Wednesday, June 6, 2018


Let’s talk about stores.

Humans like to acquire things. We invented the idea of trade in a time before knowing, and we invented systems of commerce basically as soon as we coalesced into cities and started making goods worth exchanging for other goods or services. Systems of currency came along eventually, too, and lo and behold here in the 21st century we’ve got a major case of economics and capitalism.

Part of maintaining a storefront has always included being picky about what you choose to sell. If you are a fruit vendor, under an awning in a long-ago and far-away agora or souq, you are not hawking cloth. If you are a cloth-maker, you are not selling cows.

The art of business, of course, has changed over the centuries. But curation has always been a major part of it. The Gap is not going to have a display of bananas between two shelves of skinny jeans. Lowe’s is not going to sell you crappy third-rate knockoff counterfeit appliances, if it can help it. Best Buy won’t have a shelf full of badly-subtitled bootleg movies in the middle of an aisle.

Brick-and-mortar stores, limited both by their physical square footage and also by the world of competition, curate. They choose what to sell, and they focus narrowly on that thing. Even in a massive big-box retailer like a Walmart, or a classic, five-story department store, every item for sale within those walls is there as the end product of careful, detailed negotiations between the product’s producer and the retailer. It’s no accident where the Post cereals, the Kellogg’s cereals, and the Kashi cereals are, in your local supermarket; that’s highly negotiated, proximity to you, the consumer, itself a commodity to be bought and sold.

There are, in fact, three major things a brick-and-mortar retail experience provides the modern consumer, in the year of our digital overlords two thousand eighteen:

  1. Curation: Someone has already taken the full world’s supply of available goods, which is legion, and winnowed it down to a smaller selection you, the overwhelmed consumer, can work your way through decision paralysis to make choices within.
  2. A middleman: Someone is responsible for being the bridge between the end consumer and the producer of goods, which means you, personally, don’t have to try to chase down someone ten time zones and fourteen languages away for support if your product has a problem.
  3. Customer service: If something goes wrong, you have a place you can go and a person you can talk to about it. Theoretically, that person is even empowered to help you with most issues you are likely to have. Your needs are hard to ignore, because you can be present, literally in the face of the person from whom you seek assistance.

Now let’s talk about Steam.

Over a decade ago, Steam was this strange kind of half-store, half-DRM thing you would install in your PC if you wanted to play Portal or a Half-Life game.

Today, Steam -- the major product of Valve Corp. -- is basically the major storefront for PC games and gaming. Its dual functions as shopping mall and easy DRM led to widespread adoption by indie and AAA publishers alike, as alternative systems like Games For Windows Live sputtered briefly and horribly into life before blessedly guttering out again.

And it’s easy to see why. Steam is easy to use, for the consumer, a one-stop shop where you don’t have to worry about a thousand awful, competing little failure-prone DRM systems screwing up your machine. It’s cloud-based, meaning you have your purchases tied to an account, rather than to a disc, and can re-download them on any new computer as needed. And it started out friendly, masking its purpose as DRM product in an overlay of social tools to connect you to a community.

Over the years, as players have flocked to it, Valve has consistently added more features to Steam, like integrated screenshots, streaming, and family sharing. Those features make more players sign on, which makes more developers and publishers sell games on the platform, which in turn makes more players sign on: a virtuous cycle, leading to an estimated $4.3 billion in sales in 2017 alone.

Unfortunately, Steam has long since lost its virtue. It’s not actually a monopoly, but like many of its digital-age counterparts -- the Netflixes and Facebooks of the world -- it has enough power in a market the Sherman and Clayton Acts never foresaw to dominate the competition handily and be seen as a must-have in the PC gaming world.

That sure is a lot of power.

So let’s talk about responsibility.

Steam has opened up its storefront to basically all comers in recent years. The platform abandoned its ill-conceived “Greenlight” program, which required users to upvote would-be games like some kind of horrible reality show production board, in early 2017. Since then, developers have more or less simply been able to apply and pay a fee to sell their wares in the Steam store.

But the conditions under which a developer is welcome on Steam have not always been clear. In mid-May, the service began contacting the developers of a very specific sub-set of games, visual novels with sexual adult content, saying the games needed to have some of that content censored or else be removed from the platform.

Developer Christine Love, whose most recent title, Ladykiller In a Bind, features lesbian erotica, tweeted eloquently about how the capricious nature of Steam’s actions could harm small, independent development studios like her own Love Conquers All Games: “Regardless of how you feel personally about the games affected, Valve pulling harmless content on a whim, with no consistency or policy, will absolutely have a chilling effect on small developers,” Love wrote. “This is terrifying.”

