Opossum Country

Opossum Country by Ben Jelter
https://benjelter.itch.io/opossum-country

Opossum Country is a free ten-minute lo-fi horror game about a rural pizza delivery driver who finds himself stranded in an isolated trailer park where something isn’t quite right. If you’re worried that the game is poking fun at the sort of low-income and mentally unbalanced of people who might live in a trailer park, there’s definitely an element of that, but the story goes in a direction that I wasn’t expecting. In the end, the moral of Opossum Country is that you shouldn’t jump to conclusions about a community you don’t understand. I mean, if the game can be said to have a moral. Which it arguably doesn’t. Regardless, the ending is fantastic.

Ben Jelter also made another free ten-minute Game Boy game called The Last Employee, which definitely has a moral: fuck capitalism. This being the case, I’m guessing that Opossum Country was created from a place of deep sympathy for people on the margins of society. This narrative viewpoint is refreshing in its unapologetic portrayal of difference, but Jelter’s sympathy for these characters doesn’t stop the game from being creepy as fuck. The overworld pixel graphics are creative and unsettling, as are the more detailed character portraits.

Opossum Country was made with a program called GB Studio. Not only is it free, but there are also a ton of pay-what-you-want graphics asset packs floating around Itchio, as well as collections of free-to-use chiptunes music that’s compatible with the Game Boy engine. I also found a few pixel art resources for Clip Studio Paint in the form of brushes, templates, and filters. I’m not sure that “just anyone” can make a game as unique and interesting as Opossum Country, but it’s nice to know that there’s nothing stopping you from trying.

Plant Space

No one in this house is “productive.” 🌿

Inspired by my annual reading of Sarah Ahmed, I drew this as a reminder to myself that there’s room for stillness and silence in the ongoing resistance against systems that seek to exploit our energy and labor. It ended up becoming an unintentional self-portrait. I was thinking, “What sort of person would live in a house like this,” and then I realized, “Oh right, I do.”

A lot of my plants have been all across the United States as I moved from apartment to apartment while chasing jobs in a market that depends on people like me, by which I mean young(ish) people who are willing to cut their connections and uproot their entire lives in order to have a small chance at getting their foot in the door of an unnecessarily competitive industry. Academia especially is built on exploited and largely uncompensated labor, and there’s so much survivor bias that not even the people who have experienced and suffered from this precarity acknowledge how harmful it is to everyone involved.

It’s wild how the vast majority of critiques of capitalism are contained within the logic of capitalism. Capitalism is all about doing things and being productive; and, in exactly the same way, most critiques of capitalism are about doing things and being productive. To give a classic example, Marx says that workers need to utilize the “muscle power” and “vital force” that have been harnessed by capitalism and redirect their energy and labor to overthrow the system. I would argue that not doing things and not being productive is an equally valid means of resisting capitalism. Sarah Ahmed, who has just as fraught of a relationship with academia as I do, has argued the same thing: Don’t allow yourself to become a tool in the hands of people who are intent on breaking you.

After being destroyed by a “dream job” that I almost had to kill myself to stay on top of, I made a firm decision to take it easy and chill out for a bit. Part of this decision is deprogramming my instinct to be “productive,” but a lot of it is simply taking the time to be quiet and listen while creating the space to appreciate the sort of time-consuming writing, scholarship, and art that’s been marginalized and pushed aside by the constant demand for new content. Like my plants, I’m going to sit still and soak in the sun.

………also, I needed an “author photo” for my summer project, a zine about Gothic botanical horror. 💀🌱

Solidarity with the Etsy Strike

The Etsy Strike isn’t just about the platform increasing its fees for sellers, although that’s a wild move for the company to make after bringing in record profits for two years straight. Rather, it’s about how these fees are structured to hurt small businesses.

In essence, Etsy is forcing independent artists to operate according to the same business model and practices as Amazon. The most egregious instance of this is the platform’s insistence that we offer free tracked shipping.

Shipping costs rose steeply during the past two years. The pandemic also resulted in significant delays, and the new regulations regarding shipping packages to and from the UK haven’t helped. To ensure “customer satisfaction,” Etsy now penalizes sellers who don’t include tracking on every order, even if it’s just a single sticker. In addition, Etsy is aggressive about its policy of burying the listings of sellers who don’t offer free shipping.

