The Map Is Not the Territory

tomodachi

I do remember some things about my birth father.

I do remember his impossibly long stride as he came down the airplane’s gangway. I remember his brown guitar case in one hand, his duffel in the other. I remember the worn leather patches on the elbows of his corduroy jacket. I remember the way his sly smile swelled into a boyish grin as he walked toward me.

I was nine years old when this happened, but I do know that this memory is almost certainly correct.

It’s almost certainly correct because I rarely visualize that moment at all, and also because I’ve never, ever written about it, or even discussed it.

So I’m sure the memory is “real,” see, because I haven’t screwed the memory up yet.

***

Tomodachi Life is a video game about avatars.

At the game’s outset you are invited either to import Miis—these are avatars usually created each by its own maker—or to recreate your family and friends entirely from memory.

You may also specify, for each of these avatars, whether that character is “related” to you and, if yes, how: You can assign relationships like “father,” “mother,” or “sibling.” (Presumably this is all to safeguard your avatar from an ugly romantic pairing.)

You can also tell the game whether an avatar is your “spouse,” but Tomodachi Life doesn’t seem to take that particular type of relationship into account—the game apparently match-makes couples at its own whim, whether or not you’re IRL-married.

Once a Mii is either imported or designed fresh, you may assign any number of characteristics to it. Perhaps she walks quickly, or talks quickly. Perhaps his gestures are broad and ebullient. Maybe she is extremely self-serious; perhaps she is “relaxed.” You can also tweak settings until an avatar’s vocal tone, timbre, and cadence are exactly correct. The avatar goes on to read game text aloud in its bizarre digitized voice.

Once you’ve assigned X-many values, Tomodachi Life evaluates the avatar’s “personality” using a rubric resembling the Myers-Briggs. In this way, one friend—a slow-moving, serious woman—is a “confident brainiac.” Another—a quick-moving fellow with a flair for the dramatic—is an “outgoing” showboat.

***

“But Ted,” I teased my fiance, “this is the old you.”

“Don’t delete me!” Ted cried. “Didn’t you fall in love with the ‘old me’ when we first met?”

At the beginning of my Tomodachi Life, there were only two Mii avatars in my “MiiMaker,” one of whom was a thinner, clean-shaven Ted.

I initially hadn’t realized I could import more Mii avatars through the 3DS’s Streetpass Plaza; now I had two Teds to contend with. There was the out-of-date Ted I’d downloaded from our WiiU a year earlier, and then there was the new, up-to-date Ted I’d streetpassed just this week.

And since Old Ted’s avatar and mine were the only two avatars on the island at first, my Tomodachi Life “lookalike”—the game explicitly refers to your doppelgaenger as a “lookalike”—had already begun to fall in love with the Ted of Last Year.

“Fuck it,” I told real-life living-with-me Ted. “I’m just gonna delete Old Ted. While I still have a chance, you know?”

“Don’t do that!” Ted insisted, suddenly and weirdly attached to the Old Ted Avatar.

“Look,” I replied lightly, “I’m sure she’ll eventually fall in love with New Ted.” Here I meant, once I’d deleted the old WiiU avatar, my “lookalike” would fall in love with the next-newest cast member, Ted From a Week Ago. After all, I’d marked this character as a “spouse,” too.

She didn’t.

Instead, my doppelgaenger wanted to romance two of her male colleagues. “No, no, no!” I shouted at the tiny screen. “This is all wrong! This is so wrong!”

The dissonance didn’t end there. One avatar, one of my best guy friends in real life, insisted on having a haircut. “I’m tired of my hair,” his avatar harrumphed.

NO, I told the game.

No! Because my friend doesn’t need a haircut, or if I do give him one, how is he supposed to resemble himself?

I dressed another avatar in clothes she would approximately wear. “She doesn’t like it,” the game grumbled at me. I shopped for clothes until I found an ensemble she’d hate.

“She loves it!” the game told me giddily.

***

In-game I can set another avatar as my “father,” “mother,” or “sibling.” But in life, I can’t. Oh, I could fudge the facts a little, sure. I could invent a little avatar of my best friend and call her my sibling for the hell of it. I could make avatars of Ted’s parents and recast them as mine.

Sometimes, in-game, I wonder how—if I were made to try it—how I might design an avatar of my birth father.

