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Unreality: My Takeaways After Being On and Subsequently Walking Off a Reality Show About Game Jams.
I agreed to do a show about game jams, hoping to make a short game with friends. What that ended up being was something completely different. I contractually can't talk about what happened, but I can share what I learned from the experience.
March 31, 2014
14 Min Read
I can’t talk about what actually happened to me over the last week, at least not in the ways that I feel like I need to. I’m contractually obligated, bound, blood-sworn, and gagged on the actual events during filming of what turned out to be a reality show. Thankfully not everyone is (REQUIRED reading: Jared’s coverage, Adriel’s take, and Robin’s take), but it’s hard to have gone through something so surreal and emotionally difficult and be forced to stay quiet. About as difficult as smiling dead-eyed at a camera with a soft drink in your hand (label facing outwards, of course) when everything in you is screaming “this is wrong, run away”. However, I can talk about some thoughts and feelings that are swirling around in my head after all this, and what I’ve taken away from the most abnormal of experiences.
The idea of the uncanny valley has become a sort of buzzword lately, not just because the effect itself is interesting but it actually speaks to a common enough human experience. I think this holds true for reality tv shows as well as realdolls. It’s like playing on expert mode when your stated purpose is to capture this thing of beauty that you care deeply about honestly, because fiction is more forgiving. When you’re creating a story out of nothingness, nobody knows if you didn’t get the vision exactly right because they don’t have the cheat sheet in your head of what it was supposed to look like, they only have their own experience with it. It doesn’t exist in the wild in the way that nonfiction does. I know this was one of my own anxieties in creating Depression Quest - trying to get it exactly right carried higher stakes because there are multitudes of people who experience this broad subject in very different ways, and not only do you have to try and distill enough of it down to find some kind of kernel of truth, you have to make it relatable and worthwhile for other people to bother engaging with in addition to trying to be respectful of others’ experiences on the subject.
The format of reality tv shows feels a lot like you’re a fish in the following analogy. Someone goes out to the ocean with the intent of catching a fish they really love and want to observe, and putting them into a fishbowl. This fishbowl not only is incredibly cramped compared to the ocean you’re used to, but it’s got plastic day-glo green seaweed in place of the dark green foliage, neon rainbow sand where you’re used to living coral reefs, and some tiny castle with a weird dude in it that you can’t even really make sense of but the person who caught you thinks it looks really cool and ties the whole thing together because they’re used to seeing tiny castles in fishtanks.
Then, this person who caught you never changes the water and taps on the glass every five minutes.
The fish starts to forget what the ocean was like. It acclimates to it’s new world and changes accordingly. It learns to eat multicolored food flakes regardless of how unnatural it is.
Then, the person observes the aquarium and takes the fish’s reaction to this extreme environment and publishes a paper on their first hand truthful experience with this species of fish and a lot of people probably think that fish is kind of an asshole when really they’re just stressed out from eating weird flakes and not being able to swim or see their friends and having some weirdo stare at them through the glass and demand that they re-do that real moment of emotion because it wasn’t quite believable enough when it was actually happening and-
This metaphor derailed quickly. My apologies.
Anyway, my point is this: the tragedy of it is that in the pursuit of portraying truth, you end up making a caricature that creeps you out and is not only obvious unbelievable, but repulsive. Repulsive in the same ways that the not-quite-right face of a porcelain doll is.
It’s a weird time for games, and it can be easy to lose sight of that when you’re working in the industry. When I step outside of those spheres and meet people from the other artistic communities I run in, they often have no idea indie gaming is even a thing. It’s becoming more common which is thrilling, and it’s wonderful to see some of the efforts that are being done to bring gaming from a more niche place and into the spotlight that it really honestly deserves. It’s a time where when you have a big platform to represent the medium or industry or community or whatever, you can actually impact what direction these things go in in the next few years.
