Divest from the Video Games Industry!

A chaotic image with patterns, bubbles, and a rainbow made in the Tux Paint open source drawing software for kids

This piece seeks to contextualize the problems of the video games industry within its own mythology, and from there, to imagine and celebrate new directions through a lens of anti-capitalist and embodied compassion.

My name is Marina Ayano Kittaka (she/her), I’m a 4th gen Japanese American trans woman from middle class background. I work in a variety of different art forms but my bread and butter are the video games I make with my friend Melos Han-Tani, e.g. the Anodyne series.

I am not an authority on any of these topics, and it’s not my intention to speak over anyone else or offer comprehensive solutions, only to be one small piece of a larger conversation and movement. I use declarative and imperative sentences for clarity, not certainty.

I seek to follow the leadership of BIPOC abolitionist thinkers such as Ejeris Dixon, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, adrienne maree brown and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, along with the work of local (to me) groups like Black Visions Collective and MPD150. I welcome feedback, especially if you believe that something I’ve said is harmful.

This piece is inspired by the latest wave of survivors bravely sharing their stories (it is June 2020, during the Covid-19 pandemic and global uprising against anti-Black racism and the unjust institution of police). I believe and stand with survivors.

The Problems

Non-Judgement

Additionally, this conversation is not about the merits of any individual AAA (large studio) game. It’s not about creating strict rules about media consumption. It’s not about shaming people into certain beliefs or behaviors. When we try to act like our personal tastes must align with our most high-minded ideals, we encourage shame or denial — things that distance us from others.

Nor is this exclusively about AAA. This is about any situation where the power becomes the point. There can be gradations of industrial complexes and power complexes existing from the smallest micro-communities to the largest corporations. We can divest on all levels.

The Industry Promise

In answer to this perceived scarcity, The Industry swoops in with a promise that technological and design mastery can “make” people feel. It does this not only blatantly in marketing copy or developer interviews, but also in unwieldy assertions that games can make you empathic, or through the widespread notion that games are an exceptionally “immersive” art form due to “interactivity”. Embedded in this promise is the ever-alluring assumption that technological progress is linear: games overall must be getting better, more beautiful, more moving, because that is simply how technology works! Or perhaps it is the progress itself that is beautiful — each impressive jump towards photorealism delivering the elusive sense of wonder that we crave.

At this point, I could argue that the benefits are not worth the cost, that the aforementioned Problems outweigh even this idealized vision of what games provide. But I’m guessing many of you might find that unsatisfying, right? Why don’t we simply reform the system? Spread awareness and training about sexism and racism, create more art that engenders empathy, encourage diversity? Isn’t it throwing the baby out with the bathwater to “halt” technological progress in order to fix some issues of bad leadership here or abusive superstar there?

Here we come to my main purpose in writing this piece: to expand the imaginative space around video games by tearing out The Industry Promise at its roots. If wonder is not scarce and progress is not linear, then the world that rises from the ashes of the Video Games Industry can be more exciting and more technologically vibrant than ever before.

Precious Gems

Staying up late and getting slaphappy with a friend; looking out over a beautiful landscape; a passionate kiss; collaborating with friends in a session of DnD or Minecraft; a thoughtful gift from someone you admire; a cool drink on a hot summer day; making a new friend who feels like they really see you; singing a song; a hug from someone who smells nice; getting junk food late at night and feeling naughty about it; the vivid colors and sounds of a rainy city evening; drifting to sleep in the cottony silence of a smalltown homestead; getting a crew together to see a new movie; the scent of the air at sunrise; having a meaningful conversation with a nonverbal baby.

Picture the games you loved most as a child, the games that felt full of possibility and mystery and fun. Were they all the most technologically advanced? The most critically revered?

Maybe your happy moments look nothing like this. Or maybe you can’t recall feeling happy and that’s the whole problem. But my point is that happiness, joy, fun… these things are at their core fluid, social, narrative, contextual, chemical. In both its best and most common incarnations, happiness is not shoved into your passive body by the objective “high quality” of an experience. Both recent psychological research and traditions from around the world (e.g. Buddhist monks) suggest that happiness and well-being are growable skills rooted in compassion.

Think of all the billions of people who have ever lived, across time, across cultures, with video games and without, living nomadically or settling in cities or jungles. In every moment there are infinite reasons to suffer and infinite reasons to be happy². Giant industry’s monopolistic claims to “art” or “entertainment” have always been a capitalist lie, nonsensical yet inescapable.

The Narrative of Technology and Progress

Technology is the sum of techniques, skills, methods, and processes used in the production of goods or services or in the accomplishment of objectives.
Wikipedia

Honestly, technology is such a vague and broad concept that nearly anything anyone ever does could be considered technological! As such, how we use the term in practice is very revealing of our cultural values. Computing power, massive scale, photorealistic graphics, complex AI, VR experiences that attempt to recreate the visual and aural components of a real or imagined situation… certainly these are all technologies that can and have grown in sophistication over time. But what The Industry considers technological progress actually consists of fairly niche goals that have been artificially inflated because capitalists have figured out they can make money this way. Notably, I don’t use “niche” here as an insult — aren’t many of the most fascinating things intrinsically niche? But when one restrictive narrative sucks all the air out of the room and leaves a swath of emotional and physical devastation in its wake… isn’t it time to question it?

