The Gamish Inquinnsition

In all the recent debate about conflicts of interest between the gaming press and indie game developers, I would guess that no more than 25% of the participating debaters are genuinely interested in journalism ethics. My reasoning? Linguistic subtleties:

Word choice is the body language of the interwebs.
Word choice is the body language of the interwebs.

Another 60% of people in this conversation can easily be sorted into 2-4 teams, each vehemently defending their own in this year’s Butthurt Biathalon, a lesser-known social justice event held in the Oppression Olympics off-season. Another 10% are just there with popcorn and the occasional snarky comment.

An unacceptably large 2% are hell-bent on harassing, threatening, and abusing people because they hate women, hate people who hate women, hate women who hate women, hate people who pretend to be women (hating women), or hated Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman (and are VERY confused right now).

And 3% are game developers, publishers, writers, reviewers, and other folks trying to balance the awkwardness of wanting to participate in this conversation (because we are also mad, sad, and opinionated) with the reality that we are damned if we convey support to any person, group, hashtag, or idea in this particularly ugly gaming family feud.

Sure, Jane Doe and John Cougars-should-rape-you-feminist-scum can safely participate in the discussion behind their cute internet pseudo-anonymity, but some of us work here.

How can I participate in a conversation this gnarly when the entire career of an indie game developer today is made or broken by social capital or lack thereof? Well, I guess it helps that I don’t give 2 fucks. Or wait… I DO…

Fuck Abusive Internet Harassers And Fuck Social Justice Profiteers

I am pissed about the disgusting harassment and threats against Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian, and others. Campaigns of abuse and harassment against any human being is deplorable and totally inexcusable.

I’m also annoyed that social justice warriors are tripping over themselves to condemn as “abuse and harassment” almost any criticism of the personal or professional conduct of public figures like Quinn and Sarkeesian. An inability to separately evaluate various facets of a subject demonstrates poor critical thinking no matter how you try to spin it. For instance, I can agree with the vast majority of Sarkeesian’s feminist analysis of sexist tropes in games while also criticizing particular fallacies in her arguments WHILE ALSO defending her from inhumane, savage threats and harassment. Nuanced opinions: they’re a real thing. Google it.

I do not agree with what you have to say, and believe you to be a supreme shitlord, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it. – Voltaire

However, I also hate how people are taking condemnations of harassment and abuse against Quinn as blanket statements of support for her as a person and a creator.

When self-appointed moral crusaders are not walking their own talk, I want it exposed. I appreciate whistle-blowers. Transparency allows the public to review the claims and evidence and come to their own, sometimes hilariously batshit, conclusions, but only if allegations and evidence come to light. Also, much of the judgment people pass is not based on the mistakes public figures make but HOW THEY RESPOND when the shit hits the fan (which never happens if nobody goes public). It’s not ethical to take the moral high road when the low road is closed because you flooded it with a raging river of your unethical shit.

Quinn routinely promotes herself as social justice ally, yet she violated the explicit terms of sexual consent she herself established with her sex partner, then discouraged her partner from telling people because she feels she is personally too important to gaming. In fact she described herself as one of the “only strong voices for equality” in games, then she iced that self-important shitcake with manipulative emotional abuse like threatening self harm to elicit guilt and support from a person she abused… classic domestic abuse tactics that survivors should recognize and condemn regardless of the perp’s gender, sex, or SJW messianic complex. It is totally possible to be both financially poor and a profiteer. Quinn is profiting in terms of social capital, status and reputation—which probably mean more to her than money since she works on so many projects with non-commercial goals.

I have no sympathy for people who prominently promote themselves as brave social justice fighters, and climb up on a pedestal KNOWING they are now a public figure representing important causes, then claim that whatever they do in their private life is nobody’s business. If you are a public person basing your reputation on ethical claims, then yes, your personal conduct will most certainly be subject to ethical inquiries. These social justice profiteers know ideological opponents are watching them, looking for ammunition to argue against them, not just as individuals, but as proxies for entire movements. DO NOT take up a mantle like that if you CAN NOT walk your own talk. And if you do mess up, please do effective damage control to save not only your face, but the reputation of the causes on which you have built your professional, public reputation.

