My Full Indie Summit 2018 slides & talk transcript (Art Games & Speaking Your Truth)

I was invited to speak at the Full Indie Summit in Vancouver. It’s a truly wonderful event organized by wonderful people.
My talk was titled “Art Games & Speaking Your Truth”, and I think it went well. People applauded afterward, some stood and applauded. Yay!

After attending I left with the impression that the Vancouver indie scene is a special one. There’s so much beautiful work happening there. I was especially happy to hear Heart Projector mentioned to me so much.
Overall this is a wonderful event, and if you ever can attend it’s totally worth it.

So… It was amazing to be able to share this. It’s an accumulation of over 10 years of observations, and experiences.
Some people asked if I’ll be sharing the slides, so, yes. Here they are, as well as the talk transcript.

You can view all the high quality slides in this open directory:

Update, you can watch my talk here:

All the talks where really good, and you can watch them here:

Art Games & Speaking Your Truth

My name is alienmelon, or Nathalie Lawhead, outside of the internet.
I make art that some people call games… or games that some people call art, whichever.
and I’m going to be reading this because I have very bad speech dyslexia.
thank you for coming to my talk! ^_^

My work focuses more on the experimental aspects of games. The label for those is usually “alt games” or “art games”.
It’s a wonderful subset of games, and if you’re not familiar with it, it’s very much worth checking out. You might fall in love with it.

My latest “game” is “Everything is going to be OK”.
It’s an interactive zine based on life experiences. It uses humor to convey messages that deal with mental health, struggle, trauma, and finding hope in spite of all that.
It’s very different.

So along those lines… that’s usually the gist of my work. It’s very different, hard to describe, and something to experience for yourself.

I’m here to talk about the long standing “career” that I’ve had of making this stuff, and the enormous amount of backlash it’s drawn in for me (on and off) and how that’s reflective of a greater mentality in games that I think we, as an industry, need to face.

I believe that we need to be open about these things, and discuss them, so that things can improve for everyone.

It’s been well over ten years of making wonderful work, but also facing a lot of toxicity for it.

I started in the late 90’s, early 00’s, as a net-artist, and this type of experimental work has been a strong part of my life ever since.
It’s something I will climb mountains for, if I have to, just to be able to keep doing.

my first project was released in 1999. it was an interactive poetry experience for the web.
the idea was that it’s interactive literature. you experience the writing in a unique way, that’s beyond just reading it. you interact with the art, change it, feel it.
the fact that it’s interactive means that you experience writing in a lot more personal way than just being an observer. you’re part of the piece.
it was very much about literature, reading, and experiences.

Here is the trailer to give you an idea (click here)…

at first, it was very well received.
people said that they’ve never seen anything like it. it was unique. it touched them. it was life changing, and so on…
a lot of people said that it even helped them through a hard time.
it was good, and i felt like it achieved what i wanted it to.

this was going to be a larger project too. a more indefinite one. i had worked on it for seven years total, before abandoning it.

here’s where the story gets interesting.

a few places online picked it up, and it ended up on forums such as Something Awful. people started calling it a “game” and that’s when everything fell apart.
especially after some review sites, wrote about it under the term of “game”.

i got a slew of angry emails from gamers being confused as to what they should do, what is the point of this “game”, this “game” is weird, why would i ever make something so pretentious dark horrible and depressing…

the theme of the work was about war, refugees, poverty, consumerism… it was more along the lines of social commentary. it was based on experiences i and my family had before moving to the US, and then the culture shock that i had after.
i was 16 when i started working on it, and it stayed with me all the way into my 20’s.
it wasn’t exactly something you would readily call a game, at that time, so it introduced a lot of confusion.

as soon as the label “game” was applied, the conversation surrounding the piece changed from open minded remarks of never having seen anything like it (and that being a good thing), to a hostile one of disappointments and hurt feelings.

i fought the “game” label very hard.

i even went so far as to put a big alert saying “this is not a game”, and you basically had to agree to it, before being able to view the site. nothing worked.

ironically enough, i was fairly upset that anyone would accuse it of being a “game” when it’s clear that it’s supposed to be art.
by that i mean, there’s not “fun” in this. it’s about reading, not about accomplishing goals.
i was very confused as to how anyone could even see “game” in something like this.

granted the label has grown today, but at the time it was like a death sentence for interactive art. it basically felt as if my work was doomed to be completely misunderstood and hated.

as a side note, it’s not because this became popular, and that’s why it attracted toxicity.
it’s the premise under which it became popular that drew toxicity in.
it received a fair amount of success before the “game” label, and it was always more open minded.

things escalated, as the internet does, and i received a lot of harassment over it. the fanbase for it also changed to being much more hostile and demanding.

it seems endemic of consumerism.
the artist, and their well being, takes a back seat to pleasing the audience.

a few places stole it too, and re-hosted it, to redirect traffic to them.
i spent a lot of time trying to control something that was spinning out of control because of a simple change in words used to describe my work.

