I was a blogger once, and young (I)

Meditations on how I wound up doing things like cross stitching Final Fantasy logos & writing a how to on it for Kotaku

I got a gigantic shock this weekend while idly googling myself (one never knows what’s going to turn up – a habit I got into while I was writing for a blog, it was always interesting to see what people had to say about the things I was posting): I discovered that I’m part of someone’s dissertation.  More precisely, I guess, my work at Kotaku & me as Kotaku writer are part of someone’s dissertation, but even so.  I had a good laugh that it has to do with Bruno Latour & actor-network theory (ANT), and promptly sent it off to the professor who introduced me to Latour & ANT.  Probably more importantly, he was the one professor who seemed really interested in my work at Kotaku (I used to stop by his office and he’d always start with ‘So, how many page views for the month?’), and is the prof I go to when I want to ruminate on my game/new media/digital media stuff.  So I thought he’d get a kick out of the fact that I’m a chapter in someone’s dissertation (well, I gather at the moment I’m just on the outline & a few paragraphs – but I will be a chapter someday).

In any case, it’s weird reading about yourself in third person, in someone’s research blog, like:

I also tried to write down some ideas about the things that were making Maggie Greene do things, and so far I’ve come up with this list of black boxes ….

It’s really a fascinating turn of the tables – the historian goes from studying objects to being the object of study.  And it’s a little strange to see someone working through, in a general way, some of the same issues I work through with my subjects – but about me (lucky for him, I am still alive and well and open for questions!).  But I thought some of Ben Abraham’s “list of black boxes” for the hypothetical me that he’s trying to query in part through the digital traces I left behind was actually a pretty interesting list of questions for the me that’s sitting here typing this at 6:30 PM in Shanghai, eating the good kind of instant ramen (from Korea – it has bits of kimchi in it!).  So I’m going to try and “answer” some of them by doing what I do best – rambling (what I really mean is it just inspired me to think a little more about the job & what it meant/means to me, and I thought it a subject worthy of writing out, at least on my own little corner of the internet).

I hope Mr. Abraham realizes how lucky he is that he’s studying objects that can write sources on demand!  I’m downright jealous.  This, then, is both a self-indulgent gift to myself and a gift from one PhD candidate to another: my wish that, were most of my subjects still alive, they’d be nice enough to help a dissertator out (and I may have prayed a little to the God of Archives: “Please make my sources multiply and be bountiful; I’ll be a good object of study, I promise“).  We’re fallible, of course, extremely so, and this is colored by the rosy tint of time & all the other stuff that’s filled my brain up in intervening years. I’m also not too sure that my half-ripe ruminations two years after the fact are going to be particularly helpful for someone thinking about things that transpired while I was at Kotaku in a theoretically sophisticated framework, in a way that my brain just doesn’t work.  However, I hope it will prove of some use in combination with his own thoughts and research on the subject.  More sources are never a bad thing, right?  At the very least, it ought to fill in a few gaps and provide a little food for thought.

So here’s my yammering on how I wound up writing for a giant, widely read blog (and subsequently wound up a case study in a dissertation!) when I never, ever said to anyone “I really wish I could write about videogames for a living!” and it never, ever occurred to me that I’d ever have anything to do with videogames on an academic/professional level.  Since I am mostly incapable of keeping things short (and I think this is actually the first time I’ve ever sat down and written anything about this), I’m breaking this into two parts: the bare outlines of my blogging “career,” and how I came to wind up in a comfortable niche & what I was trying to do with it (I think).  That, at least, is the goal: I am very good at talking everywhere and nowhere at once, so my apologies if this isn’t entirely cogent.

A Portrait of the Blogger as a Young Girl: The Bare Bones (sort of)

My first run in with videogames? (Korea, with Miss Lee, 1983)

Unlike a lot of people whose work on games I read, I didn’t have any special attachment to them growing up.  I had a Gameboy when I was in elementary school, and then mostly put games aside until I was 16 (when I got my first console, a PlayStation).  Sure, I bumped up against them at friends’ houses and the like, but there was no ongoing fascination, no real formative moments that were defined by my attachment to this game or that game.  I didn’t play a lot of the ‘classic’ games (like Final Fantasy VII) until years later.  For my 19th birthday, I bought – mostly on a whim – a PS2, and mostly because I wanted to play Final Fantasy X.  I was taking what would wind up being a year long break from my college studies & actually had some disposable income, since I was working. I’d played good chunks of the eighth and ninth iterations, but nothing really hooked me.  But the tenth installment did, for whatever reason.

I remember a few things about that birthday: (1) my mum was out of town & a blizzard was rolling in, so I just had a nice dinner at my (formerly) favorite Korean restaurant with my aunt and uncle, and some friends braved the roads to come and hang out and (2) after everyone had departed the next day, I sat and had my first monster gaming marathon ever, fueled by one of those giant cookie cakes that my best friend had gotten me for my birthday.  It was a good cookie, in a hyperprocessed sort of way.  The game was better.

