Well, the past few weeks have been pretty crazy, haven’t they? I’ve been trying to put together this statement for months - even before Gamergate started up. The need for this statement has only increased as the weeks have gone on so I’m glad for finally getting the opportunity to talk about it publically and get it off my chest.
My name is Christopher Arnold. I am an aspiring indie developer. My company, Crowned Daemon Studios, is currently working on its first game, ”Freak”. I don’t have a vast body of experience in the industry, so I can’t attest to any major corruptions in the indie scene. What I can definitely attest to is an extremely toxic, overly critical environment prohibiting fledgling developers from making games about personal issues and that this environment is being actively encouraged by gaming journalists and critics.
One of the difficult things in writing this statement is me being able to articulate my feelings on why the current atmosphere of viciously enforced political correctness is stifling developers without turning it into a giant advertisement for ”Freak”. At this moment we do not have any screenshots or gameplay footage and we are still working on a demo, so any inadvertent advertising of the game in this statement feels cheap (for reasons I will touch on later). Rest assured, I am not making this statement in order to sell our game. I talk about the game here because it gives context. Now let’s get to the actual point.
This is Tinker.
He is the main playable character in our game. In the opening scene he is attacked by a group of zombies, bitten and then seemingly dies only to come back to life with his humanity intact. Not quite zombie, not quite human, he has to wander back to his home through an unforgiving wilderness in hopes that the medical personnel there can figure out how he ‘survived’.
Tinker and I are alike in a lot of ways. Like me, he has an innate love of tinkering around with things (hence his nickname). He’s withdrawn, moody and has difficulty dealing with people. Also like me, he is autistic.
The process of writing for Tinker has required me to call upon my own experiences with autism, as well as the experiences of other members of the development team who are either autistic themselves or who knew people that are. While I would not say that the game itself is inherently about autism, it does inform Tinker’s story arc, so it is a crucial aspect of the story.
Throughout the entire process of working on the game to its current state, I have not once been afraid of trolls who will make fun of the game for touching on the issue of autism, or harass myself and the other team members of Crowned Daemon Studios for being autistic. What I have been afraid of has been the reactions from the social justice-minded members of the gaming community and mass media, be they positive OR negative. But to explain why I have to explain my own experiences with autism.
I’ve always felt like I’m a burden - on my family, on my friends, on the people around me. My inability to just act normally has caused the people around me no shortage of grief. Even though they hide it, ignore it, or say it doesn’t matter I know it eats away at them. I know they still love me and care for me but that doesn’t change the fact that for the longest time I’ve taken more than I’ve given back.
People have judged me and treated me differently because of my condition but not in the way you might think. I’ve been given preferential treatment my entire life. People have walked on eggshells around me, afraid of calling me out for when I’ve done something wrong for fear of being insensitive (I won’t name names or point to specific examples because I don’t want anyone to feel like I’m blaming them). I understand that these people who have given me this treatment do so for the best of intentions but it isn’t helping me to become more of a well-adjusted person. It’s enabling me to continue justifying my inexcusable behavior. It’s important to me that my game succeeds based on its own merits. I am more than my diagnosis. My failures are mine alone and I will face them as they come. I will not have my condition be used as a shield from criticism, be it against myself or my work.
I never intended to use the subject matter to elevate my game over others. When I started writing up the plot for the game I was very depressed. While I won’t say that I’m ‘over’ any of it, I will say that writing this character has helped me come to understand it better. While I would like for my game to ultimately help other people with autism (or people who know someone who does) to come to a better understanding of the condition, this isn’t going to be ‘Autism Quest’. It’s a game with a character who reflects my life experiences. It likewise is not a game about autism but rather a game that involves a character with autism - an important difference which I would like to emphasize. Nor am I going to be writing a representation of all autistic people everywhere. That would be as inherently impossible and problematic as writing a character who’s meant to represent every member of any demographic.
In the past few weeks I’ve seen lots of people come forward and talk about how important gaming is to them. For me gaming has always been my link to other people. My first gaming memory was playing “Chex Quest” with my dad (I was about 5, so he controlled the movement and lined me up to take the shots). Most of the console gaming I ever did growing up was at friend’s houses. All of the people currently on the design team for “Freak” were friends I met through gaming. Gaming, and the culture around it, has been more than an escape for me. It has been the most effective way for me to find other like-minded people and bond with them. I want everyone to be able to engage with this culture like I have, and believe that this can be done without demonizing anyone.
Those in the gaming mass media think they’re doing people like me a favor, but they’re not. They’re smothering me and others like me. I know now there is no way they will hold my game truly accountable for any flaws it might ultimately have because they’ll think that any dismissal or criticism of the game as a whole will be a direct attack on autistic people, and it quite clearly is not. When people do dog pile on games that cover issues like this (I won’t name names but I’m sure you can fill in the blanks), it’s because of how the subject matter is approached, not that it was approached at all. The flaws of these games have been in their inability to truly connect with the people who play them, not that they had the audacity to attempt something new. If I had come forward before this, I would have been made a pet of the ‘social justice gaming crowd’, a person they could throw around to show how diverse and righteous they are, all while shielding themselves from criticism. I would be given preferential treatment just like I always have. It never ends.
