Not everyone knows the joy of playing as a protagonist that is like them — someone with the same skin colour, with the same hair style, with the same sexual orientation, or the same gender. Sometimes, 'who you are' is not an in-game option simply because you are not the target audience. What choice are you left, if, say, you are a person of colour, or queer, or trans, or a woman, than to almost perpetually play as someone else... or to make your own games?
Such was the case with game critic (and full disclosure, personal friend) Mattie Brice, who instead of waiting for the unlikely scenario of having a triple-A developer make a game for her, picked up a copy of RPG Maker and made a game called Mainichi, where she takes you through a typical day in her life — from banal things like choosing whether or not to play a game, to the type of harassment she might face as a trans woman whenever she is out in public.
Playing through such a game can be touching from a player perspective, but Mattie felt something cathartic when she made it, too. She saw herself in a game for the first time only after she made herself pixel-by-pixel.
"Seeing myself as a protagonist was surprisingly emotional," she told me in an interview, "There were no characters in RPG Maker with my skin tone or hair, so I had to do some scavenging and editing to finally get me in there. I remember looking at myself and crying, I was so moved."
Years ago, without the proper training, income or know-how, making a game like Mainichi would have been impossible for many. But now, thanks to the ease of use of tools like Twine, RPG Maker, and Construct 2 along with the power of dissemination that comes with the internet has given rise to game developers who might have otherwise never had a voice in this industry. And they're making games for people outside the typical market demographic of triple-A games.
Mattie is joined in this ‘revolution' by other like-minded game designers like Merrit Kopas, a queer trans woman. Both Mattie and Merritt might have grown up with games, but they didn't set out to be game developers at first. "When I was young, I wanted to be too many things. Zoologist, actress, psychic, interior designer," Mattie, who is now a creative writing grad student, recalled.
Merritt, meanwhile, studied sociology in grad school. "I don't have any formal training in game design or programming, so having a network of encouraging people has been really valuable," she explained. These backgrounds didn't stop them, and in some ways, have better equipped them to speak to more people. Both Merritt and Mattie became visible as game developers after Anna Anthropy's book, Rise of the video game Zinesters, urged everyday folk to take it upon themselves to make games.
Specifically, personal games — the kind that are not beholden to the financial interests of stockholders, or the tastes of mainstream consumers, or the proclivities of marketing tactics. The kind that allow us to step in someone else's bubble, the kind of game that doesn't aim to be entertainment inasmuch as they are about empathy and connection with one another. Given how most games tend to be about glorification of the player or solipsism, that's incredible — not to mention subversive.
Merrit's most famous game would have to be Lim, which is an abstract game about fitting in. You play as a square that can become the colour of other squares, if you choose. If you don't, the other squares violently attack you — so even if you brave ‘being yourself,' it's not a pleasant experience. Though metaphorical, connections to Merritt's own experience as a trans woman can be made.
Part of not being afraid to hide their backgrounds comes from an effort to empower others who are either aching to see games about themselves, to be represented in games, if not be a game designer themselves.
"I try to be very open and visible as queer and trans in my games and elsewhere primarily for the sake of other queer and trans people," Merritt explained to me via email, "or folks who may be questioning who they are. I don't believe that there should be an obligation to disclose or be "out", but I'm in a place in my life where it's something that I can do, and I very much want to show people that yes, there are other ways of being — if you want to be queer you can do that, if you want to change your gender or your body you can do that too, and I want to help however I can."
Mattie, meanwhile, has had a number of people tell her that her game "help[ed] them understand what's going on that I can't quite vocalize." Here, the merits of a video game become abundantly clear: they are capable of putting us in the shoes of anyone we'd like, and that can be powerful — doubly so for those who typically don't have the privilege of playing as themselves in a game.
Of course, as inspiring as all that is, making a game about your own experience can be revealing in ugly ways. Lack of media representation, along with societal standards of beauty, can instil deep-seated hatred for how one looks — much in the same way that Brown vs Board of Education's famous doll experiment revealed that young black girls did not think they were as beautiful as white girls.
"I used to straighten my hair two times a week, four hours at a time, and it was a huge burden on my life," Mattie recalled when describing the difficulties that came with making a character with an afro, "I was taught to think that any sign of blackness is ugly, and society often reinforces that when there's a white-centric standard of beauty. But I wouldn't be me without my hair, and there's an aspect of the game that would be missing without it, so I kept it in."
Merritt, meanwhile, is making a game that directly deals with discomfort around appearances. It's called Deface Me, and it deals with her painful relationship with her face. The player will experience what she experiences both when looking in a mirror and when making a new character in a game: the inability to have the luxury of "adjusting sliders to our liking or choosing from six dozen different noses."
As interesting as these projects are, both Merritt and Mattie regularly come under fire for the games they make. RPG maker games carry a certain stigma, for instance, in that they are easily recognisable and are often made by ‘nothing more' than hobbyists.
Lim, meanwhile, sometimes gets accused of being too simplistic, both in message and in terms of visuals. Sometimes, people will assert that what developers like Merritt, Mattie and even Anna Anthropy make things that do not classify as 'games,' because they do not follow standard game paradigms. Interestingly, many of the criticisms almost sound like attempts to delegitimise progressive efforts more than anything else.
"There are a lot of people who criticise games like mine that have simple graphics, few 'gameplay' (I hate that word so much) features," Mattie laments, "thinking that just because they say something interesting doesn't mean they are good. And I want to challenge that...gamers need to be challenged and made uncomfortable sometimes, and not given what they want just because they stamp their feet about it."
Merritt asserts that "most of the people making those kinds of remarks didn't seem to have had any significant experiences of social liminality — of not quite fitting into categories. They were, for the most part, straight white cis men." Many of the under-represented folks insist that they are grateful and happy to have games like Lim and Mainichi exist.
Speaking to game designer Anna Anthropy about this issue, she didn't seem surprised at all. She explained that almost everything about the game industry has gatekeeping in it.
"Videogames have been one of the most exclusive communities i've ever encountered," she said to me via email, "some dudes, like raph koster, insist that when he says dys4ia "isn't a game," that's not a value judgement. that's bullshit. the attempt to label games like dys4ia as "non-games," as "interactive experiences," is just an attempt by the status quo to keep the discussion of games centred around the kind of games it's comfortable with — cus if there's one thing existing video game culture is good at, it's making a certain kind of dude very, very comfortable."
An apologist will tell you that personal games don't get made because not only because game development teams are so large, but also because it's difficult to propose playing as a character that may be less ‘relatable' to most players.
Is that idea not insulting to the target demographic — to say that they cannot possibly relate to minority characters? Morever, does a character's relatability not hinge on how well written they are?
But more importantly: might we be dealing with myths? As John Brindle over at Nightmare Mode writes:
"Latinos drive video game sales but are poorly represented in the medium. Black and hispanic people play more videogames but don't get to make them (or be in them). Games with woman protagonists have marketing budgets 40 per cent lower or less than man-games. The straight, white, male, young ‘target audience' is a fiction and a self-fulfilling prophecy."
It makes one wonder whether or not mainstream games even have the capability of providing us what we want — or need — when much of the wisdom that moves them forward comes from a focus group. It's not just about who that focus group might be leaving out, but also about what harmful, backwards practices get adopted in game development, all in the name of making a game that people are likely to buy.