I also remember, while clocking through the game, that my mother fretted some – “Wouldn’t you like to, I don’t know, read a book or something?”  My mother is not the most technologically savvy of people, so I tried – with sweeping broad strokes of cultural essentialization – to explain it to her.  “You know how Kurosawa was good at those big, epic tales, like Seven Samurai?”  She nodded.  “Right, it’s kind of like that, but you’re involved in the action.”  This seemed to make some sense to her, and with apologies to Kurosawa for comparing his work to, well, a videogame of all things, I went on my merry way (I cried at the end of FFX & it’s the game that cemented my great affection for JRPGs, still my preferred genre).

I continued gaming, got more into it I guess, spent a few long sessions discussing and debating with friends who also gamed.  In 2005, my boyfriend at the time sent me a link to an article on the relatively new blog Kotaku about a new site called “The Game Chair.”  Its unique spot was interesting take on reviews – “progressive reviews,” where reviews would be written over the course of the game – and they were looking for writers.  I thought the idea sounded neat, so sent an inquiry – after some light chatter, the guy behind the idea wanted to see some of my writing.  Well, I didn’t have any bloggish stuff, so I sent along a recently completed paper entitled “‘So Many Parts’: Revolution and the Question of ‘Woman'” that I’d written for my very first seminar in Chinese history (incidentally, I would later use that same paper as part of grad school applications).  It talked about Lu Xun, 1930s Chinese films and fiction, and Antonia Finnane’s work on the development of the qipao in Republican China. This is probably a telling detail for the path my later career took.

So I started writing reviews for the site.  It was actually a fun intellectual exercise, and I’ve always liked to write – and write and write – not being given to brevity in any situation, except the ones where I need to be lengthy and expound on things in a cogent manner.  We also decided to write non-review “thought pieces.”  My first one was on girls and gaming – I found that there weren’t many women writing, thus people tend to say things like “Why don’t you write a piece on being a girl gamer?”.  At the time, I was sure I was going to wind up focusing on gender in China, so had some academic interest in it, too (I still do, though it’s not my primary focus) – but somehow it falls on us female writers in the gaming sphere to write about gender, games, and sex, frequently at the behest of others.  That post was linked on Slashdot.  This moment was enshrined in my memory as “That horrible time I got Slashdotted.”

The Slashdot experience introduced me to the god awful world that comments sections on the internet can be.  I was horrified to read the comments, which not only ripped my work to shreds, but also flung commentary at me like “Well, this must be because she’s fat and ugly and bitter and needs to get laid.  We need to see a picture to confirm!”  The best thing that could be said about that long, long page of comments is that the person who accused me of misusing the word “nauseous” at least backed down after I cited from the Oxford English Dictionary.  As I would later realize, the fact that this person backed down when confronted with evidence of his mistake, courtesy of something with the majestic authority of the OED, was by no means a common thing on the magical interweb tubes.  So props to that person for recognizing – and admitting – that maybe he didn’t know more than the ultimate dictionary on the English language.  The result of all this was that I was so upset I was in tears, even though my boyfriend said, “Honey, just don’t look.  It’s Slashdot, that’s what they do.” (Ian Bogost would later give me a similar admonition – several times – about reading the comments on Kotaku, but it can be so hard to tear yourself away, even when it’s making you frothy with rage)

Still, I wrote a couple of longer essays and some reviews, and really enjoyed it.  I also started poking around for other interesting sites related to games.  I’d been writing for The Game Chair for nine months or so when I packed up and headed to Taiwan; though I packed my PS2 and my DS, I didn’t really game much – so my writing petered off.

In the spring of 2007, Brian Crecente posted a call for female journalists on Kotaku (or something – I don’t really remember; I don’t know that I ever actually looked at the post).  My boyfriend (the same one who had seen TGC) sent my details along to Brian, who got in touch with me.  This time, I did have some game writing to pass along – my essays and reviews at TGC.  Brian took a look, must have liked what he saw, and asked me to keep a blog for a week so he could see how I handled news.  I’m pretty sure I panicked and covered a lot of obscure Taiwanese and China-related news (another potentially telling detail).  It was dull and boring, I’m sure, but while Brian thought I wouldn’t be a good fit for the full time weekly gig, he did ask me if I’d like to do some part time work on the weekends.  I, of course, accepted.  My first post was on women and gaming, because Brian said “Here, why don’t you write up something on this.”  Not unlike that first thought piece I did for TGC, and other essays I would later write.

As it turned out, I outlasted the person who got hired to do the weekday stuff by quite a while, and it also turned out to be a very good thing that I wound up on the weekend staff – when grad school started up, there was no way I would’ve been able to keep up with the work required of weekday editors.  It was also the weekend – slower in general, so real “NEWS” was a little harder to come by, and my posts weren’t immediately buried under a lot of other writing.  The schedule on a lot of big blogs can be absolutely punishing, and it is at Kotaku – a lot of readers comment on the fact that it’s just “too much” to keep up with.

