I (and Zam) got some stuff on Critical Distance’s videogame crit roundup

This year, one article I wrote ended up on Critical Distance’s “This Year In Videogame Blogging” roundup. These lists are pretty much always good summaries of the breadth of games crit in any given year. You should skim this list! I was particularly the section on theory and design criticism, and the bit on industry criticism.

The article I wrote which ended up on the list was “Strangling my dinner with my own two hands,” a piece I ran at Zam earlier this year. It’s an essay about power escalation in “survival-construction” games like Minecraft, Terraria, Starbound, Subnautica, and Don’t Starve.

Most of the games in this genre seem inspired in greater or lesser degree by Minecraft, and their strategies for escalating player power all seem to bend in the same direction as Minecraft’s. You start by punching trees. After many hours, you end up so powerful you can program giant calculators or make automatic farms two hundred stories high– but the game never releases you from the responsibility of harvesting and cooking your own dinner, fish by fish. No matter how they might market themselves, they are more about having power over nature than about the feeling of being threatened by nature. Nevertheless, they render that power absurd by also forcing their players to perform mundane survival busywork long after they’ve gained godlike control over their surroundings. In the piece, I also get around to talking about how survival-construction games rarely let player power impact nature in a negative way. It’s a toothless, exaggerated, illogical kind of power, and for some reason, we all love it.

I have a long-time obsession with survival-construction games (which has obviously culminated in the fact that I want to make one, hah) and I’m glad that people liked the best piece, I think, that I have managed to write about them.

Zam, the publication I manage, also had pieces by several other authors cited in the CD roundup. Here’s a few:

The Social Justice Witcher by Rowan Kaiser – a great piece about how Geralt’s mystery-solving techniques actually parallel strategies you’re supposed to use for mitigating systemic oppression in the real world.

Why is everyone criticizing Bioshock Infinite these days? by Cameron Kunzelman – a piece about why a longstanding critical take on BI suddenly erupted into public consciousness during the game’s remaster/rerelease.

“Real world issues” in games like Deus Ex are there for marketing reasons, not for art by John Brindle – a piece about why attempts to integrate real social criticism into videogames invariably fail (because they’re usually wedged in to get attention).

Battlefield 1 and Modern Memory, again by John Brindle – a fantastic piece about the difference in the way that American and British players percieve the (good? poor?) taste of making a game about World War One. (Kudos to you if you’ve read the book this title references, hah.) Very proud of Brindle for getting into this list twice at Zam!

1979 Revolution: A snapshot of chaos and propaganda, by Robert Rath – a great overview of the history of revolutionary politics which underpins one of this year’s most interesting narrative games.

I’m super proud of everyone who wrote for us in 2016, in general, and I am particularly pleased that some of our best work made the Critical Distance list! If I could have added my own suggestions, I’d have also suggested some stuff by Bruno Dias, like this piece about Dark Souls 3, and some of our more unusual reviews, like this Aevee Bee review of Fire Emblem Fates. (However it seems as if this list deliberately avoids reviews? Anyway, read that one. I liked it.) I honestly don’t have a recent memory recall good enough to make a comprehensive list of all my favorite articles from 2016, so I’m sure I’ll think of others I liked later, but this is what’s rising to the top of my mind right now.

I do, however, have at least one very strong opinion about other publications’ articles that should be on this list: they shoulda had a Pokemon Go section, and it shoulda contained this incredible Miami Herald article about digital redlining in the game. It was one of the best and most relevant pieces written in the last year about how digital worlds intersect with our physical one. I understand that Critical Distance focuses on writing from, essentially, “game blog land,” however nebulously it’s defined, but I think that branching out to more traditional media for writing about games is absolutely worth it. I suppose it’s on me to pay attention when the submission process opens up for 2017!

Some thoughts about that harassment essay

You maybe surprised to learn that I did not plan to publish that harassment article at all.

I wrote it a year and half ago in an attempt to clear my head. I composed it directly in WordPress, then panicked and set its publish date for ‘far, far, in the future.’ Every few weeks I’d wonder whether it was time to finally publish. Every time, I thought: not yet, not yet. Someday, though.

Well, the “far future” occurred one month ago. I’d completely forgotten about the article and it published totally without my realizing it. When I woke up that morning, someone from Critical Distance was tweeting at me. I’d accidentally published something highly topical. I actually had to go back and change all the dates so they made sense.

I am not even close to the saddest harassment story from the last several months. Please read this long article about how relentless and inescapable harassment can be for many people. I quit writing online because I could, because I had other passions and skills to rely on. A lot of people getting harassed on the internet are getting harassed at the place they work. They make money out here. By attacking them in the place where they sustain themselves, their harassers are doing a lot more damage. Harassers are also often more aggressive to LGBTQ people and people of color. Don’t let this shit stand, please, particularly if you’re in a position of power that allows you to help directly.

