Friday, September 6, 2013

How PAX Broke My Heart

At this point, I have written and rewritten this piece many times in my head. There are so many things I want to say and so many things I'm afraid to say, so many things that have already been said and much more clearly and eloquently than I could ever express. But this community (the gaming community) is my community too, both as a gamer and a creator, and I feel like the community and I need to have a talk. Because, you see, a significant subset of the community has been trying to tell me for most of my life that this isn't  my community, that this community isn't for me or people like me and others (women, LGBTQ, people of color, etc - basically anyone who isn't a straight, white, cis man).

What defines our community? From my perspective, it's our shared love of games and other geeky things, our passion for things that for a long time were out of the mainstream (the last decade or so has seen that shift a bit), our sense of exclusion by 'normal' people because of our interests and hobbies. And so that is why I say this is my community too. From the time I was a little girl and my uncle took me to the bowling alley, not to bowl, but to play Star Wars and Ms Pac-Man at the arcade there; from the first time I picked up a controller to play Super Mario Brothers on the NES (or before that, a joystick to play Space Invaders on my dad's cousin's Atari); from the time I watched the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon and learned that it was (very loosely) inspired by the tabletop game (a game that I wanted to play from the moment I learned of its existence). Games have been my constant solace through the many upheavals and changes in my life; they were there for me when almost no one else was. All I had to do was pick up a controller, launch a game, pick up some dice or read a gaming book to be transported to a world where I could be anything, where I was the hero of the story, surrounded by friends imaginary and real (especially when I later started playing MMOs), saving the universe, solving mysteries and fighting evil. Whether video games, tabletop RPGs, miniatures (WH40K and Necromunda still hold a dear place in my heart, though I haven't had time to play or space to paint in many years), card games, board games or LARPing, I've long said if it's a game, I'll play it. I don't love them all, not to the same extent, but as long as they are reasonably well crafted, I appreciate them and the care that goes into making them. And there are many that I do love, passionately and perhaps beyond reason. So much so that I have found myself driven to find my own role in crafting those experiences for others.

This is despite the fact that when I first wanted to get into tabletop games, the guys I knew who played (at the time I didn't know any women who were playing D&D or games of that ilk) told me it was a "guy thing" and wouldn't let me play. I basically badgered and harassed each one of them until I found one who relented and let me join their group, and I was overjoyed to finally be able to partake in the magic (I still remember that first elven street samurai in Shadowrun and that first trollslayer in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay with great fondness, and I'm pretty sure I have those character sheets tucked away somewhere for when I'm feeling like indulging some gaming nostalgia). Every time I walked into a game store, conversation would stop and they would stare like I was an invader. The first convention I went to (Origins, in the mid-90s), was 95% male attendees. When I started playing MMOs, I made the mistake of selecting female character models (but I always choose female characters when given the choice, partly because so much of the time I feel forced to play male ones) and so I was often harassed or mocked by the other players. I walked away from my computer while playing my City of Heroes empathy defender (a small Native American girl embarrassingly named Healing Moon) only to come back finding that someone was taking advantage of the afk position (character kneeling) and was molesting her via motion, emotes and text. One of the first conversations I saw in general chat when I started playing World of Warcraft was from someone asserting that women weren't playing the game and any that were played because of their boyfriends. At the time my partner was playing, but it was at my instigation, not the other way around - a common trend in my life, while I date people who share my interests, few have been as passionate about them as I am, a fact that has never stopped nearly everyone we meet or talk to who doesn't know me to assume that I am the 'casual' and my male partners are the 'real gamers.' I have been stalked, groped, harassed, threatened with mock rape/sexual assault in games and at conventions and other gaming events, my cred questioned, and my passion discounted as if no 'mere girl' could be passionate about or good at games. And if I do prove to be good, especially if I happen to successfully come out ahead in a competitive setting, then those I compete against (if male) are mocked for losing to a girl, as if that is a worse humiliation than losing to anyone else.

