A “10 years of experimental work” retrospective: does being a gamer automatically mean toxic fandom, and can anything be done to break away from that?

I was asked recently if I wanted to give a talk. That prompted me to map out reactions to “Everything is going to be OK“, as compared to an older project of mine. I was curious about how much exactly changed in regards to both negative and positive reactions work like this receives. Does the negative outweigh the positive?
My question was whether this can even improve, or is harassment just a fact of life?
So… I tweet about this a lot, but thought it would be a good idea to assemble all that in one concise post, instead of 100 little threads.

Possibly condescending questions:
“has “gamer” become synonymous with abusive behavior, and what does it even mean to be one anymore?”
Is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot. Maybe that’s patronizing, but I’m also very tired of all that.

My foray into games has been spread out over many years, and I’ve been making interactive art for over a decade now. With the constant tension my work receives from the consumer side of video games (gamers), and seeing toxic fandom rear its head in many different ways over the years, I’m left wondering: is being a gamer even a positive term anymore?

I’ll explain my point of view…

I got into games not out of choice. The label “game” was crudely slapped onto my work, and no amount of protesting could dissuade people from calling it a game.
The term “game” might appear like a good thing to call a piece of interactive work today. We argue a lot in favor of it, and it might seem like artistic snobbery on my part, but here’s why I didn’t want the term…

My first project was released in 1999. I worked on it all the way into 2006/2007.
The project was described as an interactive poetry experience.
You would interact with poetry, and experience the messages on a deeper level. Because of interactivity you were also part of the piece. Literature could come alive. You would follow sounds, sounds turned into words, words morphed into images, and so on… You could get lost in the flow of poetry. I wanted to illustrate my writing in a different way, so that’s the direction I chose: “Interactive poetry.”

To give you an idea, this is the trailer:

BlueSuburbia (Game PLAY Trailer) from Nathalie Lawhead on Vimeo.

It did very well. It was lauded as groundbreaking. People often said that they had never seen anything like it. It was described as haunting, caught between both beautiful and terrifying.
The topics were based on my family’s experiences before (and the culture shock after) we moved to the US. It’s largely about war, poverty, refugees. It’s stuff I considered to be very “real”, at the time.

It did well for quite a while. A lot of people said that it changed their lives, helped them through a hard time, etc… I enjoyed seeing people enjoy it. It was good.

(These where some of the common positive reactions)

So fast forward a few years, and it got picked up and written about as a “game”. Things completely spiraled after the internet discovered it. Discussion changed from understanding what the project was about, to gamers being angry about “what the hell is this?” “what am I supposed to do?” “this is weird, why would anyone make something like this?”
I tried to explain that it was about reading poetry, they felt betrayed (reading sucks if you’re looking for a good time).
Things escalated, and I got a lot of threats (rape/death), and it got so bad that I was being stalked for a while. Nonsensical internet outrage mixed with people in it for the fun, I suppose.

No mater what I did, I could not separate my work from the “game” term. That’s all it took. Saying “game” almost felt like a death sentence for interactive art.
I was upset that anyone could even SEE “game” in something like this. It’s not fun. It’s meant to be political commentary.
How where these topics fun? Why would you demand “game” from it? …At least, those were the questions I was asking myself.
I even put in a “This is not a game!” message that you basically had to agree to, before entering the piece.
Nothing worked. Ok, I talk about this story a lot, but (over the years) this is a persistent reaction to my work.

Interestingly, the audience changed from supportive to demanding.

I was going through a lot at the time, professionally. Mostly coming to terms with navigating sexism in the tech sphere. I started opening up about what I was going through on my blog. That was met with indifference and basically being told to stop whining and make more art (that’s a quote).

Another interesting thing was that I made no money from it. It was completely free and payed for by myself.
Nobody had to pay, but the player base was acting so entitled to it, as if they were investors somehow.
It was impossible to escape the change of mentality that happened by simply applying the “game” label to it.

I worked on the project for almost seven years before abandoning it.

I feel bad about abandoning it. It meant a lot to a lot of people, at the same time the fans of it were really cruel.
I still occasionally see wonderful comments like this about it:

(reddit comment)

It was a mixed bag but, in the end, self-preservation and my wellbeing outweighed working on this stuff. There are just some reactions that you can seemingly never escape when you’re making experimental work. It got tiring.

