So, my name is Liz Ryerson. I'm 28 right now and -- although, I expect to not be 28 a year from now.
[Laughs.] I would expect that, as well.
Yeah. I live in Portland, Oregon right now. I just moved here about a month and a half ago from the Bay Area. I was located in the Bay Area for about four years, in East Bay, and I'm originally from Ohio. Actually, I went to school in Oberlin College and I was a film major. So, I have some background in that, but I also have some background in games stuff as well.
I started out, when I was much younger, I was always interested in games and music. Those were always the two biggest things.
I don't know. For years, me and my brother, we would collect old Nintendo games before it was "cool." [Laughs.] When they were super-cheap. Now the price of retro games and stuff is really inflated.
And, yeah, I got into modding. I did -- it wasn't super-complicated technically stuff, but I mostly was really really interested and obsessed with the game Wolfenstein 3D, so I made levels for that when I was probably 12, 13, 14, and also followed Doom modding and everything like that. From there, I ended up finding this website, ocremix.org, which is arrangements of videogame music, basically.
And, you know, the idea is taking some of your favorite chiptunes or whatever and upgrading them or making a different take on it in terms of making it sounds more like high-quality in terms of the production of whatever. And there's stuff on there that doesn't fit that.
So, I was involved with the community for a little while and there was a lot of drama, as with a lot of online communities. So, after a while, when I went into college, I just didn't really have the time and energy to put into it anymore, so I ended up just doing my own thing and I ended up becoming a film major in school and then for a few years, really, really wanted to be a director and do all that stuff. I had a lot of different interests. I wanted to be a stand-up comedian at one point. [Laughs.]
So, after I graduated from school, I was in really bad shape. A lot of things had happened in my life and this was 2009, so it was the first year of the recession.
I was really anxious, just my mental-health state of finding work and everything like that. I ended up reconnecting with some of the people from that ocremix community and going to MAGFest, which is a big game convention that happens in, I think it's DC now, or near DC. It's mostly just a fan convention, but it's focused around music and games, which makes it a little bit different. And a lot of that stuff is chiptune artists or rock bands doing covers of, like, old Castlevania, Metroid, that kinda stuff.
[Laughs.] Oh yeah, the early days of nerd-rock music.
The Advantage and the Minibosses.
The Advantage. Yeah, the Minibosses.
They're completely forgotten by now, yeah?
The Minibosses, yeah.
There are other bands that have more technical prowess than them, so I think they kinda went their own way. Wasn't the Advantage, like, the guy from Hella?
Yeah, there are a lot of other cover bands out there, so.
And you can look at the list of -- just for people uninitiated, though, it's mostly old Nintendo games, oftentimes 8-bit stuff, like Mario, Castlevania, Zelda, Metroid, Contra. That kinda stuff. Sometimes Super Nintendo, you know, 16-bit stuff. But a lot of the time it's focused on that. Sometimes, RPG stuff, too. Like, that's really popular, too, Final Fantasy and everything.
So, I got into videogame music for a while and unlike a lot of people who were really into it, I had a lot of background in listening to other stuff. Like, I grew up listening to a lot of different kinds of music. My brother was really into music. He's a musician. He plays shows and tours when he can. He lives in Baltimore. So, I was just around it all the time. And, you know, I didn't listen to a lot of electronic music or some other things when I was younger. But I always kind of gravitated towards the more experimental side and I had heard plenty of albums that were more lo-fi, so the idea of making something that wasn't really trying to sound professional really didn't matter to me because that's the kind of music that I listen to anyway a lot of the time.
OC ReMix -- is that OverClocked ReMix?
You mention there was drama on OCremix? I guess there's drama anywhere humans gather, but this is like, Internet drama circa what year?
Oh, it went on for a few years. There was drama even before I joined.
There was a forum exodus. And this guy Virt, a.k.a. Jake Kaufman, who's a game composer still, he works for WayForward, started his own site called VGMix where you could upload your own stuff. But VGMix also had a lot of problems. It wasn't very well-designed or maintained and there was sort of like a cult of personality around Virt, too, which made it -- he had composed for pro, I mean, it was like Game Boy games and stuff, but even at the time, even 2002. So, there was that drama.
There was a lot of drama about a judge's panel because they started getting so many submissions. And the backlog got huger and huger and still to this day, like, you have to wait an entire year after you submit to get your thing on. Or you might even have to wait three months to get judged and then you might have to wait another year to actually get posted on the site. And in this day and age, I mean, the site still has the attraction of it being a curated space and a community built into it. But in this day and age, with YouTube and stuff, it's not as much of a thing.
So, I joined in 2002, and, yeah, there was just a lot of conflict about the judges' panel and the ways that people were doing things and the quality standards and stuff.
And people were just being stupid teenagers, too, so there was a lot of random flame wars and homophobic slurs and all that kind of wonderful stuff.
I engaged in it too, so I'm not gonna, like --
[Laughs.] Yeah. So, I don't know if you had mentioned it, but just for people who aren't familiar: You have done music for some videogames as well yourself.
Yeah. Not anything huge. I guess Dys4ia is the thing that has had the most exposure.
I don't know. I've been trying to do stuff for bigger games. It's just a matter of being in the right place at the right time, which I haven't quite done. But, to finish that story, going back. So, I went to MAGFest and I also connected with somebody else. Well, I'll say his name, whatever. I also connected with Danny [Baranowsky], who did the music for Super Meat Boy, Canabalt, and some other things, and I think that was what made me see, "Oh, you know, I'm in a place where I'm really broke, but people who are doing things that were related to what I was doing as a hobby in high school are actually making money now."
I don't know. It took me a couple years to move to California and much longer to figure stuff out, but, yeah, I wanted to get into it because it just seemed like stuff was happening with indie games and a lot of them were more interested in simple mechanics and I was always into retro stuff and more stripped-down kind of games anyway.
During that period I also got more interested in game design because I did level design with Wolfenstein[mods], and I did Mario levels on my calculator and things like that.
I had a TI-86 [graphing calculator].
I had a TI-86!
Did you play Drug Wars?
Yes. Everyone was really into Drug Wars.
So, but I got more into the design side. I had a friend who I talked to about this stuff. I started watching some of Jonathan Blow's lectures about design, which was a pretty good elementary -- even though I have issues with some of his personal politics, it was a good elementary introduction into a lot of that stuff, and a lot of the problems of game-design dogma and everything.
And I got more into playing. There's some kind of really far out there kinda stuff, like some of Increpare's games. Have you ever played any of his games? Steven Lavelle?
Yeah! Yeah, yeah yeah.
Yeah. He's my favorite game designer. Not everything he makes is interesting. Sometimes it's goofy experiments, and his website is admittedly impenetrable for the vast majority of people. Although, I do like the adventure of, like, "Am I gonna get something that is --" [Laughs.] I just felt really, like, for lack of a better term, nourished by that. It's like, "Wow, they're kind of embracing this abstract videogameyness, in like just embracing the limitations of the technology, but it's also about something."
And, yeah, so I got into indie games through that and I got introduced to a lot more stuff when I moved to the Bay Area and I got to meet a lot of people through GDC, the Game Developer's Conference, in San Francisco, which, I had no money but I was able to get into through a friend of a friend. So, a lot of things like that ended up happening. I got more Twitter followers and people following my blog where I was writing about level design and issues with game culture and game design-oriented stuff.
And then I've also done music for various small things like Dys4ia and I've also done some curation stuff. I started two blogs around the same point in late 2012. One was called Lost Worlds and the other one was called Sounds from the Abyss. Lost Worlds was essentially just strange screenshots of strange videogame worlds. And there are a few other people who do stuff like that probably a little bit better.
