A view from a different rock

Here are some things I want to say from my own perspective about the IF community. I acknowledge starting out that my perspective is one of considerable privilege and good fortune, and that I know my experience is not the same one everyone has. But I think also that what I’ve said may give the wrong impression about what I think is going on, and I would like to balance it a little. Necessarily this is more personal than my usual output, and I do it in a separate thread because I don’t want to frame this as an excuse for things that are wrong. If that’s not input you’re interested in and you mostly hang out here for the reviews, that’s totally cool too.

Note: This article was originally written as part of a discussion about a text that has since been revised and can in its current form be found here. Consequently, I’ve trimmed a portion that no longer makes sense.

First, I do see participation from female and queer authors and from people of color, and not just because I am female myself. I see work by Jenni Polodna, Lea Albaugh, Carolyn VanEseltine, Katherine Morayati, Emily Boegheim, and Deirdra Kiai, among others; I see Meg Jayanth and Yasmeen Khan writing for StoryNexus and Echo Bazaar/Fallen London, and Heather Albano and others for Choice of Games. I see Aaron Reed’s games, where gender and sexuality are often made a matter of player choice. I see Antifascista.

I remember that when I joined the community back in the late 90s, Suzanne Britton, Kathleen Fischer, Eileen Mullin, Papillon and other women were already prominent members of the community and already writing about female sexuality, self-image, and experiences of power, and that Ian Finley was already writing about gay relationships. Several of them reached out to me and made me feel welcome in the community.

Ian and Suzanne wrote two of the reviews I most cherish from all the reviews I’ve ever received, Ian’s because he understood and cared about what Galatea was trying to do, and Suzanne’s because she felt what I wanted to express with Metamorphoses when many others found the story elements distancing and cold. No amount of technical praise, no comp win or score, not even being hired for a job on the strength of your work or being recognized by someone famous you admire, quite compares to the feeling of achieving a human connection through something you made. This is the most precious of all jewels, because it cannot be faked.

I see differences of focus and style between trad IF about these issues and more recent material from the Twine community from Merritt Kopas, Mattie Brice, Porpentine, Cara Ellison, Anna Anthropy and others. I see a greater culture of interpersonal support in the Twine community; I see a rawness and willingness to talk about personal wounds. A lot of those wounds take the form of having not been listened to in the past, sometimes about really essential matters of identity and the right to be taken seriously as a human being. This makes criticism of such work strike that much closer to home for the authors, even when the criticism is intended neutrally or positively by those offering it.

I see that howling dogs got a lot of acclaim in many reviews, described with phrases like “dynamically beautiful”, “clear and strange” (Wade Clarke), “deep and affecting” (Yuna), “I loved both that theme and that uncertainty… In some ways it cut very close to the bone, and I always appreciate that in a story” (Orestes Drunk and Pylades Fasting), “Laughed out loud; frightened the neighbors.” (Jenni Polodna).

I do see that there is abusive email, occurring where it is hard for the rest of us to know about it to counteract or disclaim it, which directly attacks vulnerable people in bullying terms. Such responses should have no place here, and I respect Porpentine’s willingness to call it out. There are also some more public trolls, though the intfiction forum is moderated in a way that makes that contingent less prominent and less powerful than it was in the Usenet days.

I see that there are sometimes some reviews and forum postings written from an instinct of contempt: trivializing the artist because they don’t like the work, assuming that community decisions are taken in bad faith, being needlessly snarky. There are fewer truly broiling reviews than there used to be, but they still happen. Contempt is worse than hurt, worse than anger; contempt makes it easy to dismiss other people, but it also isolates the contemptuous person in bitter solitude and helps to perpetuate indefinitely the attitude that others are unworthy of attention.

I see that there are reviews and tags on IFDB that sometimes mark out games with sexual and especially queer material as pornographic, even when it is not graphic or does not exist for a primarily pornographic purpose. I see that the IF community has a long history of being bad at navigating the challenges associated with content that might need trigger warnings or not-for-children warnings. Attempts to curate sometimes get tangled up and exclusionary.

