IF Comp 2013: Impostor Syndrome (Georgiana Bourbonnais)

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Impostor Syndrome is a short, choice-based game about a woman presenting at a tech conference. Playing time is probably around ten minutes (I lost track, as I went through it a couple of times). Review after the jump, any spoilers after a longer spoiler space.

The blurb for this piece had me a little nervous that it was going to be essentially a pure rant. It isn’t: there’s a story here, with characters and backstory, told confidently and with a good sense of pace. The story is set not exactly in the present reality, but in one a few years forward from now; the author has taken care to do some world-building around the technology involved and the ways it might affect people’s behavior. The characters are believable, and their problems are plausible problems.

It’s not a story in which the player is allowed very much control over what happens, but the interactivity drives home some points about powerlessness, and lets the reader explore bits of the backstory at her own pace: this works well. I had the sense of an author both familiar and comfortable with writing for interactive media.

I had more trouble, however, with the ending.

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What I had trouble with was the page where you can decide to say something, only to be confronted with link wall in which most of the words lead to you being too nervous or hopeless to say anything, and going home in despair.

Originally I had a bit here about how I disagree with the “you can’t do or say anything about how you’ve been treated” message of this piece, because I hadn’t found the two words in the link wall that do lead to a slightly different outcome. Then I read some reviews, especially this one, which has explicit spoilers in the comments. From these I discovered that you can do something, if you pick out one of the two keywords from the passage that go somewhere.

This kind of Twine puzzle — “here are a large number of links, only a few of which go somewhere special” — is really, really easy for players to miss: not only to get wrong, but to miss noticing that the puzzle exists at all. I first encountered the link-wall-puzzle effect in howling dogs, where I found it effective, and I think Porpentine did invent it there. But in that case I think it worked because the framing material for the story explicitly stated that there would be a second ending, and because the text itself heavily hinted that something was going on at that screen that wasn’t what you might expect.

In the case of Impostor Syndrome, I replayed the game four or five times to investigate this link wall, but in the process did not hit the right words, and ultimately gave up, especially since the text I reached at the very end of the game (“some things never change”) made me think that perhaps the despair was intentional and that the purpose of this wall-o-links was not to be a puzzle, but precisely to convince me that all possible avenues of action would be ineffective. In retrospect, now that I know what’s there, it does kind of make sense which words lead to (slightly) better outcomes. But I didn’t get it, and via not getting it missed part of the point of the story.

Perhaps this was my own fault: perhaps I should have recognized, “oh, yes, this is that thing where there are links on every word, and most of them go to the same place, which means it feels like the situation is hopeless, but it’s actually not exactly hopeless if only you find the right words to click, which you do by thinking about this particular situation you’re in and which words stand out.” And I should also have known I could hit the back button to revisit the link-wall, and that I didn’t have to replay the whole thing over and over in order to explore it, but I only worked that out a little later in the competition, on a different Twine game. To some extent this is a risk you take as the reader of interactive anything, that you can’t be guaranteed to have seen some essential piece that makes the whole thing make more sense.

It’s easy for people like me, who have been playing Z-machine and TADS games for decades, to forget how much literacy is involved in being able to play parser IF and even to navigate the specific interfaces associated with those formats — and therefore to forgive obscure aspects of such games, while not recognizing that other game systems also have their own conventions that are no more bizarre but perhaps just unfamiliar. For instance, I had a ranty bit in the draft of my review of Dream Pieces until I realized that what I thought was a guess-the-verb situation was in fact totally obvious if I had just remembered that Quest lets you click on nouns to see the relevant verbs. And a number of reviewers have expressed some confusion as they’ve come to grips with the conventions of StoryNexus in order to play Final Girl, if they haven’t ever seen a StoryNexus game before.

Twine literacy is an awfully new thing, though, because the idioms of Twine are so rapidly evolving. (This is part of what makes the scene so fascinating to me.) howling dogs is clearly a major source of conceptual inspiration, and I’ve written already about how a couple of other Twine pieces this year either build on or invent afresh ways of conveying meaning within the scope of Twine functionality. So this particular Twine convention is one that may need some framing to help players understand what it is, especially if those players aren’t Twine adepts already.

Returning, then, to the content of the game now that I have a better grasp of what the game content even is: this is still rather a downer piece, and intentionally so. Though the second option gives you a little more agency, neither option is great. Either you can sit down in silence, or you can get angry and rant, impressing some people but severely alienating others, laying yourself open to attacks on tone, and possibly not convincing very many people who weren’t at least partly on your side already. And either way you get the “nothing changes” remarks at the end.

