Hi, I’m Caelyn Sandel. I’m here to talk to you about diary games. Those of you who were actu­al­ly amaz­ing enough to be at my Women in Games talk in August [2014], this is effec­tive­ly a refined and focused ver­sion of that talk. It’s a lot more focused on how diary games have been help­ful to mar­gin­al­ized pop­u­la­tions and the larg­er cul­tur­al reac­tion. That larg­er cul­tur­al reac­tion has much more come into focus late­ly and I need to, for con­text, open this talk up with a sto­ry that some of you are already extreme­ly sick of, which is that a dev came under fire for hav­ing a suc­cess­ful free game recent­ly. The back­lash was so bad that a sort of minor move­ment based on harass­ment formed around the issue. And all of this came from, effec­tive­ly, a sto­ry designed and pub­lished to help people. 

Depression Quest released on February 14 of 2013 by Zoe Quinn, Patrick Lindsay, and com­pos­er Isaac Schenkler. I got to go to Zoe Quinn’s talk about that game at Women in Games short­ly after it came out, and it meant a lot to me as a per­son who has gone through depres­sion, who was very near­ly effec­tive­ly ground­ed by it. I felt heard, I felt as though some­one was rais­ing aware­ness. It meant a lot and I would say it went a long way toward help­ing me to focus on this kind of per­son­al nar­ra­tive in video games. So obvi­ous­ly it was a bit shock­ing and dis­may­ing to me when the announce­ment of Depression Quest com­ing out on Steam after it had got­ten green­light­ed result­ed in a tremen­dous amount of focused harassment. 

And, you know, why? Why did this hap­pen? Why were peo­ple accus­ing some­one of being uneth­i­cal to pro­mote their free game? I’m going to go into that a lit­tle bit because Depression Quest isn’t just a sto­ry game. Story games have been around for a long time, even the ones that just tell a sto­ry through text. Some of the first video games that used text at all were pars­er inter­ac­tive fic­tion games like Colossal Cave and Zork. But late­ly a sort of sub-genre of text games espe­cial­ly has come up, and I tend to refer to them as diary games.” It’s a term that’s kind of gen­er­al. It does­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly per­fect­ly address all of the games that deal with per­son­al nar­ra­tive or feel­ing, but it’s pithy, and it’s eas­i­ly rec­og­niz­able, and in some cas­es it’s quite accu­rate. I think of a diary game basi­cal­ly as an inter­ac­tive work whose intent is to do one or more of the following:

  • To por­tray a per­son­al expe­ri­ence, or a fic­tion­al­ized alter­na­tive ver­sion of a per­son­al experience.
  • To express inter­nal emo­tion in a fash­ion that isn’t afford­ed by sta­t­ic prose, and I’ll go more into that in a bit.
  • To edu­cate play­ers about a top­ic that isn’t typ­i­cal­ly cov­ered by media.
  • And also to pro­vide cathar­sis or relief for the author, some­times pri­mar­i­ly. My last talk actu­al­ly focused on the idea that the author was effec­tive­ly the pri­ma­ry audi­ence for a per­son­al nar­ra­tive game, and every­one else is the sec­ondary audi­ence. They get to come along with the pri­ma­ry per­son expe­ri­enc­ing the work.

But the focus of this talk in par­tic­u­lar is the way that diary games are impor­tant to mar­gin­al­ized pop­u­la­tions, espe­cial­ly mar­gin­al­ized gen­der iden­ti­ty, sexuality…queer peo­ple, basi­cal­ly. Because why this? Why now? why is this becom­ing so pop­u­lar? Other than the fact that Anna Anthropy intro­duced a ton of peo­ple to the Twine tool for cre­at­ing this kind of stuff. 

I have some ideas about that. I don’t have research to back this up. But when I was a kid pro­gram­ming your own games required learn­ing a pro­gram­ming lan­guage, which required edu­ca­tion or books, and a par­tic­u­lar kind of focus. Without resources, you could­n’t use the tools. I have this real­ly sad mem­o­ry of my par­ents try­ing to let me get into cod­ing by let­ting me try to enter this BASIC code that was in one of my kids’ mag­a­zines, maybe a 321 Contact, some­thing like that. They had a lit­tle code sec­tion. And my par­ents had no idea how you made that stuff into a pro­gram and nei­ther did I.

