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.

*       *       *

Peter Andre on Sky News

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.

Tweets for Punchbag Artists

So I was encouraged to write with emotion wherever possible. I wrote about my grief at the passing of childhood in The Last Dream. I articulated how the Japanese tsunami had affected me in Wa and Ga.

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.

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48 thoughts on “The Ethics of Selling Children

  1. 80s slow clap. Eric mentioned you were nervous about this one. I bet publishing this felt wonderful, didn’t it? Proper thoughts to come, but excellent, excellent piece.

  2. Hey, this email thread through this article played a merry dance with my brain/ego!

    Anyway, I know what you mean. I don’t have kids, but have had a similar quandry with young relatives playing Proteus, when I was considering doing some kind of node-based “players commentary” mode (I still might!).

    I do absolutely love that video though. If I rip it and cut off the Electron Dance branding without your permission that sidesteps the issue, right? 😉

    (And… Are you saying the cat vs printer video is by the kixeye racism whistleblower guy? Or am I being slow?)

  3. @Richard: Yeah, nervous. I’ll feel better about the publishing after all the reactions have been shaken out of the woodwork. Despite the hours of labour that went into it, I was still toying with burying or postponing the article last night. Having said that, I’m happy with the words themselves.

    @Ed Key: In the original version I sketched out a year ago, the children aspect was more of the focus and I ended the article with a promise never to put my children on the site again – they’ve popped up in all sorts of odd places, like the Waves Hot Confetti video and Doug’s video interview. The good thing about letting words settle is that you can review them: I felt that was an overreaction, and the photo at the top is sort of baiting.

    People do use their children in advertising all the time. Sometimes for themselves because it helps project a particular personality, being a parent suggests an understanding of responsibility and commitment – even better, a married parent. But children are also deployed in model work. It’s about where you want to draw that line. I’m not a child beauty pageant kind of guy. Young children don’t get to have a say in where their images are used or appear and maybe it’s not best to start them off ruining their appreciation of online privacy!

    Regards the cat video, I was just attempting to make the connection that his (deleted) tumblr story was just like the cat video in terms of impact; play once, don’t go back. But the cat vs printer video is pretty cool.

  4. Marvellous.

    Was there not a Guardian writer whose daughter attempted to divorce her a few years ago because she would not stop writing about her “problem daughter” – even after their identities were publicly leaked?

    I recall reading a piece by the original writer following all of this. It appeared that she could not understand what it was that she had done wrong.

  5. @HM Just make sure you know what you’re doing! You keep going on like this, Critical Distance is not gonna wanna be friends with you any more. I know you were super excited about appearing on their year end list. Let me know if you would like to start a support group called Abandoned By Critical Distance (ABCD). We can drink and tweet about how sad and cold life is.

  6. Thank you for writing this. Once again you have articulated something I wanted to talk about. I actually have a thought in my head about confessional games and the new pressure to make them, but it needs to gel.

    When I read the quote from Shapiro it reminded me of when I was younger. Perhaps inappropriately, considering the topic of your article, a small but hopefully-tasteful personal story. When I was in my early 20s and still trying to find my own voice, I had a LiveJournal. Occasionally I posted entries about my family and my real life, though they were under a “friends only” lock. I felt they were fairly safe there, but one day I forgot to log out of the system and my mother found them. She was – rightfully – upset that I’d be so candid, and frequently self-pitying, about other people in that way. So I deleted the entries and stopped writing in such a way. I never intended to hurt anyone. I was just trying to, well, bleed, like I’d been theoretically taught. Shapiro would say it was a good thing that I made my mother mad? That’s stupid. She’s my mother and she’s important to me.

    When I see all these articles where people talk about their personal trauma, and how it relates to video games, and they get linked over and over… I just think about myself ten years ago wiping entries out of my LiveJournal. Sometimes I think “I wish I had the courage to write that way-” but it always feels followed up with “-because then I could be popular like other girls” and that feels terribly hollow.

  7. After my Super Hexagon post I decided I would only write about games in a way that was personal. Not necessarily confessional per se but always through a personal slant. It kind of clicked for me that was maybe the only unique take a writer has left in this sphere of over saturation when it comes to games writing. But at the time I did wonder if I was “selling out” or if I’d run out of material like that.

    You’re right that’s it’s learned. The Super Hexagon piece came after the 9/11 Splinter Cell article and the latter became my most successful post of 2012. Although I didn’t meant it to, the 9/11-SC piece was oddly confessional.

    As I’m looking at my list of upcoming posts, I’ve felt myself wondering if this well of personal sharing about gaming will run dry. There’s a part of me that still thinks a more disinterest analysis is necessary and valuable – now it may also be lacking in the overall discourse. But there’s a voyeuristic spark we get from reading these confessionals and I think my appreciation (our appreciation?) for the more objective pieces are in the minority.

