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.

It is interesting to note that many of those taking to writing journalism or design games with a strong focus on the personal are social minorities. What was, indeed, once a genre where those recounting their childhood memories of video games or pet projects with mary sues abound is now subverted by a newer trend. People have found a method for speaking where once they had none. A method to not only plainly recount and explain their marginalization, but to actually get people to feel it.

There’s a recent resurgence of critique of using personal experience. That’s just a small bit as it pertains to game journalism, but there is common skepticism of personal games and how to relate to them that mirrors this conversation. While there are many shades of criticism for personal, often called confessional, writing, there’s a salient pattern in the pushback against it.

A lot of it boils down to the pejorative term ‘confessional,’ and the discomfort of those reading it. Those who see it as confessional writing equate their relationship to the piece as a kind of therapy for the author, the reader an involuntary psychologist or friend. They feel they can’t critique the piece without insulting the person who had a Very Sad Thing Happen. To them, what should be in a LiveJournal post can’t make a sound argument. As described by others, personal writing is exploiting the intimate experience for a cheap cause or a get out of jail card.

Let’s pick on that word then, exploitation. It is telling that this discourse finds the use of emotions and the personal as a means of exploiting both the reader and the author’s life, turning experience into a commodity that is strategically sold. Turning the self into a meat farm to gain some sort of profit. I find this to be a result of inner conflict within the skeptic- they face negative feelings they don’t want to deal with. A story makes them feel terrible, maybe bad about themselves. We see this in the news, but because it’s a report of the facts, we can flip and click away the guilt. Personal experience used in criticism and games won’t let you turn away so fast, and what has happened with some people is the feeling of being compromised by the author. It’s frequent that the writer or designer purposefully shows their hypocrisy, because it is the position society forces them into. It isn’t tied in the neat little bow allies and those of self import want, to praise or damn it. I argue it’s not exploitation occurring, but implication.

Witnessing the personal experience implicates the reader into the knowing party. They become a witness to something they know shouldn’t happen. Instead of the cold statistics of the transgender community’s suicide rate, which one flips by, the reader sees why suicide is so frequent. They can relate on some level, and now have to think about their own actions in relation to that experience. There is a feeling of I’m letting this happen, I now know it, I have no excuse. The armchair liberal parts of us don’t want to see what is happening to the people patiently waiting, or not for many transgender people, for society to get over itself. The well-meaning ally who hasn’t done anything wrong feels slighted that minorities are guilting them.

This has been the story for decades and centuries. Social progress comes only after those with power gasp and say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know it was that bad!’ In this context, the personal experience is rebellion, it won’t allow the status quo to go unchallenged and stay superior without their readers feeling a major sense of dissonance. Personal games make you intimate with the way works influence players with their politics without the participants’ awareness. The other path isn’t bare because it’s impossible, but because it’s silenced.

“Sometimes, I just need to… decolonize my hair.”

I was waiting for the M line, sitting on a seat slicked by mist. I looked over to a girl explaining something to a friend. Her hair looked like mine when I spent hours a day flat-ironing it, straightening the blackness out. It wasn’t until last year that I just had to stop- it was too expensive, too painful. I wanted to be pretty without burning my scalp twice a week. It was one of my first acts of rebellion, both from the society that prizes white beauty and myself, riddled with internalized racism. I took the same philosophy to my writing, letting the pouring rain reveal its curls.

33 thoughts on “Decolonize Me”

  1. Well, I’m not convinced. So personal stories have values because authors can easier get away with extrapolations they made onto their audience? Well, it could be but only for now, sooner or later it will result in diminishing returns.

    1. I think part of the point is that personal experiences draw to the front subjectivities that have been ignored or unaccounted for. Confessional writing refuses to have the writer take part in an implicit status quo by acknowledging difference rather than conforming under a presumed blanket of “the way things are.” With art, personal experiences inform a lot of our creation and criticism, whether we know it or not; it’s a valid relation to art, and if it can help broaden a way of thinking or destabilize a priliveged status quo, then it becomes all the more powerful because it involves the audience in this process.

  2. Implication indeed. What an interesting vantage point from which to see a reason for white guilt. Once the reality is known, once it’s personal and in your face, it’s not just a picket or banner or meme. It’s real. And we all, at that moment, have to ask ourselves: what am I doing about it? am I guilty of this?

    And we all are. Exploitation is the only thing people buy any more so we sell ourselves to be heard.

