8 September 2014


My new site is over at http://mitchalexander.wikidot.com, because wikis are groovy!

See you there!

28 May 2014

[GayGamer.Net] It's Hard Being Tomodachi With Corporations

Recently, an uproar tore out across the internets when Nintendo decided not to include same-sex relationships in their life-sim game Tomodachi Life; people were incensed, Nintendo issued a fairly standard apology, people were mildly more optimistic but also still kind of sore. In response, there have been questions, confusions and concerns from folk criticising the backlash against Nintendo, for various reasons.

Many have echoed Nintendo’s sentiment of “social commentary” by claiming that games are “just games”, they’re escapist fantasies, they’re entertainment, and as such, they shouldn’t serve any “political agenda”. But games are not just “escapism”, they’re not just frivolous forays into time-wasting in between reading “Ulysses” or “Animal Farm”, they’re not “just” anything – there’s an entire side to the games industry called serious games! Games, like any medium, like any artform, like any kind of entertainment – both reflect the culture that created it and influences that society’s perspective. As Anna at BorderHouseBlog notes, choosing to abstain from “social commentary” on an issue IS social commentary — any action in a politically-muddied situation is political action. Similarly, Nintendo’s initial decision not to include same-sex relationships – and their subsequent decision not to – did not happen in a vacuum. They happened in an industry already hesitant about, if not inimical to, LGBTQ representation, in a culture where LGBTQ people are already marginalised, poorly represented and discriminated against.

(You can read the rest of this article over at GayGamer.net! >>)

20 May 2014

[GayGamer.net] Queer Mechanic #6: Relationships

Queer Mechanic is a regular feature over on GayGamer – each month, we’ll be presenting a new game mechanic that could be used in games that include or focus on queer identity or culture. Queer Mechanic is a thought experiment, to see both what we could add to games, and to recognise what’s been missing from them; it’s a challenge, both to readers, to come up with novel, interesting and effective ways to use them, and to developers, to include them in games; and it’s a discussion for a more inclusive, more varied, and more innovative future for the games industry.

Relationship mechanics have become enormously popular in recent years, to the extent that it”s not uncommon to see forum threads of speculation about whether certain characters in games can be “romanced”, guides for the optimal way to romantically engage with Love Interests (LIs), or discussing the difficulties inherent in romance options in games. The creation of engaging and interesting romance options and mechanics is something that’s vital, timely, and, most importantly, wanted.

Nonetheless, implementing romance options isn’t as easy as just rubbing one character on another until hearts pop out (…figuratively speaking). For example, the complexity of the sexual politics involved in Dragon Age: Origins alone is staggering, before we even get to what Denis Farr refers to as the “Schroedinger’s Sexuality” of Dragon Age II and the fact that some players had reservations about how the in-game Love Interests were portrayed as “playersexual” rather than bisexual – that is, there is little-to-no reference to their sexual orientation except in the case of when the player-character puts the moves on them. And, in those instances when romance mechanics go wrong, they can goreally wrong: case in point, Gaygamer’s Trevor Smith’s discussion of the abject horror of badly-implemented romance mechanics resulting in a deeply creepy ‘romance’ scene.

So, it’s important that we have interesting and engaging relationship options – but it’s also important that these options don’t undermine themselves by cutting corners, which can lead to perpetuating tired stereotypes without commentary, creating one-size-fits-all mechanisms that take away nuance and context, and sending out mixed messages.

Unfortunately, the games industry has done all three of these things repeatedly over the years, to the point that whenever games include relationships or romance options that aren’t your regular cis-heteronormative man-kisses-woman-and-they-marry fare, they tend to be cliché, crude, or conflicted. And that’s if they include them in the first place.

But in this month’s Queer Mechanic, we’re not talking about “the gay romance option”. We’re talking about romance options, plural – using game mechanics to explore how we could model and represent alternative relationship structures like polyamory, open relationships, D/s relationships and more, and the possibilities and difficulties these bring with them.

8 March 2014

[GayGamer.net] Queer Mechanic #5: Queering the Male Gaze

Queer Mechanic is a regular feature over on GayGamer – each month, we’ll be presenting a new game mechanic that could be used in games that include or focus on queer identity or culture. Queer Mechanic is a thought experiment, to see both what we could add to games, and to recognise what’s been missing from them; it’s a challenge, both to readers, to come up with novel, interesting and effective ways to use them, and to developers, to include them in games; and it’s a discussion for a more inclusive, more varied, and more innovative future for the games industry.

The concept of male gaze as we know it now was formulated by Laura Mulver in her 1975 essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, and has since been diffused throughout the fields of media critique and analysis, in particular that of film.

Finally Feminism 101 has an excellent FAQ on the male gaze over here, which is well-worth reading so that most of what follows makes sense, but, in summary: the male gaze is the name given to the idea that scenes in media are often constructed from the perspective of an assumed straight-male viewer and his (often, but not always, sexual) interests.

We’ve probably all seen movies where a female character takes a shower, and the camera takes its time to hover over her body, lingering at her hips, her ass, her breasts, perhaps a close-up of her lips, half-opened, or her eyes, closed as though in pleasure.

Boom. That’s male gaze. The camera “stands in” for the straight male audience, watching the woman in a way that would probably seem jarring and unusual were it to be done to a male character. Not because male characters aren’t nice to look at – but because we’re so used to seeing only women framed as sexual characters (or objects).

Male gaze is an interesting topic to discuss in the medium of games, because video games in particular have borrowed a number of techniques, concepts and vocabulary from film that make it ripe for exploration – the most obvious of these are Quantic Dream’s games Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy, Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls, but really, any game with characters moving around a scene and followed by a camera will inevitably borrow filmic techniques. And, as the concept of “male gaze” has similarly been applied to other non-film media, so to can we discuss the theory with regards to concepts unique to (or most prevalent in) games.

For this month’s Queer Mechanic, we’re going to take a look at ways of toying with, subverting, destabilising and queering the concept of the straight male gaze. So let’s jump right in!

(Click here to read the rest of the article in its entirety over at GayGamer.net!)

