Friday 1 March 2013

"It's a powerful thing to have people tell me how important this game is to them": Interview with Merritt Kopas

It's been too long since I wrote here, and I wanted my first post of 2013 to go off with a polemical bang. But now that we've given the holodeck a bruising, I'd like to post up some of the full interviews from my second piece for the New Statesman: political games.

For that article I wanted to really go beyond platitutes about games wot have politics in them and ask what it means to try and simulate a political situation - to impart an intellectual or emotional message about a system by building and pointedly contextualising a model of that system. One game that did this to interesting effect was Lim, by Merrit Kopas (@m_kopas on Twitter).

I wrote about Lim some time ago in the context of what games can do with fear, but this time I interviewed Kopas at length - and almost managed to restrain myself from making terrible puns on her name. I'll be posting the others over the next few days, with the exception of Ian Bogost, whose interview was comparatively brief.

Kopas is 25, lives in Seattle, and teaches sociology and gender/sexuality at the University of Washington. But these days she thinks of herself as more of an artist and game developer than an academic. This was our talk:


So, Lim - what was the genesis of it, where did the idea come from?

Oddly enough I think one of the catalysts for it was the game Prototype. In many ways it's kind of this boring formulaic AAA action game where you run around as a superpowered dude smashing everything in your way. But there was this element that appealed very much to me when I played it last summer, which is the ambiguity around the player character's contested status as human/inhuman, and the imperative to pass as human or be penalized by military pursuit. I ended up reading it as this metaphor for transsexualism, which got me thinking about what a game that took up that element of ambiguity and recognition without all of the superpowers and action movie stuff thrown on top would look like.

Ha, that's kinda fascinating. you've said before you're still sometimes surprised that people know you for your game stuff - at this time, had you made many games, or was it a bit of a new frontier for you?

Lim was the second game I made. A few months earlier I'd made this game called TERF War, which is basically about the transphobia of some radical feminists ("terf" stands for trans-exclusionary radical feminist). So I don't have this long history of game authorship, no. It was something I had only thought about doing recently - I wasn't aware until earlier that year that there was such a vibrant single-author games scene that included so many queer artists.

So what was your intention with Lim? what were you hoping to achieve with it?

I'm going to answer this with a lot of hesitation and some qualifications, because I'm extremely hesitant to impose my authorial voice as the definitive take on what the game is "about". But what I was looking to do was to create a game that got at the unspectacular, everyday kinds of violence that don't generally get explored in the medium, and of course a lot of that is coming from my experience as a genderqueer person. So I wanted to make something about navigating categories and the unpredictable nature of recognition and placement in those categories, and the fear and uncertainty that comes with that: walking into a space and wondering how people are going to see you and what the consequences of that are going to be.

This is less an interview thing and more my curiosity - when I play it I am never quite sure how the switching mechanic works, sometimes I seem to blend automatically without suffering any penalty, and then suddenly switch - and was never sure if that was a bug or a feature (although this is one of those games where the distinction dissolves a little bit: if you get thrown out of the level into the void, so be it).

Yes, I was very curious to see people's perceptions of how the core mechanic worked. Actually if the player doesn't actively attempt to blend in, it's totally random as to how they'll be categorized upon entering a certain range of another square. That's something I was thinking about at the time. I think it's something a lot of trans people do, start to scrutinize tiny little things about how they're dressing or acting and try to figure out the equation people are using to gender them. I wanted to inspire that kind of questioning in the player, to make them wonder what they were doing right/wrong.

In that sense it almost reads like a kind of inversion of The Marriage - appropriating Rod Humble's heteronormative coloured squares (and the sense of uncertainty about what you're actually doing). Was there anything you wanted to include in the simulation, or the model as it were, that you couldn't in the end? Or anything you added which you had initially ignored?

Initially I had toyed with the idea of carrying the virus metaphor over from Prototype. So the player's square would be disruptive, potentially infecting other squares somehow. I say "infecting", but what I mean is really destabilizing assumptions, sort of an unraveling, if that makes sense. That was something that didn't ultimately seem to fit but I think it's an interesting piece that I might want to explore later -- I think it's wrapped up with violence in that people tend to react violently to having their operating assumptions challenged, even by the mere fact of someone's bodily presence and existence.

