Freeplay 2021 keynote: a letter to 20-year-old Squinky

Last week, I gave the opening keynote for the Freeplay Independent Games Festival. Here is the video, and below that is a transcript:

Dear 20-year-old Squinky,

I’m not entirely sure how best to explain this, but I am your 35-year-old self, writing to you from the year 2021. I’m also very aware that because of the limits of a human being’s perception of time, there is no possible way to communicate with you in a way that you can coherently understand. Nevertheless, I have a lot I want to say to you, and I hope that what I have to say reaches you somehow, even if it’s just in the form of amorphous feelings buried deep in your subconscious.

From your perspective, it is the year 2006, and you are working at your first job in the videogame industry: an internship at Telltale Games. I know that this is the big break you’d been hoping for ever since you first learned it was possible to have a career making videogames, and I want you to know I’m proud of you for making it here. The rest of this year is going to be an amazing time where you will learn so much, not just about making games, but about being alive and existing in the world. You are, after all, not just working your first real job in videogames, you’re also living independently from your parents for the first time ever. There are things you finally get to start figuring out about yourself now that you have the space and distance to do so, and though all the pieces won’t quite click together for another several years, you’re beginning to get more of a sense of what actually feels good and right to you, rather than what people all your life have told you you should be feeling.

By the way, you may be wondering why I’m calling you Squinky and not your “real” name. This is a very deliberate choice on my part: even if you aren’t consciously aware of it yet, I know that your birth name has always made you feel a bit… off, for lack of a better term. You have tried to force yourself to embrace it, and will for a time continue to do so, but it will never feel right and it will never feel like yours. I also know that ever since you started using Squinky as your internet pseudonym when you were 13, this silly nonsense name that was a throwaway line in The Secret of Monkey Island, it’s brought you this undescribable joy that may not make sense to anyone else, but is still very important in your understanding of yourself. One day, you will finally figure out that your name, like many other things about you, is something you’re allowed to change if and when you want to.

So, why am I writing to you? Well, here in the year 2021, I’ve been asked to give the opening keynote for the Freeplay Independent Games Festival in Melbourne, Australia. Sadly, I don’t get to actually be in Australia right now, and as of 2021, still have never been there, though I hope that will change someday. Instead, I’ll be speaking from a video call from my current home in Montreal, a city you haven’t yet visited but will in about 8 years, and you’ll have so much fun you won’t ever want to leave. Also, video calls are a thing now, because it’s The Future. No flying cars, though, which is probably for the best.

Anyway, the Freeplay people told me I could talk about whatever I wanted for this keynote, which feels like it should be easier than it actually is. They’ve definitely given me more than enough time to think about what I want to talk about, but of course, I’ve been procrastinating – a familiar habit you never quite figure out how to overcome, no matter how hard you try – and it’s getting dangerously close to the deadline. The truth is, I’m not sure what I can possibly say right now that’s important enough for a keynote.

For a little bit of context, since there’s no possible way you can know this yet: do you remember SARS from a few years ago? Well, at the very end of 2019, it got a sequel. And it was really bad. Like, I don’t mean direct-to-video “Return of Jafar” bad, I mean so bad it became a pandemic. For most of 2020 and a good portion of 2021, basically all of life as we knew it got cancelled. Everyone all over the world had to stay home and limit in-person contact with other people lest we allow the virus to spread exponentially and cause more needless death. Maybe you’re hearing this and thinking, oh, that sounds easy, staying in and playing videogames and only talking to people online sounds wonderful! But as we soon found out, those things are only as wonderful as they are when you also get to go out and do things and experience the world outside of the confines of a screen, and being trapped at home gets boring and depressing very quickly. Especially when you factor in the whole thing with people dying.

So the world’s gone through this very traumatic event, and we’re not even completely out of it yet, and how can anyone think about videogames at a time like this? But then I thought about you, and all your excitement and energy and hope, and I remember what it felt like to know that you’re doing exactly the thing you’re meant to be doing with your life, and even getting paid to do it. I’m not gonna lie, I miss that feeling a lot. But I can’t go back to it – not in the same way, at least. I’m older now, and I’ve seen too much behind the metaphorical curtain. But I see glimpses of you in some of the young people I see getting started in games today, so I figured, maybe some of what I want to tell you will also be useful to them, and whoever else happens to be listening. I mean, I hope so, because it’s not like I have any better keynote ideas.

I’m going to tell you right now that among many other things, your career as a game designer isn’t going to go quite like you’d planned. I know how meticulously you’ve been researching how to make it in games in hopes of becoming some kind of auteur figure like Tim Schafer: you started learning early, as a teenager, and released a game when you were 16, and now you’re doing this internship while in the middle of finishing your computer science degree. You probably still have it in your head that you’ll work your way up into leadership positions and start your own company someday. It makes sense that you believe this about yourself: your particular combination of skills, interests, and class privilege meant that you were labelled a “gifted” child, who could go on to do anything they wanted in life.