I mean, at the time, I didn't really know about them. I discovered them. Like, they had sort of different aesthetics. I haven't really been on the ball about posting stuff on Lost Worlds. I still do, occasionally.
And I found a lot of really strange stuff by randomly clicking on thumbnails on YouTube of Let's Plays and a lot of C64 games in particular, because I grew up with a PC and I had DOS games but I never played C64 so I never heard of any of these games.
And they were just so bizarre in terms of presentation and what you were doing and they're just a really interesting window into, "Hey, there isn't only one way to do this. All these things exist." And most people don't know about them.
And it was the same with doing the videogame music. There's this assumption that videogame music is a particular way or a particular kind of genre which is just silly because "videogame music" just means something that happens to be in a videogame. [Laughs.] Composed for a videogame. Oftentimes that was defined by the technology and different technology has different sounds, but there are a lot of different kinds of composers out there. So, with that blog I was trying to curate things that were strange, maybe even considered "bad." That had either purposefully or accidentally were experimental.
But I also got into doing some games, and I haven't done a lot, but I made a game called Problem Attic that I have a lot of personal stuff invested in. I felt very disappointed -- I think I was trying to go back to the Jonathan Blow kind of lectures and things I had learned about ways of conveying more complicated or in a more challenging way, conveying more abstract ideas that were not just about conquering the level or rescuing the princess of whatever, and some of Increpare's games in particular and kind of embracing the more abstract "bad" side of the old C64 games that I had found.
So it was very minimal, and mostly an experiment. It didn't actually -- it started off as a Ludum Dare thing, a 48-hour game jam, but it expanded. And I felt pretty good about it and there's some obviously technical glitches and stuff, part of which I couldn't fix because of the engine, but some people were interested in it, but for the most part people were totally disinterested in it and could not see the appeal of it, and I started to feel pretty disillusioned by that response. Like, even people who I consider friends or allies just didn't get it at all and I was kind of confused, like, "Why didn't you take a chance on this because it's somebody you actually know and try and figure out what was going on and piece it together here?" Because it can be pieced together to some extent.
I guess that's what made me feel like even in the indie-games sphere, even in the academic sphere, people don't necessarily want to be challenged very much. I think a lot of game culture, the basis of it is -- a lot of the reason why it's insular and insulated is, and geek culture -- I don't know. This guy, Daniel Joseph, who is somebody that I follow on Twitter and he's doing a PhD on this, but he wrote a Tumblr post that I quoted in one of my posts when I was writing about Gamergate, essentially saying that there was a clear distinction, for a long time, between public and private, and the realm of the private is kind of the realm of the sacred. You know, you go out into the world and whatever, you don't have a lot of control over your life, there's not a lot of community or whatever. You have a lot of obligations based around this system, and then you go home and that's your sacred realm of the private where you can escape into what you want. Videogames, I feel like more so than anything else, because going to a movie or going to a concert, that's a thing you go out into the world to do, and visual art you go to galleries or there's institutions investing money in them, and a lot of those things are social activities, but games are so much -- the culture's so much about being inside and having this -- which isn't necessarily a bad thing.
[Laughs.] No, it isn't a bad thing. But, how does being in a community for videogames play out when the Internet is not the intermediary?
These days, it's hard to interact with anything without engaging with social media or something. Less so maybe in other forms where it's more traditionally about going out and having fun and all that kind of stuff, but sometimes to their disadvantage because the thing with videogames is if nothing else, this stuff is all being documented online. And a lot this documentation is bad in comparison to old '80s punk scenes where a lot of bands record music or make records, so a lot of the history is oral history. This is obviously very different from that.
There's new kinds of oral history, which is forum dramas and things that may or may not have been lost to the ravages of time because they weren't being backed up properly.
Or they were all deleted by administrators.
Someone forgot to pay a bill or something.
Yeah. Yeah, the server went down --
And the data was lost.
Yeah. So, that still happens, but I think it's -- that's always gonna be an intermediary in some ways, but it doesn't mean that you can't gather in a local space and work on something together and share stuff together.
A lot of social life that I've had around people in their twenties, anyway, these days oftentimes is about you going to a party at someone's house and you start drinking and inevitably people start showing their favorite YouTube videos.
Like, YouTube parties are such a big thing. [Laughs.] And it's increasingly so, I think, even with a younger generation that is more and more plugged into that.
Also, you don't need to have a lot of money to do something like that.
Yeah, exactly. And I think that's one of the things -- I mean, obviously, there are money barriers as far as getting access to technology, but it's much more ever-present, especially with smart phones and stuff like that.
In India and Pakistan and -- I was reading something about how smartphones are a big part of the culture. My friend actually is writing about riding the bus -- she lives in India right now. Like, she sees people on the bus playing Candy Crush on their phones all the time. It's not that different. It's really become a global thing in a lot of ways.
What is it you think people who connect with videogame stuff through the Internet may not be getting or understanding about what real life is actually like for someone like you or the people you've worked with over the years who make games? What sort of assumptions do you see people making?
Well, if you're in the same sort of community for the whole time, like, if you're in geek culture, you're very involved with geek culture and you have this content now that is geared towards you specifically.
And there isn't a lot of incentive to go outside of your bubble, so there also isn't a lot of incentive to go against the kind of bounds of logic that exist within that culture.
And that culture is, you know, misogyny has always been a big part. It's been more and more explicit I think because both the combination of there's so much that you can insulate yourself with now on the Internet, like, there's so many things that are so connected that you can find all sorts of different, bizarre sub-communities and subgenres that you would have never thought exist. And I think that's totally wonderful, something like [musical genre] vaporwave or something like that is an example of that. And I think a lot of people who don't follow that, like, entertainment journalism for example, or people in the art world or something are really, really bad at understanding what's actually happening in these communities.
I've seen a little bit about that, yeah.
So, they're interesting but they're also very insulated.
I think that insulation feeds onto itself, so then when something comes into your sphere that represents something that doesn't have to much do with your day-to-day life. You see it as a threat to your way of life, or something that will take over your way of life and the basis for much of your identity for good.
And the thing with indie games, for example, or queer games and stuff -- both of those things were pretty instrumental to contributing to why Gamergate happened.
But, when that starts to get press at the normal gaming websites as something that were supposed to be this geek-culture haven and all of these kinds of ideas and concepts that are more based in a history that they don't have anything to do with and are very, very suspicious of, that hate gets amplified a lot. I think it happens, too, it's happened in the queer games, queer activists, online activist communities where there are a lot of really unhealthy dynamics and the people oftentimes who are taking advantage of other people are the people who get the most exposure. So, then, that gets exported and that's what people who are trying to insulate themselves with videogames see and think is going to destroy their lives or whatever.
And they don't have enough experience talking to some of these women who are involved with games or whatever. Or, indie games, for example, there is a huge class divide and I don't understand why no one really talks about this because it's such a big deal.
So many of the people who can afford to go to conferences or afford to go to school or whatever or afford to be a part of this culture, they have to have disposable income or at least some kind of access or connection to do that.
Yeah. And so growing up on the coast or just having money from your parents or from doing tech work, programming, and saving up, so much of that really defines indie stuff especially after the initial burst.
And so it is a huge -- being able to go to conferences and promote your things and fit in with the indie mainstream cultural thing, which is becoming less and less of a thing, but for a while a lot of it is about experimenting with one clever mechanic or idea or something.
[Laughs.] Yeah, keeping everything else the same, though.
Basically. Yeah, basically. And it's very much based in tech culture and a lot of the values of that world and the startup world. So, I think with indie games, they became really defined by that and also when more women and queer people started getting involved -- because technology and game-making tools and stuff got more accessible and there was more interest in making games partly because a lot of smaller games were making money so it became feasible for people who were not AAA developers to make a game and to actually have it sell and get some cultural exposure.