Yes, it really seems to incite people's anger and confusion in a weird, disproportionate way.

Yeah, exactly. It's like an existential threat, almost, or taken as one, anyway.

Were there any particular pitfalls you encountered while trying to design the model?

Well, one thing that comes to mind was balancing abstraction with getting some kind of affective experience across. There were a few comments after I released it arguing that it was too simplistic as a system, that more complexity (graphical and procedural) would have made a stronger point. And of course trying to keep the player's engagement while having this hidden rule structure. I'm more attracted to abstracted systems for depicting these kinds of structural violences in games, but there's always the risk that something gets lost in that abstraction. I can think of one thing that did seem to get lost...

Oh aye?

The player's square on its own is constantly cycling through a series of colours. It's only when they encounter another person that they're "fixed" in one of two categories. It's a less obvious, overt form of violence, perhaps, but a kind of violence nonetheless: that invisibilizing or compression of experience and identity. I don't think that got across as well as I wanted it to.

Ah, interesting. Since we're talking about what people got from it: how have you found the response to the game? I seem to recall seeing people say it meant a lot to them.

Yes, a great deal of responses I've gotten about the game have talked about how much it resonated with people's experiences, and that isn't necessarily on the level of gender. So for instance I've heard people say that they feel like it describes their experience of being bisexual or mixed-race. I think there are a lot of commonalities across those kinds of liminal positions and it was definitely my intent to make the game available for as many of those kinds of readings as possible. I think it can be very powerful to see your experience reflected, especially when we're talking about experiences that aren't generally affirmed or recognized by the broader culture. And it's also been an extremely powerful thing for me to have people tell me how important this game that I made is to them.

For you is that the main purpose - kind of building solidarity, providing succor? Because I guess there's at least three potential purposes for modeling politically, the other two being to educate people who don't understand the experience, and to try and better theorize the experience itself.

Right, yeah. So right off the bat I can say that at least with Lim I wasn't terribly interested in educating people. I mean, if people who don't see themselves reflected get something out of the game, if they learn something, that's great, but it wasn't my primary purpose. I'm mainly interested in speaking to other marginalized people, and thinking through those experiences in ways that are useful to me and other people like me. It's great to have simulations that are more focused towards educating people; it's just not something that I'm terribly interested in doing at this point. And my concern is that sometimes that purpose can overpower the others, such that we end up putting forward a relatively narrow, or un-nuanced image, that is going to be more comprehensible by a mainstream audience but that doesn't do justice to the complexity of the situation.

Right - so more interested in just faithfully speaking of the situation than in an extra instrumental purpose?

More or less. Again I do see the utility of that purpose and I think some people might have interpreted Lim in that way. I recall some comments arguing that the game's self-evident message was that "bullying others is wrong", which assumes that the primary audience is the people who might be doing the bullying...

Moving away from Lim specifically - what's your view of games' capability to speak about systemic violence, or systems of oppression?

As systems I think games have this unique capability to explore real-world systems, and I'm especially interested in violent systems, for one thing because people often have a very difficult time just grasping the idea of structural violence. I mean, I think most people think violence and immediately go to transactional, individual-level physical force - and that's not to say that that stuff isn't violence, but that by focusing on it we kind of overly restrict the definition of the term in our imagination. There's this great Foucault quote where he says that we always think about "unbridled power" when we talk about violence, which we tend to contrast with "good power" which is nonphysical. But for Foucault that's a false distinction - all power is physical because it's all ultimately applied to the body.

I've argued before that games lie to us about what violence is. By that I mean that they encourage us to think in terms of violence as that kind of unregulated interactional power, rather than as an omnipresent thing. But I don't think they have to; the key there is to build a simulation that puts the player in a difficult or unfair situation, or that demonstrates the constraints violence places on our choices. Admittedly a difficult thing to do, and it gets back to that question of figuring out how much abstraction is enough or too much.

Right - and with its sound and VFX Lim does feel really violent, which I think is an abstraction that gets to the core of things - just noticing small things about people's attitudes to you in public can be like being punched in the gut. There's often an ignorance of the actual effects of supposedly 'non-violent' things; to pick an example out of a hat, you have this bizarre misapprehension that 'trigger warnings' are happy fun times for oversensitive nancy pants and not, like, preventing a panic attack or PTSD flashback.

