That Embarrassed Silence Thread

Pippin Barr and Robert Yang write about how they’re able to be indie game creators — and are open about how much of that depends on the support of partners who earn more.

I found both posts pretty interesting. And I get where this is coming from, this encouragement for people with creative careers to be open about how those careers are funded because it clarifies the situation for anyone thinking about entering the discipline. At the same time, sharing this kind of information runs against my established practice.

Well before I was doing anything that could qualify as professional work in games, back in the early 2000s, I was getting occasional interview requests about my hobby work, as well as some threats and romantic propositions by email, and some persistent aggression on internet forums. There was also an occasion when someone started asking my acquaintances in the IF community about how to find me because they’d decided I was the love of their life if only I could be gotten to meet them. At the time I was living with an often-absent roommate in a crime-heavy neighborhood with terrible police response times, and I wasn’t too sanguine about how I would protect myself if any of these people did show up to “meet” me.

So I was uncomfortable talking about myself because I didn’t want to help anyone find me unless I’d agreed to see them. I also didn’t care to provide more fodder for personal commentary about Why I Sucked, and I had discovered that basically any piece of information about me could be used in that way. For a long time I worked hard to keep images of me off the internet, though later that became simply impossible while also having a career where I speak in public. I now try to mitigate the effects where possible by having as non-comment-worthy a personal appearance as I’m able to achieve for myself. It still feels like ice-cream-tooth seeing my own face on a web page, even when I’ve cooperated with putting it there myself.

Most of the people I talked to about this situation said, essentially, “this is the cost of being visible and female on the internet, so you’ll just have to deal.” And back in the day, I was dealing, but that involved a fair amount of defensive silence. There were some additional people who either made fun of or chastised me for doing this, calling me paranoid or stand-off-ish, or speculating about what psychological damage might make me not want to talk about myself more in public, or that I was acting mysterious in order to make myself seem more interesting. Someone wrote a tirade about how my use of a pseudonym put him off liking my work because it “seemed sexual somehow”, which I still really really don’t get. I suppose for people who haven’t been afraid of being stalked or attacked, it’s easy to write off someone’s fear as self-aggrandizement. And even I had to admit that I didn’t think it was very likely that one of my poison penpals would escalate to showing up on my doorstep with a weapon, but it’s about expectation values, right? A low probability of assault or death still multiplies out to a risk you really want to avoid.

The second uncomfortable (if less threatening) thing I noticed was that interviewers asked me questions that I never saw being asked of men working in the same area. Was I married? Did I have children, and if so, how many, and if not, did I want them? And then some weirder, more squirrelly stuff speculating about how my (wholly invented by the questioner) romantic history probably affected the nature of the characters I was writing. There was a degree of interest in my personal life that seemed irrelevant to what I was working on, and I decided to resist this as a matter of principle. If it was a question that I didn’t think would be asked of a man who’d done the same work, then I would often refuse to answer. Once or twice people wrote to me to ask about other female members of the IF community, specifically about whether I’d met them and whether they were pretty, and I refused to get into that, too, because !?!!?.

But a lot of my reasons for silence apply to ten years ago, not to today, and questions about lifestyle are now being asked in a different context.

So, if you’re curious, for the last five years I’ve been a freelance consultant in interactive narrative, interspersed with stints working for ArenaNet and Linden Lab as an actual employee. Some of the work I do consists of writing games, or writing content for games, or giving other people advice about the games that they are writing. Some consists of giving talks about specific work I’ve done or about the uses of interactivity in general. Some involves R&D work, designing new tools and systems for game writing. The scale varies as much as the content: I’ve had client projects that took me an afternoon, and others that lasted for more than a year.

As with most consulting careers, that means that my hours and my income are variable, so sometimes I have time between jobs and sometimes I’m working nights and weekends to hit client deadlines or deal with unexpected collisions between multiple client projects. There’s a fair amount of guesswork. You do your best to keep your schedule full but without overlaps, but you can’t always control when a client is going to change parameters on a project or extend its deadline. If you’re a freelancer, what you make in a year isn’t what you happen to be charging per week times 50; it depends also on how much downtime you have, which can be hard to predict. Early in the process I set my hourly rate way too low and I had to learn that that just wasn’t viable.

