Patricia Hernandez recently interviewed Mattie Brice and me for a Kotaku piece on expanding game authorship. Reflecting on the interview today, I realized it was the first time I’d been asked to explicitly articulate some of my ideas about games. So, with Patricia’s permission, I’m posting the full text of the interview here.
Patricia: What are you working on right now (and why?)
Merritt: I’ve got about a half-dozen projects in progress right now, but three are close to completion. First is a game about the process of relearning how my body worked after starting HRT. Second is another multiplayer text game like my earlier project Brace that builds on some of the gameplay ideas there. Third is a game about my often-painful relationship with my face.
Like I said, I have a lot of ideas in progress at any one time. The reason I’m currently working on these is that they’re all about things that are going on in my life right now, and telling personal stories through games is what got me into game-making in the first place. That said, it’s also important to me that my work be useful to other people, that it not be “about me” to the point that it precludes players from feeling like it resonates with their lives.
P: The game I knew about was the one about your face–and I’m curious as to why you’d make a game like that. However, the other games sound fascinating too! I’d be happy to hear about all of them, if you have the time/inclination. Is telling a personal story kind of a cathartic thing? Do you feel like you had to do it for yourself, or was it kind of like, well this sort of thing isn’t out there for other people to experience and I can provide it for them? Both?
M: Deface Me is about discovering limits to change and dealing with them in some way.
I’ve had a really painful relationship to my face for a long time, and one way of dealing with that has been using character customization modes in games to craft something like an ideal image of myself. These kinds of games can be useful but they can also make things worse, because they can remind us that with our physical bodies we don’t have the luxury of adjusting sliders to our liking or choosing from six dozen different noses. So I wanted to think about that game feature and how I’ve used it, and also about our options when we don’t have that level of choice provided to us.
If you look in the mirror, there are things you can change but other things that you can’t. So, your only options most days are how to feel about those things. But it’s not so simple as just making the decision to appreciate ourselves, because there’s all of these forces pushing back against that — it takes a lot of work and struggle.
A lot of my motivation to tell personal stories is coming from myself — I’m making games that are on some level, about me. But it’s important to me that this not prevent people from receiving or using the work in ways I didn’t expect. I’m not interested in making games where the meaning is completely predetermined by me, the author, who gets final say on how they should be interpreted. What’s really powerful for me is to make something that resonates with other people, especially people whose experiences aren’t well-represented. So I’m definitely starting from a point of self-expression, but in doing so, I hope to show other people who may have similar experiences that they’re not alone.
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, 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.
I have very little interest in speaking to mainstream audiences in my games and trying to educate them about what my life is like. It’s much more critical to me to speak to and with other marginalized people. If other folks get something out of my work, that’s great — but they’re not the primary audience.
P: Do you think your approach can be jarring? What kind of responses does your work get; has your mission to reach out to queer folks been successful, you think?
I’m also curious–if you feel comfortable talking about this–about your background. How did you grow up? Why pursue games/how did games fit into your life growing up? How did you come to decide to study what you did in school? That sort of thing.
M: I think my approach can jarring to some, yes. When I released Lim, there were some people who just didn’t get it — their comments seemed to be mainly about the lack of polish, supposed bugs, and things like that. What I noticed was 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. Because I’m deliberately not trying to present the complexities of marginal experience in the kind of simplified way that mainstream audiences are used to, I’m not surprised that people who fall into that group don’t always “get it.” Conversely, I’ve gotten a lot of comments on my work from people who said that it’s been incredibly meaningful to them. When another woman, queer, or trans person thanks me for sharing something I’ve made with them, it gives me this powerful sense of connection with others that is really my strongest motivation to create.
The best example of this that I can think of is A Synchronous Ritual, a short text game I made for a Twine jam my friend Porpentine ran a while ago. The idea of the game is that it’s meant to be played at specific times of day, the times that I take my hormone pills. So if you follow the rules and play the game at one of those times, we’re doing this little, critical act together. The night I released it, at least three of us from across the country played it together and it was this incredible shared experience between us and possibly even more people.
I grew up playing a lot of games. My trans narrative is a little different from many people’s — I didn’t “always know” as a lot of people do. But nonetheless I was a pretty non-normative kid and was tormented for it by my peers. I think I liked games so much not just because they let me explore gender and sexuality in ways I didn’t fully understand at the time, but because I could understand them, because they gave me refuge from psychological and physical harm in worlds that followed a kind of sense and reason that the “real world” didn’t seem to have.
That said, games never figured into my plans in a big way. I went to college and majored in sociology because I’d had several teachers in high school who impressed upon me the importance of social justice and an ability to understand complex social systems. After that, I moved out to Seattle to start graduate work in sociology and gender studies. I had continued to play lots of games throughout this time, but wasn’t aware of the existence of smaller indie creators.
