The Story is a Spell. The Story is a Curse.

It matters who writes us. There's a book with some problems that I still like a lot called The Ticking Is The Bomb. The author likes to jump around and tell tiny little vignettes about his life or just talk about songs and stories and TV shows while zooming in on the one scene or lyric that means something profound and personal to him. I want creation to come from criticism, and this nonfiction book about fictional stories by a poet is a rare cross-genre embodiment of that. I like how he's aware the narrative he's made for himself is this patchwork of literature and pop culture and he's not snobbish about where it comes from. He's kind of an ass of a man but he's made a world for himself in a wonderful way and everyone deserves that and I kind of believe he earns it.

So anyways there's a part of the book where he says "sometimes the story we tell about ourselves can be a type of spell." Stories can bridge the gap between who we are and who we aren't yet. Narratives allow us to exist not just here and now and in this flesh but in that possibility space as well; it's the spell that can change us. You can't change if you don't know the magic; how can't exist if you don't know how. You can feel the need in your gut so strongly it hurts every minute of your life, but all you know is the absence until the story shows you the way. When the possibility is named, when the story is told, it becomes possible for it to one day be real.

If this is true, that stories about ourselves can be a type of spell, then maybe it's also true the stories others tell about us can become a type of curse. Stories are the boundaries of possibility, which means that they can also be the rules of reality, or the perceived rules, which are as strong as the laws of physics if you can't imagine any other possibility. Who get to tell the story? Whose stories are celebrated? Whose are the most true? Stories can lift up the powerful and restrain the oppressed. As insidious as the story that denies our existence is the story that allows us conditional existence. Here are the terms of womanhood. Here, for you, are different, stricter terms of womanhood, and harsher penalties for breaking them. Here are the terms our narratives have taught the rest of the world to expect from you, what is allowed, entitled, and permitted to take from you. And so on.

That was abstract, so I'm going to talk about watching anime and being a transsexual. I write about this on twitter sometimes, but I think it's important that in a world so saturated with pop culture that it is impossible to avoid getting your brain fucked up on it, we have to learn how to make sure that it doesn't actually kill us. You cannot exist outside of culture, so rather than ludicrously proposing you somehow try to be above it or live outside it, I want to talk about how to live through it and understand it and make it ours.

An issue that's distinct and separate from the art itself (in theory but, maybe, rarely in practice) is the author of the work. Theoretically, and this is what is taught often uncritically in academia and creative writing classes, is that what matters is the craft of the work, not the identity or history of the person who wrote it. You'll find a lot of references to Roland Barthes and the death of the author here. I'm going to put this aside to deal with specifically in just a moment, because I want to make it clear that entirely separate from the relationship of the author and her identity to her work is the fact of the author existing in the world. This is a different kind of representation, but I think it's often more important for marginalized people to be celebrated for telling stories than for stories about marginalized people to be celebrated. Putting aside the quality of the work, the existence of these folx is its own story: the story that we exist and we can tell stories. We deserve to tell stories, and we deserve to be known and maybe even get paid for them! In a world where majority people can get famous and rich telling the stories of marginalized folx and the majority loves casually touring the narratives of the oppressed, we don't get to depoliticize this reality. There is an incredibly long history of this (ask african american studies about it sometime, we trans folx didn't invent anything new (except gender)).

This doesn't mean that you can't tell the stories of peoples you don't belong to, just that you need to be aware of your position relative to them, and how your privilege lets you talk over them and even over their own experiences. You have this power, regardless of whether you want it or not, and I have seen so many creators exercise it in response to feeling criticized or attacked for folx disagreeing with them. It's hard to not do this, but doing this is also the bare minimum of your personal responsibility. I often get a lot of people with privilege expressing to me that they're now scared and nervous because I made them aware of this and to that I say: good, exactly the point. You don't actually have to write about us, and it's not like you're extending some magnanimous offer by deigning to write about us at all. It's your choice, so take responsibility. We are more than capable of telling our own stories, and the ways we fit into mainstream narratives are already so disgusting and warped there are unlimited examples of stories that actively harm us, regardless of their supposed intentions. A lot of people love trans women when they're pretty and fragile and self-conscious and need approval, and they write narratives where it shows. I am pretty and fragile and self-conscious, but I am also ugly and angry and arrogant, and I still deserve to exist. Stories that infantilize are just as much a curse.

