Okay, I'm Deirdre Coyle. I'm 28. I live in Brooklyn.
I played games as a kid. I quit playing games as a teenager I was reintroduced to games in graduate school and played more intensely for a while and then, coinciding with the end of a relationship, I stopped playing games. Now I play infrequently. I guess "casual" is the word that nobody likes to say about themselves. I'm more interested in indie games now, when I do play, but I rarely play traditional games at this point.
You had said that you've been wanting to branch out in the real world.
I think this is a direct quote or I'm paraphrasing, you said you wanted "get better at talking to people?"
[Laughs.] Yes. I found that when I was gaming a lot, I’d feel okay about staying in and not doing things in the real world. I think that’s fine when that's what you want to be doing. But I really wanted to go out and interact with humanity IRL, and I wasn't. So, for me that was and still is part of the reason why I've been avoiding games that are more -- I don't know what the word is. Absorbing?
I think the word they like to use is "immersive."
Immersive, yes. [Laughs.]
Can you think of any other product that uses the word as a brag?
Yeah. I can think of, like, sponges. They're absorbent.
Yeah. Not that I can think of.
A book, maybe?
I don't think so. And I read constantly. I have never found books to be sort of keep me from wanting to go out.
But there are bookworms, I guess they're called.
But I feel like any time you try to criticize games as a medium, as you just did, there's a great defensiveness you run up against. Like, I'm sure people will read this and go, "Oh, but games are social."
I think that's great. I'm only talking about my personal experience. I didn't play multiplayer games at all. But I certainly have friends who developed really great online communities and made a lot of friends that way, which I think is awesome. And I have online communities of friends on other platforms, so I think that's actually a really good thing.
So, you stopped when you were in high school and I think you said from the time you were 12 'til you were 22 you basically just didn't play games, right?
Roughly, yeah. Yeah.
And so you were in a relationship that sort of sparked you to pick them back up again. So, were you 22 then?
I was 22 or 23. I was starting graduate school and I moved in with my boyfriend who was -- I don't know if "hardcore gamer" is the right word, but he was, you know, a gamer. He worked for a game company and I would watch him play sometimes and there were games I wanted to play. I really wanted to play Bioshock because I thought it looked cool. [Laughs.]
He was sort of interested in reintroducing me to the world of contemporary videogames. You know, games that are not DOS games like Dark Forces. [Laughs.]
So, he bought me a copy of Bioshock and that was the first one I played through. And I loved it. And that's an example where I really liked the story. I was interested in the interview you did with Chris Crawford. He talked a lot about story and how so many games say they don't have story but don't really.
And that is something that in the games I have really enjoyed. I always like the story as well as the gameplay. Anyway. So, in Bioshock, good story, beautiful environment, art deco dystopia. It made me want to keep playing games.
So I did, for a while. [Laughs.]
Do you feel like games tell stories? Or are they just telling you stories when you're not playing, like Chris Crawford said? He talks about that string toy with the bird on one side and the cage on another side.
Right, right, right. Yeah, that was a really interesting analogy. I think a lot of games do that. But I think some games tell pretty solid stories, which I like.
Another one that I really like that I played more recently was Gone Home. Which, I know that you've done some other interviews about that and there's always that question, "Is this a game?" But, I mean, that question’s not even that interesting to me because I liked it so much. I don't know.
I did an interview with MoMA last week, the people who added videogames to their collection. He told me that whole, "It's not even a game" thing is something that all mediums go through.
Right, right. Which makes sense, yeah. So, to me, I guess, Gone Home is an interactive story, essentially. But that's what I thought was so great about it. And interacting with the environment. I mean, it's such a different experience than if I were to read a short story about a girl going home and learning things about her family and her sister and riot grrrl cassette tapes. [Laughs.] And I thought, in this case, it was the perfect environment to be in.
In the time that you put games down and then picked them up again how did they seem to change?
Well, certainly, they changed a lot in the 10-year period when I wasn't playing. [Laughs.] The games I played as a kid had more of that bird with the cage thing going on. I already mentioned Dark Forces was one of my childhood favorites. And part of the reason I was so obsessed with it is because I love Star Wars. So, I really liked that it was a Star Wars game even though the "story" was so flimsy I barely remember it.
You're just going around in different environments and killing stormtroopers. Like, that's the game.
