Sunday, January 5, 2014

on "queerness" & making things for yourself



since the beginning i've had immense problems with the label "queer games". i understand the reasons it's been adopted - visibility, increasing awareness, empowering others. but what are we supposed to do with it? so much of it has been about getting recognition, but it's only ever recognition given on the terms defined by the people oppressing you. once the story turns into "we all just want to be treated like you" it becomes the same old narrative of assimilation and undermines any kind of subversiveness "queer" might have been supposed to stand for in the first place.

another problem is one i witnessed at QGCon in Berkeley this past year, where no one speaking really seemed to know exactly what they meant by "queer" but they sure were all very eager to adopt it to mean whatever they felt like. i guess what i could boil it down to, if anything, was "difference". as in, how does this "queerness" offer us a fresh new perspective on this particular previously mundane, stagnant area of study? how does it provide us with the necessary techniques for dealing with a changing landscape for how we evaluate art and culture? or how we evaluate ourselves? these all presumed "queerness" to be some kind of substantive, identifiable thing they could use instead of the very vague, amorphous term it is. there was a lot of talk on why a lot of the ways we traditionally talk about things are problematic, but none on why "queer" is problematic, or why "problematic" is problematic, none on how terms often turn into meaningless panaceas easily tossed around or used to shut down any meaningful discussion from happening, none on how they're used by the more-privileged-underprivileged to define all the terms of discussion amongst themselves and shut out the less-privileged-underprivileged.

much of online social justice's image has been come to be defined by young confused people engaging in the complete contradiction of wanting to be fierce outsiders and wanting to go viral for it. several recent pieces by queer games writers like Mattie Brice, Aevee Bee, Zoya StreetKat Haché, and Katherine Cross have called for SJ activists online to curb some of their anger and engage with others more civilly - a completely justifiable response to all the nastiness and pettiness of communities on tumblr and twitter (over the last year or so especially) and the emotional fallout it's caused in so many people actively working to make these areas better. but i can't say that i think anger's really the problem at all. there's a lot to be angry about, after all, and precious little outlets for letting it out. how we use the anger, however, is another issue entirely - and it's most often used by people who are more interested in gaining followers or visibility for themselves than engaging in any actual debate with other people, as Katherine Cross talks about in her piece.

i've supposedly been part of a "queer games scene" in the past year or whatever. ostensibly it was a community of mostly transwomen mostly living in the bay area. leading up to GDC last year we joked about a "trans hive mind" and being mistaken for each other because the public assumed that there can only be one queer trans person who makes games. things seemed to be moving so fast, and so unsurprisingly they ended so fast. a few days ago, i joked to an acquaintance that we all hate each other and don't talk anymore. that's an exaggeration, but only a little bit of one. it wouldn't exactly be a great tragedy that people moved on from this community that was having negative effects on them and did what they needed to to care for themselves, except that we never had a community in the first place. we had a social group.

and after all the talk about sisterhood and women not fighting each other, we never actually did much of anything to ensure those things happened. everyone seemed too infatuated with the idea of being a scrappy outsider infiltrating an oppressive space, more in love with the image they were coming to be seen as than anything else. because in reality - deep emotional scars, lack of trust, and bad communication broke stuff up before it could ever really begin. there was nothing ultimately sustainable there.

i'm offering that not as a cautionary tale but as one way to show why i feel ambivalent at best about the eager adaptation of these kind of labels. i don't believe in "queerness" because i don't know what that really means. i don't desire to make things "more queer". they're just words to me, words that have caused so much pointless jockeying that i really couldn't give a fuck. i desire to be more honest to myself and others. if i believed in making new year's resolutions, that would be mine.

how many people really want to be outsiders in the first place? i feel we have no meaningful way to distinguish "outsider by circumstance" with "outsider by choice" in this queer games community. the line between them, of course, is very hazy. being trans or queer or a person of color can force you into the position of outsider regardless of whether you've chosen it or not. many adopt the label "activist" because it works better for them but may only be marginally engaged in it. what does it even mean in the context of online? "activist" is another "queer", another panacea used to talk over those with less of a voice.

how much of this conversation about hot-button topics that goes on, across different blogs, on the twit-o-sphere, etc just the image of a conversation happening in just the image of a community, just different young insecure people positioning themselves for potential career advancement? how much is it that in the end, they just want to be recognized, just want to feel like they're a worthwhile human, and feel like they've done something valuable with their lives, because that's how society has taught to them evaluate their own worth? how much of it is hoping that this period of economic instability will just subside and lead to a secure, happy job doing what they want to do? these are entirely reasonable and justifiable feelings, but they have absolutely no bearing on the meaningful actions we take for others. in the end they just amount to us helping us feel better about ourselves.

we can't control much, but we can control how we treat ourselves and others. and that is, honestly, really the only thing that matters in the end.

i sense Mattie's struggle, in particular, but i worry a lot about the toll it might take on a person's sanity. sometimes you do so much just to get recognized, and then when you're passed over you feel you must have done something horribly wrong. Mattie says in her article that she spoke at 14 conferences in 3 different countries and co-founded QGCon while still living in SF on money made from game criticism. that, by absolutely no stretch of the imagination, seems like any lack of effort on her part. it actually strikes me as a little insane (not that that's always a bad thing). but so much of our culture is resistant to letting in meaningful structural change, and what gains are made get made painfully, with great sacrifice, over a long period of time. sometimes you get lucky and break through, sometimes you don't. it's not always up to you. sometimes the game is just rigged.

sites like Kotaku and Polygon are funded by empires built on advertising money. they're only interested in outsider voices insofar as it helps their public image. whether or not individual people who write for the sites stand for those ideas or not is not the point. their employers are the ones who call the shots. they might tell Mattie they love what she's doing, but it still would be too big of a "risk" for them to hire her. transwomen talking about being transwomen don't make them money. these venues have continually shown they're only interested in an appearance of openness, not doing much of anything meaningful to bring it about. the same goes for conferences like GDC or PAX, or groups like the IDGA.

so let's offer a less inherently self-destructive proposition than the "i must be recognized as soon as possible or i will not be able to survive" model. let's plan long-term. how do you continue to make things and survive in spite of the disdain or disinterest of others?

one is there are plenty of publications not funded on big money like Kotaku and Polygon are, and there are plenty of conferences not funded on big money like PAX or GDC are. several people seem to be having luck lately with Patreon as a way to crowdfund their work (p.s. i have one too!). there's still a lot of fertile ground in bringing what's happening in the progressive games community entirely outside of game spaces and into other art spaces, though no one seems entirely sure how to do that at this point.

all i can offer ultimately is this: support yourself any way you can. don't buy into the idea that success comes with money or online followers. don't feed any more time and energy into the PR cycle of places like Kotaku or Polygon or credence to the idea that being recognized by them legitimizes your existence. don't slow yourself down for the sake of others. do what you need to do for yourself. then, and only then, will it become clear how to help others.

the game may be rigged, but that doesn't have to stop you. the game goes away, but in this moment you are eternal - and you have the entire universe in front of you to explore, not just some tiny little niche community on the internet.

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