She added, “The developers being hit by this are being unnecessarily forced into a no-win situation, and it’s hard to trust Valve when it doesn’t honour agreements with devs. This hurts developers, it hurts players, and it hurts the entire medium.”

Developers of affected titles quickly sought alternative distribution, with many ending up on Steam rival or smaller indie publishing platform

Merely days after Steam began to excise adult content, however, the execrable misogynist dump Agony, chock-full of sexualized situations and sexualized violence, landed on the service. That created an understandable wave of pushback from customers and developers alike, seeking to know why certain kinds of sexual content were being ousted but others were being welcomed.

And so on June 6, Steam admitted what its users have always known: The company is utter crap at curation. But rather than issue a standard mea culpa or promise to do better in the future, Steam doubled down on its failure.

Instead, Valve's Erik Johnson posited, what if Steam just… didn’t?

After reviewing the situation, Johnson wrote, Valve decided, “the right approach is to allow everything onto the Steam Store, except for things that we decide are illegal, or straight up trolling.” Sex, violence, all of it -- who is Valve to judge, if your local regulators don’t object?

Johnson conceded the upshot of Valve’s decision “means that the Steam Store is going to contain something that you hate, and don't think should exist.”

That, in part, is fair as it goes; there’s a lot of garbage art in the world and taste is far from universal. But it also misses the point so widely that the light from the actual point may not reach Valve for another eight or nine million years.

In choosing entirely to abdicate curation, Steam is saying it no longer runs a store. What it runs instead is something else entirely: a cesspit, perhaps.

Because long experience has taught us two important things. First: any online marketplace without stringent, intense curation becomes prone to fraud almost immediately. For example, put almost any popular app or game into the Google Play (Android app store) search, and see how many unauthorized clones come up. For some games, there are hundreds, and many are malware. It’s not just digital goods, either: Amazon is rife with counterfeit products and outright fraud, despite the company’s attempts at policing its third-party marketplace.

Second, and perhaps more importantly: Any online platform left untended inevitably devolves into hate speech, maximizing the voices of the noisy few and marginalizing minority voices -- women, people of color, anyone anywhere in the LGBTQ spectrum -- even further, a problem Steam already has.

Valve has chosen to stop caring about the experience its end consumers have on its platform, which harms consumers. But likewise, by entirely abandoning curation, it has also made its platform into a place publishers may not want to be.

Luxury brands in recent years have chosen to stop selling their goods in department stores in order to, basically, not be seen among the riff-raff, and maintain their cachet of value and exclusivity. In short, Macy’s is not a neighborhood Michael Kors wants to be in. Will Ubisoft want its next Assassin’s Creed for sale along a virtual shelf full of Agony clones? Or will all the publishers who can afford to pull an EA and stick with their own exclusive, highly curated digital storefronts instead?

Steam has been dominant for a decade, but it doesn’t have to be.

Monday, December 18, 2017

I used to be Andrew Carnegie... and now I live in a van.

Back in 2014, I wrote about how Animal Crossing: New Leaf was basically an Andrew Carnegie simulator: capitalism as perfection, and how to become a magnanimous millionaire.

Now, in 2017, I wrote for Zam about how I find Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp perhaps a better metaphor of how capitalism screws us all over than it meant to be.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Reality, rebooted

We're in an era of endless reboots and sequels.

At their worst, they're artless, pointless; form without function, retelling an old story without understanding what made earlier versions worth hearing, and without adding anything worthwhile. (Star Trek Into Darkness, I'm looking at you.)

At their best, though, sequels and reboots are a chance for a new generation to take an old story and say why it still matters, to point to certain aspects and say, "Hey, this is a thing of relevance to us."

And right now, Star Wars is there.

When The Force Awakens came out in 2015, the most common criticism was, "This is just a remake of A New Hope." The Empire was already beaten, critics said; why was the First Order a thing? Why rehash this same old fight, in this same old way, against a same old foe,  just with a new generation of heroes?

But if there is anything that the two years between Episode VII and Episode VIII have taught us, it is this: Wars do not stay won on their own.

Ideology resurges. If you don't fight the Nazis in every generation, they get new clothes and come back, with allies in places they should not be.

Star Wars ended up being accidentally prescient. But it will not be the last popular art of this era to have to engage with that idea. It is the challenge of our culture, right now, and it will continue to emerge in all the stories that were started this year, and that will not see the light of day for months or years to come.

Maybe sometimes we have sequels for a reason.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

On Civilization

I wrote an entire post about Civilization VI, over the past few days. It started with observations about the theme music, "Sogno di Volare," and went from there, about what is or isn't disappointing about the game.