It wasn’t until anna anthropy posted a link to an old version of Game Maker on Twitter that I began to realize that individual people — queers, even — were making important, personal games. In summer 2012 I made my first game, TERF War, after reading anna’s book. I realized that this was something I very much enjoyed doing. But I probably wouldn’t have gotten much further had I not found such a supportive community in other queer and women authors like anna, Porpentine, and a number of other people who have become incredibly important to me. I don’t have any formal training in game design or programming, so having a network of encouraging people has been really valuable.
Up until I got involved with these folks, I’d been in school my entire life. I’d just gotten my master’s degree and was contemplating staying on for the PhD or taking a while off to pursue something else. I recently decided to do the latter. I’ve appreciated my time in academia thus far and I think my work is informed by the analyses I’ve developed in gender studies and sociology. But right now I’m interested in making art and games about gender, oppression, and violence, rather than (mainly) writing about them — I think games have unique advantages in thinking and teaching about these topics that I’d like to explore further.
Game making has been very wrapped up with gender for me. I started hormone replacement therapy two weeks after dys4ia was released and started making games as a way to express some of the things I was feeling in the first few months of the process — TERF War is about feeling hated and Lim is about feeling erased and attacked. That said, I’ve been wary of presenting a one-sided, tragic view of trans experience in my games. I really feel that being trans is amazing, and we get enough tragedy in mainstream stories about trans people. There’s a lot of violence and negative experiences that go along with being a trans person, but it can also be beautiful and powerful.
So what I’ve tried to get across in my games is that being an other can be painful and horrible, but we’re rarely alone — there are others like us, and if we can find each other, we can appreciate and celebrate the unlikely fact of our existence together, in the face of a world that says that we shouldn’t be.
P: I’m curious if you feel like it was necessary for you to make games–in the sense that mainstream audiences aren’t providing you with what you wanted/needed to see out there. Why do you think mainstream games shy away from the type of subjects your games touch upon? Do you think they’re right when they say that very personal games can’t speak to people outside of who they represent?
M: I don’t believe that mainstream games are providing me, or a lot of people, with what we want or need to see. Even what I think of as the “indie mainstream” seems pretty restricted in the kinds of narratives and mechanics that get presented. Part of the problem is that if you’re trying to sell a game to an audience of gamers, certain stories and kinds of gameplay are more recognizable than others, and if you veer too far from the expected, people will be confused or not even recognize what you’ve made as a game. So I understand those pressures involved in mainstream and commercial indie games, but I think those processes have also created this space for smaller games by people who are to some degree outsiders (in the sense of not having programming/design/industry backgrounds) to thrive.
I don’t think it’s true at all to say that these kind of personal games can’t speak to people outside of who they represent. Most games about personal experiences, even if they’re coming from an author’s very specific background, are going to resonate with others. For instance, social liminality — not quite fitting into any one category — isn’t an experience that’s limited to genderqueer people. And even games that are quite clearly about one particular experience, like starting on hormone replacement therapy, are going to be of value to people who will never experience those things.
My primary goal as an artist is to reach out to others like me, not to educate people on what my life is like. But that said, and as I’ve written about on Nightmare Mode, I think personal games can be useful in getting people to think outside the details of their lives.
P: What would you say about the community of game-makers who are making the type of games we could never find in mainstream titles? It sounds like you think they are very supportive, but is there anything you have as a gripe or see as a point of tension there? I’m thinking mainly about Robert Yang’s recent piece, which invoked a lot of reaction.
M: The community of creators I’ve stumbled up has been unfailingly supportive and open. anna, Porpentine, and others are very invested in making it easier for anyone to create a game — that should be obvious from the effort they’ve gone to to produce resources and articles to assist people looking to get started. But I’ve also seen them go out of their way to answer questions, offer encouragement, and publicize people’s work on Twitter. This kind of community is utterly essential, especially for people like me who are coming to game making with no real experience.
I read Robert Yang’s piece on the 2013 queer feminist agenda for games and I thought it was, like pretty much everything I read by him, spot on. That said, I think it’s speaking to a different community of game makers. Most of the people I know aren’t in the industry, nor do they want to be. And I don’t think anyone could play a game by Porpentine, for instance, and accuse her of depoliticizing sexuality or presenting a “clean” image of queerness for straight consumption.
One point Robert made that I have been thinking about is on the idea of the queer game, where he proposes reappropriating “straight” genres like RTSs, FPSs, etc. I think we’ve seen some of that, but these games usually require a lot more knowledge, work, and time than text-based and narrative-heavy 2D games. I’m not sure what the solution is here — the cost of entry to these kinds of projects is still quite high for people without training in programming, but I’d like to explore those possibilities more in the future.