    I guess what I’m trying to spit out is thanks, Joel. You’ve made me consider my own writing and that’s something I never want to stop doing. I don’t know if every writer who feels this piece tapped them will react with as much appreciation but I will always go back to a podcast Michael Abbott did where he wonders if he’s saying anything valuable with the Brainy Gamer podcast. I was and always will be floored by that because if THAT GUY can question his material then we can all consider deeply how to keep getting better.

  8. Hey. For the interview with Ed, I thought about embedding your video in there instead (and I’m a big fan of the video too) but then I decided on Ed’s early prototype video for 3 reasons:
    1) It’s your video, not mine or Ed’s
    2) Since the video’s branded, my embedding the video is kind of like using my leverage as an RPS contributor to promote you or something, or at least I felt uneasy about it
    3) Since the LWM series was about process, I think it’s interesting (especially now) to look at that older video and see how different the colors and tree sprites and sound palette are.

    re: “you being a horrible person and selling your son” — I think you’re coming from a rather different place. When I watch that video, one might think, “wow he’s a good dad” or more cynically, “he wants me to know he’s a good dad?” At worst, it comes off as boastful vanity, rooted in the “look at my awesome precocious child” genre of YouTube videos. There’s no drama or stakes there.

    In that NYT article you link, I think the author remarks upon this type of writing as “false confession” or “poorly-crafted confession” because who’d be ashamed of having a curious intelligent child and nurturing father? Meanwhile, in that Killscreen issue, there are some very real issues of trust and self-disclosure because you’re not supposed to talk about these things publicly, and that’s what makes these writers’ acts so transgressive and brave and compelling.

    Haha wow I sound really judgmental right there, awesome, please forgive me everyone

  9. I gather there’s been a lot of Twitter activity about this piece today which I’ve decided to keep out of. I’ll restrict myself to the comments for once.

    I should’ve dug out the recent blog post that was retitled I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother. There were thorny issues in that one.

    @ShaunCG: Do you remember I told you early last year that I hate writing about writing? But I had one piece planned called “The Ethics of [something that I wouldn’t tell you]”? This might have been the article I was talking about. Not sure I caught the story about the Guardian writer.

    @Richard: I’d be surprised to be judged on one disagreeable piece among many. Or worse, one link amongst a million.

    @Kunzelman: I– yes, okay.

    @Amanda: Great comment, confessional almost! The Shapiro article caused some controversy. It’s like the worst of us – the exploitation and monetization of the people in our lives. I’m not saying this is A Problem with videogame writing, just highlighting the extreme industrialisation of it. Confessional writing happens across the breadth of the web and it’s just finding that balance really, how much is too much?

    I never got quite caught up in thinking “I have to publish confessional pieces”. I do think things have been changing though; if I’d written this a year ago it wouldn’t be so contentious.

    BTW, your LiveJournal story made me think of a particular YouTube video.

    @Jordan: Now you mention it, yes I suppose you were getting more personal with your pieces on sortiv. I hadn’t really grasped that although I do remember the 9/11 piece being quite open. That’s a super-important point you made there, by the way. One of the paragraphs I cut from the article, because it was already long enough, explained that with Electron Dance I’m always desperate to find something Very Different to write about each week. And making something personal to you is something no one else can do.

    Some of the confessional writing out there is vital, that was the point I was trying to make towards the end. If you think you’re doing good work, by all means carry on. If I’ve given you pause and you’re regrouping, then I’m happy to hear that because that is around 1000x more than anything I expected from anyone. In the end, the main message is this: WARNING, TAKE CARE. That’s it. Curtain falls.

    My point is that none of our work is truly objective. I know that’s the old “bad journalism” cop-out, but when you’re trying to describe the experience of playing game, you have to connect with a subjective reality. I’m going to continue to post stuff from the heart where appropriate and I have at least two personal-ish stories to do this year.

    Remember Jordan, you were one of those people I looked up to when I was starting out with Electron Dance. Of course, you stopped blogging after a couple of months and had to survive alone, foraging for words on a post-apocalyptic internet wasteland.

    @Robert Yang: I think this is perhaps a flaw with my writing above; the video itself was not the thing I found uncomfortable, it was the idea of producing a special version for Ed Key, so he could market his game and carry Electron Dance on that wave. That is the act of selling my son. That is where the line gets crossed.

    On Kill Screen – most definitely, each to their own. I think if I’d had one of those essays at a time, I would’ve been fine, but I read them in rapid succession and it was all a bit too much. Maybe it’s a reflection of where we are with videogame blogging right now: a single confession is intriguing, a million is a statistic.

  10. @HM – Ha ha, yup – that kind of teenager melodrama. I don’t watch that video and think “boy, that girl upset her dad. That means she must have FOUND HER VOICE.”

    To summarize Twitter, I think a few people have seen this article as a round indictment of the confessional article on the whole. Which, I didn’t see it as such: more, you’re exploring why this might be good or bad or what makes this type of writing so compelling in the first place.

