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.
On the one hand, cynicism is an important defense mechanism. It’s a type of filter. We all employ it, particularly when we lead these bizarre shadow lives on the snarky, snarky Internet, these lives that invariably mirror—but very seldom mimic—our real, waking lives, our everyday interactions with friends, family, coworkers. Attorneys. Funeral directors. Cousins. Therapists. The lady at the convenience store. If we didn’t find filters for our feelings, we would be overwhelmed by them. We would all be absolutely traumatized by our own weird brains.
On the other hand, cynicism is stupid, lazy, and boring. It’s a type of fear, and it’s an awful shortcut to take. It’s how we dismiss other people’s feelings, yes yes, but especially our own.
I don’t want to be that person ever. I want to always give the benefit of the doubt.
(Please note: “irreverence” is different. Irreverence is acknowledging a crisis’s horrible worth and then undermining it for sheer comedic value. Levity! Please, some levity!)
In February, after I’d written a rant and posted it, a longtime friend politely cautioned me against masquerading as a cynic and a villain. “You don’t want it to become true,” he said something like.
I was, and am, gobsmacked by how correct he is. Cynicism—even the very façade, which is what it almost always is, anyway, a façade—is an incredibly dangerous trick to play on yourself. It is a cruel lie we do unto ourselves because the reality of all things is just too marvelous, too outstanding.
Here is the reality: we are all dying. Every one of us will die before his time. None of us will ever be older than a very expensive old chair. Nothing you do matters, really, except that the rest of us are all right here, dying with you, either slower or faster, but always definitely. Someday, if you’re very lucky, you will have a reader or a child—same thing—who is born into a mean world you, thank God, finally left.
You can write a pained, grief-stricken article about your mother, but in a few short years, months, or weeks, someone else is going to describe you even better. It’s all useless. It’s vain, useless hubris to even try.
This isn’t sad. This isn’t scary. It’s only unfair. It’s only life. Time and love march on without us.
That is the human condition—it’s this gigantic, crippling, paralyzing, existential thing—and we often combat it with cynicism.
We always aim to shoot from the brain, but we tend instead to shoot from the heart, despite our very best efforts. We want to rely on science and numbers because memory is unreliable, but in the end it’s only feelings that are “true” anyway, because feelings are just there. They’re always valid, even when they don’t make any sense. I think John Hodgman probably did it best when he wrote a column railing against the word “meh.”
I think video games—more than writing, believe it or not—have the capacity to take all these disparate, diverse human experiences and reframe them in a way that helps, not just life, but every individual life, make so much more sense. That’s because the best video game, like the best writing, puts you into someone else’s shoes for minutes, hours, or days at a time. While you are wearing those shoes it becomes profoundly easy to understand how the shoes’ owner makes emotional sense. I think that is so important, to realize you are just one, and yours is unique and important, but you are just one.
The game developer Phil Fish, a couple years ago, said he didn’t understand how I cope. (I’ll thank you to know he is an extremely sensitive individual and oh my God if he ever sees this, know that I hereby bequeath my childhood unicorn collection to one Kathleen Sanders, because I am going to be murdered in cold blood.)
“Beer,” I joked to him. Then I immediately voiced my astonishment: Phil, Phil of all people, understands fear, anxiety, anticipatory grief, loss, and the sheer pain of waiting, of worrying things are about to go all wrong.
I reminded him, then, and let me remind you, too: I’m fortunate. I’m lucky. What I endured is what you all will endure, if you’re only just lucky enough to have old parents. If you have fine old parents, you will someday know the long, plodding, metered grief of watching them slip away. I’m 30 now—I gave my youth to an unwinnable fight—but I’m 30, I’m still so young, and I’m not sorry, I’m not sorry, not for one second.
I think a lot of my columns this year were letters I sent from the depths of my grief, but if you think for one second I’m ungrateful, I’ve done us all a disservice. I know how lucky I am. And I’m so proud. And I’m proud of my parents—over time, they let me use them as examples, let me humiliate them in my writing—and I’m just so proud of my high school guidance counselor mother and my farmer father.