I think that was true for a lot of the games I played.
But back to the question, I don't even need to talk about the improvements in gameplay and graphics and all those sorts of things. But in terms of story, so many games now place a lot of emphasis on choices, on trying to get into the psychology of the player. [Laughs.] Which is really interesting. I think the Bethesda games do that a little bit.
You mentioned choices, but what seems really important in the games you'll see on store shelves?
I don't know. I don't know if I'm qualified to answer that question. [Laughs.]
Well, just, what do they seem to pride themselves on based on what you hear about or you see? Like, I interviewed a rock critic last month who told me the game industry is "invisible" to him. Like, he just sees the business stories about it and they all seem dark and violent and that's all his awareness is.
Even if you don't know much more than that, I am curious from what you do hear or see, what videogames today seem to pride themselves on today.
[Laughs.] I see a lot of focus on world-building and really elaborate environments. I think that goes back to immersive qualities. Like, that's the goal, to not want to eat or sleep. Which is fine, really. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] That's the goal?
[Laughs.] Even watching game trailers, when it's these big-budget games, there are always these lush environments. Which I do find really appealing. When I was gaming more, when I played some of the Fallout games, I always liked running around without really doing anything.
Which, I realized is not how you're supposed to play. [Laughs.] But I liked having this -- I think because I was in a bad place in my real life at the time -- my IRL life -- I was really enjoying having this completely alien world to explore which I think makes sense, and which makes sense for a lot of people. I'm not saying that’s the only reason that you’d want to explore an awesome virtual environment, because that's still appealing to me. But at the time, that was why I liked it so much.
A friend of mine wrote a piece a couple years ago about Skyrim.
Yeah, I've played Skyrim. I never finished it. [Laughs.]
I don't know anyone who's ever finished it. I logged about 11 hours.
I logged, like, 60, and I didn't finish it.
I couldn't tell if my number was too high or too low and didn't impress you.
I did about 11 hours and I enjoyed doing things that never touched on the story.
But I have a friend who wrote a thing about Skyrim that was just a list of things he ate in Skyrim.
Oh, nice. [Laughs.]
Well, I only mention that because you said you weren't paying the game "the way you're supposed to." Like, who gets to decide what you're "supposed" to be doing? I don't know if you were with your boyfriend at the time, but were people teasing or hassling you about it?
[Laughs.] I don't remember. My boyfriend at the time thought it was funny the way I played with very little interest in the plotline. Which, I realize, sounds counter to what I said earlier about being interested in the story, because I am interested in the story. But I'm also interested in living in this alternate reality.
Yeah, exploring and buying real estate. I remember watching a video at the time where Felicia Day gave a tour of her Skyrim real estate, which I thought was really funny. And also, at the time I was living in a tiny apartment in Seattle, and I thought, "Well, it's okay. I have some big houses in Skyrim full of my items." [Laughs.]
But I found people would be confused about why I’d want to play a game that way. Like, why I would want to chill in that environment. But sometimes that's what I want to do.
Yeah. They make these sandbox games, or they're called open-world games, where you just can go around and do any number of activities, but it's weird that in these digital worlds, like our real worlds, there's a "right" way to conform and a "wrong way" to live.
But I was interested in this blog that your ex-boyfriend wrote about you getting into games.
And so you wrote this great short story about how he was interested in "how normal cues to seasoned gamers were totally new to you and thus were ineffective."
Tell me a little bit about the knowledge that games assume people just have now.
Right. Well, at the time, and this was, again, when I was first playing Bioshock in particular.
So, which parts of the environment were interactive was a big one. I remember he would tell me -- because in Bioshock, I didn't know you could interact with glinting objects, that meant nothing to me. And he would point to me, at the screen, he'd be like, "Look, you can go get that." And I'd say, "What?" [Laughs.]
And it would take me a minute and I just wouldn't see them because I wasn't used to looking at the environment in that way. So that was a big one.
And of course the problematic one was which direction gunfire is coming from. [Laughs.]
Yeah, you wrote about that.
Yeah, yeah. I would start getting shot at and my character would just start running around in circles. And my boyfriend would say, "Look, the blood is on this side of the screen. That's where they're shooting from." [Laughs.] It took me a while to adjust, and I think part of that is also that I tend to be a very impatient person in my real life, so, I would just start shooting and running and not really want to learn how to figure out where I was supposed to be shooting and who I was shooting at. [Laughs.]