And no, for a feminist, playing the helpless victim card and letting obnoxious white knights fight for your honor like you’re the proverbial princess in the castle, is not an acceptable alternative to spinning your personal shortcomings into a productive dialog about important issues, like, for example, how to negotiate and re-negotiate sexual consent in a relationship so everyone can meet their needs. Whether someone requires monogamy to accept the risk of unprotected sex or whether they require an unconditional free pass to sleep with other people whenever they like, it’s all good, but only if everyone involved is aware and consenting.

Depressingly Few People Talked About the Consent Issue

The first I heard of Zoe Quinn was when she was promoting Depression Quest with a tacky tie-in to Robin Williams’ suicide. As a marketer, that’s gross (yes, I am aware she was conflicted over it, and I suspect the overzealous press coverage made her decision look worse than it would have if she had truly released the game quietly by refusing to do promotional media interviews).

Bubbles from Trailer Park Boys thinking "That's Greasy"
Me watching Depression Quest promotional articles ride the coattails of a beloved celebrity’s tragic suicide.

As someone who has been eligible (though not always collecting) social security disability most of my life for dysthymia with bonus major depression and post-partum depression at various points, who fights the good fight every day, I would much rather see one particular experience of depression represented as a specific character in a broader, better developed narrative. Presenting a game as “about depression” rather than about an interesting and capable human being who happens to have depression implies that 1) depression defines people who live with it, and 2) there is a universal experience of depression that is sufficiently common to teach the reality of the condition to people who don’t have it.

Game developers and press need to be careful when they promote games about exploring (and teaching) specific experiences of marginalized groups without clearly binding the game experience to a well-rounded character with other traits and identifiable context (clearer socio-economic markers, hobbies, etc.) to understand that this is one person experiencing depression, not this is what depression feels like, full stop. At least it didn’t teach people that having a period was as crazy gross and unmanageable as this story implies.

For example, medication is not a common part of living with depression, especially outside countries with aggressive psycho-pharmaceutical industries, but it feels like an essential aspect of managing depression in Depression Quest.

Depression Quest felt like it would make a great propaganda game to encourage people to accept expensive therapy and medication as the best treatments for depression.

People could play it while on involuntary 72-hour hold at the psych ward until they comply with the recommendations of a random psychiatrist they didn’t choose and just met.

Maybe I just couldn’t immerse myself in the melodramatic piano (the intro to the game insisted I turn on my speakers so I was expecting… something else). Maybe my first play through just ended with too much of a cliff-hanger (someone offered me the number of their mom’s therapist and then… nothing else). Who knows, it just struck me as over-reaching and quickly executed (endless exposition, the lazy designer’s polaroid print photo motif (though I guess that does establish the time period you are in), and jumbly writing (“You’d like to be doing more with your life, as would your parents”)) . I’ve played much more entertaining games that better modeled the sisyphean ordeal I experience living with depression (most recently pubs in Dota 2: feeling like I don’t even want to leave the base again, it’s futile, we’re fucked, 1 person is always disconnected, 2 people never speak English, what’s the point, gg *leave game*, when it gets really bad have ideation of deleting Dota, talk it out, self-medicate, pick again).

There was one thing I really liked though. I appreciated that Depression Quest managed to become another critically-acclaimed interactive fiction dealing with serious issues WITHOUT the player finding even one super-convenient journal entry or uncannily relevant bit of graffiti (like, I get that it’s easier to tell than show, so you can take a tricky bit of backstory or foreshadowing and have one of the characters write it on a leaf of paper or wall but you gotta admit that’s really fucking lazy).

So, yeah, I was not a Quinn fan based on my extremely limited exposure to her work before the Quinnspiracy media circus erupted. But I also was not prejudiced against her. I liked her bio and personal site. I thought she was a kindred progressive, and we both seemed exceptionally interested in Gary Busey’s face.

