(death animation from "Hurt me Plenty")
Catching Up With Leigh Alexander
By Caroline Sinders
When Franziska Zeiner asked me if I would interview Leigh Alexander, I jumped at the chance. As a media theorist and UX researcher in games, games culture, social media, and harassment, I really adore Leigh’s work. From heading Offworld to now also writing for the Guardian, her knowledge base spans the entire web of technology – from online culture, to video games, to interactive art, and new emerging literature. Leigh’s own personal work is not just in critical theory, but in art itself: She is a published novelist and a journalist. All around, Leigh’s commitment to emerging voices in video games, as well as pushing the medium of games to the ultimate extreme of experimental narrative and interactive art, Leigh’s just kind of my tech hero. She’s really a person after my own heart. We got into a fantastic conversation about the future of games, technology and what is on Leigh’s plate for 2016.
C: What are you working on right now?
L: I just wrote a novella about my favorite faction in the Android universe – I think I really love worldbuilding and am going to be doing lots more of it – and I'm starting a technology and culture column at the Guardian. By the time this gets published there'll hopefully be an Offworld features collection out in the wild, too.
C: What are your thoughts on the current state of games and in particular, indie games? You wrote a piece around "the death of the gamer" and that really resonated with me. Movie fans don't call themselves "moviers" or "filmers" but they enjoy the medium. And to push the analogy further: While there is a separation between mainstream and arthouse indie film-goers, the latter are not considered at contentious odds with fans of big budget action films. Games are simply a part of mainstream culture.
L: I think even saying "indie games" doesn't really work anymore. Indie used to mean "you can make money without a traditional publisher." Now there are games out there that are wholly noncommercial. I think this is the most important thing to happen to games – that they get this right to exist as expression or commentary from their creator, without being some kind of Customer Service Product that must cater to the explicit needs of a consumer.
Although I'm often accused of writing about how "gamers are dead," though, I must clarify: No term involving death was ever used anywhere in my piece. The word I personally chose was "over," as in passé, as in irrelevant. The marketing category of "gamer" is so out of step with taste, and with this new and modern spirit of games, that it seems unfashionable at best, culturally backward at worst, to try to please that person in the traditional way.
C: Fred Ritchin, in his book "after photography," mentions "we're all photographers now," in reference to the creation of the mobile camera and the prevalence of mobile phone images. I feel this with games and mobile games – the gamer is dead because we are all gamers now. Games are a huge part of smartphones, and most smartphones come with a reloaded game center app. It's a ubiquitous part of digital culture at this point...
L: Yeah, you're right. The ubiquity and accessibility of games (and the tools to make them, importantly) mean games are poised to actually play a role in broader digital culture beyond what they've done in the past. You'd think this would be good for everyone, but it's the "gamer" attempting to strangle this potential by locking the word down so that it only applies to something that is familiar to them.
C: John Sharp recently stepped down as the Chair of IndieCade and gave two really insightful quotes – "...events like IndieCade and GDC’s diversity track give these developers and critics a platform to share their work, but I fear these events are not providing sustainable, long-term benefit to those outside academia and game development companies..." and “Academic conferences operate within the larger ecosystem of higher education, from which we can return to our jobs as faculty or our studies as graduate students. But gamemakers outside academia and game companies leave Culver City to return to… what, exactly? There simply isn’t an infrastructure there to provide a basic, sustainable quality of life..."
What are your thoughts on this as a games critic? Should entertainment media be constricted to provide sustainable lifestyles? How could we start to provide or redesign a system to allow for it? Can that even happen with games?
L: Well, on one hand, I think unfortunately there are all kinds of ways to value labor, and people will try to get out of valuing it with money whenever they can. I think it's wonderful there are now so many avenues for people who care about art to fund the game-makers they care about. But the arts have always been starved, and even though there are more channels to fund creators, like Patreon and things, there are also more channels by which people can just have things online without having to pay for them, like music or videos as well as games. In light of that I often have to bite my tongue when I hear game-makers say: "Well, I'm working very hard, and I'm being told my work is important, therefore if i don't make enough money doing this to live in e.g. San Francisco, it means this industry is unjust." The presence of expressive, artistic games is profoundly important, but usually commercial income only comes alongside commercial works (We have many exceptions, which is either heartening or deluding depending on how you look at it.)