Instead, what will actually happen is that you will work maybe a couple more game industry jobs and start to feel disillusioned, undervalued, and exploited. You will then shift your focus back to making games on your own, by yourself, while supporting yourself through other jobs and freelance work. At some point in your mid-twenties, the stars will align and a game you make will get nominated for a few important indie game awards. It will not win any of them, but people will still be really impressed. You will go back to school and get a master’s degree, then you will attempt a PhD but quit once you’ve done everything but the dissertation. Turns out everything that made you feel disillusioned, undervalued, and exploited in industry also exists in academia. Fancy that!

All that being said, I don’t mean to discourage you from pursuing your goals. It’s not like I even can: you’ve always been very strong-willed and determined, almost to the point of obsession. It gets you to try things most people won’t even think of attempting, to the point that even if you fail to accomplish what you set out to do, it’ll still lead you to interesting places. And it gives you a reason to keep going and continue existing, even when everything else feels hopeless and wrong.

See, I know there’s a deep, dark loneliness inside of you, and that it’s been there for almost as long as you’ve been able to form memories. Compared to most people, it’s been harder for you to make and keep friends, or understand why people behave the way that they do. You try your best to be a good person, but you often make them annoyed or upset without intending to. There are times when, out of nowhere, you feel an uncontrollable urge to cry, scream, and sometimes become violent: people have always said it’s because you’re immature and seeking attention, even though you don’t do it on purpose and attention is the last thing you want. As you’ve grown older, you’ve been learning to structure your life in such a way that you’re less likely to lose control, but the feeling remains that deep down inside, there’s something horribly wrong with you.

I know you’ll spend the next 15 years looking for answers as to why you are the way that you are, and while I wish I could just give you the cheat codes I’ve managed to find so far, it’s not like you’d be able to absorb the information without actually experiencing it in real time, and besides, maybe some even older version of me is about to pop in and tell us we’re both wrong. But just in case it helps, here’s what you do figure out:

One of the biggest reasons you’re so drawn to designing and programming games is because thinking about the world in terms of systems and processes comes naturally to you. You particularly like games with a heavy emphasis on narrative, storytelling, and conversation because it’s your way of trying to reverse-engineer and make sense of human interactions. While the extent to which this approach in understanding human behaviour succeeds in a general sense is debatable, one thing it will do is put you in contact with a higher percentage of people who share your interests and think similarly to you. This is important, because often times, the way we understand who we are is to see ourselves reflected in others.

Your interest in systems, coupled with your deep-seated feelings of loneliness, will lead to you learning all you can about power, oppression, injustice, and privilege. Slowly over the course of many years, you will transform from someone who fancies themself apathetically apolitical to a full-blown leftist. This will make you very unpopular with some people, especially those with a lot of status and money, but it’s not like you would have ever been happy in that kind of a social environment, anyway. You will come to learn that the word “respect” has two meanings: the respect you naturally show towards every human being as an equal, and the respect a superior demands of you because you are inferior. Fortunately, your near-complete inability to effectively perform the latter will make it easier to find those who appreciate the former.

You’ll become a feminist because you feel a deep discomfort with the many social expectations that come with being assigned female at birth. You’ll think the reason you feel this way is solely because women are oppressed under the patriarchy, but then you’ll discover that your feelings of discomfort run a lot deeper than that. You’ll begin to come across words like “genderqueer” and “nonbinary” and finally, it will start to make a lot more sense. See, right now, you already know a little bit about transgender people, but you still have it in your head that you can’t possibly be one, because you didn’t behave like a stereotypical boy growing up any more than you behaved like a stereotypical girl. I wish you could have known sooner that there were more options than just those two, but I guess society had to take its sweet time catching up first. It certainly didn’t help that the AIDS crisis deprived you of an entire generation of people who could have been your mentors in this regard.

Once you hit your thirties, you will finally have access to surgery and hormones, things you didn’t know you needed for a long time because trans healthcare was full of a lot more gatekeeping back then. I know that since you started puberty the first time, you’ve had this feeling like part of you is still stuck at about 12 years old, that even as you live longer than that, you’re not really getting older, just gaining more experience. When you medically transition, that feeling will go away and you’ll actually be able to imagine yourself as an adult, growing older, looking the way you’ve always wanted but were made to be too ashamed to admit to yourself.