What this means is that sellers are expected to absorb the rising costs of shipping. We are encouraged to purchase mailing labels through Etsy, which generally overcharges and also levies additional shipping fees on the seller. To give an example of what this looks like in practice, an artist would be expected to pay about $4 in order to mail a $3 vinyl sticker. This is exponentially worse when it comes to international shipping.

In other words, this protest isn’t about paying a few more dimes to Etsy for storefront rent. Rather, it’s about how Etsy is forcing small businesses to choose between losing money or raising their prices to levels that would substantially decrease sales. Artificially inflated prices also effectively shut out artists and crafters who don’t already have substantial online followings.  

This is only one of many instances of how Etsy’s recent policies and fee structures hurt small businesses and independent artists. The situation is especially upsetting because it doesn’t have to be like this. Although Etsy was never without its flaws, the platform was relatively welcoming to part-time and amateur sellers, and this inclusive environment resulted in record-breaking profits for the company.

Unfortunately, this profit has led Etsy to consider licensing itself as a storefront for large international distributors such as AliExpress and Rakuten, who are already operating on the same scale as Amazon. This is especially unfortunate because Etsy forbids independent sellers from reselling professionally manufactured goods, thus creating a double standard that puts actual artists at a distinct disadvantage.

Etsy is a major platform for independent creators, especially as competition to table at in-person conventions is at an all-time high and platforms like Gumroad and Kickstarter are quickly losing their viability. Even if you doubt the efficacy of a grassroots strike against a giant multinational corporation, I think it’s still important to stand in solidarity with the artists, crafters, and other creators who are taking a stand against the entire online marketplace becoming like Amazon.

You can learn more about the strike here:
https://etsystrike.org/

You can read and join the strike’s Reddit group here:
https://www.reddit.com/r/EtsyStrike/

You can sign a petition to Etsy here:
https://www.coworker.org/petitions/cancel-the-fee-increase-work-with-sellers-not-against-us

ETA: I want to acknowledge that it is in fact possible to send tracked first-class letters through Pitney Bowes, which has partnered with Etsy to offer tracked shipping directly through the seller interface.

That being said, there are two problems with using the Pitney Bowes letter tracking offered by Etsy, both of which have been well documented, even on Etsy’s own forums. The first is that this option is difficult for many sellers to access, and Etsy Support doesn’t help with troubleshooting. The second is that letters mailed via Pitney Bowes aren’t directly trackable via USPS (or via the Pitney Bowes site) and seem to have a higher instance of becoming lost, thus resulting in sellers having to refund orders.

The Reddit group for Etsy is constantly filled with variations on this second issue. One of the more common of these variations is that tracking never updates beyond “pre-transit,” making it seem as though the order was never mailed. Another common variation is that first-class letters aren’t actually tracked, with the “tracking” being more of a delivery estimate. This means that letters and packages are frequently marked as “delivered” even though they haven’t been. Because sellers are penalized for not responding to complaints within 24 hours, the easiest course of action is to apologize, refund the order, and hope that the buyer doesn’t leave feedback saying that there was a problem.

In addition, the Pitney Bowes labels are larger than regular first-class envelopes. More “professional” sellers therefore use stiff cardboard mailers even for first-class shipping, which is an additional expense, as is a label printer. What I wanted to argue is that sellers shouldn’t be penalized for simply using a stamp and an envelope to mail small paper goods, and that we weren’t penalized for this until very recently.

I understand that this may look different from the perspective of a store with thousands of sales and a smooth workflow, but my sympathies lie with artists and other creators who aren’t operating on a large scale and don’t yet have the experience (or personal connections within the community) to be able to understand things that are easy for more established sellers.

There are a lot of nuances to this argument that I simplified in order to provide an accessible summary for why so many smaller storefronts went on strike. The point I want to emphasize is that there’s no need for Etsy to be so hostile to amateurs.

Turnip Boy Commits Tax Evasion

Turnip Boy Commits Tax Evasion is a 16-bit Zelda-style adventure game with cute graphics and meme-heavy writing that takes about two and a half hours to play from start to finish with 100% completion.