I don’t remember his face very well. I do remember his ash-brown hair, his green eyes, and his eyelashes, which were long and black and curled like a cartoon’s. I remember that he was grand and lanky, at least to a nine-year-old girl. I do remember his twice-broken nose.

But, trickily, I don’t actually remember what any of these details look like. Rather, they’re ideas of memories. They’re things I remember remembering.

Now, when I try to remember the details of his face, there is no memory. Instead, I find my head filled with simple mental sentences—“He has green eyes.” “He has ash-brown hair”—and the still-frame images I ought to have of him are instead replaced with entire spoken paragraphs.

***

There is a picturebook on my shelf, ‘Stories Every Child Should Know’, copyrighted 1936. It is bound in fine blue fabric; its title is printed in barely-faded gilt. My adoptive mother used to read to me from it because her mother used to read aloud from it, too.

Ted never had a chance to know my adoptive parents. He’s never met any of my family. I sometimes joke that, as far as he knows, I made them all up. It’s a sick joke: He moved into my childhood home with me, so that we’re surrounded by photographs of them, and books.

I opened the picturebook to its first page and, automatically, Ted began to read aloud.

“Stop it!” I screamed. “Please, stop!”

Ted looked at me, confused and hurt. I caught my breath.

“Please,” I said, quieter now, “please, please don’t do that. You’ll overwrite the… I still have a distinct memory of my mother reading, and you’ll overwrite it.”

Ted nodded grimly.

“You can overwrite it someday,” I conceded, “if we ever have children. I mean, we’ll have to. We’ll have to read out loud. But I’m not ready for that.

“But also,” and I started to laugh, “also, you’re reading it wrong.”

***

As I’ve uploaded my friends’ avatars to Tomodachi Life, I keep guessing at the characteristics I think they might give themselves. “How would this person describe herself?” I am always wondering.

Still, I am acutely aware that I am the one who is, in fact, authoring their personalities.

To my credit, they seem enough like themselves. My close friend Daphny, according to the game software, is a “trendsetter,” which she really is. A friendly colleague was designated as an “outgoing” “leader,” which I liked for him. Ted was given the “showboat” personality, which I guess is sort of true. (“I love being the center of attention!” my fiance’s avatar shouted at me. It rang tinny: Maybe Ted does love being the center of attention, but he would never say so.)

As I imported a friendly acquaintance’s avatar, though—and this avatar belonged to a someone I haven’t seen in at least a year—I began to wonder if I had his “personality” wrong. And if I did have his personality wrong, wasn’t that… unfair? Sinister, almost?

Because, if I do have him all wrong, I’m memorizing this backward version of him, cementing that version of him in my head, instead of knowing him for the way he really is.

I began to overthink it. I began to worry.

In a sense, aren’t I doing that to every friend in Tomodachi Life? I am secretly writing my own mental sentences about people I’ve met, and I am making those sentences permanent.

It’s almost like when someone appears to you in a dream, and he says something wrong, and you’re angry at him the next morning even though he never really said that thing.

***

My adoptive mother appears in every single dream I have. Whenever I wake up, if I can remember the dream, I make sure to remind myself that I was the one who wrote both halves of our conversation.

***

I do remember the way, as he disembarked the plane, my birth father’s stride lengthened. His little smirk broadened into a grin.

I remember his smile because one of his front teeth was missing.

That one excrutiating detail changed his appearance so much, somehow. He looked so different to me. I think I must have taken a step back.

My birth father stopped several feet away from me. He stood there motionless. His smile faltered.

I remember this, not because I can picture him without his teeth, but because I remember my sudden, deep embarrassment.

I remember my birth-father pausing in his walk toward me. He stood there, silent. Finally he said, “Daddy got some teeth knocked out.” I nodded, and we left the airport that way.

In one particular memory, I can see a gold cross earring dangling from my birth father’s ear. It is a half-inch long, gold-plated, jittering from his earlobe and catching the light.

I probably remember his earring because I asked him why he was wearing it. He told me it was because we were going to church. It was his church earring.

***

Tomodachi Life is a game about avatars.

More important, it’s about the avatars you create. It’s entirely about how you choose to remember others.

The problem with nonfiction writing—the problem with remembering anything, ever—is that, with each act of remembering, the photograph might fade. With enough remembering, the mental image dissolves completely.