So that took me a while. [Laughs.]
Those were two of the big ones. I'm trying to think of what else.
Yeah, those were the two you wrote about.
There was another woman I talked to talked about Destiny and the way the in-game map was completely unhelpful to her.
Oh, yeah. Yes. The in-game maps.
You ran into that, too?
Oh, yeah. And I got used to it, but it took me a while. Even though in-game maps seem essentially the same as they were in the games I played as a kid, I still didn't remember how to read them. That took me a while too.
Do you think games were more intuitive when you were younger?
I want to say yes. I don't know if that's real or if it was just that I was a kid and didn't care. [Laughs.]
You said in your email, when you're little, you don't really question what's in front of you. You'll just absorb it.
Yeah. You'll just do it by trial and error. But, I mean, I think because games were in many ways simpler it makes sense that it would make them more intuitive. But, again, I don't know if that's really true or if that's just my memory-cam version of it.
Well, I've been playing the new Metal Gear game and was thinking about how ridiculous the controls are -- the sheer number of different modes and amount of buttons to manage and be thinking about all the time. I was thinking about that and when we first started emailing about all this because, like, this game does not even have a tutorial. It tries to teach you that the joystick controls the camera, but you're not even thrown a bone when it's like, "Okay, here, when you're on the horse, these buttons do this. But when you're not on the horse, these buttons do that."
Yeah. It's a lot of assumption.
It's a lot. And I'm surprised I could follow it. I wonder if the thing we're not saying is --
"If you don't already know, you shouldn't be playing this game?"
That's a much blunter way of saying what I was about to say, yes.
Is that the feeling you receive?
Sometimes, I felt that way. Like, yeah, I'm just supposed to know and for people who have been playing games consistently throughout their life they would know, because so much of it is consistent throughout games. But not all of it.
The camera is another thing that took me a long time to kind of get used to again. Because that's really a problem when you can't get them working the way you want it to be working and it seems like a really dumb thing, but it's huge. And I found that every time I picked up a new game I have to get used it again because the controls are a little bit different. So, that was frustrating.
When you were starting this process of picking up games again, when did you feel most on the outside of videogames? Like, they weren't letting you in?
Hmm. Let me think about that.
I'd say maybe there was a moment when I picked up -- my boyfriend had just gotten Halo. I'm trying to remember which Halo it was at the time. They were -- I don't remember. This would have been 2010, 2011?
Was it Halo: Reach?
It must be, yeah. [Laughs.] So, there were two moments with that game.
The first, I went with him to the midnight release of the game and I just kind of went to, you know, to go. I went with him and we were waiting in line and the guy in line started talking to him and very -- you know, kind of aggressively talking about how many hours he logged in the last game and this kind of thing.
And at one point this other guy turned to me and said, "Oh, do you play, also?"
And I said something like, "Oh, I don't play Halo. " I said whatever I was playing at the time. I think it was Half-Life. And he lost interest in me immediately. [Laughs.]
It was just very insulting. It was kind of weird and awkward, just the kind of immediate disinterest because I didn't play this particular game.
And then, the next day, I thought, "Well, let me just try this game, because I know it's a big deal." And I think I played Halo: Reach for about five minutes and I got bored. [Laughs.] I was annoyed that I couldn't loot bodies 'cause, to me, that's the point of killing people in games, so you can take their shit.
And then I never played it again. But I felt like I was missing something really important because these games are so popular and such a huge thing in the gaming world and I was like, "Eh."
Did you talk to your boyfriend about the experience of waiting in line?
Yeah. A little bit. I mean, we laughed about it. He said that guy was just an awkward person, which I guess is true.
I feel like that has to happen in music circles and book circles, too.
But I wonder, like, what does having taste in games circles mean? Because that's what this is, right?
I think so. And I'm not sure what it means. And I think there's crossover in other aspects of geek culture. I mean, I used to work in a comic-book shop. I still read comic books. But when I worked there, there might have been one other female employee. I'm not sure. But she and I never worked together. So I was always working with guys who were all very nice people but most of whom didn't really want to talk to me? [Laughs.]