This is just the context and culture around narrative creation, so let's talk about narratives themselves. Firstly, I will say that while in theory you can do research to understand marginalized folx, it's possible to demonstrate a stunning lack of awareness of what their lives and experiences are actually like. I will say that I can more or less tell whether or not a narrative was written by a trans person, but what I actually mean is that I can tell how aware they are of our experiences, how gender actually functions in culture, the social and physical subtleties of transition, and all of the little details that make up our actual lives. And I should specify that this is frequently centering on the experiences of white western trans folx as well: our rules and carefully crafted ideas of theory aren't even widely prevalent in our own culture, and they're often fundamentally different outside it.

It's for these reasons that I have expressed a strong disagreement with reading narratives that are clearly created under fundamentally different frameworks and ideas of gender and identity under the ones we've commonly accepted. This applies equally to narratives from cultures that understand gender very differently than white westerners as it does to cis people who are fascinated by us, even though they're not remotely the same (I'm focusing on how to read narratives by ignorant/transphobic western voices though, as they're the ones I'm qualified to understand and unpack).  How do you talk about a trans woman in a story directed by a cis man who fundamentally thinks of trans women as men? How do you talk about an androgynous gender-nonconforming character who the author repeatedly refers to by birth assignment, even though the character hits almost every tally mark that would fit our labels of genderqueer? How do we apply labels the author didn't even imagine to characters who might be drawn with such cartoonish transphobia they bear no resemblance to any human being? 

The short answer is "very carefully" and here is the distinction I want to draw: between seeing ourselves or our possible selves in a narrative to weave a spell and identifying and dismantling narratives to break a curse. The first is creative, the second is critical. Drawing the distinction is important because we need to exist on our own terms. It's certainly often frustrating to demand recognition from people who seem interested in touching on our experiences but not honoring us, but it's also dangerous to think of fighting for representation solely in terms of asking to be seen. Work to make the deadly constant wave of pop culture less toxic is great, but it's not a substitute for narratives that are truly ours. It's also important because it lets us understand and use and find things to love in narratives without giving an inch on criticizing their problems. With so much criticism set on totalizing work (this IS feminist, this ISN'T feminist) the goal becomes morally defending one's media consumption rather than understanding the nuance in a work. It's as important to, for example, see the gender expression of a fictional character as possibility for one's personal embodiment of trans womanhood as it is to also understand the ways the narrative that character exists in might reinforce transphobia in other ways. We can hold both of these things at once. We can identify the ways in which a narrative doesn't understand or acknowledge us while still finding parts we identify with. We can do this without shaming each other or creating for hegemony within criticism or expression of queer and trans narratives. We can honor what's meaningful to others and the value of that in and of itself while still not relenting when it comes to pointing out flaws. This is how we create the world.

No-Women-Bingo

 

All these excuses are 100% real and reiterated only with the slightest sarcastic inflection. They were all uttered with complete seriousness, though whether from sheer naiveté or callous indifference I couldn’t tell you. The point is they’re all excuses.

Some of these are even true; in fact, all of them are at least a little true, because the best (worst) excuses is always just a little true.

But ask anyone who thinks about creating anything and they’ll tell you, as you probably know already, that what you leave out is as much of decision as what you put in. Where’s your budget going, exactly, that’s so much important than a playable woman? If you can’t write women, maybe you should hire a better writer, or hire a consultant, or have your writer talk to a woman a few times.

What these excuses say is “we thought a lot about our game. But we didn’t think women were worth thinking about.” A distraction from what they really wanted to talk about. They can even understand, intellectually, that a story about women might be serious or interesting or relatable. But they have no idea how to do it themselves and no interest in creating ones. They think that’s okay and they think that doesn’t matter, because they’re writing a story about men.