With enough remembering, I am left with an oversimplification, an abstract map of a memory. I am left with a mess of so many sentences about a person, with just a cartoon of a face.

I cannot remember my birth father’s face.

I can remember specific details, but none of these is a salient fact about his appearance. Every feature is a mistake. I’m left with elbow-patches on his sports jacket, his boyish, toothless grin, and that’s it. That’s all.

The map of places passes. The reality of paper tears.”

***

This review of Tomodachi Life is based on an earlier piece of writing, “Lapse,” from 2004.

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Let’s play: ‘Nothing You Have Done Deserves Such Praise’

Nothing You Have Done Deserves Such Praise

I just played through Jason Nelson’s latest, Nothing You Have Done Deserves Such Praise (via Terry Cavanagh at Free Indie Games).

I wrote about Jason Nelson’s games right here in late 2010; NYHDDSP basically picks up where Jason Nelson’s School of Games left off. It’s a send-up of big-budge AAA titles, and in particular, the way those video games reward the player for jumping (and landing) in the correct places, for moving in a straight line from point A to point B. This game, like the best AAA titles, rewards the player with huge, unwarranted explosions.

One common reward in these types of games (and indeed, in most games) is the Power-Up. Of course, once the player achieves higher jumping ability—in NYHDDSP this ability is called “Super Legs”—the platforms are accordingly spaced farther apart. Since any New Ability is usually also necessary to proceed in a game, the player has ultimately “gained” nothing at all. He is, in essence, jumping the same distance as before.

Still, NYHDDSP might be less a condemnation of Obvious Game Design so much as it is a scathing remark on a larger “entitlement culture.” It’s taking piss out of achievement badge bros who have completed the same tasks another million players have already achieved. This has broader social implications. Especially in the educational system, but also in the workplace, students and underlings who conform are also rewarded: for falling in line; for showing up on time; for jumping when they are supposed to jump; for completing life in the “right” “order.”

Completing NYHDDSP is less a matter of skill or intellect than it is a sheer act of duty—so why do we, the players, tend to feel so triumphant? For accomplishing even the bare minimum required to “pass” or “progress”?

I didn’t notice during the first playthrough, but in NYHDDSP the player’s sprite is moving through the human body, specifically through its limbic system I think? In the next-to-last stage—a Coin-collect in which the player’s score artificially inflates by literal leaps and bounds—the player passes through the human head.

This is all an interesting thought experiment. But maybe the final stage ends too quickly. Its thesis—that we all play video games in a race against our own (geographic, sociocultural) alienation, to ward off our own sense of inefficacy—is a damning one.

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I get angry, too

Helen Keller

Recently, online, I picked a battle that isn’t mine to pick. Relief finally came in the form of an email. “My wife and I are Quaker,” the letter-writer explained; I was immediately overwhelmed.

My mother never identified Quaker as such, but when she was new to Christianity she was mentored by a Quaker, by a man called John Steiner. She spoke of this person a lot. She took certain ideals to heart and, although she would certainly tell you that her message, as transmitted to me, got all mixed up, some ideals really did glom onto me. I am anti-war; I am terribly conflict-averse; I believe in compassion and inclusion. I still identify as Christian—and make no mistake, I have several crises of faith in a single day—but none of those crises has anything to do with whether God, as I interpret Him, composed human beings lovingly in His own image. (Mostly my crises are about me being a shitty person. I am trying to learn to become more patient with myself.)

Principally, though, I am terrified of my own anger. Very few people have witnessed it, but they can tell you it’s an ugly, remarkable thing, a thing that gets away from me before I can grab back onto it and rein it to shore again. Like most people, I figure, my anger usually has something to do with an issue of “justice.” When I have been at my very angriest, my mother used to sigh—oh, my mother!—and warn me, “Jenny, don’t talk to people that way.” Now, here in her shadow, I am beginning to think she is right.

I understand the argument against “tone arguments.” I also hate tone arguments. It’s usually an unfair thing, this gambit is, demanding the other person sacrifice all emotion—indeed, all humanity—for the sake of being “calm,” “reasonable,” “rational.” These are loaded terms, denying a speaker all the emotion—which is, absolutely, another type of data, what we call “experiential data”—he or she is feeling. Women especially are socialized to couch their assertions of opinion with words like “I am beginning to think” or “sometimes I get the feeling,” which are all ways of preemptively apologizing for holding any opinion or valueset at all. Even now I’m using a type of passive speech, as a defense mechanism, certainly, so you will not feel like hitting me.