(jokes like this used to be very common when I watched people talk about this work. It’s slightly less threatening now, but equally as discouraging.)

So fast forward to more recent years. After releasing Tetrageddon, and seeing how supportive the indie game community is to different work, I thought it was safe to try something like this again. Talk about life stuff in a more poetic and artistic sense.

The indie bubble can be a very supportive one. There are plenty of games journalists and writers who have done good work in elevating the discussion surrounding games.
“Game” is a much more inclusive term now, than it was from the previous experience that I describe. Maybe I thought I could do this again, so I made “Everything is going to be OK”.

“Everything is going to be OK” received a lot of toxicity in the same vein as that first project, albeit death threats, rape threats, and stalking aren’t as cool to make anymore.
So maybe we have that. I thank games journalists for bringing awareness to how uncool it is to do that. I’m not joking. There was a mentality shift that took place. It wouldn’t have happened without us pushing back on that. I honestly never thought that to be possible. Being that gross was just such a default reaction. I mean, I understand, and see, that it still is in many ways… but it doesn’t seem as gruesomely straight-to-rape-threat as it once was.

Either way, that general mentality from consumer bases still remains largely the same.
They are entitled to a good time. They are entitled to work that makes sense from an entertainment standpoint.

(reddit comment to my work)

I get that we’re tired of talking about it, but I’m not sure if “game” is a good word to keep using?
Thank you for bearing with me, but…
There’s so much baggage associated with it, it seems fundamentally broken when you step outside of that what-is-a-game “comfort zone”.

(reddit comment to my work)

Making this art is complicated for my personal life, insofar that I receive success in the circles that understand the value of work like this, but everyone else (outside of the sphere of games discourse) doesn’t completely understand what it is, or why I do this to myself.

(Here’s a good thread talking about the financial reality of it…)

I’m sure any indie/alt game developer may have had these conversations in a casual setting.
A stranger on a flight might ask you “so what do you do?” and a wave of anxiety floods over you as you think of all the ways to explain to them that you make “games” but not THOSE kinds of games. “I’m a game designer” will be followed by “Oh yes. I play Tom Clancy games and…” and you politely listen to their AAA favorites… or a mild tinge of distrust as they say “Oh… you make games…” and they start to judge you for maybe being responsible for every violent video game in the medium ever, because their son plays games and… you get the picture.
On the surface, games are a consumer medium. Anyone else, not really knee deep in games, does not have a concept of art games or alt games. There’s no real universal understanding of “those different games”, or their value.

In the event that I do educate the person about my work, and (especially important) SHOW it to them, they are generally impressed. Usually along the lines of “I had no idea games could be like that…”
I’ve lost count of the number of conversations that ended up like that.
If we could only educate people outside of games, that games CAN be like that, we might even broaden the horizons in terms of audiences. Audiences (gamer) might even stop being so hostile, and violent, toward different experiences.

I’m left wishing that if only interactive art could break out of games… If only games could shed what it means to be “game” and “gamer”, things would be so much easier.
If we could just break away from the concept of “gamer”.

(reddit comment to my work)

Over the years we’ve built these walls of what it means to be a consumer of this type of content.
Male, macho, highly competitive, talk shit to people you play with, aggressive… basically an extension of masculinity sold to people that don’t like leaving their house.

As a result, this chases away people that might positively engage with work that is different. They are missing a world of different types of games, because… well… games are “like that” so why even engage?

I realize that this is a conversation we’ve had a million times over the years. Pretty much with every resurgence of toxic fandom freaking out, we have to come to terms with what it means to make games. It’s also unfortunate that this seems to be the one space where many people that make games are afraid of people that play them. Why do we fear our audience so much?

After investigating where most of my harassment for “Everything is going to be OK” came from, for reasons of taking preventative measures in the future, I realized that most of the people attacking me for it didn’t even play it.
As soon as I announced that I was making it, that it was partly inspired by my experiences as a woman working in tech, and that I wanted to talk about being a victim in an honest way, it got posted on Kotaku In Action (because of the early KillScreen article).
It has regularly surfaced on that part of reddit, in one negative light or another, to draw in enough hate mail and angry comments to be annoying.

(blog comment on my work)

Either way, I find it extremely validating that these people didn’t play it. They only hate what it represents.
People that projected anger, and then played it, found it harder to hate. In many cases like that, some of the attitudes exhibited turned almost apologetic.