11 February 2014

Ϣ γ ϲ Ϧ ϵ ɭ ɱ

WYCH ELM is a new computer game I am working on.
It will be accompanied by SIGILS and MAGICKAL RITUALS and MEDITATIONS as part of the wider "WYCH ELM GAME PROJECT".
It will arrive SOON. In the meantime, you can follow WYCH-ELM-GAME on TUMBLR and the WYCH ELM page on FACEBOOK for NEWS and DEVELOPMENT EPHEMERA.
All of WYCH ELM's art assets are sourced directly from PUBLIC DOMAIN IMAGES from the LIBRARIUM BRITANNICA.

16 January 2014

[GayGamer.Net] Queer Mechanic #4: Transition

Queer Mechanic is a regular feature over on GayGamer – each month, we’ll be presenting a new game mechanic that could be used in games that include or focus on queer identity or culture. Queer Mechanic is a thought experiment, to see both what we could add to games, and to recognise what’s been missing from them; it’s a challenge, both to readers, to come up with novel, interesting and effective ways to use them, and to developers, to include them in games; and it’s a discussion for a more inclusive, more varied, and more innovative future for the games industry.

Trans people are rarely represented in games, and when they are, the representation is rarely very positive; given that the vast majority of games fall over this first set of hurdles, it can be hard to imagine what games with trans-ness represented and catered towards would look like.

If I could bet on someone being able to imagine these games, though, it would be Eilidh, Emily Crosbie, and Moose Hale, three trans gamers who took part in this interview to share their understanding with game developers, players, and writers looking to address the massive imbalance against trans people, issues, characters and representation in general throughout the medium of videogames.

While reading, it’s important to note that transitioning is not the be-all, end-all of trans experience, as Laverne Cox recently attested to in an interview (alongside Carmen Carrera) with Katie Couric; it’s one facet of a massive, nuanced set of topics which overlaps with queer-interest games-based discussion, and (hopefully!) one of many more to come.

Enough from me, though: let’s have Eilidh, Emily and Moose take us through Queer Mechanic #4, discussing transition and representation of trans people in videogames!

(You can read the rest of the article over at its home on GayGamer.net!)

8 January 2014

Is Painting Art?

or, “Of Course Painting Is Art, I Thought I Should Specify Because If Nothing Else, Jonathan Jones’ Opinion Pieces Show That There Really Are People Who Believe Things That Sound Like Satirical Pisstakes”, by Mitch Alexander.
Is painting art?
I’m being facetious, of course: the answer is a resounding “no”. But recently, it seems more and more people have been asking this ludicrous question, probably inspired by those asking whether or not videogames can ever be art – thankfully, Jonathan Jones has done his part (more than once!) to demonstrate how farcical the idea is to anyone with a decent classical education, and I feel it’s high time someone with an ounce of sense did the same with regards to the upswell of voices that ask that odious, tedious question: is painting art?
Again, I reiterate: no.
I’ve previously been criticised for focusing exclusively on postmodern art when it comes to painting; I for one believe that if this genre is a representation of modern minds, then it stands to reason that we should focus our critiques thereupon.
However, as if to hammer my detractors’ point home, Santa brought me a collection of paintings of various styles and methods, from Impressionist to Abstract, from Surrealist to Modern. After looking directly at them for about a minute each (as is the custom, I’m told), I feel I’ve certainly learned a great deal more about the place of painting when it comes to art (or lack thereof).
I categorically believe that there is a place for appreciation of painting in our lives – and there is certainly a place for paintings above the authentic marble fireplace, in my newly-renovated lounge room – but that does not make them art. This is demonstrable from a glance.
For example, Dutch & Flemish painters only managed to achieve realistic-looking portraits and scenes despite decades of work; paintings that were achieved, it should be said, by simply copying the appearance of a model and applying it onto a canvas without a single change! I believe, at most, painting can only really be considered “high craft” - if that.
I say “if that”, because, while the Dutch school were content to simply copy what they saw, they at least managed to hide the rough edges of their work; who in their right mind would look upon Vincent van Gogh’s piece “Starry Night”, with its blurry approximations, visible brushstrokes and unrealistic representations and crown it “art”? Probably the same kind of mind that made it, I suppose – young, angry, unwashed men, sitting in their darkened rooms, furiously painting a vase of flowers with a pastry utensil and some blobs of goo on a wooden board, surrounded by framed portraits of nude women – of which there seems to be an overwhelming amount. Hardly a lifestyle appropriate for an “artist”, I would opine.
Van Gogh is by not, however, the sole offender, nor the worst of his flock – it’s sad to say that this trend of inept, awkward spatters of paint is not just the province of the edgy, “alternative” art scene, but also is reflected in the mainstream “artists” whom we are to believe represent the best of the best. Who could look upon Jackson Pollack’s whimsical smudges and say he was extorting a profound, spiritual message? Which imbecile would equate Picasso’s slow degeneration from skillful craft down to hodge-podge abstraction with meaning? And what of the almighty waste of good paint that is “Vir Heroicus Sublimis” - how could anyone feel shaken to their spiritual core by a blown-up photograph of the napkins on the sideboard in our conservatory?
It’s difficult – nay, nigh impossible – to imagine anyone being moved by some blobs of liquid on some material. Will we be sighing at the “Impressionist” stains of Earl Grey on my cords next? Will we be swooning at the juxtaposition of rustic, earthy brown tones against the soft, ephemeral textures of the towels my wife has neatly stacked in the linen cupboard? Will I be heralded every time I dye my greys, or leave a pink sock in the wash? Will my son Hamilton be fast-tracked to art school because his “outsider art” of a picture of a zebra brought a tear to the eye of his kooky art teacher who encourages otherwise rational children that smearing mustard on fabric is evidence of skill, of craft, of art?
If the outspoken minority of people who believe painting can ever be art are ever heard by an uncritical ear, this painting of the future may not be so outlandish and obscene after all.

31 December 2013

A Top List of Five Top Five Lists of Top Things What Happened in 2013

Writing a personal Game of the Year (GOTY) or Top Ten 2013 Games post is really popular around this time of the year, where you pick a select number of games that made 2013 fantastic. I'm not going to do that, though, because
  1. everyone will already be sick of seeing Gone Home, Bioshock Infinite, The Last of Us, Saints Row IV and The Walking Dead in various configurations and combinations, and
  2. I haven't actually played any of those games, because
  3. I was dirt-poor for most of the year and couldn't afford them even if I wanted to, and
  4. I realised that this is another facet of this "it's too late to talk about games that are more than two years old" idea that the games industry encourages, which vastly limits critique and criticism of the whole medium.
So, instead of a Top Five List of Games of 2013, I'm writing A Top List of Five Top Five Lists of Top Things What Happened In 2013.