I shouldn’t have to worry if my game is getting positive press because the journalists wanted to use my condition as a way to elevate themselves and their pet causes. I shouldn’t have to worry if my game got the praise it did for simply being a game with a good topic rather than by being a good game, period. But here I am, worried anyway, and whether or not my fears are ultimately justified it says volumes about the game industry at this point that I should have these fears at all.
But what about developers who aren’t writing about their own experiences? What about people writing about characters who have a different race, gender, or sexuality than them? For people like them it’s probably even worse, and I’ve experienced that as well.
For instance: this is Hannah.
Hannah is a member of an emerging power in the post-zombie world called ‘The Fellowship’. Their mission is to rid the world of the infected and provide safe transit for civilians through the wilderness. Like the other members of the Fellowship, Hannah is a skilled fighter, tracker, and scavenger. She is also a lapsed Muslim consumed with guilt over some of the things she had to do to survive during the fall of civilization who hopes that she can redeem herself and become closer to God again through her actions in The Fellowship.
Hannah is just one of eleven other characters besides Tinker that will be playable for a portion of the game. We’ve talked about some of these characters to various people in order to get feedback, and while so far it’s been positive, there have been some recurring remarks that are indicative of how discouraging and toxic gaming culture is to those who want to attempt something different. Remarks like “make sure you do your research” and “make sure it’s not offensive”, while seemingly innocent reminders to people that if they’re going to talk about important issues that they should be well-informed on them first, come across to developers as presumptuous attacks (whether they’re intended or not). It’s always an uphill battle to prove that we’ve done our research, which is inevitably a lost cause since there have been multiple instances of games being historically or culturally accurate (“Six Days in Fallujah”, to name just one) that still draw ire from critics anyway. Developers already feel pressure even approaching these topics. Getting responses that basically amount to “don’t screw up” won’t make them feel encouraged. Considering that what offends people is purely subjective, a far better response would be to volunteer to help the developer. Offer to talk with them about your experiences, give them suggestions on biographies, documentaries, or books that could give them help on the topic. Be encouraging and helpful. Help lighten the load, don’t make it heavier.
I don’t want to go into specific examples regarding websites I’ve seen approaching topics wrong or even individual people. Suffice it to say that seeing a new game get ravaged for supposed sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, etc. seemingly every week makes me feel less inclined to want to write characters like Tinker, Hannah, or the many others who will be playable in our game. To these people and publications, all I have to ask is: is this what you want? Do you want people to be too afraid to make inclusive art? Because whether that was your intent or not, it’s what’s actually happening. It’s hard enough investing all your money and time into making a studio, working for years on a game that will eventually be judged by both critics and consumers without then also having to be worried that those same critics will sensationalize your game in order to make a few more big articles.
To those who have allowed Gamergate to get to where it is now, you have my undying thanks. For the past year while writing “Freak”, I’ve known deep down that journalists would never really care about me or my game. They just wanted to use me, and others like me. None of that will stop me. I’ll keep making “Freak”, not for the sake of the cynical, exploitative gaming press. I’m doing it for you, the gamers, whether you can relate to the experiences of Tinker and myself or not. Art is about sharing our experiences with all those who will lend their ears. It’s about being true to ourselves and lending our voices. You take away that voice, and we have nothing.
I know it’s been a long struggle. Gamergate’s been going for almost a month. All I can say is, for the sake of this industry, for the sake of quality journalism and criticism and for the sake of developers like myself and the others who have either spoken out or stayed silent: do not give up. Ever. Even if Gamergate is winding down (and I don’t think it is), carry what you’ve learned here with you. Help those who are willing to stand up for you, be it whole websites or singular content creators on YouTube. You deserve to be represented by good, honest people who will give their all for you.
Everyone in gaming deserves to be heard. I do believe that games can have a wider variety of characters, stories, and settings. But above everything else, I believe that these games should be made by people who want to do it. The passion and the burning need to tell a story must be there or else none of it will matter. So let me say it now, to everyone who is championing for a more diverse industry: it starts with you. If you feel your voice needs to be heard, than speak up in a way that will carry: by making the games you want to see made. Their success will say more than a thousand angry emails, blog posts, or YouTube video essays. I mean, if some autistic kid who’s never made a game can get his friends together to make one that talks about his experiences, than why can’t you?
I thank you all for taking the time to read this novella (manifesto? Is that what they’re called these days?). To other developers who may be reading this now, know that you don’t have to suffer alone. We’re all in this together now. Making this industry better is in our hands. Let’s make it into one we’re proud to call our own.