But there’s the point: They hate what it represents.
What does it represent?

(reddit comment on my work)

A woman made a game about traumatic experiences and coping. Similarly to my first project, it’s something made by someone who had lived through the thing they are talking about.

It’s a game that doesn’t let you win because there is no point to win. You can’t beat life, you can passingly survive it, and come to terms with that struggle.
Most of it is metaphoric. There is plenty of personal writing hidden about that pulls that metaphor back into real life, to create a more pointed discussion.
I talk about abuse. It’s very much about coping after traumatic experiences. It discusses the mental state you end up in when you are contemplating suicide because of these experiences. It also discusses overcoming that mental state.
It’s something best experienced for yourself but, in all cases, it’s not a “fun” game. It’s not meant to be fun. It’s meant to be an introspection. It’s about life.

Based on my experiences, I can’t make anything different. This is my voice. This is my viewpoint. This is what I was put through, and what I had to overcome.
By all accounts, especially if you’re talking about a medium being “art”, anyone should be able to make something like this. Unique, hurtful, difficult, beautiful (in its own right), and different.
So why is that bad?

The comments to Vinesauce’s video demonstrate a lot of the shortcomings this culture has in terms of being able to discuss work like this, and even allow a space for it. Even the video is a disaster, insofar of an actual educated discussion about trauma and what “Everything is going to be OK” really is about.

I keep repeating myself but… this is a consumer medium. Work that is different will be capitalized on as being “weird”. The conversation can only go so far as to mock it, and capitalize on mocking it.
We can’t get past the fact that it’s different, and even so, we can’t allow it to be different with any level of dignity.
Its difference turns into a joke, in these cases, one that you can publicly mock.
There is no real space for having this discussion in games.

If games talk about these topics (topics similar to what “Everything is going to be OK” talks about), players demand these discussion to stay “safe”. By that I mean, emotions, vulnerability, and feeling bad feelings, are expected to be kept at a safe distance.
So you’ll get reactions along the lines of “How dare you make me feel like that?”
I mean, it’s a requirement that it stay fun, and it has to be something that the player is in control of. You cannot make them feel the more difficult emotions.
All that is problematic for art like this because you’re demanding that the discussion of these topics has to entertain.
Also, it cannot be made by a woman, or be based on her experiences. Topics of trauma after sexual assault, are something that will incur the wrath of an already sexist consumer base.

All this is extremely dysfunctional. It holds a medium back, because it keeps the voices of the creators in check. We cannot have diversity if we insist that this diversity stay “safe” and only talk about the “safe” pleasant topics. Diversity isn’t going to always be pretty and pleasing. It’s going to mean that we have to confront our inequality.
This inequality is going to be confronted in the art produced.

I think Stephanie Chan said it best in her article about the ArenaNet firing with:

Similarly, bullying the art created by these voices, art that is based on personal experiences, struggles unique to these voices, and pain unique to these voices, keeps the medium from being able to have experiences that step outside of the comfort zone of the white male protagonist.
Some forms of expression will not involve a power fantasy that allows you to win, and overcome, because the person that made that (the diversity) has never enjoyed the privilege of victories.

Let me be even more clear…
Among other things, I talk about my sexual assault in “Everything is going to be OK”. So that the subtext in the metaphors isn’t lost on people, the emotional toll is even explained, in plain English, in one of the new pages.
I talk about how I had to come to grips with what happened to me.
I never saw justice. I never received help, or sympathy. I lost friends. I was not allowed to grieve. I was expected to shut up, and keep going.
The privilege of victory was not extended to me.
So the art that I am going to make, this art created to both cope, but also create hope, is going to be very different from art made by men about their conquests.
A conquest (power fantasy) for me, and others like me, will be about just being here at the end of the day.
This is a “game” that is rich with that communication.

“You just can’t take criticism.”

(blog comment on my work)

So we make something different, and hostility directed at us is excused as criticism. It’s an interesting excuse because “it’s just criticism” is used very often by gamers when their toxicity gets out of line. To avoid owning how shitty they are, this shittiness is passed off as an act of benevolence.
I’ve seen this excuse to justify the latest Arenanet circus. “It’s just criticism” is used to mask some of the worst behavior, because somehow the people being abusive are doing us a favor. You’re not being harassed, they’re not mansplaining, you’re just being criticized. With some very elaborate mental gymnastics, it almost seems like it’s a good thing.

