A Missed Connection: Tech Feminism and Videogame Zinesters

Despite obvious commonalities between digital game makers and critics and the tech feminist community, there doesn’t seem to be much cross-communication.

by Chris Martens on July 21st, 2014

Zinester and DIY culture contain some appealing themes from the perspective of inclusivity and social justice:

  • if we make tools available free of charge, we can empower creators who lack financial privilege;
  • if we make tools that rely on common skills rather than specialized ones, we can empower creators who lack educational privilege;
  • if we break the divide between consumer and creator (e.g. by permitting people who ordinarily think of themselves as consumers to contribute in the form of modification or remix, and don’t differentiate those works from “original” ones), we subvert capitalist structures that disproportionately oppress marginalize groups.

These ideas, too, are ones I’ve seen from digital game makers and critics. There’s a small but highly compelling collection of writing (and tweets and conference talks and so on) demonstrating how games as an artistic medium can function as a tool against oppression (see, for example, Mattie Brice’s last Model View Culture article). Indeed, new marginalized creators are finding a voice in games every day, and publishing new beautiful transformations of the medium all the time. Some lack the privilege of a computer science education, and get their start by using tools with shallow technical learning curves. Some begin by modding their favorite games, which may strike a familiar chord to those who enter the open technology movement through fanzines and remix work.

But what tech-focused people often see of the games industry is the ugly side — for example, the rampant misogyny of mainstreams game developers, thoroughly illustrated by Anita Sarkeesian’s series Feminist Frequency. In response, there are frequent calls for better representation (of women, people of color, queer people, etc) in games — but what we often miss is that these people are, themselves, making games, which usually do include such representations — but which all too often go ignored or financially unsupported.

Despite obvious commonalities between digital game makers and critics and the tech feminist community, there doesn’t seem to be much cross-communication. On my Twitter feed, where I follow people from both communities, I constantly hear the same conversations twice:

We need to be compensated for labor we’re pressured to do for free.

We need to construct inclusive communities.

We need our conferences to have policies that support people who can’t afford to pay their own travel, that support trans people using the bathroom safely.

I also attended two conferences in New York City with a mission of radical inclusivity this year (Different Games and !!Con) and recognized only one common attendee between them.

There are some apparent asymmetries that can help make sense of this disconnect, such as the fact that marginalized creators in games often aren’t being paid at all for their work and thus have very few networking opportunities. Some have a general distrust of technology-centric approaches to creation. But rather than take this discrepancy in privilege and ideology as an inevitable barrier, I hope that we can see it as an opportunity to connect resources among people who largely share values.

Games and Social Change

The games community is working on many issues of relevance to tech feminism, often by using the very lens of interactive media to focus on them. Games as a form of art have a unique way of advancing the expression of marginalized identities and experiences. Two of the more famous examples of works that do this are Dys4ia and LIM, which convey the authors’ experiences of being trans and genderqueer. These works would not have provided the same function as writing or static images or even animations: by asking us to interact, we participate in the system they have coded — we experience the push-and-pull of having our actions reacted to by the game, so that we gradually form a mental model for the oppressive system in place.

A colorful graphic design that looks like the control panel of a handheld video game, with up-down-left-right buttons that say 'Level 1: Gender Bullshit.' 'Level 2: Medical Bullshit.' 'Level 3: Hormonal Bullshit.' 'Level 4: It Gets Better?'

Screenshot from Anna Anthropy’s Dys4ia

I refer to these game makers (and thinkers and writers) as “videogame zinesters” on the basis of Anna Anthropy’s terminology from her 2012 book, Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Artists, Dreamers, Drop-outs, Queers, Housewives, and People Like You Are Taking Back an Art Form. In the intervening years since that book was written, I’ve been noticing more and more queer/poor/of color/disabled people making and writing about games — embracing games as a medium that has license to ignore the huge, vast, ugly precedent of games as vectors for “dudes shooting other dudes in the face.”

They have instead been making games about things like impostor syndrome, depression, prisons, lesbianism in fictional patriarchal societies, eating disorders, girlhood, Ke$ha, gender transition and friendship, flirting and farting, breaking hearts, breaking up in spacetranshumanist sci-fi kink, nonfiction kink, and emoji.

