Interview – Soha Kareem

Interview - El-Sabaawi

Soha Kareem is a Toronto-based games writer and maker specializing in race and sexuality.


In this instalment of First Person Scholar’s interview series, essays editor Jason Hawreliak speaks with Soha Kareem about Twine, her game Penalties, gaming culture and games criticism. 

FPS: Hey everyone, in today’s interview we’ll be talking with MA student, game critic and game-maker, Soha Kareem.  We’ll be talking about Twine, her excellent game Penalties and games criticism. Soha, thanks so much for chatting with us today.

Soha: Thank you for having me.

FPS: Just to start off very generally, what led you to start making Twine games?

Soha: I was just really interested in what people could do with Twine. I was part of a couple of game jams with a Toronto-based women’s game making program called Dames Making Games. I saw a woman working with Twine and I thought it looked relatively… not intimidating, and I wanted to give it a shot. So that’s what inspired me, seeing other people’s work, and seeing that you could really do simple things that are really effective when using Twine. Basically if you can type and you can use brackets, you can use Twine.

FPS: Moving on to Penalties in particular, you’ve written a great companion essay outlining some of the reasons for making the game and some of the experiences that prompted you to make the game, in particular, your experience living as a stateless refugee. In it you write—I’m just going to quote you here if you don’t mind—“The process of making this game… has been rewarding and cathartic in ways that debating about Palestinian rights in political science classes or internet comment sections are not.” So I’m wondering what is it about this game—and perhaps this medium—that allows you to express yourself in a way that those other media or modes don’t?

Soha: You can actually personalize your experiences in programs like Twine. I was in a political science program for two years before switching to film studies and [it was difficult] trying to speak about Palestinian identity in a class that’s so reliant on “facts.” People want you to speak like a political scientist when talking about feelings, and that just didn’t work for me because my feelings weren’t political; they were very personal. And they were experiences based on what my family’s gone through, what my relatives are still going through right now. And so Twine was like… I could actually type out my feelings and actually explain them, while also being creative. And that’s what felt really cathartic: I could just say “This is what it feels like,” and there was nobody that’s trying to play a gotcha game, you know, “Can you prove it?” or “Can you provide some historical examples?”, “Give us the exact chronology of your family.” There’s nothing like that happening [while creating in Twine].

FPS: Definitely. Is there something about using Twine in particular, I guess as opposed to creative writing, or maybe putting it in prose or poetry?

Soha: I think that Twine is great for having people move through the words as well as reading them. You can break them up in ways that you can’t by going through a book or reading them on screen. With Twine you can actually interact with the words. If you’re clicking on them, you can choose which words to click on. And then as you’re transitioning to the next page, you can customize that transition to make it feel claustrophobic or to make it feel different or to make it feel smoother. With [paper] pages, you’re flipping through pages that don’t necessarily change.

There’s a great horror book, House of Leaves, and it’s like an interruptive book; every page is situated differently. The words are visually constructed as well as written out on paper and to me that’s more visceral and that kind of gets the point across that the way you present a word changes it entirely and changes the interaction entirely.

FPS: Yeah that’s perfect. That’s a great answer. And actually following up on that, a lot of the writing in Penalties I found to be quite visceral, emphasizing materiality and the body. And I was wondering if you could speak about the themes of pain and the body, and how these might relate back to perhaps the treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank, if at all.

Soha: Yeah, so a lot of the feelings that I have were physical because a lot of the treatments that Palestinians receive are physical. Whether they’re being cut off from water, from electricity, whether they’re being forced into prisons; they’re being killed on an hourly basis. Everything is so physical and it’s based on being physically visible. It actually wasn’t intentional for it to be physical. I remember in film studies reading about body genres by Linda Williams and she writes a lot about how in horror genres, race and the body—and the female body especially—is just torn apart. And in making Penalties, it kind of felt to me like I was ripping myself apart in front of people because that’s what it felt like in reading the news, reading about Palestinians and seeing this on a regular basis. And it was like in order to be free from that, I also had to participate in this kind of mutilation.