What if humans having basic needs met is “technological progress”? What if indigenous models of sustainable living are “hi-tech”? What if creating a more accessible world where people have freedom of movement opens up numerous high-fidelity multisensory experiences? These questions go far beyond the scope of the video games industry, sure, but in the words of adrienne maree brown, “what we practice at the small scale sets the patterns for the whole system”³.

What We Hope to Gain

Utopia does not have an aesthetic. We don’t need to prescribe the correct “alt” taste. Games can be high and low, sacred and profane, cute and ugly, left brain and right. Destroying the games industry does not mean picking an alternate niche to replace it. Instead, we seek to open the floodgates to a world in which countless decentralized, intimate, and overlapping niches might thrive.

When we decentralize power, we not only create the conditions for more and better games, we also diminish the conditions under which abuse can flourish. Many of the stories of abuse hinge on the abuser wielding the power to dramatically help or harm the careers of others. The consolidation of this power is enhanced by our collective investment in The Industry Promise (not forgetting the wider cultural intersections of oppression). Mythologized figures ascend along a linear axis of greatness, shielded by the horrifying notion that they are less replaceable than others because their ranking in The Industry evidences their mystical importance.

What’s Next?

So. Say you agree with all or part of my assertions that collectively we may proceed to end the video games industry by divesting our attention, time, and money, and building something new with each other. But what does that look like in practice? I don’t have all the answers. I find community very difficult due to my own trauma. Nonetheless, I’ll do some brainstorming. Skim this and read what speaks to you personally, or do your own brainstorming!

Center BIPOC/queer leadership

Divest from celebrity/authority

Divest from video games exceptionalism

Reimagine scale

Redefine niche

On a separate but related note, I don’t buy that all the perceived benefits of AAA such as advancements in photorealism will vanish without the machine of The Industry to back them. People are astonishing and passionate! It won’t always necessarily look like a 60 hour adventure world, but it will be a niche that we can support like any other.

Ground yourself in your body

As a side note, some artists (who otherwise have structural access to things like mental health services) fear becoming healthy, because they’re worried that they will lose the spark and no longer make good art. Speaking as an artist whose creative capacity has consistently increased with my mental health, there are multiple reasons why I don’t think people should worry about this.

  • You carry your past selves within you, even as you change. “Our bodies are neural and physiological reservoirs of all our significant experiences starting in our prenatal past to the present.”⁴
  • You can lose a spark and gain another. You can gain 6 sparks in place of the one you lost.
  • What is it that you ultimately seek from being “good at art”? Ego satisfaction? Human connection? Self-respect? All of these things would be easier to come by in the feared scenario in which you are so happy and healthy that you can no longer make art. Cut out the middleman! Art is for nerds!

Invest outside of games

Another pertinent thought: while there’s nothing inherently wrong with dating a fellow game developer, you should not enter industry/work spaces or events looking for romantic connection. Particularly if you have any sort of institutional power, you will inevitably put others in uncomfortable situations and prime yourself to abuse that power. If you want sex, relationships, etc, find other outlets, shared interests, and dating pools.

Work towards a more accessible world

Invest in alternative technological advancements

Look to small tools

Something that crosses my mind often is that it may be fundamentally healthy for us all to be “big fish in small ponds” in one way or another. The idea that there exists One True Big Pond that reflects all of our collective values simultaneously is a harmful myth that serves to direct all admiration and energy towards corporate interests and robs the rest of us of our accomplishments.

Sucking as praxis

Fight for history

Public libraries could be a vital ally in this cause. What if libraries had access to legacy tech or specialized emulation software that made playing, researching, or recording from old video games more feasible? What if small creators or defunct small studios could get grants or support in preserving their own old work? Would disappointing institutional responses to Gamergate have played out differently if knowledge of and respect for the ongoing historic contributions of BIPOC, female, and/or queer developers were built into the core fabric of video games spaces? Would it be so easy to accept the AAA model as the pinnacle of technology if we contextualized the astounding complexity of past games like Dwarf Fortress, or the Wizardry or Ultima series — technological complexity that would not have been possible had the games been beholden to modern AAA priorities? (Talking out of my ass here, as I have never played these games. See also: modern work on Dwarf Fortress). See also: The Spriter’s Resource and it’s affiliate sites.

Expand government arts funding

Labor organizing

Collaborative / open source resources

Give money

Just Play!

Conclusion

[Edit: at 11:20PM CDT, 6/25/20, I changed the audio games link from a wikipedia article to the more relevant-seeming: https://audiogames.net/]

References

[2] This is a quote that I found helpful from The Self-Compassion Skills Workbook: A 14-Day Plan to Transform Your Relationship with Yourself by Tim Desmond

[3] From the Emergent Strategy chapter on fractals (p. 53)

[4] Body-to-Body Intimacy: Transformation Through Love, Sex, and Neurobiology by Stella Resnick (p. 19)

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Artist/writer/designer of stories and games