Cutscenes | Critical Optimism: Angela Washko's Online Interventions

Whether she’s dueling pickup artists or using "The Sims" as a sandpit, Washko's art looks courageously into dark areas of the internet.
Matt Turner

Cutscenes is a column exploring—and blurring—the intersection of cinema and video games.

Free Will Mode: Disposable Muses (Or, Your Turn Now, Fuckers) (Angela Washko, 2023).

Rational knowledge is a process of ongoing critical interpretation among ‘fields’ of interpreters and decoders. Rational knowledge is power-sensitive conversation. 

Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” Feminist Studies 14 (3), 1988

Video games and other virtual environments are arenas in which we can be whoever, or whatever, we want. Why then, given the utopian possibilities, do racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of harassment and intolerance remain so pervasive? This question has preoccupied new media artist and academic Angela Washko over more than a decade of making art that navigates game spaces and online communities. Working in a variety of forms including live (and virtual) performance, documentary film, moving image, net art, and video games, Washko’s practice, per her own description, is “devoted to creating new forums for discussions of feminism in the spaces most hostile toward it.” Whether she’s dueling internet pickup artists, intervening with multiplayer online game spaces, writing and lecturing, or creating her own narrative games which pose an alternative to mainstream perspectives, her courageous, contentious work looks into dark areas that other artists often avoid.

Some of her earliest questions related to the games she grew up with, which she deconstructed through a series of video installations. The first of these was Heroines with Baggage (2011), a short, “supercut”-style video looking at the portrayal of female characters in Final Fantasy III (1990), an influential role-playing game that established many of the genre’s conventions. As the video shows through Washko’s sequencing and repetition, the game’s male heroes have great agency and autonomy, but whenever female characters are seen, their only goal seems to be finding love and stability. Her Longing Eyes (2012)—wherein female protagonists in later Final Fantasy games long for, or lust after, their stoic male companions—and Don’t Leave Me (2012)—which displays the frailty of women characters in Final Fantasy, Metal Gear Solid, and a number of other video game franchises—continue to position the video essay form as an investigation, using montages of cutscenes recorded within the game’s engines. In each video, Washko demonstrates how stereotypical writing and design has real-world ramifications for female-identifying players, reflecting on how these games informed her own understanding of gender relations and relationships at an impressionable age.

Don't Leave Me (Angela Washko, 2012).

Similar ideas emerge in Washko’s video series Free Will Mode (2013-2015), which uses The Sims (2000) as a sandpit to showcase the limited imaginations of game creators. The five videos share the same formula: Washko builds an environment, places characters within it, and then lets a situation unfold. She films the events in one long take, panning and scanning around the space with her mouse-slash-camera, leaving the game’s artificially intelligent avatars to their own devices. letting a viewer interpret the emerging sequence without any leading narration. In one of the videos, Disposable Muses (Or: Your Turn Now, Fuckers) (2013), a swimming pool occupies the entire game space, except for one artist and their easel confined to a small patch of adjoining grass. The characters trapped in this limbo zone swim robotically to the point of exhaustion, their gravestones lining the poolside as they expire in turn. In another, Womanhouse (Or How To Be A Virtuous Woman) (2014), Washko constructs a mega-mansion with eight rooms, each housing a single woman and basic amenities. But there's a catch: Washko has removed the doors, effectively holding each woman captive in a cell. In this reality-television-from-hell scenario, each woman starts from the same point and setting, but their paths deviate as the game's AI responds differently to their torturous domestic confines. The outcome is chaotic. Within fifteen minutes, two women have burnt down their apartments, perishing in the blaze as their neighbors in the adjacent apartments set baths and use the computer, entirely unaware. Within thirty, most are stir-crazy, walking in circles and fantasizing about the missing doors that would free them from their prison-like isolation.

Beyond being visually and mechanically interesting, each video acts as a disturbing social experiment, showing the life-simulator as social mirror and societal microcosm through the game's god’s-eye-view perspective. As Washko writes in the text accompanying the project, the series explores “the extent to which we accept the hand we've been dealt (architecturally, politically, socially, economically)”—often unthinkingly. In each scenario that Washko constructs, the autonomous characters “eat when hungry, piss when necessary, sleep when tired, socialize when bored,” but never attempt to “alter the environment they've inherited, even if it kills them.”

