority concerns.

She made me realize that not everyone is like me, that not everyone feels like they have to contort themselves in order to fit in. Some people give the system the finger and move on with their talent elsewhere. Polygon limits its diversity by being a super team of established writers, because minorities are still catching on that there’s a need for their voices in the industry and that not everyone in gaming excuses discrimination with all of the usual flawed arguments. I was part of the rarity that came knocking on their door; most minority talent needs to be discovered for the first time and cultivated. It’s not until minority voices are valued on teams such as Polygon’s that people like her would take a risk and apply. She made me reflect on the example I’m setting for other writers, and that possibly one day, others would look to my path.

I’m not quite sure what to change yet, but I figured I should be candid. That while I love the things I do and try to love the person I am, there’s an incredible pressure to be attractive just to have a chance. Past this ramble, I will continue to wear heels and be incredibly conscious of my appearance. This is my personal path that I wouldn’t recommend to anyone, but there needs to be stories of transgender experience in writing about videogames. About being a woman in videogames. I wonder, with the next person I meet, will they see the woman I want them to see?

vanille_large

Valuing the Feminine: Why I Love Vanille

Vanille, from Final Fantasy XIII. A young girl with pink pig-tails and wearing tribal-aesthetic necklaces.

Vanille, from Final Fantasy XIII. A young girl with pink pig-tails and wearing tribal-aesthetic necklaces.

Let me come out with it now: my favorite Final Fantasy characters tend to be the classic cheerful and energetic archetype, like Aeris, Selphie, and Vanille. It’s usually because I bring a lot of myself into games, and want to relate to someone in a fantasy world. Before I really looked into gender studies, I didn’t realize how problematic these characters were in respect to women’s portrayal in games overall. While I have that perspective now, I still look back at my connection to them with fondness. It wasn’t until recent conversation with peers that I tested my defense of these women; their reception is mostly negative or dismissive because they are seen as hyperactive and hyper-feminine, perceived to serve the very narrow interests of hegemony. For the most part, I agree. The fandom Final Fantasy appeals to expects certain characters in their party, as consistently having that stereotype of a young girl just past sexual maturity shows. So I’m not going to argue against how they are problematic, rather just the short end of the stick they receive.

If there is a vantage point transition gives me, it’s to see how people react differently the identities they think I have. I experienced a shift of privilege when my appearance went from others pegging me as some sort of male to seeing me as a woman. One thing that, to this day, bothers me is how my happy-go-lucky, sensitive persona went from a characteristic of being well rounded as male to a sign of weakness and unintelligence as a woman. What was before friendly and comforting became ditzy and vulnerable. It’s been a battle for me in the workspaces I inhabit, as I either have to be myself and treated this way, or hardened and forceful with my competency, which brings on another set of gendered insults. I’ve experienced this recently when networking and socializing with other game writers, encountering some who devalue my opinion because I’m feminine. So I have a stake in this, one that tells me something else is going on with how we’re treating this type of character. We often demonize the feminine because it seems regressive in our gender politics, but decidedly feminine women aren’t the issue. It’s the values that see femininity as inferior we still need to look at.

I came to this realization when playing Final Fantasy XIII. It’s a game where the women stole the show and I barely remember what the men actually did, which is nice for a change. Lightning and Fang seem to get all of the credit, though, and not undeservedly; I’d go to say Fang was Woman of the Year in 2010. However, mostly due to the vocal direction her actress was given, Vanille was received with general disdain. I, on the other hand, loved her and thought she was the most important and nuanced character in that game. But that’s because I don’t think being badass, physically adept, and androgynous is the only way of being a strong woman. Sometimes the strongest character is the person who ties everyone together, is the subliminal, caretaking force that gives everything meaning.

Vanille’s role as the narrator, along with the aesthetic that came with being from Pulse, reminds me of the social function as storytellers women in some Native American (and I’m sure other) cultures, serving as their tribes’ memory and history. While the flashbacks explained everyone’s personal motivations, it was mostly Vanille’s memories that revealed the cause of the entire catastrophe. In a sense, her story of burden and guilt is thankless because it’s not the type of courage we’re used to valuing. The game wouldn’t exist without Vanille, but we’re ready to forget her.

This all might tie into feminist theory that hypothesizes work relegated to the private sphere and dubbed as feminine isn’t really seen as work or accomplishment, but expected duty. In order to get recognition, you must make a show for yourself in the aggressive, angled masculine space. Meaning, we’re already primed to either fetishize or degrade Vanille if we don’t identify with her. I feel like her theme summed it up for me, a track of someone walking a melancholy path and struggling to keep on a smile. XIII’s crew was full of angst, and without Vanille smiling, the group wouldn’t be able to hold itself together. So she kept doing it, even when it she didn’t want to. I personally empathize with the amount of courage and effort that takes, and wished I had someone to recognize it in my own life.