But men do not live in a world with only men, and what’s far less “realistic” than playable women is a world in which men can safely ignore women…or people of color, or queer folx…telling stories that revolve only around them. Their stories aren’t alone. They touch every story around them. A story can never be about “just” masculinity because even (especially) the absence of something is as much of statement as its presence. What sort of story do think that it might be? The story without women, that is.

How To Deal With Transphobic Characters In Otherwise Delightful Anime Video Games

Though I often see a lot of protestation to the contrary, it’s actually not that difficult to address how certain characters in Persona and Dangan Ronpa are transphobic when neither of them are explicitly coded as trans. That’s not to say that either are trans; that would be missing the point, and furthermore implying that the authors of either work had any sort of knowledge or understanding of trans experience.

It is important that anyone who is either defending or criticizing either game keep a very simple point in mind: none of these characters are real. That’s not meant to be sarcastic. Rather, the point is that these characters are not humans, with direct agency, motivations, or organic human behavior. They are fictional constructs—and while (if well written) they will convincingly simulate agency, motivation, and humanity, they are in fact constructed by a human being that (like all humans) has prejudices, agendas, and a limited and incomplete understanding of the world.

Why is this important? Because these characters—Naoto in Persona 4 and Chihiro in Dangan Ronpa—do not represent the honest and legitimate experience of character’s gender in the world, but the prejudices, agendas, and incomplete understandings of the authors of those characters. That is: characters mean something. They represent, directly or indirectly, claims made by the author. They aren’t someone’s lived experience, though they will be constructed based on that author’s experience.

This is all a very cerebral way of saying that the people who wrote Naota and Chihiro didn’t know what the fuck they were talking about.

More politely: these characters represent what their authors think about gender. Take Chihiro for instance—this character supposedly dresses as a girl because of a feeling of personal weakness and a desire to avoid conflict and competition. That’s not a trans narrative at all—thus evidence for why Chihiro shouldn’t be considered trans. That’s missing the point by a mile though, because this  chain of logic is massively misogynistic, predicated on the Men’s Right Activism assumption that because women get doors opened and drinks bought that they have it easy, compared to men. It further endorses, without complication, the notion that femininity is weak, and inferior, as Chihiro’s arc as a character is based around overcoming this feminine weakness and becoming a “real” man. There is massive transphobia and misogyny here, and none of it requires Chihiro to be trans in any implicit or explicit way. Humoring a debate over whether or not this character is trans privileges a respect for a fictional character’s identity (which being fictional, Chihiro does not have) over the claims the author of Dangan Ronpa is making about gender through the fictional construct of this character.

I understand this approach is very cold, but please, it is not meant to chill your feelings for any of these characters, or to imagine them in different circumstance or to reclaim them or to identify with them. I’m condemning a message of the original work, but that shouldn’t ever stop you from still finding value and joy in it, even in the characters I’ve especially called out. Fandom is a really important and beautiful way of transforming and reforming oppressive bullshit in pop culture. But when we get really wrapped up with empathizing with fictional characters, it’s important to step back and remember they are fictional, created by people flawed just like us, embodying ideas and agendas that are prejudiced, and not representative of honest human experiences.

Towards a Cutie Aesthetic (◡ ‿ ◡ ✿)

Here is the transcript of the first talk I ever gave, at the Lost Levels unconference in Yerba Buena park behind GDC 2013.  I wrote on my cellphone in the hour before I gave it. I improvised some stuff and said um a lot so you won’t get the full experience here, but I hope it captures the gist of it.

I think games should be cuter.

Do you think games should be cute I think games should be cute!

We should have games by cuties for cuties. 

But we don’t.

AAA games are obsessed with looking real. Their reality is brown, and bald, and it has a lot of guns. When people are shot they shoot out lots of blood. Or sometimes you shoot blood at someone until they drop guns. Then you pick up those guns and shoot until they drop more blood and guns.

What I want is are games in which it is possible to do something else. 

I know you’ve heard something like this before and probably already feel the same way as me or you wouldn’t be here.So here’s something new: be cute. I want games that are cure because I want to be cute. And I’m pretty fucking Kawaii. 