Washko’s larger-scale project, The Council on Gender Sensitivity and Behavioral Awareness in World of Warcraft (2012-16), is a more open-ended inquiry. Growing tired of the abuse she faced in the massively multiplayer online game as a woman participant, Washko started asking World of Warcraft players via the game’s chatbox for their definition of feminism, a question that provokes a surprisingly vast spectrum of responses. She presents these chats—a game-world version of the man-on-the-street, vox-pop interview format seen in something like ​​Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin's Chronicle of a Summer (1960)—in the form of pre-recorded video documentations, but also as participatory performances in theaters. While live-projecting her gameplay, Washko strikes up conversations with players, then provides commentary for the real-world audience—letting them see her conduct and process her research in real time. Writing about the project’s origins, Washko has said that she was interested in “the impulse of the player-base to create an oppressive, misogynistic space for women within a physical environment that is otherwise accessible and inviting.” Her interviews are a genuine attempt to try to understand this dynamic, while also generating a theoretically “geographically, politically, economically, socially, and racially diverse” “picture of the American opinion of what women should and should not be today.” 

Given that this is the early 2010s, and the game’s player base was 84 percent male with an average age of 28, the responses are, unsurprisingly, regularly ugly, though revealingly so—some players uncritically regurgitate misogynist stock phrases and clichés, presumably lifted from then-emergent “manosphere” networks of “men's rights” communities. Many players state that feminism has “gone too far” but also struggle to explain exactly how. One says feminism is “for attention whores,” while another says, confusingly, that it is “a pretense for communism.” In one video, titled Playing a Girl (2015), a particularly memorable conversation develops with a female player who Washko initially believes shares her views, but instead finds out is as viscerally opposed to equality as any of the men claim to be. In each dialogue, Washko treats her collocutors with civility and curiosity, knowing that any response, however puerile or prejudiced, is valuable data that, if met with judgment, might never have been gathered at all.

BANGED (Angela Washko, 2015).

A similar impulse to genuinely listen drives BANGED (2015), the centerpiece of which is Washko’s two-hour-long, uninterrupted video interview with Daryush Valizadeh (known as “Roosh V”), a man described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as “one of the most public and reviled online misogynists.” A former microbiologist who reinvented himself as a pickup artist, he authored a number of notorious guides on how to coerce and sleep with women and ran the manosphere forum Return of Kings. In a risky attempt, to, as Washko terms it in the resulting video, “create bridges between communities that don’t talk to each other,” she arranged an interview with Valizadeh that looks to earnestly learn about his life, pickup techniques, travel, writing, and his vision for the world, and in the process, see if there are any commonalities between two individuals who are ideological polar opposites. Washko had originally planned to publish testimony from women that Valizadeh had apparently slept with, but, in the process of reaching out to them, attracted his attention. To protect the women’s safety, she never published these statements, choosing to confront Valizadeh directly instead. The resulting interview is fascinating not just in its content but its construction, staged as a strange showdown between two archetypes: the feminist artist-academic and the men’s rights overlord. Speaking about the interview, Washko described a desire to “move away from the quick, knee-jerk, reactive activism toward a deeper and more ethnographic investigation into motive,” and like The Council, it is compelling not because she encourages any change in the opinion of those she comes up against, but because the attempt produces something valuable: a challenging conversation with someone (justifiably) considered unplatformable, which is then augmented and complicated through Washko’s supplementary essays and interviews

After BANGED, Washko developed another conceptual game project, The Game: The Game (2016-2019), a rebuttal to the pickup artist culture that Roosh V represented. Instead of playing as the pursuer, the player occupies the role of the “target,” entering a bar filled with various pickup artists, all of whom aggressively attempt to seduce them. Drawn from real pickup artist training materials and featuring the lines and likenesses of real “coaches,” Washko’s grim game takes the form of a choose-your-own-adventure story that progresses through various dialogue options in which the player is forced to experience firsthand the feeling of facing up to these aggressive and systematized predatory advances. As a “mapping of the field,” as Washko has dubbed it, it is thorough and informative, and as a narrative game, it is uncomfortable and uncanny, transporting the player into the embodied experience of the target-subject in a way that is specific to video games as a medium.