However, as a critic rather than a creator, I have the luxury to say that the inherent validity of noncommercial works is all that matters. John's post about IndieCade was terribly necessary and important. I've seen this emotional labor economy spring up particularly around new voices, marginalised creators, women, people of color, etc, and I think it's a tragedy of the industry's ongoing diversity efforts that it doesn't often get talked about. No doubt these new voices are absolutely essential to building both a creative medium and a professional commercial industry that expects to be taken seriously – and yet broadly this positive surge of focus on representation has stalled. The "representation" is allowed to enrich events, and help organisations avoid criticism. It provides them with the industry's leading-edge creative works, but what does it do for the creators? These events don't often offer compensation, travel, etc.
No one is entitled to a sustainable lifestyle based on talking at independent game conferences, of course. But the industry is, in one breath, telling some people that the industry desperately needs their voices, and in the next breath, telling them that they must put themselves into debt to "be seen" and to participate.
C: Photography went through a similar phase with the onset of technology and more easily accessible digital tools. It has really transformed this idea of the "educated and learned creator" to that of an accessible creator, thus creating sooo many photographers (and so many different kinds of photographers), and not enough jobs for those photographers (given the move towards cheap digital media, and less print journalism jobs, etc). I feel like games are going through something similar, especially with a lack of infrastructure for jobs, and games jobs that do provide a sustainable quality of life.
C: This year has seemed really exciting for you – you've stepped in as editor for Offworld – how has that been? What are your hopes for the future with the site?
L: I've been editor-in-chief of the relaunched Offworld, yeah. It's been wonderful to launch and manage a games site that publishes primarily games work from women and people of color (offworld.com/us) – on topics other than "what it's like to be marginalised," which is a frustrating restriction that often gets placed on us. We have also focused on noncommercial and unconventional games, The site has been terribly successful, with some 750,000 visits a month, and Laura (Hudson, senior editor) and I are very proud of it. We'll be immortalising some of our features with a physical collection at the beginning of this year.
C: Your novel sounds fantastic and congrats on the Guardian! Are you still writing for Offworld? What do you hope to do with the Guardian? Will it be focused on games at all or will it be much broader – really just tech and culture?
L: No, I won't be writing about games at the Guardian. I'm interested in other ways we derive culture from tech and media. I always felt the 90s-'00s product-focused approach to games (the hardware! The software!!) is part of why games mostly have a consumer culture (what's the score? do I buy it or not?!) instead of a culture-culture, and why most tech writing is about products as well. I'm interested in exploring interaction and behavior on online platforms, now that so much of our lives happen there.
C: You've been in Europe for the past year. What are the differences between the games scene in Europe (or the UK in particular) compared to the US?
L: The UK is smaller and so its indie scene is more closely-knit and community-oriented. I once thought it'd be hard for Britain to produce, like, a real creative leadership, because being direct, pushing ahead, and attracting attention to yourself is so frowned-upon culturally here. But when I think about it, my friends here produce way weirder and more exciting events than the folks back home, and importantly they work tirelessly to get games into places where there are not normally games: Museums, cultural centers, family days, important theatres, etc. Marie Foulston is doing a wonderful job curating at the V&A, Holly Gramazio never runs out of ways to be inventive in public spaces, and everywhere there is something cool going on you find George Buckenham had something to do with it. London is where the Wild Rumpus was born, and where my partner Quinns started getting Netrunner tournaments out of the basements of card shops and into bars and social venues with cool music. My friends in America are content to have indie conference after indie conference, but there is a lot of innovation going on here in terms of how to engage with games and present them to other people.
C: What are you most excited about with the future of modern games?
L: Let's see what happens?
C: Any favorite game designers who you think are doing fantastic work and why?
L: This year my favorites were Robert Yang and Kitty Horrorshow. I wrote a lot about their games on Offworld.
C: Favorite games you've played this year?
L: Wheels of Aurelia and Bloodborn