All the women I know in video games are tired
But it's not for the reasons you think.
Over the past week, I found myself at times so stricken by depression that I could barely move, only lie face down as if there were some great force pressing me there, leaden and slowly leaking tears. It was as rough as you might expect on the one hand, but on the other I wasn't particularly worried: I felt I was having a reasonable response to a series of unreasonable events.
There had been a stubborn and pernicious chest infection keeping me away from my work, the daily rhythms of which are often the benchmark against which I set my sense of myself. And I had very secretly tried a new sort of project recently, one I had thought I was going to be good at and that it turned out I wasn't so much, the sort of surprise I think it's fair to find a little destabilizing. And some other small things, years and years of small things, the sum result of which was me feeling sealed in an unhappy tunnel, away from every accustomed metric of validation.
Validation is a strange concept when you work in video games, a young field with a short memory, whose ideas about what is valid are constantly mutating, always outside of your reach. There are lots of people who suddenly seem to get lucky, either at game-making or at writing the conversation around it, and while this sort of fortune is wildly unpredictable, comprised of mysterious moving parts and elemental alchemy, we're a people who likes to pretend there is a spine of logic around every action and every interaction. We believe in a right way, a best path, a win condition. It's in our nature.
Video games are validating. They are systems we turn to wherein we touch something and there is a response immediately; where mastery is possible, where we evolve in logical order. We can "see the ending". One of the last decade's most significant pioneers of the "watching someone else play video games" genre, well before YouTubers, was the Japanese program Game Center CX, where the endearing Shinya Arino persistently plays through obtuse and fricative old games. His goal is usually "see the ending."
I'm virtually awed by Arino even still: Particularly his resilience. Sometimes it takes him long hours or even days to fulfill his stated commitment to a game, some kind of Japanese soothing pad glued to his forehead. One of the show's warm conceits is when the program assistants deferentially bring him snacks, meals, clues from viewers, always a little apologetically, because everyone in the room knows Arino mustn't quit. He is often frustrated, forehead-slapping, comic groans, but just as often he laughs, quips. He would never hurl the pad across the room with violence, like I did as a child. My family's old Super Nintendo pad is engraved with teeth marks. I don't know how he manages it.
Every woman I know in games right now is really tired. Careful: That is "every woman I know," not "every woman." You must be very careful. It's the kind of fatigue that isn't so easily explained by our fist-shaking male colleagues who earnestly empathize across their social media platforms with how "we get harassed a lot". Some of us get harassed a lot and some of us don't. Sometimes it upsets me when people bring up the harassment: comments like I have no idea how you put up with all the shit you put up with or gee, you sure have a lot of haters, because honestly I am usually trying to ignore that part and, well, a lot of people like and support my work too, thank you.
There is a lot of attention paid to the "climate of harassment" for women in games (and a lot of uppity debate about whether it exists or we're just imagining it, exaggerating, because for arbitrary reasons we must want to "make the industry look bad"). But actually, this stricken pity and bewilderment was worse when I was starting out almost a decade ago, before any of the myriad and diverse and excellent women I now know and work with. Back then there was just a persistant dissonance between the way people reacted to me and my work and what everybody else got, and since I couldn't yet understand it, I pressed on.
I had a difficult time. There is a Joanna Newsom lyric that goes: "I was tired of being drunk/My face cracked like a joke/So I swung through here like a brace of jackrabbits with their necks all broke." It reminds me of the person I was at that time, a raw nerve collapsing slowly under mass scrutiny and inscrutable socioprofessional rules. In hindsight I know I was having a reasonable reaction to an unreasonable circumstance. It helps just a little bit to know that, from time to time.
At that time there was no Twitter. There was no "the community." We had no forum for conversations about the supposed injustice of a labor economy whereby people write blogs and others benefit from them without paying money. The sphere of games criticism I was part of when younger -- the "Brainysphere", we often called it, after web ringleader Michael Abbott of the Brainy Gamer -- was imbued with a gentle awe. There was a brightness and a newness to what we were doing, it felt like, and while of course none of us invented games criticism it's fair to say we were all part of the invention of a kind of conversation in our field, where we were exploring with and investing in one another. I never wrote good articles then, but I must have had good ideas, like the others who participated in this exchange with me.
Outside of this sphere it often came as a shock at how unsafe it was for me to speak or to be visible, how strange the status quo would find me when I would appear at games conventions with my reporter's notebook and my too-bright theatre kid eyes. I tried all sorts of roleplaying. I was invited to some "women in games" groups, which I declined because I didn't want to make a Thing out of It. Now I don't remember much about those times, because the real me was not really present.
Even still, I did not get tired until now. Since that time, other women and I slowly became part of a hopeful wave of people for whom things were going to change, or were changing, or at least we existed together in a system where our collective discomfort felt like a useful tax on the outcome we were at last going to achieve together. We hoped we would See The Ending, and perhaps we are now so many of us tired because it is clear there is not going to be one. Or it's like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, where you think you've got there but in fact you're only halfway done, and you must re-map the castle all over again, this time with everything turned upside down and twice as dangerous.
For the most part, I still have the same job that I have always had (not that I'm not proud of the growth I've had within it over the years). For my friends, the Twine revolutionaries and the vocal Tweeters and the other writers, a great act of deception has occurred: We've been in the New York Times and been invited to conferences and told that we are Important Voices, doing Important Work, we've been on the news at night and in magazines. We are awash in social capital. But none of it translates to real capital.
It is a mean shock. I think about Arino, and how so often the reward for his entertaining labour in these ancient video games is just a screen that says THANK YOU FOR PLAYING, and a list of names.
