Today I attended the first day of a conference called Beyond the Console: Gender and Narrative Games, at one of the big London museums. This post is like… it’s not going to be a full narrative account of everything that happened, because my memory isn’t that good, but it will be a space to expand on things that the event made me think.
The venue was the Victoria & Albert museum, which focuses on like… art and design and things like that. I didn’t really have time to spend a lot of time looking round the free parts of the museum, but what I saw while walking around looking for the conference venue was mostly lots and lots of nude statues striking more or less uncomfortable looking poses, and also some Buddhist statues. The V&A were not running the event, though - rather, that was London South Bank University, specifically their ‘Centre for Research in Digital Storymaking’.
Once we were all sat down, we played through porpentine’s keynote game, with Emily Short as the MC, while Porp listened on Skype (apparently this wasn’t really planned and she was kind of surprised but amused to hear our reactions). Once we’d fully explored the mansion and gotten forcibly turned into a tiny plastic bird by its resident, we got to pass a microphone round to ask questions to Porp’s monolithic Skype window - one of the attendees likened it to going before the oracle, which seemed very apt.
Porp gave some great answers which I maybe should have recorded, but I was mostly worrying about what questions I might ask and thinking about what she was saying so it’s necessarily going to be sketchy. But I’ll talk about that part below.
Afterwards, I went with a couple of people I’d met to the Videogames exhibit. The concurrent V&A exhibit on games has been around for some time, and has been written about before, by Em Reed here. For the most part, the things in the exhibit were things I was more or less familiar with and it made me think about like, what kinds of narratives are acceptable to tell in a place like the V&A museum. More about that later.
Games, capital, games writing, academia etc.
I have pretty mixed feelings about the role of academia here - like of course it doesn’t necessarily hurt that academics think things about games, but, well, let me try to work out what it is I think.
This was very much an academic event. Most of the people attending, so far as I could tell, were students or accredited academics working towards PhDs and suchlike things. The couple of people I met who weren’t (so far as I know) were a couple of trans LRPers from Oxford. And, because museum spaces cost money, it was an expensive event to attend (the V&A is a ‘non-departmental public body’ owned by the government, which does not operate for profit, but is presumably only allowed to spend so much). The result was that the attendance of the event was, with a tiny handful of exceptions, very clearly white and middle class - because those are the people who can afford to drop £40 to come to a museum and play an indie game on a Friday afternoon, and also because there’s an understanding of what sort of person attends an event such as this which is hard to shake.
I am not writing this as a specific criticism of the museum’s curators, the organisers of the event, or similar. The factors driving this are in many ways structurally baked in, and very difficult to shift. The don’t have a huge advertising budget to reach beyond the narrow circuits of academia. Perhaps they could offer some kind of reduced price tickets, and pay to help people access the event, similar to ‘con or bust’ - but such a thing takes resources and money and more importantly organisation, and I’m not sure it’s available to a tiny academic conference whose audience doesn’t quite fill a lecture hall.
Of course, a question of ‘who is attending’ leaves aside the question of ‘what is the event for’ - which could be approached from several perspectives - the university, the V&A, the academics organising, each of us in attending, etc. But what I’m wondering about is how, similar to the more ‘woke’ games criticism sites and the way indie games fill in as a kind of palette-cleansing ‘sideshow’ to the mainstream releases, an event like this one fits into the broader process of capital valorisation that is games publishing.
I guess I’m kind of stealing that thought from Stephen @myfriendpokey/thecatamites, and Em Reed/midboss. From this post, now a couple of years old, stephen wrote (paragraphs added)…
which brings us back to indie games, and to a certain awkward argument within them; namely, are these things meant to be replacing the existing industry or just supplementing it? with the consensus, by now, firmly with the latter.
it’s a little eerie to imagine “indie games” on their own, out of the contrast with some AAA counterpart - they immediately begin to seem more diffuse, if not distracted, stylish but also curiously listless outside of the deep mulch of practice games, physics toys, and abandoned projects that make up the majority of development practice. how much more sense they make as kind of a vitamin tablet, as transient and local infusions of colour, inventiveness and thought helping to smooth over cracks in an otherwise regimented genre landscape - and acting the same way in a moral capacity, where playing a short cute, weird, empathic or political game sort of clears your conscience about going back to play another 50 hours of destiny in the same way that jogging to work “earns” you a packet of crisps later on.