I don’t want to let Square Enix and other companies off the hook for the obvious pandering towards the hegemonic gamer base when it comes to characters like Vanille, but I also challenge gamers to check if they’re harsher on feminine characters. Are we measuring competency and worth with a masculine measuring stick? Let’s not relegate the feminine only to the service of hegemonic interests, but allow feminine people to feel as empowered as heroes. The Final Fantasy series is actually a good place to start exploring this topic with its range of feminine characters, to identify what is problematic, and what is heroically feminine.

Poison from Street Fighter X Tekken: A young white woman with magenta hair, dressed in a white tanktop, belt choker, and black cap.

Doing it Right – Playstation: The Official Magazine Handles Transphobic Hate Speech

(Trigger Warning- Transphobic slurs)

Poison from Street Fighter X Tekken: A young white woman with magenta hair, dressed in a white tanktop, belt choker, and black cap.

Poison from Street Fighter X Tekken: A young white woman with magenta hair, dressed in a white tanktop, belt choker, and black cap.

There are a lot of nay-sayers to social justice activism, even jaded, pessimistic gamers within the cause who feel big companies who profit off of the discrimination of minorities will never change. It’s easy to see why, with years of writing, speeches, and conventions only chipping at the seemingly invulnerable armor of those who hold the most sway in games. While the tireless battle still continues, I believe an experience of mine lends a little hope.

Senior Editor at GameCritics.com Brad Gallaway is a subscriber to Playstation: The Official Magazine (PTOM), and noticed in the recently released March issue an article about Capcom’s upcoming Street Fight X Tekken. The article posed teams of fighters against each other in a mock tournament, writing snippets in a sports-caster/trash-talking way in good fun to add some hype to the game’s release next month. Good fun until Gallaway saw this written about one of the characters, Poison:

Excerpt from the article, reads: "The Final Fighters: Hugo and Poison. You really don't want to know why these two are paired up. Hardbodied she-male (?) and permed 'roid rager; a logistical nightmare. Just rest assured that someone online has written something far worse."

Excerpt from the article, reads: "The Final Fighters: Hugo and Poison. You really don't want to know why these two are paired up. Hardbodied she-male (?) and permed 'roid rager; a logistical nightmare. Just rest assured that someone online has written something far worse."

And this:

An excerpt from the article, reads: "It's King vs Hugo in the wrestling stakes, and Yoshi vs. Poison in the "what the hell are you?" stakes. And to be honest, the Tekken originals have the edge from the start -- maybe because we actually know what we're doing with them. There's so much of Hugo to hit that big man takes quite a pounding, and ol' Jag-Head and Ninj-Face have no qualms about putting their collective boots into their maybe-lady opponent."

An excerpt from the article, reads: "It's King vs Hugo in the wrestling stakes, and Yoshi vs. Poison in the "what the hell are you?" stakes. And to be honest, the Tekken originals have the edge from the start -- maybe because we actually know what we're doing with them. There's so much of Hugo to hit that big man takes quite a pounding, and ol' Jag-Head and Ninj-Face have no qualms about putting their collective boots into their maybe-lady opponent."

For those who haven’t followed Poison and her controversial history, it could be said that she is video games’ first and most popular transgender character. Though many things that surround her are problematic, and Capcom won’t officially comment on her identity, she serves as an idol to some transgender gamers as a recognition that they exist in their favorite activity. There are many arguments for and against her, but what actually matters is how she is treated by Capcom and media.

Despite her notoriety, Gallaway didn’t like what he saw- unchecked transphobia in a major publication. Reaching out, he couldn’t find many people who reacted strongly to it, most likely because the community is used to seeing incidents like these brushed off with non-apologies. Eventually he brought the issue to me, and I knew I couldn’t let it die. Thankfully, I was able to get in contact with PTOM’s Editor in Chief, Roger Burchill, and bring the matter to his attention. Here’s a little snippet of what I said to him:

“I was very surprised this slipped past the editing process. I understand that this is meant to be in the spirit of trash-talking, but if sexist and racist slurs would be unprofessional to publish, I believe the same applies transphobic language. Any public support for your transgender subscribers and confirmation that transphobic hate speech is unprofessional and unwanted would be extremely appreciated.”