There are expenses no one pays for, and time commitments you have to work in on your own. I consider blog maintenance part of my job. Going to conferences, meeting people, and building a professional network is a vital part of the process, so speaking helps a lot: conferences are expensive if you don’t hold a speaker pass, even aside from the other advantages of speaking. I now live in the UK, which means NHS and not having to self-fund insurance, which is welcome; it also means fancy accountants who specialize in ex-pat tax regulations to sort out my US and UK tax obligations, which is less fun. (If you are a US citizen, you still have to pay income tax even if you’re living full time overseas and paying income tax to the other government.)

Frankly, I enjoy this life a lot. I’ve been fortunate to work on some really interesting projects, and have been able to pay off my student loans and accrue some savings. I get to learn about a lot of different kinds of things, which for me is more nourishing — emotionally and intellectually — than working on one project for three years straight. This would be viable (at least for now) even if I weren’t married — and I was doing this work while I was still single — but being in a household that consists of two employed adults makes the whole business a lot less stressful. It would not be viable if I had young kids, I think: I travel too often, on too little notice, for it to be compatible with a lifestyle with toddlers.

I’m not trying to support myself by selling games directly. (Blood & Laurels is for sale, but it is not a primary income source for me.) Games that I write by myself I usually distribute for free, which puts me outside the “indie game author” category according to some definitions. But I do consider the work I do by myself to be part of my career, in that I’m acquiring skills or exploring design spaces that I can bring back to clients. Right now I’m working on experimental projects in multiplayer IF and in text generation. These build on research we started for Versu, or needs I ran into in past client projects, and if I have paid work in those areas in the future, what I’ve learned from those experiments should come in handy.

There might be ways to monetize some other things that I currently don’t — I’ve looked at Patreon, and considered whether it would be a good way to support some of my blog content — but at least for now I feel that it’s not a good idea. For one thing, I don’t really need it, and there are a lot of people who do. If there’s a finite supply of money that can go into supporting Patreon-funding IF and related games criticism, then that money should go to other people; I feel more of an obligation to put resources into that system, rather than take resources out.

Indie authors semi-frequently ask me how I feel about working on projects that might not be to my artistic tastes. The question is more or less tactful depending on the asker but generally comes down to “have you sold your soul? did it hurt?”

It’s true that I’ve turned a few things down, and set a few hard boundaries on projects I took, because I wasn’t interested in working on certain kinds of material. I’ve also had some clients who gave me a lot of freedom to build what I liked. But not everything has to be an expression of my own deepest Me-ness. There’s honorable and good work to be done in executing well what someone else wants or needs, assuming that thing doesn’t actually run counter to my own values. Sometimes doing commission work provides interesting challenges that I would never have encountered on my own, or gives me access to resources I wouldn’t otherwise have; sometimes a client’s surprising request becomes the sand in the oyster. The Twitter tie-in for Ultimate Quest was something a lot of my own fans weren’t keen on — and I totally understand why — but for me it resulted in some interesting design choices and player interactions that I would never have gotten to explore in another context.

I can’t say that this does or should work for everyone, but I personally have always been interested in craftsmanship and experimentation — when I’m making something, it’s not just about what I’m expressing, but also about discovering how it can be expressed — and client work is often absolutely true to that impulse in me, even if it’s telling a story that isn’t my story. There’s still room to do more personal projects on my own time, sometimes.

Finally, people sometimes ask me how they can do what I do. And here I just have to shrug, because I don’t know. I was very fortunate on multiple occasions. “Nonsense, you worked hard for a long time,” my husband says, and I grant that that was probably a necessary precondition, but it wasn’t sufficient. The other necessity was that people decided to invite me to participate where I would never have considered applying on my own. I started writing for GameSetWatch because Simon Carless asked me to. I started speaking at GDC because Dave Mark and the AI summit reached out to me. I got my first jobs and my first commissions because people who knew my name decided to take a chance on me.

It’s not exactly luck, no, but it’s nothing I did, either: it was the outreach of people who wanted to hear from someone new. So maybe my current situation won’t last, but in the meantime I intend to enjoy it, and to do what I can to amplify other voices.