I can only guess that if I had liked Quinn’s games more, I would be able to understand why pretty much everyone in gaming has been defending her unconditionally.

Even in the face of some extremely gross accusations (replete with corroborating screenshots, that could be doctored, but I have no reason to believe that they were).

Speaking of defenders, this was the most chivalrous white knighting I have ever seen:

White Knight badass, yes, even for Anna Anthropy (wtf with singling her out in the list)
White Knight badass, yes, even for Anna Anthropy (wtf with singling her out in the list)

I Believe You, It’s Not Your Fault

Cut to the sordid posts by Quinn’s ex Eron Gjoni. It’s a train wreck, yeah. But I came of internet age when LiveJournal was in full swing. Some people like to spill their guts online, and other people like to read it. The system works.

My main reaction was that I was glad men like Gjoni are willing to speak publicly about abusive relationships (not in a whiny MRA way that hijacks and derails feminist conversations, but as a legitimate other conversation that people who care about domestic abuse also need to be having). There is much more public discussion of male-on-female abuse because our criminal justice system (rightly) only prosecutes violent abusers (emotional abusers and people who only violate a relationship’s terms of consent in non-violent ways are not subject to legal inquiries, nor do I believe they should be).

That means the majority of partner abuse (between any genders) is happening well outside the criminal justice system we rely on to punish people who violate us in traumatic, personal ways that impact our physical and mental safety.

The only justice anyone can seek after an abusive but non-criminal violation of sexual consent is social validation (unless you’re violated by a controversial person in Sweden). We can only tell our friends and family, and hope people believe us, validate our feelings, and help us heal. Wanting the world to know your ex treated you like shit, and is in fact a shitty person sometimes, is a very normal way to feel. For most of us though, we are private people that the general public neither knows nor cares about so the stakes are a lot lower if we overshare online.

That Gjoni chose to make his story very public reflects the fact that Quinn lives her life more publicly than most. She is a publicity-friendly developer who once participated in the failed pilot for a television series about indie game jams and part of her income comes from crowd-sourced funding via Patreon. For Gjoni to just tell his family and friends probably did not seem sufficient when so many people all over the world know his ex and believe her to be not only a very ethical person, but someone who specifically stated that what she did to Gjoni constitutes a violation of sexual consent. I totally understand why the guy thought he would feel better if everyone knew, not just people close to them. I also bet he will regret this someday because Quinn suffered a truly inordinate amount of abuse for a transgression that is extremely common in our sex-negative culture where people routinely use dishonesty as a risk-management strategy to fulfill all of their social and sexual needs without severing primary relationships.

And, although I understand how Quinn might feel unfairly targeted as a talking point for this subject, I think it is especially important for victims like Gjoni to tell these stories when the violator of sexual consent is someone who is generally believed to be a very ethical person, someone who profits personally and professionally from the goodwill of social justice allies. I am always grateful to know when someone is not walking their talk because talk is cheap but living your values can be very, very costly. I respect people who pay that price, whether it means informing your primary partner before you fuck a few other dudes or letting your monogamous partner know you already fucked a few other dudes before he has unprotected sex with you.

Honesty is the only way we will collectively liberate our sex lives from an icky, shameful, sex-negative past. We need to bring short and long-term polyamory out of the closet and into a safer world of sexual honesty and maturity. This is the conversation I wanted to see after the scandal broke, not a bunch of asshats flaming Quinn about game press conspiracy theories.

Aren’t Ethics in Fucking As Important As Ethics In Journalism?

I care a LOT about the consent issue, and next to NOTHING about the unfounded allegations that Quinn got favorable game press from people she dated (there is no such favorable press from the dudes in question, so I’ve no idea how that allegation passed anybody’s sniff test). If you can find a glowing or even moderately good review of Quinn’s work by any guy Gjoni called out, please link me directly because I have seen no such smoking gun.

Look, Quinn was not the only person to ever fuck a coworker, business associate, or boss in the games industry. She was not the only person to ever cheat on someone and then fool around with them like nothing happened.