Every one of these things communicates that I do not belong. That this is not my community. That my passion is faked or forced (at least one person even insinuated that the only reason I played tabletop was to get a boyfriend... lolwut). That there is no possible way that someone like me could be a part of this community.

Things have gotten better. I haven't been able to find statistics on percentages of women attendees at events like PAX and Gen Con, but it's been obvious just looking around that it's far better than the 5% average I saw when I first started attending these kinds of events. (And women represent approximately 45% of gamers, although only 12% of developers.) And I think that possibly the hostility has decreased, or at least I hope so.

But my experience is not unusual. Nearly every woman who participates in geekdom has similar stories (and worse). And this is the context in which Mike Krahulik's words and actions must be considered, a context in which the women in this community are already under fire and struggling for acceptance and a sense of safety that straight white cis men who game can generally take for granted as a given.

I attended PAX Prime for the first time this year, although I did not attend the Q&A panel. I enjoyed it a lot, though in retrospect I realized that I was very circumspect about what panels I attended and what events and activities I participated in while I was there, mostly in order to avoid the harassment and so on that has been so typical of my past con experiences (at this I succeeded, this is one of the first cons I have been to where I was not groped by strangers or otherwise harassed). I was very glad that there were a number of panels on gender, inclusiveness and community building and between that and the Enforcer presence throughout, I felt mostly a sense of safety and belonging, though I never lost my awareness and caution about interacting with others there.

All of that was swept away when I watched the video of the Q&A, when I heard a vocal subset of the audience cheering Krahulik's assertion that pulling the dickwolf merchandise was a mistake. It was a loud and painful reminder of the message that some portion of the community is still trying to convey: I do not belong. I am not welcome. As long as I am there, I will not be allowed to feel safe and accepted. I can never forget, never let my guard down, never trust that we, as a community, have grown enough to accept all of our members and respect their passion and involvement as if it were our own.

I've read his clarification (let's not call it an apology; he doesn't and it isn't one). It doesn't reassure me, in large part because it doesn't address that moment. That chilling, heartbreaking moment of hearing the audience cheer and knowing that they value their freedom to express whatever they like over my sense of safety.

Will I return to PAX? I don't know. I'm not sure what good a boycott will do, but I feel like there has got to be something we can do. I don't want to believe that we are powerless to change things and become the inclusive community most of us aspire to be. I do know that I won't be able to forget the sound of that audience cheering, that audible reminder of all that I have fought against over the years.


This post (Gamers Against Bigotry, Moving Forward with PAX: A How-To) pretty much answers the question I've been struggling with. I highly recommend it.

Further reading:

Saturday, May 4, 2013

What I'm Playing May the Fourth

I finished Bioshock Infinite a few days ago - for the most part I had fun with it but it was ultimately disappointing, and there are some very specific things I really did not like. Possibly I'll write a longer blog specifically about that at some point, but for now my summary is: meh.

I've spent most of the day today playing Neverwinter and I'm enjoying it. I doubt I'll stick with it for very long, but there are some interesting things that they're doing. I also feel like some of the key decisions Arenanet made with Guild Wars 2 have seeped in, or maybe we're just finally at that stage in MMO thinking, but either way, I'm glad to see it. Artificially inconveniencing players as a means to gate content just never sat well with me, even when I understood the thinking behind it. It is interesting that this shift is coming from the F2P space. With Neverwinter, I think it makes even more sense, with the Foundry in place. Speaking of which, I have played through one Foundry quest (they actually incentivize players to play them, through daily quests). I haven't yet crafted my own, though I definitely will be playing around with it. Very very curious to see what that toolset looks like. I'd probably be doing that right now if the servers weren't down for maintenance.

I also picked up Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, and I'll probably boot that up in a bit to check it out. It looks super fun though.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A Game Called 'id'

A Simple Game Idea

On my way home from work tonight, I had an idea for a game, a game that I am calling 'id'.