  11. I sometimes try to write about the difficulties of “indie” game/art-making. My conscious motivation isn’t for my own sake. But since I write from my own experience (as I must, since it’s what I have the most information about) it can so easily get twisted into self-promotion. I talk about money, because it’s a necessary constraint, because there are massive inequalities that may be invisible from the outside, but it’s hard for it not to come across as begging for some. It’s really hard to do this right, to use the examples we know about because we are them without the message being self-focused.

    Thank you for writing about this.

  12. @Amanda: Confessional writing is popular for the same reason gossip is popular. It just has a certain cultural reputation as being classier.

  13. I don’t know how you do it, Harbour Master, but I will say that your writing is a sort of window for me. Not having kids of my own (though I am the best uncle in the world), I find myself fascinated by your perspective on being a Dad, a gamer, a gaming Dad, and other combinations thereof. You have an unusual gift for speaking from the heart about your loved ones and making a person like me – a person with no firsthand experience in child ownership – understand the joys and tumults of the adventure. And an adventure it is.

    I loved the Proteus video, and the pleasure you took in experiencing it with your boy. In fact I bought Proteus based on the strength of that article and video, and have enjoyed it immensely. Does that mean that your son had already been used to shill for a game? I suppose a surly, cynical person might say yes, but allow me to propose an alternative: while I probably wouldn’t have bought the game if I hadn’t so enjoyed the wonder in his voice and the paternal happiness in yours, it was the memory, not the child, that sold the game to me.

    My own father brought home an Apple II+ in 1979 and a copy of Roberta Williams’ Mystery House in 1980. I was five, my brother six, and our Dad was a big auto executive with limited time, time he nonetheless devoted to spending with his family every free moment he had. My earliest memories as a child are sitting with my father, learning to read while playing Mystery House. We’d shout instructions and he’d type them into the text parser. It took us years to finish the game, but perhaps with a foundation like that it’s no surprise I wound up as the person I am. If the facility existed to make videos and put them on the internet way back then, I think his would have been quite similar to your Protean experience. Personally I think you have quite a gift for being both confessional and well-controlled in your work. Limits and lines you recognize and avoid crossing, but you still give us much to know you by.

    Like the other commenters, I say, thank you for writing this!

  14. Lots of good comments. = )

    @HM – You bring up a great point about commenting on play. Especially when we’re talking narrative in games we’re talking about making pretend and one really has to approach that from a personal, subjective viewpoint. I think that’s partly why diaries for things like Skyrim took off, because that’s part of how we share what would otherwise be a solitary experience. I think the confessional is at least partly related.

    You know I’ve never addressed why I stopped writing really (other than being busy or writing other things), but really I think it’s because I was afraid I wasn’t adding anything unique to the discussion. I’m not sure “unique” is exactly what I’m going for anymore but I’m just trying to be as honest as possible and write the thing that makes me squirm a little. Some of that has been more personal, but I don’t think I have enough of that material to last. There’s something else I can’t quite put my finger on I’m itching to write.

    @Amanda – I had a similar experience with LiveJournal in my teens. I did learn from it. I now keep in mind the saying: “don’t do anything you’d be embarrassed to see on the front page of the newspaper.” I’ve kind of adapted that to, “don’t write anything I’ll have to apologize for”. Before I click publish I ask myself, if I was passionately defending this article and why it was written, would I lose that argument? Certainly some people personally I know might not like what I write, but I believe in what I write.

    @Michael – Good point about trying not to be self focused. It is hard. I think we’re all trying to give something to others that’s valuable through telling our own experiences. It’s actually selfless but can come off self centered.

  15. @Amanda: It was definitely not my intention at all, to say “confessions = bad”. Especially considering the end of the article. I suppose if that’s what some are taking away from it, I should’ve dumped the whole “children = personal life” metaphor entirely which was the genesis of the article.

    @Michael: Those of us seeking attention on the web live in this giant grey zone where self-promotion and authenticity overlap. I think most writers who pump out a confessional blogpost – myself included – start out with an idea, and think people will want to read it. We don’t start out looking for the next confession to bring the traffic in. (The real danger is that the confession becomes habitual making it difficult to escape the cycle, especially as audience expectations are built atop that. I think it’s a huge mistake to assume exploitative intent.)

    I like your ad hoc, irregular blog posts, Michael, and I’ve found the financial talk quite important. It’s difficult to come by hard facts about the financial health of the indie scene other than lots of bluster one way or another. I put you on the sidebar a few weeks ago.

    @Eric: Can you be more specific about that? What would you say is the reason that gossip is popular? That we want to know the details of other people’s private lives?

    @Steerpike: You make me hanker after the days when we used to get one game and just play it for months and months. I could write a lot more about that, but that would be way off topic.

    I have often pondered how much is too much. I’m not entirely comfortable for my children to turn up here as a regular fixture, and the popularity of the Proteus video was not something I had foreseen. It suggests “Little Harbour Master plays Sword & Sworcery” and “Little Harbour Master plays Dishonored” might also be popular. (Little known fact: Little HM has played some Dishonored.) But to make him the main attraction would take me outside my comfort zone. As would “selling the video”.