That’s one of the reasons I’ve been home for a total of 10 hours this month. I’ve taken every speaking gig offered to me because I’ve read so much on how having someone who looks like you being visible in places you’d like to be in someday can do really powerful stuff for traditionally marginalized groups. A lot of these panels and places I’ve been going, if I had said no there wouldn’t be any women present at all, much less an openly queer one. I’m tired and sick and stressed but really happy that I can do this thing that I care about and maybe, hopefully, help someone else feel more welcome or able to do this thing that I care about so much.
This also means that I take representation of indie gaming very seriously, especially when it’s facing toward groups that have never been exposed to it before. First impressions are incredibly important - they can set the tone of how a person thinks about a subject, and how they think they should behave toward it. With things like indie games, this can include things like “who is welcome here”, “what are acceptable ways to talk to each other”, “is game development something I’d be capable of doing someday like these people are”, and so on. All of these are extremely important subjects to me, and constantly in the back of my head whenever I do anything in public related to indie games.
I personally would like to be a positive ambassador. The messages I want to leave are ones of invitation, acceptance (of yourself and each other), and encouragement. I want the people who come in after me to help mold the indie community towards more and more inclusivity and support, where differences are accepted and welcomed and viewed as a breath of fresh air to this medium that we all work ourselves so intensely in. I want the tone to continue to improve and be this beautiful thing that I know it can be.
This also means that I explicitly can’t be a part of anything that sends the opposite message, or one that I feel doesn’t represent the beautiful things that are already happening in this sphere. Misrepresenting this lovely thing that I’ve been lucky enough to fall into, struggle through, and find my place within would break my heart. There are enough parts of “gamer culture” that are the opposite of this, or would shout over these things I love, and I have no desire to contribute to that.
I’ve been working on being better at standing up for myself and others these last 2 years. My first impulse has always been to put other people ahead of myself in all things, and it used to stay silent and suck it up even when extreme things would happen to me. Even if I know they’re wrong deep down, I have this stupid instinct to believe other people know better than I do. Forcing myself to stand up has usually involved some degree of tricking myself into action by thinking of how others could be impacted. And yeah, I know how stupid that is, but we all have our personal shit to work through and this is just one of mine.
Only recently have I started to develop actual confidence. I’m starting to transition from demanding basic respect even when my insecurities tell me I don’t deserve it to actually starting to believe that I deserve to be treated fairly. It’s a new thing and that probably sounds weird to you, dear reader, but I’m writing this for myself as much as I am writing it in the hopes that maybe someone will get something out of it too if they’re similarly afflicted.
Regardless, standing up and saying you’re not going to treated poorly anymore is terrifying. There have been times in the past where I’ve tried, and no one has stood with me. I don’t blame them for the same reasons I try to forgive myself when I didn’t have the energy to do it myself. I never expect anyone to take up any fight just because I have.
But holy shit, when they do it’s amazing. When they do it concurrently alongside me of their own accord, it’s mindblowing. It fills me with so much hope that I see people I know and respect and admire who are willing to speak up for others. I am filled with such hope for this industry after talking to so many people who want to make things better. People who more importantly, when the cards are down, will try and do the right thing. This, more than most things, convinces me that fighting the good fight isn’t futile at all. This makes me feel like I’m not alone.
I’m honored to be alongside people like Robin Arnott, Adriel Wallick, Davey Wreden, Akira Thompson, and so many more. Honored and inspired beyond words.
My approach to making art is one I’m still learning, and one of the hardest parts of it has been learning how to take care of myself and this creative place inside me that I pull my art out of, kicking and screaming. Game development in particular feels like racing my own creative burnout, and learning how to most effectively flip over that particular hourglass to delay it running out of sand for just a little while longer.
One of the things I’m still trying to figure out is how and when to walk away. Since staying awake for the full 60 hours of Train Jam to rebuild my game 3 times, I’m starting to think that maybe I need to get better about my workaholic tendencies. Many other developers have said a bunch of things about this, sometimes directly to me, sometimes yelled directly AT me (I can think of at least 3 people that probably read that last sentence and made an audible noise of frustration at the “maybe I should fix this” part), but it’s a really hard thing to internalize. I’m starting to wonder if it’s even something you CAN internalize without fucking up first. It’s hard to know the depth and shape of your limits without pushing them and exploring them.