Right, exactly. I don't mean to draw the conversation back to Lim too much, but I heard from a lot of people that the game was a very visceral experience for them to the point that they couldn't play it for long. But yeah, trying to figure out how to depict violence as this thing that governs lives in an everyday, unspectacular way - that's something I think about a lot. Actually I've had this idea of running a workshop with youth at some point where we would read lit on oppression and work to depict systems in games with the goal of telling stories about living with structural violence, but that's kind of a far-off dream for now.

I'd like very much to return to that idea. But what you say about the shaking is interesting because, correct me if I'm wrong, the passing state is actually ludically 'safe' - there's no HP loss leading to a restart or anything. People were compelled to quit by the experience alone.

Yes, I deliberately left out any kind of HP loss or fail state like that because I was concerned that it would make the game too difficult in a way that I didn't want it to be, but it seems as if the sound and shaking effects of being attacked were actually more intense for some people.

That is kind of procedurally interesting as well, as you can't 'lose' if you agree to pass, but play can become unbearable. I'd like to talk about unintended procedural consequences - like the way that in Hey Baby you can jump right out of the level. I'm guessing it wasn't intended as a comment along the lines of 'you can escape patriarchy, but only by existing in a void outside society', but it kind of functions that way if you accept that a system is what it is and says what it says regardless of what was intended.

Yeah, that issue of unintended consequences is very interesting to me. Some people read that very strangely, like "if you're an oppressor you should pummel people who don't fit in until they're ejected from society and are then free", which was a little odd. But it raises the broader question of how to read these kinds of systems. It was really amazing to see the ways in which people took that outcome and wove it into their experience of the game.

(it's actually possible to still finish the game even if you're knocked outside of the world, much of the time, though you end the game separated from the other flashing square by a wall, which some saw as kind of a tragic conclusion)

A) how much of this stuff was completely unintentional and how much of it became intentional when you noticed it but then thought "fuck it, that kinda works"? B) what responsibility do you feel you and other devs making things like this have towards the unintended consequences of the systems you create? (go litel boke etc)

I'm not going to pretend that Lim represents a perfect expression of my will. It's the second game I made and I think the results speak to that, in a way. But it's not just a reflection of my inexperience at the time, I think that systems have a tendency to get away from us. So we intend to portray or produce one thing but the systems we're creating seem to resist or reshape our intents - at least that's been my experience. I definitely had some intentions when I started making the game but by the time I released it there had been this back and forth process of trying to map my imagined game onto this system, the system resisting or fighting back or doing something different, my reacting to that, and so forth.

I can't speak for other devs but for me this quality of systems makes making a game very different from working in some other media, because there's this wrestling or dialogue with the system as it's being built that shapes the final direction of the work. Sometimes the unintentional consequences can be illuminating and useful, and sometimes they're just experienced as bugs. For me the distinction between bug/feature then isn't what the developer didn't intend versus what she did, but more of, is this useful or interesting to the player, does it fit within the experience the system has been developing or does it break it. Maybe that's just me as someone without much programming background speaking - I don't encounter systems as someone who has command over them, which might be the experience of someone who is a trained programmer.

I think that's an interesting way of looking at the distinction (and not to mention that, clearly, systems often escape even the most experienced programmers cough Trespasser cough; hell, cough speedrunning cough.) So: sometimes when you're given a new model of something, it completely transforms your view of it, that kind of makes you stop and go "...oh". Do you think games have the potential to bring about that kind of powerful transformation of narrative, or indeed are there any games that have done that for you?

I've written before about using anna anthropy's game dys4ia in a classroom environment, and I think what that game does for some people is really transform their narrative of gender variance, in that it really brings gatekeeping and the frustrations around that to the fore. I don't think a lot of people are aware of how much power medical institutions have over transgender bodies and lives and I think that dys4ia does a good job of showing that. Robert yang's talked about how games like Civilization are potentially better models of contemporary war and conflict than first-person military games, and I like that idea I lot - did you talk to him about that in the last article?

Not that specifically, actually! While it's quite far from the world of Lim and Dys4ia, it's pretty telling that the guy employed by the US military to find, test and design new wargames for training purposes (RPS did a profile of him, Tim Stone I think was the journo) - he's not coming back to them with arms full of FPS games, he's looking at huge complex turn-based wargames.