So this piece falls into a weird space for me. Is a call to action? If so, I really hope that “be silent” and “shout uselessly” are not the only two possible outcomes — and I think they genuinely are not. Admittedly, not everyone is in the position in the first place to organize conferences or mentor and encourage younger women or speak in the GDC advocacy track or add to the critical diversity of your industry. (Okay, I’m being game-centric here, but that’s because that’s the tech-focused industry I know best.) But I do keep hoping for more ways to improve this situation that are more effective and less rage-y, because astonishingly stupid, infuriating shit has happened sometime, in some form or other, to almost everyone I’ve ever talked to who works in a tech or gaming field but is not a straight white cis man.

(Originally I had a multi-paragraph section here about specific stuff that’s happened to me and people I know. I cut it because, since my experiences are less severe than the one in the game, and since I don’t have to deal with the intersectional issues of being not just female but a woman of color, I decided that that was more talking over than listening to. But suffice it to say that I do have some experience-based empathy for what the author is talking about, even if I’ve been fortunate enough never to have had something that appalling happen to me.)

However. Perhaps a call to action is not the point of the piece; maybe instead it’s about the experience, maybe it’s about creating empathy for a situation where it feels like there are no other options. If that’s the case, then this choice of options (“bad” and “possibly less bad, with a slight possibility of making some minor difference, except it gets you a heck of a backlash”) makes more sense.

But if so, then the scene doesn’t have quite the emotional impact, at least for me, that I think it might have been aiming for. There are a couple of ways it could have gone to produce this: an even more intense and visceral presentation; more particular, individual characterization, so that I was really invested in this specific woman; or more grounding-in-fact, e.g. with links to actual events and incidents and statistics. By whatever means, I think I was looking for the surprising truth in this story — the point at which it dug past what I know from experience or from anecdotes I’ve already heard about such situations, to something deeper, more personal, or less documented. Then again, possibly I’m not the target audience; maybe the situation it describes is too familiar to me.

I do want to reiterate that I thought this a very solidly and confidently-made thing.

14 thoughts on “IF Comp 2013: Impostor Syndrome (Georgiana Bourbonnais)

  1. Pingback: IF Comp 2013: Autumn’s Daughter (Devolution Games) | Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

  2. Bourbonnais’s Impostor Syndrome draws on on older, perhaps overlooked, kind of interactive computer text — the every-word-may-be-clickable hypertext+ texts of Shelley Jackson (which all work at the edge of literature and theory/philosophy) and the every-object-may-be-clickable Flash fiction of Donna Leishman (which works along the edge, perhaps translating, literary metaphors and metonyms into visual semi-equivalents, while working the edges of literature and theory/philosophy). In my opinion, these games are not trying to provide a immersive, agential in-game experience, but are engaged in the work of changing the world, player by player.

    This world-changing work involves both representation and production — it Does things with words and it Makes worlds out of words. Players engage in an interactive input-output process of doing that tells a story. AND players play roles delimited by real-world systemic, intersectional modes of oppression that require the repetitive and differentiated experiences of restricted agency, dis-identification, and mis-recognition. always. Bourbonnais’s work makes the nearly invisible, exceptionally forgettable, structures of these oppressions playable. This is what it Does. It Makes the experiences of a certain, intersectional moment of oppression viserally experience-able. If this is a “downer” and if it represents a particularly widespread, familiar, real-life experience that forces certain points of view and specific persons out of the public sphere, then What Is To Be Done?

    If there is a “surprising truth” in this game, it is that oppression is systemic. This is surprising only because of the ease in which it is forgotten and the difficulty with which it is remembered. Systemic oppression calls for coordinated, not individuated, response. The first of which, as you point out, may be to listen — for something you may not have heard before. It’s hard to do this, because you have to change your orientation the the work and temporarily, at least, suspend your notions and accept its propositions. One of which might be: anger is an effective and appropriate response to complex modes of discrimination. bell hooks* argues that anger ends the recurrent forgetfulness that repeatedly converts one’s understanding of systemic oppression into individuated experience. Audre Lorde writes:

    “My response to racism is anger. I have lived with that anger , ignoring it, feeding upon it, learning to use it before it laid my visions to waste, for most of my life. Once, I did it in silence, afraid of the weight. My fear of anger taught me nothing. Your fear of anger will teach you nothing, also.” **

    Like the work of hooks and Lorde, Bourbonnais’s Imposter Syndrome calls its players to remember the systemic, not individuated, structure of oppressions and to learn about the advantages of anger as a response. Anger is ineffective in the game, if the goal of the piece is to win over the in-game audience and change the in-game world. But is the goal is to produce strategies of real-world engagement with systemic oppression as it appears in the gaming industry, even its academic arenas, then playing to win may involve playing on, outside the game, everyday.