And it hurts to speak out, because you never really know who your audience is and it’s really difficult to talk about personal experiences and not feel really vulnerable. I was trying to revel in that and just be like, I’m going to be as physically and emotionally vulnerable about these feelings, because this is how it feels to speak about it. And to talk about a nationality experience with pain is different when you are that nationality.

I guess the physicality comes from witnessing it on a daily basis and going back to see those internet comments when you talk about how it feels to be Palestinian and people don’t want to see that. People are afraid to respond because they don’t want to pick a side. They don’t want to seem like they’re ignoring the opposing side, and that really hurts because how do you see it as “sides”? So, maybe if I start tearing myself apart, people will actually see that this isn’t about picking a side. This is about people dying, about violence, about extreme violence and that’s really the only way you can get people’s attention, when you do something that’s a little bit radical.

FPS: I think that’s very well put. And I imagine it must be especially difficult in our current political environment, where in Canada we have what’s probably the most pro-Israeli government in, well, ever. So I’m sure that adds another element to it as well.

Soha: Absolutely.

FPS:  To talk a little more about the writing in Penalties, I really loved the writing in the game, and I’d say it sort of oscillates between poetry and prose. Or, at least it moves between those two poles generally. Just from my view, the more visceral, prisoner parts are more in the realm of poetry, but then there are sort of flashbacks, little episodes that are more like prose I would say. Was that a conscious decision, and if so, why did you utilize that dichotomy, those different genres of writing?

Soha: Yeah, it was a conscious decision. I really wanted to blend fiction and non-fiction and to say that on the one hand, metaphorically these are the words, the words in poetry form. And while I wasn’t going for “poetry” I just used the words that I felt worked best for [expressing] those feelings. If I can describe this in as few words as possible, this is what it feels like and this is where it stems from.

I guess what I wanted to show was how microaggressions could lead to these feelings. So having my thoughts in high school history class dismissed, that really hurt. And to other people that might have not hurt; they might have thought they were doing the right thing, but it’s actually stemming from little microaggressions where the smallest thing can actually mean the most pain for another person. And it was just in those moments that I started to wake up and realize people are really uncomfortable talking about things, whether it’s white privilege, or my film studies professor… I wanted to talk about Palestinian cinema and he was really hesitant. He was really supportive after he read my paper but he wasn’t encouraging right away.

I think people are just really afraid to talk about these things, and again, it’s just maybe the idea that we shouldn’t take sides, and that this is something that’s still going on. I think people are afraid to meddle with it because they don’t want to accept that this has to do with race. Because when people talk about race they think it’s something in the past. They think: “Oh you’re in a class with us, you’re physically present, so racism is over”. So, for me it was the very little things that made me feel this contempt and that kind of pain that I wanted to portray.

FPS:  I guess I should say for our readers—you know this—but I’m teaching your game, Penalties in my rhetoric class, which I’m really looking forward to. So this is really a question for that class: how might you respond to those who say Penalties or Twine in general aren’t “games” as such, or that they’re not “proper” games?

Soha: I mean, I think people can call them whatever they want to call them. I myself hesitate calling them “games” to begin with because it doesn’t have that classic structure of what we’re taught games are supposed to look like. But at the end of the day, it’s a piece of text that you interact with and whether you want to call it interactive fiction or interactive hypertext, it’s still something you’re interacting with, so what’s the problem with calling it a game?

I think with games like The Last of Us or The Walking Dead we’re getting to that point where games aren’t necessarily just entertaining anymore; they hurt and you’re starting to feel strong emotions, and a lot of these point and click adventures are not based on “games” in the traditional sense of “we’re having fun.” So I think there’s room to call it a game, but it’s never been my fight to call it a game. And I think it’s great that with contemporary games, like Gone Home, we’re seeing people understand that the word “game” is very fluid, and that it’s more about experience, it’s more about an interactive experience, it’s more about entering a world that someone has created. So whatever you want to call that, you can’t really deny that you’re still interacting with it.

FPS: That’s a great answer, and actually segues well into my next question. With the popularity of games like Gone Home and Papers, Please , and even a game like dys4ia, do you think the AAA industry will start to take notice of the popularity and success of these smaller games? Or do you think they’ll keep going on their current path and we’re going to see Call of Duty 14, just iteration after iteration of the same formula?