I see people in a position of institutional power — those who moderate the intfiction board, run the XYZZY awards, and set the rules for the IF comp — changing the way they do things in order to respond to input about accessibility. I see the rules for XYZZY eligibility being made clearer and more open, so that people who think they should be eligible can opt themselves in, rather than hoping to be noticed. I see Emily Boegheim reaching out on Twitter to try to help those who are having trouble with the intfiction forum or feeling marginalized there. I see Sam Ashwell inviting people in the larger indie community as XYZZY reviewers. I see an increasing amount of coverage, on Planet-IF and the intfiction forum, for material that might formerly not have been considered IF. I see things like the online Quest developer and Playfic offering a new more more accessible route to creation and sharing of classic parser IF, because they expect and require the absolute minimum of platform resources or expenditure. I see lots of people doing lots of hard work, on languages and interpreters and webpages and blog back-ends, often for relatively little acknowledgement.

I see people making live meetup groups where there used to be none, and people having dinner together at conferences, and people flying to be together because they want to talk about interactive narrative.

I see the IF community as only one locus of discussion or power. I see Porpentine on freeindiegames and RockPaperShotgun, Kirk Hamilton at Kotaku, Leigh Alexander in various venues, bringing attention to IF not just occasionally but repeatedly and systematically. I see academics and games conference organizers reaching out to the IF community and asking us to speak. I see games companies looking to hire experienced IF writers. I see inkle, Failbetter, and Choice of Games, among others, advancing the cause in the commercial space; I see people doing related projects in transmedia groups and in ebooks. We are being listened to now more than we ever have been before; and the indie, commercial, academic and even publishing worlds are more than ever doing things that are relevant to our interests.

I see the value of our past. At GDC I heard more than one talk that presented as new information observations about choice, consequence, narrative, and puzzle structure that have been well-discussed here for nearly two decades. There is a great deal of experience and craft knowledge about IF that deserves to be carried forward from this community, not lost, even if the community itself is changed beyond recognition. I see that we’re having a bit of a crisis about who and what we are, and that there are people who don’t understand where parser games will be supported and appreciated, if “IF” now primarily refers to CYOA, hypertext, and other unparsed interactive text. There are others who see the whole insistence on the parser as inherently and pointlessly elitist. For myself, I am eager to see growth and attention in all of these areas and do not think it needs to be a zero-sum game.

I see that there’s awareness about technical accessibility issues — are we supporting screenreaders? providing tools for inexpensive platforms as well as costly ones? — but that there isn’t always enough available manpower or skill to address those problems, and some people continue to have less access than we would like, and sometimes it is hard to parse the difference between “I can’t do that for you” and “I don’t care about you.” Because I don’t want to send the latter message, I sometimes overcommit and attempt more than I can do, which is a dual failure: people do not get what they expect, and I exhaust the resources I need to be of use to anyone.

I see that when I posted my first post on this topic, several people were hurt and angered by what I said, in ways I hadn’t anticipated and perhaps should have foreseen. I strongly suspect that more people were upset than chose to speak with me about it. I am sorry to have caused that hurt. I don’t regret that I said something about this, but I regret that I did it in a way that made it sound as though I blamed people I don’t blame, or that I was angry at people I’m not angry at, or that I don’t credit the contributions of people who work hard on these matters.

I see that though several people were very hurt or very angry about what I said, they wrote measured, polite, and non-inflammatory email to me about the fact and left me the space to explain myself. Those people extended me the benefit of the doubt, at the cost of making themselves more vulnerable, and I am grateful for their discretion and good faith. In each case I feel I have come to know those people better and think more highly of them. Grace comes even out of painful things.

I am challenged by the language of destruction. In my experience, when communities turn ugly, often it is not because something needs to be torn down, but because not enough has yet been built.

What would make us healthier is more. More centers of interest, more voices, more communication, more ways of presenting and talking about IF, more ways for people to find what fits their own background, and to be invited to contribute when there is so far nothing like them at all. More tools for creating more types of experience. We have had a star — often a rather small cold star, very far from any other — where we need a constellation.