I can't write that post, anymore. I've got it saved. Maybe, another day.

Here's the video, anyway, because why not.

I wrote a lot of other things about the song, musically, and then I wrote:

The song is so earnest. It's absolutely refreshing in a way, after more than a decade of irony-based, cynical, and occasionally nihilist culture being dominant -- but it also leaves out what makes the task of simulating all of human civilization itself so interesting and daunting.

And I said that for all that Civ tries so, so hard to mount a global approach, deliberately seeking out non-Western, non-colonial civs and non-white, non-male leaders to head them... the game is still very profoundly an American one, with an American outlook towards what civilization itself should be and is.

It is the march of progress, of science, of commerce and war, and the nexus where those meet. It is the forward, upward momentum of technology and social progress, inevitable even if you aren't leading the pack.

I wrote that all during the first week of November, before the U.S. election. That election has since transpired, and everyone in the world knows what happened.

America just made a series of interesting decisions, and chose to go backwards and take the world along with. Yes, the world -- because a huge percentage of the planet is buying our blue jeans and listening to our pop music. We've had the cultural victory in the bag for decades, and nothing that happens within our borders stays within our borders.

And culture is the hole. It is this -- that ability to go backward, to regress, to be done in not by external forces but by the competing tides of movement and counter-movement within your own society -- that is missing from Civilization.

The map on my screen is a sterile world, where social forces have no sway and rational economic ones are the only ones modeled. I have, in four games (three won, one lost) and twenty hours, already come to find it profoundly unsatisfying.

A war, in Civ, is always against external forces. It is a neighbor who wants land, a conquering force that wants your natural resources, a religious zealot who will convert by force.

Civ cannot account for the fact that within your real civ, people look, think, and act differently from each other, and may, too, come to war within their own country.

Progress is not inevitable. It is hard, ugly work, and it always comes with regression as its twin.

The two are inseparable. For every reformation, there is a counter-reformation. For every revolution, a counter-revolution. For every black president, someone literally endorsed by the Klan and actual, non-metaphorical Nazis.

Maybe if we made a computer model of the world, we could see how it turns out and convince ourselves there's a way. But it wouldn't be a "game" anymore.

I am not sure I would find it any more satisfying to find my play civilization suddenly regressing or entering a civil war with itself, to be honest. If that's where Civilization went, I think I would find myself spending more time in hero's journeys, where the dragons might be present but can always be beaten.

Truth be told, I might need to go home today and do that anyway; I am not above escapism, and we all have to care for our mental health in our own ways. Watching disaster unfold in real-time around me is hard enough.

Because right now, there are at least 50 million people out there who don't seem to understand that the actual course of human civilization -- the real one, the real thing, where people live and breathe and eat and fuck and shit and die and want and hope and despair -- is not a game. That it is not a set of interesting choices and well-sculpted tiles. That a "game over" doesn't mean you reset; it means extinction.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Interlude: Only A Girl

Once upon a time, there was a little girl. When she was about six, she walked to the video rental store down the street and came home with a VHS of a movie called The Empire Strikes Back.

"I got Star Wars," she said to her mom and dad.

"Oh, Empire?" they said. "You go ahead and watch it honey, but we don't feel like it right now."

So she did. And she fell in love.

By bedtime, she wanted to be Han Solo -- only, a girl.

She was a nerdy kid, consuming books and movies as fast as she could get her hands on them. Star Wars was an early love, but neither the first nor the last.

She had always wanted to be Robin Hood (ooh de lally!) -- only, a girl.

A few years later, still a kid, she wanted to be Taran of Caer Dallben -- only, a girl.

She wanted to be Captain Jean-Luc Picard -- only, a girl.

She wanted to be Indiana Jones -- only, a girl.

She wanted to be Aragorn -- only, a girl.

She even kind of wanted to be Captain Jack Sparrow -- only, a girl.

Still, the world moved on apace and "genre" fiction, will it or not, had to come along with. Dragged kicking and screaming, sometimes, but still.

She grew up. By her late twenties, finally, she got to be Commander Shepard -- who, as far as she was concerned, was only ever a girl.

And in her thirties, she had a baby: a daughter. And two years after that, someone made a new Star Wars movie, and she went to see it.

And the hero was a woman named Rey: not "only" a girl. A badass. A main character. A self-saving woman with a staff and a brain and the power and will to use both.

And the woman's heart was glad, for the little girl she had been, and doubly so for the one she was raising. Who, if she could help it, would never be "only a girl."