Soha: I think it can be both. As long as they’re able to make money we’re going to see shooters for the rest of our lives. But I think that the AAA industries are going to start looking at games like Gone Home and The Walking Dead as serious contenders. And to bring back The Last of Us, I think that might have to do with why there’s a DLC coming out [now released] that seems to be more about friendship than anything else. So I think that they’re going to take note, but, at the end of the day, AAA is only about money, and it’s only about what panders to people. So while I see them dabbling in narratives that are more emotional or visceral, they’ll still be in a safer zone of “Can we still market this?”

I think that’s where one of the failures of BioShock Infinite comes from. Of course, financially it wasn’t a failure, but there were so many themes that they touched upon and then immediately pulled back [from], because they didn’t want to lose their core audience right away. So I think there can be room for both, and I think last year [2013] there was definitely a push for both. And I hope that there is room for both. People should be able to play whatever they want to play, but also know that other people want to play different things and they should be welcoming to them. I’m hoping with the success of Gone Home and The Walking Dead that people realize that these games can also be played and people will love them, even if it’s not about power-ups or rocket launchers.

FPS: [Laughs] Yeah, definitely.  So I know you’ve done podcasts and currently you’re part of a YouTube channel with Sam Maggs called “The C_ntrollers”—am I pronouncing that right?—which is a lot of fun to watch. They’re just really entertaining and if people haven’t seen the channel, definitely check it out. I’m wondering, what do you like about the YouTube or critical Let’s Play genres, and what got you into them?

Soha: Well Sam and I have always talked about how we’re kind of sick of the whole fake gamer girl meme where women are not expected to play games, or if they do play games, they’re not expected to be good at them or to like them. And on another level, that women are not fun. And we always see this with comediennes where people see a woman on stage doing stand-up and say: “Well, women just aren’t funny.” So I think what we wanted to do was play games, have fun, and also show people that we can do that while being funny and also critical at the same time – we can engage with games in a critical way and show people that it’s ok to poke fun at games and that when you do poke fun at games you can get into a larger critique of them.

I think that’s something that’s lost on most YouTube Let’s Play channels. They stem from being offensive, or making fun of marginalized groups and we just wanted to make fun of the products themselves, and hope that, when we do make fun of these products, we do so in a way that opens other people’s eyes to why you should maybe think twice about a trope, or why you should think twice about a narrative that seems really smart, but is not that bright or is problematic.

We’ve just always played games and always hated the idea that there are so many Let’s Plays where if a woman is starring in them she has to sort of prove that “Yes, I play games,” and we didn’t even want to go there. We already know that we play games so we’re just going to record ourselves doing that. And most of it is just… this is how we talk about games in general and it’s gotten a good response, so why not record it and make videos of it?

FPS: Leading off that point, I know you personally have, unfortunately, been subject to online harassment—like as you just mentioned the “fake gamer girl” thing—and it just appears to be an all too common part of being a woman on the internet, to the point where it seems like the internet isn’t a safe place, in many ways, for people who aren’t white, straight, cis men. And I was wondering if you could talk about your experiences with online harassment, and of course there’s no silver bullet, but are there maybe ways that we can mitigate it? Whether it’s through education, or holding people accountable, or some sort of combination of strategies…

Soha: Yeah, I’ve been very fortunate that the level of harassment I’ve experienced hasn’t been to the level of what Zoe Quinn experienced, or Anita Sarkeesian or Samantha Allen. Nothing like that. But it’s still an everyday struggle to kind of deal with the fact that there is going to be a group of people who send you death threats or send you rape threats. I think the most important thing to know is these aren’t just “trolls.” There’s a lot of literature—whether it’s in YouTube form or TED Talks or articles—about how we should stop calling particular groups of people “trolls” because it’s actually very dangerous behaviour. It’s based on a mob mentality: the people who harass women on the internet do so in groups. So at first we have to identify the fact that this is almost like a terrorist organization in some ways. These are people banding together based on hatred, and if they did it on the street it wouldn’t be acceptable. So why should it be acceptable on the internet?

