Friday, June 23, 2017

Some recent conversation on cultural appropriation

A few months ago, I wrote about how I think VR "empathy machines" are basically just a form of appropriation, where VR brands associate themselves with vaguely progressive political causes in a bid to make VR seem more relevant.

Maybe a lot of people still aren't really sure what "cultural appropriation" means? It's also a bit more of a US-thing, because of how race in the US works, so if you don't live in the US then you might not be as familiar with it.

If you're in a hurry, Amandla Stenberg made a popular 5 minute video in 2015 called "Don't Cash Crop On My Cornrows". Back in 2015, white performers like Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, and Miley Cyrus were incorporating black music, black hair, and black memes into their acts, but it seemed like that care suddenly evaporated when black people got killed by police. Are white people actually the anti-racist allies they thought they were? If this is "cultural exchange", then black people were getting a pretty bad deal -- in return, they weren't even getting their own lives!

However, the conversation on cultural appropriation has shifted since 2015. So as a sort of public service, I'd like to highlight some more recent writing on cultural appropriation, all published within the last month or so, to give a small sense of what some people are saying right now.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

On "Let's Meat Adam" by Soulsoft

Let's Meat Adam is a short gay erotic-horror visual novel puzzle game about being a hunky West Hollywood white dude trapped in a gory escape room. It was released back in March 2017, but I didn't see anyone talk about it, so now I'm bringing it up, and I want to unpack both its commendable bravery and its mistakes.

I think my main beef is the inconsistency. First, it's as if 3 different artists worked on this game, and none of their visual styles cohere. But "inconsistent" also describes the game's politics: it admirably wants to reconcile intersectionality with the gay eroticization of white muscle dudes. This is a difficult design problem that I also struggle with in my own games! So much of the culture of gay sex, touchstones like Athletic Model Guild or Tom of Finland or Kenneth Anger or Joe Gage or the vast majority of gay porn, focus on a small subset of body types. It's surprisingly difficult to refer back to that history without perpetuating that same narrow focus.

Let's Meat Adam, bravely, tries to address this problem head-on. However, I think it doesn't quite succeed...

(⚠ SPOILER ALERT: I'm going to discuss the plot, structure, and ending of the game!... ⚠)

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Against simpler times

Years ago, I wrote about a hypothetical 2013 Queer Feminist Agenda for games. What an innocent time that was! Back then, I argued that we needed to pursue industry-wide reform, build-up theories of queer games, and combat gay apathy about queer politics.

Obviously a lot of that didn't really pan out, and now the world feels totally different: since 2013, Gamergate, Ferguson, Pulse, and Trump all happened, to say the least. Many people have now left video games for greener pastures, or have taken on more urgent politics beyond games... and anyway, Twitter just feels so much more stressful now. It's honestly kind of hard for me to still care about video games like I did back then. (Did we really use Twitter to argue about formalism in games? That's what we used Twitter for? Wow.)

Four years ago, we were talking about #1ReasonWhy, and GDC started the Advocacy track. Did any systemic reform actually happen? Did the industry end up hiring and retaining more women and black people? Did it get better for minorities? Some good-intentioned straight white male allies probably believe that "we won" because several games at E3 have black women in them. But beyond video game characters, I still feel like we're still having the same old conversations about the same old basic shit. The "discourse" feels extremely stagnated. It's hard to feel like there's any progress when every new Milkshake Duck of the Month pulls us back to basic questions like "wait why is it bad to harass women again?" and then suddenly the gamers are torn between supporting women / minorities vs. liking games about Blade Runner. As I've argued before, games probably aren't going to get "better" through this kind of desperate moral math.

Four years ago, we were also talking about a "queer games scene" and thinking about how to direct that momentum. For a variety of reasons, that energy ended up dissipating. On the plus side, there are definitely more people doing this work now, which is good, but there's also much less appetite for concentrating it into a "scene", which hurts our visibility and solidarity. Well, at least there's now a loose body of thinking and theory about queerness in games? I contributed to a new book literally called Queer Game Studies, which came out of the first Queerness and Games conference in 2013. When people ask what "queer games" are, I can now point to that book and event, even though it doesn't really feel so urgent to me anymore.