Cute graphics are the only aesthetic that can truly free you from the tyranny of reality.

The reality you see in games is a powerful machine engineered by  mammon that is intended to be so real in so few specific ways that it is not real at all. The truth can be a powerful lie. When the only voices and people and things that are rendered with “reality” are guns and metal and soldiers and dust then reality will be strangled. The intention of realistic graphics is not to represent reality but to overtake reality. They are a vision of reality that only continues to stay true as long as we support and accept and believe that it is reality.

So I don’t even want to hear about reality. I don’t want reality. Reality will only ever be exclusionary. There is too money tied up in realistic graphics and its vision is inherently limiting.

So why not be cute? Cute graphics don’t take much money, and don’t take the same amount of sheer dedication. But more than that, cute is subversive. It alters and distorts and makes fun of reality. It’s dedicated not to visual fidelity but to emotional fidelity. Because every human vision will be personal, limited view, the only way to find a place for everyone is to give as many voices as possible a way to speak. The easiest way for us to find a way to speak is to speak by altering and mocking the voices that are already there. In order to destroy what is called “reality” it needs to be destroyed or altered or abstracted. And cute graphics can do this very well. They allow us a low budget way to subvert the expectations of audiences. They allow us a vehicle to destroy genre and cliche and tear down what the games industry tells us is “reality”. We can show them what reality can look like if it was done by cuties for cuties, by people who don’t fit into the hypermasculine balding wasteland on the showroom floor over there.

I want lots of bubbles and crystals. I want soft colors that let me feel warm. I want games about comforting and I want games about satire. I want games that don’t themselves so fucking seriously. I want a game that has a heartbeat, not a meticulously designed reality that deliberately excludes us. A cute aesthetic give us a power far grater than any of those millions of dollars can bring. 

Together, we cuties can destroy reality and remake it in our adorable image.

It wasn't a very well written speech, so I want to revisit it and maybe explain in detail why I think cuteness is so important.

I don’t like saying “AAA” or “indie” but no one has come up with better terms yet so I guess I’ll just stick with them. What AAA games devote an extreme portion of their budgets to is looking “realistic.” This is pretty much the exact same reason billions gets spent on big budget hollywood movies.

Of course, AAA games can’t render reality precisely or completely. They have to make a conscious decision on what they want to bring to life and what they don’t care about. So certain actions, like picking up ammo, like the individual movements of the human fingers, like the physical presence of a human body in the gameworld (most game protagonists are a bodiless 360 camera with a hitbox) are omitted to streamline the experience. Obviously this is the correct decision: picking up ammo manually doesn’t necessarily add anything of value to an experience that is meant to evoke a blockbuster film, in which it would be common for guns to shoot wildly incorrect numbers of bullets or suddenly appear in a hero’s hands between cuts.

However, when you choose parts of the human experience to render in the video game world, you are also choosing what to exclude, and you are making claims about what is important to the human experience, whether you want to make these claims or not and whether you intend to make those claims or not. Certainly, no simulations of complex economic systems or virtuoso painting are needed for a AAA FPS. Since your development cycles are limited, why not also cut other unessential elements from your game, like women?

This is not neutral. Intentional or not, whether you want to or not, you have created a world without women and must then examine what claims you are making by creating a world with graphical and physical realism, advertise as the closest games will get to reality. You can’t claim that you are not saying anything by doing this. “Realistic” graphics are not neutral. Games are made by humans; of course they aren’t neutral. They are what a billion dollar corporations believes the majority of people will find even more appealing than reality. The claims AAA games make, from gameplay to graphics, are designed to appeal to a very limited worldview and human experience.

So far so I’ve-already-heard-this before. The response I think a lot of us have to this narrow vision of “reality” is to push for inclusion. If queers and women and minorities get to join in the AAA space, we can become accepted and real as well.

This goal is probably worth fighting for, but I want to suggest an optional alternate goal to either include alongside that or make your primary goal if you feel like it and it’s: ignore AAA altogether.

