The chilling effect

I’m finding myself withdrawing from Twitter a little, at the moment. Some of that is an ongoing process that started when I moved to Australia and left much of my busy timeline behind; friends are living at different times now, and Twitter is different out here. But some is a response to the corrosive atmosphere around games right now, and the way it’s come to a head in the form of the attacks on Depression Quest developer Zoe Quinn over the last week.

The whole situation has become far too complicated for most folks to follow, but, broadly speaking, it started with a disgruntled ex making unpleasant allegations about private affairs very publicly, went through a point where indie game devs were having accounts hacked just for saying publicly that they supported Zoe, and is now at a stage where people seem to think it’s a good idea to dress up as fantasy racing birds and protest the state of games journalism ethics to get the attention of the “real media”, as though reporting on unsubstantiated allegations by an interested party would be good journalism rather than abysmally, impossibly awful. Liz Ryerson has a very strong round-up of the state of affairs here.


There are consequences for speaking out. There are always consequences. I’m logging on to Twitter, almost any time of the day or night, and I’m seeing friends frustrated by dealing with people who want to tear them down for supporting a friend, a colleague, someone whose work they admire. The chilling effect here is huge, and not just applicable to those who have already spoken. I am finding myself withdrawing because I can’t face watching this happen again, after watching friends and colleagues and people whose work I admire driven completely out of the industry in the past.

And I’m frustrated with myself, because I have a platform that intersects with the games industry. I have a committed hobbyist relationship with videogames; I play a great deal, write about some, and occasionally create strange little pieces. If I was ever going to have a professional career in videogames, that was scotched long before the women I’m watching being pushed out now, when my all-girls’ school refused me permission to cross over to the boys’ school to study IT and electronics when I was 14. (Institutional sexism: it’s a thing.) So I have a platform as someone with an interest but no financial stake, and a successful career as a non-games journalist, and the ability to stand up and say, as a person and a gamer and a journo: this is not OK.

And yet. The chilling effect is such that I am frightened to do so. I use Twitter for work; turning off my mentions and retreating until an attack dissipates is an option that hurts me professionally. I have a mental illness, and I do not know how that might interact with a coordinated attack. Visibility is power, when it comes to speaking out against this bullshit. Visibility is also a great weakness.

This is how I’m feeling, watching a woman being attacked for daring to be female and make games and remain human. Relatively speaking, I’m both protected and powerful. Now imagine how it must feel to watch without that protection or that power. Imagine how it might feel as a teenager who wants to make games, watching someone who looks like you be punished for doing so. Imagine how it affects your choices, not just about whether or not to withdraw from Twitter but whether or not to take certain classes, or whether or not to release side projects online. Imagine trying to decide whether your future creative happiness is worth risking this level of psychological violence. Imagine doing it anyway, and being attacked for it. Imagine deciding that opposing it is too dangerous, and joining the chorus out of self-preservation, in the hope that maybe, just maybe, they won’t attack you next time.

The people involved in these attacks, the hacks themselves but also the vicious teardowns of Quinn’s works and reputation and the harassment of her supporters, just want women to shut up. It’s not about games and it sure as hell isn’t about journalistic ethics; it’s just about keeping girls out of the clubhouse by any means necessary. They don’t like it when we speak, and they really don’t like it when we shout back. But I can’t be pushed out of an industry I’m not in; all I can do is discuss things on the sidelines. If I get attacked for doing so, all it’ll do is prove my point.

In defence of ‘gamer’

Simon Parkin in the New Statesman has an excellent take on the ways gamer culture strikes out at those outside it, and the way homogenous stereotypes reinforce that behaviour – it’s a great piece, and you should definitely read it, but the headline is wrong. It says “If you love games, you should refuse to be called a gamer.” But I love games. I’m a gamer. I’m a player too. And the good guys don’t get to do boundary policing and gatekeeping any more than the bad guys do.

(To be clear I don’t think Simon’s advocating this position – his point is that this is not a homogenous community, that people who play games aren’t just one thing, and I am 100% with him on that score.)