This year—slowly, so slowly, as I’ve braced for my nightmare while also piecing together my hilariously unironic and literal worldview—I have been enormously gratified to befriend a number of new people. I used to think I didn’t need any new friends, that I’d had quite enough of everyone ever. (I’m still the world’s worst friend, but this issue tends only to come up around holidays.)
“Actually,” I typed to one Richard Clark earlier today, stunned at myself, “2012 was not such a bad year.”
It’s all been building and growing. Anna Anthropy taught me about the diversity of voice, of video games’ enormous, indescribable value as a medium and a force. She and Daphny David have helped me understand the value of sharing those experiences in a way that makes emotional and rational sense to the end user. Together, they’ve taught me to stop apologizing for feeling feelings. Or—it’s even murkier than that. Those two women advocate making things, writing things, doing things, not because you will strike on fundamental, universal human truths, but because there is only the funny possibility you might. That is the endlessly funny thing about being alive.
Mattie Brice—another among a pool of impossibly talented critics, and she is so good to me because I introduced myself by picking a fight with her—very recently taught me that emotional vulnerability is a type of courage and strength. (She teaches me things every day, but this is the one I’m stuck on currently.)
Patricia Hernandez, an important writer who has at an impossibly young age found her voice, consistently imparts the importance of taking an idea and then murdering to death it in an IM window. Brian Taylor and Gus Mastrapa helped me understand ordinary anxiety, of using “personal essay” to cope with great big lonely fear feelings. Leigh Alexander has assisted—as a professional first, friend next, as a writer, confidante, gamer, person, woman, and then feminist, in descending order—by promising me the work I’m doing is good. A games critic named Tom Francis made a video that I think I perhaps didn’t agree with at first, only because it threatened to mitigate my ire at things, but I’ve found my ideas of compassion very slowly changing as a result of his sheer mellowness, and it’s adapted anything I write. Philippa Warr helped me understand the tremendous value of simply asking other people for help. One woman—I don’t know her name—contacted me after I told a short anecdote about Second Life online, because she recognized herself as the other person in the story (I told her, and it is true, that she changed how I write and what I want to write about). My good, good friend, colleague, and collaborator Cara Ellison has helped me make sense of the bizarre ecosystem that threads sex, sexuality, gender, feeling, and compassion into one magnificent tangle.
There are so many others—Lana! Luke! Brendan! Ben! Others! So many others!—who have shown me that writing about “games” can be anything, do anything. You can be smart, can be funny, can literally do anything inside of a single and potentially incoherent sentence. I’m so, so proud of everyone I know.
This is not name-dropping—this is annotation. These are those thank-you letters I never remember to send right after Christmas, the emails I forget to send.
This year, I’ve also met my most valuable editors.
Stu has advocated my setting exactly what I think and feel on paper, even when I fear (or know!) I am wrong. Ian Miles has been a sounding-board for all of my strangest thoughts, from the academic to the neurotic, helping me parse all of them. Chris—whom I’ve known for awhile and am privileged to work with again, this time as a sort of peer—was the first editor who made sense of my brain and heart thoughts with tough line edits and furious marginalia. (“You think you’re editing, but you’re actually doing the work of a cognitive behavioral therapist.”) Joey—ah, Joey!—aggressively headhunted me, coaxing me into writing by assuring my of my writing’s very marketability and merit.
Similarly, there are other editors and bosses who have entrusted me with certain writerly and ethical responsibilities, and I am always torn between “Thanks” and “What is the matter with you.”
I have two best friends. Three. Possibly five. But one of them is a woman called Whitney. She used to be my boss. Another best friend is my high school English teacher. Obviously I have some trouble keeping personal and professional friendships straight or separate, and I am the luckiest for it.
All right. There is an article I wrote very recently—we published it today as part of Unwinnable’s “Family Week”—owing very heavily to all these people. It is titled “Allow Natural Death.” (My editor at Unwinnable, Stu, did me a profound solid just by titling it for me—once the draft was finalized, I could not even pretend I was emotionally equipped to so much as try to put a name on the top of it.)
I also owe a few game developers—specifically three distinct, radically different people—for talking to me privately, helping me sort rational thoughts and irrational feelings into numbered lists and taxonomies. I think, because game design approaches our unique experiences in this holistic way—algorithmically, mathematically, narratalogically, rhymically, graphically, musically, poetically—these folks, whether they know it or not, really are best at glancing over my wholly alien experiences and weighing in, and in stunning, remarkable ways, on whether my writing or ideas make any sort of “design sense.”