Along with a bright and colorful overworld, Turnip Boy Commits Tax Evasion features three formal inside dungeons and two less formal outside dungeons, as well as the usual variety of “go fetch me this thing” sidequests. The game is meant to be accessible to a diversity of players but still presents a range of entertaining challenges. The gameplay isn’t engineered for precision mechanics, which makes the boss fights somewhat more difficult than they perhaps need to be, but you can turn on “god mode” at any time from the menu. Around the middle of the game, Turnip Boy discovers a device that generates portals, and this tool enables are some fun puzzles involving getting bombs and blocks to where they need to be on the map in order to move forward.

Your main goal, as Turnip Boy, is to destroy every single piece of horrible paper you get your (non-existent) hands on. Tax documents? Rip them up. Leases? Rip them up. Receipts? Rip them up. A love letter that the girl you like wants you to deliver to someone who isn’t you, even though she knows you like her? Rip it up right in front of her face. Someone’s uwu anime drawing? Rip that mess up.

It’s very cathartic.

The exploration and puzzles are fun, but what I really enjoyed about Turnip Boy is the dialog, as well as the way your adorable yet feral protagonist’s silence is used for comedic effect. This game uses one of my favorite Earthbound-inspired tropes ever, which is to populate dungeons with people who talk to you, making them feel like towns that happen to be temporarily overrun with monsters. There are also diaries and other documents (that you can rip up!) scattered about in the dungeons that provide lowkey Fallout-style worldbuilding.

So I suppose you could say that Turnip Boy Commits Tax Evasion is a comedy story game that’s set up as a 16-bit Zelda adventure quest. Thankfully, the 16-bit graphics and Zelda-style gameplay elements work really well. The music is super-catchy too.

Is Turnip Boy Commits Tax Evasion worth $15? To me, it definitely was. A team of fifteen people developed this game, and I’m happy to give each of them a dollar. If you’re in the “I want shorter games with worse graphics made by people who are paid more to work less and I’m not kidding” camp, Turnip Boy Commits Tax Evasion is the game for you, especially if you’re in the mood to take an afternoon off and enjoy yourself by exploring a colorful fantasy garden while gleefully smashing capitalism.

We Should Improve Society Somewhat

This is my take on the viral Matt Bors comic. Someone actually said this to me about two years ago, and since then their comment has been living in my head rent-free. With this comic I hereby evict that unpleasantness and release it back into the wild.

I started drawing this comic earlier this year and finished it just to get it out of my drafts folder. In the time since I completed the line art, I made a firm decision to limit the negativity I post on social media. To be honest, most of the experiences that have had a major impact on my life during the past several years have been negative, but I’m not sure there’s any real use or meaning in representing them directly through autobiographical essays and comics. Instead, I’ve found much more satisfaction and catharsis in constructing analogies through the medium of fiction.

Also, I think there are a not insignificant number of people in the world (including the “yet you have a job” person) who tend to latch onto negativity to make bad-faith arguments about topics that could benefit from more nuance. Now that I’m at a stage of my life where I’m considering working on more collaborative projects, I’d prefer to keep that sort of interpersonal drama to a minimum. Thankfully, I’m in a better place now than I was when I started drawing this comic, and I hope the person who wrote this in response to one of my essays is in a better place too.

Still – fuck capitalism.

Political Art

I’m about as “indie” as someone can be, but I’ve had trouble finding a place in various indie creative communities during the past year. This is partially because I can’t meet or talk with anyone face to face, but I think it might also be because the sort of work I do isn’t considered to be political. I’m not punk enough, basically.

I don’t see my work as apolitical, though. For example, the full title of this illustration is:

“In higher education, you can’t ask for help because people will think you’re damaged, and you won’t receive help because no one wants to waste resources on the sort of person who has to ask for help. I tried to change the system from the inside by becoming a professor and being kind and supportive to my students and colleagues, and I was remarkably successful. In the end, however, I’m still the sort of person who needs to ask for help every once in a while, so I was denied tenure. The ideology of neoliberal capitalism has all but destroyed the values of higher education, and the pandemic has only exacerbated the damage. Because the problem is systemic, there’s very little any one individual can do, so here, have some plants. They represent diversity, but only in a superficial and visually pleasing way.”

