Capitalism, games, and diversity work

Below is a transcript of the lightning talk I gave at the Pixelles Cookies n’ Cocoa Social on January 23, 2016.

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I want to start with a quote from an amazing piece by Mattie Brice called “Our Flappy Dystopia”: “There is something unspoken, that of COURSE we’re all run by money. But to say it outloud is taboo, and it’s seen as rudely airing someone’s dirty laundry. That we are aware that the methods of how many institutions make money are unethical but are okay with keeping it just below the surface since we know others are doing it is a cause for extreme alarm.”

One thing I hear over and over and over again in games is “Don’t burn bridges.” This becomes especially important when there are other people depending on those bridges, when you’re running a non-profit, for example, or mentoring marginalized creators.

We’re forced to balance the desire to speak critically about the things we see and hear and experience, against the work we do as organizers. The same goes for marginalized people working in the industry. Do I call out this injustice, do I try to stop it, knowing full well that I’ll never work in games again? It’s an impossible position to be in, and an emotionally draining one. Fighting for change is hard work, but often it feels like the hardest part is not being able to fight, not even being able to acknowledge that we’re fighting.

There is no such thing as money that comes with “no strings attached,” whether it’s a paycheck, a space, or a grant, there are strings EVERYWHERE, even if those strings are never explicitly mentioned. While I can’t speak for everyone, I think many of us, myself included, feel pressure to perform our gratitude for even being allowed to exist in this space, and the less privilege we have, the more pressure there is.

We feel pressured to justify ourselves in terms of how capitalism values us, not as complex, fallible human beings, but as potential profit, as untapped markets, as innovators, as positive PR, as productivity, as a more “dynamic” workforce.

We feel pressure to repeat these stories about how diversity is good for business, even if we don’t believe them, because that’s what gets the attention of the higher ups, the people that run this city, run the industry, and run the world.

But in doing so we paint ourselves into a corner. We accept, implicitly, that profit comes before people, that diversity is good and just and worth fighting for only so long as someone, somewhere, is making money.

People also repeat these stories because it’s considered impolite not to. None of us wants to be labelled as “difficult,” “overemotional,” “trouble-makers,” “attention-seekers,” or “wet blankets.” We need to appear calm and rational but also supportive and non-threatening—friendly, but not too friendly—or else no one will take us seriously.

I worry constantly about the day that I step over the invisible line, about what happens when I do. I also worry that I’ll never have the courage to step over that line.

I wonder how Mattie Brice felt, publishing that article. I wonder why it still feels so difficult to name the system.

Mattie was one of the first people writing about games that I encountered who really did that, and while she’s far from the only one, her work still inspires me. I’m going to finish with another quote from the same piece, but I strongly encourage you to read the whole thing:

“Capitalism is informing what creations are considered good and of value, and what are bad form and derivative. Gamers and others see quality in games that show high production value, and defame games that seem to be a waste of money in this model, EVEN IF THEY ARE FREE GAMES. The idea of success outside the conventional method of capitalism, which is intersectional in its effects, is met with contempt. ‘Success’ is also very dubious and misguided; simply having a lot of attention for a period of time is considered successful, even if all that attention is harassment and you are not better off personally or economically for it. As much attention as the DIY ethos had in the past few years, minority creators are still impoverished while indie games that incorporate marginalized themes and design philosophies into the acceptable model receive praise like pets at dog shows. It’s not necessarily their fault, it’s that the system chooses what looks like it from the margins to seem adaptive. In the end, the system is perpetuating itself, only allowing games and people complicit with how things are going to thrive.”

Capitalism, games, and diversity work