19 February 2013

I Confess

There's been a lot of talk on the Interwebbosphere (as it's known) regarding the current state of games writing, and in particular of confessional games writing - a method of journalism where the author of the piece focuses on their own reaction to a particular game, how it may parallel or affect their life, and its influence on society at large. Some have questioned what (if anything) confessional games writing can actually bring to the table and what contribution it makes (if any) to our understanding of games.

From personal experience, I can state (confess?) that reading confessional writing pieces is enormously helpful in understanding the place and form videogames take in people's lives.

I've found reading confessional pieces great for considering new ideas that I either hadn't thought of before, or which I may well have dismissed out of hand had I read them in their own context. For example, Mattie Brice's article 'Would You Kindly' posits a lot of interesting points about the type of violence that's being shown in games like Spec Ops versus the systemic violence faced by minority groups; I hadn't even considered that for many people in the West, the violence of war is something that can seem like a "fantasy" because of how far separated we are from it - hell, I've never even physically seen a gun outside of movies and Youtube clips. And I managed to take this on board all from the fact that Mattie was speaking in terms of games - a language I understood.

When I was writing Gaymers and Gaymercon Counterarguments, I considered how important that "meta-lingual" glossolalia of games could be to opening folk up to something they may not have engaged with before, because it was not part of their daily experience; human sexual orientation/identity and the hobby of playing videogames may not be essentially linked, but using one zone (sexual orientation/identity) to establish meaningful common ground so you can also discuss the other zone (videogames) is a great way to forge connections between people - and it also invites the possibility for each zone to inform the other as well. I find it far easier to consider and take on board new concepts when folk are speaking in terms I already understand rather than introducing an entirely new lexicon and expecting me to be able to completely integrate it into my working knowledge by the end of the article. These allegories and analogies between games and other parts of people's lives - such as identity and quality of life - make it that much easier to find common ground and say, "You know, I may not have been where you have, but I understand it a little more."

There is, obviously, a danger to this, and it's a danger brought up in Joel Goodwin's "The Ethics of Selling Children" on ElectronDance - that confessional writing may be a way of commodifying and repackaging people's (often sensitive, sometimes traumatic) personal experiences into a product to be consumed. After all, I, a white cis man, have just consumed something by a trans* woman of colour, then went on to advocate her writing more, saying, "Confess, and I will listen."

"Prepare a Eucharist from your own flesh, and I will eat it."

But what has actually happened? I've read an article and understood a whole new perspective that was otherwise unknown to me beforehand, an illumination I may not have had, had the language of games not been used. Perhaps this is a good thing - it's one more insight that I can use to help understand the oppression and injustice people face. Perhaps this is a bad thing - I'm just some white guy using someone else's struggle to feed my own worldview. Perhaps it's both - my increased understanding may be offset by the problematic nature of my being a white cis ally saying "I support what you did!". Is the Eucharist wafer bread, or someone's flesh?

It's not about me, though. I am not the only person to have felt the benefit of what was written - hundreds, possibly thousands of others have also had a chance to understand something brand new that they may not have beforehand. The understanding we may have gotten about Spec Ops: The Line may only be marginal (if you want details, try a review? there's more than one type of games writing), but that is offset by a new understanding into the lived experiences of another human being. Confessional games writing does give us an insight into games - rather than focusing on the game, the "I", essence and entity of the game itself, it allows us to see the effects it has on our culture and on other people. Each confession is a little flickering God particle, allowing us to indirectly analyse an ephemeral, transitory thing by seeing how it affects its environment.

We should never, ever deny the importance of self-expression. I may not find a particular article all that helpful for me, but that in no way suggests that the article wasn't helpful for anyone. And, in the end, there is always one person who (hopefully) finds the article helpful - the writer themselves. Like the idea of God incarnating themselves as human to better understand their divine nature, confessional games writing can be a really useful way for writers to understand themselves more - and why should we denigrate that? It could be argued that it's putting the writer before the reader - I'd argue that we're all sitting in the same pew. You chose to come here for the sermon - bow your head and listen for two minutes, or get out of the church entirely.

Lastly, there's the oft-repeated mantra that confessional writing should not be confused with criticism - the confessional article focuses on the player, whereas criticism focuses on the game. That's fair enough. However, there does not need to be a false dichotomy where we have to pick confessional writing over critical analysis or vice versa - both forms of writing can co-exist together, both with their own merits and weaknesses.

I believe there is a place for confessional games writing. Writing is not a limited resource whereby we should always ensure that everyone identifying as a writer is working to the same manifesto, nor is writing a zero-sum game, where we have to ensure the "right" side wins the war. There is enough time and enough space for everyone to have their say, and given that the things that marginalised people want to say are drowned out by outdated sermons we're so tired of hearing, in oppressive churches we no longer want to attend, why would you not want to promote these other voices using a system that's so much more accessible - the confessional of confessional games writing?

Further reading:
The Ethics of Selling Children, by Joel Goodwin
After the Dust Settles: Ethics Revisited, by Joel Goodwin
Would You Kindly, by Mattie Brice
Would You Kindly Not, by Jonas Kyratzes
Can We Kindly?, by Samantha Allen
Decolonize Me, by Mattie Brice
Why We Talk About Ourselves, by Ella Guro
Snow Cats, by Leigh Alexander

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