20 thoughts on “A view from a different rock

  1. I think the original Infocom games took it all in good spirit, often tongue-in-cheek: IF is a game, text-based, but a game. Problem is, the heirs of IF post Infocom too often fashioned themselves literati and constructed University level courses in their own images. Gaming became beneath them. Intellectual in-breeding occured along with all those many nauseating in-jokes on RAIF. Christ!

    You don’t have to be gay to feel the wall of exclusion.

    Now I don’t really know the backstory with Porpentine. Frankly, as an outsider, I think a lot of it is American angst, where blowing out brains is everyday TV faire while butt-cheeks on a reality show get blurred out. Such a sexually conflicted culture.

    Point is, IF suffers the illusion of being story when it is gaming and parades about in the emperor’s new clothes of literature. (You think I care whether the metaphors are getting mixed?)

    Parsers rI think the original Infocom games took it all in good spirit, often tongue-in-cheek: IF is a game, text-based, but a game. Problem is, the heirs of IF (post Infocom and cousins) all too often fashioned themselves literati and constructed University level courses in their own images. Gaming became beneath them. Intellectual in-breeding occured along with all those many nauseating in-jokes on RAIF. Christ! You don’t have to be gay to feel the wall of exclusion.

    Now I don’t really know the backstory with Porpentine. Frankly, as an outsider, I think a lot of it is American angst, where blowing out brains is everyday TV faire while showing butt-cheeks on a reality show gets blurred out. Such a sexually conflicted culture. In any case, IF suffers the illusion of being story when it is gaming and parades about in the emperor’s new clothes of literature. (You think I care whether the metaphors are getting mixed?)

    Parsers reduce stories to find-this-to-do-that. Key-and-lock. CYOA at least makes for thoughtful decision-making. Versu holds promise as a breakthrough in emergent character development. I’d like Porpentine to write a character of her life-experience that I could drop into an environment with a character that reflects my perspective. It would still be gaming, but just possibly enlightening. Hit me with a gay shot sister. We’ve got a story to tell together.

  2. I notice that the section of the text you were responding to (part III, though maybe not the specific bit that you quoted) has changed, moderated somewhat, since these posts of yours.

    • I haven’t been very active in the IF community for a couple years, but I identify as a female game developer and as part of that community. When I saw your post, I was horrified and bewildered that your experience had been so negative.

      Thank you for clarifying your point – for being willing to be part of a dialogue. And thank you even more for speaking out in the first place, which would be important and valuable even if your article had not been updated.

    • Hey Porpentine, I just wanted to add my voice to others’… I’m a queer lady in IF who writes IF about queer ladies, and I had a very different experience from yours, and I’ve been struggling with a lot of the feelings Emily has been talking about. My experience doesn’t negate yours (in fact, I can think of several reasons why I might have been shielded from harassment, so who knows: perhaps it would have been different in other circumstances?) and I am so glad you spoke out about it.

      I hope that the IF community hasn’t been totally poisoned for you, and that you are able and willing to continue this dialogue and continue to be part of the community—and that this never happens to anyone else, ever again.

  3. I’ve just heard another member of the community complain about being invisible. Looks like we have a problem… again. And it’s the sort of insidious problem that’s hard to notice unless you’re on the receiving end.

    What I don’t understand is how it could happen nowadays. Back around 2007-2010 or thereabouts IF really had turned into an exclusive club haunted by snotty stick-in-the-muds. But the trend has reversed since then. With that many voices in so many venues, you’d think there’s no way anyone could be purposefully kept in the background, or worse, chased out with insults by bigots who take it upon themselves to “represent” us.

    And yet it’s apparently happening. What are we doing wrong?

  4. Y’know, that review doesn’t really make it clear how much I liked howling dogs, despite being too thick to understand it. The later bits especially reminded me of Dictionary of the Khazars, which is basically the best book ever written. howling dogs is going to kick my game’s ass at the XYZZYs and I can’t even be mad because it deserves to. I am surprised and sad that people felt the need to send hate mail about it.