    There are plenty of others who make videos exclusively of their children playing videogames and I would guess most aren’t doing it to make money or traffic for something else, but just to make something funny or interesting to watch. I usually have a particular thematic purpose in mind when I sprinkle my children into videos rather than a hook to get you in the door. Currently, I have only one video planned for this year, and they are not in it.

    This topic is nose-to-nose with rights of privacy and the Facebook age.

    On children in videogame writing, Chris Dahlen’s column on Unwinnable is really good.

    @Jordan: I’ve built a massive portfolio of seeds for articles and, over time, some of them blossom alone, some of them coalesce. I don’t have any suggestion how to build up a portfolio, but having all these ideas sit around for a long time seems to work really well for me. The series planned for later this year initially started as a smattering of independent thoughts.

  16. @HM: Yeah, I’d say that’s primarily it. Gossip is popular because when there’s an absence of information, people want it. So confessional writing is saying “well, don’t gossip about me, I’ll just put it all out there.” And they get rewarded for it, because so many people (and I’m including myself in this, I’m not some paragon of virtue) are titillated by the private worlds of people we don’t know (which, really is what gossip is. Do you gossip about your wife? Do I gossip about my boyfriend? No.)

    Confessional writing absent intent is just gossip without other people.

  17. A lot of people hear weird stories about my childhood and want me to write a book, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable even starting on that until my parents have passed on. Even with every reassurance that they aren’t bad people or that anything they did was really unreasonable given the wacky* circumstances, I know they wouldn’t take kindly to it.

    I appreciate your more personal work, but I think your personality sells it like it does the rest of your writing. Plenty of people confess in manners that don’t really set them apart- it’s probably why drug-use confessions from celebrities don’t carry as much weight as they used to.

    *Yes, I consider one of the most tumultuous times in my life “wacky”, though my definition must be different from the one used by a few mildly horrified friends I’ve told these stories to.

  18. @HM Alas, the odds of my remembering something from “early last year” are staggeringly low. 🙁

    I have an appalling memory. It’s why I’m an obsessive list-maker and note-taker (although the latter can fall by the wayside if I am feeling lazy).

    I did have a look for the story about the Grauniad writer but alas, no luck. Perhaps I imagined it all. Now there’s a confessional story!

    Re. later comments – I like your note to Jordan about how you keep a portfolio of seeds for potential article ideas. I think I may do the same. Is that just in a document file or do you use some kind of web 2.woah ‘productivity tool’?

  19. Unlike some, I do feel that there can be a value to these confessional pieces – but more as an autobiographical illustration of the impact games can have on the individual than as criticism.

    I am bothered, however, by how confessional writing can give the impression of emotional and artistic depth where there is very little: “and after my cousin was run over by an escaped Ferris wheel, I couldn’t help but think that every single coin I collected in Super Mario Franchise: Twelve Golden Cunts represented his death, his death under that circular machine that itself is not unlike a game or a giant coin, and so I recognized that Super Mario Franchise was essentially a game about me…”

    So instead of talking about making games with actual depth, or writing at depth about games that deserve it (as has happened a lot in IF), we just get people writing about their own depth. Which, again, is interesting as autobiography or social studies, but says relatively little about games and their potential.

  20. @BeamSplashX: And now you have me intrigued about what is so wacky about your childhood.

    @ShaunCG: I use Trello to fix schedule but as for ideas, it’s just an enormous list of folders.

    When I was collating fiction seeds (of which I have a enormous number) I used a beefed-up notepad-alike which allowed branching into subdocuments. That became unwieldy for fiction so now I just use folders. I have a folder like “art-the-ethics-of-selling-children” which contains initially just a scrappy notepad document that I add to over time. It might adopt reference documents, images, that sort of thing; I grabbed the aborted Kill Screen #3 review and stuck it in there.

    Sometimes I’ll just notice two ideas should be one and put them together by hand. It’s all manual because all the association work happens in my head. I like it being ridiculously unstructured, but it gives me real problems when it comes to compiling a series. I’ve spent a couple of months trying to organise a year of thoughts into a coherent track for the next series.

    I had a new idea yesterday morning at work about an unforeseen consequence of zinesters culture and sent it home by e-mail immediately to make sure it wasn’t lost. That may end up completely different after twelve months or get absorbed into something else. It’s not an article yet, merely a thought.

    It’s an extension of how I acquired a massive portfolio of fiction ideas; they all come from random thoughts and even misheard conversations. Instead of stamping them out, you breathe life into those embers and sometimes something happens. (An outlandish example in my Electron Dance ideas list is a folder called “alien vampires”. Yup.)

    However I recently archived a bunch of ideas that looked like dead ends. Either they weren’t going to turn into anything, were now out of date or, worse, seemed sort of amateurish compared to what I usually write now.