Top 5 Things I Wrote In 2013

I think 2013 was probably my busiest year yet with regards to writing. Up until April, I'd been working for SquareGo, a Scottish games review site; then, in May, I joined GayGamer.net, a queer-interest game culture site. Becoming part of the team at GayGamer feels like a massive personal victory - I'd been following the site for years, never once thinking I'd actually get to be a writer there.
  1. Fear for the Flesh: Francis Bacon's Influence on Silent Hill, a thorough breakdown about how the artist Francis Bacon was a direct inspiration for a lot of Silent Hill's art direction. The first thing I wrote for GayGamer!
  2. A Silent Hill Queer-y, looking at what Silent Hill would look like with a queer protagonist.
  3. Queer Mechanics #1: Identify As..., discussing how gender/sexual identities could be represented mechanically in games, which was the focus of my Honors year project until it had to be changed.
  4. A Review of Dear Esther, which I wrote after reading and absorbing a lot of New Games Journalism inspired pieces, and which made me realise I prefer analysing games and talking about my personal experience of them rather than writing supposedly-objective reviews about them.
  5. Easter Egg Apocrypha, examining the culture of secrets, cheats and tricks in games.
Top 5 Games I Made in 2013

I made a few more games this year than I did last year, which include:
  1. Hypnagogue, a Twine horror game where the protagonist has to escape from a labyrinthine construct that swallows up their room one night. This was my first ever Twine game, and I seriously doubt it'll be my last.
  2. The Loch: A Scottish Fishing RPG, a game where you play as Angela, a fisher at Loch Saor, who aims to catch the 18 fish required to become a seasoned pro at the Fishing Club. The Loch was initially made for the 7-Day Fishing Game Jam, but I enjoyed working on it to the point that I decided to stick with it and keep developing it for a couple more months, which I documented over here!
  3. Ava Martin VS. The Binarist Hegemony, where you play as Ava Martin, using her gravity-based superpowers to infiltrate the secure facility of the Binarist Hegemony. Ava Martin was made for the Strong Female Character Game Jam 2013, which I wrote about over here!
  4. cRUNch!, an endless-runner-style game made for a university project focusing on spreading awareness of academic stress. cRUNch! was voted 3rd in the Top Three of the Integrated Project 3 module, and was showcased as part of Caledonian Creates! 
  5. Apartmental: Okay, technically I'm cheating with this one, since I didn't finish it at all; rather, it was an idea that was finally put to rest. Apartmental was an idea I'd had for a good long while, where the player would try to escape from a labyrinth surrounding their apartment (which later got rejigged and recycled into Hypnagogue) - it was a very ambitious concept, and eventually, it really started making me feel drained. At the start of 2013, I decided to let it go, which game me back the resources (time, energy, etc) to work on the other games I made this year. I do feel disappointed that I didn't get to finish Apartmental; I can only hope one day I can go back and finish it.
Top 5 Other Game-Things I Did in 2013

I also managed to do a fair bit of other cool games stuff that wasn't development per se, both as part of and outwith my games degree at uni in 2013, including:
  1. Created and undertook a university experiment using SCP-087b to test pre-emptive terror in horror games.
  2. Created the underpinnings of a system of game mechanics to represent gender, sex and sexuality in games.
  3. Stopped writing standard game reviews.
  4. Rented a desk at Hayburn Studios in Glasgow to have a dedicated space in which to work on games in the future.
  5. Completed a module on New Venture Creation by looking into the possibility of "games art galleries".
Top 5 Other Art-Things I Did In 2013

I got up to a bunch of other art-related things during 2013, my faves being:
  1. A set of five photographs I took were included in the I Am... exhibition during this year's Glasgay! event in October, collecting together work from participants during the I AM ART project. This was the first time I'd really done photography and photomanipulation, and I think it came out really well; there was a lot of positive feedback from folk during the exhibition, and it's definitely made me consider doing more in future.
  2. During the I AM ART project, we had a workshop session about collage, during which I made this collage piece; it was the first time I'd done collage in yeeeeears, and it was a tonne of fun! It also made me think about the possibility of using collage in game mechanics and aesthetics - which I might be talking about soon...
  3. The pixel-art avatars I did for the Loch were a major success for me, simple though they might be; I'd never done much pixel art before The Loch, but it was interesting trying to work out how to animate some of the avatars to get them to work in-game.
  4. My Avatar image, which started out as a wee experiment in photoshop, turned out so well that I ended up using it all over the place during 2013!
  5. Shorn, which was a submission for the I Am Art Zine, was a follow-up to the previous image, and came from an idea that myself and some of the other participants in I Am Art had discussing (of all things) hair and hairstyles. 
Top 5 Games I Played In 2013

In all honesty, I didn't play a whole lot of games that came out in 2013 - but I found out about a bunch of games I'd never heard of before then which seriously changed my perspectives on gaming, as well as my own game development.
  1. Animal Crossing: New Leaf. In all honesty, I bought AC:NL on a whim while waiting for Pokémon X&Y to be released, based on occasional tumblr posts about how relaxing and fun it all felt. I played it religiously for a few months, and, while I've stopped playing because I feel like I've exhausted most of the activities in the game in a short space of time, I really enjoyed every minute I played it, from the bug-catching competition to fishing on the tropical island at night-time. It made me feel really nostalgic for the way I played games as a kid, spending hours in Majora's Mask watching how people in Clock Town went about their day, or getting to know the ins-and-outs of games like Final Fantasy X like the back of my hand.
  2. Space Funeral (not a 2013 title), an RPG Maker horror game by thecatamites, opened my eyes to the weirder, more avant-garde side of games - and it's a side of games I'd like to immerse myself in more. It feels arty without feeling forced, eerie without relying on horror tropes, and funny without constantly cracking jokes.
  3. Dear Esther (also not a 2013 title), is a game I finally bought and played at the start of this year, which made me realise how impactful games can be without much player agency or game mechanisms other than "walk forward". It's a very atmospheric game, and I really enjoyed just being able to explore the game setting.
  4. Positive Space (a 2013 game!) by Merritt Kopas, is an autobiographical Twine game that features sex involving the inguinal canal, which I had 0% awareness of prior to playing the game. Positive Space is an amazing game not only because it's so intensely personal, but because it shows that personal games and independent developers have a wealth of experience to draw upon that AAA games titles simply can't or won't tap into anytime soon (or to the same degree of sincerity that indie developers often do).
  5. Starwhal (also a 2013 game!) is just fucking fun, no two ways about it.
So there we go - things I made, wrote, accomplished, played and created this year. As a whole, 2013 has been a really, really good year for me, and I think 2014 will be that much better.