Interesting, I hadn't heard about that. I mean, for me the thing that's useful about games like Civilization as models for war is that they show all of the logistical details, all of the planning and diversion of resources they require, the social consequences that result, etc. As opposed to military shooters - even those which bill themselves as simulations or serious takes on the topic, which are about individuals or groups of men with guns.

Arguably Lim is coming from a rather different place from, say, September 12 - which is a game by a CNN journalist about a big mainstream Serious Political Issue. How would you place Lim in the context of this 'tradition' - if there can be said to be one, and whether or not you'd put it in a group with Dys4ia or others?

In a way that's kind of a difficult question for me to answer, because I have so little history and familiarity with the indie games scene. Since I started making games I've sometimes felt a need to catch up on the field as much as possible. That said, people place Lim alongside dys4ia a lot and that's really very flattering for me because of how important and inspiring anna anthropy's work has been to me, and I definitely think her influence is visible in mine. That said, as a trans woman designer there's, always that question of whether people are actually seeing those similarities or just lumping our and other people's work together as a result of intellectual laziness.

I wouldn't argue with seeing Lim in the context of many many other political games that discuss personal experience in a way that demonstrates the interplay between personal stories and social structures. I mean political in the feminist/queer sense of marginalized experiences being political, rather than the more mainstream sense of being about electoral politics or big mainstream political issues.

Right - which is also an important distinction. And it leads pretty conveniently back to your ambition of wanting to do a kind of 'oppressive games' workshop - is there anything you'd like to elaborate about what that could involve and why it appeals to you?

It's been kind of this dream idea for a while. So there are writing workshops - there's one in Seattle called BENT that focuses on gender and sexuality - that are designed to help participants develop their ability to tell important personal stories. I think it would be interesting, if challenging, to try and do the same with games, which gets back to the idea that games are - or at least have the potential to be - good at characterizing violent and oppressive structures.

I've really been inspired by the works of people like anna and Porpentine in getting game-making tools into the hands of as many people as possible, with the goal of having games become this medium for meaningful individual stories. And I think doing that in the context of a workshop, in which we could be reading written analyses of oppressive structures - how racism or classism or sexism or ableism or transphobia work, what those structures look like in our daily lives, how they interlock, and so forth - and then also learning enough game design to be able to communicate the experience of those social systems through creating a game system...I especially like the idea of working with youth for this, and trying to show that games can be used for a wide variety of purposes beyond "fun" and that the tools exist to make them.

I hope that happens! It's particularly interesting to me because A) in the UK there is presently an ongoing argument about whether kids need to be taught more programming and intense IT stuff right from the get-go; B) I can't help but see it as a kind of mirror image of or flipside to Ian Bogost's newsgames unit at GA Tech.

The issue of programming is kind of a thorny one, but that's getting a little off track, I suppose - I think it's important to provide those opportunities especially for those people (e.g. women, people of colour) who are systematically denied them. But I'm also happy to see more tools available that don't require quite as much experience with coding.

Is there a production difficulty with procedural politics? is it easier to build a big model if you've got a fuckload of time and/or resources? Twine for instance is the hyperdemotic medium du jour, but is typically used for quite different things (although I've yet to play this new batch of twine jam games that are challenging the CYOA stigma). How feasible is proceduralism for outsiders?

Yes, good question. So if you check out that latest batch of games, I think you'll see that quite a few do involve systems (the one I put together does, though it's not meant to model any specific real-world social system). As scale and complexity increases, so does the difficulty of putting the model together. But I think the barrier to entry is actually not that high. I mean, I don't have a programming background and Lim was the second game I've made, and people have done interesting procedural things with Twine. I think it's often less a matter of specific coding knowledge and more of an ability to think procedurally or systematically, which can be a very difficult and counterintuitive means of thinking.

Actually, and this just occurs to me, but I think people who have experiences of marginalization are often forced to see things systematically in a way that people who are privileged on particular vectors aren't. And I think that experience might actually lend itself to an ability to craft more compelling procedural systems, if only the same people weren't told over and over again that coding/math is something they can't or shouldn't do. That's one reason why tools that abstract code in such a way that they're less intimidating are so exciting to me.

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