Saturday, January 10, 2015

On knowing when *not* to design a game

I have a strong tendency to appreciate things by doing them. Almost from the moment I started playing RPGs and modern board games, I was thinking about how I'd design my own games. Likewise, I've done lots of art and dabbled extensively in writing music and novels. My brain moves easily from "this thing is cool" to "I want to figure out how to make one."

This impulse was brought up short today by reading an announcement of a game jam on the subject of "rentpunk." Rentpunk is the organizers' term for a proposed genre of art dealing with the experience of economic precariousness -- hustling for jobs, not knowing where your next decent meal is coming from, etc.
I was super excited about the idea of rentpunk games. I think the experience of economic precariousness is too often ignored and glossed over or obfuscated by convenient cliches. I have a number of people close to me who have lived that life -- enough that I nod along vigorously every time I read an article about what it's really like to be poor.
Social Stratification in the United States poster
Because I am a nerd, I have hanging in my bedroom the "Social Stratification in the United States" poster (1998 edition) that came with my Sociology textbook in college. I was unreasonably excited to discover that they have just come out with an updated 2014 edition.
But what I don't have is personal, first-hand experience with poverty and financial instability. I grew up in a comfortably middle-class household. I got awesome scholarships for college. Now I'm a tenured professor backed by a powerful statewide union. Though I may complain about the state government's attacks on public higher ed, this is literally the most secure job situation it's possible to have in 2015. I have a steady salary that puts my household at the national median income. My freelance work, while it has caused me plenty of sleepless nights lately, is a fun bonus that lets me go out to eat more often, not something that I rely on to live.

So for that reason I cannot, and should not, create a rentpunk game. What would for others be an empowering expression of their experiences would for me be exploitative and voyeuristic. I would be literally playing around with other people's difficult experiences for my own amusement and career advancement. I have to restrain my excitement about the idea, and my passion about the issues faced by others, and redirect it into something other than writing my own game about being poor. (I should stress that the game jam organizers themselves never make any statement suggesting anyone ought not to participate. This post is all my own inference about what I think is the right way for someone in my position to approach this issue. So if you're inclined to whine about not being "allowed" to make a certain kind of game, direct that at me, not them.)

That doesn't mean that I (or other securely middle-class people) am destined to make games that reinforce class inequality. (Or that straight people's games are inevitably heteronormative, etc.) I can work to make sure my games are free of class bias and welcoming to the experiences of people who have more precarious economic situations -- indeed, I'm morally obligated to do so. To do that I'll have to learn a lot from people who have that background. But I can't, and shouldn't, make games that are specifically about an experience that is real but not mine. I can de-center class privilege (or heterosexuality, or maleness, or whiteness, etc) without centering poverty (or LGBTQ-ness, or femaleness, or blackness/Latinoness/Asianness etc). Not because the latter is wrong (indeed, it's essential), but rather because the latter is not my place.

So I can appreciate and promote rentpunk without making rentpunk. And I'm very excited to see what the participants in the jam come up with.

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