A lot of people jumped in, including marginalized people. So, all of a sudden, a lot of the issues are being brought into that consciousness, and a lot of the time, people who are more in the central part of the culture's power bases understand the importance of that. Partly in a shitty, opportunistic way. Like, it's more about, "Okay, there's this market here now, so we're gonna start paying attention to that."
And I tell you what I've noticed, too, and said to a lot of people who have shrugged, which is since the initial surge of Gamergate, there has been a whole ripple of -- like, that's when G4 came back and suddenly a lot of other places started rolling out videogame verticals. But I've kinda noticed that all of a sudden a lot of people had a lot of opinions about things they previously were completely silent about for a decade. I'm sure there were some people who looked at it and said, "Oh, I bet we could sell ads against content in this space."
Some of it seems to me like to read that our society is becoming increasingly polarized and there's a lot of class division. A lot of the time, I think a lot of the not understanding of the whole Gamergate thing comes from class division and a lot of the people who were involved -- I'm not gonna say everyone or whatever. There are kids who don't necessarily have access to the kind of culture or education. Because if they did, they probably wouldn't believe those things. But they do have access to the Internet and they do have access to 4chan and they do have access to YouTube and all this stuff, so, yeah, I think a lot of it is just economic tensions that aren't really talked about that have a lot to do with just extreme right-wing movements in general. Like, if you wanna talk about ISIS or something.
This is a weird, much more amorphous and seemingly absurd kind of thing, but it's the same kind of idea and it comes from the same kinds of anxieties about class and the fact that society is changing and a lot of people aren't going to be able to have the things that were promised to them.
The most immediate thing that you can blame is women, gay people, people of color.
A through line pops up in these conversations where I find myself wondering aloud, "Have we just gotten angrier? Has the Internet gotten angrier?" And that's such an impossible thing to measure. Although, I have gotten some insights into that, but does OC ReMix or the Internet of 2002 -- I had communities I was involved with then, but I never really went tons of forums and stuff.
I always experienced forum drama, even when I was 12 years old.
[Laughs.] Yeah, but what I'm sort of getting at is does the Internet of 2002 and those forums -- was there a direct line from then to how fragmented and how angry it seems today? Or does this seem to just be coming up much faster than that and in 2002, everyone was a little bit --
Well, it's a lot different.
Like, a lot of those communities -- at the end of the day, it was kind of a way for people to get out a lot of things that they felt about their life, but it was packed within this community or something. It didn't necessarily get outside of that and there wasn't necessarily even a desire or an interest in doing that, trying to make everyone know you and what you're doing. And now, there's so much pressure -- there's no distinction between you as a person and your online brand and what you represent. This is even for normal people. Like, people who are not making money off the Internet, is what I mean. People who don't have any PR incentive, Facebook and Twitter and all that stuff approaches you sort of as a brand and there's a lot of pressure to be that way and that sort of becomes integrated into your identity and the way that you see yourself and the way that your social interactions happen.
So, I think, yeah, it's very different but the practice of using the Internet to get out a lot of your unpleasant feelings, I guess, is the same, but the way that it is being distributed is very different.
Yeah, there's a difference, too, between using a videogame to dilute or get out feelings and using the Internet to get out and dilute feelings, and then also using people on the Internet because of videogames to get out and dilute your feelings. I mean, I have gotten a little bit of an insight into what game companies were thinking during Gamergate when they weren't saying or doing anything --
I think they were thinking, "Are we gonna lose business or gain business by saying anything?" [Laughs.] And then when they realized that it was probably going to be better to say something than to say something, for some companies anyway, then they did. But they're completely -- their interest is making money. That's the thing. It's a business and you have to understand whether or not they represent an idea or say they do, it doesn't matter. It's a business. [Laughs.] Especially at that level, they exist to make money and they exist to be opportunistic because that's the point.
They exist to change with however their market goes. So, whatever they say, I'm not that interested in other than it being kind of interesting from the perspective of what they're thinking or how that sort of fear is trying to respond and adjust.
[Laughs.] What I've been able to uncover is at some of the bigger companies, people who were working there didn't think work was the place to talk about it.
For people who don't follow this stuff super closely, when we talk about things like community or the industry and sort of this toxicity that pervades both, what do you think is the most toxic thing that is being ignored from the industry standpoint and the community standpoint?
The industry needs to acknowledge that it basically created the conditions for Gamergate to happen. Like, I went to GDC this year and the people at GDC were sort of mocking Gamergate and saying, "Oh, those stupid kids." But it's just -- especially Tim Schafer with his whole sock-puppet thing, like, it just felt so insensitive, especially when some of these people who were the most threatened were in the audience having to see that. It's like, "Yeah, that's my life for the past 10 months, however many months, and you're just kind of making a mockery of it like it's no big thing and it's not gonna reach you."
But, yeah, it's gonna reach somebody who doesn't have this whole protected sphere of industry clout around them and I think that a lot of people in the industry really did a -- especially a lot of older women did a piss-poor job of speaking out about this kind of stuff.
And I think because of that, especially in that industry there's a division between the personal and the professional, and these days, it's not that way anymore. Someone who is their own brand as an independent developer or content creator, their personality is part of that brand and so it's a much bigger part of the culture.
I mean, Tim Schafer, although it's not really the same thing, he got a rash of shit over, basically, poor project management on Kickstarter.
Yeah. No. He's gotten a lot of stuff. The difference is he has a company --
Yeah, no, I know, as you said he still has clout. On Twitter you told me you found "everything" boring and repetitive about the conversation around videogames online. If you didn't read that profile about this project on USA Today, I sort of talk about this theory that I have that I think the industry is sort of afraid of the audience it has created for itself, but it's sort of stuck and hoping things will maybe change.
What do you think the audience is ignoring, even among the people who acknowledge there are problems?
Yeah. Can I go back to the previous point for a second?
Yeah, sure. Please do.
Well, the thing that I wanted to say is that I've always been very surprised. Like, I grew up with violent videogames and whatever. I wasn't too bothered by violence in videogames when I was younger, like Mortal Kombat or Doom or whatever, but I am totally blown away by how violent just any random AAA game I see these days.
Like I had to actually -- and admittedly I stopped following games to a really huge degree after a certain point, but I swear I was playing Fallout 3 or Fallout: New Vegas and I did that VAT system thing where you just locate the target and you target their head and point blank their head just exploded. And it's like, in a game like Doom or whatever, that's goofy, but in this game where it's a semi-uncanny valley model, that really creeps me the fuck out. [Laughs.]
And I don't know how that became the standard, but it has become so -- there are a lot of latent sort of feelings and fears and desires that the game industry has catered to a lot in its audience.
And it realized, I think, that it had the most financial incentive to do so.
A company like Nintendo created not only its toys and games, but this idea of a lifestyle where you could take Mario around with you and it becomes your life. I really think that that's kind of -- a lot of these companies realized that they had a financial incentive to really grab onto kids when they were young and get them really, really emotionally attached and emotionally involved in those properties and then use that continually to their advantage to make money. Especially Nintendo, because I grew up, I was a huge Nintendo fan and everything like that, but I have such a huge -- I'm so disgusted with the way Nintendo has sort of continually kept rebranding the same things over and over again in a way that is just, I don't know. It strikes me as really disgusting.
You know, I wonder, 'cause I was growing up, I didn't really expect when we went from Nintendo to Super Nintendo that, "Oh, okay, so they're just gonna keep doing Mario games and Zelda games?"
I sort of had this expectation that Nintendo as a publisher and developer of games to do something different, but because the knowledge is so gated and there's so little sharing and transparency so how could I possibly know better anyway? Like, I was just talking about this in another interview last week -- I don't know if you remember the 25th anniversary of Super Mario Bros. for the Wii, but it came with a book with interviews that were chopped down to one sentence. So, it had one sentence from Miyamoto on different topics and that's it.