These days, I imagine a lot of us are very tired and disappointed, and I get it, and yeah I feel it too.

But however we feel, we definitely shouldn't nostalgize that supposedly simpler time, that now-mythical era before monthly milkshake ducks and anime frog nazis. That promise of 2013 (or 2012, or 2011, or 2010, etc.) is long gone and we can never go back. Instead, we must forge new kinds of promises and new kinds of trust.

We're still alive. We can still make new energy, new movements, and new alignments. And yeah, it won't feel the same. It won't feel like what we had before, or even what we think we had before. But I promise you, at the very least, whatever it is -- it will be ours.

Friday, June 9, 2017

On that one brilliant episode of Murder She Wrote that thinks VR is kind of bullshit

Murder She Wrote was a long running TV show about an elderly mystery novelist (played by Dame Angela Lansbury) who happens to solve all these murders wherever she goes. Like other long-running TV shows on CBS about older women having adventures, it was popular mostly with grandmothers and gay men -- which is why it's so surprising (or maybe unsurprising?) that it also had one of the most accurate on-point less-rosy depictions of 1990s VR on television.

If you want to know more about the episode "A Virtual Murder" (S10 E05), read Laura Hudson's full write-up for Wired.

If you're in a hurry, here's a brief synopsis, along with my short analysis... but first, please enjoy this GIF of someone (spoiler) shooting a guy in a VR headset:

Friday, May 26, 2017

From modders to mimics: a people's history of the "prop hunt" genre

This post contains minor gameplay spoilers for the first hour of Prey (2017).

Contemporary game design is built on the blood, sweat, and tears of countless modders. MOBAs, tower defense, realistic squad shooters, walking simulators, survival royales, all started as mods. (For those keeping score: Aeon of Strife for Starcraft 1 or DOTA for Warcraft 3, innumerable tower defense UMS maps for Starcraft 1, Counter-Strike for Half-Life 1, Dear Esther for Half-Life 2, Day-Z for ARMA.)

Add the "prop hunt" to the list. The prop hunt is interior design meets hide and seek, where hiders "hide" in plain sight, disguised as the decorative clutter common in video game worlds, and seekers must guess what is inanimate clutter and what is sentient clutter. Arkane Studios' recent sci-fi shooter Prey (2017) cleverly commercializes this mechanic in a way that modders never could, and while it's nice to know they're paying attention to current trends, I think it's also important to remember the modders that usually get erased from game design histories. In this case, I argue that modders predate AAA design practice by at least 19 years.

CrateDM was a Quake 2 mod released on April 14, 1998, made in an hour by Chris "Shatter" Holden. As far as mods go, it was really simple from a technical perspective: a small map full of crates, and a PPM (plugin player model) that let players appear as crates, and no custom code or anything... which, I think, is brilliant. We often argue video games are made of code, and here was a new game genre created without any code at all!

Here is Holden's process and notes from the readme.txt:

Monday, May 22, 2017

So I'm joining NYU Game Center as full-time faculty in Fall 2017... (and a bit about adjuncting)

So some brief career news stuff -- I'll be joining NYU Game Center as full-time faculty ("assistant arts professor") starting in Fall 2017 (along with Matt Boch). This might be a bit confusing. Wasn't I already teaching at NYU? Well, I'm so glad you asked...

Until then, I was/am still a part-time "adjunct" teacher at 2-3 different university programs around New York City. Adjunct faculty are treated very differently from full-time faculty: we don't usually get any benefits or health insurance, we are paid much less and at a per-class rate, and we have no real guarantee of re-appointment / job security. The average US adjunct (more than half of all faculty across the US now) would be pretty lucky to make more than $30,000 USD a year by teaching 5-10 courses a year, assuming they can hustle that much work together. (You'd also be very stressed-out and unhappy with such a heavy work load. I've heard horror stories of some adjuncts trying to teach 6 different classes at once across New York and New Jersey!)