At the start of the game you are assigned an arbitrary shape placed inside an arbitrarily shaped container. You can change your shape but only to a limited extent (the shape is somewhat elastic and resists attempts at reshaping, a little bit like playdough). You cannot change the shape of the container, but it will arbitrarily change shape sometimes, and if the new shape of the container forces the player's shape to be out of bounds, the out of bounds portions of the player's shape are lost, incurring a move penalty. You win the game by getting your shape to match the shape of the container and you are ranked on leaderboards based on how long it takes and how many moves you used.

The game has two difficulty settings: 'Reality' and 'Fantasy'. In Fantasy mode, you can also alter the shape of the container to match your shape and the player's shape can never be out of bounds. Fantasy mode also has no leaderboard or scoring - every player can win.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Endings, Expectations & Choices: The Mass Effect 3 ending and Analogue: A Hate Story

When I was a kid, I went through a period of consuming choose your own adventure books in mass quantities. It was the merging of books and games, my two loves, so I kept telling myself that, as the amalgamation of the two, they were even better. But they weren’t better. I never identified with my character in those books the way I identified with Bilbo in ‘The Hobbit’ or Hazel in ‘Watership Down’. And they were definitely not as exciting as stomping mushrooms in Super Mario Bros or hitting things with Simon’s whip in Castlevania. Obviously the gameplay was lacking because there isn’t much you can do with “turn to page 67” (even adding a die roll and combat system, like some of the more advanced versions did, didn’t do much to increase the sense of risk and accomplishment inherent in games like Super Mario Bros and Castlevania), but why was the story not as immersive? The theory I think a lot of us who make games operate from is that offering player choices creates a sense of investment in their character and in the story that supersedes that of a novel or film; however, in my experience, that is seldom the case.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Guild Wars 2 June BWE

Last weekend was the second Beta Weekend Event for Guild Wars 2, so I spent most of the weekend playing it.

I already had a Charr thief I'd made for the last beta event, but I made a couple of other characters, a Norn engineer and a Human necromancer. I ended up mostly playing the engineer because I really enjoyed the class and the Norn starting area. The thing I've found so far is that each class allows for a fairly wide range of playstyles while each still keeps their own unique flavor. The engineer uses pistols, rifles and shields, and has a wide range of utility skills from turrets (some for healing and some for damage/control) to grenades to elixirs (providing buffs to the player and/or nearby players). I highly recommend playing quite a bit with different skill/weapon combinations because it really changes how the class plays.

I did some crafting - leatherworking and huntsman on my engineer. Leatherworking is pretty much what you would expect, crafting various forms of medium armor and inscriptions to buff said armor, while huntsman is mostly for ranged weapons. The crafting system is interesting - once you choose your crafting professions (you can have two) you gain some basic recipes. You skill up by crafting things and you learn new recipes through either (rarely) purchasing them from vendors or through discoveries. On the crafting interface there is a tab for recipes and another tab for the discoveries, where you select 3 or 4 components to craft something and 'discover' a new recipe. It's fairly obvious what items you need to craft for a discovery. For example, for a new pistol discovery I put an inscription and the pistol components together, which created an upgraded version of the pistol recipe I already knew. My only issue with it is that my huntsman skill progressed much more quickly than my leatherworking, because I had trouble getting enough leather to craft the things I needed to improve my skill. So while my huntsman crafting skill advanced ahead of my gear level, my leatherworking lagged pretty far behind. Still, overall I found the crafting system fairly enjoyable. It is grindy but not tediously so (at least for me).

I might post some more thoughts later, but for now, have some screenshots.

Friday, June 1, 2012


Anyone have any suggestions for good gaming or game dev podcasts? Looking for some aural inspiration to listen to while I do other things.

I'll make sure to post a follow-up on what I find.


Monday, May 28, 2012

Diablo III: Not Quite Awesome

So, like most of you, I've been playing a lot of Diablo III. I've mostly been playing my Witch Doctor (level 52 and in Hell Act 1 now), mostly solo though some grouping as well. Some of the fights have been an interesting challenge and Hell is noticeably more challenging than Nightmare (Normal was a joke). Crafting and the Auction House have both been somewhat disappointing so far - crafting is generally more costly than justify its rewards and the Auction House has a disturbing habit of being up and down all the time as they sort out various issues with it (it's also rather lacking in search functionality and limits users to 10 listings which is a bit disappointing though I understand it).