    This is possibly more information that you wanted to know. But it’s best being in a comment on an article about writing =)

    @Jonas: First laugh of the day goes to “Super Mario Franchise: Twelve Golden Cunts”. I agree there’s potentially an issue confusing a confessional piece with writing that tells us something about games. It depends on what the piece is about, to be sure. I found a recent piece about going indie by ex-Dishonored dev Joe Houston inspiring; it doesn’t tell us too much about games themselves, but certainly explores the process and meaning of indie development.

  21. My ultimate thoughts towards the Personal in writing are far more complex than “this is good” or “this is bad”. I tend to err on the “this is bad” side mostly because there’s so much more bad-faith thoughts onon the “this is good side” that I feel bad for the anti-Personal side.

    The reaction to the Hernandez piece has been pretty much exactly what I expected–people assuming it’s me picking on a poor defenseless young girl for bravely sharing her story of hardship she went through as a child. I actually find Hernandez very incidental to the piece–I could have done one of a dozen writers for it, but the reason I picked her is because she has an extremely strong position in the community. While at the time she was not a full staff member of Kotaku at the time I published my article, she’d had several bylines and was hired very shortly after publication. Considering that I’m a small-time blogger that the “community” has usually been dismissive or rude to, I wrote about her article in particular out of everyone in Liz Ryerson’s list (Ryerson, incidentally, is much closer to being the true subject of my post) partially because it was the most interesting, but also because her status would help me LESSEN any accusations of personal attacks. If you read my article carefully, you’ll notice I’ve VERY SPECIFICALLY talked about only her work. I did, of course, say that she doesn’t do this sort of thing very well–but if we can’t talk about that, then we might as well all hang up our critic hats because suddenly we can’t do our jobs AT ALL.

    Do this little deconstructive exercise: Instead of reading “Gaming Made Me: Fallout 2” as a story about Fallout or about Hernandez’s sexuality, pretend it’s an article written to a prompt about confessing all the ways your mother was horrible to you growing up. Suddenly it becomes a much darker article–the way I took her piece was an extended humilation of her mother. “My mother left her war-torn, poverty-stricken existence to come to America,” it says, “What a fucking idiot. I can’t wait to see the look on her face when she sees her whole life is a lie.” My original draft of the article featured more of this point–I took it out precisely *because* I was uncomfortable writing about someone this way. Hernandez put herself out there and is therefore a fair subject to write about; I have gotten no sense that her mother even knows this article exists and, as a result, every time I wrote this piece I was more and more stricken with pity for this woman who “found herself in America” , who had a life of scrubbing toilets instead of being a doctor, who dared to make her daughter wear a bra.

    By pointing out these things, Hernandez shows herself to have literally no perspective or empathy for her mother: She is incapable of understanding her mother’s life. You do not just “find yourself” in America–getting there, as far as I know, is a difficult and not particularly cheap proposition. (The story of how her mother made it to the US at a young age would, incidentally, make an AMAZING personal story.) She doesn’t seem to notice that the year of her mother’s emigration coincided with the year of Patricia’s own birth and does not at all understand how her own impending existence might have affected the move. She does not find her mother’s job to be “good honest work” that one performs not out of love but out of necessity–every time Hernandez talks about “scrubbing toilets” (both in this and other essays she’s written) it’s with a tone of contempt. She doesn’t understand that many girls find the rite of passage of the first bra to be a complex event, tied in as it is to adolescence and body image. My take on the mother’s attitude in that scene is one of a woman who’s frustrated by her daughter’s stubbornness, but who ultimately remembers her own experiences at that age and is mildly indulgent–when Hernandez emerges, her mother laughs and ends up giving her a present. Hernandez herself was unable to fully understand everything that was happening to her at the time–who of us didn’t spend middle school and high school in a horrible chaotic miasma of hormones and confusion about our own sexualities?–and so I find her excoriation of her mother for her misreading of the situation to be remarkably unfair.

    It goes along with the comments about Livejournal here. We *all* had fights with our parents. Some of us had worse ones than others. I had a Livejournal myself, and while my mom didn’t read mine as Amanda’s did, I had similar conversations with my parents about privacy and what one shows to the world. I’ve definitely written things about how horrible my mom was while I was growing up. As an adult, I realize that there wasn’t anything particularly special about my fights with my folks. A story or two that’s funny in hindsight and which I might tell to some friends, but nothing that was worth destroying my mother’s character over. Yesterday I gave my mom a quick call–we were both in the middle of things, but we ended up talking for an hour. I’m astonished to realize that I like my mom at this time–but I’m very, very grateful to myself for not writing anything about her as Hernandez has about her mom. That would have been too big of a hurt.

