I had finished writing a mail to Ed Key, the developer of Proteus, and the pointer hovered over the Send button. I proofread the mail a couple of times and everything looked good. It was time to click the button.
But I hesitated. Even though the wording was perfect, something was wrong. Doubting myself, I leaned away from the monitor and nudged the pointer off Send.
It did not take me long to realise the stupidity of what I was about to do. Twenty minutes in the making, I deleted the mail in less than a second.
This is a story about confession.
* * *
Writing about entertainment is strange because you are always, in some way, articulating personal experience. Kirk Hamilton in the fourth issue of Kill Screen did not just write about “The Go Game” – a company that specialises in team-building games – he took part in one of their exercises then wrote words from the inside. He did this because he believed his writing would be more authentic. Would you write a game review without playing the game?
Over the last few decades, there has been a shift from formal, authoritative writing towards something emotional, perhaps the author masquerading as close friend. Clever words are good but words which are human are better; we engage with people not text.
Documentary-maker Adam Curtis observed this shift in television:
It is part of something much wider in modern society - the belief that one should aim to be "authentic", and the way to do this, to become authentically yourself, is to learn to get in touch with your inner feelings and express them. If you button yourself up, have a stiff upper lip, and control your emotions then you are both inauthentic and somehow damaged as a human being.
Do you even care about this? Or do you just want to know what I put in that mail to Ed Key? Are you more interested in my secret?
Perhaps I should not tell you.
* * *
I am not a fan of Peter Andre and I have no idea what his contribution to society actually is, but this is no reason to exploit him.
On 3 February 2010, Sky News presenter Kay Burley interviewed Andre the day after his ex-wife married another man, Alex Reid. Burley asked him how he would feel if Reid wanted to adopt his children. She asked him this live on air and he became upset.
A modern media organisation survives on not just being the first on the scene but also through the creation of compelling human drama. News wants to be more like fiction. It is very Stalin. The death of millions is a statistic, but the loss of an individual life is tragic.
There were 900 complaints about Peter Andre's treatment on Sky News. If he had come to open his heart willingly, the same viewers would probably have called him brave.
* * *
I found the third issue of Kill Screen to be a difficult read and this was not just because the opening article contained the question “How do you make pixels have a soul?” No, this was “The Intimacy Issue” and it offered several confessional stories.
Brendan Keogh is Critical Distance's Blogger of the Year 2012 and writer of “Killing is Harmless: A Critical Reading of Spec Ops: The Line”. In the third issue of Kill Screen he wrote about how his avatar CJ in GTA San Andreas was emaciated, unwittingly mirroring his real-life anorexia. In this same issue, JP Grant wrote about a difficult part of his childhood when he would smash windows with his bare hands just to feel something. Another contributor wrote an article bordering on novella-length about virtual sex in Second Life, agoraphobia and the inevitable decline and loss of her parents.
It made me uncomfortable. This urge to put such private details out there felt so alien and, as a reader, I was duped into prying. There were not just limits to how much I wanted to tell people about myself, but also limits about how much I wanted to know about others. How many from the heart confessions can you stomach? In my case, not that many.
At least I did not know the writer who had published the Second Life story, I thought. But this is the internet. A couple of months ago, I realised I had got to know her. Right here in the site comments.
It was Jenn Frank.
And today you are wondering what I almost sent to Ed Key. Perhaps I should not tell you.
* * *
In August 2010, Kieron Gillen put Electron Dance on The Sunday Papers for the first time after he read The Second Game, where I worked through my transition from young gamer with more than enough time to play, to middle-aged parent who finds games do not fit into life so well.
I confessed and was rewarded. It is what the internet hungers for and this taste of traffic persuaded me that personal stories are where fame is to be found. Later that month, I sent mails to several developers asking them to tell me how destructive criticism made them feel. The resulting article, Punchbag Artists, lit the internet up. Nothing I have written since has been retweeted so much.
And I linked to similar pieces written by others. I enjoyed Jenn Frank’s piece relating motherhood to what she did to her Norns in Creatures. Badger Commander wrote about playing Passage with his father and I linked that too. In the comments he said himself, “Was a tough one to write as it felt quite personal and maybe not the best place to write about this stuff.”
And before your very eyes I link them again now.
* * *
There was this guy who had a tumblr and on it he posted about the racist happenings at this new job. The entire internet read it and Kotaku posted about it because his workplace was videogame developer Kixeye.