I want to thank Terry above all for placing sustained faith and support in me—in my voice, my literal, out-loud, spoken voice, of all things—and for making Super Hexagon. I have now repeatedly teased him about my projecting ponderous meanings to his scrupulously economical work. His difficult, torturous, brilliantly sparse games change how I want to write—you know, not in this case, this mess of a Livejournal blog, but in general.
You probably don’t care to know this, but once I watched that video of Super Hexagon’s endgame—and I was already thinking about all these people, all these things—my column about my mother farted out of me in about a half of an hour, almost fully formed.
A few people wondered how that column relates to games. On the one hand, I don’t know. On the other, that is exactly how.
Oh, yes, this was supposed to be about writing, wasn’t it.
It was not my strongest piece but, as anyone who saw the first draft might attest (the piece was largely unchanged, but it was ultimately lengthened), it was me at my tersest. I tended toward very simple sentences, few of which were overworked.
About simple sentences: we seldom have “complicated” feelings; what we really experience, instead, are nineteen simple feelings simultaneously.
I would change a lot about my column if I could. (My close friend Dan—who was my counselor at writing camp when I was a teenager—knew exactly where I was going when I unsubtly, ham-fistedly mentioned my fear of needles. I knew I went wrong there. I just knew it!)
What I’m saying is, I’m pleased that anyone has related to my strange lack of finesse, to bare and utterly artless bones. I think, even at our maddest or saddest or most hopeless, we strive for a type of authenticity or sincerity. I do, too.
I did not always feel that way. For many years, my favorite work was a play called “The Cocktail Party,” written by the miserable Christian existentialist T.S. Eliot, who was a man who really liked cats, if that tells you anything. He maintained that every person is an island and that we all die in either physical or emotional solitude, hopelessly misunderstood.
Games prove Eliot wrong.
I began all this with a brief rumination on cynicism, my least favorite type of lie, and I want to hop back into it.
Cynicism is a valuable filter. Cynicism, very literally, is a defense mechanism, the very act of refusing to put hope and love and faith and trust in things, or in people.
But people are so much more valuable.
I have slowly discovered that if you consult people—if you crowdsource a single idea, a single feeling, or if you beg your friends to very honestly and cruelly edit you—people will edit you, will help you master your thoughts or feelings, can order you to cope even when you don’t want to cope. People aren’t a crutch: they’re an ally, a sort of ability.
You can embrace people, not cynicism, and your fellow humankind can serve as your filter instead—wading through your ideas for you, finding the good ones.
I think I run the danger of sounding incredibly self-congratulatory here. For that reason, and in the interest of transparency, here is my disclosure: I am not particularly powerful or competent or patient or generous. I’ve sent three emails in the last 60 days that each demonstrated, each in a very ugly way, my capacity for being small and mean and powerfully unfair. My unfortunate instinct is to burn bridges, not forge them.
Also, I am trying to learn to be kinder to myself, yes.
Anyway. When I look at the work you do, whoever you are, I am reminded again that the world is so much bigger than my small heart, and that I want to be better than myself.
I have said this before, but we are all linking arms on the lifeboats. That is all there is.
Thank you for helping my contemplate in so many meaningful ways. For better or worse, I didn’t write about my mother at all. You did.
In other news, since you are wondering about my boring, boring life: tonight I wrote the hardest email of my life, explaining to a relative why she may not have my mother’s dog.
“This responsibility is a real privilege,” I told her. “She gets me out of the house. She gets me up in the morning. She gives me something to do, someone to take care of, somebody to love.” Then I sincerely thanked her for volunteering.
One last thing, and although it does have to do with both earnestness and with crowd-sourcing, I admit I am now being incredibly shameless:
“So your article is doing well,” my best childhood friend Cassie said to me this morning. “That’s neat. When all those people click to read it, do you get a lot of ad, uh—”
I stared at her. She stared back, and for a split second I swear I saw her eyes cross.
“Oh, no,” she said.
“My bad,” I replied.