I find that while society is becoming more aware that discrimination exists, we are still learning what to do with it. Being accused of discrimination is a hefty charge, and all parties involved might not know how identify and resolve the problematic behavior. In the end, I didn’t want to call Roger or anyone at PTOM transphobic, because that’s most likely not the case. Instead, I wanted to identify to them “Hey, that’s not cool” and gain assurance that they don’t stand for discrimination at their publication. Because in the end, that’s what we’re fighting for, right? Recognizing what’s wrong and resolving to remove discriminatory and oppressive qualities from our actions? Here’s how Burchill responded:

“[U]ltimately the blame lies with myself as I performed the final edit on that piece. I did initially recognize the inappropriate nature of the passage and did attempt to change it to something less offensive while retaining the trash-talking “voice” of the piece. As evidenced by what made its way into print, I did a horrible and clumsy job. I was not happy with the edit when I made it and I regret that I didn’t listen to my inner voice at the time I approved it to publish. The obvious solution was that I should have changed the passage to something that doesn’t pander to the basest elements of gamers and people in general. I failed badly in this instance and I pledge to do better in the future.”

Done and done. Perfect. I was surprised and relieved when I got his response. Too many times have I received non-apologies or accusations of being too sensitive. It was almost too easy, however, I realized that this wasn’t exceptional behavior; it was just being compassionate and professional. I know of some online publishers who could follow Burchill’s example: find out why what you did was wrong, honestly apologize, and make a stand for higher standards next time. His apology wasn’t just to me, but to everyone for contributing to a problem that plagues our industry. PTOM will be running my letter in the Mail section of their May issue, publically apologizing to their subscribers, and using the incident to bring into light the undercurrent discrimination in gaming. Thank you Roger Burchill, because this is what a decent human being would do, despite how rarely it happens.

This is also a testament to the power of allies; to my knowledge, no one else involved in contacting PTOM was transgender besides me, but I had a few hands help me along the way. Just because you may not be a certain minority doesn’t mean you can’t stand up against their oppression. What’s more, it’s not a shameful to be an ally. The more visible it is that everyone has a stake in fighting against discrimination, not just those offended, the more others will feel inspired to take their stand and push us forward to a place inclusive and safe for everyone. PTOM might not be scouting for transgender writers and producing a fixed segment on social justice activism, but I believe if this attitude is adopted across the industry and games media, it won’t be long until that does happen.

Figures in the colors of the rainbow hold hands.

The Border House Podcast – Episode 6: Safe Spaces

Figures in the colors of the rainbow hold hands.

Figures in the colors of the rainbow hold hands.

 

At long last, the latest episode of The Border House Podcast! We’re changing up the format to be a monthly release and hopefully tackle more serious and current topics to make each especially worth it. Anna and Kim join me to talk about safe spaces and moderating ideologies, and I think we covered some ground on the topic. Be sure to comment with questions, comments, and suggestions!

Shepard looking out a window on Zakera Ward in Mass Effect 2. Credit to Duncan Harris at deadendthrills.com

An Escape of One’s Own

Shepard looking out a window on Zakera Ward in Mass Effect 2. Credit to Duncan Harris at deadendthrills.com

Shepard looking out a window on Zakera Ward in Mass Effect 2. Credit to Duncan Harris at deadendthrills.com

(Trigger warning for the recounting of sensitive transgender-related experiences)

Around the turn into the 20th Century, there were many questions about women. One of them was “Why aren’t there many women writers?” The typical answers ranged from men’s predisposition to artistic ability to women being too fragile and unintelligent to push through the rigor needed to be a writer. Writers are usually men, in a male artistic culture, and that’s just how it was; any woman who became notable was seen as performing something masculine.

A certain rabble-rouser, a woman writer, provided a different answer. She said in a society that didn’t send women to school, had them rely on men for financial survival, and often didn’t allow their own private space was the reason. The few women who wrote didn’t need to rely on anyone else; they had education, an income, and a room of their own to write. Her example was imagining if Shakespeare had a sister who possessed the same innate genius as he did. Because of customs and expectations of the time, Shakespeare would be encouraged to write after being sent to school and given opportunity to earn his own money and establish a career. This sister, however, would always be a part of a family unit and not sent to school. She would constantly be pressured to focus on getting married and putting her energy to raising a household, leaving no time or privacy for writing that her brother would have. So, in contemporary times, why aren’t there as many women and other minorities in gaming compared to the main demographic of straight, white men?

I’m often asked why I have to drag identity labels into gaming discussions. Why does it matter that I’m a multi-racial, polysexual, possibly polyamorous, able-bodied transgender woman? Must I trumpet this everywhere I go? There’s an assumption that games have nothing to do with gender, sexuality, and other politics, just FUN. That’s the real reason we’re here, right? Part of identifying as a ‘gamer’ is treating games like an escape. To leave reality for a bit to forget about the troubles and limitations that plagues our lives.

