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 , 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 3−2−1 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.