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.


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.”


On “not being racist”

There’s a pretty strong tendency in our society to paint the world in terms of good and evil. Gandhi is good, Hitler is evil, democracy is good, totalitarianism is evil, UN peacekeeping troops are good, terrorists are evil. It’s clear, simple, easy to narrativize, and a convenient way to rally the masses (or turn them against one another, as the case may be). When we apply this thinking to racism, we tend to divide people into two categories: those enlightened individuals that are able see past race, and the racist, ignorant bigots that ought to know better.

This has classism (discrimination based on social class, for e,g, the white trash stereotype) written all over it.
This has classism (discrimination based on social class, for e.g. the white trash stereotype) written all over it.

There was a time when I would have put myself in the first group. But that’s bullshit, because I am racist, because I live in a racist society (if you think you’re the exception, try this experiment). If anyone happens to think that I’m not, it’s only because I try very hard to catch and suppress the racist associations, biases, and learned behaviours that I fall prey to on a daily basis. As a mixed race woman (my mother is White and was born in Canada, my father is Southeast Asian and was born in Malaysia), I probably also get by on the mistaken assumption that people who are subject to racism can’t be racist themselves. On the other hand, I also grew up in a small, primarily White, rural community, consumed a lot of American and Canadian pop culture, and for most of my life actively identified as White and middle class (or at least didn’t see why I was any different, in terms of cultural identity, from my White friends).


Thanks to a liberal arts university education and the influence of my peers, I am now more aware than ever of how structural racism operates, how it intersects with class, gender, sexuality, ability, etc., and how I participate in various forms of oppression. Despite this, I still look at Black men differently than I look at White men. I still find myself repeating or reinforcing racial stereotypes. I still have to scold myself, every day, for the racist prejudices that pop into my head, like mushrooms sprouting from a spore-infested carcass. I can stomp on the mushrooms, but I can’t get rid of the spores, because they’ve been there practically since birth. They are the inevitable result of living, breathing, and working in a society where White supremacy is the norm, where equality is this thing we like to talk about but rarely try to achieve, because in order to achieve it in any real sense we would have to change everything, and change is scary, change is difficult, change is uncomfortable.


Even though I know the spores are there, I also know there are lots of things I’m missing, lots of things I never even think to notice because that’s how privilege works. Let’s be clear here, any ability I have to understand or combat racism, in myself or in others, is largely a result of my privilege. If I’m not constantly spouting racist slurs it’s not because I’m naturally better than anyone else, it’s because I’m lucky. I have to repeatedly remind myself of this because like so many others, I have a tendency to see myself as morally and intellectually superior. Mainstream liberal media, political parties, and large corporations like Coca Cola and General Mills have figured this out and are actively using it to sell products and propaganda. We think we know better, but we’re being manipulated just as surely as the “racist idiots” we’re so eager to publicly condemn.

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t call out or address instances of racism when they happen. But making fun of people who express racist views behind their backs to make ourselves feel better doesn’t really get us any further ahead, and at worst it only serves to reinforce other forms of discrimination such as class or urban-rural divides. Sometimes people are racist because they haven’t had the opportunity to learn how to think or behave otherwise, sometimes people are racist because that’s what it takes to survive in their situation. Often people are racist because governments, corporations, and other powerful entities find ways of using our racism (and sexism, homophobia, classism, ableism, ageism, or whatever else suits their interests) to their advantage and actively encourage it. If you had grown up in Nazi Germany, knowing that you could be thrown in prison or killed if you didn’t fall in line, would you still be anti-racist? I’d like to think that I would, but I can’t know for sure, because I’m not in that situation and I don’t have any idea what that’s like (although I might find out one day, if recent events in Europe and elsewhere are any indication). I’ve certainly let my values slip for less than that, because I was afraid of pissing someone off, because I don’t like confrontations, because it might be awkward, because I want us all to get along, or whatever.


Not being racist takes effort, constant effort, but it also takes courage. If we want people to not be racist, we need to create the conditions in which this ongoing endeavour is not only possible, but welcome. We need to create a world (not just a bubble) in which people don’t need to be courageous in order to treat one another like human beings. We need to fundamentally change the relations and structures of power. Because as long as the lion’s share of the world’s wealth is held by a small group of people who then have to assert control over the rest of the population in order to hold onto or augment that wealth, there will always be racism; as long as multinationals can move their business overseas the moment their employees start to demand better pay or working conditions, there will always be racism; as long as the pursuit of profit is privileged over human lives, there will always be racism; as long as the more privileged among us are unwilling to stand in solidarity with the least privileged, there will always be racism.

Not using racist language in public doesn’t mean you’re not racist, it just means you’re better at hiding it. Not being racist is not some magical state of being we reach when we are sufficiently enlightened, it’s a work in progress, not just for myself, but for all of us.