Leigh Alexander On The Biggest Problem With Video Games Today

10/11/2013 07:12 am ET

When the popular hashtag #gamingmoments was first used on Twitter in May 2011, the idea was for users to pair it with their favorite, most memorable bits from video games.

But when 31-year-old Leigh Alexander first used the hashtag, she was able to co-opt its meaning in just one tweet:

Alexander instantly sparked a conversation on gender and gaming. The Brooklyn-based writer is the news director of successful gaming news site Gamasutra and a popular, well-respected game critic who doesn't hesitate to write about gender and the industry -- a-hot button issue at the best of times. Predictably, she has her share of detractors: threatening commenters who think she “should’ve been aborted” and persistent Twitter trolls.

Alexander is currently in England, prepping to give talks at Nottingham’s Game City. The Huffington Post caught up with her via Skype to chat about the intersection of gender, culture and gaming.

When and how did you first get into gaming?

My dad was a tech journalist, and he wrote about home technology in the Boston Globe (I grew up in Massachusetts) and he was always bringing technology into the home because it was his field -- it was his area of interest professionally. There would always be games around. My mom encouraged me to play with the computers because they rightly forecast that having a facility with interactive technology was going to be important to my being employable later.

I have your first #gamingmoments tweet: "Twelve years old, in a room of hostile nerdmen, the slow dawning horror that they didn't want me to play too." Was this a real event? What happened?

I played games with all kinds of friends before adolescence. I played with girls, I played with boys, and I still played adventure games with my friends in high school. And I never really realized that a schism was opening up in general between girls and boys, let alone as regards gaming, until -- I was always used to going to the computer lab to school to practice. Around the time gaming got all high-octane and first-person-shootery, labs were starting to just fill up with dudes who wanted to kill things, and I didn’t get a turn. It was weird, walking in and realizing we weren’t all going to share this thing.

And then you’ve got a later tweet: "The cold, competent awareness that this is now ours, not theirs." This is referring to the gaming world?

Yeah. I think the idea of the industry monetizing strictly on appealing to the 18- to 24-year-old male demographic, white heterosexual males, seems to be profoundly over. It’s no longer economically sustainable, and it’s no longer culturally viable.

Things are diversifying very quickly, and all the excitement and the innovation and the invention and the disruption and the new business models are happening in spheres of independent creation and self expression. Small teams, with probably better values than corporate technology-chasers. It’s cute that all the angry gamer men still think that they’re all going to be able to keep everything the same. Because they’re not.

What's your favorite game of 2013?

My favorite game of this year is Papers, Please. It’s a game by Lucas Pope, and it’s a simulation of processing border-control documents. It’s really interesting. Let’s say you work in a border guard booth, and you have a family, and you make X amount of money a day for each person you process approaching your booth. It asks you to make a lot of moral decisions about is the state good, is the state bad, should you let this person in, should you not let this person in. If you would get extra money for detaining people, will that make you profile them more aggressively? It has this old Soviet Bloc feel that makes you consider rightness and wrongness.

Is there any particular mechanical or narrative convention in current gaming that you wish game-makers would re-examine or simply avoid?

I don’t personally like FPSes [first person shooters, like HALO] because I think they’re lazy. Because all you can do is point and pull a trigger and cause death and injury. There’s just not much you can do with that mechanic. I just think Portal was a cool game because it took the mechanics of the FPS and showed something else you can do with those. I even like the first Bioshock because it diverted from it somewhat. You have two disembodied hands floating around. But I’m just tired of playing a pair of forearms. I think it’s lazy.

It’s possible to enjoy problematic things, and it’s possible for problematic things to exist and be enjoyed by people that aren’t me. So I don’t know if I would want to legislate the way that games are made so much as I want more kinds of games to be made by more people.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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