  3. I really identify with this sentence here:

    “They feel they can’t critique the piece without insulting the person who had a Very Sad Thing Happen.”

    I don’t identify with this sentence that follows it:

    “To them, what should be in a LiveJournal post can’t make a sound argument.”

    Because I don’t feel that’s necessarily true. It’s totally valid to use anecdote/personal stories to draw in the reader, make things relatable, start a conversation, etc etc. And I don’t think that that writing is “easy” – it’s all about what you’re willing to put out there in the world and takes some courage. But it does become difficult to critique such a piece or its argument without feeling as if you are critiquing the author as a person. Which is why I typically don’t; I’m not interested in producing bad feelings, rather, good conversations.

  4. The games themselves are arguably the most powerful force in this conversation. A game which refuses alternative framings automatically forces the conversation in a certain direction. The writing’s not to blame – at least not directly – because when there’s no way to reframe and create new interpretations, a personal writer is pushed down the path of an overt declaration: Either “yes, this is what it’s like,” or “no, it does not reflect my personal experience.” Both are valid messages, but they are also naturally more polarizing than illuminating.

    And so the writer’s decision when discussing those specific works – works that simply don’t include them – is really, “Do I dare polarize?” The results of that are predictable, but whether they’re productive is a very political question. The works that actually bridge the gap are considerably more rare, and ultimately a lot more valuable in creating healthy discourse.

  5. Mattie, I agree with you that our personal experiences are powerful components of our writing and that a failure to think through human difference weakens critique. I think that’s a strong foundation for political alliance and I offer the following, as I offered my piece on TCIW, in a spirit of generosity and dialogue.

    Once again, though, I’m worried that you’re painting this picture as being more dichotomous than it actually is:

    “…when you leave out the personal, all that’s left is the status quo.”

    I don’t subscribe to a logic in which anything that is not firmly founded in the personal is simply maintaining the status quo. I think there’s more room for gradation between those of us (myself who included) who feel like their writing about and approach to games is deeply rooted in our personal experiences and those who write about games differently. I don’t think “objective, fact-driven … journalism” or “personal experience” is a choice that we have to make.

    I also want to raise a question about the ethics of conversation. When you make reference to people who have a position different from your own in order to pose a counterargument, I think that you have an obligation to respond to their specific arguments and perspectives. In other words, I’m worried that your paragraph starting “A lot of it boils down…” is setting up a straw man for you to knock down.

    If you’re going to counter Kyratzes, Electron Dance, Priestman, etc. I think the most powerful way to do so is to cite and argue against their specific arguments rather than reducing (“A lot of it boils down to…”) their laboriously (even if wrongly) argued positions to “discomfort.” When you write “As described by others, personal writing is…” I am sitting here asking “Who are these others? Where did they describe it? Did they indeed say the word ‘exploitation’ which becomes the foundation of your next paragraph?” It’s the academic in me that wants the citation, I admit, but I also think that it’s an ethical question.

    Again, Mattie, I think at the end of the day you and I are on the same team as far as believing that experience is crucial to writing and that the games industry has a systemic problem incorporating a plurality of voices. I just think your argument would be stronger if you didn’t set up this straw man position without citation.

  6. I find this article problematic. I feel that, as Samantha points out, you do a great job of beating up a straw man.

    The problem with ‘confessional’ or personal writing isn’t the application of personal experience to criticism. It is that criticism should be criticism first and foremost: our personal experiences inform and enhance the critique, but they shouldn’t always form its bedrock. While experience can bring insight into a topic, you don’t want to end up with a “Livejournal post” as you put it, one that is heavy on anecdote and low on data.

    Another issue is that personal experiences are dependent on the author having experienced them: it is a shallow well from which to draw our thoughts. For example, I talked about my parents separation in one of my inaugural Five out of Ten pieces, but any further discussion – within a context of videogame criticism – would involve breaking through a scraped barrel and feasting on the soil beneath. There is a general sentiment, not necessarily shared by me, that personal writing provides an emotional ‘cheap shot’ where a cogent argument usually appears.

    When you make your writing personal, any discussion of said writing becomes more personal. I don’t think you should take any criticism of personal writing as a personal attack (or by extension, criticism of one piece a la Kyratzes is not criticism of all your work), because there are good and bad ways of doing it.

    Of course there is an expectation that journalism is fact-driven. But I would argue that what we are doing is criticism rather than journalism, with its own set of rules that are constantly being rewritten, beyond the bounds of hegemony.