But as a voice for social justice in the games industry, she was in a unique position to lead a conversation about the important issue of sexual consent.

We know these harmful but legal violations of consent can be deeply traumatic (and scary, incurable STIs are no joke) but we don’t engage in enough public brainstorming and education about how we can prevent them.

Most of us have known or dated someone who was emotionally scarred from a sexual betrayal, and it negatively impacted other areas of their life (especially future attempts to trust other people). It’s not the sex that is immoral in cheating, it’s the emotional trauma inflicted on the partner(s) whose intimate trust (and often the terms of their sexual consent) was broken. People in all sorts of relationship configurations (poly, open, swingers, etc.) have proven that having sex with more than one person while maintaining one or more committed relationship does not itself cause harm. It’s the betrayal and sexual exploitation that causes harm, particularly withholding information to avoid losing romantic/sexual access that your partner would otherwise revoke.

This stuff happens every day. Often among generally nice people who know it’s hurtful, know it’s harmful, but they do it anyway. People who sincerely love their partners cheat anyways. We need to ask why this happens. Why can’t we just tell our partners we want to fuck around? Why can’t we negotiate sex and relationships better? Why do so many people say they are in a monogamous relationship when they really, really, emotionally and/or sexually, are not?

There was even an important feminist conversation to be had about the unfounded allegations that Quinn fucked journalists for favorable press. Even if it were true, why is it so controversial to mix sex and business relationships when so many people mix friendship and emotional support with business relationships without nearly as much criticism? The main benefit of sex with other people is typically social validation (I am attractive/likable, I am worthy, she/he chose me, etc.) which is the exact same currency friends trade in. Whether you’re blowing bubbles or dicks together doesn’t really matter as much as the fact that you are bonding over social experiences. In my mind, Quinn was no more or less likely to get favorable reviews being friends with game journalists than she was if that friendship involved sex. But many gamers sounded particularly mad that there might have been sex involved. I found that weird, and way more interesting than the stupid sex-for-press allegations.

We could talk about these things without vilifying Quinn for being an imperfect human and without judging Gjoni for not handling the situation in some magically perfect way that allowed him to seek justice, heal, and cope without also throwing Quinn under a bus full of opportunist internet assholes.

We could, but we didn’t. And I remain disappointed and annoyed. But also suspicious that coming out with any kind of opinion on this, will reduce my social capital as an indie game developer.

Choose Your Battle Class: Social Justice Warrior or Gamergatekeeper

If I post this, I worried that people who love Quinn will question

  • my right to speak on this issue (there is an elitist vibe around the indie game dev clique close to Quinn and I have seen many gamers dismissed because they are nobodies, they aren’t even “gamers” any more)
  • my ethics
  • my feminism
  • my credibility because I’d rather help marginalized people build a professional quality game to jump start a sustainable career in game development than promote game jams where people can make a (usually) buggy unfinished game with (usually) no hope of earning a reasonable return on their time invested (plus TFYC sounded accessible to an introverted mom like me, whereas participating in a 3-day game jam isn’t something I could do)
  • my commitment to sparkle motion
  • my social justice warriorism (I prefer ‘social justice shitlord’ or SJS, thanks)

And people who hate Quinn will mistake

  • me for a SJW because I have a nuanced critical opinion rather than an unconditional throbbing hate-on for anyone
  • my personal views as a feminist for their favorite faux-feminist straw man arguments (though I guess I will get that no matter what because reasons, ovaries, and all that bitching about sexual consent)
  • me for a person who diametrically opposes them or their allies (because I’m not #notyourshield or #gamergate or #commitedtosparklemotion)

Luckily, few people know or care about my blog so the consequences of this post may be postponed indefinitely. I just needed to vent my frustrations after 3 weeks of not seeing anyone care at all about the consent thing (and seeing tons of people call Gjoni an abuser for… reporting abuse the “wrong way” or whatever rationalization they came up with).