    Note: Queer, Black women like hooks and Lorde are NOT the go-to theorists of anger. Their work is readily available online because it is nearly included in a possible canon, within a possible interdiscipline, (but only ifs we continue to remember, which is why Porpentine’s citation of Lorde is so important).

    * http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=3&cad=rja&ved=0CDoQFjAC&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.thinkingtogether.org%2Frcream%2Farchive%2FOld%2FS2006%2Fcomp%2FKillingRage.pdf&ei=1yJgUpOkJaaRiALcxYGABQ&usg=AFQjCNHDiqZE4qSC0-LDPeWNcQXAeKJA0A&bvm=bv.54934254,d.cGE

    ** http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=3&cad=rja&ved=0CDgQFjAC&url=http%3A%2F%2Fsummerofourlorde.files.wordpress.com%2F2008%2F06%2Flordeusesofanger.pdf&ei=AiJgUtOBBYXJigKr84DIDg&usg=AFQjCNFkrI_fDofSmcy_QEXyh9jg7tLzIQ&bvm=bv.54934254,d.cGE

    • It Makes the experiences of a certain, intersectional moment of oppression viserally experience-able. If this is a “downer” and if it represents a particularly widespread, familiar, real-life experience that forces certain points of view and specific persons out of the public sphere, then What Is To Be Done?

      To be clear, I don’t mean “this is a downer” as disapproval of the work; just as a way to express that I didn’t think either of the two endings was meant to be a pure and unalloyed “victory condition”. And I do think (I guess I cut this sentence in drafts, but I had it there for a bit) that this work itself may be a form of action on the author’s part, the author’s own way of trying to make a change.

      One of which might be: anger is an effective and appropriate response to complex modes of discrimination.

      I’ve heard that argument, but I did not understand it to be the argument this story was making at all.

      Maybe I misunderstand, but the narration that surrounded the protagonist’s ranting outburst on stage seemed very explicitly ambivalent — ambivalent about the efficacy of doing this (“You know damn well that you’re fulfilling the tired old “angry woman of colour” stereotype. You know damn well that no one’s going to take you seriously because of it.”), ambivalent about the reactions received from others (“You’re not sure how you feel about that.”), and explicit about the costs of speaking out (that you have to withdraw from the internet for a long time).

      From the story text, it seems clear only that the chief saving grace is the companionship of other people who have faced similar issues.

      Perhaps I’m reading it wrong, though.

      The pro-anger argument is also — separately from this work — an argument I have trouble with. It’s true that at times in my experience with the game industry I have felt levels of rage that were previously foreign to me, really deep-seated overwhelming anger about the way women are treated and about the absurd justifications put forth by otherwise sympathetic people. But that anger feels useless. Not cathartic, not a bright flaming sword for a holy fight; only a thing that hurts me, over and over, bile in the throat and shaking hands. I can’t say how it could be or should be for other people, and I recognize that I have many kinds of privilege, of race and education, wealth and sexuality and gender identity, and that maybe I’d feel differently in a different place or coming from a different background.

      I can only say that when I am told to embrace and express my anger, that I need to be angry, I feel this asks me to function in a way counter to my health and counter to my nature. If that is the only way to make progress, then perhaps I truly am not very useful. For that reason, I’d like to think that there are also additional forms of activism and advocacy that have value.

  3. This game, like Lorde’s and hook’s articles, provides a historical backstory for certain gendered and raced expressions and interpretations of silence and anger — not in the hope of getting every player in touch with their own personal anger, but with the hope of changing the responses of future conference audiences and/or audience members. The implicit question this game poses is:

    What will you do next time you encounter unaccountable silence or anger in a conference-like situation?

    Will you look for history, or for a back story? Will the non-trivial pursuit of a single, still inadequate, in-game solution to this game help produce greater conditions of possibility, legibility, response-ability in the “real” world? Does seeking a solution to “imposter syndrome” in an IF environment continue after the game ends? How does playing IF function differently than reading non-fiction essays? Will a raced and gendered experience of near impossibility in a game create greater freedom at future conferences? Perhaps the future of justice arrives in moments of semi-legible im-position.

  4. Pingback: IF Comp 2013 Roundup | Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

  5. Now that the comp’s over and my identity’s been revealed, I thought I’d comment on a couple of points:

    “Is a call to action? If so, I really hope that ‘be silent’ and ‘shout uselessly’ are not the only two possible outcomes — and I think they genuinely are not.”