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This week’s quicknotes: Feminist Frequency, horror movies, and toys for tots

Violence Sexism Fun!!!

What horror movies and video games share in common

Late last night I tried my hand at posting to Medium for the first time. It was something I was originally going to post here but, you know, it ended up over there instead, so whatever. The blarticle at Medium is called “On Consuming Media Responsibly,” and it’s all about my love of violent, misogynistic horror movies. I’m a student of the form, I get overexcited when a movie tries anything new, and I also enjoy movies that suck and do everything wrong. (The greatest insult, I always warn, is just being boring, and even then I don’t mind being bored when a movie is otherwise doing good work.)

I bring up my horror movie fetish because Feminist Frequency’s Anita Sarkeesian is currently in the throes of the usual gamer backlash, which is really alarming, because she isn’t asking anyone to give anything up. No one is saying “video games are bad, burn them”; Sarkeesian is simply focusing a critical or analytical lens on video games, in a way that is surprisingly nonconfrontational and not even particularly judgemental. Well. All my thoughts are actually already in the Medium link, so check it out.

Medium as a medium

I really like what Medium and Zeen are both trying to do—but I have to wonder whether content creators and distributors are on the cusp of getting all pinboarded and Tumblr’d out. These are platforms that kind of get their content for free, to which I’m opposed, but they also “curate” what becomes visible, so a newcomer has a much better shot at being read. This isn’t a new publishing model, no, but it does work.

What’s most interesting about Medium, though, is you can invite other collaborators to make edits before publishing, and then once it’s published readers can comment in the margins. A lot of this ends up being minor recommendations and tweaks, so the work kind of turns into this living document. Which is weird—an article might look completely different if you decide to read it a day later—but as a result people have been really responsive even in other channels, especially on Twitter.

Toys for tots

When I read articles like “How Video Game Developers Are Abandoning the Traditional Controller to Create Immersive Experiences,” I just picture Elijah Wood in a colander:

“You mean you have to use your hands??” “That’s like a baby’s toy!!!”

Ugh, kids these days.

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The Oculus Rift is (probably) here to stay

VIRTUAL REALITY

Some quick thoughts.

A little over a year ago I wrote a short, half-baked thing for Infinite Lives, Why “virtual reality” will never catch on. Now, fewer than 400 days later, my little treatise already seems outdated and quaint. Oh, sure, the crux of my argument remains true: there is virtually (hah! Virtually) no way to not look like a complete idiot while wearing a VR headset. But now I have to begrudgingly admit VR is a fad that will not pass.

New World Notes, a blog heretofore known for its Second Life coverage, has been following the Oculus Rift with great interest all this month. That’s because, in late April, Linden Lab confirmed plans to integrate the Oculus Rift headset with Second Life. (Before Second Life, Linden Lab itself aspired to create a virtual reality metaverse, headset and all. What we call “Second Life” was originally just a proprietary creative toolbox, intended for building virtual-reality environments.)

In a post titled Oculus Rift Makes Virtual Reality a Shared Group Experience, New World Notes includes this delightful video. In it, Katie—she’s the one in the VR headset, on the verge of toppling—needs to be held upright.

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On bullying

This young person  just read something about herself on the Internet!

potential triggers: depression, suicide, bullying

I don’t know whether it’s okay to talk about this. Maybe it doesn’t help.

At present, we don’t actually know for certain whether a game designer has taken her own life. We don’t know any concrete details leading up to it. All we have is speculation, conjecture.

Although she had a fan following, she was not a “public” figure by any stretch of the word.

We do know with certainty, however, she’d recently become the target of incessant bullying. Shortly before she made the gruesome announcement, she presented an Internet forum with a screenshot of her inbox, indicating that most of these attacks were cruel remarks about her birth gender. She may have been trans, maybe not.

There isn’t a word for how horrifying. I hope she’s alive. I hope she only decided to take a temporary break from the Internet and that she will have an opportunity to get on with her life. Or I hope her suicide attempt failed. I hope she intended it to fail.