Why is it 20, 15 years later, like, is that even a knowable thing? Did Nintendo always intend to just keep doing series of games? Did they have other hopes to branch out?
I think they were just trying to do what kept their company in business.
[Laughs.] Yeah, but you also had that sort of unspoken expectation?
Yeah. I mean, like, you play something like Metroid now, and a lot of people will talk about how, like, "Oh, I mean, it's a classic, but you go back and it's really hard to play and the controls are kind of broken."
I hate it when people say that. "It hasn't aged well." I really don't like it when people say that because I don't exactly know what that means. It means, like, that it doesn't respond well to whatever the most current dogma or idea about games or player expectations of game design is. But anyway, something like Metroid is really alien and an alienating experience. It's kind of an art game, if you want to call it that. Just, like, because of the variety of stuff on that system and even, like, old DOS games I played following PC games in the early to mid-'90s, there's a history that came from a lot of the C64 era of people just making -- in the C64 era, you could download BASIC and have it on your computer and you could program your own game. And so many people did and so many people distributed it and so many people made, like, that's where the early tracker mod scene comes from and it's this culture that is made by the user and not by a company.
And, like, you look at HyperCard on the older Macs, this software where you could sort of make your own programs, and it was very easy to use and visual and intuitive and there still isn't really anything as good. People talk about Twine for making games, but Twine is not as good as HyperCard. And the thing is, like, when Steve Jobs came back to Apple he was like, "Yeah, we're axing this."
Because the idea -- you don't have a business incentive to open the box up for the users. Like, you have a business incentive to brand everything and resell it as much as possible, which is what Nintendo has done. And the other effect of that is if the only thing that you see is Nintendo and some Japanese guys made it, like, you never hear the voice of the creator and the creator isn't allowed to speak -- and in game culture, like, the creators don't really have much of a voice traditionally. Creators are very rarely seen as brands. It's more of a thing now, but it's still -- the idea of the auteur or the director is still not very present.
Correct. Even though some people say it is.
And so I think that's a big reason why the creators were never at the forefront, it was always the characters and the intellectual property that was built and the things that were built around that and the institution that created it, and you're supposed to see it as being magical and you're supposed to not be able to take it apart mechanically.
And that's my biggest problem with Nintendo. They tried so hard to make sure you could not take stuff apart. Like, partly out of not wanting to be pirated because there was a lot of software piracy that happened back then. And people would try to sell cheap clones or whatever and try to pass it off as regular Nintendo.
But the thing is because of that, because you couldn't open it up and you can't program it in the way that you can program some of those old games. That has become the sort of lineage of the culture. And continuing to this day, modding scenes are so much supported by -- there is some exceptions. I do like Doom modding partly because the creators have actually supported Doom modding. Like, they released the source code.
John Romero still goes back and checks out some Doom levels and posts on the Doom forum occasionally. The creator and the people who created it are very present in the thing. You can see how it was the creation of these individuals.
But, like, traditionally in Japanese culture you don't see the individuals and that's just part of the Japanese corporate culture. So, you don't hear a lot about -- it's always like when you read interviews with Miyamoto, you don't see insights as much as you see things that are carefully orchestrated PR. And I think that's that the frustrating thing because you know, you play a game like Super Mario Bros. 3 and there's so much going on in there, design-wise, and obviously there's a lot of really goofy stuff in it, too.
One of the things is like, somebody asked him, "Was that whole theater-stage idea, the fact that it was all a stage sort of a basis for Mario 3?" And he was like, "Yeah." [Laughs.] And it's like, why has that never ever been talked about in that game?
So, it's weird. It kind of emphasizes the idea that you can't do this. You have to create something that is this magic that you can't take apart and you can't understand it by yourself. I definitely think that indie games, at least initially, push back against that a little bit. But the more that stuff has become needing to distinguish itself from other stuff and the more technically competent a lot of creators have been, there is, again a really high bar that is expected if you're an independent studio for your project to get a lot of exposure, with some exceptions. For some reason horror games tend to get noticed a lot because they work well with YouTubers.
Yeah, they're more performative.
Which is a weird thing, now, just to think that that's an important part of how a game --
I don't know, I always liked watched people playing games. Especially when I was younger and used to get frustrated really easily.
And I still do. I still love going on YouTube and watching Let's Plays because it's less anxiety-inducing, especially if I want to look up a level from an old first-person shooter or something. It's less anxiety-inducing to do some of that because I can see some of the architecture in the areas that I liked.
It isn't quite a substitute for the original, but I think it's cool.
I think this is some of what you were talking about with the insularity in games and how that's become part of its identity. I'm curious, like, for people "outside" of videogames who don't really know much about them, what do you mean that the culture around games is insular. Because it is, but conveying that in an attempt to broaden it is typically met with disinterest or resistance, because it hasn’t been their thing.
Okay. Like I said before, a lot of the tech and geek culture is based around these amorphous intellectual properties, like Star Wars or Indiana Jones and Mario and stuff, and that's part of the lineage of that. And so I think a lot of what's developed is sort of in relation to that and in dialog with that. And I also think that geek culture has been around for so long and it became more of a mainstream culture eventually, but a lot of the sort of computer literacy and online communities -- there's so many online communities about videogames. I'd wager to say more than anything else. More than anything else on the Internet, there's are probably more communities [about videogames].
Oh, that's not a stretch at all. Did you see, there was an article in the Observer earlier this year, like, in January, that said videogames got more web traffic on YouTube than things about Frozen, Drake, and Beyonce. It could be a depressing or an optimistic thought depending on --
I don't think it has to be either, or it can be either and both.
It simultaneously can be those and neither.
It's just an indication of something.
Yeah. Like, the culture of videogames, like geek culture, has been so in tune with these technological changes and that has sort of become a religion.
So, it has adjusted and changed so much to all of these kind of technological evolutions that have happened and so these communities have been following that stuff and have been around that stuff and really, like I said, it's like a religion. They have a lot invested in it. So, I think if you're just someone who's just coming in for the first time, you don't see all those evolutions that happened in the past 20 years especially, but even back further than that.
There's another conversation I got on Twitter where another developer said, "Well, that's on you guys, it's on writers to help open it up and broaden it a bit."
I think that whoever said is right, to an extent, anyway.
Like, I think there's been some pretty shitty journalism from a lot of videogame journalists, and it's because a lot of it is like clickbait.
But, yeah, I don't know.
But he's right in theory, but also the reality is because of the insularity you're talking about, videogames now bandy about phrases like how they're "bigger than movies," but money doesn't necessarily mean cultural legitimacy. It doesn’t make people care or assign stories or want to try to broaden their audiences.
Well, but cultural legitimacy is a whole other thing. And it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter if games are legitimate. They exist. If something exists, it's legitimate as far as I'm concerned.
Like, it exists, and it has happened more than once.
Like, videogames are a technology. There's nothing wrong with the technology. There's absolutely nothing wrong with the technology.
There are things wrong with, for example, the raw materials used to build it or, like, mined in the Congo in the midst of civil war or something.
This is also true.
Or in China, made by 13- or 14-year-old girls who have to work 16 hours a day.
And there's problems with the way the frameworks are designed often to exclude a lot of different types of people and assume certain things about the world, or assume worldviews that have become such a staple of tech culture that have gone so far off into the direction outside of reality but because they're seen as having a lot of market legitimacy they're accepted. They're just batshit crazy.
Yes. But some of the ripples of these things and the insularity videogames wanted results in an atmosphere where a lot of publications just don't care about videogames outside of the bubble of videogames.