This botanical study was inspired by the point-and-click game When the Past Was Around, which tells a story about burning out and rediscovering joy. Through its gameplay and visual design, the game encourages the player to nurture a more forgiving worldview and advocates for adjusting your goals to reflect your passions instead of your limitations. It’s a short game, but it really spoke to me.

A lot of people are very angry right now, and I understand that. I’m angry too, but I express it in my own way. To me, the opposite of neoliberalism isn’t “productive” anger, but rather “laziness” and an embrace of the sort of gentleness and beauty that exists for its own sake. I like video games precisely because they’re a “waste” of time. I like fan art because it’s “worthless” in creative economies, and I like plants because they exist in their own “imperfect” and “limited” ways without requiring “work” or “effort.”

In any case, aggressively ignoring the bourgeois dichotomy between high art and pop art feels very punk to me.

The Internet Conspiracy Machine

About a month ago, a post that felt weird to me started circulating within my small circle of Tumblr mutuals. To make a long story short, there was a smart post by a popular Tumblr artist that someone had reblogged with an inflammatory addition. The inflammatory addition was from 2018, so I was curious why it had started circulating again in December 2020.

I asked my mutuals if they were reblogging the post because something specific had happened recently, but they couldn’t give me any background. It seemed that the reblog was nothing more than clickbait making the rounds while riding on the back of the original post. Tumblr being Tumblr, this happens all the time.

But this reblogged addition still felt strange to me. The user who created the reblog had deactivated their account, so I searched for their username to try to figure out who they are. I wanted to figure out if the inflammatory addition was referring to something specific or whether it was just someone venting on Tumblr – which, again, is fair. I honestly didn’t expect to find anything, but I was working on an academic essay on the general topic of the original post and thought it might be interesting to follow up on this lead.

What I found was that the inflammatory addition had originated in 2018 and spread within a circle of blogs dedicated to video games whose users openly identified as male. All of these blogs were only briefly active and hadn’t been updated since 2018. Their reblogs alternated between memes, game release announcements, and incendiary “social justice” posts.

I’m not sure how to explain the particular flavor of circa-2018 “social justice” posts on Tumblr, save to say that they are totalizing, polarizing, and extremely aggressive to an absurd degree. In aggregate, these posts engender a sense that there is an elite group of enlightened people who all share the same position and values, and who must foster their anger in order to stand against their enemies, who are presumed to be an equally monolithic group. Let me be clear that these posts are not about any specific real-world issues or political groups, but more along the lines of general ideological programming spread through discourse surrounding fictional characters and entertainment media. Such posts have nothing to do with critical readings or cultural critique, but instead take the form of brief and easily digestible “this thing is bad” slogans with jingoistic “people who don’t agree are also bad” insinuations.

In any case, what I found regarding the circle of video game blogs on Tumblr seemed suspicious, so I tried to figure out who these users were and where they’d gone. (I was no longer doing research for my essay, by the way; now I was just morbidly curious.) Tumblr has an optional function that allows users to crosspost to Twitter, so I ended up tracking down a few of these blogs via reposts on Twitter, where I ran across a surprising number of deactivated accounts. Between one thing and another – and this was a very deep rabbit hole, so I’m afraid I didn’t document my process as well as I could have – I ended up on Parler, a social media platform for the sort of alt-right people who tend to get kicked off Twitter.

Along with 8kun, Parler is one of the main seeds of the QAnon material that makes its way to Facebook and YouTube, and the conversations I saw on the site were completely divorced from consensus reality. There’s an excellent article about this on The Atlantic (here); but, to summarize, “the QAnon conspiracy” holds that the American government is rotten to its core, and even conservative politicians are almost literal comic book villains. Donald Trump, as someone coming from outside these evil political circles, is only person that “real” Americans can rely on, and he must therefore be defended from Democrats and Republicans alike.