A friend of mine did some research looking at women who play games, their experiences of games and game culture, and found that a great deal of the people who responded to her survey would not define themselves as gamers, in part because of the stereotype and the hostility they felt from the community. I don’t look like the stereotype, so I can’t be one – a similar issue to the one facing feminism, where the strawfeminist is assumed to be the definition of feminism. Except that in gaming the stereotype is celebrated, rather than criticised on all sides.

Gamer as an identity isn’t going to disappear. It’s not limited to videogames (though lots of videogamers seem to think it is). It’s not limited to those who play vs those who don’t play. It’s a useful label, something that people bond over and around – and that’s not limited to dudebros playing CoD. It applies to me playing PC games, and tabletop RPGs, and board games, and live games, and finding commonality with all those gamer communities. It implies a shared vocabulary and a shared set of interests, but it’s also big enough these days to accommodate a huge number of overlapping sub-communities. And one of those – in fact, several of those – are mine.

Gaming has a huge identity problem. Many gamers see gaming as an integral part of their identity, and one of the messier results of that is that many people still perceive criticism of the games they like as criticism of them as people. That leads to all sorts of awfulness – backlash against those who are discriminated against in games and who dare to speak out, critics being attacked for doing valuable work. Some groups of gamers behave more like fandom than most of fandom does – ingroup/outgroup policing, jostling for status, assuming an outsider position, banding together against perceived adversaries. None of that is healthy or particularly sensible given the spread of the hobby.

But that doesn’t mean that’s all the label is. That headline falls into the trap that the article laments: assuming gamers are homogenous, and that the identity itself holds no value. It holds value for me: it’s been important in fostering a sense of togetherness, in creating shared spaces where I feel like I belong, diverse spaces that include other gamer women and other queer gamers. And many of us fought to be called gamers, used that label in public in spite of hostility, and we would not have done that or continue to do that if it wasn’t a valuable and useful thing.

I can criticise the actions of others who identify as gamers while also calling myself a gamer. I can be proud to be part of a community that makes Journey and Gone Home and Dys4ia and all those other games. I can be proud of being part of a community that’s – slowly but surely – getting broader, more accepting and more diverse, and I can fight against – not disown – the backlash against that process in my small corner of this culture.

Owning this identity helped me find friends on the other side of the world. It would be a shame to lose it.

Make shit art

There were too many good moments of Freeplay for me to list them all. The whole weekend was a little like a bomb going off in my brain, in an excellent way, and it’s left me with a lot to think about.

I felt, for maybe the second time ever at a games event, unequivocally welcomed and valued. I felt acknowledged for my work and appreciated for my insight, even though I’m not a programmer and I work in liminal places. I didn’t once have to justify live games or LARP or Twine games or text as being worthy of inclusion. The fact that I’m not a full-time game designer, that I’m employed outside the industry, didn’t single me out as an outsider or render my input less valid. I wasn’t a token woman or a token live game person or a token anything.

In the broader world, games like the Gobstopper Job and The Trial and the Twine projects I’ve got running in the background are strange hybrid things that have to fight first to be accepted before they can be loved. But at Freeplay on stage for the first time I used the word “art” to describe Detritus, and it wasn’t inaccurate.

The second day’s keynote was given by Steve Swink, who talked (among other things) about the need to keep creating, to keep getting ideas down. The 10,000 hours theory. He shared an anecdote about a talk in which a designer waded through page after page of comments about how awful his games were until finally reaching a slide that said: yeah, that one was OK.

I am scared of making bad things, things that aren’t legitimate, that aren’t the best thing they could be. I have been in enough conversations where people deride the sorts of things I make as “too niche” or “not interesting” or “shallow marketing ideas” or “not really games” or redefine them as “concept pieces” (as opposed to “solid games”, like that’s a meaningful distinction) and I have internalised some of that, even while being aware that it’s total crap. I have a depth of feeling here that I wasn’t aware of, until now. Becoming aware of it has meant becoming aware that it’s been blocking me from doing some things I’ve wanted to do for a while. Little games. Silly things. Learning new tools. Making shit art, as Steve Swink would have it.

Since we got home I’ve written some other words about Freeplay for the Guardian. That piece focuses on How To Destroy Everything, a talk which is going to reverberate for a while and take time to percolate through the culture, the way all explosions do. Grant’s written about the impact it had on him, which was markedly different to what I experienced, but no less explosive.