I'm not sure what we expected to get. Like the hollow feeling in my chest after that secret project lately that laid me low, what other result did I want than to complete it and have it be mine? I'm not sure, but that ambiguity depletes me of something, as it depletes all of us.
I am still getting emails from people who want to know if I will help with a panel or a documentary or a thesis or whatever about "women in games", or, heaven forbid, about GamerGate (stop sending me these). My colleagues are still being told that their work on altgames or gender or games as personal expression or on personal writing is Important Work, quintessential, don't-miss, but that unfortunately there is no job available for them, no speaker's fee, no professional advancement.
One of my colleagues just wrote me she's frustrated about all the conversations we're not having. We all are, I think, migrated against our will to interminable residencies in a politicized minefield, where even talk amongst ourselves is scrutinized. The unremarkable news that I like the game Bayonetta, for example, provoked an unsolicited Twitter flurry of users tagging in my friend and collegue Anita Sarkeesian, who was critical of the game Bayonetta, as if the fact of our two opinions could not stand. We are not free to debate and to disagree lest we be set against one another. Sometimes, we admit darkly in private and in bars and at "women's meetups" that some of us are against each other. Every smiling colleague, loathe to conflict with another woman, might hate me. She'll never say so, because many of us women are hated unfairly by enough of our enemies already.
Then there are the ones who have had only good experiences. Who believe in Positive Energy. We're in the business of fun, they declare. A lot of them are older than me and I see them frown gingerly at me as if they were the mothers of teenagers, wounded by our turbulent age, shaking their heads at the destruction they think we're causing in our course to find ourselves. Of course I respect them, their work, their years of service, the truth of their experience which is so different from mine. I have no choice, and we will never discuss the issue otherwise. We have no freedom to speak or to move. Our own stories, the narratives of our work, are so often taken gently out of our hands while we watch, mutely; while we watch, hitting block and mute.
Another friend and colleague noticed that I seemed frustrated, that I too appeared to be another throbbing nerve in this living knot of frustration. To comfort me she told me that she's seriously thinking about what else she might be able to do besides games. "I might be depressed," I wrote her. "But I really hesitate to write off a culmination of structural concerns and long-running systematic disrespect by both my enemies and my 'allies' as an involuntary chemical downer."
"Totally," she replied.
Recently on a whim I ordered an old book off of Amazon called "Surfing on the Internet," mostly because the title was funny. As it turned out, it was a brilliant memoir of the wild west days of early Usenet groups and mIRC channels, written by a woman called JC Herz. The politics of being a woman online had been part of her experience even in the 1990s. I also had written a memoir, called Breathing Machine, of the internet in the 1990s and my girlish adolescence there.
I turned over Herz' book and was startled to see her portrait on the back: A shock of wild, dark curly hair, like mine, a mischievous smile that felt familiar. I googled her and found that she wrote games criticism for the New York Times (we are constantly complaining about how traditional outlets like the New York Times never give us an opportunity) at the turn of the millennium, years before I became a writer. We were so alike, her course of life and work so like mine, and yet I had never even known of her until then.
Our ongoing memory crisis -- this field maintains little permanent record of either projects or conversations, reinvents the wheel every five years -- means we are all afraid to stop lest we be swept away and forgotten. If I were ever to stop, then five years from now, someone quite like me will not have known of me. Women, especially marginalized women, who had so much more to lose than I ever had and who risked it all to make their contributions, to do their important work, fear this too, probably far more. So we endure the interviews about The Harassment. But The Harassment is not our biggest problem at all.
It's that we haven't learned a way to be valid, yet. Our controllers are full of teeth marks. We cannot See The Ending. We are in the business of playing, but we've lost our innocence. I have been here long enough to know that this article about Being A Woman will be more widely read than nearly any heartfelt work of pure games criticism I could do. That knowing is a low and constant ache.
My partner is in games, and his friends, and my guy friends, and they run like founts of tireless enthusiasm and dry humor. I know sometimes my ready temper and my cynicism and the stupid social media rants I can't always manage to stuff down are tiring for them. I want to tell them: It will never be for me like it is for you. This will only ever be joy, for you.
For me there is nothing else I can do. I know the madness of spending insomniac hours all through high school score-chasing, precisely reciting the same litany of platform leaps, flinging myself against the same boss for years until I was violently bored. I would shut the game off, go downstairs. Twenty minutes later, upstairs again, as if compelled, back to it, all but invoking superstitious techniques for this time, this time. All of us remember a parent or partner, sighing in the background after we wail and strangled-growl at the screen for the hundredth time: "You've been playing for hours. If it frustrates you so much, why don't you stop? Why don't you do something else?"
I just can't. Somewhere in all of this is love, and the need to make games bigger than their strange little space and all the deterrents in which it's clad. It's love that powers Offworld, that led our friends at Boing Boing to offer us a chance at a platform, that makes Laura and I want to play some small role at adding something else to the conversation. I wouldn't do anything else. We must decide this is valid. We cannot wait to be accorded validity. We must run at it, repeatedly, patiently, like we always have.
It's just video games. It's supposed to be fun. It sounds fun, people say when I tell them about what I do. And sometimes I laugh and I wince or I pull my lip, but I always say It is.
Then they often say is it tough being a woman in games. Sometimes I say yes and other times no but from now on I think the answer is yeah, but not in the way that you think.
The Offworld Collection, presenting the very best features and essays from Offworld, is finally available to buy directly from Campo Santo for $40. I had the pleasure of designing and illustrating this splendid 250-page hardcover volume, but it’s the excellent writing, edited by Leigh Alexander and Laura Hudson, that makes it an essential buy. You […]
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