In the past week, Aevee, Darius, Liz and Todd have been in a conversation that, on its surface, has been about AAA games and the value of games as an expressive medium. I want to present the hypothesis that this conversation has primarily been about our community, its shape, its members and the way that we interact with one another. I’m presenting this as a hypothesis and not as a lightning bolt of truth, so I’d like for it to be discussed not as a polemic but as an idea.
In reading the various responses to Andrew’s piece, I noticed a running theme. If you’ll excuse the block quotes:
“But it’s possible to get swept up in community. It’s possible that community becomes the reason we make games, which to me seems a little perverse.” – Darius Kazemi, “Fuck Videogames”
“the more i’ve gone to events and met new people, the more i’ve begun to realize that everyone in this community knows everyone else. and i find that incredibly disturbing. why? because it means we, as participants in this culture lack the ability to be critical of ourselves – because we don’t want to hurt our friends’ feelings. once you start to greatly prioritize their needs above the needs of people you don’t know, you stop becoming critical of yourself and the people around you. and this leads to cliques and increasingly greater and greater conflicts of interest.” – Liz Ryerson, “an in-depth response to darius kazemi’s ‘fuck videogames’”
“The smart, awesome peeps I know have it down and know what’s good. And the less I agreed, the less I felt I could talk about what was good’ (and to be honest, the more I felt like not saying anything at all, for fear of feeling like a fool).” – Todd Harper, “Why I’m a Mass-Market Sellout Whore”
We live and work in a Twitter-based ecosystem that is fairly tight-knit. We have our own minor celebrities. While many of us, myself included, try to do writing that reaches a broader base, we also occasionally write these navel-gazey pieces that are primarily intended for each other. I try not to do this (mostly because I usually have nothing to say), but I’m feeling the need to weigh in now for whatever its worth.
Alpacas are my favorite animal. I am the original alpaca hipster; I was visiting alpaca farms for the pure glee of seeing their furry faces long before they were co-opted by internet memes. Alpacas look a lot like llamas but they’re not llamas. Instead, they look like the offspring of Muppet / llama cross-breeding. I love them.
Like those of us in this indie / queer games space, alpacas live in packs (or herds, or flocks — the collective noun is up for debate). In my Internet fantasy of alpaca sociality, they mostly hang out, look silly, eat hay and stand around looking like giant ridable Ewoks. One thing I do know about alpacas is that they constantly hum at and with each other. They make a variety of noises to express a variety of emotions but, most of the time, they hum to comfort each other, as if to say, “I’m here with you. It’s going to be OK.”
But alpacas can also kick and scream. They can work together to defeat intruders. And they spit.
If we’re like a pack of alpacas (and I hope we are!), then there are a few observations I want to make about our community from the humble position of a relative newcomer to this still-nascent group of designers, critics, bloggers, scholars and other web folk.
1) Our vitriol for the mainstream, the AAA, is often necessary, but it’s not what defines us.
If you were to ask me, “Samantha, what is being an alpaca all about?” I’d say it’s about humming to each other and that spitting is just something unpleasant that has to be done to defend oneself.
We’re in various sorts of marginalized positions in our community. We write manifestos, rants, takedowns, etc. aimed at specific problems. These are necessary modes of expression and catharsis, but I don’t want us to fall into the trap of believing that a certain mode of invective is what credentials us as queer and/or indie social actors.
Our positionality informs all of the work we do and it will continue to do so whether we are writing screeds or game reviews. I think we have some anxieties about who we are and what we do and that, on some level, we might not know what to do with ourselves if we didn’t have the AAA to rail against. AAA is collapsing anyway so let’s take a moment to think about who we are and who we can be outside of a counter-discourse.
We need to be both antiseparatist and assimilationist. The literary critic Eve Sedgwick reminds us that queer means “across,” that queer is about straddling, troubling and perverting boundaries. For Sedgwick, at least, queer involves being both antiseparatist and antiassimilationist. We do have to spit at the mainstream because the mainstream spits on us. But I would argue that we’re at our most effective when we find ways to straddle and trouble separation rather than playing into the very mainstream/indie dialectic that confines us in the first place.
2) Our pack needs to get bigger.
None of us has a birthright to be indie or to be “queer.” We all came to this space from different places but we all came here out of necessity. We’re all amateurs here, and we should approach our budding community with humility and respect. If we are going to change games discourse, we need our pack to get bigger. We need everyone together humming.
One of the reasons that our minor Twitter-celeb culture rubs me the wrong way is that we’re not going to change gaming culture by rallying around a few superheroes who will lead us to victory. We’re going to change gaming culture when there are so many of us humming, scary, queer alpacas that we can no longer be ignored.
I’ve seen some well-intentioned folks get spit on, so to speak, on Twitter, because they made missteps in introducing themselves, because they didn’t quite match the pitch of our humming right off the bat. Some of this has happened to me. I didn’t quite understand the politics, the cliquishness, the alliances and fissures of our community until I started absorbing all of our Twitter discourse. I’ve been sub-tweeted about and snarked at by people whose work I really respect. I brush it off when it happens to me but when I see it happen to others, it breaks my heart. Other queer folks I know are legitimately scared of the ostracization and exclusion that can result from critiquing somebody’s work. That shouldn’t happen and that needs to change. We need to change, too, not just the mainstream.
3) We shouldn’t hum so loud that we can’t hear each other or hear each other’s cries of concern.
We need to do a lot of humming. Life is terrible and hard and one of the benefits of our community is mutual uplift. The outside world often needs to have its insufferable noises drowned out by the warmth of our comforting hums. But sometimes (and I think this is what Darius, Liz and Todd are pointing to in the quotes I pulled at the start), we get so caught up in the humming and congratulation that all we see is ourselves, that we wrap ourselves up into exclusionary self-congratulatory cliques where all we’re hearing is each other.
What happens when we starve ourselves of the well-meaning critique of our friends is that our work doesn’t get any better and we don’t reach new people which (see preceding point) is absolutely imperative right now.
[4) Sidebar: We need to relate to each other off of Twitter.
How often are you trying to have a nuanced conversation about a topic and end up producing multiple tweets and/or screaming at your monitor because you can’t express yourself in 140 characters or less? Let’s keep e-mailing each other, and leaving our own long-form comments on each other’s work instead of just complaining about internet comments (which are terrible, of course).]
I want us to hum loud enough to comfort each other but not so loud that we can’t hear anything else. I want us to spit when necessary but remember that spitting does not an alpaca make. Mostly I want to Tweet pictures of alpacas. Thanks for reading.