The problem is games aren’t an escape for everyone looking for one. In fact, they provide an escape for a very particular identity that only sometimes overlaps with others’. As children, we didn’t really notice this dissonance, but growing up as a gamer, you notice something doesn’t feel quite right. This is evident by the demographic of those who would self-identify as a gamer and the image the industry continues to portray to attract and distance certain identities. The way our community is structured, games will often jolt minorities out of their escape and back into the reality they wanted a break from. This isn’t only from the offensive and dismissive depictions of minority identities in games, but also from gaming journalism and social gatherings. How could this be? Shouldn’t everyone be used to it by now? We all know everyone isn’t an 18-24-year-old straight guy, so just ignore it and look to the content we do enjoy.

Wrong.

Material that perpetuates the hegemonic culture of gaming does so by putting down the alternative. Content that is often a battlefield for being sexist or racist aren’t just ignorable or benign fan-service. This can boil down to an argument about offensive language, the idea that a person chooses to be offended by words and it isn’t the fault of the speaker/writer. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Ever heard of the Stroop Test? It looks like this:

The Stroop Test; words for color printed in different colored font. For instance, the word BLUE is printed in a green font.

The Stroop Test; words for color printed in different colored font. For instance, the word BLUE is printed in a green font.

You are asked to quickly go through the list, naming the color of the font of each word. In this example, you would have to read aloud “Green, Yellow, Red, Green” and so on. The results of this test show that we cannot disassociate the word from what we are “supposed” to see. If we chose to be affected by those words, a person could go through this test without preparation flawlessly. Needless to say, that doesn’t happen. We are affected by what we see and cannot control what it makes us think. In the Stroop test, what is offensive would be the printed word, and the idea that it’s a joke or means something less serious would be the font color. For that reason, when someone writes or speaks offensive or triggering material, they are actually forcing the subject to feel whatever they associate with those words. Speaking homophobic language to someone who has received any negative feelings for said words makes them relive those emotions, whether it’s pain, disgust, or inferiority. There is no absolution from using words and writing content that perpetuate the discriminatory attitudes of gaming culture. That isn’t being true to gaming, that isn’t providing an escape. You’re the ones dragging the ugly from reality into our sacred space, not the minorities.

This relates to my own experience, both with advocating for diversity in games and a recent realization I exhibit qualities similar to someone who has posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in relation to my transgender identity. The best way I can describe it is having an instant flashback to an extremely uncomfortable experience where I feel the same intense emotions I did at the time, be it embarrassment, shame, anxiety, depression, the list goes on. These flashbacks are triggered from simple association; I’ll be thinking of something that is similar to my experience, my mind will link it, and the thoughts overwhelm me. To the point where I have to verbally tell myself to stop thinking. And sometimes I can’t do this, because I’m in a public setting and I don’t want people to worry or think there’s something wrong with me. There are events in the gaming community that triggers these experiences for me, especially the overwhelming hopelessness of under-representation. I have to wrestle with many feelings as I try to enjoy games in a culture that panders to an identity that only sexualizes women and doesn’t encourage many other depictions other than ridiculous proportions to serve as eye candy. When I see the women and sexuality of Mass Effect 2 and Catherine, I am reminded of how I’m treated as an exotic sex object as a transgender woman. How I endure messages from dating sites curious about my body, left frustrated from first dates that try to grope me in their cars without my permission, cried when someone tried to pay me for what I thought was finally the first time I’d get into a relationship. When journalists, developers, and average gamers tell me gaming is for just for people who play games, looking for that escape, what they are actually doing is requesting me to settle for someone else’s escape, where I am still marginalized. They are telling me to sacrifice my enjoyment and my safe place for the hedonism of others. I know journalists, writers, and developers are reading this: can you still tell me everything is just fine?

So, what do we do? Where can we find an escape of our own? Places like The Border House and Gay Gamer are a start, by distilling what we get from gaming and what we still need. As a recent event shows us, there’s still progress to be had in creating safe places for minority groups to actual naturally and forget about reality. This isn’t discrimination against white straight men because the hegemonic identity is still accepted into these spaces, and encouraged to contribute and participate. But we can’t stay in our corners forever, we need to learn what works and take it back to the main gaming community. And those who claim to be allies of minorities should welcome us and our experience instead of paralyzing progressive movement with red tape. I understand people need to make money, but I hope those people also understand they are willingly preserving a gaming community that doesn’t include me. When you all go back to your Excell sheets and Word documents, remember what you’re designing and writing had an original goal. To create that safe escape for people who need a break from life, to foster a community that mediates their interaction with reality through games. Now do that for everyone.