I live life as an exploration. I wish I could see and do and experience everything. I throw myself into weird situations wholeheartedly and feet first, even when told they probably will suck, just because I want that first hand feeling. I want to lift the fog of war on my little minimap and know what it’s like, to actually touch it instead of just reading about it. I think that it makes me a better artist than I would be if I didn’t.
But! I’m starting to learn that sometimes I need to back off. Sometimes I need to NOT do one thing so that I can continue doing other things that matter more to me. For example, if trying to make a small game is feeling so wrong that even trying to come back to it is killing my desire to make anything at all, I need to run the other way. Since creating work I believe in is one of the most important things to me, it’s the one I need to guard most fiercely. Very little is worth jeopardizing it to me, even before my livelihood was directly hooked into it.
It can be a fragile balance, too. I’m one of those insufferable artsy stereotypes whose drive to create can feel capricious. I used to think this was a terrible thing to get over and invested a lot of time in trying to fight my own nature, but a while ago I changed directions entirely. I’ve learned to manage that impulse by doing a lot of things in different media and in tiny scope. It lets me switch gears and change perspectives at the pace I need without fighting myself every step of the way, and I honestly think at this point I’ve turned it into an advantage instead of something I’ve been ashamed of. Or at least I hope I have.
All navelgaze aside, I think I am at that point where I need to step away and protect my drive to create. It’s a lot like when you get into a fight with someone you really love and you both are just spinning your wheels unproductively instead of actually working toward a resolution, and hurt feelings are piling up on both sides. It’s best to step back before damage is done that can’t be healed, and I’m at that point with games. I think I am going to take the next month and make a bunch of stuff that has nothing to do with games. I’ll still work on my two major projects because a girl’s gotta pay bills, but other than that I need to do a bit of exploration and healing.
I also want to explicitly consume a shitload of other media that is entirely unrelated to games too. In the past I’ve found that has a hugely positive impact on my work and often more importantly, my approach to creating it. I’ve also been traveling around and embedded in games-focused events for the greater part of a solid month now, and I need to make sure I’m not stagnating. I want to continue to devour the world with my brain instead of just eating my own dog food, and this is the best way I know how right now.
When everything goes horribly wrong, I feel like I end up with a unique opportunity to look inward (when I’ve gotten to a safe distance away and made sure I’m ok first, of course). If I can, I try to dismantle it and use every single part of the experience to either better myself or help someone else. Even if it’s just learning how you react when the cards are down and you’re in crisis, that’s an interesting and important thing to know about yourself. It’s just as useful to know exactly what you DON’T want as much as it is to know what you DO want.
There was this amazing thing that happened after the production was over. Without any organization or prompting, we acquired and shared some refreshments around, set up some multiplayer games, invited production staff to just come be people and play with us, and had a spontaneous pop up party more or less. It was the first time I had started to feel like myself at all since landing in LA. I started to remember what life felt like off-set again, and it reminded me of what I love about game jams and the indie community in general. It felt like such a complete contrast to the 24 hours that preceded it, and a thought clicked into my head.
My most tangible takeaway is probably this: I want to run a game jam. Not now, but after pax east and after I’ve recharged a bit. I’d like to find charismatic Let’s Play people, a couple of video cameras, a huge + cheap rentable house, and a group of indies. I’d love to have the LPers do what they’re so often so brilliant at and bridge the gap between the games and the audience, and do it super low-tech, low-budget, documentary style. Capture the inspiration, the hard work, the 3am delirium and the dumb jokes that come with it. Show people how we all band together and support each other through the deadline. That’s what I want to show the world about game jams. That’s the ambassador I’d rather be.
And that’d be the perfect analog for the way a lot of people end up in indie, right? You reject the big production with a lot of money that doesn’t fit you, that makes you feel like you don’t have a voice and aren’t creating what you’d like to, to flipping all the tables and walking away, banding together with other people who feel similarly, and doing your own thing the way YOU want to.
In this way, this game jam might have been the most “indie” thing I’ve seen.
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