which isn’t necessarily to dismiss these games, which i think might require another 10 years to see clearly, to understand what “indie” meant to people growing up online or playing videogames - but i do think that lending themselves so readily to a place in this moral economy, acting as the human, creative supplement which makes videogames seem bearable, being the GOOD games, plays maybe more readily into the ideological survival of a dismal market consensus than maybe anyone involved would like to think.
Which I’m taking totally out of the context of the original post, but eh. That paragraph has lodged in my brain.
It would be nice to think - at least for me - that Thinking Very Critically about game narratives, and The Genders, and so forth might be a contribution to some grand project of doing away with the whole dang thing, overthrowing the Videogame Industry and laying the groundwork for what wonderful creative thing we might do with computers when we finally get on and realise communism. But it’s not that, any more than me reading Heinrich explain value-form theory on the bus is bringing forward the end of capitalism. Instead, I guess it’s just a kind of fun for… whatever weird sort of subject-position I, and the other people in that room, occupy.
So, to capital, what’s the function of Waypoint and ZEAL, of ‘weird’ indie games, of indie game curation sites like the late freeindiegam.es and more modern ‘indie game’ stores like itch.io? Is it just to cater to a corner of the market that would like to see itself as better than all the awful bros playing Call of Duty, while establishing more and more legitimacy to Video Games as a form? Em Reed, while speaking in defense of ‘asset flip’ games, wrote
Even if it’s less about formal definitions of Games As Such now, and we’ve come to be remarkably tolerant of visual novels and so on because they can be mined for techniques to make fuckable AAA characters seem marginally more human-like, mass products a smidgen less alienating, the fixation is still on games as a market, the image of games as a desirable cultural product, and who has access to shaping the nature of that desire and who can profit off of it. And in general the anxiety about asset flip games circles around how they are antithetical to the desires the Videogame Consumer is primed for.
And I guess like, the induction of games into academia is also part of that process. Yes, we who attend the conference might have develop our understanding about whatever it is we do when we sit down with Twine or Inform 7 or whatever to make some words to shove into peoples’ brains, but the existence of people Studying Games helps justify ‘games as a desirable cultural product’, even as we may each individually be hoping to resist that. Which sucks!
But hold on a minute? Are you saying it’s bad to talk about indie games?
Mind, this isn’t an indie games conference, even if it’s invited some Respected Names in IF. Tomorrow, there’s talks about Dragon Age and Final Fantasy, and like… it’s not that these games don’t deserve to be critically examined, because they are really big and influential and everything, but there’s this kind of… circular thing, we talk about them because they are Big Shared Experiences, and that helps ensure they do become Big Shared Experiences. I have read a half-dozen articles about the new God of War, all of them scathingly critical, and yet these articles ensure that such games remain part of the conversation after they’ve already bought their way in.
This is where I link to an Em Reed article again.
Mainstream game publications position themselves as different from videogame advertisements, though the distinction has been vague in the past. This tweet by Christa Lee is really funny, because there’s an overlooked truth to it—even if videogame sites aren’t explicitly advertising, it seems redundant to ask someone visiting your site to see more ads when the entire front page of your site is currently devoted to the hype cycle of a single commercial product. A hype cycle is not simply the excitement leading up to a new videogame, but a carefully constructed series of events that draws the attention forward to keep the consumer regularly purchasing, rather than enjoying or thinking about anything for too long; James Newman aptly describes it in his book Best Before: Videogames, Supersession and Obsolescence, as the best game always being the one that’s not out yet. We may see ourselves as too smart now to see something like Nintendo Power as anything but a long-form ad delivery mechanism for upcoming Nintendo games, it’s just too obvious. But I feel like there’s a remnant of the naivete that my 13 year old self had to think that videogame companies aren’t also strategic in how they release information and how they drive coverage of their game by these non-affiliated sites. Not to say that the original comment that started this mess was a psyop to get us all talking about RDR2 even more than we would be, but that this regular trickle of previews, interviews, press releases, game releases, patches, new content, etc etc etc, deliberately ensures that the luxury AAA photorealistic open world game du jour dominates online discussions for weeks or months. It creates an environment where, even if you’re not specifically excited to be a cowboy, or Spider-man, or a robot detective, or a norse god, or whatever, you still feel like you’re missing out if you’re not playing and talking about this game.