    No, of course they aren’t. But for a spur-of-the moment choice in a tense, nervewracking situation, a calm, collected, rational response didn’t exactly seem believable to me. As for the “useless” part, that’s somewhat unreliable narration. In an objective sense, I think speaking up has a net positive effect on the world, but (and I think I made this clear) at a cost to the speaker upper. Plus, it reflects some of my own ambivalence about the supposed power of anger we both keep hearing about; anger scares me too, and I am seriously afraid of what would happen if I were indeed pushed to that kind of a breaking point.

    And yeah, as I said on my blog, this is more dystopian fiction than an actual call to action, though if it does inspire any kind of action, then I consider it a good side effect.

    “Then again, possibly I’m not the target audience; maybe the situation it describes is too familiar to me.”

    I have to admit, this was a little bit heartbreaking to read; as far as I was concerned, you WERE part of the target audience, and I’d hoped you’d find the story more relatable on a personal level. I’m actually kind of disappointed that you deleted the parts in which you would have related personal experiences, because I would have wanted to read them, and wouldn’t have seen it as talking over me. Of course, it’s probably a good call on your part to be prudent.

    I know Georgiana herself was more of a sketch than a fully-realised character — and perhaps in a longer game, more opportunities for empathy could have been made, but I just couldn’t stay in this world long enough to make it a longer game — but I find myself wondering, do you think you would have had an easier time relating to Georgiana if she were a white woman? Not being accusatory here; just curious.

    • I have to admit, this was a little bit heartbreaking to read; as far as I was concerned, you WERE part of the target audience, and I’d hoped you’d find the story more relatable on a personal level…

      I think possibly I wasn’t really that clear here myself. I didn’t mean Georgiana wasn’t relatable. I need to run right now, and also think more about how to explain this, I think. But it wasn’t “I don’t get this person” or “I don’t understand how she feels” or anything like that.

      I find myself wondering, do you think you would have had an easier time relating to Georgiana if she were a white woman? Not being accusatory here; just curious.

      No, I get why you’re asking. I realize this might sound defensive, but in my best attempt at honest self-examination, that wasn’t a factor. On the contrary, if anything I would have liked to learn more about how color adds complexity to this situation. Many of the most powerful personal games I’ve played are about situations that are new to me, such as a lot of the trans and queer work and a handful of games that explore issues of ableism.

      • On the contrary, if anything I would have liked to learn more about how color adds complexity to this situation.

        Me too; I don’t think I noticed very much of this in the game, apart from one mention that Georgiana was PoC and therefore ticked an extra box on the affirmative-action checklist. (I don’t think her race is ever specified, is it?)

      • Oh – on second thought I think that maybe the phrase Angry Black Woman showed up in one of the endings?

      • I think on the basis of some hints and the naming, I mentally constructed the protagonist as a black woman of West Indian or Louisiana Creole descent.

    • So I’ve been thinking about this more all evening around PRACTICE events, and the best explanation I can settle on is something like Sam’s comments. For me, it was hard to reach visceral-impact level with this protagonist because she felt a little too much like a generic type rather than an individual; and then as far as a narrative of the kind of stuff that happens, on the one hand I’ve heard of lots of things somehow like this, but on the other hand it wasn’t framed as a factual narration itself.

      I don’t know if that helps? Sorry.

      I think we are indeed coming from somewhat related experiences here. I was really interested to read your making of (and the teleprompter thing, yargh). As to my own stories, I feel like I’ve probably told you a few of them, but if not, sometime I’d be happy to talk about it if you want.

      • Ah, yeah, the “generic type” thing makes sense, and is a completely justified criticism. The reason it came out that way was because, like I said, it was hard to stay in that world and headspace for very long, and also, I was worried about getting too personal in this particular piece. (I’m a touch less brave than most Twine authors this way; we’ve had this conversation before.)

        That said, the whole “this isn’t new or surprising” thing was kind of the point, too, in the sense that this is a dystopia because we’re in the future and literally nothing has changed except that technology has brought people new ways to be horrible to marginalised folks.

        Anyway, glad my author’s notes were of interest, and thanks so much for sharing your thoughts even while off being busy in conference land.

      • That said, the whole “this isn’t new or surprising” thing was kind of the point, too, in the sense that this is a dystopia because we’re in the future and literally nothing has changed

        Ah! hm. This aspect didn’t occur to me at all, I think because the future read to me as the very near future, just a couple years down the line in a future where Google Glass has massively succeeded.

        I don’t know. I found this piece just about the hardest thing to review in the entire comp — I rewrote the review two or three times, and I’m not really satisfied with my response even so.

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