Well, a lot of publications seem like faltering, too. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] Yeah, but then, wouldn't they want all that sweet videogame traffic we were just talking about?
Well, I don't know.
That's not really the way they see it, though, a lot of places this stuff falls on deaf ears and they're like, "We don't care about videogames."
Well, we're in an era where people are becoming so polarized and things are becoming more and more divided based on interest or lifestyle, how you choose to live your lifestyle and present yourself. So, I think there's a lot of fear about new technology and fear about accepting new technology and technological changes outside of it that I would say is oftentimes pretty unfounded and sometimes a result of xenophobia from the other side.
And there's also a fear of -- if we want to be honest, the fact that anyone can access the Internet and anyone can have any kind of say and anyone can respond and a lot of the game culture has really constructed itself around a lot of these ideas that are pretty foreign to publications and that have been around for longer. So, they don't really understand it and they're also kind of implicated in it in a way. So, I think there's a lot of fear about accepting that. And videogames, the way that we approach them does sort of change the way that we might think about art and the interactive spheres -- it's easier to see a piece of music or a painting or an image or a movie or something as this aesthetic object, but games, I think, because it's a greater amount of literacy than cinema, and cinema already has this problem. Arts cinema already has this problem where people don't want to see art films because they require some kind of understanding of the visual language that is more developed.
And games go even further out into that direction to where even people in games who are really into it don't want to play art games. Even people who are seen as important cultural critics or who are on the left don't want to play art games and don't want to take them seriously because they they're not fun or whatever or they take a little bit more work.
There's so much literacy and stuff and to get into that, you have to get into a sphere that might not value your perspective or way of looking at the world very much. Like, that's a reasonable fear in some ways, but it's also a kind of xenophobia. So it happens on both sides, is what I'm saying.
[Laughs.] Yeah. I mean, in your email, or maybe this is from our Twitter messages, you were mentioning how in the public conversation and in the games media, like, indie games are being treated as Lana Del Ray or Drake.
I think the way you put it is you called it "basic shit" and "they're not moving past basic shit." Can you elaborate on what you meant?
Yeah, I mean, that's like a flippant Twitter comment. I kind of assumed that you were a random game critic and you weren't going to -- I just engage with so many people who are like, "What do you mean games should be more expressive?"
People really -- a lot of game critics are like, "Well, I wanted to write my eight-part piece about Fallout 4's ecosystem." And it's like, "Great, well, also, what about writing about this other thing?" And they're like, "Well, what do you mean? Why can't I write about Fallout 4 for 800 pages?"
[Laughs.] For $20.
[Laughs.] Yeah, no, I mean, it's clickbait stuff.
Oh, okay. But that’s about what they’re making.
The thing with pop-music videos, for example. Pop-music videos are not about the music and they're not even really about the artists. They're about the spectacle and they're about materialism. Because you watch, I don't know, so many pop-music videos like your average Taylor Swift or Rihanna video or something -- how many outfit changes do they fucking have in those? And they're always in these lavish settings and they're all larger than life, they're in a big mansion or they're on the set of a big studio or something and it just drives home the point that -- I mean, there are exceptions, but this is one of the biggest trends, and so much of it is about communicating that, "You can't do this. This is not your life." And I think it's trying to keep people in their place.
And I think a lot of these debates on the Twitter-sphere, a lot of them about pop music or pop-music beefs or whatever, it's the attempt to take this virality and take this sort of feud or conflict and make a spectacle out of it and make it into a thing. It's what they do on reality shows, like, they try and put people together so that they have conflict and then structure the episode around that and then that gets people to watch it because it's fun to watch people tear into each other.
It's very marketable.
I don't know if you've ever talked about this, but this could sort of be a divisive thing to ask about so I'll just start with the neutral point of entry: What did you make of Indie Game: the Movie?
Oh, it's terrible.
Okay, we'll be fine then.
No, I can talk about it a little bit more. I wrote --
Well, and I'm not digging for --
Well, it doesn't -- it picks the cases where the creators were exceptionally financially successful. And I'm not sure. I guess they did that for the reason of marketing indie games as a thing, as an acceptable -- I'm not sure. Maybe it's just easier to sell success stories but it's not really the real story of indie games stuff. Like, it doesn't really have anything to do with the lives of the vast majority of the people that I know who have involved themselves in games, and if you really wanted to do a good story, you would follow people around in their lives and see how the games and stuff are integrated -- how their creative perspective is integrated into that.
One of the best movies that I've ever seen about videogames is The King of Kong because it makes the character very relatable. You understand kind of why [Steve Wiebe] so obsessed with this thing, and you feel bad that this big shot [Billy Mitchell] isn't playing with him. That is a conflict everyone can understand, and those kind of things happen all the time in the videogame community. But everyone is so afraid to talk about that stuff, and there's so much at stake.
What sorts of stuff?
Well, drama. I mean, there's so much at stake. There's so much financially at stake. I said this before, but indie-game developers oftentimes don't have any kind of financial incentive to shit-talk each other because that means potential connections and other things that they've lost. Whereas if you're in some other sphere or whatever, like, it might be easier to -- if you're on a record label with somebody and then you're shit-talking somebody else who's on another record label, those two things aren't really related or connected to each other necessarily.
And depending on the genre it could be very good for your career.
Yeah. In indie games, it's really not. It's still small enough to where it has the impression of it being a friend group, which it isn't, which is kind of a dangerous thing 'cause I've been to so many conferences where people hug each other and say hi but there are so many people I don't really know and some of them might be people I end up becoming or have a possibility of being legitimately emotionally connected to, and then some of them maybe have completely different goals and we're really ideologically butting heads against each other.
People tend to be ambivalent to talk about that movie. I have had a couple developers yell at me from the perspective of, like, "It's better that this bad thing exists than nothing at all."
I don't think that's true.
I don't think that's true, either.
I think it does good things, but it does more bad things.
I think so, too. At the time, I put off watching it for a while because I didn't want to hurt people's feelings that I knew were in the movie when they asked I thought.
Yeah. It was one of my first experiences of going to GDC, and they had a screening and I was sitting right behind Jason Rohrer and Terry Cavanagh. And I had just met all these kind of indie-celebrity-type people and they had all the Indie Game: The Movie people -- they had all the developers there from the movie.
So it seemed like this real big moment or whatever. And then when I watched the movie again a few months later, I kind of watched it again and again and it solidified -- so I wrote a review of it. It's one of the first things that I wrote back in 2012 and I tried to get it noticed. It was a negative review of Indie Game: The Movie, and hardly anyone wrote about it except for Ben Kuchera for some reason. At the Penny Arcade Review he linked to my Indie Game: The Movie review and said it was a good review.
Was he more positive on it than you?
No, he just linked to the review.
Yeah, I mean, I rewatched it again last year and I'll hold my tongue on all the gossip about the people in it.
I know plenty of gossip, too. It's not really that important.
[Laughs.] No. Not really. But, I mean, I think about that a lot because I do think there is this impression from a lot of the space that nothing exists before the year 2000 and, also, for a lot of people in the space, nothing seems to exist before the year 2009.
Yeah, well, it's really 2008ish is when Braid and the original Spelunky and stuff came out.
Right. Whether it was a damaging movie or a bad thing is sort of beside the point. The thing that's interesting is how aggressively people will defend it. And how many more questions it raises than it really answers.
Well, it's having a more mainstream media representation. It presents a glorified image of what indie games and indie-game development is. It's an advertisement for the scene, in a way. And the same thing with this other movie that came out called Gameloading: Rise of the Indies, which is more, like, focused on diversity and stuff and smaller stuff and that's great, but it's still, like, an advertisement for the scene. I knew about 60 to 70 percent of the people interview in that movie, so it's kinda like -- Indie Game: The Movie made people into personalities, which was a good thing, but then they also presented it in a way that was really high budgeted for no reason. It has this really slick feeling to it, which makes no sense to me.