Image of a graphic game. The vantage point is from the backseat of a car looking through the windshield to the road. A woman with long hair is in the front seat, driving. There's a dialog box that says 'All you girls do all day is play videogames. It's not healthy,' with a response dialog that says, 'But mom, I really like videogames. Why do you care?'

Screenshot from Nina Freeman’s ‘Ladylike’

In addition, writing and curation blogs that focus on these games have popped up, including the (now inactive) Free Indie Games, Mattie Brice’s Alternate Ending, and Merritt Kopas’s Forest Ambassador (whereupon she posts games that might appeal to people who don’t think of themselves as gamers). Conferences and events on the theme of marginalized people making games have also been growing more numerous, and include Lost Levels, Trash Zone, Different Games.

Apart from highlighting the work of these artists, writers, and organizers, this community has been developing critical thought and new and radical approaches around the tools we create with, e.g. as documented in this recent article by Mattie Brice. In particular, many of these artists have discussed how a little HTML-based game-making tool called Twine has totally changed the landscape of who’s making games. Six of the games I listed above were made in Twine. People normally point out how accessible Twine is to beginners — to use it, you really only need to know how to write text and occasionally put brackets around some of that text.

A snippet of code in a dialog box. The title says 'room' and the text reads 'A room of dark metal. Fluorescent lights embedded in the ceiling. The [[activity room]] is in the north wall. The [[lavatory]] entrance, west, next to the [[trash disposal]] and the [[nutrient dispensers]]. The [[sanity room]] is in the east wall. Her [[photograph]] is pinned to the side of your bunk. A red LCD reads <<print $days>> a few inches over.'

A snippet of code from Porpentine’s game Howling Dogs.

But it’s equally important to note the appeal of Twine as a medium relatively free of assumptions, unlike systems like Unity, whose affordances strongly suggest making “cinematic” first-person games inspired by shooters like Half Life, or even traditional text game creation tools like Inform 7, which carries with it all of the assumptions present in Infocom’s vision of interactive fiction: games are about movement through space; player actions manipulate physical in-world artifacts. In Twine, on the other hand, really the only affordance the tool offers is “links do things when the player clicks on them.” By default, links point to segments of text and code called “passages,” and clicking on the link runs the code and displays the text. This freedom from existing forms (which is what I like to think of “freeform” as standing for) opens up a vast space for inventing and discovering new forms. And almost all of the pioneers of forms, techniques, and conventions in this new landscape are some combination of women, queer, and trans.

A screen from a game interface that reads 'Message from Dispatch Control. Question 3. What pronouns should we use for you?' Options are 'She,' 'He' or 'They.' Question 4 reads 'If you had to choose, what year would you rather live in?' Options are 1988, 2027 and 4989.

Screenshot from ‘Hate Plus’ by Christine Love

Game Zinesters: Inventing New Fields

As someone who’s followed a traditional academic path (B.S. in computer science, now doing a Ph.D. in the same field), watching this movement happen has been huge for me: something about following in the footsteps of men your entire life makes it kind of revelatory to see women inventing a field. It would seem to me like tech feminism has a lot to learn from these creators about destroying kyriarchy. Specifically, the sentiment that if you want more marginalized people making games (or tech), you might have to accept that what they make may not look ANYTHING like what you’re used to, might not be measurable by the predominant standards of the “industry” or “field.”

In contrast, I rarely see anyone having conversations about which core foundations of computer science and technology rest on patriarchal, western politics and philosophy, and whether we would benefit from reinventing those foundations. Would my papers be different if I weren’t constantly submitting them to panels of men?

We may say our heroes are Grace Hopper and Ada Lovelace — we name all our damn organizations and events after them — but honestly what the fuck are we actually using in our DAY TO DAY work that builds on theirs? Whereas we’d still emulate a Turing machine to prove a language Turing-complete in a modern paper? Whereas we still use Church’s lambda calculus more or less directly as he stated it as a basis for our PL designs? To be clear, I’m not saying Church or Turing’s work is more (or less) relevant than Hopper and Lovelace’s, just that it’s part of our education whereas theirs isn’t, which determines what we actually use, what we create, how we think.

We still buy into the idea that to have to communicate our work on terms Distinguished White Men Who Might Hire Us will understand in order to have worth. Again, I’m not an exception here. I want a job, too. But I find what videogame zinesters are doing inspiring toward building a future on our own terms.

