Interview – Merritt Kopas

Part I: Feminist Porn, Games, & Capital

Merritt Kopas is a multimedia artist and game-designer. Her work includes LIM, HUGPUNX and Consensual Torture Simulator. She also curates free, accessible games at her online project forest ambassador.


FPS Essays co-editor Meghan Blythe Adams spoke to Merritt Kopas during a break at the 2014 Feminist Porn Conference, at which Kopas was a presenter.

FPS: Thank-you so much for being available today. The first thing I’d like to ask is that in an interview with The Border House, you said you’re really interested in abstract representations in your work. What is it about the abstract that appeals to you?

Merritt Kopas: In any form the thing about abstraction is that it allows for audience projection. When I made LIM, which is a game I don’t talk about very much anymore, I was really consciously trying not to say, “Here is a game about X” and I wanted to convey things with as little verbal language as possible and as little specific imagery as possible. And I think it’s a big reason for that work’s success is that a lot of people were coming to it from the same place as I was, but then other people were interpreting it in ways that I had not imagined, but are totally valid, so people were saying “Well, this really feels like my experience as a person with an invisible disability or as a mixed race person.”

I think there is a push among, I guess, critical consumers of games towards this politics of representation, of wanting images that reflect who we are and that’s important and that’s really valuable, but I think that the risk there is that we come to believe that if we just have perfect representation, everything will be fine and that’s the end goal. It reminds me of the ways that the politics of inclusion manifest in other spaces, so things like the acronym LGBTQ–whatever, it’s this idea that if we just get the right combination of letters, everyone will be included. And you can’t possibly, that’s a fantasy. And in ways, that’s one of the promises of or impetuses behind words like queer, it’s this word that in ways encompasses things but also leaves a lot of room. I think abstraction does the same thing. It leaves room for interpretation and play on the part of the player. Play that isn’t just the buttons they’re pressing, but the way that they’re engaging with the game.

FPS: I thought it was fascinating how something like LIM is so abstract, and when you look at some of your more recent work, like CTS [Consensual Torture Simulator] or Positive Space, there’s a really intimate sense of the body, it’s very much an embodied experience. What’s your intention with that something that’s so intimate that way?

MK: When working in text, I tend to move in that direction. When I’m working in Twine, I think it encourages a specific means of working for me. For me, that means working in brief passages with not a lot of text in each one. But in a way it’s still abstract because I’m not coming from a place of literary realism in most of that work. There’s still dilation of time and it’s not always clear if these are events that are happening or feelings that are being narrated. I think that’s really valuable and I think those are two threads I’m interested in tugging at. And I think both of those are part of this broader project of trying to explore embodiment more in games, which is something that I don’t see.  There are lots of people doing interesting things on the fringes of games, but in mainstream games, bodies are not really present. So, one way of doing that is to remove representation of the body and include elements that really put the player in their body, like the shaking in LIM or the zooming in.  Those are really visceral effects.  And another way of doing that is to talk about bodies in detail and to talk about things that are not talked about and to talk about sex acts. Games don’t even talk about normative sex acts very often.

FPS: You mentioned representation and I saw this really interesting Tweet of yours that talked about how representation tends to take a lot of the focus when we talk about feminist porn (and games as well) and how that can obfuscate the means of production [behind them]. I was wondering if you wanted to expand on that.

MK: I’ve been struck being here this weekend [at FPCon] by a lot of parallels. I think these are both communities of people who are working sort of within or on the margins of these big industries that have kind of captured and domesticated and commodified play. We’re talking about play in both cases, really – games and sex, we’re playing. So, it’s fascinating to me to think about the parallels [concerning] that show of representation. Like that question that everyone gets asked by reporters, “What makes it feminist porn?” For a lot of people, I think the immediate answer is, “Well, you know, the images are feminist,” …whatever that means.  There’s always a risk there in treating representation as the defining factor in feminist porn or in queer games.

That’s a conversation I’ve been trying to push again and again in games. Let’s talk about production. Let’s talk about the games industry as this massive capitalist enterprise. Talk about how people working to change that are often in very intense poverty. And to me, I want to be talking about how producers, how people are living. I think those kinds of conversations are happening this weekend, too. I think that’s a real concern.

There’s an interesting divide between academics or scholars and analysts and whatever background they come from and then people working. Here there’s performers, sex workers and people studying their work and in games, there’s games writers and analysts and indie game-makers. I think because a lot of scholars are coming from this Anglo-American tradition of literary theory and English departments and media studies and that’s just how those things developed in the States and in Canada to a lesser degree, there is this emphasis on the image, on the text and that is not always what the people who are making these things want to discuss, so there’s this interesting friction and I think it’s important to talk about production and the conversations that the people who are doing this stuff want to have.

FPS: I remember reading in a print version of the tarot reading that you did [at Indiecade East in February 2014] talking about the capitalist implications of gaming and play really being a product. Do you find that in indie development, is it possible to work through or resist that, how does that work, if at all?

MK: I think there are different models for that. It’s something I’ve been struggling with, too. I mean, on one hand you want to be able to eat and you want to make a living. You don’t want to just be struggling. There’s a really toxic idea that you need to struggle for your art or for your feminist porn, that you should be grateful to be doing that. But for me, a lot of my work is more comparable—and coming from a place of poetry and short-form writing than long-form fiction or film—it’s interesting to think about selling a game that is more like a fairly brief poem. It’s not something that happens in poetry very often, which is another very fraught field in terms of making a living.

But maybe we can shift things away from this huge polished product that goes on Steam for $20 and wants you to invest ten or twenty hours. Even just the shift from that to an experience that is maybe fifteen minutes or half an hour long and is a few dollars but is meant to be a discrete and meaningful experience that respects people’s time. Even that I think is meaningful, to proliferate alternatives to that model and the trick is, of course, making it sustainable. I mean, CTS was an experiment in using this forum that’s mostly used by comic creators. It did very well, but I’m very conscious that it’s the first game I’ve sold and it’s about a topic that people find interesting: there’s all these variables involved.  I’m thinking of new ways to shift the primacy of that model.

FPS: I noticed that CTS had a suggested price, I think $2 on Gumroad, which is how I got it. Did you consciously decide to have it priced at that range as a recognition of it as labour?

MK: The pricing decision came from a discussion between Anna Anthropy and me. She was thinking of selling a game she was working on that was a pretty traditional Choose Your Own Adventure story and it was really different from the work she’s known for because it’s kind of a children’s story and it’s really cute. And we were talking about, “Well, okay, if you do this first, I’ll back you up and I’ll take that step too.”

It’s weird to think of it that way, as this risk and I think that as marginalized creators we are often taught we should be grateful to be allowed to exist in the spaces that we operate in, or to do the kinds of work that we do. And to ask for money is a very frightening idea for a lot of people. It shouldn’t be, but there are lots of reasons why it is. A lot of people have very anti-capital politics and to take money for their art sometimes feels like a betrayal of that. Which of course, ignores the fact that capital is a totalizing system and you can’t exist outside it.

But yeah, for women, queers, people of colour…to demand payment for labour is hard, because we’ve been told it’s not worth anything. Especially when the kinds of works that we‘re producing are non-traditional and don’t fit within established fields. That makes it even harder. I don’t think I would have been able to do it if we hadn’t had that conversation, if Anna hadn’t done it first. I think it’s really important for people to be having these conversations about how we can support each other, we can make it safe and okay to receive compensation for our work. Which is this really baseline thing, but it’s very hard to do.

[Check back next week for Part II!]