David Wolinsky created his interview series Don’t Die to figure out how video games can be better. The impetus was Gamergate, but it’s since expanded to cover a whole slew of topics in the games industry, examining the culture and hearing from folks who both make and play games.
“Now, I don’t mean ‘better’ in terms of the end product and whether you enjoyed playing it,” said Wolinsky in an email to GamesBeat. “I mean reconciling the industry’s obsession with broadcasting a message of being ‘innovative’ while simultaneously so much of it is culturally regressive, creatively conservative, and publicly uncaring about how its workers and fans treat themselves and one another.”
Don’t Die began in January 2015, in the midst of Gamergate’s campaign of online harassment of women in the games industry. Another big part of Wolinsky’s motivation, though, was that he wanted to know what made developers tick. He felt that most coverage lacked a human element.
“You just don’t get the complete picture of what motivates someone to create from the press they [do to] promote their projects or their scattered behavior on social media,” said Wolinsky. “It seems like market pressures dictate a lot about what people are making, to the extent that it feels like few developers are making the games they truly want to.”
Beyond just discussing video games, Wolinsky says he wants to explore issues that are prevalent in many creative industries. For instance, he’s interviewing people in the restaurant industry who he says successfully raised awareness in the mainstream about poor labor conditions for restaurant workers. He’s also interviewing people in Kuwait about the games industry in the Middle East and how Western media has negatively impacted it.
“I’m more interested in connecting dots to adjacent but uncharted territories when linked to video games,” said Wolinsky. “I’m exploring labor issues and how other creative industries interact with their audiences beyond blind fandom. Part of that includes video games, but I’m increasingly finding similar issues pop up across the board in creative fields.”
Gathering new perspectives
Wolinsky has interviewed a wide range of people, such as user experience consultant Rosie Pringle and Bakari Kitwana, the author of The Hip-Hop Generation. He’s talked about the intersection of fandom and gaming with Amanda Brennan, the senior content insights manager at social media platform Tumblr, and discussed interactive mediums with film documentarian Mark Cousins. Some of the people he’s interviewed don’t even play games, so he asks them how they perceive the industry.
“While I want to avoid retreading the same topics over and over again, I’m finding people are always able to provide new shades to things we think are already fully understood,” said Wolinsky. “Otherwise, left to my own devices, I’m always poking at parallels between video games and intersecting authorities from other interest groups.”
Don’t Die has an open-door policy, and anyone can pitch an idea using a Google form on the site. When Wolinsky’s deciding to interview someone, he says the main criterion is whether or not that person is being heard. He selects people who “feel voiceless” and ignored by mainstream media, who he criticizes for relying too much on only a handful of sources so that it can quickly churn out articles.
“The 24-hour news cycle has hemorrhaged onto all our screens, giving the illusion that we’re fully understanding a story before anyone’s had half a chance to process and breathe,” said Wolinsky. “In fact, the handful of voices that have grown to be the loudest are at best only a small fraction of anything. So, I’m interested in talking to people who have things to say on topics they would otherwise be shouted down, talked over, or perhaps silenced by non-disclosure agreements.”
He says one of his priorities is to provide insight and perspectives about the games industry and culture for media outlets who may not understand it.
“The greater reading culture doesn’t really seem to care about video games or the video game industry, and while I don’t at all advocate for it being the most important subject on the planet, I do believe there are lessons to be learned,” said Wolinsky. “You don’t have to go far on the internet to feel like warped and lazy reporting is at an all-time high. No amount of pivoting to video will ever serve as a replacement for patient, thorough reporting that allows stories to emerge on their own terms. I increasingly see video games being used as a blank in another agenda, when in fact they are a global workforce and emerging medium that deserves more nuanced and promiscuous coverage on its own terms.”
Not only do a lot of media not seem to care about video games, but Wolinsky also points to the way tech companies like Uber and Google frequently make headlines and are excoriated for their internal practices, while maltreatment in the games industry doesn’t seem to provoke the same amount of outrage.
“Companies like Uber, Google, and Facebook are taken to task with diligence, while game companies with employees living under the poverty line don’t rate a response when I pitch stories from my interviews to editors,” said Wolinsky.
No more spoon-feeding
Wolinsky has conducted over 200 interviews for the project. When he first started, he noticed that a lot of folks “above a certain pay grade” were unwilling to speak out about the issues of toxicity that plagued the industry.
“In the rearview, after 225 interviews so far, if there’s one trend that sticks out among people in the industry it’s their pervasive desire for someone else to speak out,” said Wolinsky. “We’re sliding into an era where the work done by artists on projects with the highest development budgets and levels of promotion — and arguably everywhere else — is being commodified. Anybody barely scraping by in this economy today can intuit the quality of life concerns that, well, aren’t concerns for management.”
In the end, Wolinsky says he’s creating the kind of reporting that he wants to read, and he encourages people to think for themselves. Too much of the internet, he says, “spoon-feeds” content and ideas to readers.
The same charge can be made for game companies as well. Wolinsky says that he sees a lot of new titles as setting aside the kind of games that developers actually want to make. Instead, they’re attempting to “solve” genres with titles like Super Mario Maker, which give players the task of using their own creativity to create the kind of games they think they want.
“But there was a time not long ago when we didn’t have this internalized narrative about what a video game is and how it should make us feel,” said Wolinsky. “Much more was up for grabs. I feel like we’re forgetting we’re still just at the beginning of all this.”
Don’t Die wants to remind us of this and to shine a light on different ways of viewing games. It’s a unique medium, but it’s also as a part of a wide network of other industries, all struggling with their own demons and all striving to innovate and create.