Then the post was removed:
My post, and my entire tumblr, were not intended for such a large audience. I really underestimated the internet in thinking only my personal networks would see the post…
It seemed I did not really care about his life minus confession and never went back to his tumblr. We treat these confessionals like videos of a cat doing funny things on a printer, something to consume then throw away. It may be YouTube comedy gold but we rarely stick around and subscribe to the uploader's channel.
Still, I hope he is okay.
* * *
Susan Shapiro is an author and a journalism professor. She has been instructing her students to indulge in confessional writing, no matter who it hurts. In fact, if your writing hurts someone, you are doing your job well. Recently she wrote about her approach to writing in a New York Times opinion piece.
“This brings me to my one caveat: while readers will applaud your brave, tumultuous disclosures, your relatives won’t. The first piece you write that your family hates means you found your voice, I warn my classes. If you want to be popular with your parents and siblings, try cookbooks.”
Do not just use yourself. Use friends and family if it can sell your writing.
Nolan Hamilton wrote an acerbic response on Gawker titled “Journalism is not Narcissism”:
“Writing about yourself can be part of a balanced journalism diet, but it sure ain't a whole fucking meal. By plundering your own life for material, you are not investing in yourself as a writer; you're spending the principal.”
* * *
Towards the end of 2011, Rock Paper Shotgun posted a series of interviews conducted by Robert Yang called “Level With Me”. One of them was with Ed Key and RPS had embedded a video of an old version of Proteus in action.
A month before I had created a popular video featuring an audio recording of my three-year old son playing Proteus with me. It was an attempt to capture the magic of the game without spoiling it and I felt this was a far superior video to explain Proteus. So I mentioned the video in the RPS comments, but then considered if there was a reason why other sites would choose not to embed my video.
The video starts with the Electron Dance logo which is then followed by the Proteus logo. It looks like Electron Dance made Proteus and there is no reference to the Proteus website nor Ed Key nor David Kanaga.
I decided to write an e-mail to Ed Key, asking if he would like me to produce a second version which strips Electron Dance from the opening and, basically, be an advert for Proteus which he could use as part of his marketing. It would carry the Electron Dance brand further than just a RPS comment would.
Just as I was about to send it, I realised I was selling my son for internet traffic and deleted the mail.
* * *
On the site Daily Life, Nicole Elphick worried that confessional writing was becoming a form of exploitation. One of her favourite bloggers, Cat Marnell, was writing increasingly about drug abuse and Elphick asked, “Is Marnell being exploited as more controversial posts get more hits, and therefore more ad dollars? Are we treating her problems as entertainment?” Elphick concluded that we have no right to stop people writing what they want to write and some of these stories are important.
But it does not exorcise away the murky moral maze of confessional blogging that can become an addiction – for both writers and readers. How much of yourself are you willing to give away? What about those other people who may not have wanted to be sold for your benefit?
Honest, personal writing is a wonderful thing. Consider Matthew Orona who let his four-year old play mature-rated GTA: San Andreas and explained the positive value to be found in this. Consider the (now defunct) blog Baghdad Burning by the anonymous Riverbend about the terrifying reality of post-war Iraq.
Then again, some were sure Riverbend was a fake. Just like Syrian lesbian blogger Amina Abdallah Aral al Omari who turned out to be a straight American man. I admitted myself in a piece called Rashomon’s Rage that anger had distorted an unpalatable truth in my telling of a game of Neptune’s Pride. Writing rarely reflects the exact, complete truth. The more confessional the anecdote, the stronger the possibility that the memory was tampered with, consciously or unconsciously.
So what you should be thinking about right now is how much of the story about the Proteus video is true. Did I actually write a mail? Did I really stop seconds before hitting the Send button? Would I have been stupid enough to suggest using a video of snapshots to market Proteus rather than, well, an actual video of the game?
Perhaps I should not tell you.
- Originally I was intending to "review" each issue of Kill Screen but the third issue was problematic; I kept getting stuck on how uncomfortable I found the confessional pieces. This reaction piece took shape about a year ago and it has taken all that time to pluck up the courage and actually write it. It was important to capture the hypocrisy of my discomfort.
- “Bloggers who use their domestic life for material have a smaller audience, and a much smaller income, than Jones but like her they have to weigh up the sheer thrill of self-disclosure against the damage done in the revelation.” Sarah Ditum on "mummy blogging", The Guardian.
- Lena Chen blogged about her sex life in detail but has turned a new leaf. In Salon, she writes about this change yet admits she misses the person she used to be: “Why did I ever think it was a good idea to reveal anything about my life, especially my sex life, and why did I continue doing it despite the havoc it was wreaking in my life?”
- I've linked to a few of the responses to this article in a supplementary post.