In parallel to this process, you’ll also begin to figure out that you’re autistic. When you first learn about what, in your time, is probably still called “Asperger’s Syndrome”, you’ll both recognize and constantly second-guess yourself. For a while, you’ll continue to believe that it’s somehow wrong to label yourself with something that is widely believed to be a “disorder”, as though naming it somehow means making excuses for yourself to behave badly. Part of you still thinks that all you need to do is try harder, that it’s something you just need to overcome. But later on, you figure out the opposite: it turns out that when you understand that you have atypical sensory needs and are able to meet them as best as you can, interacting with other people and existing in the world actually becomes a lot easier. Who’d have thought?

You’ll eventually start to let go of this idea in your head that you’re meant to be some kind of creative game-making genius, because you’ll learn that your inherent worth as a human being isn’t contingent on how productive you are, how many people buy or play the games you work on, or how many awards they get nominated for. Sure, you’ll push yourself very hard throughout the rest of your twenties, but then you’ll hit your limits and burn out, and it’ll happen more than once. It’ll be hard, but you’ll still come out alive at the end of it. You’ll understand that you need rest just like everyone else, and that other people aren’t lazy or stupid for not accomplishing as much as you have. In fact, laziness and stupidity aren’t even real concepts so much as post-hoc justifications for perpetuating systemic inequality.

You will come to learn that the struggles you’ll have at the various jobs you’ll hold, and fail to hold, aren’t just limited to those particular workplaces, but are a consequence of neoliberal capitalism, a paradigm that took hold just before you were born but has become so ubiquitous that it feels like human nature. The effects of this ideology haven’t yet played out to their fullest, and you’ve been sheltered from a lot of them so far, but the first thing you will notice is that the year you graduate from university, there will be an economic recession that will cause your generation to be the first in a long time to be worse off than your parents. From there on, the gap between the rich and the poor will only get wider and wider, and you’ll notice that often times, putting up with abusive, power-tripping bosses is the price you have to pay to make anything near a living wage. And that, of course, becomes harder the less “normal” you are, so you can probably guess how well that goes for you.

You’ll also begin to understand the extent to which white supremacy influences your worldview, and how much that has hurt you. Given that you’re not white yourself, you’ll believe you can’t possibly be racist, but then you’ll understand that your upper middle class upbringing hinged on assimilating into whiteness as much as possible. You’ll stop believing that you’re inherently superior to those “fresh off the boat” immigrants who haven’t been able to assimilate like you have, let alone the Black and Indigenous people who have experienced the worst traumas of settler-colonialism. You’ll stop believing in things like individualism, and the idea that the best way to know things is through rational debate, and you’ll also stop being a grammar prescriptivist – thank goodness, because a lot of people found that very annoying. Also, all the “ironic” and “edgy” racist jokes saturating the media and the internet in your time? They’re going to stop being funny real quickly once people start realizing that for a shocking number of people, they aren’t just jokes.

You’ll put everything you learn about yourself and the world you live in into the games you make, and in the same way that you learn about yourself by seeing yourself reflected in others, others will learn about themselves by seeing themselves reflected in you. You’ll realize that this is the reason why pride is so important: when you are brave enough to openly express who you are and what you desire in a society that deems those things unacceptable, you open up a much larger possibility space for people who share those feelings. And if enough of you join together in solidarity, you can change the culture around you for the better. It won’t be easy to make this change, especially when there are still many powerful people who have a lot to gain by keeping you oppressed, but at least you won’t be alone.

Also, this may come as a surprise to you, but you actually have really good social skills, and they will only get better with time. I know autistic people are stereotyped as having terrible social skills, but that’s only if you measure them against neurotypical standards. You will make a lot of friends from all over the world, because you have a knack for attracting weird oddball nerds who make sense to you in ways that most people don’t. The deep loneliness you feel in your heart may not go away entirely, but it’ll gradually start to heal.

And finally, during the pandemic year when everyone gets stuck at home, you will start your own company just like you eventually hoped you would. But you won’t be the boss or the CEO; instead, it will be a worker co-op that you share with two of your friends. From where I am, it’s still too early to tell how it’s going to go, but I have really high hopes. What I do know is that your cofounders are super talented and prolific game designers in their own right, and you will come to trust and respect them deeply. Also, the excitement you’ll feel around the awesome projects you’ll work on together won’t hurt either.

That’s about all I’ve got for now – at least as far as I’m willing to share publicly – but if there’s one piece of advice I hope actually makes it to you, it’s this: you may feel deeply lonely, but you are also capable of feeling a deep sense of joy. You’re already familiar with this feeling: you feel it when you’re working on projects you truly care about, or when you’re absorbed in learning about something that fascinates you, or when you’re around people who make you feel like you belong. When you find this feeling, savour the moment and follow it to wherever it leads. There’s so much that’s terrifying and horrible about the world – and trust me, it’s only going to get worse – so might as well take whatever joy you can find, because that’s how you will create for yourself a life worth living.

(and I know neither of us uses the word “love” lightly, so please understand how sincerely I mean it)
35-year-old Squinky