I very rarely read mainstream comics. I mostly read indie comics and goth comics, so I think some of it was just that we were reading different things and maybe there wasn't that point of connection.
And that seems to be true for games, too, like, if you play indie games or "weird" games, then what are you gonna talk about with people who play mainstream games? I don't know what taste means because, say, in the music world, many people have a certain snobbery associated with obscurity. And I feel like that's not the case, and in many ways it's the opposite, with a lot of aspects of geek culture. Like, if you're not playing the major releases, what are you even doing there?
I don't know if that's right. That's just how I feel about it sometimes when talking to other people.
No, that's pretty profound and feels true and I've never heard it articulated that way. So I'm like, "Oh, you're right. It's the complete opposite."
Doesn't it seem that way?
Yeah. But it used to be like, "Well, but I import games from Japan." And that was the status symbol of, "Oh, wow, you really are devoted to this."
I used to intern at a record label, and a guy I worked with -- a friend of his had no furniture but was very proud of all the vinyl he had in his house, still in the plastic that he would never open.
And certainly there are those collector's editions of games, but it's not like owning that is treated as any more special than owning a $5 game on itch.io.
Why is that? Isn't that the same way it works in other nerd circles?
Yeah, I would think so. But, you know, there was a game I thought was really funny. I don't know if it was early this year or if it was last year. An indie game, it was free online and it was just, like, this girl running and throwing tampons at people. [Laughs.]
Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah yeah.
You know Tampon Run?
Yeah, I remember that one.
Okay, good. So, I thought that was, like, awesome. [Laughs.] I wanted to tell the Internet about it and no one was impressed with me for knowing about that game. [Laughs.]
But I thought it was great.
And I feel like maybe the musical equivalent of that game is the Tacocat song, "Crimson Wave." And I feel like if I bring up Tacocat, who are my favorite Seattle band, I think that I get indie points and I don't get that in gaming. [Laughs.]
That is the weird thing about the subculture of the games world, is the notion of "indie points" is the opposite of what it normally means. The goal is to "sell out."
Not that there's anything wrong with selling out, I think everyone should be able to pay their bills.
Have you tried to communicate this to people in games because they seem to not care or believe you that it's opposite elsewhere.
Right. I don't think I've ever really talked about it with anyone before. [Laughs.]
But I've thought about it. The games I'm likely to play now are low-budget indie games with stories that are interesting to me. But sometimes I’ll talk about it to my more traditional gamer friends and say, "Oh, do you think I should buy this game?" Kind of wanting advice. [Laughs.]
And sometimes these friends will say things like, "That's not really a game. Like, it's just people talking." Or something like that.
And I'm thinking, "Well, I already know that. I know what the game's about." [Laughs.] That's not a factor for me.
So then I realize, "Well, these are people who just like a different sort of game and that's fine, but I just shouldn't ask them for advice in that regard." [Laughs.]
I was curious about this blog.
Yeah, which is still online, by the way.
So, I didn't know he worked at a game company, but he was writing about your assimilation into contemporary games. What were his friends reactions to the blog documenting that? Was it just like a private thing between you guys?
Yeah, I mean, of course it's public online but I don't really remember us talking to anyone else about it.
Which, I think I might have liked it if it were more public just because it's about me and I was very flattered by the whole thing. And I feel that way about anything that pays attention to how I spend my time, which I find flattering in any medium.
But yeah, we didn't really -- it's online but we didn't really talk about it with people.
It's just like a Blogspot or something?
Yeah, it's on Blogspot.
Okay, perfect. I've got it dialed in on my head, then.
What did you notice, then, about the things he would write about?
Well, I think he would write -- a lot of it was anecdotes that were funny, which I wrote about in that essay. He seemed very amused by how my commentary would sort of amp up as I got more involved with games and I would yell at NPCs a lot.
I remember something about you being proud of "crippling people's faces?"
[Laughs.] Yeah, yeah. So, things like that, and he was interested -- as we already talked about -- the kinds of cues that were confusing to me and learning to play. And also, sometimes I would want him to tell me how to do something and he would instead try to say, like, instead of telling me, he would try to give me paths to take that could apply across games. Like, I remember he described interacting with a game environment as "painting." Like, if you're stuck and you can't find something, you're painting a wall, you're trying to look in every area. So he wrote about that.