The internet is not a toy; it’s where many people make their living. Whether it’s through online marketing, writing, or even just doing online banking, this is how we function on a day-to-day basis. So we have to take into consideration that this isn’t just guys on the internet having fun. And I think we do need to make people accountable through calling them out in a way that also keeps the people who are being harassed safe. You know sometimes I retweet the things that guys send me and it shuts them up very quickly because there are more people willing to stand up to it than there are people willing to participate in it.

There’s a Toronto-based feminist, Stephanie Guthrie, who’s taking a man to court for sexually harassing her on Twitter. And so I think that there are being precedents set where we’re calling people out and we’re holding them accountable and going beyond “Oh, here’s just another person I have to block.” It’s like, if you want to talk that way, ok, let’s start talking that way. Let’s start bringing that to the “IRL world.” It’s going to happen. I don’t think it’s going to go away, but once people start seeing that there will be action taken against them there will be more precedents set.

FPS: I certainly hope so. Moving on to your [academic] background, you’re currently studying film preservation for your MA and you did your BA in Film Studies. I was wondering: do you think your academic work in those areas overlap into writing on games, or do you see them as maybe two different parts of your brain?

Soha: Yes and no. A lot of the course work is two separate parts. But my thesis right now is about digital surrogates in museum exhibitions and on archives for damaged early [last] century photography. And so it’s kind of mixing the digital interaction with broken or older forms of media or art, that can’t be displayed. And I think that does bleed into games a little bit, where—especially programs like Twine—you’re taking literature or poetry and reformatting it in ways that can be displayed on the screen, or touched or clicked. And it’s kind of how I feel in my thesis, blending together two seemingly opposing different kinds of media and turning them into something that’s visceral, into something you can touch.

That was on purpose because I got more into games when I started doing my MA, and so I was kind of trying to think of ways that I can do digital applications and digital technology to work with something as ancient sounding as photo preservation. We’re actually doing an exhibition this year for a local Toronto collector, and my part of the exhibition is actually to design a digital format of the exhibition and I was going to bring up the possibility of using Twine so that it could be showcased at the physical exhibition where the collector’s photography is displayed, but also there would be a little complementary guide that people can look through and people can touch. So why not Twine instead of a website? So I think there is some overlap. I’m trying to find a way to bring the two media together, but to do it meaningfully.

FPS: That’s great. So I’m going to get you out of here with a couple questions that we ask all our interviewees. They’re meant to be very broad, open-ended and speculative: what do you think of the current state of games criticism, and where do you see it heading in the next couple of years?

Soha: It’s interesting because at the end of 2013, the beginning of 2014, there are a lot of game critics doing resolutions. And a lot of the resolutions have to do with letting go of anger and getting more in touch with civility. Critics like Mattie Brice and Zoya Street wrote about feeling so angry and how that’s poisonous and toxic. And I agree and disagree at the same time. I think that games criticism should be angry, but we should also be angry in a way that is productive. And [we should] kind of be wary of terms like “civil” because a lot of the times “civility” means playing by other people’s rules and making sure to not step on toes. I think we should be stepping on toes and we should be breaking rules. And while we shouldn’t be screaming at and harassing people, we should be loud and angry and demand better.

At the end of the day whether we’re critics, designers or writers we’re also consumers. And just like any other facet of life where you consume a product, you demand satisfaction, and we should also be doing the same thing. Where it’s headed, I don’t know. But I think—depending on the community you’re a part of—it’s heading in a really good direction, and I’m starting to read more from Merritt Kopas, from Anna Anthropy, and just realizing what kind of criticism I like, and it’s criticism that’s a little more off-beat, that doesn’t work with traditional forms of argumentation, that’s a narrative in its own way, but also very cognizant.

FPS: Great, well thanks so much again, Soha, for chatting with us. I really enjoyed our conversation today.

Soha: Yeah, thank you. This was awesome. I’m really excited for your class to play the game [Penalties] as well!

FPS: Me too! I’ll definitely let you know how it goes with the class. Thanks again, Soha!

Soha: No problem, take care.