I also realized I was actually *scared* to publish this (having drafted the gist of it over a week ago) because I had seen so much effort to suppress ANY critical discussion of Quinn’s conduct (including whatever prompted the deletion of this other female game developer’s Tumblr and Disqus account). That fear was a red flag that convinced me these are important things that ought to be discussed in public.

What do you think? Or did you not have to think much at all because you went into this race with a horse already picked? Either way, this is just one social justice shitlord’s opinion.

Education MMOs: UR Doin It Wrong

Many game people like the idea of educational MMOs (or at least acknowledging the real learning opportunities present in entertainment MMOs), and educators like the idea of gamified curriculum to engage what they perceive as a gamer generation of kids, so there has been momentum for educational MMOs for many years now.

There are two general approaches that I have noticed again and again in discussions of education MMOs (and there are still far more discussions than produced, playable education MMOs):

  • Take educational curriculum and put it into the visual and experiential language of MMO video games (often with a comic book or cartoon derived art style)
  • Take existing MMOs and create educational curriculum to facilitate the use of these existing MMOs in classroom activities

I think that both approaches completely miss the beneficial points of applying MMO game thinking to real-world education. This article will elaborate a bit on areas that I think should get less emphasis in educational MMO designs (relative to the emphasis they currently enjoy), and some neglected aspects of MMOs that I believe are far more important to make a successful educational MMO. Continue reading Education MMOs: UR Doin It Wrong

Gamer Humor for the Minor Illusion of Win

Effectively using humor in marketing is tricky. If you know your target market well, humor is great linkbait. The most viral web phenomena to date have all been funny… to some people. The problem is knowing if the market for your website or app has a generally homogeneous sense of humor.

Sometimes we are so immersed in our personal subcultures that we fail to see how anyone can NOT get the jokes that we take for granted.

Nowhere is this becoming more of a problem in my media diet than in the realm of gamer humor. Something happened this past week that made me wonder if gamer humor has crossover potential or if the misapplication of gamer humor is going to become a problem now that gameification is the new the black.

Gameification may be encouraging game designers to apply the stock tools* of game design to applications that might be much better without even a whiff of Leeroy Jenkins’ chicken.

*If chainmail binkini and “<blank> of <blank>ing” jokes are any less of a stock game tool than “badges” I’ll eat my lush dwarven beard.

But Everyone I Know Thinks It’s Funny!

Obviously, the more edgy or weird your jokes are, the higher the risk/reward potential is for creating a spectacularly offensive dud or the next big viral joke. Geek culture may be cool now, but gamer culture is still a niche experience, regardless of our powerful self-referential presence on teh Interweb. Continue reading Gamer Humor for the Minor Illusion of Win

Could Gameplay Combat TV Ad Zapping and Zipping?

Gameplay during commercials may be an effective way to get more people to pay attention to sponsored ads on broadcast television. Interestingly, it is very rare to see any type of contest or game-like promotion to reward people for watching commercials, even though that behavior is highly desirable to broadcast advertisers.

  • Can gameplay be used as incentives for attentive t.v. commercial viewing? Could games help television advertisers cultivate the interactive engagement and motivation that lead to direct response after ads are viewed?
  • Are commercial games rare because games were not effective in this role in the past? Or is it because so many marketers assume any type of game has to involve an expensive prize or legal consultation to make sure the promotion is on the right side of gambling and lottery laws?
  • What types of games would be compelling during live broadcast commercial breaks? What issues would need to be addressed to prevent people who did not watch the commercial from simply scraping the commercial contents from a web resource after the actual broadcast?

Zapping and Zipping Commercials into Extinction

Since the development of the home VCR, advertisers have been concerned with zipping—fast forwarding through commercials during recordings of sponsored television programs. Newer technologies have only increased advertiser paranoia that television viewers are prerecording shows and then skipping the commercial breaks. A similar concern was raised with the advent of remote controls which let users change the channel during commercial breaks with very little physical effort (zapping). Continue reading Could Gameplay Combat TV Ad Zapping and Zipping?

N00b Proof Your Funware. Tech Support Will Thank You.