So I remem­ber typ­ing that code into a shell screen on our Apple IIe. Obviously it did­n’t do any­thing because I did­n’t have the resources. I did­n’t have access to the class­es. But late­ly there are more and more tools that are help­ful to peo­ple to get into this, to get their start. A lot of peo­ple who could get into real­ly intense pro­gram­ming would­n’t oth­er­wise be able to do it if not for tools like Twine, Inform 7, AGS, Ren’Py, GameMaker, Construct. The new tools that are avail­able, usu­al­ly start­ing at no cost what­so­ev­er, and ramp­ing up to be much more pow­er­ful, and allow­ing you to learn more about script­ing, which then can go into pro­gram­ming if you choose to make it do so. Effectively, the bar for entry has been low­ered, and that means that peo­ple who would­n’t oth­er­wise have been able to have a voice, just because they did­n’t have access to the same oppor­tu­ni­ties, are get­ting that opportunity. 

In addi­tion, small-form crowd­fund­ing (imper­fect as it is) is a way that peo­ple can afford to do things that they would­n’t oth­er­wise have been able to. I recent­ly fin­ished host­ing a game jam called Ruin Jam in response to Gamergate, effec­tive­ly. I pitched it before Gamergate hap­pened but it’s a kind of pack­aged sum­ma­ry of the things that I was object­ing to, which is we’ve been accused of ruin­ing video games. So as Arden point­ed out, let’s do it. Let’s ruin them. So, I had a game jam where every­body who has been, is being, or plans to be accused of ruin­ing games can do it and show off their game. Submissions closed yes­ter­day. We had 81 sub­mis­sions, which is incred­i­ble. Such a huge, amaz­ing response. And let me tell you, Ruin Jam absolute­ly would not have hap­pened if I had­n’t been able to sub­si­dize my work for it through Patreon. I just would­n’t have had the time, because I would’ve been spend­ing time on my bor­ing third job that brings in the bills.

So because of these increased tools and increased vis­i­bil­i­ty of those tools, it means that peo­ple who want to put some­thing out about them­selves in an inter­ac­tive fic­tion for­mat, whether that be a tra­di­tion­al video game” or a text game, or a choose-your-own-adventure, any of those, they can now. 

Diary games aren’t gen­er­al­ly fun. This is part of why in a com­mer­cial mar­ket, you’re not nec­es­sar­i­ly going to see them. In fact, they’re very rarely fun at all. Some are. But usu­al­ly that’s because of a per­son get­ting into it, get­ting into the mechan­ics, etc. But many are active­ly unpleas­ant to play, even some of the more fun ones. And even those that are writ­ten for the ben­e­fit of the author are rarely fun to write. They can be cathar­tic. They can be ther­a­peu­tic. But per­son­al nar­ra­tive games are often dif­fi­cult on some level. 

Now, just to put it out there, these games are not always non-fiction. They’re not always auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal. They don’t always have the author, but they can and they often do. Or they will some­times have a stand-in. Depression Quest is a great exam­ple. There are no real peo­ple in Depression Quest. I’ve released two diary games. I want to use those to draw a con­trast. The first one that I released is called Cis Gaze. It is a lin­ear Twine game using text effects to dif­fer­en­ti­ate between my con­scious thoughts and my intru­sive thoughts, and it’s to date prob­a­bly my most-played Twine game ever at some­thing like 3000 plays on philome​.la, which was absolute­ly unex­pect­ed. I wrote it for myself. There’s one choice you get to make in the whole game: Coke or gin­ger ale. And the choice is ulti­mate­ly mean­ing­less because you want both of them. It’s just which one do you get first. And effec­tive­ly it was like, I had this expe­ri­ence where some­body stared at me and noth­ing else hap­pened, and then my brain ate itself. And I want­ed to get that out to peo­ple, and I want­ed to process it myself, and this game is how I did that. So I wrote that. That’s one kind of diary game.

On a total­ly dif­fer­ent spec­trum, my game for Ruin Jam is called Vivant Ludi which stands for long live games” and it stars a trans game dev like me, but who bears a strik­ing resem­blance to 4chan /v/‘s new mas­cot Vivian James but her name is Vivian Grimes, so it’s total­ly dif­fer­ent. It’s basi­cal­ly a self-care sim­u­la­tor, and that game is not my per­son­al expe­ri­ence. It is an aggre­gate of my per­son­al expe­ri­ence and the expe­ri­ences told to me and that I have read about through sev­er­al years now of being a fem­i­nist games person.