28 October 2013

[GayGamer.Net] Queer Mechanic #3: Coming Out

Queer Mechanic is a regular feature here on GayGamer – each month, we’ll be presenting a new game mechanic that could be used in games that include or focus on queer identity or culture. Queer Mechanic is a thought experiment, to see both what we could add to games, and to recognise what’s been missing from them; it’s a challenge, both to readers, to come up with novel, interesting and effective ways to use them, and to developers, to include them in games; and it’s a discussion for a more inclusive, more varied, and more innovative future for the games industry.

Many of the LGBTQ characters in games come “as-is”, in the sense that they have already undergone most of their soul-searching and self-realisation about their gender, sex or sexual identity prior to the beginning of the story; similarly, although there are often dialogue options to bring up the fact that your character isn’t heterosexual, these are rarely (if ever) framed as your character “coming out” to that person – instead, it’s more like they’re getting the other person up-to-speed with something that has already been established.

Which is strange – because for all its potential for being an emotionally-taxing event, coming out can be a big event in queer folks’ lives, as it marks a milestone in the process of coming to terms with one’s identity. And, while it may be too niche to be included in all games in all genres, there’s certainly scope for using coming out either as a core or constituent part of a capital-Q Queer game, or even as a special event inside games with lots of character-driven narrative, such as Bioware’s Dragon Age or Mass Effect. So, with all that opportunity for interesting storytelling, why don’t we consider ways we could use it in games?

Last month we took a look at the potential for games based around the “animal” epithets in gay subcultures – this month, we’ll explore another facet of queer identity – how the process of coming out could be modelled and explored in videogames.

(You can read the rest of the article over at its home on GayGamer.Net!

3 October 2013

[GayGamer.Net] Grand Theft Auto V: Misogyny & Transphobia

Scottish people love talking about Scotland. It’s kind of to be expected, since we’re a groovy bunch. We’ve got kilts – widely regarded as one of the sexiest pieces of gear ever – and we’ll fry and eat anything if it stands still long enough. To date, the only other people I’ve found who emphasize their nationalism in the same (non-creepy) way are Canadians; I can’t help but wonder if it’s something to do with being attached to a country that gets a bad rap internationally and wanting to distance yourself from them — in fact, the people of Scotland want to distance ourselves from England so much that we’re even voting on leaving the United Kingdom next year.

So, given this predisposition to singing the praises of all things Scottish, and given that Rockstar North, the team behind Grand Theft Auto V, are based in Scotland, I really, really want to talk about how brilliant Grand Theft Auto V is (and, by extension, how great Scotland is, because that’s totally how it works).

But I can’t, because it’s festooned with misogyny, transphobia, and creepy rape jokes that don’t really seem very funny.

(You can read the rest of this article over on GayGamer.net!)

6 September 2013

[GayGamer.Net] Queer Mechanic #2: Wolves & Otters & Bears ... !

Queer Mechanics is a regular feature over on GayGamer – each month, we’ll be presenting a new game mechanic that could be used in games that include or focus on queer identity or culture. Queer Mechanics is a thought experiment, to see both what we could add to games, and to recognise what’s been missing from them; it’s a challenge, both to readers, to come up with novel, interesting and effective ways to use them, and to developers, to include them in games; and it’s a discussion for a more inclusive, more varied, and more innovative future for the games industry.

If you’ve been around the gay scene in some form or another – pubs and clubs, online gay communities, or dating sites/apps like Adam4Adam or Grindr – you’re bound to have come across terminology like “bear” or “otter”, used as a kind of shorthand to discuss people’s body types. These terms of identity also help foster social groups and subcultures.

A quick run-through of the most common of these terms, all of which have some degree of overlap: “Bears” are typically large men, often with plenty body hair and facial hair, and their size can either be down to fat, or muscle – though large, muscular men can also be called “bulls” as well; by extension, “cubs” are younger men with all the attributes of the aforementioned bear bodytype. “Otters” are lean, hirsute men; “wolves” are similar, but are typically more muscular than lean, and also tend to have an aggressive or assertive quality to them. “Chickens” has almost fallen out of use in favour of the word “twink”, to describe younger men, typically without much bodyhair.

These terms of identity are a big part of the experiences of gay men in the West, but have largely been ignored in videogames (a sneaky nod to bear subculture in Mass Effect 3 notwithstanding). They may seem trivial or inconsequential in comparison to previous literary contributions from, for and about gay culture and subcultures; but then, the content and mechanics of videogames – or any genre, in fact – don’t have to have an immense literary quality to be worthwhile to represent or include. And you know what I think would be awesome? A game all about the dudes we know in those subcultures!

Last month we delved into the potential for letting players define their character’s gender and sexual identities in a wide variety of different types of games – this month, let’s explore what we could do with a game that specifically focuses on a particular element of gay male subculture in Queer Mechanic #2: Wolves & Otters & Bears!

(You can read the rest of Queer Mechanic #2 over at GayGamer.Net!)

3 September 2013

[GayGamer.Net] PAX Honesty Time: Pulling Dickwolves Merchandise Was "A Mistake"

The 2013 Penny Arcade Expo took place this past weekend! And, as fate would have it, there is once again controversy surrounding Mike Krahulik as he fires another bullet into the Penny Arcade Dickwolves timeline.

For those not up-to-speed with the debacle: back in 2010, Mike and Jerry, the creators of Penny Arcade, posted a comic called “The Sixth Slave”, featuring a character talking about “dickwolves” and some grim allusions to rape in an attempt at “dark humour” (trigger warning for discussions of rape: “The Sixth Slave“). And ever since, they’ve been attempting to defend and justify their comic – most significantly by creating women’s T-Shirts with a “dickwolves” logo on the front, which was pulled almost two months later. And now, the controversy has been reignited – surrounded by a number of other controversies that highlight problems with Penny Arcade’s management, including Mike Krahulik’s recent transphobic comments.