Also adopting a choose-your-own-adventure structure is Mother, Player (2022-), Washko’s work-in-progress game that puts a player inside the artist’s body as she undergoes a pregnancy during the COVID-19 pandemic. The experience is as thought-provoking and involving as The Game: The Game, but the central conceit is more rewarding. The player is asked to consider their expectations, preconceptions, and reactions as they encounter various emotive situations like intense work meetings and early pregnancy ultrasound scans, all of which are amplified by the pandemic setting and its background hum of uncertainty and generalized unease. Created to address the absence of nuanced stories about pregnancy and parenthood in games media, Mother, Player is refreshing—purposely undramatic, personal, and limited in scope, but still very affecting as a container of stories drawn from Washko’s own lived experience and that of her artist friends. 

Having played Mother, Player and The Game: The Game in April at Somerset House’s experimental games exhibition, Now Play This, I was inspired to then delve into Washko’s work backwards. I spoke to Washko over Zoom in July 2023 about her game- and virtual-environment-oriented projects—which constitute only a small subsection of a much larger, cross-media practice—in loose chronological order.

Mother, Player (Angela Washko, 2022-).

NOTEBOOK: It seems that you're pretty agnostic in terms of medium. Is there something that connects all these different areas you work in, some sort of overarching goal or topic? 

ANGELA WASHKO: I usually start from an observation that leads me to some sort of question, which in turn dictates the form. For example, with The Council on Gender Sensitivity and Behavioral Awareness in World of Warcraft, I had been playing World of Warcraft for six or seven years, and I was wondering why men kept asking me to get back in the kitchen and make them sandwiches. I loved the space of the game, and the joy of playing was so substantial to me, but, as a person coming of age, I had this gnawing sense asking me why this was part of my experience, when it isn't part of so many other male players' experiences. 

At the time I was working with the Yes Men—an influential tactical media activist artist collective—and I was inspired by some of the things that they were doing to intervene in mainstream media. I wanted to do some sort of direct action performance, so when deciding what form an investigation into this curiosity should take, creating a video documentation of the performances conducted in that virtual environment seemed naturally to be the right form. I had not previously been performing virtually, and while there were certainly precedents—though not many and certainly few that were art historically canonized at that time—it just felt like what I needed to do. The Council started as an act of protest, and then developed into something exhibited in live performance and experimental theater environments, and then now it's most frequently shown as video in a fine arts context. 

NOTEBOOK: I read that you had intended to make art that exists in unusual spaces, or in areas that art institutions would deem unworthy. Could you talk about whether that is something that you still think about, and how that aim has been received?

WASHKO: Yeah, I think when I started making art about video games, I was trying to put it into art spaces because my degree was in drawing and painting, so I thought that was where art lives. But fortunately, I was brought into collectives, community-based artmaking, activist-oriented artmaking, and all of the other sorts of different ways that artists are thinking about where cultural production can belong and have impact. 

One of the first times I was presenting The Council, somebody asked me to talk on this panel about the future of monuments and digital spaces or something, and I was like, Why not? I remember the art historians were so annoyed by my project. They were just like, “Why are you wasting your time harassing thirteen-year-old boys—this isn't worthy material for artists to be making work about.” I thought that maybe that was just an American perspective, but then I was doing a residency in Finland and I actually got heckled during a performance by an—admittedly very drunk—man. He was yelling at me about how games don't belong in museums and art spaces. He was very frustrated that he was in a theater seeing someone play games in front of him and calling it art. So, even though I was getting a lot of discouraging feedback, I had to decide whether or not I was going to abandon this practice because there was, at that time, no space for it, or if I was just gonna keep doing it because I cared so much about the communities and the games I was playing, and about making change. I decided that I would keep going and hope that eventually someone agreed that occupying these game spaces and talking critically about what's happening in them was worthy of discussion in an arts context. I wanted to prioritize that and not worry as much about whether or not the art museums and cultural institutions cared. 