And then, you know, when I played Portal and started playing more puzzle games, that was another example where he would try to kind of coach me, I guess, in thinking about resources and problem-solving.
I will say that's something about games that, at least in his case, he's someone who is a pretty rational problem solver in other aspects of life and seems to apply that in games as well, and I don't know which came first, you know? [Laughs.] As someone who played games his whole life.
But I always thought that was interesting because I'm someone who often, at least initially, will go into panic mode in games and life. So. That's interesting.
A lot of it was about the learning curve and problem solving.
Did you feel like you learned anything being able to read that blog?
I think it's certainly a way of thinking about the way I deal with problems in life and how that manifests in a sort of immediate way in games, if that makes sense. [Laughs.]
How do you think videogames influence our behavior? Would you even know? I don't know if we'd even know.
Yeah, I don't think I would even know. I know I don't think videogames make people more violent.
Yeah. I don't think you can point to someone behaving violently and say, "Well, they played Halo: Reach once, so, you know." [Laughs.]
I mean, if you talk about gun violence in this country versus other countries, it's not about videogames. I mean, Japan has incredibly low crime rates and a very high percentage of people who play videogames, so I think that's an immediate example. I only know Japan as an example because that's where I've lived. But I think that's true in a lot of other countries as well. So I think it's a silly comparison in that regard.
When were you living in Japan?
It was a long time ago. It was 2007. I was studying there.
What did you notice about their culture around videogames that seems different from ours?
I wasn't gaming when I was there, so I couldn’t really say. Although when I went into Japanese arcades, hanging out there seemed like a very normal social experience and felt casual in a way that arcades in the U.S. don’t necessarily. Sometimes there’s this feeling in the States that, if you're not a regular, it's weird for you to be there.
I don't know. Maybe that's just my perception.
No, I would agree.
I don't know. There's just more of an unwelcoming vibe. Is that --
Yeah. I mean, is that because you're a woman?
I don't think it's even that. It just seems kind of -- oh, I don't know. [Laughs.]
It just seems less like a normal social experience in the U.S. based on arcades that I've been in, though there are exceptions. Actually, when I lived in Seattle, there were a lot of arcades that were really fun and full of drunk people in a festive way. [Laughs.]
But other places I've lived, not so much.
I know you mentioned buying Fallout 3 or your boyfriend at the time buying it for you. I didn't realize he worked at a game company so that might have been some of where you were getting information about games that were coming out. But during that time you were getting into games, was he your primary source of information of stuff that was coming out? Or were you paying attention to game sites as well?
Mostly through him.
And then I had maybe one or two other friends who were really into games who I would then talk to about or say, "I'm doing this now. What should I be doing?" Eventually I did start to feel like I wanted to have my own thing. [Laughs.] Because I had been playing games on my boyfriend's Steam account and was like, "I want my own Steam account." [Laughs.]
I also fell in Internet love with Felicia Day who I still think is wonderful. So I started watching a lot of her videos and thinking about games that she would recommend and I developed more of a personal interest. But certainly at the beginning it was all through my ex.
As I started to play and kept playing, he did get a good sense of what aspects of games I was enjoying and would recommend games that had those things. Which actually worked out pretty well. [Laughs.]
You wrote that story for a zine and not a games website, which I assume was a conscious choice. So, of what you know about those media sites, what do you notice about what they tend to cover versus what they tend to never cover?
Well, I will say that what I read now tends to be more of a function of the writers that I know. So, Goddessmode I found out about because one of the editors tweeted about it, and there are sites I like like Cartridge Lit, do you know them? They publish fiction and poetry about games. It's really interesting.
So, things like that I just know about through people. I don't really follow any gaming blogs that are more traditional. It tends to be kind of happenstance, what I hear about and read about. I think it depends on the writers.
How do you think decades of covering games just as consumer products has affected the mentality of the audience?
Games as products and the kind of inaccessibility of learning about their creation, you mean?
Well, I think maybe it makes it harder to feel a personal connection.
I say that as a comparison with media like literature or music, media that often has just one artist or creator, creators who are often accessible, people you can interview and read about. I think because gaming is such a big industry you can't really do that? And of course I know it's marketing, too, but I do think it changes a person's relationship with the product.
I don't know.
I'm going to get to a question now that you said is kind of annoying, which is the gender question.
The thing that I notice is that people will brag that women play videogames.