and later in the same (fucking great) essay
Over the next few weeks more pieces will come out, the type that (Vice-affiliate) Waypoint are mostly known for, but some in smaller publications as well, which will offer a more thematic, culturally situated critique of RDR2 (cowboys: problematic?) and yet, since the start of this year (I really think my tipping point was God of War), even these more “thoughtful,” more “critical” pieces still leave me feeling frustrated and exhausted. I think it’s a combination of trying to pull water from a stone in a lot of cases (commercial videogames are possibly the worst medium for ratio of meaningful content to monetary cost, time spent or effort required), but also that these extrapolations, unless thoroughly negative in their critique, are often another form of validation for the game, securing its place as the subject of discussion for another week (does God of War offer “alternative” masculinities or is it just emblematic of the increasing “dadification” of games? can I muster up the will to care?)
So tomorrow I might end up watching a talk about ‘Straight Faces and Queer Spaces: A Case Study of Queer Gaming in Dragon Age Inquisition’. I probably shouldn’t judge it before I see it (assuming I do - there might be separate tracks, I’m not sure how the programming works?) and like it might be searingly critical, or it might address people who realised they were lesbians because you can smooch Josephine, or something… what makes me feel a little :/ is that, there are certain games that we Have To Talk About, because of the amount of money they represent.
Let me quote Porp in Creation Under Capitalism - an essay written early on in the rise of Twine games, before the wave broke and it became apparently that Twine couldn’t live up to that promise and how shit a lot of the dynamics underlying the boom were.
I’m not telling anyone what to like but sucking off the mechanized tit of BioWare (the games equivalent of Glee) or any organization or cultural icon doesn’t sit right with me. What? Look for tidbits tossed from some huge, focus-tested corporation? Stare at these anemic, mechanical representations of lesbian sex?
Should we cringe when a new show comes out, mumbling that we hope it will have a “sympathetic depiction” of minorities and that we hope Straight White Male Writer won’t fuck it up? Should we eat scraps under the table?
They don’t love you. They will never accept you unless you remove everything good and interesting about yourself and replace it with their poison.
Capitalism takes everything we care about and turns it into a product.
So isn’t it good that this kind of Discerning Critical Attention (insofar as a niche London conference attended by like <100 people counts as that) doesn’t just fall on these vast media properties, aiding them to achieve that good old M-C-M’, but also casts the light of Academic Respect on certain niches of indie game? Certainly better than languishing in obscurity, right?
But… I feel like it’s a kind of damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation. Because taking something and placing it into a museum, into an Academic context, changes what it means. A Twine shared between friends as a way to understand the hell world we share, and a Twine placed under scrutiny as one of the finest examples of narrative games today…
Now, this was a Porpentine exhibit, in many ways Porp herself has been like, consistently and resolutely writing against the kinds of hierarchies of fame and brutal capital accumulation (both in terms of money capital and social capital), and the abusive dynamics they entail. The target of her games, apart from just her own need to speak, are people for whom ‘all you have is trash’. When I read her old RPS column, it was a certain joy (and other more complex emotions) that were communicated, but a genuine passion - rather than attempting to build up the mythology of Videogames As A Form, or proclaim the coming of the vanguard of hip outsiders poised to overthrow it (more on that when I get to the V&A exhibit).
(Call me biased if you like. She’s probably a good 50% of the reason I was able to transition, and that I’m still alive today.)