It's like, you're filming Edmund McMillen in his living room and he's probably eating potato chips and has garbage all over his floor and shit while he's talking. It's, like, ugly, gross stuff.
Gotta make sure you use the RED camera for that.
Yeah. [Laughs.] Exactly. The fucking RED camera.
I've lived with indie-developer people before and I know it can get ugly. [Laughs.]
But you know, too, not to dwell on that movie, but I saw that before -- I've done some teaching in some game programs off and on. I watched it again before I taught last year as a refresher and I wonder what students make of the fact that the movie is all white dudes making a similar type of game.
Yeah. Well, trying to make Mario.[Laughs.]
And I feel so conflicted about it and are people who are not that going to feel comfortable criticizing that or trying to pursue something else? That's one of the big criticisms I have of that movie --
Well, the financial stuff isn't really highlighted. Even in the case of Edmund McMillen struggling financially. The game was a huge success. So, the thing is, it doesn't really actually show the reality of the situation very much. And it presents a pretty glorified image with the idea that, "Oh, this thing that we do is real." And that's why people defend it, because it's like, "Okay, this is a thing that has had mass media exposure. It says what we do and we're actual people." That's just basic argument.
But the unabashed materialism, the fact that it focuses on the success stories -- I don't know. There was another documentary seeing the trailer from that a guy who is a friend of mine was working on back in 2008 or whatever. It's called You Meet the Nicest People Making Videogames. I had some problems with that, but it was him just interviewing people just straight-up, them talking about stuff and somebody was sitting in a cafe and somebody was sitting in a couch. It seemed super-relaxed. That's what I wanted. And I was really into this thing by Tim Rogers, who's a game journalist -- you know who he is.
I recognize the name.
Yeah. I know Tim pretty well. He was based in Oakland, so we hung out every once in awhile. He did -- he went to E3 one year and filmed it with this other guy, but he had this YouTube video of them just wandering around E3 and being stupid and just joking around. It just felt like really fun and funny, that kind of stuff. It was pretty in-jokey or whatever, but it just -- I don't know. There was just something about it that was much more energetic and enjoyable and much more real to the experience of actually going to these conferences and events where they're trying to get where the free coffee is, or the free cookies or whatever, and they don't know if they can sneak in or something. You know. Just random shit like that. Or, "Is my pass gonna go through? Am I gonna be able to actually get into the conference?"
Like, walking into these rooms where it's just completely empty or where people just randomly yell at you and tell you to move up a floor for no reason.
Yup. Yup. Yup.
I mean, that was one of my other more boring criticisms of Indie Game: The Movie, like, how how come no one's having fun?
[Laughs.] Like, where are the shots of the games glitching out and being stupid or, like, them just punch-drunk tired and laughing?
Even GameLoading doesn't really have that much, either.
Why do we need to have that noir shot of one of the Super Meat Boy guys in the diner?
Yeah, or Jon Blow in that bizarre profile shot? That's such a weird -- well, see, that shot really makes me think about the content of Braid and some of the grosser stuff in the narrative and so that's a thing where it's like, "Oh, that's the shadow of Jonathan Blow." But then they just cut to something else. And it's like, "Oh, okay. You were just doing it because it looked cool, not because it actually had narrative meaning or anything."
A lot of the documentary stuff that I've seen about indie games now has been kind of lazy because it's like, "Oh, you come to their house and interview them and it's talking-head interview and then you go to a conference and film a few people. You don't have to put that much effort into anything but editing."
And something like King of Kong, where it was a thing that they kept following these people around and then a story emerged -- so they have to be willing and able to do that. And the thing is, there are plenty of people out there who would be very interesting subjects. There's some strange-ass people who make indie games, and I think those are stories that are worth telling and I don't know who's ever gonna tell them. But they should be told.
The thing is, though, if you're talking about legitimacy in an industry or something, a lot of people are afraid of a King of Kong-type movie because, for example, that created a whole huge drama within that community after the movie was made because it made them look bad. And it should've made them look bad.
Yeah, they were shitty.
It exposed how insular they were. But that's the thing, that I think a lot of people secretly know, "Oh, we're not gonna look so good if some of this finds its way out."
When we were emailing, which I'm saying mainly for the transcript's purposes, so it doesn't seem like I'm referring to something people didn't read, but, you didn't say anything specifically or you didn't mention any names, but something about the email thread sort of reminded me -- like you just used the word "dangerous" to describe that people pretend that they're friends but they aren't really. And I'm curious why you so rarely see people being creative, conflicted individuals with human depth around videogames. Okay, I get it up at the Nintendo level, but --
Well, I don't know. A lot of it is being an online brand and stuff.
And if you're a visible online brand and you're trying to sell yourself and by extension whatever you're making, there's a lot of pressure put on you --
But for what? That's the thing I try to figure out, like, what does clout as an independent game developer even mean? Like, you don't have to worry about money, at least, for this year?
Yeah. I mean, well, there is this idea that you could be a millionaire like Edmund [McMillen, co-creator of Super Meat Boy] --
Which I'm not being flippant about. I'm just trying to understand, like, what's really at stake.
I don't know. I think maybe the culture has been taking the focus away from the person and there's this idea that the technology is perfect and we must sort of orient ourselves correctly towards the technology and therefore the more human and messy side of that isn't really accounted for.
And also, I think, it's just hard to make and sell a game. You have to do so much PR for yourself that it just tends to be -- like, I've worried about it, when I've had panic attacks on Twitter, "Am I gonna lose my Patreon support? Am I not gonna be able to pay rent because I'm having a panic attack on Twitter?"
Those things directly, usually, for me, anyway, part of my brand that has come or whatever is -- I guess that I have to accept that I have a brand even if it's --
Yeah. It's just something that's going to happen. But part of it is being honest and being more honest about that kind of stuff, so it probably doesn't bother people as much. And it also doesn't bother people as much to see people who identify with women being vulnerable.
Like I said, I think there is at least the impression that you're going to lose money or followers by being more open about those things and there's also the likelihood of being publicly shamed or humiliated in one way or another. Part of male behavior is not exposing weakness and not making yourself vulnerable because then you're a target for people to make fun of you. I think that may be what drove -- even though I'm not a big fan of him or the way that he's expressed himself, I think that's part of what drove the hate against Phil Fish, for example.
Yeah. I knew you were about to mention his name. [Sighs.] I'm trying to think of what people are really attacking when --
Well, they think he's privileged and they also don't like that he has been very openly emotionally emotional about everything. It's a combination of them thinking that he's an entitled, privileged hipster and also thinking that he's being "the stereotype of an emotional hysterical woman."
I mean, that is really the way that he --
No, you're right.
And people don't like that.
But you don't think that -- or maybe not. But when Indie Game: The Movie came out, it came out at an interesting socioeconomic time of the economy tanking and the tools being available to make games --
Yeah, I mean, if we're being realistic, that's why I got into games. The economy tanked, but then this games thing seemed to be an oasis for a short period of time.
That's a little bit of why I mentioned it, because I know you mentioned it earlier. But do you feel like Indie Game: The Movie in any sort of way crystallized some of people's behaviors or attitudes in and around videogames in the developer community or the general audience?
I think it created a really weird relationship between the people who were getting into the culture from watching it and the people who were part of that. Because then it sort of made celebrities out particularly the people in Indie Game: The Movie. You won't see any of those people at game conferences being very visible anymore.
Like, I've seen Phil Fish and Edmund McMillen walking around in very -- trying to hide from.
Yes. I held the door to a head shop for Phil Fish at GDC this year but I tend to be the sort of person who -- you know, I don't want to bother them unless I have a reason to, like in this case where it's like, "Hey, let's have a conversation."