Meanwhile, my adjunct situation is a bit unusual. The pay in NYC is a bit higher, and NYU / New School adjuncts unionized to negotiate better contracts. If you adjunct anywhere else in the US, you might have much lower pay and no union. I was also lucky to be working in a "hot" field right now, where I have a rare skillset and my classes fill-up regularly. If I were teaching first year writing and composition, I'd be considered infinitely replaceable. If I was teaching a class about 19th century Estonian poetry and only 3 students registered, the university would likely cancel the class for low enrollment. Compared to those cases, teaching video games and VR is like a golden ticket.

It's hard to talk about all this because the individual people involved -- the academic bureaucracy of directors and administrators -- are often perfectly kind people. It's not one person's fault, or even one department or university's fault. The bigger problem is cultural and systemic throughout the entire world: is a university supposed to organize knowledge and help educate everyone, or is it more like a fun resort where you drink and party and hopefully make friends with rich people? Well, if you're a university and the US government defunds you for the past 50 years, and a recession wipes out your endowment, and your alumni donors think you're getting "too PC" to deserve their money, then maybe it makes more sense for you to become a resort... etc.

Anyway. Promotions like this are pretty rare, and almost never happen for adjuncts like me. I'm thankful for the support of all my mentors and colleagues over the years, and I'm sad that I won't be teaching at Parsons MFADT or at NYU IDM anymore -- but also, again, I'm thankful for this opportunity to invest more of my time into teaching / research / being a "public intellectual" or whatever.

Some of the stuff I've been doing with a public bent already:
  • curating and helping to organize No Quarter, an annual NYC show where we commission new public games from 4 developer auteurs
  • broadcasting Level With Me, my weekly stream about level design on Twitch / YouTube
  • writing about VR, talking about VR at various events
And here's some of my plans for Fall 2017:
  • hold "open office hours" on the internet (kinda like Zach Lieberman) where anyone most people can call-in for advice about whatever
  • help spin-up NYU Game Center's streaming operations (you're gonna love "Bennett Foddy's Amiga Minute")
  • wear one of those professor jackets with elbow patches
Plus, I'll be sharing an office with all-American game studies good boy Charles Pratt. (Oh dear.)... Who knows what wacky arguments we'll have on a daily basis?! Stay tuned for our inevitable reality show.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Eyes on the prize...

I've been working hard on my historical bathroom simulator The Tearoom, and I'm desperately trying to finish it within the next couple weeks. Basically, I've been doing lots of art passing and tuning. I've added the two last characters, for a total of 4 possible dude archetypes to encounter in the bathroom. I also have 2/8 possible dicks implemented, I still need to add 6 more, but at least I have the workflow and functionality figured out. In the meantime, please appreciate all the care and detail going into modeling the bathroom stalls -- and enjoy them in their clean pristine state, before I dirty them with layers of graffiti...

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

"Consider the Chair" in Heterotopias 002

For the new issue #002 of the video game architecture zine Heterotopias, I've contributed a piece on chairs in video games (though I focus on Half-Life 2) and about how these games' chairs function -- from the paradox that we are rarely allowed to sit in these chairs, to the "environmental storytelling" of the chairs' placement and arrangement, to the chairs' materials and history as a designed object. At the end, I posit a speculative political future for chairs in video games.

If you're into level design, you'll basically love Heterotopias. I've been a fan since issue 001, where they have a great interview with a Kane and Lynch dev about trying to evoke the alleys of Shanghai. I urge you to support this fine publication, and consider buying an issue to support independent games criticism. I'm also honored to appear next to all these other great writers, and Gareth / Chris were phenomenal editors. 10/10 would write again.