Fuck This Shit We Call Games Journalism Because Dammit I’m Tired of This

There’s this lady I see selling magazines at the bottom of the escalator whenever I go to ride the metro. I have no idea if she enjoys her work, but she’s there every day with a desperate smile on her face, pleasantly trying to hawk a copy while people ignore her on their way through transit. I’m admittedly one of those people.

Today I burst into tears in the bathroom, ignominiously with my laptop perched on my lap, because I didn’t know what my purpose was, what the point was. A prominent game journalist with a penchant for saying ill-considered things said another ill-considered thing, and while I hardly shook with surprise I still shook with what felt like an impotent but blinding rage. I had lost a bit of funding—as you well know, this entire site is sustained by the generous pledges of my patrons—and I just wasn’t prepared for such a cavalier and oblivious flippancy toward one of my major sources of income. Grateful though I am for every single pledge, I still don’t make enough to survive off of my writing alone, and any loss (though patrons are justified in doing whatever they need or want to do with their money) makes it a little tougher for me to make ends meet.

It was only when I decided I would take myself out for the night, both to get myself a treat and to take myself to an environment that encourages productivity, that I saw the lady with the magazines and felt a twinge of guilt and respect. I looked at her, I said I had no change. She smiled and looked at me, I looked at her, she looked at me, still smiling, and I looked past her and I kept walking. She comes and sells her magazines and wears that smile because she has to, because she sure as shit can’t berate anyone into buying a magazine. I just wonder how many people look at her and see no value in her work. I wonder how many people look down at her from the top of the escalator like something abject and pathetic, barely worth her personhood. I wonder if her being an Asian woman, politely gesturing mercantile enticements in her broken French, contributes to how easy it is for people to ignore her. But she comes and does what she needs to do, smiling, gesturing, standing for hours, holding up a copy, every fucking day.

I don’t have this woman’s fortitude. This isn’t me saying I’m quitting or that I’m deferring to Ben Kuchera’s kneejerk optimism or that I think the system is just hunky-dory and I’m the problem, because I know I work damn hard. I know I’ve only recently stopped seeing the sunrise for several consecutive days in a row. But I also know this: I am incredibly lucky to have the patrons I do. I know now that Patreon is not an alternative to the system, simply an alternative means of income well within the system. I know that if, perhaps, there were industry standards for payment, if minority voices doing foundational work were hired into positions of visibility, if there were some even granular, grassroots effort toward a union for journalists and critics, then maybe Patreon would feel less like a last-ditch effort.

I know that if I hadn’t already developed an audience from having established my career at more traditional publications, my move to write independently would have been a total bust. I would have been tacitly pushed out of my own career. At best I could maybe do it as a hobby, but with no expectation of substantial, livable income. But I am lucky, I am privileged. The fact that I can even go out to treat myself, even to something small, is proof positive of that. I see people with more of that cachet, and people with less but who are no less talented and deserving. I see artists uneasy about using the service simply because they don’t think they have enough of a following for it to be worth the trouble. I’m so fucking lucky to even have what I have, and that’s a big part of why I blew that massive gasket over a few offhand remarks.

Mattie Brice, in the aftermath of the whole ordeal, tweeted a series of essential and trenchant (as is to be expected) insights. Here are a couple that really stood out to me:

I mean, okay, it’s easy to say, “Don’t let the man get you down,” or some such platitude. Brice acknowledged that her tweets sounded slightly flippant. Even I had made a halfhearted effort at not taking “videogame Twitter drama” too seriously and to be all above it, to just write what I wanted to write, the games crit that I love plunging into so much. But, you know, old habits die hard. And it is really, really hard to disabuse oneself of a structure that seems to have so much tastemaking influence and that seems to be implicitly working against you. It’s hard to absolutely shut that out when the people with enough authoritative impact to espouse radical change just don’t because they don’t have to, and why bite the hand that feeds anyway?

Let’s be real: I’m white and I’m cis and if I just played nice, smiled and nodded along, I might increase my chances at becoming some website’s Token Woman Columnist. But to do that I would have to ignore both external reality and my own internal compass of right and wrong. I would have to kiss a lot of really, really gross ass.

So I am where I am, in some ways maybe a persona non grata, but whether I smile or not, I know it’s going to be hard to disengage from that infrastructure that has done so much to disenfranchise not just me, but so many of my far-more deserving peers. I know it’s hard, Mattie Brice knows it’s hard, anyone with their eyes open knows it’s hard. But we also have to believe it’s possible and that maybe we can build something on our own. Maybe I won’t destabilize things enough to achieve the much-vaunted Full Communism, but if I can make a better working environment for my contemporaries and make just one person think about their relationships to games and people and the world, then I will consider this a successful adventure.

