A few weeks ago, I had my first solo gallery exhibition of my games at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont. It went from October 26 – November 16, and the works featured were Dominique Pamplemousse, Coffee: A Misunderstanding, Interruption Junction, Tentacles Growing Everywhere, Quing’s Quest, Conversations We Have In My Head, and Fitzwilliam Darcy’s Dance Challenge.
Here is the full text of a talk I performed at the IndieCade festival today, as part of the “Why ___ Matters” panel. Accompanying melancholy music is here.
I don’t think I would have ever made a game if I didn’t know there were going to be people out there who wanted to play it.
I mean, sure, when you talk about why you make games, you’re supposed to say it’s because you intrinsically love the process of making games. Which I do, honestly, and I have for the last 15 years or so. But the existence of a community of people wanting to play what I made was the thing that pushed me from just tinkering around to actually finishing a game.
As is true of any other artform, game-making is fundamentally communicative. When you make a game, you need players. Sometimes, these players are other game-makers; other times, just regular people who stumbled upon your work somewhere, but either way, your game doesn’t truly come to life unless and until someone else interacts with it.
My game-making practice is, to this day, heavily informed by every review, blog post, forum post, and tweet written about my work — the very proof that what I’ve created doesn’t exist in a vacuum and people have, in fact, played it and had an emotional reaction to it.
This is especially important since most of the games I make are things I work on by myself. I spend all these weeks, months, and sometimes years on a project, practically isolated from the outside, so those moments when I can show what I’ve done to the world become even more necessary.
I am changing the name I go by publicly to Dietrich Squinkifer.
(You may, of course, still call me Squinky, and in fact, I encourage you to do so.)
Since coming out as genderqueer, I’ve had a complicated relationship with my name and the gendered expectations that came with it — in retrospect, I don’t remember a time when the name I was given ever felt like my own, even though there were many things I did like about it. Squinky is a name I chose when I was thirteen and have always loved, and yet, going by a mononym in a society where most people have a first and last name is, I’m finding, more unwieldy than I’m willing to deal with.
Hence, Squinky is now short for Squinkifer. And Dietrich is a permutation of my given name that someone once called me by mistake and I happened to wind up preferring it to the original.
All my past work credited as Deirdra Kiai or Deirdra “Squinky” Kiai will remain so, because as a rule, I don’t make significant changes to projects after they are publicly released. I see them as time capsules of who I was at the time I created them, even if I am a somewhat different person now. However, when referring to past works of mine in the present day, I would appreciate if you honoured my name change by using notation such as “Dietrich Squinkifer (writing as Deirdra Kiai)”.
And of course, my pronouns, as always, are they/them.
I made a Let’s Play video, like all the Kids These Days™ are doing! The subject of said video, in an exciting turn of events, is a game of my own that I made when I was sixteen. So, it’s kind of like a Let’s Play version of Throwback Thursday, except I’m either too late or too early for Thursday. Oh well.
Anyway. Cubert Badbone, P.I. was, much like its later and way more popular successor Dominique Pamplemousse, a sillier, floofier version of a noir detective story, and it was interesting to play this game again for the first time in many years, while documenting the process. Some general insights I noticed were as follows:
Last week was my seventh year attending the annual Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco.2 I’ve been around long enough to notice that a lot of things have changed since then, to the point that this year, it felt like there were actually two conferences happening. There was the one where people were apparently really excited about VR, to which I didn’t really pay all that much attention. And then there was the one about the real world we live in, in which that-gate-that-shan’t-be-named and those complicit have been, and still are, destroying our community, and what do we do now?
As game makers, we think in systems, and the problem many of us are trying to solve right now is, how do we fix this so that we can go back to happily making games without fear of harassment? But there’s no easy solution, and in fact, there are even deeper problems. Marginalised gamedevs have being harassed and ostracised since way before 2014, not just from the outside, but from the inside, too. Even those of us who are ideologically similar in that we want game-making and game-playing to be accessible to everyone can be horrifyingly quick to turn on one another over the most trivial of slights. We talk a big game about inclusivity, but as soon as we feel included, very few of us actively continue to lend a hand to those still trapped in the margins.