I am speaking for myself, but I do not actually feel represented or included any time I see even a character that superficially represents me paraded by a new AAA game’s marketing department as a step forward, revolutionary, whatever. I mean it’s nice to see. But honestly, every character in every AAA game is so flat, so emotionally hollow, so flawlessly idealized that there is very little I can take away from them. We talk about wanting games to have characters that we can identify with; I can’t identify with a paper doll, even one that looks exactly like me or exactly how I want to be.

Oh, that doesn’t mean I don’t find that valuable too. Sometimes those paper dolls are beautiful and I think they’re wonderful and I love saving fanart of them. I would like to see more cuties dash punching robots at 60fps, please, that would be excellent.

However, I think that the goals of a AAA game are just completely removed from anything resembling a personal, human story that, while I think pushing AAA games to increasingly suck less is a good goal, there were over 80 games made last weekend in the #PPHSjam that contained more human stories rendered more delicately and tenderly than anything that game out in the last forty years on a console. There is a game that eroticizes clipart in there. These games are cute and they are human and about humans.

AAA is trying to appeal to as many people as possible. They might try to be accepting, but only in the most idealized way, and almost always only in stereotypes. This is common in every single industry that exists; you will not find someone who looks weird or cute or sissy or fat or whatever, basically, because they don’t just want to appeal to the most people, they are heavily invested in forcing conformity to a commodified human experience. Corporations would like you to buy a thing but they would not like you to feel a thing other than the need to buy a thing.

I said I was going to talk about cuties but I’m going to just Quote Patricia Hernandez instead:

“What is your interpretation of cutie theory philosophy?

At first it was this kind of amusing thing like, oh hey, there’s a new meme in my friends circle. And then it was like, hey, if everyone is calling everyone else a cutie I can do the same and maybe they won’t catch on that I have a major crush on them WE’RE JUST ALL CUTIES, HAHA. And THEN, somehow, it became kind of like an identification thing? Like, oh, yeah IDK how to define my gender/identity but sure I will be cool with cutie this can Be A Thing.

Which is huge since I hate(d) being called cute before. I guess it was seen as a kind of weakness?

So, the cutie philosophy has been a p great for me I gotta say. It’s weird to say that for something that seems so silly.”

So the idea is you don’t have to identify your gender or identity or body type: you can just be cute. Cute is a vague word and it’s used to describe a variety of attractive traits, and that’s important because usually to complement someone you tell them how much they look like whatever gender you’re assigning them. What if they don’t want to look like that? Everyone wants to be loved, but they want to be loved for who they are or what they want to be. Not that you can’t make yourself look attractive in a way others will appreciate but that you yourself loathe, because you’re really desperate for others to love you for any reason at all. That happens all the time, it’s just fucked up.

So cutie is way to say “you’re attractive to me and others in a way that our language doesn’t have precise wording for because it deliberately excludes and shames and punishes people for looking like you do, but I value you and think you’re neat!”

(Everyone will ignore this next part): this is of course my personal philosophy of what cute means and isn’t everyone’s definition and doesn’t need to be everyone’s definition and certainly there are other great and valid ways of using the word cute. And not everything that people call “cute” is subversive in this way. This is just mine.

But this is the reason why I believe a cute aesthetic is uniquely primed to disassemble ingrained notions of attractiveness. What AAA “realist” games are interested in is inclusion in a space that I don’t think I want a part in. If you’re hot, basically, you can hang out in the cool kid’s club. I never ever want to be hot. I never want to look like the protagonist of a AAA game. Being included in the AAA space means I get to have my identity as long as I look and act like some bald space dude and I just don’t want to! I want to fucking look cute, is that reallllly so much to ask?  Yes, because it fundamentally challenges all sorts of values about our culture. It goes way deeper than anything a AAA game would be willing to include for the sake of appearing diverse (except maybe Saint’s Row).

But the priorities of AAA are just too invested in a fundamentally exclusive system. They might let us hang out there but they wouldn’t let us be ourselves. So why invest so much in breaking through to a system that drip feeds us to keep us buying $60 games when we could find over 80 times the humanity in a weekend game jam?