Yeah. If I have something to say to them.
But, so, I think it created really weird divisions. I noticed it, too, with another person whose game was very successful, who I know a little bit better, talking to him over one period of time and then seeing as his game became very successful and the reaction to that, it definitely seemed obvious that his emotional state and his ways of approaching stuff changed and definitely it was obvious that he became a lot more guarded because then if you're one of the people that happens to be really successful then everyone wants to contact you and kind of get in on what you're getting in on.
I have people doing that a lot.
I've had it myself. And I'm like, "I don't think what you're getting in on, but you're super-transparent right now." [Laughs.]
Yeah. Well, I think, because I am queer and trans and I also have a Patreon that makes a fair amount of money because it's a vast majority of my income, I think people see that and they're like, "Oh, this person's really successful."
It's well-meaning, but at this point it's kind of overwhelming. I can't respond to all of these things, and I can't be there to be friends with a lot of these people. And it's not especially the case of the trans community where someone's like, "Oh, you think you're better than this community?"
It's not my place to comment on that community, but I think the general truth is here just that you don't have bottomless emotional bandwidth.
Yeah. And I don't know. I'm trying to be reasonable about it and it's obvious, like, I got two random Facebook messages that I didn't see until today and one of them was from -- I don't know if they were trans or queer, but another one was from a dude and the one that was from the dude was obviously, like, he saw me on this thing that I got interviewed for that I was barely in. But he messaged and he was like, "Can you tell me more about why you got into games?"
And it's like, "Okay, I'm deleting this."
This is a weird question to ask.
Yeah. That's a laugh of recognition, because sometimes I get these emails and I'm just like, "I just wish you were a little bit more honest about whatever your real question is, because I don't understand, like, why you're asking me these things."
Sometimes I think they are seeking permission to do something that they're embarrassed to admit they really wanna do.
I can relate.
Yeah. All the Gamergate stuff and everything, I have no problems with deleting and blocking whatever I need to.
And I think that's maybe part of the reason why I haven't gotten targeted as much is -- I don't know. I generally don't engage at all. And when I do, it tends to be through trying to write something about it in a way that's maybe a little bit more complex or nuanced than other stuff. It's harder to take it at face value and say that this person is the most awful social justice warrior because, like, while I will say I make social justice warrior-y points, I will also say that I hate indie-game culture, or something like that, and a lot of those people hate indie games culture. So, they have this idea of a person, like a scapegoat kind of thing, and I don't quite fit into that.
So, I think it's been a little bit easier for me. Not saying that I still haven't gotten shit. I was getting plenty of misogynistic and gross comments before Gamergate stuff happened.
I think, like, one of the more difficult things to deal with is people who are in the community who are respected who do stuff like that.
And I think that's true of a lot of people who were supposed to be your friends or peers or allies who -- you see them doing stuff. It was weird after Gamergate, for example, to see a lot of indie developers who have been known to be shitty to women previously all of a sudden be like, "Oh, I'm social justice warrior now!"
Now it's all branding, I guess.
Do you ever feel like there's a real difference between people arguing about videogames and people arguing about politics when you look at the way people are acting online?
I mean, it is politics. It's a political argument. It's completely --
Everything about videogames?
I mean, it's almost always a matter of politics when you're arguing. If you're arguing about art, it's almost always about politics because it's about your idea of what kind of ideas should be represented and what kind of ideas maybe shouldn't be. It's always a political argument. I mean, it's very transparently a political argument with games. I think the political has to do with there are some people who very much want to stay with that dogma belief that the machines can solve everything whether they want to admit it or not, because I think a lot of those people don't want to admit it because they don't want it to look as stupid as it is. And there are people arguing against that, who, a lot of the times -- it's been one of my frustrations with the social justice communities when people are like, "Oh, we need games that are more inclusive," but they really mean, like, "We need more things with people who are like me are in."
And that's just kind of assumed.
I'm, personally, not that interested about things that are about people like me as much as I'm interested in just general diversity of perspective, which could mean that someone is making a game about a white dude but the way that it approaches it is far different or the protagonist and all those ideas should be more complicated than that. And, like, there's a lot of realms of rooms of possibility and a lot of that political stuff is not really about the characters or the content. That's only a little bit representative about it, but it's actually representative in how things are designed. And I think that's one of the biggest criticisms I have of so much of the mainstream feminist debate in media in general but also in videogames is that there's so much of a fixation just on representation and not the actual perspective and the way that designing things in a different way.
Like, if you look at a TV show like The Wire, for example, like, it's a show about the war on drugs and black poverty and violence and all that kind of stuff, but it's from the perspective from a dude who writes for a newspaper and a dude who's a cop. And it's informed by that very much. And so it's going to be a different perspective than someone who grows up in the streets or whatever. But, you look at that and it's like, "Well, how could this not be better about representation?"
And so it's easy to end something there and say, "Okay, we have this thing. We have representation now."
And so I think media is kind of realizing that, "Okay, I can just change the skin of the character and then the same fantasy of conquest or whatever."
It doesn't change the story.
The story is what needs to be changed, not the characters. I mean, the characters are one indication of the story, but it's not the most important one. And that's been my biggest problem. I've tried to argue for that and so many people are just disinterested.
They want to play Mass Effect. They just want to have their female characters and they want to play the same old entertainment. And that's fine, but it's not really gonna change anything beyond -- the way that the culture works is still based around this tech and geek culture idea and that informs creating these giant structures.
And that really informs every step of the creative process. So, if you really want to change the culture, you have to change what kinds of things are being made and what kinds of things are being highlighted and talked about. And I feel like I've tried to do that and most people who are in the videogame sphere are not interested.
They think you're insulting them.
Which, in fact, you're not at all. And I think it's actually a great thing whenever it's like, "Oh, look: I can learn something new?"
Well, I was talking to -- I mentioned that to you as far as having this really frustrating debate about a particular article, which, like, I totally support who wrote it and I've talked to her in person about stuff and even though we're not always on the same page, she's somebody I absolutely support. But I had issues with just the tone of her article, the way it was written -- I thought it was very vague and making proclamations but not really backing them up or having any clarification or context into them. And I think that stuff is so important. Based on me wanting to support her is why I was like, "Okay, well, I'm going to engage on this on a critical level because we need dialog because people aren't talking to each other."
Like, so much of the games criticism and just cultural criticism doesn't really talk to each other, and I think one of the reasons is that people don't want to hurt each other's feelings. And they don't want really crazy drama coming after them. 'Cause there was a lot of drama. You know, especially about stuff like representation, we're really nasty about -- the culture of the Internet and some of more extreme the social-justice culture took, like, minor things and amplified them out of huge proportion. So I think a lot of people are very sensitive about saying anything that's gonna get that attention on them again. They don't want that attention on them, so I think a lot of people who are marginalized are still afraid to engage with the works of marginalized people because of that.
Yeah. But then I think the result is just a lot of blandness and dishonesty through omission.
Yeah. Which is exactly what's happening. [Laughs.]
That's why it's like, "Okay, I'm going to criticize this piece written by another feminist in games." And then it just ended up being a huge argument with somebody else, and them telling me I was being unfair to her and that I shouldn't expect her to have all the answers and I'm like, "I'm just looking at what's here and saying I disagree with it."
If we can't have that conversation -- it always becomes about the person. It always becomes about, "Why aren't you supporting her? Why aren't you supporting marginalized voices?" And it's like, "Well, that's only one step." And my idea of support is also engaging with somebody in a way that's respectful, which I felt like I was. So, it's really frustrating and that's why I feel pretty pessimistic about being a part of that sphere.