So per­son­al nar­ra­tive games can run this gamut, but both of them are about say­ing some­thing effec­tive­ly about the con­di­tion of the self, or a com­mu­ni­ty, or human­i­ty. And that is real­ly what the heart of the per­son­al nar­ra­tive game is, say­ing some­thing about your­self or the world around you. 

A lot of them are not very inter­ac­tive. Arielle Grimes (after whom I named my char­ac­ter) wrote a game for Ruin Jam called BrokenFolx. It’s gor­geous and very dif­fi­cult to look at, and watch­ing peo­ple react to it was amaz­ing. There’s vir­tu­al­ly no actu­al inter­ac­tion in the game. It pro­vides inter­ac­tion as the sole means to effec­tive­ly bring you into it. You advance things, you also choose the order in which you see the lit­tle chap­ters of it. It’s not going to be for every­body, but no diary game or per­son­al nar­ra­tive game is, really. 

Content warn­ing: a lot of these games con­tain objec­tion­able con­tent because peo­ple are talk­ing about things that’ve hap­pened to them. So expect ableism, trans­pho­bia, homo­pho­bia. Most peo­ple are good about the con­tent warn­ings for their games, but fore­warned is fore­armed. But in the end, Arielle takes this and pro­vides a pos­i­tive mes­sage, and the mes­sage is it’s not you that bro­ken. Everybody feels bro­ken. Especially peo­ple who are queer or dis­abled or oth­er­wise mar­gin­al­ized. It’s that we have inter­nal­ized these val­ues that make us feel bro­ken. And peo­ple got those mes­sages and were just telling her how they were cry­ing, how deeply the game touched them. And this game takes five min­utes to play through. So when you write some­thing like this, it can reach peo­ple in ways that you don’t expect.

But there’s anoth­er side to writ­ing diary games, and this is one thing that I did­n’t go into as much in my pre­vi­ous talk. And that is that there is, some­times, when a diary game or a per­son­al nar­ra­tive game gets large enough, back­lash. So why do gamers hate diary games? And when I say gamers” I mean peo­ple who real­ly iden­ti­fy with that term, peo­ple who cen­ter their iden­ti­ty around the play­ing of games, around the con­sump­tion of games. And to answer that, I’m going to quote Leigh Alexander in her fake review for GTA V, Games are about feel­ing pow­er­ful, about you get­ting your way.” The line is said in sar­casm, obvi­ous­ly. Go look up the song ver­sion of that review, it’s very fun­ny. She did a live read­ing of it, and then some­body else com­posed a song out of it.

Gamers with priv­i­lege or inter­nal­ized big­otry (it can kind of be like you can find peo­ple who are in mar­gin­al­ized pop­u­la­tions but very much inter­nal­ize the idea that say, social jus­tice has no place in games) they tend to think of video games as value-neutral enter­tain­ment. They have to offer a sense of free­dom and pow­er to all play­ers, at least priv­i­leged ones. And AAA moral­i­ty, which is how I refer to the moral­i­ty sys­tems built into AAA games that give you that kind of free­dom, it’s not nuanced. Goodness is objec­tive in AAA games, and moral choic­es are very clear. You’ll notice that real life does not match that, but that kind of leads to the following.

Personal nar­ra­tive and diary games don’t allow you that com­fort. They don’t let you have a sim­ple moral­i­ty, they don’t let you feel com­fort­able. In fact that’s cru­cial to a lot of diary games. The Porpentine’s very brief game which she lit­er­al­ly ceased dis­tri­b­u­tion and destroyed, Everything you swal­low will one day come up like a stone, lit­er­al­ly accus­es the play­er of being com­plic­it in abuse and sui­cides. Not a light play. People still have archives of this game if you want to check it out, but not a light play. It uses its mechan­ics to make you feel alter­nate­ly bored, trapped, and help­less, and that’s the point. Anna Anthropy’s Dys4ia uses frus­trat­ing or unwinnable mini-games to instill a sense of frus­tra­tion, and Anna actu­al­ly lit­er­al­ly called that out in sev­er­al inter­views about being an impor­tant part of why it’s a game and not any oth­er kind of media. Because by using those game mechan­ics, she imparts the sense of frus­tra­tion of going on med­ical tran­si­tion to the per­son play­ing the game. Dys4ia, by the way, is prob­a­bly one of my favorite diary games, because of its unique use of graph­ics and sound, and con­trol schemes. Please check it out.