After this, as part of a project called BANGED, I also did this interview with the pickup artist Roosh V, and that project was very rooted in my realization that internet communities had become increasingly niche and closed off from each other, developing their own sort of languages, lexicon, and rules for participation. I was in my own space—which was at one point called cyberfeminism, then digifeminism, and now I don't know what—and then I was looking at “the manosphere”—these spaces where Roosh V and other men's rights activists gather online—and wanting to create a conversation between them while also holding Roosh V accountable for these disturbing rape guides that he was promoting online. It felt like I had to create a new form for that to happen, which came with a lot of risk, but it felt important that that had to happen within the space of the internet. I'm always thinking about the context that my work is entering, and how the work will create a new sort of conversation in that context. 

NOTEBOOK: Unlike many artists who sense the strangeness of game environments as something appealing to make art from, you feel more like a participant in those spaces than an observer, or an outsider. I wanted to ask about your relationship to games. When did you start playing them, and how have your feelings toward them changed over time?

WASHKO: I really appreciate that question because it’s a distinction that means a great deal to me. I've become less sensitive to it than I was when I was younger, because I regularly saw artists going into a game community that they may not be familiar with, and extracting something really embarrassing and politically incorrect. They would identify the lowest hanging fruit in video games, extract it, and take it into a gallery and do well doing that.

NOTEBOOK: There is certainly a lot of low hanging fruit…

WASHKO: Yes, but it was frustrating to me. Yeah, somebody is going to shoot you in the face and say something really horrible about you afterwards, then “teabag” your dead body. That is a thing that happens, and it is interesting and it is horrible, but it's a little bit intellectually lazy to not engage with the broader culture that is creating that as a norm, and as a convention and a performance that people undertake in games. I think that for people who have invested a lot of time in this form, there is more to figure out about what's going on than just taking something and being like, Look, art world, look how fucked up this is. I think as a younger person, I was intuitively putting myself in a position of being like, listen, I want to fight for games, but I also want to have difficult conversations about the oppressive things that are happening inside of these spaces that artists are not seeing because they don't genuinely participate. That's a difficult role.

So when I started to have this realization that a lot of my deeply ingrained beliefs about gender, sexuality, and relationship dynamics came from the position of the cisgender woman in the games I grew up with, it was complicated, but it instigated the Heroines With Baggage project. Although I read a lot, role playing games were the most immersive and impactful stories I encountered when growing up. I decided that I wanted to dig into that and investigate it, replaying the most formative games but looking only at the stories surrounding women characters—only some of which are playable—and seeing patterns and realizing that these characters only exist for the assumed male player’s emotional engagement and desires. This was a little bit before Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs. Women in Video Games became very famous and made the conversation around gaming and gender and racial stereotypes much more mainstream. I started by creating print-based installations with still images, before moving to video after realizing that the stills did the thing that I didn't like: isolating something out of its context and enraging people who were looking at it. I think moving to video added a little bit more complexity and room for analysis in the work.

At the same time, I was playing a lot of World of Warcraft which made me realize that I wanted to look not only at the developers of games and their perception of who the games they made were for, but also the players too. At that time, games were not being developed with an assumed female player, unless they were explicitly marketed that way, like Barbie games, or games about shopping, or games that focus specifically on domestic tasks, like The Sims. However, with multi-user online games like World of Warcraft, you have the agency to play a variety of different characters. It's not so explicitly created for a male player, so I was wondering why the servers I was on were still so misogynistic, homophobic, and racist? Why is the community there continuing to create spaces like that when they could have been more utopian and cyber-feminist? So, with The Council, I started moving into performance as a way to directly engage in conversations about this with players.

Free Will Mode: Womanhouse (Or How to Be a Virtuous Woman) (Angela Washko, 2014).

NOTEBOOK: You mentioned The Sims; I wanted to ask about Free Will Mode and about using games as a tool for creating moving-image work. You said that the question you start with determines the medium, but I wondered if you factor the visual potential of video games when planning an intervention, too? In Free Will Mode, you create these elaborate environments in which to stage an intervention, that then plays out as a real-time film that you record, so I was interested in how you think about world-making and the moving image.

WASHKO: I've been thinking about this a lot more as I've been making my own games, because, as much as I enjoyed playing World of Warcraft, aesthetically it's kind of annoying to look at.