Image which shows Twine's visual editor, a very simple visual interface which shows a series of labeled cards such as 'maze: ..lost in heart-shaped corridors, turning corners catching' and 'mazetext: you are in a maze of twisty passages, all alike.' It shows arrows between the various cards, presumably to show relationships between them.

Screenshot of Twine’s visual editor with source by Chris Martens.

Connecting Resources

Here’s a common pattern:

  • Male programmers builds a platform out of code.
  • Platform is adopted by a huge user base of marginalized people.
  • Those people drive widespread adoption and popularity of the platform.
  • Original creator turns out to give no shits about oppression, happily takes all the credit without mention of these creators.

Chances are, given the platform I’m publishing this work on, you think I’m talking about Gittip. But as it turns out, in a sense I could be just as easily be talking about Twine. (The link is an article written by Twine’s original creator that describes its path to wide adoption, but makes no mention of Twine’s queer and women-centered community. And as far as I can tell, neither he nor Twine’s new maintainer have made an effort to reach out to that community to inform their design of the next version of Twine.)

It is a total crapshoot whether the original creators of a platform will be sympathetic to the needs of the marginalized unless people who share anti-oppression values come together to discuss and build platforms.That is ultimately what I hope to see by facilitating conversation between tech feminism and videogame zinesters.

Zinesters often distrust tech, code, and the machismo that goes with it. What they see of tech feminism may look fairly insular — we may manage to convince privileged white men to fund our projects that they approve as “tech enough,” often projects that instruct young women in the patriarchally-established mainstream — but we don’t often push hard to reach across fields, to communities that emphasize art more than tech. As a consequence, these artists mostly don’t think of themselves as programmers, even though I would argue that using and mastering a visual editing tool like GameMaker or Twine isn’t so conceptually different from using and mastering a programming language like Ruby.

It’s also clear that most spaces and communities are still not doing a good enough job at supporting trans creators, letting them do their work free of specifically transphobic and transmisogynist harassment and oppression. From this interview with porpentine:

“90% of making a game is dealing with the physical and emotional exhaustion of constant harassment, misogyny and transphobia in my field.”

I argue that some of the needs these creators have are ones that tech feminists can help meet. Tech feminists often have one or more of: financial resources (tech salaries), education (degrees in CS; experience programming), white/cis privilege that garners difficult-to-measure more respect (e.g. attention from sympathetic men in tech), leadership of outreach organizations.

We got these privileges by playing by patriarchal tech’s rules to some extent, so if we’re not using these privileges to actively and regularly support women who aren’t, how can we consider ourselves part of any movement that deserves the label “feminist”?

So what can tech feminists do?

  • PAY videogame creators who are struggling to make ends meet while they make their work. Many have Patreon pages, including Liz Ryerson, Amy Dentata, Autumn Nicole Bradley, and Daphny David. (This is just a small selection of artists I haven’t otherwise mentioned by name yet — Patreon’s suggestion system may help you find others.)
  • Educate themselves about game design on marginalized people’s terms. Rid ourselves of assumptions about what games are about and who they’re for. Read A Game Design Vocabulary by Anna Anthropy and Naomi Clarke. Read their blogs and Twitter feeds.
  • When we use games as “hooks” in our programming outreach classes, we should highlight the work and design philosophies of women designers and builders.
  • Attend events, e.g. those in NYC and the SF Bay Area. Start more local communities. Invite game makers to your feminist hackerspaces. Ask them to speak at local tech events about what they do.
  • Work hard to not just invite but center trans/queer voices and perspectives. Combat transmisogyny and cissexism in our own communities.

Last but not least, get involved in tool-making. This is a near & dear topic to me; my research is on programming languages, and over time I’ve realized (with a lot of help from my housemate Lea Albaugh, who builds many things, including games) how much that interest has to do with programming languages being “tools for making things.”

What videogame zinesters and writers like Mattie Brice have helped me realize is that anytime you make a tool, you not only have to ask “what is this for making?” but also “WHO do I want making things with it?”

Platforms that support marginalized groups creating work, funding their work, and curating discussion centered around that work, represent a huge step in the right direction. But we still need to be asking questions about who controls these platforms and whether they will continue to be sustainable as we move forward. As part of that interrogation, let’s get involved in the design and building of tools, systems, and platforms that integrate anti-oppression principles from the start.