all it took was for someone to say “game” and everything exploded. i see now that it attracted an entirely different audience, and i think this is one that we are still dealing with today.
“game” carries with it a lot of baggage, the biggest of which is hostility and entitlement of consumers.

as is still the case, creating this project was also being payed for out of my own pocked.
i made absolutely no money from it. it was a passion project.
i believed in the art, and that was my driving motivation.
because i made no money from it, i didn’t view this as a service that people where entitled to, although fans still acted like it even though they gave no support.

aside from fairly relentless harassment that encompassed your typical variety of death threats, stalking, and rape threats, i was dealing with a lot of sexism in my professional life as well.
overall, it was fairly crushing, and i don’t mean to be depressing by sharing this, but i think the following observation is important.

how do we view artists?

it seems like there is still a mentality of “take the art, but to hell with the artist”.

at the time I started sharing my experiences, and kind of opening up about how hard it is, on my blog.

i talked a lot about sexism, and the effect that was having on me. i lost a lot of subscribers as a result, which is interesting.
i think we all enjoy success stories. our culture is very much structured around favoring individuals that do not bleed if cut.
on some level or another, you’re expected to “be above all that”, and take it on the chin.

it’s a view of power that i think is fairly skewed on many levels, because the end result is that the people we consider weak are often the ones that need the most help, but don’t get it because of that aversion we have to failure.

we over-reward people in positions of privilege, as a result, because they already embody our ideals of success.
we don’t help those in need for exactly the reason that they are in need.

one email i received is fairly illustrative of the overall reaction from the fans of my work:

“stop whining and make more art”
– random email, ~2003

i think it’s fairly illustrative of how audiences often treat game developers today.

successful people don’t cry, they man up. it’s a destructive mentality because, at its core, it’s coming out of misogyny and privilege.

when a woman shares her experiences, when a person of color shares theirs, when a queer person shares what hate they face… at that level, that failure to fit in, and be successful, is punished with that type of elitist indifference.

there is a “good victim”, one that takes it on the chin, and there is a “bad victim” one that cries when hurt.

these are cycles that i think strongly affect how we treat artists, especially when it comes to discussing abusive power structures or toxicity.
it’s impossible to separate humanity from art, but our consumer culture almost demands that.

developers today often face toxicity from players for stepping out of line, or “failing” to deliver on what players felt entitled to, because we never really addressed the mentality that artists matter.

that there’s a human face here, and that its emotional well being, and mental well being mater.

i think it stems from the fact that we have 0 respect for the people that made the thing, even though we love the thing.
it’s consumerism gone horribly unchecked.
it’s being expected to crunch just to keep the job.
it’s our working conditions, poor job security, contracting instead of hiring, lack of concrete future in the industry, because just being here should be an honor, because just being able to make this is supposed to be enough, because so many people want to be here that the people that are here are expendable…

so why speak up at all?
if you don’t like it get out… or shut up and make art.

that email was a strong turning point for me in terms of realizing exactly what was happening, which is hard to do if you’re in the middle of it.
it seemed like i just didn’t matter. somehow i should suck it all up and act a winner.

like there is this “good artist” who will suffer for their art, and love suffering, and just keep cranking it out, but get little in return for it.
there are so many levels in which romanticizing the “artist suffering for their art” is dangerous.

it translates into how we treat people that make anything. it’s ok to treat them poorly. after all, you might even be doing them a favor because an artist that suffers makes good art, right?
so, do it for the exposure, you don’t need to do it for the money… and so on.

it goes without saying that minorities are impacted by this the most, because they have the most to lose.

i eventually abandoned the project, and what seemed like a fanbase that hated the person that made it.
not to shed a negative light on all its fans, but the majority of them where fairly indifferent toward me.

more recently, as games became a better umbrella term that encompasses work like this,
and seeing how a lot of the discourse around games has changed to allow for things that are different,
i thought it’s safe to try something personal like this again.

i made “everything is going to be ok”. the reaction to it has been amazing. a lot of people have said that it helped them, saved them, really spoke to them, and so on…
on the other hand, it’s hard not to talk about this project without also discussing the toxicity it’s received.

pretty much as soon as i announced it, and it was written about on KillScreen, Kotaku In Action posted about it, and it’s kind of been on someone or another’s radar since.
A very famous lets player streamed an early build of it, and a lot of toxicity also came through that. It’s been a bumpy road, but I’ll keep that short…

aside from the fact that a woman made it, most of the anger was along the lines similar to this first project.
it has in no way been as intense as the first project, but the underlying mentalities from consumers are still here.

how dare you make something that is not fun?

as in players still feel entitled to a good time.
if that fails them, then they are entitled to punish the creator of this work.

this is a difficult mentality to work with, because art isn’t always fun. art is a lot of different modes of expression. art can be appalling, heartbreaking, scary, nonsensical, surreal, and talk about very difficult topics that will never be “fun” to talk about.

art will not always please. the voice of the artist is important in art, and you can’t separate the two.

in games the emphasis is still very much placed on the experience of the player, and here’s a big conflict, especially when you’re stepping out of line to try something new.