  7. I think all this talk of beating up a straw man is taking a slightly more antagonistic interpretation of this article than the way I read it. I think the idea that personal stories allow marginalized voices in to an industry where it is difficult to be heard is kind of obvious on its face, and discussing the importance of that angle of the issue needn’t be seen as an attack on people who have brought up other criticisms of it.

    1. Agreed.

      The reason I am glad Mattie posted this here is because I think there is a privilege aspect to this that has been so far missing from the conversation.

  8. There is a similar status quo in the game industry. An expectation for objective, fact-driven games and journalism.

    I haven’t read anything doing this (yet), but with respect this is such a low-hanging fruit for someone who wants to malign your writing: ~ha ha lookit her get all butthurt about people demanding facts to support her point obvs she has none lolololol~ and whatnot. They do this to Fox News all the time, after all (and they deserve it).

    That said, I think I agree with your point – assuming it could also be made with “objective” and “fact-driven” in scare quotes.

    The word “objective” in particular always makes me think of the legal sense of that word. In common law there are two kinds of tests that let the court say whether someone could be said to have done something: an “objective” test and a “subjective” test. The terms are, as expected, completely topsy-turvy: the “subjective” test means you need actual, tangible, objective evidence that the person meant to do something; an “objective” test means that a “reasonable person” in that position would have been aware that their actions would lead to that thing happening – which boils down to the judge’s own subjective experience, occasionally guided by whatever precedent decisions the lawyers could dig up.

    Point being: the older I get, the more I’m convinced “objective” is always code for the standards and paradigm set by a privileged group. (even if you say a widget is 2cm long, where are you measuring from and to, or that this widget should be treated as a single object or that its length is of any relevance to anyone? Even how long a cm is has to be set by a group of people who are in that position of power to make that ruling.)

    At the same time… is it not an objective – “out there”, happened, often falsifiable, left an impression that can be experienced by any sensate being who knew what to look for – fact that X person had gone to Y school, or was born to Z ethnicity, was taught a deep sense of social justice by A, suffered a life-altering betrayal because of B, felt an inordinate fondness for C until a certain gradual disillusionment, etc.? (funny enough I just happen to be typing this while listening to a biographical song about a war hero.) I don’t really think a line can or should be drawn between facts subject to encyclopedic record and quantitative analysis, and those that record particular actual events (“anecdotal” for the most part meaning primarily “I do not believe the situation you describe is common enough within the broader universe of discourse I wish to work within to be worth treating as representative”, and charitably understood as a request for more motivation (further facts, numbers, moral suasion, fear, photos of cute animals, whatever) to believe otherwise).

    I think it would help to see more of the status quo as no less subjective a manner of narrative than those that get highlighted as such – instead of thinking that X game is more objectively realistic as an FPS in (more) correctly modelling the ballistics and damage of a 5.56 NATO as well as the handling and ergonomics of the M4A1 that shot it, these treatments in the game are elements that more faithfully convey the narrative and paradigm of the front-line operative whose story is to be told by the game.

    1. Point being: the older I get, the more I’m convinced “objective” is always code for the standards and paradigm set by a privileged group.

      and

      I think it would help to see more of the status quo as no less subjective a manner of narrative than those that get highlighted as such

      YES. The debate about “personal” vs “games-centered” (barf) criticism is partially about privilege. People who are less privileged HAVE to explain their perspective–or write “personally”–in order to even be understood by people who are privileged.

      I mean, “check your privilege” often really means examine the assumptions you are making. “Games-centered” or more academic criticism assumes certain things about the audience: for example, Simon Ferrari’s great FFXIII article which I reread today definitely has a particular perspective and makes assumptions about, for example, game academics that the reader should be familiar with. Mattie’s piece here that sorta kicked off this particular conversation doesn’t assume that the reader knows about the sort of violence and threats of violence trans women face–using an example from her own life she *shows* readers the sort of thing she faces that informs her perspective and her critique.

      For an example that’s not related to privilege, check out Mammon Machine’s excellent review of Polygon’s Dead Space 3 review. The part that is particularly relevant is: “More importantly though, it seems as if a much bigger deal is being made about co-op than I understand the context for. I guess I never would have assumed that co-op would ruin a game entirely. If this was a fear the author had when Visceral announced co-op in Dead Space 3 (maybe fearing something along the lines of Resident Evil 5) he might have started the article out by contextualizing it. Even if most gamers are probably having a similar thought process, the article should articulate their fears specifically.” Gies doesn’t articulate his personal perspective about co-op, making the section of the review MM is criticizing incomprehensible to those who do not share it.

