Making games is easy. Belonging is hard. #1ReasonToBe

GDC 2014, the most overwhelming GDC I have ever experienced, has come and gone. I saw many friends, too numerous to list, and met even more amazing people. At the IGF Awards, Dominique Pamplemousse lost to Papers, Please, DEVICE 6, and Luxuria Superbia, and I feel quite all right with that, because they are all very worthy games and I’m more than flattered to even be in their company. Later that night, I crashed the Wild Rumpus party with my one-euphonium guerilla marching band.

But the most significant — and most nerve-wracking — thing I did, by far, was stand alongside a group of some of the most awe-inspiring women in games and give my #1ReasonToBe talk. It received a standing ovation and more people than I can count came up to me afterwards and told me that they related to it, and that it moved them to tears. I am beyond humbled. I’ve spent so much of my time in games feeling like the odd one out that I’m still trying to process what it means to call that into question.

Below is the full text of the talk I gave. (UPDATE: there is now also video; I come in at the end.)

Making games is easy. Belonging is hard.

My game, Dominique Pamplemousse in “It’s All Over Once The Fat Lady Sings!” was nominated for four IGF awards. I didn’t actually win anything, but instead of being disappointed like a normal person would be, I felt relieved.

Who feels relieved to lose? I mean, seriously.

The thing is, being recognised for awards like the IGF means being seen. And being seen, when you’re a person who looks like me, is a double-edged sword. The more attention and notoriety I get, the more I start wondering when all the 4Chan trolls are going to come out and get me. Like they’ve done to, oh, pretty much every single person I like and respect in games.

I’ve already started to see them pop up on Steam. I know they’re just trolls, and I’m just supposed to ignore them. But honestly? I’m terrified.

Maybe it’s better to be invisible. I know invisible. I can live with invisible.

My name is Deirdra Kiai. It was given to me by my parents, and I like it because no one else has it. It’s memorable. It’s a name that makes you stop and go, wait, how do you spell that? It’s a product of the great big mix of cultures in which I was brought up. It’s a name that says so much about who I am and where I come from.

My friends, however, call me Squinky. I firmly believe that everyone should have the opportunity to pick a name of their own choosing, and I found Squinky when I played The Secret of Monkey Island as an impressionable preteen. Somehow, it just fit. It’s cute. It’s gender-neutral. And being born with a name like Deirdra Kiai is, in many ways, a lot like being named Guybrush Threepwood.

It’s also worth mentioning that Monkey Island was the game that first made me understand the potential of games as a way to tell stories. While I’d already been making art on computers ever since discovering MS Paint at age three, it was after playing Monkey Island that I was like, yes, this is the thing I want to be doing with my life.

And that’s exactly what I’ve done. I released my first completed game in high school. I got an industry job right out of undergrad working on a game with Ron Gilbert, the guy who created Monkey Island. If anyone was a great fit for the game industry, it was me.

Except, the truth is, I wasn’t. I’m not. I don’t think I ever will be.

Making games is easy. Belonging is hard.

Okay, if you’ve ever made a game before, you know it isn’t really easy. But compare that to not fitting in, not being one of the guys, AND not being one of the gals either… well, I could make a million games with the energy that trying to belong takes out of me.

I hate how people who aren’t straight white cisgender men are treated in the game industry. I hate that so many women can’t come to a professional event without getting hit on by some creepy dude… and I hate that it never, ever happens to me. I mean, who even thinks this? Shouldn’t I feel happy that I’m not getting hit on? No, I feel like shit. I start to wonder, what’s wrong with me? I clearly don’t look manly or bearded or stubbly enough, so I don’t get to be treated like a real human, but I’m also not hot enough for any of their creepy attention. I’m like invisible or something.

And it’s not just true of me; it’s true of all manner of us who don’t fit a certain young, thin, white, femme, able-bodied heteropatriarchal beauty standard.

The double bind of, if you’re hot enough, you get to have your hard-earned accomplishments diminished, and if you’re not hot enough… well, you’re defective. Disgusting. Completely irrelevant. Heads, they win, tails, you lose.

Making games is easy. Belonging is hard.

I’ve always had the sense that people can’t quite place me. I make people uncomfortable because I don’t fit neatly into a demographic. Marketing departments don’t just completely ignore me, they don’t even believe I exist.

Like any other media, games were never meant for people like me. They were always someone else’s story. And because of that, all I worked on were other people’s stories, too. I couldn’t make games about myself because I didn’t even know who I was. How could I? I never saw myself represented anywhere, so how could I even see myself at all?

Making games is easy. Belonging is hard.

I learned to push and shove my way in, because I was afraid that if I didn’t, I would disappear. I became one of those outspoken angry feminists everyone loves to hate, daring to say out loud all the things everyone else was silent about, because they didn’t want to burn any professional bridges. The one they always privately claimed they agreed with, except, you know, we still want to be marketable to gamers.

I became their scapegoat. I was willing. I was young, foolish, and had nothing to lose.

I didn’t last in the industry very long, as you can probably imagine. I was pushed over to the margins, where I quietly worked alone on my own projects, desperately struggling to find my voice.

They could exclude me all they wanted, but they couldn’t stop me from making games.

When I was 25, I started playing a browser-based RPG called Echo Bazaar, which has since been renamed to Fallen London. As I created my character, I discovered that, along with the standard “man” and “woman” options, I could also choose to be a “person of mysterious and indistinct gender”.

When I realised that choosing that third option felt more right than anything, that I didn’t have to be a defective woman or a defective man but just myself… something inside me just unlocked. Slowly but surely, I started to dress and present differently, so that when I looked in the mirror, I started to see someone who looked more like how I felt.

I started to embrace the use of singular they. Who cares if it’s grammatically incorrect?

And all these feelings that were bubbling up got poured into a game of my own, a game in which I vented my frustrations with binary categories, my desire to be seen as a person, not a stereotype… and that game later went on to be nominated for four IGF awards.

And now I’m here.

But the truth is, I don’t think anyone can fully be described by a gender or a race or a sexuality or any other limiting category. I think there are as many target audiences as there are people.

One day, I want to see a game industry that understands this. I want to see a game industry that tells its young and up-and-coming developers that their stories are valuable, that their unique creative voices are worth cultivating. I want to see a game industry where people are still making games when they’re old. I want it to be okay to make things that are authentic and true and weird. No — not just okay, but important.

I’ve been able to do these things, but only in spite of the industry’s social pressure not to. Imagine what I could have done if I’d been encouraged instead of ignored. Imagine how many other brilliant, talented people could be making weird, wonderful games along with me.

Last year, I was at Anna Anthropy’s reading of Cara Ellison’s poem, Romero’s Wives, at the rant panel, and suddenly, I started crying. Not just tearing up, but full on bawling. I’d realised at that moment that things are, in fact, starting to change. There are so many of you here, right now — artists, critics, academics — who stand for the things I stand for. It’s like I was waiting for you all this time, and now you’ve arrived. Now we’ve arrived.

Belonging is hard. But maybe it doesn’t have to be.

Thank you.

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