So I wrote for Kotaku from late April or early May of 2007 until December of 2008.  It about killed me once I started school, since I never really had weekends off – some part of my leaning towards esoteric things was simply a matter of practicality.  No one else was posting from the same blogs I was (for the most part), so I didn’t have to worry that I was going to double post an article that someone had already gotten up on Wednesday.  It made prepping for the weekends a lot easier, since I tended to just gather things throughout the week so I could write them up in an organized manner and be done with Kotaku (and get back to my other job of being a grad student).

When Flynn DeMarco left, I was offered the chance to step up to the lead position on weekends, which I regretfully declined – I was with it enough to realize my workload as a PhD student was only going to get worse, and I was already stretching myself pretty thin with my meagre 12 posts a weekend.  Owen Good was hired to take over the lead spot, and it was nice having someone to commune with about work on weekends again.

I was told I would no longer have a position in late November 2008.  It came at a particularly bad time – I was having a spectacular, quarter-long internal breakdown over my doctoral studies and my first (and to date, only) “real” existential crisis on my choice of career paths.  Somewhat softening the blow was the assurance that it had nothing to do with my quality of work or my value to the site.  In hindsight, it was actually a good thing – the next quarter (which started about 2 weeks after my last day of work), I flung myself into researching Meng Chao and Li Huiniang with absolute abandon and started loading up my schedule with extra courses.  I probably could have continued the gig indefinitely, but Fate made sure I didn’t have to continue stretching myself that thin – at least, not because I was writing on the weekend.

Still, I was very upset.  I generally liked working for Kotaku and liked many aspects of my job.  I really liked making all sorts of cool connections with people like Ian Bogost and Leigh Alexander and Simon Carless and innumerable commenters and other bloggers – people who had nothing at all to do with what school I went to and who my advisors were.  Certainly there were things I didn’t like and that grated on me, but on the whole, it was a positive (if tiring at times) experience.  It was wonderful to get to be “Maggie, Kotaku writer,” not “Maggie, occasionally competent PhD student,” if only for a few hours a week.  It was the one place where – in the midsts of impostor syndrome and unhappiness over the fact that I felt downright awful at my new job of PhD student and was constantly being confronted with (what felt like to me at the time) my stupidity and incompetence – I liked what I did, and thought I got to do something quite interesting.  And useful, and purposeful, and different.  And it was something that I was at least good at, depending on how you approached my posts.

Screen from 'The Majesty of Colours'

I posted one of my favorite little games (at least, that I’d posted in my category of “Weird Artistic Timewaster”) on my last day of work; it was so wonderfully appropriate for how I was feeling.  Called “The Majesty of Colours,” Gregory Weir (the designer) calls it a “tale of love and loss.”  Sort of appropriate for a day when I was reflecting on my own (blogging) love and loss.

And then I had to post my farewell letter, which I fretted (and cried) over for several days, deleting and rewriting and editing, all while getting progressively more depressed about it all.  I hate saying goodbye, and it was very hard to say goodbye to Kotaku and everything that it meant to me, everything the wider community of people meant to me.  I didn’t have to say goodbye to everyone of course, much to my great relief, but it was shutting the door on one important part of my life – and that’s never easy.  While my Kotaku gig has continued to follow me through the past couple of years (sometimes in very interesting ways), that day I stopped being “Maggie, Kotaku writer” and put on another hat, “Maggie, that girl who used to write for Kotaku.”

I closed the note, which was mostly a link dump with my favorite, most relied upon sites (in the hopes that people who did like my writing would continue following up with the actual authors and their sites), with a few lines from the Lantingji xu 兰亭集序, Wang Xizhi’s “Preface to the Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavilion.”  It was probably the first and only time something dating from the 4th century (Chinese, no less) has appeared on Kotaku & probably will always remain so.  That, too, is probably a telling detail about my blogging career.


What they had taken pleasure in has now passed away in an instant, so how could their hearts not give rise to longing? … A long or short life depends on the transformation of all things: everything must come to an end. (trans. Richard Strassberg)

The Lantingji xu

As a bit of a postscript (though really, how does one follow up on Wang Xizhi?  Not very well, is the answer), Simon Carless invited me to write for GameSetWatch after I left Kotaku.  I realized, after the initial shock of having my weekends mostly to myself wore off, that I was incredibly burned out from the grad school-writing juggling act.  We bandied about the idea, but I shied away from being locked into writing for other people, and within the set bounds of a formal column.  As this blog (young as it is) probably indicates, I’m not very good at “thinking in straight lines.”  It took me a long time to even want to write again (something other than academic papers, that is), and longer to actually start doing it.  And even then, I just wanted it to be on my own terms.

Part II: More indulgent reflection on how I wound up with the niche that I did

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