We do know this: while the rate of attempted suicide among the general population is 1.6%, as many as 41% of transpeople have attempted suicide. The numbers of LGBT children who have attempted suicide hover around a similarly startling 30-40%. Familial rejection, economic strife, and systemic or institutionalized transphobia and homophobia all play roles in these suicide attempts.

But let’s not minimize the incredibly damaging effects of outright bullying.

In early 2012 the Center for Disease Control noted that the rate of teen suicide has spiked in recent years. The CDC’s 2012 report went on to estimate that one in 12 teenagers has attempted suicide, with 20% of teenagers indicating they have been bullied. Among schoolchildren, girls plan or attempt suicide in greater numbers than boys.

There are other risk factors in play, of course. The CDC lists physical illness, isolation, clinical depression, loss, and hopelessness as factors. There are genetic and environmental factors to consider, as well—I find “local epidemics of suicide” to be among the more chilling.

Bullying is so insidious, though, because it takes most of these preexisting risk factors and escalates them in the worst possible way. Bullying among schoolchildren is consistently diminished or shrugged off as the natural order of things, even as children gain greater access to communications technologies that allow their meanspiritedness to be “liked,” be “shared,” and “go viral.” School administrators seem especially complicit, probably out of helplessness and inefficacy.

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Ahhhcade at the San Francisco MOMA

Two of the best events at this year’s Game Developers Conference were, technically, not GDC events at all.

First there was Lost Levels, a rotating, three-ring speaking engagement held one afternoon in the Yerba Buena Gardens. That event was exciting in a punk-rock “this is our happening!” way. And except for I quickly discovered I suffer from serious allergies—the venue was mostly shorn lawn, and more than one person wondered aloud why I was apparently crying—Lost Levels’s freeform “microtalks” were among the GDC’s very best.

Then there was Ahhhcade, an interactive games gallery held on the first floor of the SF MOMA. It was similar to Lost Levels and in multiple ways: it was a one-day event; it was open and free to the public; it was also maybe poorly documented. (GDC panels and talks are usually filmed and stuffed into “the Vault,” which is to say, though the conference itself can be inaccessible for some, the talks are generally available.)

Ahhhcade, curated by Sarah Brin and Babycastles, was wonderful. Anthony Carboni, tireless friend to Indies, will explain:

For my own part, I was so excited to finally play Ian Bogost’s Guru Meditation as it was meant to be played! (I own the iOS version of that game, knowing full well it is a flimsy facsimile of the original Atari 2600 software.) I am a great fan of 2600 homebrew as it is; meanwhile, Professor Bogost’s software gamifies my favorite pastime, which is sitting still. I decided—in hopes of being the first person in the world to try this, actually—to play the iOS and 2600 versions simultaneously. To do it, I seated myself on the balance board and opened the game on my iPhone.

My hands were trembling. The experiment was a total failure. Still, Professor Bogost encouraged me, and my good friend Brian Taylor captured it:

Jenn Frank plays two versions of Guru Meditation simultaneously

Professor Bogost does what he can to help

The real reason I attended Ahhhcade, though, was to experience Doug Wilson’s latest collaboration, Marvelous Melodies of Mutazione.

And the reason I decided to attend GDC itself was to co-host the ordinarily-London-based radio program One Life Left! It’s really the only radio program or podcast to which you ever need to listen, and what an honor and pleasure to participate!

In our final GDC episode, fellow host Ann Scantlebury and I excitedly flip out on poor Doug (14:44). I loved my Mutazione experience, and I kind of get lost in explaining why. Ah! I am the worst interviewer in the world.

Incidentally, I do not at all remember recording the first episode of One Life Left’s GDC series, which is incredibly funny because, in it, I clearly state that my goals for the week include “remember an evening after it happens.”

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“Allow Natural Death” post-mortem (AKA “thanks”)

For fuck’s sake, Internet. What are you even trying to do to me.

I laughed and cried a lot today. I did those two things at my laptop, and also in the real world.

I have had the strangest—and yes, since you are wondering, the drunkest—week. (I try to warn against using alcohol as a crutch, because that attitude is dangerous, but there’s also a palpable reason nine or ten brain-murdering beers are popularly accepted as a legitimate type of “truth serum.”)