Saturday, November 7, 2015

The Music of Dragon Age, And What It Actually Says

Come in! Have a seat, and let's talk about music. Specifically, the music of Dragon Age: Inquisition, which is beautiful and fun and lovely and very helpful, and which is also heavily recycled and manages to undermine the game it is meant to support in tons of small and large ways.

This conversation has BIG FAT SPOILERS for basically everything that ever happens in the Dragon Age series, across all games to date.

(It is also a very long post with a whole pile of embedded video. Fair warning.) 

Monday, March 2, 2015

Why I Play

 There is always something worth finding if you go to the farthest edges of the map.

I don’t like to play mages or wizards.

I do enjoy being an archer, a sniper, or an assassin sneaking through shadows.

I value loyalty less than I value compassion.

I naturally gravitate toward diplomacy and the resolution of conflict.

I worry less about threats to me than I do about threats to the people I love.

I will rewrite the goddamned laws of spacetime itself if I have to, to save them.

It is not where I go that matters.

It is how I feel for having been there.

 I was asked why I play, and this was my answer.

I play games, and here is what I have learned:
The X button on a PlayStation controller is at the bottom.
Underwater levels are always kind of a pain.
There is always something worth finding if you go to the farthest edges of the map.
I don’t like to play mages or wizards.
I do enjoy being an archer, a sniper, or an assassin sneaking through shadows.
I value loyalty less than I value compassion.
I naturally gravitate toward diplomacy and the resolution of conflict.
I worry less about threats to me than I do about threats to the people I love.
I will rewrite the goddamned laws of spacetime itself if I have to, to save them.
It is not where I go that matters.
It is how I feel for having been there.
- See more at:
I play games, and here is what I have learned:
The X button on a PlayStation controller is at the bottom.
Underwater levels are always kind of a pain.
There is always something worth finding if you go to the farthest edges of the map.
I don’t like to play mages or wizards.
I do enjoy being an archer, a sniper, or an assassin sneaking through shadows.
I value loyalty less than I value compassion.
I naturally gravitate toward diplomacy and the resolution of conflict.
I worry less about threats to me than I do about threats to the people I love.
I will rewrite the goddamned laws of spacetime itself if I have to, to save them.
It is not where I go that matters.
It is how I feel for having been there.
- See more at:

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Age of the Dragons, Part III: The Epic of Ser Cullen

I said on Twitter, as I played through Dragon Age: Inquisition, that I was developing a theory.

The best representative of the player, I mused, isn't actually the Inquisitor, the player character. The best representative of the player is, in fact, their advisor Cullen.

And now I will try to explain.

The rest of this post contains big fat unmarked spoilers about basically every game BioWare has released since 2007. You have been warned.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

I Am Andrew Carnegie


I surveyed the land, then built my home exactly where I pleased: just far enough away from the railroad station and center of government, but close enough to them for easy access. Right on the river, with a nice view. Knocked down some old-growth trees and local flora to do it, but the land was mine to command.

Then I expanded the mansion, until the gaudy gold-plated curiosity became the centerpiece of the town.

I put down sidewalks where I wished, then razed them, then put them somewhere else. I added landscaping, cut down trees, planted strange and foreign orchards in their stead. I financed the expansion of a museum, then filled it from my own personal collections of art, antiquities, and hunting trophies.

Eventually, I built monuments to the greatness I had achieved, and even made clear my full ownership over everyone and everything I surveyed by redesigning the town hall to my satisfaction.

I exist to build, to buy, to expand. To be is to consume: I partake solely of the natural resources; I clean out the shops. I spend and save and spend and resell and give, strategically, knowing I will receive tokens in return.

I rule: not through election, but through the power of my pocketbook. The world is mine to command, because I have wealth and privilege. But I must do so lightly, and with compassion. With great wealth comes great responsibility, and my fortune is not for me alone. I spend it helping to better the lot of the working classes, to add art and music to our town. I pay for renovations, and bring in public goods and services.

In Animal Crossing: New Leaf, Nintendo has created the perfect capitalism simulator. Or perhaps a simulator of capitalism as perfection. It is the ideal game for the 19th century.

I rule the town of Villains -- or properly, I suppose, New Villains. The first is but a rust-belt ruin waiting hopelessly for young blood that will never come, languishing away without industry or income on an Animal Crossing: Wild World cartridge I misplaced in 2012.

For 243 days, I have dominated. I have built a paradise of unfettered but benevolent capitalism, one fruit, fish, and bug at a time.

I am Andrew Carnegie.

I am John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt.

I am that which founded and which underlies the 20th and 21st centuries, both for good and for ill.


I believe in public art.