NOTEBOOK: There is a lot going on in the images…

WASHKO: I always hated the way that it looked. I love the scale of the worlds, and there are certain zones where I thought more effort was put into the aesthetics, but deep down I sort of hated that my videos were being dominated by the aesthetic of that game. With Free Will Mode, I was really thinking about creating architectural compositions that had a politically charged set of limitations that forced the human-like AI to perform in ways that were counter to what the developers wanted them to be doing and you as a player to be controlling.

There's this horrible thing that my sister used to do when we were growing up. She was obsessed with RollerCoaster Tycoon, a game that I thought was dumb.

NOTEBOOK: I loved that game.

WASHKO: You did? She loved it, and I would watch her play it all the time. She was always coming up with these brutal hacks which were interesting to observe. She would go around and find people in the park that were unhappy, pick them up, and then force them into a queue for a rollercoaster that went into a lake, drowning them.

NOTEBOOK: Yeah, I did the same thing! I don't know why now, but I did the same thing.

WASHKO: I would ask her about it. Why are you doing that? You're a sociopath! She would say, Oh, your park rating shoots back up, and people spend more money if they're happy, so you just have to get rid of the unhappy people. That is some eugenic shit right there!

NOTEBOOK: Yeah it is, but it is clever… 

WASHKO: It is, but also, this type of game encourages this sort of thinking. I played The Sims so much, but with some distance I realized that the game is like a really boring version of all the things that I'm supposed to aspire to—like getting a house, keeping it tidy, cooking for a family, having kids, getting a job, getting a better job so you can earn more money and get better wallpaper and a pool. So I thought that it was really strange how popular the game was, and I started to investigate how to break the sort of logic that it expected—that pathway to the American dream—while also playing with gender dynamics in unusual ways. In one of the videos, I put all the men outdoors in a Survivor-type scenario, while all the women were trapped indoors, caring for this increasingly dirty, dysfunctional mansion. Then I would let go and not intervene with anything that they were doing, and instead just witness it with my in-game camera. 

NOTEBOOK: I have a similar aesthetic question about your BANGED project, in which you interview Roosh V. While ostensibly what you were doing there is the same as what we are doing now, having a recorded video call, the way you put it all together—with the stage-like set up with this enormous projection of his face, and you as this much smaller, academic-like figure sat at a desk with all your papers—makes it a very different thing. The character you're embodying takes certain actions to put him at ease—giggling a lot, and not disagreeing with him overtly. I wanted to ask you about the structure of that conversation, and how you approached presenting the interview to viewers so that they understand it as something intentional and designed?

WASHKO: I had been working on this project that I called BANGED, which was going to be a web platform and book project where I had planned to present the perspectives of women who had interacted with Roosh V’s pickup art practice. I knew about him as a figurehead of the online manosphere and then also started reading through all these “get laid quick” guidebooks that he wrote, Bang, Bang Iceland, Bang Estonia… Don’t Bang Denmark. I wanted to create this project that talked back. He writes very explicitly about somewhat anonymized women in his blog posts and books, but you never hear from them. You never know what their perspectives are on his practice or his sexual activities. I made digital wanted posters and started to print and distribute them in different cities. I was tracing these women through his books, through every city that he's gone to, trying to find them, or at least find out if they even really exist. That’s a big question that people have about Roosh V. Is it all made up? Did these interactions even happen? It got some traction online, a few articles were published in mainstream publications, and I got a micro-grant from Rhizome.

All of this got Roosh’s attention, and so when he started interacting with me directly on Twitter, he also tried to get his many, many followers to interact with me as well. I felt very strongly that he needed to be a part of the project in some way. To treat him as this abstract villain was not the politics that I prefer to have in the world. So, despite him being the probably politically most opposite person to me—he definitely subscribes to many white nationalist values, and he is writing books that advertise ways of interacting with women that range from sexual harassment to actual sexual assault—I decided to incorporate him into the work. But when I reached out to him initially, he said that would never happen. He had written a lot on his own blog about how to do interviews with mainstream media, so I knew he was very sensitive to being misconstrued or taken out of context. He did not like sound bites being taken; he felt like he was constantly being demonized and sensationalized. I knew that in order to offer him something of value, I needed to offer to present him in full with the transcripts so that there was no question about whether or not I was editing out parts to make him look stupid or make me look better. I also knew that I had to treat it like a performance because he explicitly said that he doesn't like doing interviews with women because he likes women who are submissive, and he would prefer that women don't work at all. So I knew that I had to adjust how I usually interact. I wanted to be able to perform submissiveness enough to be able to get through the interview while also acknowledging my positionality—not trying to hide the fact that I'm a self-identified feminist making very feminist work.