I’m going to do something else—it’s not a new idea but I think it’s a good one worth embracing. I’m going to make it a general policy to amplify voices in criticism or development or whatever else who deserve that amplification, not because of who they are but because of what they’ve said or made. This is my general policy anyway, but before right now I hadn’t fully declared and applied it. No more amplifying those who are already topical or popular just because doing so may, in some abstract way, be career-advancing. Fuck career advancement. Fuck trying to “make it.”

I’ve been treating that woman selling magazines in much the same way we treat small creators in this industry: with relative apathy, at worst with disdain. With rationalizations about how things aren’t as bad as they say. And that, you know, you’ll throw them a bone eventually, just not today. In the words of tj thomas:

“what if, instead of blowing that $25 on Steam’s latest sale for AAA games that have been on sale since 2009, you bought five $5 games directly from five unknown indie developers? instead of giving money to a company that is already well-off, you’re helping finance an indie who’s probably busting their ass off right now just to make rent this month. keep doing this, and encourage others to do the same thing. don’t rationalize not supporting an indie by “waiting until their game goes on sale.” as someone who’s not financially well-off, i understand how a sale or a price drop is enticing, but that pattern of thinking is exactly what makes it hard for all of us to flourish.

as a community, we need to start banding together on a deeper level than just encouraging each other through text. we need to help each other, we need to be a family, we need to show as much support for each other as we can. at the end of the day, if we don’t have each other’s backs, who will?”

In that selfsame spirit, I ask you to keep your eyes open for interesting, innovative artists using Patreon, or maybe putting their works up for sale on Itch.io (an alternative marketplace to Steam) or online vendor Gumroad. Or even just stuff they put up for free. Don’t just look up or across for inspiration. Remember to look down and adjacent, as well.

Below I’ve listed some examples but this is by no means comprehensive, and not me telling you what I think you should like so much as directing you to some people worth considering:

Lulu Blue is a game designer with an amazing aesthetic, infectious positivity and brilliant sense of humour. Be sure to check out her dance-like, disc-hurling game, Filo Filo Disco.

Gersande LaFlèche is a “queer/gender hacker poet who doodles dragons, writes stories, and codes.” Really though, LaFlèche is a mind-blowing artist with a heart of gold. They also help kids learn to code with Kids Code Jeunesse, which is an amazing endeavor.

Stephen Beirne is a games critic with a consistently strong outlook on games and surrounding culture and the skill to set off critical truth bombs with serious writerly panache.

Andi Mcclure is a game designer who is definitely a lot smarter than most of us and I’m pretty sure might be from a different, much wiser dimension. Her games are playable for free but that hardly matters because they’re worth playing anyway.

Maddox Pratt makes some really beautiful custom journals, and is also a wonderful poet, artist and hypertext game designer. (Seriously, play Anhedonia.)

Joshua Daniel, a.k.a. The Noir Guy, is a super-talented comic artist that accepts donations via Paypal and also does commissions. Also—bias alert—he did some really great pinups for FLUSHED: A Toilet-Gaming E-zine, a one-off zine about videogames and toilets edited by Elizabeth Simins, Samantha Allen and myself.

tj thomas, on top of being an unstoppable mack truck of an “industry voice,” also makes some really fucking cool, visually stunning games that you can get from his website via Itch.io. His mech combat game Joylancer is currently on sale and it’s great fun!

Gaming Pixie is a game designer who works mainly with Twine. She has produced powerful works like Eden (playable for free but well worth supporting) and What’s In A Name?, which admittedly helped me come to terms with my own sexuality.

Mike Joffe is a game designer whose areas of focus include “ecology, animal behaviour, ethnobotany and conservation.” Babirusa Pig Game is a really informative, sweet and poignant example of his work.

Mark Filipowich is a game critic currently trying to support his site, BigTallWords, on which he posts intriguing and thoughtful critical essays on games and game culture.

Liz Ryerson is a game designer, artist and writer with a very distinctive, avant-garde approach to design. Her game, Problem Attic, is a fabulous example of this deeply-cultivated style.

José Carlos Candido is a relatively unknown game designer with a lot of potential. So far he only has one game on his Itch.io site, The Devil That Comes, but it’s a really well-executed keyboard-based Flash title and I look forward to seeing more from him.

Aevee Bee is the editor and curator of an amazing game criticism and personal essay project, ZEAL. Support her or she’ll eat your dreams.

Zolani Stewart is a game critic and designer wise beyond his years. He co-edits The Arcade Review with Alex Pieschel, a fantastic journal focusing on small, independent works. (Bias alert: I wrote a piece for the debut issue.)

Cecily Carver is a game designer that made one of my favourite games, Feed the Ducks, a short and serene duck-feeding simulator. Carver’s games are available for free.

Critical Distance has a Patreon, and I’m very happy to say it’s doing well! Critical Distance really is an indispensable and necessary resource for the curation of top-notch games writing, and has really contributed something of immeasurable value to our culture. (Bias alert: the folks at Critical Distance have always been very supportive of my work and have invited me to write the odd post for them.)

Not on this list? Think you should be? Yell at me on Twitter and I’ll take a gander at your stuff.