(You can read the rest of this article over on GayGamer.Net!)

20 August 2013

[GayGamer.Net] Not Just, Justifiable, nor Just A Joke

Harassment seems ubiquitous, inevitable and inescapable in the world of videogames, and targets of harassment run the gamut from folk who show the slightest interest in games, to folk who regularly play and write about games as a career, all the way to folk who create games – and that harassment can come from folk in those roles, too.

People from any given group of people has experienced some form of harassment in videogames if they’ve spent any time playing with other people; women, however, experience far more harassment than men do, especially in the form of sexual harassment – suffice it to say, it’s not necessary to be a woman to be targeted for harassment, but being a woman is apparently a sufficient reason to be targeted for harassment.

Folk of other sexes and genders don’t fare much better, nor do gay gamers, or indeed, folk from any given group of people that aren’t the “straight white middle-class cis male” profile that’s continually reinforced as the norm.

(You can read the rest of this article over at GayGamer.net!)

12 August 2013

[myGameDev] The Loch: A Scottish Fishing RPG

The Loch began as a small solo project in RPG Maker VX Ace Lite for Sophie Houlden's 7-Day Fishing Game Jam, which was held on the 20th to the 27th of May 2013 - the theme was "fishing", which could be interpreted as literally or figuratively as anyone wanted to. Since I was looking for an excuse to make games over the summer between semesters at uni, I decided to take part!

...and that's despite the fact that closest I've ever come to actual fishing was in the form of a small box that my older brother owned: a green plastic container which might once have been a First Aid kit. Inside was a number of cone-shaped weights made of metal, or stone, and a tangled mix of lures and hooks - my favourite piece in the box was an orange squid with wiggly plastic tentacles, which I've since discovered is a lure skirt, a piece added to a lure to make it seem more alive (and thus more attractive to fish). The box had an esoteric quality to it, a secret treasure from a bygone age where each individual piece had a very specific purpose that was totally occult to me.

The rest of my fishing knowledge comes from an anecdote of my mum's that, when I was four or five, she saw me sitting on the edge of the pier of my hometown with a fishing rod made of bits I'd found lying around, including a metal chain and some twine from a fishing net, angling for those most elusive of fish, "splats". I can assure everyone that I used every piece of fishing wisdom I possibly could from this entirely anecdotal account that I have no memory of ever experiencing in the development of The Loch.

I only had the vaguest of intentions when I began working on the game that would become The Loch at the start of the 7-Day Fishing Game Jam. I'd just finished playing Yume Nikki, and I had some lofty intentions of making a game where the player character could fish from atop a cloud, under an abandoned oil rig, inside an ancient catacomb, inside their own dreams, etc, etc. I only had a week, though, and there was only so much I could do while getting to grips with RPG Maker for the first time. I decided I'd map out the levels of the game using the basic RPG Maker tilesets, and if I found time later, I'd have a go at making some assets for areas that are a little more out-there.

Over the course of the week, I kept a development diary on the Fishing Game Jam forum, with some daily updates on the progress of The Loch; and, by Sunday, I'd made a playable version of the game available. As with most projects - especially games projects - there were a lot of features that had to be dropped to make the cut-off point, a number of systems that had to be simplified so that they were even marginally usable, and a number of art assets that were unfinished or entirely missing from the version of the game released on Sunday. And, by that point, I'd realised I desperately wanted to keep going.

So I did!

After the weeklong game jam was over, The Loch just continued to expand in a way that I like to describe as "feature bloom" - it's like feature creep, but nice! Over the course of the next couple of months, I managed to get a lot done, including adding (and creating portraits and sprites) for 5 player characters and 15 non-player characters, 19 individual fish, and a fishing system with four different types of tackle, plus lots of little extras for those people who like to explore. When I'm designing games, I tend to keep in mind the categories of "The Bartle Test", a system that classifies players based on whether they're Achievers (who want a sense of accomplishment and concrete goals to complete), Killers (folk who like to make stuff dead), Socialisers (who like to talk, chat, roleplay and the like), and Explorers (who enjoy grokking the system, the environment, and so on). Although the Bartle Test is generally used for MMOs, I've found it's a pretty useful design system for single-player games as well.

Eventually, the "feature bloom" was rapidly becoming "feature creep" - I'd started considering adding in secret areas, additional characters and special events that were a fair bit removed from the original vision of the game - the thing that put the brakes on it was when I went to make a new level for the game, and was told that I'd reached the maximum number of levels for one project - the Lite version of RPG Maker VX Ace has caps placed on a lot of different elements of the game, including the amount of enemies you can create in one game (or in my case, fish), the amount of characters you can have, the amount of "common events" you can use, and so on. Up 'til this point, I'd managed to create workarounds for some of these limitations, but by that point I realised it was time to stop creating new things, and to polish what I already had.

Testing took up a fair amount of time; a lot of that was down to playing through the game at various points, to see any common problems that might show up on the average playthrough, scribbling down when they cropped up (alongside a possible diagnosis for why they appeared), and then continuing with the playthrough, provided they weren't significantly game-altering. Then, I'd go through each, one-by-one, and cross them off as they were fixed. Other times - such as after implementing a big new system, like adding in a new type of fishing tackle, new playable character, or a new sequence of events - I'd have to carefully design a way to test that system in isolation (for internal errors), and then how that system worked with any system that it interacts with (for external errors), which often meant adding in new events, new start points, and adjusting lots of variables just to simulate as though I'd been through certain parts of the game.

Once I'd done all of my own playtesting, I set up the Facebook group and let other folk playtest that version of the game - which turned out to be a massive help, because not only where there errors I'd completely missed, but there were errors that had been created because of things I changed so I could playtest the game myself!

As is often the case, there are a lot of things I'd like to improve, include, or modify, but time is always an issue. The Loch almost exclusively uses the default RPG Maker VX Ace Lite tilesets - I'd initially wanted to make my own tilesets for the game, simply to distinguish them from other games made with RPG Maker, but, for the sake of actually finishing the game before mid-August, I decided to set that aside - which was ultimately for the best, considering most of the sprites I'd drawn were either overly-simple or overly-complex!