So, I did want to mention: That's why I've also had this idea that I probably am going to do of -- I want to a podcast that is about understanding videogames, new media, and digital art. And essentially the idea is to take somebody who's an expert or whatever, knows about a particular subject, and just talk about their particular subject.
A lot of podcasts, the problem that I have is that, "Okay, we interviewed X person. But if you don't know who X person is, like, why do you care?"
So I want to make it about, for example, "In this episode, we're gonna talk about videogame music or we're gonna talk about online YouTube content creators or something, or we're gonna talk about Twitter bots or something." And it could be videogame stuff or non-videogame stuff. I mean, most of the people I know are through videogame stuff. But in a way that is directed towards people who don't necessarily have an understanding of all these sub-communities, subcultures and stuff. So, that's the most recent idea that I've had and we'll see how it goes. I have a couple of people who I'm going to talk to eventually sometime this month.
Oh, that's awesome.
And I'll probably put the website up at the beginning of next year.
Okay, cool, so we'll put a link in for that.
Yeah. Well, yeah, I wanted to -- I don't know what the audience is but I just want to be able to make something that even if it doesn't reach the intended audience it's, at least in theory, accessible to them. Like, I at least think that I've done that necessary work to make it accessible in a way that is also respectful.
Yeah. In that spirit, I wanted to ask you some stuff about your experience in the film-making world as well. A lot of times people will say, "Oh, where is the rom-com videogame?"
They sort of are not realizing that, "You know, you're just thinking of one medium in terms of another's tropes."
Yeah. I mean, cultural legitimacy is something that comes over time, and it's something that gets established, and because people establish it -- I mean, things like rom-com, or whatever, have existed since early Hollywood. It's just something that works well and film is cheap to make and emphasizes personality and warm fuzzy feelings.
But why are people not taking different parallels of the film world? Like, why are people trying to be like Michael Bay? Why not also, like, the Duplass brothers? Aim lower, or at least someplace else.
There are games that are made as a lower cost and that are still really popular. Mobile social games are an example. Or, at least, a lot of that stuff is made to be quick and disposable. And that stuff has become extremely popular. But it's just a different medium and understanding of different mediums comes over time and that understanding was kind of created and established by different groups of people at different points in time and it was just a fight that had to happen and so it's still a fight that has to happen.
And, yeah, I don't know. It's weird because you think of cinema evolved a lot over one century but one century's still a pretty --
It's a long time.
It's a long period of time. Even, like, 60, 70 years, and you think about 60 and 70 years in advance -- these days, like, what is even the human race, what is life going to be like in 60, 70 years because of global warming and because of destabilization and stuff? So it's kinda scary to think about so much of that stuff. I think the only way to think about it is you sort of have to use the tools that you have at the moment and figure it out. Who knows if this stuff is gonna -- if history and stuff is gonna stick around in 50 years or whatever? I have no idea.
This dishonesty through omission and snapping to conclusions we touched on before, on OC ReMix, do you remember people acting that way?
Well, sure, there were people who didn't want to start flame wars and stuff and then there were people who were really eager to start flame wars. And so there were people who kind of banded together based on not talking about issues and saying that everything was okay and there were people who gathered together around trolling everyone and criticizing everything all the time. And, you know, I was much more in the latter category. [Laughs.]
I didn't do a lot of trolling. Well, by proxy, I guess. Yeah, I don't know. People don't want to create conflict with each other, but obviously that conflict -- there's a level of professional conflict and conduct which can be achieved, where you're saying there's a distance between me and my work and I'm able to be criticized for my work and take that criticism and respond in a way that isn't completely emotionally hinged.
And obviously those two things end up intersecting, even in the best case scenario at some point. But, it is perfectly possible and the problem with the culture online is a lot of the times when people make criticisms, they're really shallow criticisms, or they're just hateful. So, when you do make a more nuanced criticism oftentimes it can look like one of those first two.
And then on the other side, people have so much of their identity invested in stuff and there isn't a lot of distinction between you and the work that you make. So, on both sides, it creates a thing where people are always suspicious of each other and tend to just want to avoid those situations, especially if they are just trying to make a living or it's their social group and they don't want to create drama, which leads to an atmosphere where people can be really fucked over and a lot of people have been. There's a lot of indie-game scene drama that a lot of people don't hear about, and I only know a little bit about it, but there's a lot of drama in that scene. A lot of it is really bad because people don't talk about it outside of very, very private settings.
Yeah. No, I hear about some and it can make Twitter and stuff look downright civil.
Maybe you already touched on this, but do you pay much attention to games media?
A little bit. Not, like, tons.
I think it's weird, a lot of the people who are Gamergater types and everything or younger generation or more on the maybe the right-wing side have gravitated towards getting their news from YouTubers. And I've watched some of the YouTube podcast shows where people talk about gaming and it's kind of interesting because they'll have positions that, like I said, are usually the sort of technolibertarian where they're like, "DRM should never be a thing, it's totally unacceptable! A lot of these companies are terrible!" But then they'll have a real bad track record with feminism and not understand a lot of other issues and do a lot of what I said. It's weird how a lot of people in game culture shit-talk games a lot of the time. [Laughs.] Like, especially older games where they're like, "Oh, this hasn't aged well."
There's definitely a fear of embracing something that looks embarrassing technologically.
But, no, the media. I used to read PC Gamer a lot when I was younger. I know PC Gamer wasn't quite the thing that it was before, but to be mentioned on their website and a couple of different articles at a different point and things like that, just because I grew up with that. And, you know, I occasionally read stuff. I know people who write for those big websites, but a lot of the time the content is pretty clickbaity and it's kind of in a weird limbo position where places like Polygon and Kotaku have tried to be better about writing things about inclusivity or whatever, but it's been kind of mealy mouthed and it hasn't really gotten into the extremes that much. So, it's kind of alienated a lot of people who are the far left side who really don't like that it's just this big media outlet that's very clickbaity and then it's alienated the people who are on the right side who are like, "I don't want to hear about this social justice warrior bullshit."
So, games media, I feel, is in a really weird place. I know there are some websites that don't quite fit into that.
Like Giant Bomb has its own separate fanbase that seems very much invested in that site and maybe some other sites are like that, too, but the big ones, it seems like they're in a weird position. I just think intelligent conversation -- there's no one culture anymore, there's so much content being generated and it's not like one article a day or one editorial a day or one a week, so that discussion happens for a pretty short period of time and it never really gets deeper a lot of the time.
Yeah. Well, fittingly, then, as we enter the beginning of our second hour of talking here: What do you think videogames have accomplished?
I mean, they've definitely changed the way that we think about our relationship with technology. They've definitely changed the way that -- I don't know. The sort of relationship that being able to explore something that is a very abstract space is really interesting and I think there's a lot of really -- the fact that you can explore a physical space in a videogame that is completely fabricated and yet it is also real at the same time and functions in some way, in a limited fashion, as this extended simulation -- I mean, I think that definitely changes people's consciousness. [Laughs.] And I think it's a really powerful technology so it's hard to say.
I mean, you could talk about the technology, you could talk about particular games or whatever, you could talk about the culture. There's a lot of different ends of it, I guess. But yeah, the fact that it's an interactive media, and definitely the way that we look at ourselves and the approach going through the world has changed and a lot of that has to do with videogames. I mean, if you want to be honest? Even Twitter is a videogame. You're still interacting with these systems and you're trying to get followers and stuff.
Yeah. So much of the online social-media existence really is a videogame.
That's sort of the model now. And yet, I've had a prominent rock critic tell me that videogames and the industry are invisible to him. And yet, people keep saying they're everywhere.
Well, whether or not you choose to see it is a different thing. It's all about awareness. You can pretend that rock music wasn't originally music that came from poor black people because all that you grew up with was Aerosmith or whatever, but it doesn't make it true. [Laughs.]