      What I’d like to see is more awareness that the perspective of very privileged men whose tastes are catered to by the vast majority of AAA games acknowledge their particular perspective.

      And, of course personal writing can be poorly done (for me, if the game being written about could be swapped out for any other game and the article still makes sense, I’m less interested). And I don’t think you can’t criticize personal writing at all. You can certainly criticize writing that’s personal both in the point that it’s making and in the manner that it is made. But you have to a. be constructive about it and not attacking, and b. BE AWARE OF YOUR OWN PERSPECTIVE AND PRIVILEGES. All writing is personal writing. All writing is from a particular perspective. And that’s awesome.

      1. That review is a thing of beauty. It is a thing I should remember every time I must give a value judgment for something, to force me to consider the connection between is and ought that I do the truth an insult and injury to state without stating as though self-evident.

        Just curious: What sort of personal writing would you consider poorly done?

        1. I can’t think of any examples off the top of my head, but I’m sure they’re out there. (Edit: Oh, the sort of thing that amounts to a nostalgia trip about a favorite childhood game is often not very good; I’m sure the RPS “Gaming Made Me” series has some examples of this. A counter-example is Patricia Hernandez’s GMM post, which is very personal and also says interesting things about both identity and Fallout–it’s good game criticism.)

          I guess what bugs me about the whole thing is there are people saying “game-centered” (can you tell I loathe this term?) criticism is more useful or more interesting than personal writing when a. it’s a false binary and b. there’s bad writing and good writing, good writing is useful and bad writing is not, no matter what the style is.

          1. Patricia Hernandez’s GMM post

            !!!

            Definitely one of the better things I’ve read this week.

            (And point taken re: nostalgia trips, now that I’ve read one other GMM – not naming names, but the subject game was certainly something that would be very, very unlikely to get something genuinely deep and moving out of and in fact the author’s most poignant take-away from that game seems to be a movement in exactly the opposite direction.)

      2. But don’t you think that this kind od personal writing with its tendency of assumptations about audience is tainted with risk of you know, being a cop out of critiqe ? “Check your privilege” ( and how do you know your audience isn’t checking their privilige ?) , becuase if you’d did, you would have agree with me “?

        1. No, I’m talking about writers checking their own privilege, not making assumptions about the audience. Part of my point is that personal writing can often make FEWER assumptions about the audience than “games-centered” or academic writing does, by explaining the framing/perspective the writer is coming from.

    2. Er. Are you an attorney? No offense, but this legal framework you describe is a massively oversimplified caricature. In reality, there are a multitude of discrete areas in law–even just within the common law–each with its own unique cabal of incredibly problematic standards and tests reflecting the standards of a privileged elite. (And that includes many of the ostensibly subjective tests you’re exempting from scrutiny here.)

      Not that any of this really has much to do with the article, ultimately. Speaking of which: nice work, Mattie. From my perch, I’ve definitely seen movement toward more personal accounts in gaming over the past couple of years. It’s good to see more self-aware and reflective works coming out of indie developers; I look forward to that trend continuing.

      1. Er. Are you an attorney? No offense, but this legal framework you describe is a massively oversimplified caricature. In reality, there are a multitude of discrete areas in law–even just within the common law–each with its own unique cabal of incredibly problematic standards and tests reflecting the standards of a privileged elite. (And that includes many of the ostensibly subjective tests you’re exempting from scrutiny here.)

        Spoken just like someone who’s somewhere between passing the bar exam and the dozenth-odd time they’ve had to break things down for a client who knows little about what the lawyers are reading and cares less about finding out (you know what they say about government and sausages), so they could understand what a decent, no-risk-of-appeal-or-costs-award settlement offer looks like when it hits them in the face.

        Then again, you did say “attorney” so I will take you on your word that what you’re dealing with is far, far more labyrinthine than most of what I deal with. (srsly, residual power to the states…)

        (That all said, I should clarify I was thinking specifically of the distinction between recklessness and negligence in Canadian criminal law, but what I’ve said reflects what I’ve learned to expect whenever there’s a question of whether something is an “objective” or “subjective” test.

        I suppose this too could be an example of personal biography leaking into statements about how things work.)

        1. I should clarify I was thinking specifically of the distinction between recklessness and negligence in Canadian criminal law

          There we go; it sounded like you were taking criminal law and generalizing it to the whole profession.