At the time I encountered Parler in mid-December 2020, it was filled with people talking about contesting the election results, by force if necessary. Many of the hashtags, like #HoldTheLine, were military in tone, and people were sharing state-specific resources for obtaining firearms. There were a lot of links to videos associated with the Dorr Brothers, who oversee various regional organizations devoted to “no compromise” “Second Amendment rights.” (NPR has a limited-run podcast about this, if you’re curious.) There was also an extraordinary deal of antisemitism, with coded references ranging from “global capitalists” to “lizard people.”

I did not stay there long. I got super creeped out, to be honest.

The worst thing was that, between all the “Take Back America” rhetoric, links to QAnon videos on YouTube, and announcements for the Facebook Live events of reactionary political groups, people were sharing memes and joke posts about video games… and a lot of them were really good. To my shame, that’s why I stayed on the site for as long as I did, even after it had become painfully clear what I was looking at.

The appeal of QAnon conspiracies is that they speak to the marginalized in their own language, whether that language is video game memes, “traditional feminist” slogans, or decontextualized Bible verses. These conspiracies provide both an “it’s not your fault” justification for why individuals don’t succeed in neoliberal capitalism and a concrete path of action that elevates a normal person sitting at a computer to the status of a righteous crusader.

This sort of messaging is designed to appeal to anyone who feels as if they’re under attack from forces they don’t understand, which is perhaps why it has appealed so strongly to Donald Trump himself. Once I started picking up on QAnon codewords and hashtags, some of Trump’s more bizarre tweets from 2020 (such as “Nothing can stop what is coming”) started to make much more sense.

When Trump posted a video telling the rioters who stormed the Capitol building on January 6 that they’re “special” and that he loves them, this also made sense to me. Trump seemed to genuinely believe, as the rioters did, that they were on the righteous side of a holy war to protect the rights of the marginalized and prevent the fall of civilization at the hands of a nebulous and unspeakable evil.

Given my actual research interests, which have very little to do with American politics, you can probably guess that this whole thing started with Legend of Zelda. There may be some people reading this essay who might feel tempted to jump to the conclusion that the Zelda series is to blame for fostering an apocalyptic mindset because [insert racist generalization about Japanese people here]. I’m not saying that the Zelda games – or gaming culture and video games in general – aren’t without their problems, but please don’t let that be your take-away point.

I’m also not suggesting that the people on Tumblr who reblogged a post I found upsetting are ignorant. After all, most people on the platform are fully aware of how misinformation spreads, and we rely on a carefully curated grassroots social vetting system that serves as something of a Geiger counter to make sure we’re not getting close to anything radioactive. We’re all doing the best we can, and a few isolated posts from malicious actors aren’t going to hurt anyone.

Rather, what has struck me about this whole mess is how the tendency toward authoritarian thinking transcends political lines. I can’t say whether the Tumblr blogs that were active in spreading inflammatory “social justice” posts in 2018 were real people who ended up gravitating to the far right or the sock puppets of people already involved with far-right groups, and I don’t know who started circulating their posts again in December.

What I do know is that “us vs. them” essentialism is just as appealing to online communities in favor of progressive social justice as it is to online communities that propagate QAnon theories. Because of the way social media algorithms privilege content that evokes “engagement,” this type of thinking can spread far beyond these communities and become normalized even for people who don’t know anything about Wojak memes or video games or Tumblr or 4chan, whether they’re financially precarious retirees or recent college graduates who have just started to understand that they will never be able to pay off their student loans.

The key word here is “normalization,” because this is what makes extremists feel as though they have broad support for what they’re doing. For every one person who creates a social media account solely for the purpose of telling an artist or showrunner that she should kill herself because her content is “problematic,” or for every one person who showed up to the riot in DC on January 6, there are thousands of people in each of their extended communities who are directly supporting their actions online.

I think that, if both young people and older people could envision an actual future for themselves as valued members of society, then perhaps they wouldn’t be so invested in fantasies about destroying society. I know this makes me sound like a moderate apologist, but I’m not advocating for “compromise” or “seeing both sides.” What I’m trying to say is this: If there are multiple generations of people who are unemployed, underemployed, deeply in debt, and one random accident away from complete financial ruin, of course they’re going to be upset and looking for guidance, especially while they’re stuck at home or trapped in “essential worker” jobs during an ongoing pandemic. This is not a controversial statement to make.