In terms of the aesthetic setup, Roosh V was this huge looming figure, and frankly, his ideal version of America is terrifying to me—it's very Handmaid's Tale—so I wanted him to have a presence that visually reflected the size of his violent ideology and his ego. I wanted him to be projected in front of me, so I was facing this person who took up such a huge space. I wanted it to be in a theater setting where he would be on stage, because, ultimately, the thing that got him to agree to the interview was that I said it would be presented in the New Museum. I offered him my grant money and a ton of other things, but that was what he wanted. Okay, you are on the stage that you want. You are the star and I'm the curious academic in the audience. But the actual effect of it, I think, is that he's shouting to an empty room.

NOTEBOOK: It’s completely absurd.

WASHKO: I do think it’s funny, but ten years ago, I would not have said that on the record. I had to be very cautious about the way that the project was publicly spoken about because I was experiencing so much violence from his community. But yeah, it is funny.

The Game: The Game (Angela Washko, 2016-2019).

NOTEBOOK: I wanted to touch also on two of your game projects, The Game: The Game, and Mother: Player, perhaps within this context of flipping perspectives or putting viewers or players into roles or bodies that they wouldn't always inhabit.

WASHKO: The Game: The Game came out of BANGED. I was dealing with the harassment of the manosphere after doing that interview alongside what was happening then with “Gamergate.” I don't know if you're familiar with that, but it was a hate-based online movement targeting women, trans, queer, non-binary people, and people of color who were trying to change the games industry in some way.

NOTEBOOK: Was Gamergate happening parallel to you interviewing Roosh V, then?


NOTEBOOK: That makes sense. It seems strange to say this, but watching the interview, I immediately thought, This interviewer is obviously now going to be attacked by thousands of horrible people on the internet, but maybe at that time, there wasn’t such an expectation?

WASHKO: With The Council, it took a while for that to happen, because people who were participating would troll me and that would be part of the project. Yeah, you think I should fucking die and you're trying to shoot fireballs at me while I'm talking. That's a perspective. Let's talk about that. I think I was trolling the trolls with patience and empathy, which was really effective for that project. And in the game space there was never a revolt against it. People either thought the idea was funny, or they seriously engaged with it. Others might roll in and troll, but there was no win state for them, so I was just like, yeah, this is all great, I love this. This documentation is looking really interesting now. 

But when Gamergate exploded, people were looking for examples of the “feminist gaming Illuminati” and they would find that my project had been written positively about in a lot of mainstream publications like Vice and Kotaku. Some of these articles would also be written by people who themselves were really big targets. Then I wrote this essay for Creative Time, and they first published it as “There’s an Undercover Feminist in World of Warcraft” and put hashtag #Gamergate in the subtitle. I said to them: that wasn't the title I proposed, you are going to bury me. And it did. Anybody who had #Gamergate in their Google Alerts was now very aware of a project that, at that point, I had been working on for many years. They were livid, saying that it was exactly the sort of stuff they were talking about. So yeah, it blew up and it was not a good time. Eventually they changed the title to what I had originally proposed which was “Why Talk Feminism in World of Warcraft?” but the damage was already done. I became a target, and I was on all these crazy doxing lists, and being pulled into this internet discourse. Then I had literally just published the interview with Roosh V at the same time. Unsurprisingly, there is a big intersection between Gamergate and Roosh V’s community, so yeah, it was really awful. I made all my social media accounts private, and I let go of some of the more utopian ideas I had about internet exchange and the possibilities for talking to people outside of your self-prescribed cultural boxes.

NOTEBOOK: How did that lead to The Game: The Game and Mother, Player?