Anyway, thanks for all the kind feedback! Having my raw thoughts accidentally broadcast all over the internet didn’t turn out so badly after all. Here are some additional thoughts I’ve had over the last three weeks:

1) It’s definitely OK to jump ship

Some people have been saying things like, “man, it’s so sad you didn’t hang in there,” “It’s too bad you didn’t have thicker skin,” etc. I’ve seen the same thing occasionally written about other people who got out while the going was good.

Here’s my opinion on the subject: suffering sucks! If you are in a shitty situation and you can escape it and you want to escape it and need to escape it for your personal health and peace of mind, then yes, jump the hell off that stupid rat-infested rotten shit ship. You don’t owe your continued suffering or martyrdom to anyone. Jump right off. Swim the fuck out of there.

Here are some great times when it’s a good idea to jump the fuck off the ship:

  1. You aren’t getting paid to suffer
  2. You don’t have the energy, time, or money to weather this bullshit
  3. This isn’t the only outlet for your creative passions and you will feel just as (or more) fulfilled doing something else
  4. Your friend on the USS Sunshine Utopia has thrown you a nice life raft and you have a limited amount of time to get on that fucking raft and join your friend on a different ship full of happiness and fulfillment
  5. Absolutely any other reason. Jump off if you want to. Make yourself happy, please.

The sad thing here is that many people getting harassed on the internet do not have anyone to throw them a life raft. It’s important for you to be the kind of person who throws rafts. There are three or four people specifically responsible for helping me disembark from Shit Ship and without them I might even now be a bloated corpse on the bottom of the sea.

2) I think I underplayed how bad the Witcher thing actually was

No, it wasn’t just ‘people calling me bad names.’

The Real Bad Stuff lasted a solid week. Kent handled most of that. But for weeks afterwards, people would link through to the site from the harassers’ home forum and all my blood would rush into my head and I’d feel like barfing. People kept popping by to say more shitty shit. For about six months afterwards, I actually got heart palpitations every time I tried to publish an article. My hands would shake and I’d get weak-kneed and I’d have to go lie down. My housemates would see me lying stricken on a couch and they’d say, “woah, you look sickly,” and because I didn’t feel like saying “strangers on the internet are giving me a panic attack!!!” I’d say “no, man, it’s cool,” and I’d get up and limp over to another room and toss myself on a different couch and sweat.

And please, remember: I’m a lady, so this was not the only time people randomly harassed me. People wrote low-grade aggressive stuff to and about me on a regular basis. The Witcher bullshit was just the biggest single event, and it occurred at a moment when I was making big choices about how to spend my time.

3) Wait, there are still people in the universe who think that personal essays are somehow bad?

Ha! Haa! Haaaaaaa. Personal essays have been around for a bajillion years. They’re in AP English. I took a course about them in college. You will find them in many notable, long-venerated publications. It is not arrogant or self-absorbed or narcissistic to write creative nonfiction about your personal experiences. Men and women and adults and teenagers and college students and even children all participate in this fine, well-established form of literature.

And guess what? Some of those people are games writers! Shocking!! If you don’t like games writing with a hint of the personal in it, I’m very sorry for you, because you’re missing out on a lot of fine shit. For starters, go read some of these brilliant stories and see if it changes your mind.

4) I should probably just finish The Witcher, because The Wild Hunt looks badass

5) Getting paid is way important

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It is normal and admirable for writers and other creators to want to find a way to sustain themselves with their passions. You should respect that they are seeking a way to get paid. You should be cool with the fact that “I’m not getting paid” was a significant part of my decision to “let harassment beat me.”

You may be a writer who is OK with writing as an unpaid pastime. But bear in mind that the things you get out of that experience– positive feedback, a community, friends, status– are in themselves a kind of payment. They are the earnings of your unpaid labor. This is how a lot of people get into online writing: they’re getting something valuable out of the experience.

But some people are not getting anything valuable out of the experience. Some people are getting shat on.

And furthermore, nobody can live on status alone. That’s why it’s important that paying outlets hire women, people of color, and LGBTQ people. Everyone eventually arrives at a moment when they must make big decisions about how to spend their time. If the professional games-writing community refuses to give these oodles of highly qualified women and minorities paying positions, those people are going to jump the fuck off the ship, and you are going to lose their voices and perspectives. Remember: unique voices and perspectives have an inherent value that exists in their difference from the mainstream. Respect that.

Why I Stopped Writing on the Internet (for a while)

Three and a half years ago, I was still in college. At the time, my friend Kent and I ran a blog about videogames. We had an absolute blast, but we weren’t really interested in taking it any further. Sometime in 2010, however, I almost completely lost my will to put my writing on the internet. This contributed to the fact that I haven’t posted anything on that blog in almost 2 years.