Neoliberal capitalism is irreparably broken. So many people wouldn’t be in such a precarious position if it weren’t. Something needs to happen, because people need to be able to live without feeling as though they have to fight each other to survive.

In the meantime, social media corporations need to change their algorithms. It’s unnecessary, undesirable, and impossible to destroy the platforms on which authoritarian and apocalyptic discourses are created and disseminated. That being said, these fringe beliefs should not be as accessible, widespread, and normative as they are.

The individual and social formation of identity and ideology that happens online is real, and it has real consequences. I think it’s high time to start taking this seriously.

Taking Back the Means of Production

Comrade Himbo: Send Us Your Comics
https://pome-mag.com/comrade-himbo-a-call-for-submissions/

– This is a paid project. We will be paying $50 USD/page per creative team for each selected black and white comic, and $100 USD per each selected one-page color illustration.
– In addition to payment, we will provide 10 comp copies for comics submissions and 5 comp copies for illustration submissions for contributors to sell or distribute however they want.

This is a very clear set of submission guidelines that probably isn’t an interesting read for anyone except me. I copied the entire thing into another document to use as a reference for potential future projects of my own, because it’s quite good.

I’m especially interested in the compensation rates. What they’re offering seems like it’s on the low side, but it’s important to keep in mind that this is a very small press run by volunteers that’s basically going from Kickstarter to Kickstarter. It’s also important to keep in mind that the shipping costs for ten books are not negligible, especially if they’re being mailed overseas.

I ran across a Twitter thread the other day about how artists should expect to be paid well because art is a luxury. I agree in principle – of course I do! – but I think this is a bit trickier in practice. I’m going to say that, in the United States at least, the New York Times (and its subsidiary magazines) set the industry standards for illustration rates. According to professional illustrators who discuss this sort of thing on social media, this rate is about $1,200 per color illustration, with some artists being paid a bit less and some artists being paid quite a bit more. As you can imagine, however, not everyone can afford to pay artists on the same scale as the New York Times.

So you run into a Catch-22 situation. Artists should be paid at a fair rate, because of course they should; but, at the same time, it’s clearly discriminatory to say that only people who have the money to pay artists at the industry standard set by giant corporations should be allowed to publish.

This Catch-22 has been keeping BIPOC and LGBTQ+ presses and creators out of mainstream publishing up until this very day. To summarize a complicated story, presses aren’t allowed to exhibit at most publishing industry trade conventions unless they can prove that they meet certain standards regarding creator contracts. A small press that only publishes, say, crowd-funded anthologies of queer comics from emerging creators is not going to be able to offer the same contracts as a member of the Hachette group – and so they can’t exhibit. This is one of the reasons why, for example, even extraordinarily successful small-press publications are never going to be in most bookstores (or on their websites).

Publishing is a tricky business, and I don’t think it’s a reach to say that most small presses don’t go into it for the money. I guess what I’d like to argue for is a better sense of scale, as well as a more nuanced understanding of the necessary balance between compensating creators and not hemorrhaging money. Essentially, if you want to support minority and independent creators, you also have to support the independent presses and editors that publish, distribute, and promote their work.

Like An Adult

A conversation with a friend reminded me that “self-care” means actually taking care of yourself at work. “Working through the pain” is sometimes necessary in special circumstances, but it shouldn’t be expected, and it definitely shouldn’t be the default.

It’s True and They Should Say It

(Here’s a link) to the Buzzfeed article if you’re interested. It’s mainly about how people in their twenties and thirties can’t afford to live in cities anymore and feel intense loneliness and anxiety about feeling forced to relocate to the suburbs.

While I completely understand that it’s horrible not to have the agency to choose where you live, and while I understand that it can be emotionally devastating to be torn away from your friend group, I agree with the artist that the specific anxiety concerning “living with your parents” is largely based on an ideology of “independence” that’s socially constructed by a very small subset of people.

I don’t think I’m in a position to comment on whether this is a “white” thing, necessarily, but it’s definitely an American thing. A lot of other cultures, including many cultures in Europe, see the American insistence on single-generation households as not just absurd but actively pathological, and honestly, I tend to agree.