Here’s a screencap from my phone that shows the email I sent to myself right after Steve Swink’s keynote speech on Sunday at the Freeplay Independent Games Festival in Melbourne:
If, for some reason, you can’t read pictures, it says: “GET BETTER.” That’s it. That’s all I could write.
Freeplay 2013 left me feeling upset. Disturbed. Confused. Challenged, I think, is the best word. The discourse present at the event wasn’t one that I was used to; I’m mainstream, veering onto the safe edges of weird. I’m a straight white able-bodied cis male. The deck is shuffled in my favour and it’s easy to grow complacent and lazy. I make games, and they do okay. I write about games, sometimes for money, and I do all right out of it. I’m not breaking down any walls.
Outside of Freeplay, the discourse is focused around my people. Inside Freeplay, we’re discussing how to wrest control from me. How to get marginalised voices into games. How to unmake things that I’ve been complicit in making.
I’m ashamed to admit that, at first, I felt anger. It started slow; I’d be angry at a talk because it was boring, or up itself, or because I felt it talked about privilege too much or focused on issues that I didn’t care about. I’d find people and say “Oh, yeah, X talk was really intelligent and well-researched, but… well, I wouldn’t want to get stuck in a lift with it.” I made jokes. I parcelled off bits that I didn’t agree with, weaker parts, and discussed those, and boy did I feel better about myself when people agreed with me.
I just enjoy games, I thought. I just want to play games and talk about why they suck or why they’re great. That doesn’t make me an arsehole. I’m not one of the bad guys. I’m laid-back. I’m easy-going.
FEELINGS ARE WEAKNESS
I stared daggers at some guy who insisted on giving a standing ovation to Friday night’s polemic fireworks, How To Destroy Everything. It was a tremendously difficult, tremendously clever talk. It discussed the fragmentation of what we think about as “videogames,” how the culture as a whole doesn’t exist. It advised a massive paradigm shift from traditional viewpoints to something that rewards the artists involved. It was a presentation full of barely-contained fire and rhetoric and it was delivered by students much younger than me. It sang the praises of indie games, of art.
That was the talk, I think, that messed me up the most. I have a desire not to be moved by things I see, to open up on an emotional or intellectual level and let something take up space inside my psyche. That’s why I don’t make friends so easily. That’s why I don’t watch films or read books or do difficult things. I think a lot of people, men especially, feel the same way. Feelings are weakness. Changing is weakness. Opening your mind is weakness.
I didn’t stare daggers because they were wrong. I stared daggers because I felt threatened.
TWO MEN ONE-HANDED
I sent an email to a friend of mine who’s visiting and said “Jesus, I’m in a talk about privilege so convoluted that if you were here you’d start fires, mate” and went to a party, and got drunk, and talked to people younger and less experienced than me and I realise, now, that it made me feel better. I played a game where you wrestle for control of a 50 cent piece on a wooden floor using only your full bodyweight and one hand wearing an oven glove. That was fun. I hurt my arm trying to lift two men at once one-handed. (I can’t lift one man two-handed.)
Steve Swink gave the keynote on Sunday morning, as mentioned. I’d presented a games design workshop with him on Thursday. It was the first time that I’d been involved in such a thing – while I’d lead groups in making up NERF gun games at cons before, this was much more involved. I talked about making your own tabletop roleplaying game, about story feeding into mechanics and vice-versa. Before it all kicked off, I asked Steve what sort of thing he was doing, what he’d prepared.
“I haven’t prepared much.”
“I’ve taught a bunch of game design classes before, so I’ll just throw something together from those.”
Dread. Despite all that, my section went pretty well. I lead the groups through creating mechanics for tabletop roleplaying games we made up on the spot by choosing two options from a list of genres that’s available here – we had “cyberpunk politics” being a game about robot senators and “pulp spies” being misinterpreted as a game about vineyard espionage. I got them to think about mechanics as creators of story as opposed to Steve’s workshop on mechanics as interesting meshes of rules that are themselves fun to play with.
It lit a fire in me. I want to teach more. I left the room thinking that I could do this again, that I could do this better; but surely, to be any sort of authority on tabletop games, surely I should at least publish one of them in a semi-professional format?
NEEDED TO DO
But, anyway – Steve was talking about making games, and talking well about it, and while he didn’t push my angry buttons in the same way as some of the other people did, he made me realise what I needed to do.
I spent Sunday lunch at a Japanese restaurant with some people I know and respect from Twitter and an ex-director of Freeplay and some other people who all seemed fairly important and they were talking intelligently and I thought, I shouldn’t be here. I shouldn’t be here. I need to get away.
I need to get better.
Because I felt like I wasn’t good enough. I felt like I wasn’t punching at the same weight as these people who said things that I disagreed with, that mentally they had one hand against my forehead while I windmilled my arms ineffectually. Of course, it wasn’t a fight, it wasn’t a brawl; but that’s the only way I could frame it in my mind. My back is against the wall. I can’t shake these thoughts from my head.
I knew what I was feeling wasn’t quite right, that underneath the shield of anger there was a kernel of something else. That I disagreed with the topics raised on more than an instinctive level of backlash – that these were complex clusterfucks of issues and shrugging and rolling our eyes at them is, to be honest, backward. It doesn’t matter so much if you just want to play games, but if you’re writing about them or making them for a living – especially when, like me, you’re chucking around articles about the immaturity of GTA V or the ridiculousness of PR-laden launch events – then, fuck, you need to be aware. You need to be aware of the effects that your products, that the products of others, have on people who experience them.
And so – a plan. Or a goal, I suppose.
The goal is to GET BETTER. I need to make more things. I need to finish my book and overcome my fear of copyediting. I need to kick out games. I need to write. To make. To do. To watch and listen and experience and read and learn and create so next time, next time I end up in a situation where intelligent people are arguing against the things that I do I’m in a position to argue back. Or to support them. Or to make my own standpoint. Not just to froth incoherently because I feel uncomfortable.
It’s not a bad feeling, being so unsettled and wrong-footed by a thing. This is how we learn. This is how we get better; if we’re comfortable, it’s not working, right? But this is distressing. It shakes you, especially if you build your entire professional and most of your private life around the thing that’s being questioned. I heard there was a lot of backchannel chat, off the hashtags, saying how none of this mattered.
But there’s something inside me, now; a spark, an itch, a bundle of something that’s not quite anger and not quite joy and powered by jags of frustration and panic and a rare inquisitive desire. So I’m not going to continue to fight against these things that I don’t understand and can’t quite entirely disagree with; I’m not going to dismiss them, or make fun of them, or try to invalidate them. And I’m not going to blindly agree wholesale with them, either, for fear of looking out-of-place or uncool.
I am going to level up until I am good enough to give this shit the attention it deserves.