    I do want to mention that my experience with the IF community as a queer poor female and general weirdo was completely different and very positive. (Christopher Huang shared his unagi with me and I love him forever.) I’m not bringing this up in an attempt to invalidate anyone else’s experience; just wanted to say that awesome, welcoming people do exist along with the asshats, which I think is true of most communities, online or off.

  5. Thank you for the new post, it was very insightful, Emily. My apologies if anyone thought I was attacking Porpentine or yourself. As a gay IF author, I get heated when I hear a book-burning attitude taken up by members of the IF community; a community that I consider a Literati. I rec’vd emails from people confused about what I was trying to say, and it’s my fault, of course. So thanks for the new post to clear some air.

  6. This has been a complete eye opener. I have been programming (writing)for 40+ years and never had encountered a situation in code that even came close to a sexually explicit format. Now that I am trying my hand at writing a game I do realize there are situations where the gender of the characters may be of consequence. Let me expand by saying that those 40+ years were spent writing utilities- I can dig out problems in an I/o unit but very few of those have sexually accurate parts except for the late night comments when the code just refuses to work!
    Anyway, what I am trying to say is that this is a learning experience and if any of my code appears to be sexist I apologize. IT AIN’T SUPPOSED TO BE SO. Of course, nobody has yet seen any of my writing so I am still safe.

  7. It may be relevant here that Suzanne left the IF community right around the time she was attacked in a comp entry (completely out of the blue, as far as I know) in a really nasty, sexist way. I don’t know whether that was the cause. The comp entry author was not a longtime community member and I don’t believe he’s been heard from since.

  8. Thanks for this post Emily (and of course, to Porpentine for writing the post you’re responding to) – I thought long and hard about what to say in reply, whether there *was* anything of any value I could add to both of your considered, thoughful words. I have a slightly different perspective, obviously, coming from working in digital things and online games. I’m certainly not as involved in the IF community as you are, especially not in parser – I played parser games most frequently as a teenager, alone, and never thought about joining the community. And now, writing for StoryNexus feels more siloed, like we’re not quite part of the wider IF community – for lots of different reasons I think, but partly because the SN tools opened up IF creation to people who didn’t play or didn’t understand or even know about Inform7 & parser. Emily, you’ve certainly been one of the voices joining us up, which is valuable.

    I’ve had an overwhelmingly positive experience writing Samsara, people have been kind and encouraging within the SN community – many players have written to me specifically to say that they’re pleased to read stories, specifically historical fantasy stories, about a non-“generically Western” time and place, with a person of colour as a protagonist. I hope some of that is because I try to write from inside the experience, rather than exoticising it. I hope some of that is because people, and the subset of people who are gamers, are maybe looking for stories that break away from the narratives of imperialism and patriarchy, and enjoy the greater spectrum of gender and sexuality and presentation that choice-based narrative can provide. IF games, many of them, feel like (to me) they are at the forefront of the most interesting discussions about identity, class, gender, race, experience in gaming as a whole – so it’s even more upsetting to hear Porpentine’s experiences.

    But not surprising. My experiences writing Samsara have been overwhelmingly positive, but working in the games industry has not always been. Porpentine’s comment above is entirely true – for every person that comes forward there are many who keep their silence. I’m not silent amongst friends or colleagues who I respect, nor have I been silent about others’ experiences of bigotry or misogyny, but I have been (deliberately) silent about my own experiences online. The overwhelming urge is to minimise and distract and self-blame and muffle, to not draw attention to yourself or risk making yourself a token or pennant – it’s certainly more comfortable, for others, and sometimes *for yourself*. Speaking up means acknowledgement, it means it’s harder to fake that laugh, or ignore that comment or email or assumption – but that’s why it’s so admirable for people to actually come forward, so important. It forces you to think about your own position, and other people’s, actually *think* and *consider*, and possibly even break their own silences.

    So thank you all for this discussion, I want to give you my support and say, you’re not alone, your experiences are valid, and important.

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