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Losing our voices

Losing our voices Exclusive

September 5, 2014 | By Kris Graft

Kris Graft is editor-in-chief of Gamasutra

The problems we've seen these past weeks are all born out of fear. And fear is often born from the potential of losing something. It's a bit like game design -- we're often under constant threat of having something taken away from us. Fear of loss is what drives us to grind for hours to prepare for the end boss, it's why we practice against bots before playing a shooter online, it's why our hearts sink when we can't quite recover our demons' souls.

It's also why we lash out against journalists, against "gamers," against developers, against the status quo, against the "new" people. We've been operating on the principle of "the best defense is a good offense." This market, if you want to call it that in this context, is in competition, and it's not just businesses vs. businesses vying for dollars anymore, it's people vying for a voice, fearing another's will erase or invalidate their own.

"Voice" takes different shapes, depending on your relationship with video games, but it's that voice that everyone is afraid of losing. When you're afraid of losing something important, you grab onto it tighter, you fight for it harder. When someone tries to pull that away, the harder you grasp, as you attempt to pull it back. When someone tries to silence your voice, your natural reaction is to yell louder. And so on.

We are a website for game developers, so let's talk about the voice of the game developer first. Their voice is the games they make. Games are developers' way of expressing themselves, and if not that, the games they create are at least inextricably tied to developers' personal identities.

So where does their fear come from, the fear that drives different reactions we've seen over recent weeks? The fear comes from the potential of losing something. For game developers, what is there to lose? The answer is their voice, their games.

There is a real fear of losing that voice. Developers in some spaces of game dev fear they're losing, for example, the kind of player who plays $60 games. That's a legitimate fear, and when there's a big pile-on reminding them of the market sea-change, they will, in all cases, react to this fear in one way or another, inwardly or outwardly, as they are faced with the fear they'll have no one to "speak" to anymore. Developers making non-mainstream games fear that their already-marginalized voices will be drowned out by a monolithic traditional game industry, or worse, silenced by despicable, sociopathic harassment. These are also legitimate fears.

Why do these fears of losing one's voice result in various reactions, from anger to frustration to depression, etc.? It's because once you lose your voice, you do lose your identity. With no identity, there is no self-worth. Having no self-worth means personal annihilation. There will be a strong reaction when one looks their own annihilation square in the eye. It's only human.

After publishing Leigh Alexander's editorial that declared "'gamers' are over," I received an IM from a great, longtime friend of mine, who isn't in the game industry, but does play a lot of video games (and is also well-educated, works with non-profits and with children).

"Isn't the term 'lonely basement kid' just as misrepresentative of the [game] industry as the term 'gamer' is?" he asks.

I told him where I believe Leigh was coming from -- that a term that seems innocuous like that has been hijacked by some of the most unsavory of people, that this is a piece that is admittedly emotionally-charged, a firebrand's takedown squaring up against the worst of the worst. As someone who knows Leigh, and as someone who knows how "gaming culture" has run her through the ringer of the hate machine multiple times, I knew who she was talking about.

I knew that her words were a red-hot machete offered up to game creators and "gamers," meant to sever the responsibility many feel they have to that label, to that stereotype. I explained this as someone who was, literally, a kid who was lonely in a basement on more than one (million) occasion(s). Leigh was too.

In light of that explanation, my friend acknowledged the sometimes negative stereotype. He's a smart, reasonable human being. But I don't think he believes -- as many -- that "gamer" is a term that needs to be thrown away.

Back to fear, and the fear of losing something valuable: What does a "gamer" stand to lose? Again, their voice. What is a "gamer's" voice? A gamer's voice is in play. What they play, who they play with, how they play -- these are statements of taste, of personal preference, of identity.

As we've seen, there are some terrible people who co-opted this fight by using that identity as a weapon. They have no joy, only hate, which drives the way those people act, how they "play," whose ideals they align themselves with, and how they react to an identity threatened to be taken away from them. Sometimes the efforts to retain an identity are deplorable, and harm people. The closer one's identity is tied to their own personal definition of a "gamer," the greater and more forcible the action will be to retain that identity, that voice.

And there are many people who have nothing to do with any of the events of recent weeks -- including many who don't even know of this "war" -- who are good, decent people, who identify as "gamers," and want to retain their voice under that banner.

Because when you lose your voice, you do lose your identity. With no identity, there is no self-worth. Having no self-worth means personal annihilation. There will be a strong reaction when one looks their own annihilation square in the eye. It's only human.

Finally, as a member of the game media, I understand that we journalists, critics, and writers are afraid of just about everything; we might be the most fearful of the lot. We're afraid of looking foolish, of making mistakes on a grand, open stage. We're afraid our profession is unsustainable, or that it's seen as childish, or that we're frauds. These days, we're also afraid we'll piss off the wrong people, and that those people will come after us, and lead us to the quite conscious, reasonable question: "Is this worth the abuse?" Some great writers, even just this week, have answered "no" to that reasonable question.

Some of us are afraid of video games being stuck in a cultural ghetto, and as game industry outsiders, hope to bring that, honest, critical eye -- we want games to be worth playing, worth writing about. We're afraid the kinds of games we love will lose relevance; we're afraid the games we love will never gain it. Some of us are afraid that the way we write about video games will be seen as trite, low-brow, and dispensable. We all want to be appreciated for bringing readers or viewers something of value, something worthwhile, and are afraid of never achieving that validation.

So for the game media, what is the voice that they're afraid to lose? That's easy -- the voice of a writer or a journalist or a critic is in their words, or often literally in their voice. They stand to lose the means of making some kind of impact on others, and therefore, on themselves.

How might their voice be lost, or taken? If video games don't go in the direction where some of us want to steer them, we lose our will to speak at all. Or, in the most traumatic fashion, these voices are taken away by relentless abuse -- the kind that has led some writers to weigh their love of video games and writing against the level of abuse they're taking for their writing, or perhaps for their mere existence.

As a member of the game media, I know that voice is worth fighting for. Out of fear, we fight for our voice. Out of fear, after desperately grasping onto what makes us who we are, some of us are forced beyond our will to fight, and we silence our own voice, in an effort to preserve what's left of our well-being. What's unfortunate is that when one's voice is gone, one's well-being is put in great jeopardy.

Because when your voice is gone, you do lose your identity. With no identity, there is no self-worth. Having no self-worth means personal annihilation. There will be a strong reaction when one looks their own annihilation square in the eye. It's only human.

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