Many diary games need to com­mu­ni­cate unpleas­ant emo­tions to the play­er in order to cre­ate a sense of rap­port or a teach­ing moment, and a gamer who is just here to have fun does­n’t want to be part of this expe­ri­ence. Now you could say, Why don’t they just not play it?” The prob­lem is just know­ing it’s there is point­ing out their per­spec­tive, and that’s a prob­lem. Because a priv­i­leged gamer does­n’t want to be aware of their priv­i­lege, or their com­plic­i­ty in oppres­sive struc­tures, espe­cial­ly in an envi­ron­ment that they con­sid­er neu­tral. They don’t con­sid­er their neu­tral­i­ty polit­i­cal. They don’t want to be told that their neu­tral­i­ty is polit­i­cal. And that it’s not neu­tral. And it bears men­tion­ing a lot of these peo­ple who lash out are hurt­ing. They may have suf­fered bul­ly­ing when they were young, and they may be unhap­py or depressed. They may play video games to effec­tive­ly immerse them­selves in a world that they don’t hate. That’s fair, and diary games do deal blows to that fan­ta­sy. But it does mean that a lot them become des­per­ate and respond with harassment. 

One of the threads that I’ve seen in this Gamergate thing is that they simul­ta­ne­ous­ly think of them­selves as plucky under­dogs and an unstop­pable force. And if you stop and think about that, the cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance required to get there is impres­sive. They think of them­selves as pow­er­ful enough to strip exist­ing games jour­nal­ism of its adver­tis­ers, but they’re the plucky under­dogs, they are the lit­tle guys. And that’s just…there’s a win­dow there. I may not be qual­i­fied to actu­al­ly say what that win­dow sees into, but it’s a window. 

So they want to silence this, they don’t want to hear about it. They say, Get out of my space” effec­tive­ly. But as tools improve, they can’t actu­al­ly get rid of these nar­ra­tives. As tools improve, remov­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties for the mar­gin­al­ized is no longer enough to silence them. So they abuse peo­ple until they leave, and some­times it works. Which is trou­bling, espe­cial­ly because then some peo­ple will turn to the peo­ple leav­ing and say, You can’t do this. If you do this, they win.” Which is a hard thing to do to some­body who is leav­ing some­thing because they’ve been harassed. So you end up with this sit­u­a­tion where the best thing for this per­son to do is to leave, and they do.

But there are advan­tages to this, and I don’t want to end on a down­er because I don’t think that the devel­op­ment and rise of diary games is a road to harass­ment. I don’t think that’s the case. You might be think­ing at this point, If I make a diary game, are they going to come after me? Are they going to come to get me?” That’s fair. It’s not beyond the realm of pos­si­bil­i­ty. But it’s not like­ly. The thing about it is that as more and more diary games appear, com­mu­ni­ties that focus on them form. Circles of peo­ple that talk about them form. And the fact of the mat­ter is that if you are not open­ly vocal, like on social media, it’s far less like­ly that any­one with ill intent is going to get their hands on your game in the first place. You can con­trol the audi­ence to which your work is exposed, to a cer­tain degree. And the rhetoric around your work can help guide that. I’m pur­pose­ful­ly a rabble-rouser, so I get nasty atten­tion from time to time. But even then, if you’ve got under a thou­sand Twitter fol­low­ers, the like­li­hood that you’re going to be tar­get­ed is low because you’re not an attack­able oppor­tu­ni­ty. You are not a mile­stone to be over­come, and real talk, these peo­ple do think of it as a game. 

But there’s a lot of good here because diary games are pro­lif­er­at­ing. They can’t be stamped out. There are too many of them, there are too many tools to cre­ate them. It’s becom­ing more and more of a thing. Also one thing that’s great for allies in this case is that diary games pro­vide an oppor­tu­ni­ty to boost the voic­es of the mar­gin­al­ized in their own words and images, with­out speak­ing over them. If some­body wants their work out there, you can boost it and peo­ple will expe­ri­ence exact­ly what they said. Visibility empow­ers and encour­ages new authors. 

And Ruin Jam was a suc­cess. I’m going to do it again next year, and I’m sure this is not the only kind of jam that’s pro­mot­ing this kind of game. So keep your eyes open. There’ll be more stuff like this. There’ll be jams specif­i­cal­ly for this kind of game. If nobody else makes them, I will. If I don’t, you will. So keep writ­ing, keep pro­duc­ing. Anyone can do this, and I think that’s amazing. 

Thank you very much.