Blizzard posted a dev blog this morning (Game Design Update) describing some of the issues they're seeing with balance and play-feel as well as roughly outlining some of their intended solutions. It's well worth a read if you're interested in Blizz's perspective about the course of Diablo III, and of course I have a few thoughts about it.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

A Beta By Any Other Name...

A Beta By Any Other Name...

TERA, Diablo III and Guild Wars 2

A couple of weeks ago, like many other people, I participated in the betas for TERA and Diablo III. While I wasn't particularly thrilled by either, they both had some interesting elements.


I'll admit, I only spent an hour or two on the TERA beta - back issues and a lack of compelling interest in the game got in the way. Overall, it seemed fairly polished, although everything was every bit as crowded as you expect an open beta to be. When I looked at the demo at E3 last year, I was impressed by the combat mechanics, and I still think they are an interesting innovation. However, combat does not an MMO make, so I was more curious about the world and the quests... unfortunately the writing is very uninspiring (Gary Gannon of GamebreakerTV dubbed it "TERA-ble", a pun almost as bad as the writing), at least in the prologue and starting area, and the pretty animations that impressed me at E3 got lost in the overall business of every location (open beta overpopulation). I'm sure if I'd played for longer I could have gotten away from that, but again, pretty animations are nice but not enough to keep me playing. The character designs are pretty but I'm getting a little tired of overly sexualized female characters in these games and it would have been nice to be able to make a badass female warrior who actually looks badass. One thing they did that I thought was interesting was start you out at level 20 for the prologue (you're reset to level 1 once you complete the prologue) so you get a little taste of some of the abilities you'll gain later on.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Beat Fez, Now What?

I beat FEZ today. I mean, I finished the game two days ago, but today I really completed it. As in, all achievements unlocked, 209.4% completion, saw the 'all cubes collected' ending. The game sunk its claws into my completionist side and wouldn't let me go until I was done; it also reminded me that I really do like platformers, especially the part that involves searching for and collecting every last little piece.

I find it interesting that one of the puzzles ended up being solved by collaboration. It's a little frustrating that there's no real answer (yet, anyway) as to what it means or if it's just an easter egg, and I'm not sure if I approve of a puzzle that seems to have only been solvable through brute force. It's definitely not the kind of game design I aspire to, anyway - as interesting as it is to see how people worked together to resolve it, I'd prefer for solutions to be something that one can logic through on one's own (and it kind of goes back to what I said in my earlier entry about not requiring mind reading skills of your users).

My initial irritation with the Tetris/code input puzzles (link contains spoilers) faded after I realized a couple of things: a) the thumbstick is strangely more reliable than the d-pad for directional input for them and b) the code isn't actually all that complicated when you stop and think about it. My main remaining frustration with them is that certain ones it's quite difficult to get the right angle to view them correctly (I'm talking about ones that require you to be in NG+).

The entire fabulous game soundtrack is on Youtube, I highly recommend checking it out so I'm helping you out by embedding the playlist:

I'm not sure what to do next now. I'm having some back issues that make sitting at my computer difficult so PC games are probably out, but I have a cold so staying in and playing games the next day or two sounds like a brilliant plan.

These are the options I am considering:
  1. Replay Mass Effect
  2. Finish Dead Space
  3. Finish Red Dead Redemption
  4. Play some other Xbox game
  5. Watch movies/shows

Friday, April 20, 2012

FEZ, What Are You Doing to Me?

I got into a couple betas this week (including Diablo III) and I was going to tell you about that (it's still coming but later) but I got sidetracked by a little thing called FEZ.

Before I tell you my thoughts on FEZ, I feel I should first tell you that I have a Rule for myself when it comes to what games I play. I came up with this rule at some point after I'd been doing QA work for a year or so. It's a simple rule: "Don't play anything that feels like Work."