10 thoughts on “That Embarrassed Silence Thread”

  1. I found this a really interesting read. I’m really glad that you and people like you can make a living (and hopefully a good living!) making the gaming industry so much more diverse and intelligent that its default settings might do on their own. I’m also glad that your blog remains free for the time being! Thanks again

  2. Thanks for sharing this. Experiences like yours help others (like me) understand the opportunities available to them. I also for example spend a lot of time just working on projects that will never be sold or even necessarily released to a very wide audience, but all of it builds up my own skills which do help me find work. I’m currently in transition between careers into tech work, and all that coding on my own is what got me here. Its good to hear that more successful people such as yourself (from the standpoint of more or less doing the kind of work that you want) have managed to make this work for them too.

  3. I’m glad you’re at a point where you’re open to opening up (so to speak) a bit more. I’ve never dealt with anything like your experiences with harassment. I can only think of one or two occasions when I’ve even not approved a (non-spam) comment on my blog, and those were more a case of people who were just kind of, well, crazy rather than out to get me personally. About the worst thing I’ve ever been called is a “Gen-X ex-pat Euro-sophisticate who affects a ‘take that, patriarchy!’ ‘she’ for every pronoun” — which I must admit I find weirdly delightful. But on the whole I’m constantly surprised by how thoughtful, respectful, helpful, and just plain *nice* my readers are. Even when they disagree with me it almost never gets remotely personal. Sometimes after writing something a little bit controversial I’ll get up the next morning and check my email with trepidation, expecting a dozen flames. But it never happens. Fingers crossed and all that.

    Anyway, two points are salient.

    One is that there is a tendency for people wanting to break into creative fields to vastly overestimate the amount of money those of us who are already somewhat established are making. I couldn’t possibly do what I do without having a wife who makes a hell of a lot more money than I as a doctor. 95 percent of the people working as artists of one stripe or another — whether writing games, novels, blogs, history books, or painting pictures or making films or playing music — are either doing it with the support of someone else, doing it as a hobby or moonlighting gig, or just barely scraping by. I would venture to guess that even most of the figures in the indie community who are extraordinarily successful are really doing no better than a typical middle-class wage earned at a typical office job. It’s incredibly rare to actually get wealthy doing this sort of stuff, so rare that anyone who gets into the field should undergo that she’s pretty much forgoing financial comfort independent of indulgent spouses or trust funds.

    And the other is that, American Dream and Horatio Alger and all that notwithstanding, no successful person gets where she is without luck and circumstance playing a strong role. This is something that my own historical research has underlined again and again. So many of the people who made a name for themselves in games and in the early PC industry in general were just blessed to be in the right place at the right time. Hard work and at least a modicum of talent are a requirement for success, but they aren’t guarantees. I wouldn’t be able to do what I do if I didn’t have one of those aforementioned indulgent spouses who makes a lot more money than me and is happy to let me chase my passions. I’m well aware that most people aren’t so lucky.

    One thing that can helps is to choose a small pond that doesn’t yet have many big fishes. There are very few people doing in-depth historical analyses of the home-computer and computer-game industries of the 1980s, and even fewer doing it well. (Most people who call themselves videogame historians are really archivists in my opinion — a hobby horse I could ride a long way for you here, but won’t bore you or your readers with it.) I love Shakespeare and rock and roll at least as much as I love computer games, but there’s more space for a vintage videogame historian to make a name for himself than there is for another Shakespeare scholar or rock critic. Do what you love, but if you can mix a little pragmatism in when choosing *which* of the things you love it certainly doesn’t hurt.

    It may be that there’s only room for one person in the world doing precisely what I do. The role you’ve carved out for yourself after many years may be the same. Thus “How do I do what Emily Short does?” may not be the most productive question to ask. (One of the wonderful things about the Internet, of course, is that it’s created the possibility for exactly the sort of niche roles we and so many others hold.)

    Thanks for what you do, and thanks for the generous Patreon support! It means so, so much to me.

    1. I know a lot of women who’ve dealt with quite a bit more than I have in terms of internet nastiness — overall, my experiences have been more good than bad — but a little goes a long way, I find.

      And I agree about niche-finding. A lot of what makes this work for me is those R&D-type projects, which require a mix of systems design and coding as well as background in interactive writing, and therefore tend to be a little more writerly than the average designer role, and a lot more technical than the average game writing role. I guess you could argue that that is no longer creative work as such, though I would completely disagree with that assessment.

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