I'd also have liked to include more distinct audio. I had the benefit of finding inchadney on the Free Sound Project, who has a girthy library of sound assets that were recorded in Scotland, including Scottish birdsong, which helped make the environment feel more like Scotland (and made it recognisable to Scottish people as well). However, I'd've liked to include Scottish ambient music - but, as ever, time was a factor, and it would take a lot of it to source a Scottish recording artist or two with free, open-source music, which could easily be looped, then implement it into the game at the appropriate points. The ambient background sounds of birdsong, waves, wind and rain were enough, I think, to put across the feeling of being by the side of a loch in Scotland.

All in all, I'm incredibly pleased with how The Loch turned out - I've gotten good feedback on it thus far, and I managed to include a lot of the systems and mechanisms that I felt the game required. It also meant that I could finally create a game that was distinctly set in a Scottish location, which, as a Scottish game designer who's also pro-Independence, was pretty close to my heart. The Loch definitely feels like a major success for me, and I hope at least some of the positivity I got from it comes across for all the folk who play it too!

You can download The Loch: A Scottish Fishing RPG from this Dropbox link:

Run the .exe file to extract the files, then run "Game.exe" to play!

1 August 2013

[GayGamer.Net] Queer Mechanic #1: "Identify As..."

Queer Mechanics is a new regular feature over on GayGamer – each month, we’ll be presenting a new game mechanic that could be used in games that include or focus on queer identity or culture. Queer Mechanics is a thought experiment, to see both what we could add to games, and to recognise what’s been missing from them; it’s a challenge, both to readers, to come up with novel, interesting and effective ways to use them, and to developers, to include them in games; and it’s a discussion for a more inclusive, more varied, and more innovative future for the games industry.

Character customisation is present in some form in the vast majority of games, but it’s only recently that we’ve seen an explosion of games where you can design the lead protagonist from top-to-toe, such as Mass EffectThe Secret WorldDragon’s Dogma, or Skyrim. Sometimes, we get the option to have the characters have romance options with a character of the same sex, but as of yet, we never get the option to explicitly state that our character is gay, or bisexual, or trans*, or any other terms of identity. We often have to read these identities into the characters, come up with personal “headcanon” where we decide, in our own heads, what our character is “really” like (even though there’s no way to represent that in game, and it often contradicts what actually happens in-game as well).

There are advantages and disadvantages to this approach – it means your character isn’t necessarily shackled to their sexuality because you ticked the “gay” or “lesbian” box. For example, Oscar Amell, one of my characters from Bioware’s Dragon Age, started a relationship with Leliana (a woman), and then, when the relationship came to an end, he and Zevran (a man) got together. That was only possible because of the “laissez-faire” approach to sexuality in the game, where I wasn’t choosing what Oscar was (e.g., homosexual), I chose what Oscar did (i.e., had sex with a person of the same sex as himself). Any character trait I read into that – that Oscar was homosexual, or bisexual, or pansexual, or situationally homosexual, or heteroflexible – would only ever exist in my own head. In the world of videogames, our characters are only ever WSW, MSM, WSM or MSW.

Many folk interpret that as a perfect world that we’re striving for in reality, where we’ve moved beyond the need for restrictive labels, where gay folk don’t need to define themselves as gay, where trans* people don’t talk about being trans*, where queer folk are Just People like the rest of us. But I don’t think bigotry suddenly disappears if we just stop labeling ourselves – I’m pretty sure a bigot will still understand the significance of two men kissing one another and that it is A Thing That They Hate.

Besides, identity is important – it literally informs who were are as people, and its importance, significance and ubiquitousness is immediately apparent if you start noticing every time you use the verb “to be”, or count the number of times you refer to yourself in speech. Identity influences everything from our daily lives all the way up to the peaks of human culture and society – and it’s a system that’s rife for exploring in games. And, with that in mind, let’s present the very first of GayGamer’s Queer Mechanics – the “Identify As…” Mechanic.

15 July 2013

[myGameDev] Ava Martin VS. The Binarist Hegemony

This weekend was iamagamer.ca's inaugural Game Jam weekend, where participants - both at the main hub in Vancouver, and those around the world participating remotely - worked for 48 hours to create a game based on the theme of "Strong Female Protagonist." I was one of those folk squirreling away at a game - and I got one finished, no less! You can play my game, Ava Martin VS. The Binarist Hegemonyby clicking here, and you can read about its development below!

Day Minus-One

This Game Jam wasn't my first - I've previously participated in the 48hr Global Game Jam in 2012 and came out with The 41st Tale, and I recently finished Sophie Houlden's week-long Fishing Game Jam back in May of this year, ending the week with The Loch: A Scottish Fishing RPG (which is currently in Beta testing and will be available soon!) As such, I knew that, although preparation wasn't important (or recommended) for taking part in a game jam, I decided to do some research into what I could use to make my game the day before, just so I didn't spend half the day getting familiar with a new game engine.

Initially, I'd considered making the game for the jam in GameMaker Studio, which I'd recently worked through a couple of tutorials on; but I wasn't 100% comfortable with that, since I already had a plan for a GameMaker game laid out for later in Summer, and I want to try to broaden my horizons a bit by designing games using lots of different software, engines and tools. I discovered GameSalad in a thread elsewhere on the internet, and, having heard it was fairly accessible, decided to go with that.

GameSalad, as it turns out, is very easy to use, and most of the work comes down to placing Actors (characters, NPCs, and any other on-screen elements) onto a Scene (a level or menu screen), and then dragging-and-dropping sets of Behaviours onto those actors. Those Behaviours are split into conditions (such as "when this key is pressed", "when this attribute equals 5", or "after 5 seconds") and actions (such as "move this actor in this direction", "load this scene", or "check if this attribute has changed"). Although it might be somewhat restrictive for people with a fair amount of programming knowledge, it's fairly accessible for people without that knowledge, although it often does require some creative workarounds as solutions for problems, which often demands that you be able to work out the flow of your program step-by-logical-step.

Day One

The night before the Jam started, I couldn't sleep - because Scotland had basically turned into a hothouse, and even with all the windows in my flat open, I was melting in the heat. So, although I'm sure it could be considered cheating by some by-the-book Jammers, I spent most of the night thinking up ideas for what I wanted to do with my entry for the Game Jam.