Mostly this means anything that isn't fun, but also anything that's buggy enough to seriously impinge on my enjoyment (SWTOR fell, in part, to this aspect of my Rule). Now, fun is a subjective evaluation, and there are plenty of games that I do not consider fun that many otherwise sensible people enjoy. Puzzle games, for instance. I very rarely find puzzle games fun, or any game whose gameplay is predicated on solving a puzzle that is clearly the warped product of some twisted mind who likes to fiendishly torment the poor saps who were foolish enough to purchase their game. I can't stand Braid, for example. (I know I've lost a lot of you at this point.) Or Machinarium or many of the classics of the point and click adventure game genre, because they're all essentially puzzle games. Or as I like to call them "Read the Mind of the Demented Designer" games. If I ever make a puzzle game, I will a) have someone else design the puzzles because I am clearly not demented enough and b) have a murderous alternative to puzzle solving (especially any Damn Jumping Puzzle™), probably some sort of cruel demi-god who demands a blood sacrifice and then does the puzzle for you. (And there will be no penalty or bad ending for the player who takes the blood sacrifice route. This is because I vastly prefer Shooting Things to Reading Minds.) The exception to this are the really stylish and hilarious Monkey Island games as well as Grim Fandango - they get a pass on account of being really, really well written and hilarious. Otherwise, it's a big N-O to demented puzzles for me.

From all the buzz about FEZ, I suspected that it fell into this category, but also that I should still try and play it (like I tried to play Braid and many other games). And it turns out that for some reason I bought a bunch of Microsoft points a while back and then never used them. So I bought FEZ, figuring I'd eventually check it out but not really expecting to play it.

I was partially right.

It actually fails my Rule on both counts. It is one of those Fiendishly Twisted puzzle games and it is also incredibly buggy. So far it's only crashed on me once and otherwise the bugs have been limited to horrible framerate issues and the occasional extremely long load time (>5 minutes once or twice). According to raptr, I'm 10 hours and 4 achievements into the game and it pains me not to pick up the controller RIGHT NOW and play it instead of writing this (also laundry and various other chores that need to be done today).

Why is it sucking me in so much?

Well, for one thing, I think it's a gamer's game. It references so many classic console and puzzle games of the past that are much beloved by many of us (including me) that I find myself looking for/hoping for more references. Mario, Tetris, Castlevania, to name a few. The music (many have commented on how incredible the music is already), the art style, are all reminiscent of those days of yore that many of us (especially if you've been playing since the NES days) remember fondly.

Some of the puzzles are the kind I hate, that basically I have no chance of ever figuring out on my own on account of not being a Mind Reader, but quite a few are interesting and fun. More than once I've come across something and thought to myself "If I put this in my game, it would do this" and lo and behold, that's what it does. Sometimes I'm playing with the world just to play with it and the goal (mind you, I'm still not even sure what the goal is - I think some old man in a village told me but I seem to have forgotten in a haze of wonderment) falls to the wayside.

However, late last night in my voyage I found something disturbing. A number of the puzzles require that one decipher a sequence of characters and then execute a sequence of button presses in specific locations. I eventually cheated and looked up one of these and even knowing exactly what I was supposed to do, it took me a good twenty minutes to execute it. Admittedly, it was late and I was tired and I kept getting confused about which sequence of button presses I was supposed to be executing, but I really, really cannot stress enough how much I hate these kinds of puzzles. They're the same sort of combination of "memorize a sequence" and "execute perfectly" that makes me hate, hate, hate jumping puzzles.

So I'm going to cheat and look them all up. It doesn't do anything for me to sit there staring at a sequence of symbols and write them down and decode them and then have to execute a series of button presses. Obviously I can't get out of the button presses (no cruel demi-god to do them for me in this game) but at least I can bypass the rest.

I'm not even sure why I'm still playing; this should be the Last Straw in breaking my Rule. But I am, and I wouldn't be surprised if I "finished it" whatever that means.