And I’ve made a start on some other things. ibis, fly! had stalled badly; now it’s moving again, albeit slowly, because the structure needs some work. I’m going to be writing more regularly about Twine games here – if you have favourites, please send them my way. And the Boobjam project I didn’t think I knew enough to make – I think it might work in Unity. If I can work out how to make Unity work, if I can learn enough about those tools to encode what I know about game design and systems and play in a new medium. Which means making shit art, and not caring if it starts out shit, and not caring if other people don’t think it’s art.

The PAX problem

It’s PAX Australia this weekend. Some friends of ours over at Pop Up Playground recently decided to pull out and cancel their panel there, on live, pervasive and urban gaming, and today Ben McKenzie posted a long explanation of his decision, which includes Mike Krahulik’s public transphobia and the way that’s been handled, as well as the fallout over the Why So Serious? panel.

I don’t think the organisers have created an event which is non-inclusive; I’m not boycotting the event based just on the description of the panel or Krahulik’s comments. As the Pop Up Playground statement says, those things just revealed to us that the culture surrounding PAX Aus is not that different to the problematic culture associated with Penny Arcade in the past. We weren’t invited to speak – we submitted an idea for a panel and were accepted. Most of the panels are community suggested; the organisers and the high ups at Penny Arcade have pointed this out in the wake of criticism. They didn’t title them or write the descriptions. So the program of panels ought to give us an idea of what the community at PAX wants to talk about; the community that created them is the community that wants to engage with PAX Australia.

Given that, is it telling that something like only 15% of panellists overall are women? That a clear majority of panels have no women on them at all? (I’ve no idea what the ratios of non-straight, non-white participants are like.) Perhaps they weren’t invited; perhaps they were and didn’t feel comfortable participating, despite the clear harassment policy and lack of “booth babes”, both things I certainly applaud. When you look closer at the PAX Aus program, you find a lot of near misses; panels that almost, but don’t quite engage issues of social justice. There’s discussion of games being criticised for being sexist and racist (“Why So Serious?”), but not of the racism and sexism in games. We have two panels critical of how other forms of media portray geeks and gamers (“That’s What She Said”, ”Is There Such A Thing As A Fake Geek?”), but none about how our own medium portrays women and minorities. There’s advice on how women can navigate games as a man’s world (“Not Fair? Then Grow Some Ovaries and DO Something About it!”), but no challenge of the systemic sexism which makes the industry unwelcoming to women. There’s even one about the entitlement players feel and the impact this has on makers (“Gamer Rage – Entitlement Issues”), but nothing about the entitlement and privilege unconsciously possessed by white, straight and/or cis-male players.

Looking at all that, it’s easy to be left with a clear impression that the PAX audience hasn’t thought about these issues yet – or doesn’t want to. In such a climate, it’s not hard to see how people wouldn’t feel comfortable bringing them up.

PUP aren’t the only people to have pulled out; Brendan Keogh has also decided not to take part, and there may be others I’m not aware of, who have decided not to participate at all or rescinded after seeing the events of recent months. Their decisions won’t have been easy ones. Ben’s been careful to articulate the tricky decision here: is it better to stay and attempt to change the culture from the inside, or back off and make your statement by disengaging? Either way, something is lost.

It’s a fair bet there will be a lot of eyes on that panel this weekend, and a lot of interest in precisely how equality issues are enacted this time round, at this particular event. Thanks to a panel description and some extremely unwise comments from a founder in a different country, PAX Australia has become a flash point for the broader issues at play here. Whatever happens, whether it passes without incident or implodes in a mess, it’ll be held up as emblematic.

But misogyny, transphobia, racism, homophobia in gamer cultures: they are not one incident, one big emblematic moment. They are a series of small decisions, individual moments that taken in isolation are small. It’s climate, not weather. It’s not one massive fish, but an ocean teeming with small ones. The problem with PAX is not just the problem with PAX: it’s also all the smaller problems it subsumes by being so visible. It’s not only the events themselves but also the standard set.

So here’s hoping for a positive PAX that solves some problems, turns some of those near misses into hits, and sets a higher standard. And much respect to Ben, for setting a very high bar.