This is the damaging mentality tho because it keeps us from sharing our stories in our work. If our harassment is excusable, and even justifiable, then we have truly been stripped of our right to be part of this space.

(reddit comment on my work)

We see a space that is owned by a consumer audience fundamentally entitled to toxicity. It doesn’t seem escapable. Such anger is just a fact of life, and it might even manifest in ways that will threaten your well being.
I think there is hope here insofar that we need to reclaim what it means to be a consumer of this art. We need to create a discussion where the well being of the person that made it matters as much as the person engaging as a player.
Capitalism coined “the customer is always right” mentality. Applied to games it means that the artist takes back seat to the demands of the player.

As it is, the games industry basically runs exploitatively. Long work hours, crunch is normal, bad job security, coupled with toxic fanbases…
The one way that I see this changing is if we had unions. It would be good to start asserting the rights of people working here.
In some sense, gamer culture is a byproduct of the industry’s abuse toward the people working there.
If we treated the people that worked in games better, it might set a better example for the people that consume them.

Why am I in games if I seem to hate gamers so much?

Like, I don’t hate, but ok…
Someone like me has no choice. I’m going to keep making work like this, call it what you will. People will keep behaving abusively, hopefully that will change.
Keep in mind that I never chose the “game” label. I fought against it. I didn’t want my work to be shoehorned into an entertainment-first label. I found it misleading because it’s supposed to be art, not entertainment. Call it pretentious if you will, but I’m not capable of any other messages than the ones that I place into my work.

So we want to call games “art”, and wave that “games are art” flag, but why can’t we safely make our art? There’s this powerful force of gatekeepers that relentlessly make sure it receives no contamination from politics, women, and social justice.

(reddit comment on my work)

There is a fundamental tension that needs to be reconciled with, especially if we keep inviting diverse voices to contribute to the medium. These voices need to be protected, not targeted.
This is a wonderful thread that says it all, as well as capturing the emotional state you’re in when you watch this happen so often:

We want this to be art, but let’s first please admit that it can’t be art for everyone, because certain voices are targeted.
Saying “games are art” in this climate, as is, seems grossly unfair because art made by one group of people (white men) will enjoy safety, be more championed, celebrated, respected, supported, and defended than art from at risk voices (marginalized people). Art from marginalized people will get nothing but dismissed, and invalidated at best. At worst it will be driven out.
It starts to feel more like asserting inequality, rather than the maturity of the medium.
Why do I keep saying “art”? Why is this so important to me?
I’m an artist. I can’t be anything else. I can’t make any other work. I can’t be normal, and be fun, and have all these magic circles, and design documents, and structures, that surround the perfectly executed fun piece of entertainment.
This is not my interest. My interest is in emotion, hurt, pain, elevation, overcoming, exploring the less positive aspects of human existence and finding hope in that maybe, because that has been my life.
Saying anything else, and making anything else, that is in line with what gamers want this artform to be, would not be staying true to myself.

With every voice that gets driven out of games, games become more monotone.
Experimentation is vital for the health of any medium because that’s how a medium grows.
Diversity is important for the health of our messages because that’s how a medium stays culturally relevant.
Placing all our priority on only white straight men doesn’t cut it. That type of work, and that type of protagonist, is only relatable to one type of audience, and that keeps games backed up in a corner. One where only a handful of people can enjoy it.
It keeps the medium from being fully culturally relevant.

Abuse needs to stop being endemic to games. We need to do a better job in making games safe, and allowing a space for ALL these different types of games. Not just games that please players.
Similarly, we need to protect all the different types of people that work in games, especially those who’s presence might not please toxic fandom.

I’ve written about this often. At least it feels like that…
Yes. Ok… here’s a collection of other posts talking about this:

* moving past destructive cycles, and modes of thought, about different game experiences
* If “games are art”: challenging the toxicity of gamer culture and preconceptions of what a game is
* observations about my “Day of the Devs” article & thoughts after harassment over a post that’s about harassment
* being brave, framing trauma, personal experiences in games, and announcing the next installment of “Everything is going to be OK”

So I might totally be repeating myself.

That has been my retrospective after reviewing what happened to “Everything is going to be OK” in context of all my other work.
Thanks for listening!