Ah. About this week. Here are all my work-related updates: in a career highlight, my friendly acquaintance Maura interviewed me about Boyfriend Maker, an iOS game. My ire at a dictionary became a hot story at Boing Boing. For one brief, shining moment, women in the games industry suddenly became an important subject, and I was privileged to add my voice to their numbers.

Today people contacted me privately, sometimes about my mom’s death, but sometimes about my ongoing patience and generosity (ha!) as I’ve gleefully engaged in online conversations about misogyny and misandry. Some of those private remarks—again, remarks on both topics, death and sexism, really weird for me—came from people from my past: old roommates, classmates, coworkers, friends from junior high who also knew my mother. Thank you.

It is a wonderful feeling, sometimes, just to not be alone. It is why anyone logs onto the Internet ever.

Meanwhile, in real life, a pastor friend invited me to a poetry slam. Another family adopted me for Thanksgiving. My best friend drove over to my house with toilet paper because I can barely take care of myself. I recently made a phone call to my local Internet service provider’s billing department, and when I gave the woman—a complete stranger—the name on the account, she fell silent. “Girl,” she said finally. “Oh, girl.”

There is nothing so debilitating as crying while you try to pay a stinking bill. I also consistently cry at the veterinary clinic.

Since September, every day of my life has been a challenge, a battle, a chore. The things I do every day—all boring, unfortunately—are my biggest, saddest, most boring secret.

I hope I only share the good parts, though. Actually—and it’s strange to admit this, even as life as I once knew it has effectively crumbled—mostly there have been only good parts.

I am going to write about games writing now, AS I DO. Here are some quick thoughts, organized in no way whatsoever.

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Can’t spell “pirate” without “-irate”: on DRM and punishing the customer

Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus: "Stop, thief!"

I am livid. Which superficially might sound very stupid, except that this kerfuffle combines ethics, DRM, social networking, and my integrity, all in an interesting and infuriating tangle.

I was at breakfast with one of my very closest friends—a retired English and Latin teacher—and her son. Her son and I had just started arguing over the pronunciation of the word “diaspora” when, half-joking, I pulled my phone out of my handbag and played a recording of the word aloud at the table.

Then I stared down at my phone. I frowned. My friend wanted to know what the matter was.

“Um,” I said, blushing furiously. “Um. This is weird. My cell phone is accusing me of stealing the Oxford Dictionary of English.” I blinked. “That was a really expensive piece of software.”

Some of you might already know about the Enfour dust-up. Here’s a quick recap anyway: at the beginning of this month, the developers at Enfour announced they were putting anti-piracy measures into their software. (Enfour develops and publishes iOS versions of the Oxford Dictionary of English and the American Heritage Dictionary, among others.)

How did Enfour intend to combat piracy? By auto-posting tweets to their users’ Twitter accounts! But the clever plan backfired when the tweet—a confession of “software piracy”—began appearing on legitimate users’ Twitter accounts, too.


Enfour has since launched a “crucial maintenance release” to iTunes, and the issue has seemingly been resolved.

Of course, that makes little difference to the Enfour customer who, ahem, discovers that a “critical update” is waiting for her in the app store queue only after she has confessed, to 3,454 of her readers (not to boast or anything), that she stole some software. (Until hours ago, Parks and Recreation’s Nick Offerman had confessed to the same crime via Twitter as well.)

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You aren’t really buying a goat

I stole this goat from zooborns.com

Late last month, in the course of conversation, my colleague J.P. Grant asked me about the business model of any particular blog. Like, how do you curate content? (Or aggregate it, depending on who you ask.) How are writers paid? Are they always paid? How, please, does a website make money?

These are complicated questions. They’re also things I’ve thought about a lot over the years, and if everyone knew all the ways, we could quit our day jobs. Also, they’re things I tend to discuss only with my editor, because business practice is as much a moral debate as it is anything else.

Still, I launched a business seven years ago by hand (my friend is still running it). I know about secure servers; I know how to become an LLC. I’ve worked for a business that makes half its money shipping internationally. I know how to look genuine while selling people on a product I don’t actually like. I know a fair amount about intellectual property; I know how Nigerian scams work. I know how to sound sincere and be insincere. I know how to fill out a shipping form that nearly circumvents customs. I know a surprising lot about user retention, page clicks, traffic, advertising, what a daily scramble is like, and really evil things far, far too nefarious to describe (“the more you can blockquote, the better for SEO,” “forge an intimacy with your readers and they’ll never realize they’re reading a sponsored post”).