I’m trying to remember the playful words she used to describe the game we played today (which was ace), which like much of her stuff, unabashedly used mspaint art and comic sans and similar symbols in its presentation. I don’t think this was like a pointed jab at the event or anything, the game was appreciated a lot by the whole audience as far as I can tell, but this is where we get to the bit that makes me feel twisted up and brings the tangent back around.
Because… much as ‘asset flips’ are a blight upon the Steam database except when a Respected Designer such as Bennett Foddy makes one, at which point they are Art, there’s a kind of way that like, any challenge brought by Twine and Bitsy and flatgames and walking sims and etc. become justified in the work of a few designated Great Writers who have been un/lucky enough to get singled out as such. Porpentine blew us away with With Those We Love Alive and howling dogs and etc., and so she’s earned the right to break the rules.
I want to emphasise that I’m not calling that as a criticism of anyone who becomes subject to this dynamic (and it would be absurd and hypocritical, because I’m obsessed enough with Porpentine’s work that I showed up to a conference for the mere possibility of talking to her!). I don’t even know what sort of answer there is to these dynamics in the present society and circumstances, because people are materially dependent on the popularity of the category of Indie Twine Games and whathaveyou, on being recognised artists in that field. And of course, if we individually ignore the Blizzards and Biowares, they won’t just go away.
But what I would like is… a bit more of a fracturing. Firstly, to break the material dependence of people on selling games, or doing any other kind of labour for that matter - so it’s not just either the people with the means to throw up unprofitable games, or the lucky few who make it to viral popularity, who get to speak. And secondly, to break away from the cycle of like, This Is What We’re Talking About Now, whether it’s a ‘mainstream’ or ‘indie’ game; to end the expectation that we must play the neverending list of Important Games, but somehow turn these machines we’ve created into ways to speak passionately to each other for its own sake, in limited, personal contexts.
But that’s not happening any time soon. Right now, we’re yet adrift in the currents of capital. The machines we’re using were built because of many iterations of demand-creation and narrative-creation and sales. Because we buy computers, the factory exists, and because the factory exists, we buy computers. However we repurpose these machines, it’s only ever partial.
Anyway. That’s perhaps enough handwringing. Let’s talk a bit about the actual conference lol.
The mansion game and questions after
Unfortunately I can’t remember the full name of the game - only the short name, which was ‘Mansion’. It’s not published on the internet yet, but it might end up being so. And yes there is a slightly odd feeling for me that it’s only a synonym away from my game ‘House’.
Mansion was something of a hybrid between branching-path narrative games in Twine etc. (though it had a graphical map interface), and roleplaying/story games, particularly the more recent ‘story games’ movement whose games tend to be smaller, focused on a particular style of evocative text inviting the players to actively expand and interpret on it.
In the game, we wandered around a mansion, accompanied by the mansion’s owner, who you can see in this tweet with an excerpt from the game (this particular scene had four members of the audience reading out the text, somewhat monotonously and out of sync). The game played around with its premise - we’d click on an ‘interstice’ only to be told it shouldn’t have been there, or get shooed away from the secrets of the ‘subterranean attic’. Emily Short was reading out the game text, and we’d shout out requests to go to particular rooms, which would lead to certain scripted things; in the dining room, for example, we were asked to debate two matters using prompts handed out on large laminated cards (‘should everyone wear bunny ears’ and ‘should the antimatter varangians be ethnically cleansed’), which was then recontextualised as the conclusion of some distant learned folk. Eventually we reached the garden, and without revealing too much about the ending, it led us to an unlisted youtube video about a small plastic bird.
It was a whole lot of fun honestly. I feel like when I play roleplaying games, I often go in with a great deal of nervousness and self-doubt, but it’s so fucking good when I end up managing to speak (in this case, presenting a rather dubious anti-capitalist argument in favour of rabbit masks.) One thing I think maybe was difficult about the debate segment was that, with the pressure to come up with stuff quickly on the spot, people tended to fall back to reading out the prompt cards, but we did get a bit of an amusing back and forth going, particularly with the bunny question.
