Friday, August 8, 2014

"I'm young and I love to be young": on ZZT, by Anna Anthropy

Anna Anthropy's book "ZZT" is impressive. In only 129 pages, she gives a robust and accessible technical overview of the game ZZT, a nearly 23 year old text-only DOS game with a built-in game editor. She then explores how that engine design -- combined with nascent internet technologies like dial-up BBS boards, AOL archives, and IRC channels -- afforded several generations of a vibrant creator community. Her analysis effortlessly straddles computer science, design, art history, anthropology, and gender theory, all wrapped in a personal story of her childhood. It is a very easy, enjoyable, and insightful read.

For Anna, these ZZT games functioned primarily as a shared culture that helped its players perform identities and develop communities. Each ZZT game talked to another in the language of ZZT. These single player games were highly social, with cameos by community members, persistent in-jokes, and technological "innovations" that eventually became normalized practice. These technical norms also acted as social signifiers to facilitate gatekeeping: e.g. some ZZT games without certain shades of "advanced colors" were not permitted existence on z2, the main ZZT community website at the time. Who deserves inclusion, who deserves to be remembered?

In many respects, this book is not about ZZT. It is about memory.

She begins the book with, "I must have been nine or ten", as if doubting and reassuring herself at the same time. Almost every anecdote ends with her emphasizing her own unreliability as a narrator, as if to justify grounding her own experience with interviews from other community members as they recall similar experiments, triumphs, and mistakes. If the community's hundreds (or thousands?) of ZZT games were a group effort, then so must be its history?

But the interviewees don't always remember things either -- because this happened decades ago. We are reminded frequently that all of this happened when they were much younger. Most of them were teenagers, going through many of the problems that teenagers go through. In a way, all of the ZZT designers were all growing up together.

... So, it is not difficult to read this book as an allegory of the most recent creative community praised in her past book, "Rise of the Videogame Zinesters."

A not-insignificant proportion of her readers will probably be familiar with her stature in the "zinesters / queer games scene"... (DISCLOSURE: I am one of those readers, and I am in the Zinesters book)  Even writing those words is a political act; at this moment, many of these supposed queer zinesters would deny those labels, deny the existence of such a "scene", and deny community. They would prefer to be recognized individually as artistic authorities while sitting safely in a room of one's own. (Or at the very least they want less hate mail and death threats?) Tearing up your membership card and denying labels is, perhaps, a defensive act to try to feel more safe for once in your life. A reasonable response.

I don't know Anna's Official Public Statement on those labels, not that she would claim sole ownership of those labels. She might say it's probably more a matter of who's using them and why, and maybe it's sometimes okay when we use these words for ourselves in the right context, as a fight against erasure... I mean, I hope that's what it is, because I'd like to publicly say:

I feel like a part of this loose artistic not-community, captained mostly by queer transwomen (disclosure: I am not a transwoman) and this not-community of people is real and it exist(ed/s) -- not just in spite of our fights and problems, but also precisely because of our fights and problems. As this book argues, even bad blood is part of our community history and it is valuable because it is ours.

... But it's about more than that, and I think the book gets at this: almost everyone who makes queer games right now, or even anyone who makes your typical pixel-art roguelike platformer with 1.5 new mechanics -- is quite young. The vast majority of us are in our teens and twenties. Much like the ZZT community, we are all still growing up together, figuring out who we are, performing new identities, occasionally screwing-up big-time, trying to make ends meet, and learning how to heal.

We are young and on the internet. Anna dedicated her book to the "children of the glow" in reference to the young people who grew up with the proto-internet, but it just as easily applies to all of us right now.

So sing it with me, all us young poor people with anxious uncertain futures:

I'm young and I love to be young.

As far as second-wave feminist pop anthems go, this one takes the cake.

DISCLOSURE: I bought this book at full price with my own money.

(PS: dear transwomen illuminati, please don't kick me out, xoxoxox)