Cara Ellison Interview: Embed With Games

How would you like to be paid by your Twitter followers to travel the world? We caught up with Cara Ellison to talk about single-handedly charting the world map of indie game development, games as political protest and the galvanising power of pop.

Feature by Andrew Gordon | 04 Nov 2015

In January 2014, former videogames critic Cara Ellison embaraked on what would out to be turn out to be her last ever gig. Funded entirely by donations via an internet service called Patreon, she set out to conduct the most incisive investigation into independent game development to date, a marathon expedition that took her everywhere from California and Tokyo to Australia, Singapore and Malaysia.

On paper, it sounded like a hell of deal: chat with some game developers, see the world. But the reality – a year spent on the road, unsure of where she’d stay next or whether a paycheck would materialise – was far from a wee jolly. “I thought it was going to be this great journey that could never have any downsides but by the end of it I was like, 'God, I really just want a place to live!'"

Dubbed the 'Embed with Games' project, Ellison’s mission was to insert herself into the daily lives of indie game creators, holing up in their living spaces and workplaces with the aim of getting to know the personalities behind the screen. Her account of the experience, which is getting the glossy paperback treatment this month, is an effervescent deepdive into an idiosyncratic artistic community and underground movement that brings to mind the seminal pop-anthropology of Tom Wolfe or Hunter S. Thompson – as much a travelogue and cultural study as it is a book about videogames.

But while Thompson’s heady gonzo screeds tended towards the frenzied and farcical, Ellison’s prose is often piercingly sober. “I am some sort of poltergeist trying to break through the windows of the internet,” she writes, “stuck in a weird limbo between employed and unemployed, exploited and exploiting, out of the loop and so deep in the loop I want to run away.”

The Importance of Nicki Minaj

Such existential struggles recur throughout, and while they certainly make for compelling reading, you can't help but worry for the author's psychological well-being. It’s a good thing then that she had Trinidad and Tobago's fiercest motivational speaker to keep her company. "Nicki Minaj's Moment for Life was really important for me because it has that one lyric where Nicki says, 'I’m no longer trying to survive.' That’s just an incredible lyric because I think probably most people of our generation who lived through this economic bust, most of us are just trying to get by. We just kind of half do what we want but we have to make money and none of us can really afford rent and we’re just scraping by."

One of Ellison’s key goals was to shed a light on the vibrant pockets of the indie game scene that get short shrift from the US-centric media. “To get any kind of PR or notice and in order to go to games festivals that have any kind of reach, you have to be in the United States,” she explains. “That’s pretty annoying for developers, particularly because the only way you can get the press to pay attention to your game is to have a face to face meeting with them.”

What she discovered is that there are entire perspectives we’re missing out on. Take Brian Kwek and Ian Gregory for example, a pair of developers she visited in Singapore. “They definitely thought that their politics were going into what they were making and their politics are completely different from anything in the West – there’s a section in the book where the say they actually think dictatorships are a good idea.” In a country where homosexuality is illegal, Brian and Ian are committed to including gay characters in their games; a rare example of video games being implemented as tools of protest.

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Still, they’d have a hard time trumping Katharine Neil, to whom Ellison speaks in Paris. “To this day so many people don’t know Katharine’s work. She’s just one of the most extraordinary humans,” Ellison stresses.Neil was part of a covert team of game industry veterans and journalists who, using Australian state art funding, produced a game that exposed the government's inhumane treatment of asylum seekers at the Woomera detention centre. As you can imagine, the authorities weren’t too pleased about it.

“There were arguments in parliament about how this arts fund had been allocated because they were angry that it was embarrassing Australia,” Ellison explains. “Neil did something that was so risky and so rebellious, especially since she was working for Atari at the time. It’s really admirable stuff. Since the arts council did that I don’t think they have awarded money to a video game since.”

You’d think work like Neil’s would bring an end to the tiresome debates about videogames’ cultural validity. But alas, the hand-wringing continues. “Games are actually really contentious, politically speaking,” Ellison points out. “There are all these misrepresented issues like ‘what’s the connection between videogames and violence?’ – that’s never been proved. ‘What’s the connection between video games and sex?’ – because there’s an interactive element. It’s still not okay to put sex in a mainstream video game. I find all of this really annoying because it’s really obvious to me that videogames are art.”

The Varied Lives of Videogame Creators

To that end, her book is an emphatic testament. Throughout her journey, Ellison draws upon her game experiences to help contextualise the outside world. Life in London, for instance, is Half-Life: “like walking through a pitch-black tunnel, a crowbar in hand, bludgeoning whatever attacked, reading the echoes on corpses to find the exit.” And her subjects are unquestionably auteurs. Combining candid anecdotes about their lives with perceptive readings of their work, Ellison shows us that the games these developers produce are inextricable from their unique beliefs and experiences – like Nina Freeman’s Cibele, a semi-autobiographical account of an abusive relationship that began in an online role-playing game, or Brendon Chung’s form-bursting narrative experiments that reflect a rigorous training in film technique and a lifelong obsession with pulp fiction.

Indeed, it’s this realisation of the rich, varied lives these creators lead that Ellison believes is the book’s most important lesson – an antidote to the unhealthy tendency towards tunnel vision prevalent in 'gamer' culture. “There’s that odd thing that everyone says on the internet – 'oh, just go outside' – but I think that’s really true. You can’t be a whole human being if games are one hundred percent your thing. Being a human means being social and knowing people and having a life outside of whatever it is that you do. There’s a creative side to games and there’s a job side to games and neither of those things are your identity.”

It’s an insight with wider implications too, one whose value, following a particularly strenuous year both physically and emotionally, Ellison likely understands more than most. “If you stop creating things you don’t stop being a person. If you become unemployed you don’t stop being a person. You can’t just have that one thing because what if that one thing doesn’t exist anymore?”

Fittingly, Ellison has recently stepped away from writing about games since arriving home to her native Scotland, opting instead to write for them as a narrative designer on the upcoming Dishonored 2. Now settled in Edinburgh, she seems to have finally found the home she began to crave midway through her odyssey, and is presumably happy to have two feet on the ground for a while. In the words of her preferred pop diva, Ellison concurs: “I’m no longer trying to survive.”

Embed with Games: A Year on the Couch with Game Developers is out 19 Nov, published by Birlinn Ltd, RRP £8.99