After that, they handed out mics with Porpentine on a skype call, a kind of disembodied voice. We didn’t use video, and the sound system was a little messy, cutting out occasionally and offering weird kinds of feedback (for example, Porpentine heard her own voice through the auditorium sound system getting picked up the mics), which I think only added to the atmosphere. Although I was nervous that I wouldn’t be able to talk to anyone, once we got playing the game and talking to Porp, it was a really nice space; Porpentine is fucking amazing at being disarmingly cheeky in response to questions (“Well, I don’t know anyone named Donna, but I agree humans and animals should fuck”) but also saying some really real shit.
One concept I found really valuable from the discussion is one that she’s mentioned before in Creation Under Capitalism, which is the idea that words have this power to take over someone’s stream of consciousness - in her words, like a Cordyceps fungus. Previously, she put the idea like this…
It costs a couple of keystrokes to control someone else’s brain for a second, and longer if you do it right.
Other people have expressed variants of the concept, perhaps in a narrower domain; I recall some time ago people tried replacing ads in the tube with variants on ‘advertising shits in your head’.
This concept - not from her, but from seeing viral tumblr posts spread out, and out, and out, far beyond any context I could understand them, and trying to reckon with the effect that off the cuff post was having - has caused me a fair amount of anxiety. I think of my words, imposed onto someone’s feed, which is to say, for a brief second at least, step directly into their stream of consciousness, and influence them in unpredictable ways - sure, they chose to follow me, but did they choose to follow me for this? What right have I to do use this power, this weapon?
So… well for some reason I asked Porpentine about this. And like… she took it seriously, which means a lot, because when I voice this feeling I always worry about it sounding kind of ridiculous.
Her answer was twofold, and I’m really struggling to remember the first part of the answer, but the second part… she spoke of how, for her growing up, having access to a world of adult things, like sci-fi novels with weird sex, or violent parts of religious texts, helped break down some barriers for her (I can’t remember the words she used precisely); she spoke of how children will not be told that genocide is real until they’re old enough that they’ve internalised that genocide is fake, in the past, etc. Which seems kind of tangential but to me the connection is like… the effects of putting words out into the world is unpredictable, but not necessarily evil. Later on Twitter she said to me it’s good not to feel one is an imposition on the world, and… yeah.
Which is why I’m now 4000 words into this article, and refusing to listen to the parts of me that say nobody would want to read this, I have nothing relevant to say, how dare I presume to, etc. etc. I don’t know. Perhaps I got it wrong.
There were other parts of the discussion which were important - speaking of trauma, of how we grow up without being cared for and in turn are rendered unable to care for others. To me, this is the most daunting and scary aspect of our world - it feels like we live in an enormous trauma engine, a self-replicating structure that’s not necessarily just oblivious to suffering but outright necessitates it.
I feel like if I’d taken notes, I could say more about the discussion - but at the same time, perhaps it’s for the best that some moments remain ephemeral. So many things are.
The V&A exhibit
After this, I met up with some other trans girls in the row in front of me, and we decided to go to the V&A exhibit. I won’t go over each of the exhibits in too much detail, since Em’s already discussed that, along with matters of how they’re presented.
I think the problem for me is like… if I wanted to give people an hour to get a particular perspective on the phenomenon of ‘videogames’, 1. it would not be in a museum 2. it would be really really angry 3. it would also be angry with everything else that isn’t videogames.
The purpose of the V&A exhibit was, I guess, to present an image of ‘videogames’ as a vibrant, developed art form, albeit perhaps one flawed with issues of Representation, to an audience who’s not part of this whole ridiculous subculture and doesn’t pay attention to gaming news site. So first you had a selection of AAA games like The Last of Us, Bloodborne, Splatoon, you inevitably had the Most Artistic Game ever, Journey (though no Braid!)… you had some indie games, by for example Tale of Tales, who had their manifesto (real art has manifestos!) displayed on a screen.