Let’s start at the beginning: I started playing The Witcher. I was unimpressed with it. I’d heard that it was the Jesus of modern western RPGs, but it turns out that modern western RPGs do not have a Jesus, and although The Witcher is pretty good, its story is not super compelling to me. The parts that I played had a rather shallow and childish emotional range– and they reminded me very strongly of other Bioware/Bioware-esque games where I’d been disappointed by the story’s emotional range. I wrote a very haphazard article about all this in a few hours, ran it through the Kent Filter (it passed with flying colors, by the way), and posted it on the site. (You won’t find it. I’ve since deleted it.)

Shortly after the article came online, someone linked to it in a general-interest RPG fan forum. I don’t know who this person was, but if I ever meet them in public, I am kicking them in the nuts they probably have. This person posted that I was a “bitch” who had a “PhD” and suggested that I was performing an uninformed hit-job on RPGs in general. They also steered the discussion towards the fact that I’d offhandedly given FFVII the thumbs-up for showing its protagonist vulnerable and crying onscreen (something western RPGs rarely do). If you know anything about the way western RPG fans talk about JRPGs, you can guess what kind of effect that had.

The post was very obviously an attempt to set me up for trolling and online harassment. It was abundantly clear on our website that I do not have a PhD, that I don’t frequently play or discuss mainstream JRPGs, and that I don’t hate Bioware games. The person who said those things wasn’t interested in talking about my article with anyone; he was hoping to rile his readers into seeing me as a fair-game target for the community’s vitriol. And it worked! Our site was filled with people calling me a cunt. Even more people were calling me a cunt on that forum.

Kent did most of the damage control. I, meanwhile, slowly stopped writing. I stopped reading the comments. I even stopped playing The Witcher. (I still haven’t finished it. Every time I pick it up, I remember this whole thing and get so goddamn angry I can’t think.) And I started questioning the very reason I was putting my work on the internet at all.

When Kent and I started that site, we wanted to write thoughtful essays with vague academic overtones for a general audience. Shortly after the Witcher debacle, I had an email conversation with another games writer about whether it was possible to have real, meaningful conversations with ordinary people about games on the internet. I determined that it was not, and that it was not worth it, because that audience of “ordinary people” contained a substantial portion of assholes, and I didn’t feel like writing for assholes.

Complete openness is good for some things. It is good for shooting the shit with friends, maybe. It is not good for discussing complex or sensitive topics with strangers, or for talking about privilege and prejudice, or for starting conversations which kill sacred cows. This Witcher shit helped me realize that I did not want to write in an open environment anymore. I wanted civilizing rules! So I did a 180 and refocused entirely on my writing for school. In school– and in face-to-face conversation with my friends and people I respect– people are not allowed to call me a cunt just because they disagree with me.

The change was refreshing. It took me a good nine months to completely stop writing on the internet, but after I did, I got a ton of really valuable, edifying stuff done. Here is a total list of the things I accomplished in academia and the “real world” during the next two years after I stopped putting my writing on the internet:

  1. I wrote the story for and helped design two different week-long sessions of an ARG that had several hundred participants
  2. I wrote a 280-page novel for my senior thesis, which won the largest departmental prize in my entire Creative Writing department
  3. I wrote a thirty-page paper on English-language Catholic bibles and completed my History degree
  4. I graduated from college
  5. I got a full-time job writing computer game stories
  6. I moved all the way across the entire United States
  7. I participated in game jams and made projects that make me smile. I also once got to work on a team with IF writers I respect
  8. I learned four different interactive fiction authoring systems
  9. I learned how to live on my own like an adult
  10. I signed a lease???
  11. I and my friends made a website that randomly generates conspiracy theories
  12. I learned how to enjoy videogames again without feeling as though I must write about them

Kent has also achieved things in life since we stopped writing on the internet. We are each so busy achieving things that we do not have time to write all the time, for zero dollars, about games on the internet anymore.

Our perspectives have also changed. Whenever I look at my old articles, I feel as if I am watching a space alien try to communicate to me. Many of our ideas boiled down to, “Why can’t games be perfect?!?” I now know several answers to that question, and all of them are a bit disappointing. It’s hard for games to be perfect. It’s particularly hard for games to be my kind of “perfect” when they are aimed at a “general audience” and cost many millions of dollars to make.

Over time, I have gradually regained the desire to write on the internet, but not in the way I used to. I no longer go around ranching and slaughtering sacred cows. It’s not that I don’t have opinions anymore; it’s that I no longer feel the internet is the best place to share all of them. I admire and respect people who put up with the audience’s bullshit, but during my hiatus, I felt like the problem at hand was so big, cruel, sexist, and messed-up that breaking myself against it wasn’t productive. I could do better for myself in environments where people didn’t call me a cunt all the time. I only have so much time to live my life, and I’d rather spend it making cool things for kind and grateful people.

If the vocal audience served by the average games media outlet represented the IRL standard for humans to behave toward one another, society would be an unbelievably fucked-up mess. Luckily, there are better environments and people in the world, and if you’re at the end of your wits, seeking them out is definitely worth it. And, as I’ve come to learn, some of those people are actually hiding out on the internet, too.