My #1ReasonToBe: My address to the Game Developers Conference

Last week I gave the following speech to the annual Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco for their #1ReasonToBe panel, which is inspired by the eponymous hashtag that celebrated the reasons women love working in games in spite of the horrors that sometimes attend the job, which I myself have been treated to over the last six months for reasons I’ve covered extensively for Feministing. 

Photo Credit: Adrian Cheater

Whether or not I’m in the gaming industry might well be a subject of some debate.

There’s a liminal space, between ‘in’ and ‘out’, that is exploited by those who would wish ill to women like myself. We are implicated in the industry, we write about it, we think about it, we even depend on its existence for our daily bread, but we are not afforded the protections that come with ‘insider’ status.

And yet, in all the ways that matter, academics and independent critics are part of this world. If we define “The Industry” as a collection of professionally engaged people united in the purpose of making and thinking-through games, then a sociologist and feminist critic like myself is of that world for better or for worse.

There were no bright lines for me separating my academic life from my gaming life, my politics from my writing and analysis. So when I first began to write about games, it was from a syncretic and feminist perspective that saw them for what they were: powerful cultural artifacts whose dimensions as a new social space we were only just beginning to understand.

My first peer-reviewed paper was about the imaginative possibilities afforded by gaming. Subtitled “Roleplaying as Resistance,” it says a lot about my academic direction and what most interests me in the world of analysis. But I also took on the less cheerful side of the virtual world. Over the past two years, I’ve become an expert in online harassment and the study of toxicity on the internet as well. The distressingly novel conclusion I’ve come to is that the internet is as much a part of the “real world” as the physical realm is. While I’m grateful for the praise my work has received, I remain slightly unnerved that this is considered an “insight.” I explain the causes of harassment in light of this, arguing that our collective belief in the internet’s unreality makes harassment inevitable.

This is my life.

I live and work online, amidst the ludic sculptures we collaboratively build there.

Then in October of last year, I was forced to make a choice. I was one of the first feminist writers to talk to audiences outside the world of gaming about GamerGate, on September 9th, about the cavalcade of organized harassment and mobbing of Zoe Quinn and a succession of feminist critics; the battles, the prejudice, the hate campaigns that I had so long written about were coming home to me and those I cared about.

People like myself: academics, and critics.

By the time I wrote this article on First Person Scholar, analysing the dangerous, revolutionary dynamics of GamerGate that situated it as an “ends justify the means” movement, I was besieged with very angry, often transphobic and racist GamerGaters who wanted me to shut up and go away. I was tempted by the yawning embrace of that oblivion; tempted to walk away from the career I’d built, tempted to do anything to make the pain stop.

So I made a choice and decided there was only one thing I could do.

Me At GDC Slide

Since October of 2014 I’ve focused more intently on gaming than ever, and not just harassment or online toxicity in spite of my academic expertise on the matter, but the nerdy minutiae that animated my two-decade-long love affair with this medium. I wrote about Alpha Centauri and quick time events, violence as a game mechanic, and even sex in gaming — this particular piece, I think, could justly be called my foray into “academic erotica.”

But in addition to a mere proliferation of my own writing, I also began to think about the critical enterprise in general, and what it would’ve meant for me to “leave” in the first place. Inspired by the recent work of independent critics like Lana Polansky and Mattie Brice, I began to realize that there was indeed a “third way” between the poles of: assimilation to the mainstream gaming press and simply giving up entirely.

Crowdfunding provides us with the tools we need to support individual critics engaged in personal projects; both Polansky and Brice’s work is crowdfunded, so is Cara Ellison’s startlingly original “embedded criticism” project that sees her spend weeks or months with a developer and writing about the unique experience. Those who bridge the gap between developer and critic, like Merritt Kopas, also thrive in this world, where a game can be criticism and criticism can be a game.

You could also include in this prodigious list Zolani Stewart’s critical work at The Arcade ReviewZoya Street’s brilliant Memory Insufficient, Aevee Bee’s insightful web magazine ZEAL, or, not to toot my own horn here but, the kind of writing about games I’ve done for outlets like Bitch Magazine, putting gaming crit and study before new audiences and speaking to them in the multiplicity of tongues that prevail outside our sometimes narrow milieux in gaming.

They are all my “reasons to be.”

What the last six months have made clear to me is that we need more of that third way, more criticism that is not beholden to the larger institutions of our notoriously insular and stage-managed industry.

Proliferation, rather than isolation. Diversity, athwart a monoculture. That is the promise of independent, tough-minded, and fearless games criticism.

We may have endless debates about ludology versus narratology, or what the hell “formalism” actually means, along with other forms of academic deck-chair-rearrangement, but the ineluctable truth is that irrespective of all that, we can take comfort in the fact that this work matters. And it’s getting better. Mainstream publications are growing up and away from mainstays like review scores, Kotaku has made new commitments to writing about game cultures post launch and so on.

I study games because they matter, because gamers matter, because the work of women, both white and of color, cisgender and trans, of queer and genderqueer people, matters and has been making this industry go, that built the bridge from childhood love to adult career and passion. It’s an inexhaustible flame for me.

And if you find yourself asking if these people are inside or outside, stuck in the same limbo I alluded to at the start of this talk, then that is all the more reason you should support them and their work. For it is there, on the far flung edges of our industry that change is being made, that the promise of gaming is being realized again and again.

For all the hell me and my loved ones have been put through over the last six months, I am here to stay and there is nowhere else I’d rather be.

(Photo at top: veteran game developer Brenda Romero speaking at the podium; from left to right, AAA developer Amy Hennig, indie developer Adriel Wallick, Microsoft’s Sela Davis, and yours truly. Photo Credit: Adrian Cheater.)

Katherine Cross is sociologist and Ph.D student at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City specialising in research on online harassment and gender in virtual worlds. She is also a sometime video game critic and freelance writer, in addition to being active in the reproductive justice movement. She loves opera and pizza.

Sociologist and Unofficial Nerd Correspondent.

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