Funware is only fun if people understand what the hell is going on. How hard is it to confuse people by putting a game where they weren’t expecting a game? Well, it depends on the user experience… and sometimes users are more easily confused than you ever imagined.

This post will explain the potential usability problems if you add funware to your existing user experience, and what types of users are most likely to be impacted (hint: it’s not the dumb-as-dirt minority you are probably scoffing at already). In the conclusion, I’ll give 4 actionable tips to improve the usability of your funware (and drastically lower the chance that your funware will drive users to drive their tech support staff crazy).

“I Have the Pac-Man Game and I Want to Disable That?”

Have you heard the audio recording of a tech support call resulting from Google’s super-cute interactive Pac-Man logo? This poor woman uses Google for productivity and instead she found a noisy game on the Google search page, so she called tech support to try to get the game removed.

Awkwardness ensues, but the tech support hero helps her work through the problem (which is mainly that the game sounds are still audible while she is trying to do other stuff in her browser, the way she probably does every day). If you’re a good software designer you are going “oh that’s a problem, hm… how could they have avoided this issue” but if you’re a less user-focused software designer you’re thinking “what a dumbass, there were several ways for her to work around this without calling tech support.”

If you’re in the latter camp, you need to go work in tech support for a while. Seriously, it is boring and repetitive and you rarely get to solve any interesting problems but you can’t design good software unless you understand what it’s like to be a “pure user” with no idea how to troubleshoot or work around a software experience that doesn’t match your mental model. Continue reading N00b Proof Your Funware. Tech Support Will Thank You.

Nicole Lazzaro: a Useful Theory of Fun

Just watched an interesting video of Nicole Lazzaro speaking about her excellent research and insights into how game players experience emotions (her most cited work identifies and explains the multitude of human emotions that most people just lump together as “fun”).

Why Lazzaro’s Theory of Fun Is Useful

Lazzaro’s work is comprehensive and she thinks outside the box of the mainstream video game industry.

Her insight goes far beyond just making a game fun for the sake of fun. Unlike design professionals in every other industry, such as architects and productivity software designers, game designers sometimes resent having to design games that produce other measurable, quantifiable outcomes besides fun. Creating a functional building, working within end-user specifications and other design constraints is essentially what an architect is paid and expected to do but there are obviously major perks for architects that also create enjoyable, livable, beautiful spaces too. The aesthetic component is there, as with website design, but the practical constraints really define the design challenge. It’s the same in a marketing game or gameified application trying to achieve outcomes above and beyond a good time for the player.

When the game has to serve a purpose beyond simply being fun to play, I think it’s best to look to designers like Lazzaro for insight rather than to the mainstream video game industry right now. Studying Grand Theft Auto or the intricacies of a good tower defense game WILL NOT help you develop a great social media title that engages your customers with your brand. Studying how and why players experience fun, engagement, and motivation while gaming WILL help you. Continue reading Nicole Lazzaro: a Useful Theory of Fun

Know the Limits of Game Mechanics

So, you want to add game mechanics to your new online product? Where do you begin?

Short of hiring an experienced game designer, how does a business or creative person learn enough about game design to effectively integrate social badges, leaderboards, and points systems into non-game products?

This is a tough question because every single one of the best books I’ve read about game design are too long, too academic, or too esoteric (for someone who isn’t a hardcore gamer or old enough to have played decades of the games referenced in the texts). I’m starting to see some short, simplified books describing the new Funware trend, but they tend to convince people that Funware is the new hotness, rather than help people actually apply it.

People need an accessible marketing-oriented book that instructs a game design novice on the finer points (and pitfalls) of using game mechanics in their product or user experience designs. I have not found that book yet, but parts of it exist in many related books. It’s not that this information is not out there, it’s just not available in an effective format for some of the folks who need it now.

So, no dream book yet, but I saw a FANTASTIC slideshow today.

If you’re a website or app designer, there is a good introductory slideshow now for using game mechanics effectively in non-game product designs, thanks to Sebastian Deterding. Continue reading Know the Limits of Game Mechanics