I’ve had, by all accounts, a very successful year.
2014 began with me discovering that Dominique Pamplemousse was nominated for four IGF awards. It continued with me being invited to speak at games events all over the US and Canada, as well as running several inspiring sessions of Coffee: A Misunderstanding, including at IndieCade, wherein it was a finalist. To top it off, for the time being, I’m financially comfortable and surrounded by people, both in person and online, who believe in me and the work I’m doing — who believe I’m going to continue to go on to do great things in the future.
2014 was also the year that the continued harassment of women, minorities, and queer people in games reached a fever pitch. Friends and professional acquaintances — people with whom I’ve shared dinners, drinks, and great conversations — have been driven out of their homes through sustained death threats and worse. Others have become silenced online lest they suffer a similar fate. Meanwhile, corporations continue to profit off of hegemonic masculinity and white supremacy while marginalized artists struggle to subsist at poverty levels.
People tell me to show gratitude for what I have and the opportunities I’ve been given. I AM grateful. I’m living the kind of life I could have only dreamed of in my younger years. But I refuse to be complacent. My community is being destroyed, and if I don’t have a community, how can success even mean anything?
It’s seductive to believe, when you’re the odd one out in a field dominated by pale males, that you got there because you’re special. That you did something particularly excellent to deserve your place, as opposed to all those other uppity minorities who just complain all the time. What they don’t tell you is that once you start questioning the systemic reasons why there aren’t more people like you around, once you start noticing all those microaggressions that constantly remind you that you’re “other”, they drop you because you’re no longer useful to them as an inspirational minority. An inspirational minority who got to where they are against all odds, but hey, they made it, so nothing needs to change and everything is fine.
I refuse to be anyone’s inspirational minority. I want to help create a better world that allows for more ways of being, and I can’t do it alone, so I’m going to continue advocating for all of us to be treated like people. I know it’s not a comfortable thing for people to hear, but I don’t know what else to say.
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.)
“Impostor Syndrome” is a short interactive story I wrote in which you play a woman of colour speaking at a tech conference. It wasn’t hard to program and design, but it’s one of the most difficult things I have ever written. And I’m so proud that I wrote it.
The story came to me in the spring of 2013, shortly after GDC and shortly before I publicly released Dominique Pamplemousse. I’d been profoundly affected by progressive things I’d seen at GDC — the #1reasonwhy panel, the Lost Levels unconference, Anna Anthropy’s powerful reading of “Romero’s Wives”. I was struck by a sense of awe that I wasn’t alone in being an outspoken feminist in the videogame industry.
I’d felt alone for quite some time, gaining a reputation in my pale male-dominated career for not just being neither pale nor male, but also not shutting up about it. Especially since I knew comparatively few people in my local community who really cared about both videogames and social justice. I mostly turned to internet communities to find solidarity. Somehow, seeing my people encroach upon GDC was powerful for me. Like I’d been waiting, and they’d finally arrived.
Yet again, that enormous annual conference for all the game developers in the galaxy is soon upon us. You know the one. I will, of course, be there, volunteering and also demoing Dominique Pamplemousse.
Anyway, here’s a thing I’ve noticed in the several years I’ve been a GDC attendee. When it comes to what a lot of people on the internet think of as the best parts of GDC — namely, ZOMG NETWORKING! and PARTIES! — I often feel at odds. I’m an introvert, which means that while I don’t necessarily hate being outgoing and sociable per se,3 I generally find most kinds of social activities to be draining, to the point of needing to rest and recover afterwards. Apparently, I’m not alone. So, here’s my list of ways in which I, personally, try to get the most out of GDC. Your own mileage, as they say, may vary. But if you’re the kind of person whose reaction to spending a week in close proximity to tens of thousands of people is more “eep!” than “yay!” then maybe some of these tips will help.