“No, these are good questions,” I told J.P., “because these are questions I ask [my editor].” I added that I’m “heavy duty when it comes to being a mercenary businessperson when it is theoretical.”

“Jenn Frank: Theoretically Running This Shit,” J.P. typed.

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I must be blogging from beyond the grave, because I think I just died

I promise to stop posting spit-takes to the Internet, but there was a comment left on game designer Mitu Khandaker’s blog some weeks ago that might be worth revisiting. Maybe you’ve already read it; the comment itself rapidly gained some, uh, notoriety.

In said comment, one of Khandaker’s readers took Katie Williams to task. Then his remark alarmingly turned its lens toward Basically All Females Everywhere. I don’t think the comment was intended maliciously, exactly, and there is a great deal to be said for women choosing to behave with force and agency, but the author kinda came off as a sack of shit.

You don’t have to read the reader’s comment at all, though, because someone helpfully created this bit of machinima, forever preserving—nay, immortalizing—this truly brilliant blog comment, for my children and children’s children to always cherish. An Heirloom Comment.

Yeah, yeah, okay. I know I just promised I wouldn’t post any more spit-takes, but you should also know I pressed “play” on this video and then literally spat Diet Coke everywhere.

P.S. Mitu Khandaker was recently interviewed at Electron Dance.

P.P.S. Aha! Speaking of “video games were invented by men,” 1UP.com just published my retrospective of Roberta Williams’s seminal 1980 game Mystery House. Here it is!

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I get tired of talking about it, too

rambo thoughts

Man. Man. I don’t think I’d ever used the word “gender” in a piece of writing until 2010. Wow! What a strange time for me, too. I was three months’ out of my six-year on-and-off romance/cohabitation thing, very freshly single and really bumbling around, extremely “over” writing about video games, and meanwhile I’d begun reading a lot about learned helplessness. You know, just for funsies. Er.

Yep, before 2010, I’d never used the word “gender.” What a dumb word.

Actually, that might be a lie. In school I did write a paper about women who join subcultures: it focused on Flora Belle Jan, the self-identified “flapper” journalist, and also, of all people, Mimi Thi Nguyen, who was a punk zinester and music journalist in the ‘90s. I likened both women to the not-very-fictional Mardou Fox in The Subterraneans, a woman who meticulously works to desex herself (Kerouac tells us she has short hair like a man’s, and that she wears dress slacks), all to be taken seriously as a Beat writer. So I bet the word “gender” must’ve snuck into that college essay somehow.

In Subterraneans Mardou is driven to the brink of her own wits, suddenly all too aware that she is, now and forever, ostracized by her chosen “subculture,” some niche group with which she had once so identified. Jan and Nguyen experienced similar psychological breaking points and very willfully severed themselves from their own established writing careers. In fact, I’m sure in my paper I accused them of “fleeing.”

It was kind of a weird paper to write for Asian-American history class. It was kind of weird that I took the class at all—but I needed a history credit to graduate! Oh, well. I think I got a B.

It would also be weird if, six years after having been suddenly hot-dropped into video games journalism, I were to—very abruptly, and with a personal sense of finality and closure—acknowledge some of my own patterns of experience.

Aha, but that’s just what I did with my current column at Unwinnable, “I Was a Teenage Sexist.”

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Linksplosion: T-shirts, ‘Hefty Seamstress’, and more

Screenshot: "I'm no genius": Heavy Seamstress in action

I’d promised to write something, anything!, for Artifice Books, but its editor Tadd was not too sure about my very first pitch, a catalogue of movie clips in which women get punched in the face.

So I scrapped that plan, and instead I have written on the subject of George Buckenham and Jonathan Whiting’s Hefty Seamstress. I recommend playing the game, too (it’s over here).

A screenshot from 'The Sea will Claim Everything'

I got a really nice, personalized press email from “Gnome”—his real name is Konstantinos Dimopoulos, I’ve just learned!—and he is campaigning hard for the Bundle-in-a-Box Adventure Games bundle. As with many other bundles, this collection is pay-what-you-like; not only are seven games included, a copy of the well-received Ben There, Dan That! is in the mix. Why, yes, the games are DRM-free, since you were wondering. In the meantime, the Bundle-in-a-Box heralds the launch of The Sea Will Claim Everything. All this can be yours for just hundreds of pennies! PC adventure gamers, you can’t beat that!

