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On Wednesday, I cried in public. Pixar movies notwithstanding, this is unusual.
It was, at least, quiet crying. It happened while sitting in the front row of a GDC panel that collected the personal stories of women working in games, under the banner of #1reasontobe, a Twitter hashtag which evolved out of a different Twitter hastag, #1reasonwhy.
#1reasonwhy sought to curate reasons that women’s voices in games continue to be important, but it got kind of depressing fast as the stories of misogyny and assorted sexist bullshit began to pile up. #1reasontobe then tried to collect all the POSITIVE reasons women continue to participate in the game industry, providing a welcome reprieve from the circus of horrors some women experience.
The panel featured an impressive selection of voices, including Robin Hunicke, producer of life-changing game "Journey," among others; Leigh Alexander, editor at large at Gamasutra; Elizabeth Sampat, indie RPG designer; Kim McAuliffe, game designer for Microsoft Studios; Mattie Brice, longtime game critic and recent game designer; and the unimaginably awesome Brenda Romero, industry vet and currently serving as the first-ever Game Designer in Residence at UC Santa Cruz.
Every single one of their stories was different, demonstrating what should be an obvious truth, that there is no uniform experience for women working in games, any more than there is ever any universal experience of being a woman in general, because none of us are exclusively women but are in fact comprised of intersecting aspects and identities that make our lives and perspectives unique.
But back to the crying.
The crying happened toward the end of Brenda Romero’s portion of the talk, a brilliantly passionate fuckword-laden rant that deconstructed her problem with “booth babes” at industry events, avoiding all the usual pitfalls that blame the women taking this work and instead arguing that companies should be disallowed from using these models by event organizers because the way they sexualize the workplace makes it difficult for all women to be taken seriously in that environment.
Romero even recounted a failed contract negotiation in which the dude she was speaking to first insisted she share in his admiration of a nearby model’s ass.
And then Romero talked about her own 12-year-old daughter, who wants to make games when she grows up, too. And how Romero hopes for a day when she can take her kid to such industry events and say that she’s proud of where she works, and that it’s a safe place for her daughter to be.
I cried because, y’know, sometimes it’s kind of overwhelming to hear someone fight so hard for something I also believe in. Sometimes just hearing that you have a right to be in a place where you may have been previously frozen out is an enormously emotional experience.
This is rarely more true than for those of us who find ourselves on the margins for a variety of reasons -- because we are the wrong gender, because we look wrong, because our bodies work wrong, because our brains work wrong.
Because the people we are or the things we enjoy mark us as living on the fringes, and we've come to expect NOT to be included. Because we’re inconvenient, with our strange needs and curious variety of unpredictable perspectives.
Because when we were kids, our peers made fun of us for being into stuff that was weird or different. Because maybe at 12 someone told us that girls aren't good at science or math and we believed them.
Because for most of my life, my favorite worlds were all inside my computer.
Because at 14 I was hiding my love of video games from my classmates because it wasn't a socially acceptable thing to enjoy, at least not for a girl who longed to be accepted, or popular, or even just not made fun of.
Because a neighbor and I who were often adversaries at school in the way that only 8th grade girls can manage were also secret friends in the concealed safety of our homes on 19th street, playing Super Mario 3 late into the night on the weekends but never revealing our secret shame at school, protected by mutually assured destruction should the word get out.
Because at 15 when a boy I knew (and liked) through online bulletin boards told me that girls are never as “good at computers” as boys, I hacked into his user account simply by guessing his password, an easy task since I knew him so well.
Because at 22 my favorite places were all inside Everquest.
Because at 26 my favorite places were all inside Star Wars Galaxies.
Because in my 30s I still feel powerful nostalgia for worlds that never actually existed.
Because for long stretches of my personal history, I can remember things I have done in games more vividly than things I was doing in life. What classes did I take my last semester of grad school? I can't recall. But I can tell you clear details of every time I fell off the boat to Kunark. Like it was yesterday.
Because I miss the days before voice chat and because I don't play online with strangers anymore, because as soon as they hear me speak they start treating me differently -- their expectations change, the energy of the group changes.
Because just last year I sobbed when I completed Mass Effect 3, feeling such absurd loss when I knew my character's journey -- the game character I have probably related to most strongly of any character I've ever played -- was finally, unavoidably over. This is embarrassing, certainly, although I don't know why, because if I was crying over a book or a movie no one would think that was strange.
Because for all of these reasons and more it is incredible to recognize when you are accepted and recognized amongst people who share and value the ideas and art and play that is important to you, and who don’t call you weird, and who understand. Because feeling known and accepted is sometimes the most precious feeling we can experience.
Games -- all sorts of games -- are like nothing else. They are not disposable. They are important.
And beyond the big-budget generia of shooters and other games about killing, these days more and more people are using games to say things in new ways -- as Auntie Pixelante, Anna Anthropy made Dys4ia, a game about her experiences as a trans woman seeking hormone therapy, and she’s also written a whole book, "Rise of the Videogame Zinesters," to tell you that you -- yes, you -- should be making games too.
Tools like Twine are further democratizing the creation of interactive fiction. On this note check out Porpentine’s “howling dogs” or maybe don’t, because it will probably ruin you for thinking you could ever do better. On a lighter note, Emily Short’s Versu brings interactive fiction to iOS devices in a user-friendly way I’m seriously enjoying right now.
Going all the way back to playing Roberta Williams' "King's Quest" when my age was in single digits and on my first-ever computer, I have been trying to write about games. Even into my 20s I kept trying, trying to capture my experiences playing collaboratively with guild members online, trying to describe my emotional connection to the worlds I was exploring, the magic of participating in the escapism of adult make-believe -- not just chronicling the things that happened, but catching the feeling of being me being someone else in a place that didn't exist.
For all my efforts, I have failed and failed, and it makes sense that I have failed, because games aren't writing, and they're not simply stories -- they're experiences that can be recalled but never fully reproduced for someone else to fully understand. They are the essence of having to be there.
There’s a quote from C.S. Lewis that I’m quite fond of, as a writer, which goes, “We read to know we are not alone.” And it’s true enough on its own.
But as much as I have always loved reading, I have not relied upon that for solace in the same way that I have occasionally relied on games. I have played games to know that I am not alone, and I’m still doing it today. And if the importance I place on these experiences makes me weird to you, that’s fine. I know not everyone cares as much as I do. But I also know I’m not the only one, and I’m not going to apologize for the things that are important to me. Games especially.