we have this medium that is perfect for all these different modes of expression, but we just can’t get past the fact that it doesn’t always have to be pleasing.

games don’t have to be fun.
just like art doesn’t have to be fun.

granted there are other cultural factors at play. the fact that a woman made this isn’t helping, but the point is that people feel entitled to toxic behavior if these expectations aren’t met.

as a side note, i have tried using a pseudonym and allowing people to believe that i’m a guy.
this fixed most of my problems. my work was largely better received, and enjoyed more success.
if you are a woman, or any other minority, hiding who you are will mitigate a lot of these problems.
whether this is right or not, is entirely up to you, and probably a topic best suited for another talk.

harassment from this industry’s consumer bases seems to be a steady reality.

we see this resurface constantly in toxic fanbases, or gamer culture. it almost seems like we forget how bad it can be, and then something happens just to remind us of how much more ground there is to cover.

the arenanet firings are one of those incidents that i think is absolutely iconic to consumers being given too much power, and being too entitled to having their own way, to a point were stepping out of line will even cost someone their livelihood.

the consistent theme here is that the artist is expendable, but the art isn’t.

to make games safer, we have to face our consumer base.

what does it mean to be a gamer?
is this behavior really ok?
do devs owe such fanbases unmitigated access to their art, then time, then politeness, and finally their personal space?
where is the line?

furthermore, with the poor work conditions, and lack of job security that we are asked to put up with, is there even a line?

many of the people bullying me have said that i deserve what i got because i made such weird work.
it’s basically asking for criticism.

i wrote a post about my experiences showing “everything is going to be ok” at Day of the Devs. naturally that post drew in a ton of toxicity which ranged from conspiracy theories on youtube, to an annoying amount of hate over social media…

either way, gamer reactions to me protesting that toxicity where often:

“what, can’t you take criticism?”

but is that criticism, really?
the thing is that “criticism” is often hostility, hate, and threats sugar coated as “criticism”.
at the end, there is nothing constructive to get out of a lot of these remarks.
i’ve lost track of how often something really nasty is disguised as “criticism”.

it’s not that devs can’t take criticism. it’s that the consumer base does not know the distinction between what behavior is ok and isn’t.
an environment has been created where the artist means very little compared to the consumer.

my experiences aren’t unusual. there are plenty of women, people of color, any minority really, who have endured the same for sharing their story, or making their art.

the punishment for being different is this type of harassment.

this is not ok for the reason that it keeps these voices from being heard, and keeps the medium from evolving in all the wonderful directions it could.

there’s a wonderful article written by Stephanie Chan, and this quote captures this tension perfectly.

we need these voices, and we need these stories.
furthermore we need experimental work. every medium does.
if we don’t allow experimental work to safely exist, then the medium grows stale.

after all my experiences it’s clear that what we need now, more than ever, is to humanize the art.
by that i mean, we need to understand that humans, with feelings, and rights, make this stuff.

the artist is just as valuable as the artwork.
the well being of the person that created it is important.

we can’t romanticize the suffering of the creator, or view creating this as a privilege.
we need to place value on the human aspect, separate games from their hyper consumer “player is always right” background, and start placing value on the well being of the people that make them.

There’s a mentality shift that needs to take place in order for this medium to keep evolving. We risk losing a lot of voices and experimentation if we don’t reconcile with what it means to be a consumer of this work.

after both of these experiences i’ve come to see that a lot in games has changed since my first encounter with online hate for what i make, but, at the same time, very little has changed.

the discussion surrounding the importance of diversity is clear. we’ve pretty much all agreed on that, but we need to discuss the safety of that diversity.
diversity is one thing, but you can’t have diversity without the voices and opinions that come with that diversity.
you’re going to get a lot different experiences, and points of view, that the consumer base will not be happy with.
there is no such thing as “safe” diversity, and maybe we should champion those voices instead of silencing them.

i can’t be expected to talk about anything else in my art. my art will be reflective of my life experiences, and personal struggles.
as a result, some of that art will not be fun to experience, and it really does not have to be.

when these messages upset gamers who feel inconvenienced by that point of view, or consider it hurtful to what they stand for, and this toxicity continuously goes unchallenged, we will lose voices.

it’s vital that we, as creators, share our stories in our work, but we also need to carve out a better understanding among consumers about these attitudes directed at our work.
educating consumers about the process, as well as what behavior is and isn’t ok, would make a big difference.

we’re not new to this, but you’ll occasionally see someone from a marginalized group announce that “they are leaving games” because of the toxicity that they’ve endured.

“i’m leaving games because…” is almost something we’ve grown immune to hearing.
for every feminist writer that leaves, every queer developer that gets chased out, games become more monotone.

it’s a sad loss because these are voices that matter,
and we would do better to protect, encourage, and even defend them.

changing the discussion surrounding games from a consumer object, to that of an art object, that real humans, with feelings, and beliefs made, is something we really need.

maybe we can encourage gamers to be more humane and conscientious. this will make games a safer space to exist in.

at the end of the day, hate it or not, it’s important to keep speaking your truth.
we need that bravery.