Like a lot of designers, when I'm coming up for ideas for a game, I usually end up trying to create The Perfect Game right from the get-go, and then having to jettison parts of the game as development continues and I start running out of time - which often meant that the ideas that helped bring the game closer to The Perfect Game would be missing, and I'd have been as well making a much smaller, more humble game  in the first place. I was determined not to do that this time round - I wanted to do what I did with The Loch and start small, by saying "if I can just get one basic action in the game implemented that helps bring the player towards some ending, I'll be happy, and then I can build on that if I have time."

My first few ideas were too ambitious, among other things. I ruled out a side-scrolling beat-em-up with a woman martial artist early on - it would be too difficult to hand-draw animations for a character in 48hrs and still make a compelling game, plus it came very close to the common practice of making female characters "strong" in terms of their physical fitness, which I didn't want at all.

After tinkering around with GameSalad the night before the Jam - and, crucially, discovering that gravity was both built-in to GameSalad's scene system AND could be altered - I remembered an idea I had a few months ago that came kind of out of the blue, of a platformer where the gravity was constantly changing - and, for whatever reason, my brain took that moment to connect that thought to an even older idea I'd had about making a superhero that had gravity-based powers, allowing them to perform all sorts of acrobatic stunts. Those ideas fused together into what would become my game.

I fleshed out my main character a bit after that, since I wanted the character themselves to match the themes and setting of the game. Recently, I've been becoming more aware of the type of characters that I (and other folk in the West/Global North) tend to create - and it's that recurrent intersection of demographics that continually crops up. White, able-bodied, young, attractive cisgender heterosexual men.

Now, because this was a Game Jam all about female protagonists, I'd obviously never considered making the character male - however, it often goes unsaid that any game protagonist is likely to be white, able-bodied, young, attractive, cisgender and heterosexual. People from all manner of marginalised groups have stressed the importance of having characters that look like them as a means of receiving equal representation and consideration in media, and, knowing that, I'd feel pretty uncomfortable if I continually churned out the white, able-bodied etc. characters that we've come to expect from the games industry. So, I set about creating a character that I felt would give some representation of people from minority groups, as well as fitting into the game, setting and theme.

The result was Ava.

I'd like to say that there was a meaningful train of thought behind deciding to make Ava a Black trans* woman, but it was nothing more than, "why not?" Trans* women of colour are frequently underrepresented in media, after all.

Ava's name initially came from a placeholder name that I'd given to the main character Actor in GameSalad when I was setting up - I'd chosen it because I remembered it from working on The Loch: A Scottish Fishing RPG, when I was looking up the most commonly-chosen names for girls being born in Scotland in 2012; and later I realised that it was the first three letters of the word "avatar", which was a happy synchronicity. It seemed to fit the image of the character I was developing in my head, so I kept with it.

Some placeholder art saw me through the first half of the first day, where I wanted to get the bulk of the game's physics and mechanisms in place first, but by the end of the first day, I'd already designed and drawn what I wanted Ava to look like.

The final image of Ava was a little sketchy, but since you're continually pushed for time during a game jam, I didn't want to sacrifice a lot of time getting a perfectly-polished image, at the expense of having no game to use it in by Sunday evening. Plus, the small screen resolution (480x320) meant that I'd have to shrink the image down anyway, so most of the sketchiness would be largely reduced.

I implemented most of the game's physics early on, which meant adding in behaviours that determined that, when Ava hit a platform at a certain angle, she would flip around to match that angle so she could stand on top of it, and the game's gravity would adjust accordingly - so, if Ava hit a platform at a 90 degree angle relative to 0 degrees, she would be standing horizontally, with gravity pushing her to the right. This added a whole new way of moving about in a platformer game that I really loved - it meant that you had to kind of "rotate" how you thought Ava would move, how she would turn when she landed - because if she only manages to hit a corner of a platform when gravity's direction is changing, she may not land on the platform at all, and just fall.

While I was implementing the gravity system, though because of the way it was implemented, a problem loomed on the horizon; whenever Ava touched a platform, she'd rotate to a specific angle, and the direction of the force of gravity would too. But, if Ava hit the wrong side of that platform, gravity wouldn't push her towards it - it would push her away. If she landed on a horizontal platform from above, gravity would act downwards, and she'd stay on the platform; but if she hit it from below, gravity would remain pushing downwards (relative to the scene), and she'd just fall. So, I realised I'd need two types of platforms, laid edge-to-edge, so they could adjust the angle of the force of gravity correctly.

When I made those platforms, I decided (simply because Ava was trans*) to make them pink and blue, the colors of the trans* pride flag - which then reminded me of the red and blue colors on magnets, and how we refer to things like the head of a cable as "male" or "female"; I thought it was interesting that we forced these categories of male and female on things that didn't have a sex or gender, and that the gender binary had parallels in things like science.

I'd also had a number of ideas about the win and lose conditions for the game, and how players would win it - I really wanted to design monsters that resembled fusions, amalgamations and interpretations of "male" and "female"-ness (something I touched on in A Silent Hill Queer-y), but I realised it could well send the wrong message - that transsexuality and intersexuality were something monstrous, strange and alien - if I didn't have time to implement ways of showing that that isn't the case at all. So, due to time constraints and art dilemmas, I decided I'd dot the level with some objects called Pylons, shaped like Male and Female symbols, which the player would have to destroy. The Pylons reminded me a little of those red and blue markers on magnets as well, which I thought was appropriate. This gave the game's strange gravity a new significance, as the player would have to think up novel ways of using alternating gravity to reach certain platforms to destroy all the platforms.

By the end of the first day, I'd implemented most of the game's physics and gravity, and I went to bed feeling accomplished and ready for the second day - a stark change from the end of the first day during the Global Game Jam 2012, where I went to bed (on a beanbag, under several beanbags, on a library floor) feeling like my soul was being hung, drawn and quartered.

Day Two

Testing the game was a continuous process: implementing a behaviour or two at a time, running the game in the preview pane, and seeing how the behaviour worked in game. Thankfully, most of the time, it worked exactly as expected - but there was no lack of situations where I'd put in a behaviour thinking it would work out fine, and it caused things to basically explode.