    I don’t have a problem with using a personal story to talk about videogames–watch out for something called “Breakfast in Skyrim” that I’m in the middle of writing. I do have a problem with exploitation of personal issues and traumas. Creating the atmosphere that “what you write doesn’t matter so long as it’s PASSIONATE and PERSONAL” is not only a good way of getting a lot of shitty journal entries, it’s also a great way for sites such as Kotaku and Rock Paper Shotgun to get people to read. There will always be an audience for shocking, lurid tales, and there will always be 22-year-olds who believe that everything is all about them. I feel that in our haste to write the most shocking confession, that some ethical breaches might be committed that are too difficult to take back.

    I generally stay as far away from anything involving children as possible–there were never any around me while growing up and as a result I often find kids to be extremely creepy–so a video of a kid playing Proteus would not sell the game to me (no offense, Joel!), but at the same time, I can see why it *would*. I know plenty of Gamer Dads, many of whom have fond memories of playing games with their own fathers (I have some of those myself!), and who want to do the same with their own kids. The intent of your video would have been to say, here’s one of *those*, a common experience that you and your kid can have and can talk about and bond over without you having to worry that there’s content in there that he’s not ready for–and for people who don’t have kids, the game trades on a childlike sense of wonder which would have come across.

    I think *having* the ethical debate over using this as a commercial is the important part here. No matter what your decision, it’s the questioning that’s important. Developing one’s editorial filter is important; Joel’s article suggests that an unquestioned “let’s write shocking stuff without any thought of the consequences!” is the true problem with confessional writing. To view Joel’s Kid Playing Proteus as either an unabashed Good Cute Thing or an unabashed Bad Exploitative Thing is a step in the wrong direction–before hitting published, we should look at what we’re about to send to the world and think about it. We are talking about a community which eschews quality–I literally saw someone saying, “I don’t care how good it is, I’ll read anything as long as it’s personal.” That’s BAD. That’s a suggestion that one has no taste. That one doesn’t know what’s good or bad. For a critic to refuse to make evaluative judgments–that’s a great way to get some shit writing up in here. If you’re going to write something personal, make sure it says something about the games and it isn’t just a way of you venting about your mommy.

    Incidentally, would anyone like to discuss the issues raised by Joel’s coy “did I really almost send this email or not?” because that’s the most fascinating part of this piece to me, given the blurring between fiction and nonfiction and confession and fabrication and memoir and lies and perception and reality that all “nonfiction” raises. There’s a suspension of disbelief which hits all genres–our knowledge of the structure and underlying assumptions of a genre helps to inform our understanding of the work and smooths out any inherent flaws. While some characters might be based on people the author knows, we assume that everything in something labeled “a novel” is intended to represent a nonexistent version of the world–we allow the author this parallel universe in order to give him or her the authority to have control over the story. In a nonfiction piece, we may understand that the author may not be reporting events exactly–perception is fickle and we may not always have the most accurate understanding of something that may have happened; even beyond that, by necessity writers omit details, shift events out of order if their order is incidental and if rearranging them might make the theme stronger, conflate or ignore certain people for clarity, etc., but unless the author is outright lying, we can accept certain distortions in order to get a more readable piece.

    And so I can see a typical version of Joel’s piece essentially reading, “I had this video of my kid, I almost sent it, but then I didn’t, and here’s why.” It would have gotten the point across–let’s make sure we *need* to be personal and not just kneejerk into that. But he’s extremely and hilariously reluctant to tell us. “I sent an email,” he says. “What was it?” Joel brings up this email several times throughout the article. While part of it is simple striptease-esque buildup–hands up everyone who had to stop themselves from scrolling to the end to find out just what this email was–Joel takes a slightly ironic attitude towards his “confession” (which, in the grand scheme of things, one must admit isn’t particularly shocking or egregious–what we have is a proud father wanting to show off his kid and ultimately deciding that this isn’t an appropriate context to do so) which kind of mocks the attitude towards personal gossip. “Do you even care about this?” he says, after a somewhat theoretical section. “Or do you just want to know what I put in that mail to Ed Key?” We don’t *want* actual, informed analysis, or Theory, or anything meaningful, Joel is suggesting. We just want Queen for a Day. For his hat trick, he ends the article suggesting that he might have made the whole thing up–that he never genuinely typed up the email and that it might simply be a fictional example. This doesn’t affect his analysis, but bringing up the question and refusing to answer it means that the framing of his article cannot be read as either confession or as a lie. All writing fits somewhere into that gap; to pretend that a piece of writing does not, and that a piece which lies on one side is more “authentic” than one on the other–that’s a very, very dangerous attitude.

  22. @Richard
    As an adult, I realize that there wasn’t anything particularly special about my fights with my folks. A story or two that’s funny in hindsight and which I might tell to some friends, but nothing that was worth destroying my mother’s character over.

    This, exactly this.

    Whenever I read these highly confessional “gaming made me” articles, I try to guess what age the person was when they played the game in question. Cara Ellison right-out says. ( She was 12. The implication in the Hernandez piece is that she picked up Fallout 2 used, and slightly old. I’m going to take a wild stab and guess that Patricia Hernandez played Fallout 2 in 2002 or ’03.