Then you went into the next room, which was a kind of summary of the Social Issues In Gaming: you had a stand that talked about the presentation of gun violence (and a game that talked about it), a stand that talked about the manufacturing of phones (through the lens of that iPhone game - Some Games Make Political Points!! don’t you see!!), a stand about how games are kinda racist (but check out Mafia III, where the videogame cops are realistically racist!), about how games are kinda sexist (here’s Anita Sarkeesian presenting a series of clips of sex workers in games, and a brief note about the harassment she received), about how you can totally do sex in games (Robert Yang’s shower game, and that one game where the kid is pushing the dolls together) ‘without being voyeuristic’.
In some sick way I feel like, the little tables presenting excerpts from Very Serious Conversations About Representation, while certainly not wrong in their criticisms, still serve that meta purpose of ‘legitimising’ games.
And that brings us to… fucking MK and AA. Among the various quotes were certain quotes from a couple of abusers who played a large part in making the “Twine scene” into such an abusive mess. One had a game in the arcade section of the exhibit. They wrote a book celebrating that scene; a book which attempts to rewrite that history.
At this point I am finding it extremely difficult to write about this, so I’ll include a short quote from Hot Allostatic Load.
An entire industry of curation has sprung up to rigidly and sometimes violently police the hierarchy of who is allowed to express themselves as a trans or queer person. The LGBT and queer spheres find it upon themselves to create compilations of the “best” art by trans people, to define what a trans story is and to omit the rest. Endless projects to curate, list, own, publish, control, but so few to offer support and mentorship.
The stories that reflect poorly on alt culture are buried in favor of utopianism that everyone aspires toward but where few live. People feed desperately on this aspiration, creating the ever more elaborate hollow structures of brittle chitin that comprise feminist/queer culture.
To find the things I wanted in queerness, I had to find those who had been exiled from it, those who the name had been torn from.
The purpose of the V&A exhibit - as distinct from the conference - is to get you to go ‘wow! videogames!’ - look at this beautiful concept art, this meticulous planning, this effusive praise for the combat of Bloodborne, this huge space battle in EVE, this computer that someone made in Minecraft, this elaborate Overwatch cosplay. Look at the incisiveness and beauty of these Art Games.
And if there is anything bad to say about videogames, it is an issue of Representation that the Industry is actively working to solve, as you can tell from all of these example games and videos, the earnest words of these respected journalists on the screen. I imagine that, if you were totally unfamiliar with modern games, the exhibit would give you a fair picture of some of the major reference points, a cross-section of what People Who Like Games (And Consider Themselves Woke) are likely to be talking about.
I didn’t expect anything else, of course. You’re not exactly going to see some kind of radical critique of commodity-art in general and videogames in particular in a location like this. And, sure, it could have been so much worse.
What would an incisive exhibition of videogames look like? It would talk about labour - for developers and for the people manufacturing consoles - directly, not because there was an iPhone game about it; it would talk about abuse; it would talk about the origins of videogames in ‘penny arcades’ and the cultural role they served; it would not celebrate videogames, but nor would it necessarily single them out for special condemnation, but maybe contextualise them as one particular curious offshoot of a brutal totality.
Let’s be clear: I can claim no innocence or distance here. Despite everything I said above, I love games as something I can share, passionately, with people; I get the satisfaction of struggling through a difficult game, the identification with the cookie-cutter Bioware protagonist; I love the weirdly broken worlds they produce, the glitches, the ways they can be subverted, the strange interactions in the corners of MMO servers. So I watch game criticism videos and speedruns and combo videos, stream Dark Souls 3 to my friends, go on at length about what NieR: Automata made me feel. I will spend hours reading criticism of games I’ve played, and games I’ve never played. If there can be no doubt that games are monstrous, then I am a monster.
So I guess like… seeing it in a museum, a nicely packaged subculture-product spread across three rooms followed by a gift shop, is - completely unintentionally - a different sort of brutal critique of the whole damn enterprise, or at least, managed to function that way.
But of course I think I could write more or less the same thing about any ‘subculture’ or ‘hobby’ you can imagine. No innocent subjectivity, no ethical consumption, no escape - except to try to care for each other, take responsibility where we can, build capacity, and heal, orthogonal to whether ‘games’ might be involved.
(It’s not enough, but it has to be.)