          I don’t know how they handle things up there, but down here, criminal mens rea is just an itty bitty slice of the law–other areas work differently. Contract law is a brilliant example. The way it works is ostensibly subjective (the court’s purpose is to determine the intent of the parties)–but in practice, the common law approaches things from an angle that tends to shaft the unprivileged (if the language of a document is unambiguous, the court won’t look beyond the four corners of the document to actually determine the parties’ intent).

          So is contract law objective or subjective, then? And does it really even matter? In either event, there are always ways for the finder of fact to ignore what the parties say and impose their own, privileged frame on a situation. (That’s been my experience, at any rate.)

          1. I would say that the contract issue (where extrinsic evidence is being excluded) wouldn’t even be about talking about being “objective” or “subjective” anymore at that point, but an explicit decision to privilege one form of the agreement over all others. On the one hand, I’ve seen far too many people get burned over this particular manner of priority; on the other, I have significant trouble thinking of any workable alternative that isn’t even more problematic (whether the status quo actually is the least worst way or that’s how the hegemony gets ya!).

            1. I would say that the contract issue (where extrinsic evidence is being excluded) wouldn’t even be about talking about being “objective” or “subjective” anymore at that point

              Exactly.

  9. In the immortal words of Wikipedia, [citation needed]. I can’t help seeing you take down a straw man here.

    Personal writing can only take you so far. Instead of presenting a cogent argument in response to cogent criticism, here you merely offer a glimpse into the mind of an alien. Your answer may reach those people of like mind and background, but little else. It will never reach beyond the echo chamber of people who already agree with you, and already know both your experience and meaning.

    1. You have it exactly backwards. Personal writing is a way of explaining your perspective; it’s often the ONLY way to reach people of different backgrounds, by creating empathy. When you’re talking to people with a similar background, you don’t NEED to explain your perspective (like how every post on this blog doesn’t need to start out by explaining what the feminist perspective is).

      1. “Herein lies the problem- when you leave out the personal, all that’s left is the status quo.”

        Are we supposed to accept this – the crux of the article – because of empathy? Because of the author’s struggle with her skin color, her peers, her hair?

        Nothing else is presented here in support of this. This is apparently holy gospel, simply because it agrees with the author’s experience, the conclusions and inevitable prejudices she drew from it. Such a view is fundamentally bigoted and egocentric.

    2. Your answer may reach those people of like mind and background, but little else. It will never reach beyond the echo chamber of people who already agree with you, and already know both your experience and meaning.

      I’m not as inclined as Alex to say flat out you’ve got it backwards.

      …or say flat out anything about your comment at all. Problem is, I really don’t know where you’re coming from with this comment because I don’t know what you’re assuming or what your own background is that you find the original post alienating to you.

      Now I’d hardly be the last to point out that a lot of introspective stuff is pretty bad as communication, that too much showing-of-self becomes its own vanity if you’re spending so much time revealing your own perspective that you’ve forgtten to take all that and connect it to the experiences and values of the person you want to read your stuff, but to me that’s a question of skill, study and tactics rather than the nature of the starting approach.

      1. The concept of an hegemonic class against a smattering of distinct social minorities is alien to me.

        This American-centric view of society is just flat out incorrect, both in my current country of residence and my country of origin. Yet it is used here to make sweeping generalizations about the nature of discourse and personal writing, all the while dismissing rational thinking as some vague evil perpetuating the status quo.

        1. hegemonic class against a smattering of distinct social minorities

          Just off the top of my head: USA, Canada, Russia, China, Egypt, pretty much any Islamic country, India, Brasil, possibly Israel. And if we define the hegemonic class just by money and/or guns, that could include nearly any society on earth.

          What country are you even from, anyway?

  10. I may not always agree with all of your viewpoints, but when I read this:

    “I took the same philosophy to my writing, letting the pouring rain reveal its curls.”

    I do not know where you are in your need for affirmation, in regards to your writing — but I feel the need to powerfully encourage you, because you hold a mighty power in your skillful phrasing. I am jealous of your word-sequencing abilities. It is great.

  11. Thanks for this.

    It’s really interesting because something like this has just been happening in Germany, where under the hashtag #aufschrei (outcry) women began to collect/recount the many, many forms of daily misogyny (from stares over insults to sexual assaults) they are confronted with and the reaction of many men have been almost identical:

    ‘Wow, I didn’t know it was that bad!’

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