How They Died by Aled Lewis

Aled Lewis’s “How They Died” is now available as a T-shirt.

Photo: New Buff Monster minis look a lot like Katamari

I’m not sure Buff Monster’s new series of minis is supposed to look like Katamari, but ALBOTAS is right to make the comparison anyway.

Foldschool Heroes: turn classic systems into papercraft

Foldskool Heroes (via it8bit) is a downloadable template that you can turn into custom papercraft of your own. I really like this! It sort of reminds me of those blank vinyl Soopa Coin-Up Bros figurines.

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What do you do when you’re depressed? ‘Prey’

Tommy is one tough native in 3DRealms' Prey

My last post here was about my friend Brian, and this one is, too.

I don’t think I’ve talked lengthily about anxiety or depression in any public venue, but I will say that, after a pretty serious breakup in college, I tried Celexa. That did not go well. If you are under the age of 24, maybe don’t try that drug. Still, I think I can tell you, without tipping my hand totally, I have a lot of the same problems BT has. I’ve talked a lot about crippling paralysis and numbness, for instance, and when an event throws me off-balance—receiving a text message on Tuesday afternoon, say—it can be hard for me to get all the way out of bed and eat something. It can be a pain to force yourself out of your own head and neuroticism. Leaving the house helps. Taking a little trip might help.

For Brian, a visit to Chicago was just what he needed! No, I wasn’t a particularly helpful friend. But! I did convince BT to play the game Prey. Oh, Prey. What a brilliant, stupid game! It is a little like Portal, a little like Portal 2, and it explains its game mechanics using awful Cherokee stereotypes! Check it out! (It is a genius game, actually, but when Brian shouts from the sofa “How did this even get made?” the implicit answer really is, “Oh, barely.”)

In his latest piece at Unwinnable, “Stuck,” Brian talks a little bit about depression, about “play” as a creative act (oh, it is), and—ahem—especially about Prey.

“You’re constantly moving forward, crossing whatever bridge or going through whatever portal is in front of you because it is in front of you,” Brian writes. Best of all, the game doesn’t want you to get stuck. “That’s a nice feeling,” Brian adds, “to be moving forward.”

Here, Brian is quick to underscore that he isn’t speaking in metaphors at all. In-game progress is no microcosm, no synecdoche, no grand framework for understanding life. Prey—a short game that, in this case, was a steal at eight bucks—is very, very low-investment. But forward movement is forward movement.

So moving through the game is its own success, its own reward, same as making yourself brush your teeth and eat a waffle at 9am. Success!

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Nerd Notes: game-shopping with Brian Taylor

Solstice: NES title screen

My friend and colleague Brian Taylor visited Chicago over the weekend, and I tell you, I barely got to drag him all over town the way I’d planned. In another life we might’ve gone to Three Aces, Grange Hall Burger Bar, and all the other places the foodies have not yet discovered and ruined. We did visit Myopic, but there wasn’t time enough to go around the corner to Quimby’s. (We did hit up the Paramount Room, even though I warned the burgers aren’t as good as advertised, and then my hamburger was ridiculously delicious, and then I felt foolish in a really nice way.)

Mr. Taylor and I went directly from the airport to Videogames Then & Now, which is this fantastic store out in Norridge. If you are ever in Chicago, do yourself a favor, rent a Zipcar, and make the drive.

We ought to have recorded ourselves talking in there, because we were hilarious. As a matter of fact, the gentleman behind the counter thanked us for being such lively loiterers, and I admitted to him that ordinarily I am very in-and-out of that store, all business. This time I was excitable, even a little bit twerpy; I’ve seldom had so much fun in public.

BT and I spent a long time among the stacks of NES cartridges. We are both great fans of the MacVenture games and their NES ports, and I found Shadowgate pretty easily. Brian wanted his own copy of Déjà Vu, and I located that pretty nimbly, too. I also snatched up the NES Gyruss—that “tube shooter” is only the greatest arcade machine ever—while Brian, who is even more into hardboiled crime fiction than I could ever aspire, picked up a bizarre little game called Nightshade. I hope he decides to write about it.

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