    Don’t get me wrong, I like Patricia (unlike what you say in your essay I am certain she is a real person as I have met and chatted with her), and I don’t want to discount her subjective experiences. But the game you play when you’re a tween is ALWAYS the best and most important game. A big part of this is because you are 12, which is the right age for your hormones to start kicking in and something is going to come along and shift your paradigms. Age 12/13 is also right around the time that mom might be making you get your first training bra.

    My “Gaming Made Me” would be Final Fantasy VI. I was 14, I think, but that’s still around that same age level. I had played games before it, and I certainly played games after it, but I was OBSESSED with Final Fantasy VI. And obviously that makes sense, because it’s a tremendous, great game (So is Fallout 2; can’t really agree on Tomb Raider, sorry Cara). But it also makes sense because I was at that vulnerable-early-teenage ready-for-a-paradigm-shift-now time that makes whatever media you consume more magical.

    In high school I wrote a short essay about how Final Fantasy VI helped me deal with Some Shit At Home that was going on. Maybe that shit at home is interesting, or less interesting, I don’t know. The point I’m making is EVERY teenager has Some Shit at Home. But this essay was for writing class. I think I got a B- on the essay.

    Last night I was having a chat with some colleagues and I remarked that it felt like every piece of writing, or art, that I got a B- on in high school or college, seemed like the exact kind of thing that gets tons of praise now. We mostly agreed that we regretted chasing grades rather than sticking to our guts on some stuff. But I can’t help but think that maybe that really was a B- essay? And I wonder if RPS would care about my B- “Gaming Made Me” that I discarded decades ago. Knowing what I know now, with the perspective that I have now, I get what it means to be 12… which is a perspective you can’t really have at 22, but can have, I think, at 32.

  23. @Amanda Allow me to steal your “This, exactly this” and apply it to your own comment! Everyone has that game or that book or that movie or that band that they fucking loved. When I was fifteen, I listened to Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness every single day. As a budding songwriter, it taught me a lot; as an angsty teen, it helped me get through some great times; it’s an extremely important album in my life. That alone doesn’t make it a great album. Fact is, there’s a lot of reasons that it’s NOT a great album. By focusing too much on “this was great when I was 15”, it refuses to see what the game actually *is*. It ascribes a holiness to the text which does not exist. Too much is sacred. Hence my ironic comments in my piece about the writer and the text being a merged entity. All art deserves to be looked at and picked apart. I appreciate a good work when I can see that it’s good on an atomic level.

    Re your comment about uncertainty about Hernandez’s existence–are you talking about the “I know she exists in the world” paragraph at the beginning? I didn’t intend that to be a suggestion of nonexistence–that bit was to talk about my remoteness to her. Most of the praise for the article was from people who were already friends with her, for whom this personal story would have a different resonance to; I was trying to show an outside view of the thing, since my point in writing the article was “People outside the community are looking at these works and they’re going to have an opinion of us lauding pieces that are often narcississtic, self-involved, nasty, and poorly-written.” That being said, I can see how that could be interpreted as an implication that I believed that Hernandez was lying or was a pseudonym or anything–and that might explain a bit of the reaction to it. It wasn’t my intent to imply that–allowing for the standard amount of fudging that’s acceptable and necessary when writing a piece of creative nonfiction, I really haven’t encountered many if any articles written in this mode which have struck me as deceitful in any way.

  24. @Richard
    Oh, no, I knew what that paragraph meant. Sorry my aside was unclear. What I meant to say was, I’ve met her and I don’t want to be an asshole and say her experiences aren’t real. …Before I say the slightly asshole thing of “everyone has that moment/song/argument with mother.” Sure, it’s a little bit different for everyone; everyone has their own versions of that and different situations. And some have it harder than others, which doesn’t change how one person particularly felt in that moment. I think a big part of “Gaming Made Me” as a series is exactly that: to showcase how everyone has “that one album.”

  25. @Amanda Oh man I was the one who was misreading the whole time! I do love it when you and another person are making pretty much the same point, but you formulate it in two different ways and you misinterpret and think you’re on both sides and you go back and forth, getting more and more heated, until you either get into a fist fight or you realize that you’re both in complete agreement.

    Come to think of it, that’s how most conversations between Eric and I go.

  26. @Amanda:
    At 24, I feel like 12 isn’t an age worth getting for me. Same goes for most of my feelings/experiences prior to 20, since I was actually generally miserable the entire time and refused to believe it until then. Liking games is the only constant from that age, and even then I didn’t bother analyzing how I felt about them, so a Gaming Made Me-style article from those ages would just read “FUUUUUUUUUN! But I was dumb.”

    Is there something about 12 I’m missing?

  27. @BeamSplashX
    Age 12 in particular, but mostly 12 through about 15, are when you consume the media that will have the biggest effect on you. I found this article last year – but anecdotal evidence more or less bears it out upon everyone I’ve talked to. When I was 12, I read The Lord of the Rings. In a sense, that was IT FOR ME and it would define my tastes basically until now.