A particularly significant example of this was at the start of the second day, where I was trying to adjust the behaviour where, when Ava hit a platform, she'd rotate so that she would stand on top of it; most of the time, the rotation worked, but her jumping and walking animation cycles would mess up. Because I'd been adding behaviours as I was going along and adjusting how I designed those behaviours to work with GameSalad's built-in functionality, it meant that many of the behaviours had work-around statements; and, as more behaviours were added, these statements started conflicting with one another - one saying "if Ava is in contact with a platform, use the standing animation", but another saying "if Ava is in contact with a platform at the end of this behaviour, rotate the image". So, at the start of the second day, in the interest of having a game that was actually playable, I decided to redo the game's physics from the ground up.

Luckily, it only took an hour or two, because I'd already got a good image of all the behaviours I'd need from having created them before, and I was able to make them interact with each other in a much clearer, less clunky way.

I didn't decide on Ava's surname until the final day, too - the day that news broke about the verdict on the George Zimmerman case. I'd originally heard Trayvon's name mentioned in a couple of songs by Public Enemy and Lupe Fiasco almost a year before, back when I started becoming marginally more aware of sociopolitical issues like race, class and power dynamics in the West; after hearing the verdict, I decided to give Ava Trayvon's surname, "Martin".

I also decided that, in the interest of making her more realised as a female character, I'd like to have Ava comment on what she was doing - and the best place for that, I thought, was when she destroyed each Gender Pylon. So, I implemented a system where, when the player destroyed one, a disembodied voice questioned her motives, gaslit her, and generally acted like a wee dweeby transphobic misogynist; in response, Ava cut through their bullshit and set them straight. Done.

As the final hour approached, I decided I'd finish early, because I wasn't 100% sure how GameSalad worked when it came to packaging and publishing games for the PC platform, and I didn't want to accidentally take too long trying to work it all out. So, I scribbled up a quick main-menu screen, chose not to put any audio in the game, and rushed it through the GameSalad Arcade publishing process just in time to upload it to the main iamagamer Jam site, before the submission system mysteriously broke! Good timing.

And with that, I was finished! I'd managed to make a game from start to finish, on my own, in 48 hours. It wasn't polished, it wasn't life-changing or mind-altering or technology-pushing, but then, it didn't have to be; the point of a game jam is just to get you DOING SOMETHING rather than spending too much time designing, planning, talking or speculating, which many designers like me are prone to doing. And, in that respect at least, I managed to push myself through and finish the jam with a completed game that I could look back on and be happy with.

[Minecraft Monday] A Trip to the Borgesland

In the previous Minecraft Monday post, I bade farewell to Kentigern County, a world that was rapidly approaching obsolescence because of the impending Build 1.8.2, which included strongholds and villages automatically spawning in new worlds. The next update, TU12, is rapidly approaching, and again will potentially make Minecraft worlds obsolete because of the inclusion of the new Jungle biome. And that means it's time to say goodbye to the place I've been since October last year - The Borgesland.

The Borgesland has just about everything you could want from a Minecraft world - two villages in close proximity, a network of small seas and rivers cutting their way across the region, and one of each and every biome, including two mushroom-biome islands in the southernmost parts of the map.

10 July 2013

[myGameDev] The Loch: A Scottish Fishing RPG - BETA Version!

For the past few weeks, I've been working on a game that I made for Sophie Houlden's 7 Day Fishing Game Jam back at the tail end of May - that game is The Loch: A Scottish Fishing RPG, and it's now gotten to a stage where I can share a beta version of the game with you folks!

At the moment, I'm working on converting some of the standard RPG Maker assets over to assets of my own, and in the meantime, I'd appreciate if anyone playing the game could let me know if they find any bugs, problems or glitches in the game (as well as anything else they think isn't supposed to be there). If you do find anything, send a message either here or to The Loch Facebook Page and let me know!

You can download the Beta Version here.

3 July 2013

[GayGamer.Net] Why So Cis?

[Trigger Warnings for discussions of rape and transphobia throughout].

Yesterday brought something of a storm on social media, with Penny Arcade’s Mike Krahulik at the center, having unleashed the furore by making a couple of transphobic comments on Twitter. The Border House Blog has an excellent summary on the events, but for the sake of completeness, I’ll reiterate:

Folk on the web had noticed that there was a synopsis for a dubious-looking panel on the upcoming PAX Australia titled “Why So Serious”?, which, as one might expect, basically boiled down to people saying, “stop taking games so seriously!” to anyone who voiced any concerns with regards to the game industry’s less-than-stellar track record when it came to bigotry. Complaints were made, and the panel slightly altered their synopsis.

It didn’t make it much better. So folk contacted Mike Krahulik about the event, and from there, things escalated to the extent that Mike posted the following tweets.

(Screenshots courtesy of the Borderhouse Blog.)

And, following that, Mike posted an email discussion between himself and Sophie Prell, a trans* woman who formerly contributed to the Penny Arcade Report; the discussion can be found here.

In a statement for GayGamer.Net, Mike described the event thus:

This morning when I got up my email and tweets were all about a panel at PAX Aus. We will have a panel that will discuss if all this social justice stuff is good for the games industry. We don’t make the panels they are submitted by the community and we try and let pretty much anyone have a space to talk.
So this morning I was told I was a bigot and I was giving a stage to bigots. I said no one has to go to the panel but then I was told I was cis gendered garbage and I should die.
at this point I should have stepped away from the computer and played with my kids but I didn’t. I went on the offensive and I made things worse.
I don’t dislike or fear anyone based on what they are or what they think they are. I try and be friendly to everyone I meet in person.
I honestly don’t think I am wired right for this fame stuff. I like to draw cartoons and play games that’s really all. I can’t be what all these millions of people want me to be. I’m not a role model, I didn’t even fucking go to college. I have beliefs that lots of people will hate. I have opinions that not all our fans will like. If I was just some normal dude it wouldn’t matter but the things I do and say are placed in another category. I need to be aware of that responsibility. When I feel attacked I attack back like I did as a kid. I can be an incredible asshole when I want to be. It’s like my super power. I’m very good at being mean. That’s been good for making funny comics but it’s not good when it hurts people who are already marginalized.
To be fair, I hate tons of people. But it’s never because of their sexual orientation or their gender situation or anything superficial like that. I honest to god don’t give a shit about that stuff. I only hate people because of the way they act.

So, back up, what’s the big deal here?

(You can read the rest of the article at its original home on GayGamer.net!