What's your response to that? [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] I just don't understand the fascination with women playing games. I mean, of course women play games. We were all -- I mean, I think a similar thing happens with sports. This is something that I don't care about at all. [Laughs.] If a man says, like, "Why don't more women like sports?" And then a woman who says, "Oh, I like sports." And then she gets asked really obscure questions to see if she's a true fan.
[Laughs.] This is true.
Which is ridiculous. And I think that happens with games as well, but I think there's a lot of contradictions. And, again, I think I said this in my email: A lot of women have written about this who are much smarter and more qualified to talk about it than I am. You know, women who work in the industry.
But I do think that a lot of contradictions with expectations of women in games and women who play games, like, you're simultaneously -- like, there's this desire, this ideal, of a woman who plays a lot of first-person shooters and is a badass and whatever. But also, if there's a woman who actually does that, there's so much fear -- that I don't even fully understand the basis of -- that she's "fake." Like, she's faking it for attention. [Laughs.] Which is actually ridiculous on many levels.
That she's playing that game for attention? That's what you're saying?
[Laughs.] Yes. The idea that someone would play Halo for attention from men -- especially from the kind of men who say things like that -- is ridiculous.
You said the thing you didn't understand is "the zero-chill attitude that exists for many male gamers around the question of women playing games or games targeted at women." Is that the attitude you're talking about?
Yeah, and this doesn't apply to any gamers that I've ever been with friends with -- well, clearly, because I don't think I would be friends with them. [Laughs.] But I think it's mostly an attitude from faceless entities on the Internet and maybe peripherally in human form? But it's also, of course, an attitude that's much easier to adopt as a faceless entity on the Internet.
It's constantly amazing to me what people will say publicly to and about women in the gaming industry. In particular, what happened to Zoe Quinn, I guess it was a few years ago -- that one, I was following because it was so intense and upsetting.
So, yeah, I don't understand this zero-chill attitude. Like, there are these absolutes you have to follow in order to be a woman working in or even playing games, but none of it seems to make sense or even be consistent? Does that make sense?
Like, play games, but don't be fake, but be hot, but if you're hot, you're also fake. So there's no winning.
You wrote about how you were trying to hold onto the "gamer identity" a little bit to try to keep the relationship going.
You talked a bit about how games are not that welcoming. But how do you think people inside of games who think even if they're trying to be welcoming don't realize it's bigger than that?
Well, I think, and this is certainly true in other communities as well, but even if people are trying to be welcoming or think they're being welcoming, there's this understandable desire to try to hold onto whatever knowledge or experience you've gained over the years and not want that to be, I guess, "taken away from you." Even if it's not conscious.
So that can kind of come off as aggressive, even if it's not intentional. Because obviously for some people it's very intentional. But there are also subtle ways of asserting dominance or experience in that community that feel unwelcoming.
But I don't know. Does that sound right to you?
I would agree.
I don't think that’s exclusive to games at all.
Can you tell me a bit about how you pick up on other people subtly asserting dominance in videogames that you think they might not even be aware of themselves?
Usually subtle phrases, or changes in the tone of a conversation. In innocuous conversations, if you say you've been playing a puzzle game or a story-focused game, for example, instead of a more standard conversational response like, "What game?," the response might be a form of one-upmanship like, "Oh, I've been shooting zombies since I was seven."
Which, okay -- that's nice for you. More commonly, the reaction is something well-intentioned but ultimately condescending, like, "Oh, I don't play those games." Someone might initially be interested that you play games, but not "those" games. Even the word "those" is really distancing -- which is what makes it feel mildly insulting. It's an implicit ostracization. And -- at least in my case -- I always rush to say something like, "I play FPS games too, I swear!" It bothers me that, even now, I feel the need to justify what I enjoy.
What do you think videogames have accomplished?
Wow, that's a good question. [Laughs.]
I think that, you know, they've created new modes of storytelling, which may be my go-to place as a writer. [Laughs.] That's what I think of, and I believe there's value in that.
Games also foster communities, and I think they've fostered communities that are or can be healthy, even though we talk a lot about unhealthy aspects of gaming communities. But that's the exception rather than the norm. But, of course, unhealthy aspects of any community are what stands out, especially to a newcomer. But I think there's a lot of good there for people involved.