    This is something I really have to think about if I become a parent, just how formative those experiences are.

  28. @Richard Please don’t put my name, your name, and shit in the same sentence. Thanks.

    @Amanda That’s one reason (among many) that I’m terrified of becoming a parent. Frankly, who needs that kind of pressure? I mean, look at all the nerds who obsess over what order to show their kids the Star Wars movies?

    The right answer is obviously “don’t.”

  29. I do elevate the Dreamcast quite a bit as the system from my tweens, but I hold that the PS2 from my mid-teens to… well, now, is almost entirely superior. The last time I bought something for the Dreamcast over the PS2 version, I actually kinda regretted it.

    Then again, it helps that the first-party developers were extremely starry-eyed idealists that matched my own starry-eyed idealism about what video games could be. That and their bombastic arcade-y presentation that made everything seem exciting, regardless of whether you were catching a fish or smacking a man with a fish.

  30. So this post turned up on Giant Bomb yesterday saying I’d written about using children to sell games… which isn’t exactly what it was about. Now on Critical Distance today, also a little mis-characterized. There was a reason I used the term “confessional” rather than “personal” although the nuance seems to have been largely ignored by everyone who thinks I’ve been moaning about anything personal in writing. Good God, I guess they’ve never read any Electron Dance before, because half of the posts are personal.

    Richard, thanks for noticing why the confession was structured the way it was – a teaser leading up to a potential fuck you – it makes me happy. Liz Ryerson referred to this post as “disjointed and unfocused” and that was because I was mirroring the structure of the typical vignette-style confessional – take a look at Nathan Grayson’s Violence if no one believes me. I’ve done the same thing myself with The Last Dream being the poster child for this style.

    Amanda, Richard, honestly you go a lot further than I would with the analysis. I only wanted to say something about a trend in blogging (which goes far beyond videogame writing) and had no particular interest in picking over the details of individual bloggers… simply because it’s an incendiary topic. It’s difficult to separate the blogger from the writing when a blogger writes about themselves. I’m thinking of similar infighting/whose-side-are-you-on over Jonas Kyratzes writing about Mattie Brice’s piece this week. When people write from the heart then woe betide those who take a blowtorch to that writing. However, Richard, I think what you’ve written in the comments here is easier to digest that your original linked essay.

    I think the “age 12” point is interesting because that was also covered by what some consider to be my “Gaming Made Me” – the Where We Came From series. However, that doesn’t cover the breadth of confessional pieces though and the main example I used above was Jenn Frank – her story is clearly not from the same time period. (She writes so beautifully she makes me feel terribly insecure about my writing.)

    In the end, I’d just like to circle the word “ethics”. I don’t have any suggestions just warnings:

    Readers – be aware that you might not be reading the whole truth and also that elevation of the confessional piece might be encouraging writers to part with too much information

    Writers – be aware you might wake up in five years time and wish you could take it all back

    P.S. I’m going to introduce my children to Babylon 5 around age 12, and there’s nothing you can do to stop me.

  31. The whole scenario reminds me of my fiction writing classes, where the person being workshopped would drop in a quick “this is based on real life” right before the criticism started. All of a sudden, making fun of the main character’s ridiculous behavior (or that, hey, they’re being kind of an asshole) is bound to make things too awkward.

    Then again, I think shuffling around some names and calling the result “fiction” should’ve had them failed immediately; it’s the opposite of this story’s possible reality.

  32. @HM
    and had no particular interest in picking over the details of individual bloggers… simply because it’s an incendiary topic. It’s difficult to separate the blogger from the writing when a blogger writes about themselves.

    No, I agree, and… I really have no intention to tell anyone to shut up and stop doing it. I guess it’s easy to misinterpret that from critique of one or two particular essays. For example, I think “Gaming Made Me”/”Where We Come From” etc is valuable precisely /because/ those experiences are so universal and it’s fantastic to share them. But I think the audience there is gamers talking to each other to share those experiences. Plus it allows you to see inside someone’s head a little and develop some empathy for that author. So personal stuff is great, but, personal details aren’t automatically a better analysis.

  33. @HM: I neglected to say thanks for sharing your approach to compiling notes et al. It sounds not dissimilar to what I do, except that you’re evidently better at slowly aggregating mass than I am (I tend to reach despair and trunk unfinished articles after a few months).

    On the subject of alien vampires:

  34. @Shaun: It’s not perfect by any means. The next series I have sketched out has taken many hours to assemble approximately two years of random material into something that seems to flow. I haven’t even started writing it yet…

    Your video sounds interesting. Well, it would if I had the volume up at work. Right back at you, my favourite alien vampire.

  35. The video I linked to is a lecture Peter Watts delivered in 2009 to promote his novel Blindsight – it’s a dramatised dissertation on the science underpinning vampirism. It’s really rather good thanks to his background in biology.

    Your space vampire is far more terrifying. I think it’s the Gallagher monobrow which does it.

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