WASHKO: After the interview with Roosh V and all of this stuff that was happening, I felt this call to better understand the entire pickup artist landscape and its history. And as I was looking through this material, it became clear to me that one of the things I hated about all these “how to pick up women” coaching materials was that women's experiences were never cited. So I started watching hundreds of hours of pickup artist training materials, which was brutal, and thinking about how to make a game in response to it all. It was obvious to me that the player had to be a femme-presenting person entering this space, encountering these practices, and making decisions about how to respond. While these pickup artists have a range of actions, a lot of them will just do whatever they want regardless of your response. So for me that was an interesting thing to explore through a gaming format. 

As a gamer, you want to have agency to do things that feel right to you. But in The Game: The Game, even if you tell [pickup artist] Julien Blanc to fuck off, or run away from him, it's likely that he will grab you, pick you up, and move you around without your consent. Exploring that felt most meaningful in a game format. The Game: The Game is the length of a 400-page novel, in terms of text, but a linear explanation through video or text of how pickup art works didn't make sense to me. Actually putting you as a player in a bar and having you be sexually harassed and potentially assaulted was something different. It made sense to me to slow down those practices, break them down, and allow you to see what happens if you do this or that. Sometimes they're just going to do what they want no matter what, but now at least you are able to recognize it if it happens to you or someone you are with.

With Mother, Player, the feeling of agency is very different. In The Game: The Game, there are high stakes. You are in a place where there is somebody who very clearly feels entitled to you and your space, and the decisions that you make determine whether you go home with them or get away from them. With Mother, Player, you're playing through a lot of my own experiences, having been pregnant and having a kid during a pandemic. And while there's a lot of opportunities to explore how you feel about different situations, how you communicate to medical workers, when you speak up and when you don't, ultimately, because that game is sort of an homage to a lot of the writing that I love––it's directly inspired by Moyra Davey’s book Mother Reader, which is a collection of writings by women writers and artists across time who talked about the challenges they faced to their own practices during pregnancy and early childcare. While there are choices to be made, you're ultimately on track to play through my experience, and my experiences talking to other artists. So there is limited agency in terms of the player. It’s more like a visual novel in terms of its form and much less like a choose-your-own-horror-adventure game like The Game: The Game is. All of my work is inspired by something that I've experienced, but this is the most explicit case of me bringing you into my life and internal worlds. I feel vulnerable and awkward about that.

NOTEBOOK: My last question actually links quite well to that. You've described things that you like about video games and things that you dislike about the culture, so I wanted to ask whether you are hopeful about the games that your child might play in the future, and whether you see any positive signs in the space.

WASHKO: So many! A book that was really influential to me when I was deciding to make games was Anna Anthropy’s Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, which was a manifesto looking to encourage people who felt historically marginalized from the games industry to make their own sort of gestural games: games that don't require heavy computing power or great programming skills, but are instead smaller scale sketches with stories or mechanics that are meaningful, and that are representative of voices that have not had the opportunity to rise to the mainstream level. I think now, because of the indie art games movement aligning with shifts in how the games market works, there are so many more types of games that are accessible. Before, there were just a few companies and industry platforms that decided what could and couldn't be sold or played, but now people can distribute smaller-scale games that are meant to be played in an hour or two and that are inexpensive or free. While that means there are a whole lot of terrible games to wade through, it also means that games like Untitled Goose Game or Disco Elysium can become a huge success.

I think there's a lot of pressure on the industry right now to rethink who they hire and why, and also whether they are going to include characters and stories around trans points of view, for example, or around points of views from different racial, ethnic, and cultural experiences. Who is part of the team that is telling those stories, and who are they assuming these stories are for? I think those questions are being taken very seriously now in a way that makes me feel like we're moving toward some greater care in thinking about what games can be, in order to become an artform that is taken much more seriously than it was before. I'm seeing many more people whose work used to be relegated to the niche, art-games space starting to have museum retrospectives, or distributing their games at a large scale and becoming a larger part of games discourse. So I'm really encouraged. I think there's a lot more work to be done, and more people to be paid to make change, but I'm encouraged by both the democratization of access to the marketplaces and the tools used to make games, in concert with social movements for change now taking hold. I'm a critical optimist in the space.

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