DC is a woefully impersonalized city. Planned and regulated from the start, and required to support its residents without any support for them, it lacks in personality.

But it still has a soul.

Its soul is money and greed and power and craven climbing but sometimes, sometimes, its soul sings.

There was a jazz trumpeter, a good one, busking his heart out at the Metro station this morning.

It's 2014. I pay for my morning coffee with my phone. I never have cash.

I found my reserve parking meter quarters, put them into his case, and used them to hold down a $1 bill that kept trying to fly away.

He couldn’t chase it. He was playing.

There are many buskers. I need to carry more cash.


I support somewhere between 5 and 10 people on Patreon. I forget how many. The number just keeps going up anyway. I will continue to do so for as long as I have a salary and budget with room for discretionary spending. I am duty-bound to pass along my privilege and good fortune where I can.

I hate Patreon.

I hate deciding which of my talented friends and peers deserves $2 for hard work well-done and which of them deserves $0.50. I hate deciding that I shouldn’t support friends who are popular, because I have less-popular friends who need the money more. I cringe at the thought that anyone might feel they owe me anything in their work, or that they owe me any work at all.

I would like to buy a magazine. When I buy a magazine I do not have to decide what percentage of my $5 goes to the cover story and what percentage goes to two other shorter but no less important features and what percentage goes to opinion columnists and what percentage goes to photographers and artists and editors and layout artists and and and and and.

The magazines aren’t on Patreon.

They’re on Kickstarter. Same problem. Different tools.

I hand over my credit card number. If people whose work I believe in are going to be forced to busk hat in hand, when the world won’t pay them honest salaries for honest (so raw, so honest, so good) work, then by god I will be their patron.

At least I don’t need cash.


A pop culture journalist writing about the events of the past terrible month wrote to me this week to ask why I left gaming journalism.

In the course of conversation, I told him that one of the things “they” never tell you when you’re growing up is that leaving a job can be every bit as much of a relief, if not more so, than getting one.

My reasons were deeply personal and somewhat accidental.

My reasons were completely impersonal and utterly systemic.

I’m not sure my reasons matter.


The fight destroys careers and lives and jobs.

The fight is for careers and lives and jobs.


I am not Andrew Carnegie. But his is the role I play.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Not a "Real" Gamer

It's amazing how easy a trap it is to fall into, really.

As a working parent of a 6-month-old, there's always something to do. I pick her up from daycare on my way home from work, and my evenings are a maelstrom of dinner time and bath time and bed time and cleanup and setup for the next morning, when my alarm will go off at 5:59 and I will do it all over again. And as many other parents of young children before me have learned, the first thing to go is the idle time. Hobbies aren't gone forever, but they're on the back burner for a while.

Last night I was about to lament, "I haven't played a video game in months." The problem is, that lament is false in every way.

I got a 3DS for Christmas. A purple one. I love it to pieces. Not a day has gone by since the morning of December 25th that I haven't picked it up.

When my husband gave it to me, he also got me Phoenix Wright: Dual Destinies, and a few days later I bought myself Animal Crossing: New Leaf.*

I've been prancing around my town fishing, planting trees, and talking to the neighbors every day for six weeks. But I haven't played a video game in ages.

I've been working my way through a soap opera of ridiculous cases in a somewhat unhinged version of the Japanese justice system for a month. But I haven't played a video game in ages.

I've been playing games on my phone--Candy Crush Saga among them, I reluctantly admit, but also loads of Triple Town and Plants vs Zombies 2--with my free hand while holding the baby to nurse with the other every single day for six months. But I haven't played a video game in ages.

Despite knowing exactly what the pitfalls are, despite analyzing this problem for a hobby and onetime for a living, despite thinking of myself as a person who works really hard to be open and inclusive with gaming, I've fallen into the trap.

Not a big-budget AAA game that you play with a controller? It's not a "real" game.

Something women play with one free hand while wrangling the kid with the other? It's not a "real" game.

It's so insidious. The culture sneaks up on you so easily. And while I watched my husband finish his personal-canon Mass Effect trilogy replay in the evenings, I sat and stewed and lamented that I don't appear to be a gamer anymore... while holding my 3DS in my hand.

Maybe I'm not a gamer. I probably never was. I probably never will be again. But whether I'm bouncing around waiting for Dragon Age: Inquisition, or whether I'm defending my brains from zombies column by column, I'm playing games.

And if I can't remember that for myself, I sure as hell can't expect the broader culture to remember it for me.

* 1048-9696-0755. I still haven't visited other towns or had visitors to mine. Feel free to leave yours in the comments, or to DM/e-mail it to me. ;)