"I Love People Who Are Imperfect Around Me": Interview With GaymerX President Toni Rocca

Lavish your adoration onto my friends, the rad lady and gender non-conforming folk who make up the resistance against #Gamergate. Checkout my other interviews, with Leigh Alexander, Soha Kareem and Aevee Bee, by clicking on the little purple words.

When Toni Rocca told me I worked too hard, it shifted my entire being about a ninth of a nanometer to the left. The people passing us by were none the wiser, but inside, every monitor and meter read "HOLY SHIT WHERE ARE WE, WE GOTTA START ALL OVER IN THIS STRANGE NEW FRONTIER." If we, as a queer community, as "games people" paid Toni what she was worth for all the work she does as President of GaymerX, podcast emcee and dogged advocate for women in games, we would all have to go back to a barter economy because she would have literally all the money and then fiat currency would become worthless. And then you'd have to purchase your Arkham City downloadable content with a bag of black eyed peas. 

We queer games folk wade through a very, very tiny pond. We play each others games, crash on each others couches and split weed cookies on Wednesday nights. Sometimes we swap swooning stories of the same girl while we wait for the bus to take us to hot pot. It's a small world—and sometimes you forget the rest of the world is not this small. Occasionally you take a look out and you lay eyes on the flittering hordes surrounding you.

We're small time, sometimes at great cost. 

Toni is far and away from a colleague. Toni is the friend I picked up and carried across the street the night we met, whose business card is the only one I've ever actually kept on me because I found the act of her presenting it to me just so fucking endearing. Toni does not occupy the seat next to me on the shadowy cabal killing games, but the synapses and neurons in my brain that light up whenever I think of the time we went thrift shopping and she was so happy to have found a skirt that flattered her figure and looked good with the hoodie she was wearing. Or the time I nearly ruined my phone because I was so engrossed in her tweeting about my wrestling match I almost walked into the shower while reading twitter. 

Like the punchline of many an awful heteronormative joke of spousal chagrin, Toni is not present for some of my happier memories with her—eating the leftovers she saved for me at our firend's house, like a culinary Cobra Commander who cares. Midnight facebook messages hadn't figured into Maslow's hierarchy of needs, but without her often-unprovoked encouragement, I and so many other people, would not be the unrepentantly weird and wonderful waifs who captured the heart of a hate movement. 

If I am a "mother" to the community, then Toni is the godparent, leaving a trail of love for us to follow in times of darkness. 

She cavorts out of the corner of your eye at the conference, rectifying worries with her reassuring laugh and an almost wanton, all-consuming warmth to her. "Queer community" has not afforded us all a lot of constants—friendships dissipate, spaces compromise—but one thing I can count on, no matter how hard and horrible it gets, is that Toni is out there, somewhere, patiently encouraging someone to follow through and finish making their game. 

Toni is very close to my heart. She might in fact be in my heart. 

Don't go breaking my heart—I will fucking kill you. 

How did you realize that your queerness and your love of games were two great tastes that tasted great together? 

This is a complicated question for me.

I think that I, like many people, slowly fell out of video games around the time most AAA games started assuming two things. One was that I had nobody to play games with and two was that I would never get tired of shooting people over and over. At the time "Indie Games" was not a thing I even understood and so I lacked the tools of discovery required to find them. Later on in life I rediscovered games mainly through indie titles that really piqued my thirst for things that were different and engaging. It started with smaller titles on the PS3, and then blew up when I got a Steam account in order to play Recettear (after beating the game on someone else's account).

Back in my youth, I was addicted to games. But I don't think I was ever aware of how my queerness affected my tastes. I was always into fantasy, magic, different worlds. I think escape and empowerment were big factors for me. However, the sort of male-coded domination and chauvinistic displays of strength that grew more and more popular didn't quite work for me. Rather, I was a fan of games with beautiful, curious, conflicted characters.

I know it's treated as cliche but I still love Final Fantasy 6, even though it's probably fraught with issues. Terra and Celes felt like friends when I was young, they were people I related with, wanted to be. They were so confused and questioning of their own identities in ways I could only relate to consciously YEARS after never having touched the games. 

However, the series that really grabbed hold of me, even when I thought I "didn't play games" was the SaGa series. Games like Romancing SaGa 3 and SaGa Frontier 1 and 2 had these stories and characters that were so weird and different. Strong and different people who were presented as more than stereotypical idealized gender tropes, but as simply interesting unique people. I think that the artist for these games being a woman must play a big role in this.

Not only gender is a factor here, but the worlds in SaGa games and others that I loved felt like I was shaping them as I played. This is something that I think plays out in my real life in my desire and need to create spaces where things I love can exist.

 

The video games industry has not always been so great in its depictions of South America. Did this weigh on you during your attempts to make in-roads with the industry to make GaymerX financially viable? Are there any games that remind you of what you miss of Peru? 

I don't think many Americans have much knowledge about South American culture outside of what you can find on postcards and travel brochures. To that extent, I don't know that I do, either. I never traveled much within South America and from what I've seen the treatment of Hispanic and Latino cultures as a monolith is like saying all "food" is "sweet." Stories and footage I've seen tells stories of each culture down there as its own curious microcosm, flourishing with its own culture.

I'm white. Or, rather, when I'm doing business this is how it comes off. I'm sure its easy enough to throw race treason and whitewashing claims at me, and maybe they bare some truth. But I'd rather hear it from another Peruvian, or more specifically an immigrant. I don't think anyone who hasn't gone through the lifelong process of American immigration really understands it. 

Whiteness is sometimes a mask or outfit that you put on to survive, and after a while you've spent so much time just surviving that it's the only thing in your wardrobe. However, I don't think that I can return to my race and roots and feel any different than someone in a racist Halloween costume. It's another lifetime I'm going to have to spend, returning to it, making amends and rediscovering it.

I don't think there are any games that make me think of it, at times Central and Southern American tribal imagery reminds me of some things, but it's vague and fuzzy.

My memories of culture down there are very difficult to parse or put to words. They're more like smells and tastes than anything.

When you were working on stuff for GX2 you'd make a lot of mention of when you'd "be a human again." And you'd been staying with partners and friends—you haven't had a fixed address for most of the time I've known you. All while you were president of a thing! It feels like the more responsibility or visibility someone takes on to do right by the community, the smaller their "plot of land" to actually have and live an identity.
I was once the proud supporter of two cats and a very large beardy man! But this feels like an ancient tale for me.

It's a little embarrassing, and something that's difficult for me to speak about for the most part, but I'm not so financially sound these days. Quite honestly, the work I do for GX is not something I pay myself for. Nobody involved is, aside from small things that we do by contract from time to time and small sponsorship commissions. 

I think I've always felt like the money that went towards GX has belonged to the people who go there. It doesn't feel "mine" at all. I'm just someone with the responsibility of helping the space be true to their wishes. It's easy enough to say that it should be paid work, but I can't do it, not unless GX became profitable. Fortunately, it seems we're finally on the way to that, which is really the work of the indies and the fans.

There's these sites now, like Spoonflower, that sell fabric with video game graphics on them. What is a game you would like made into a skirt, and is there a particular level/scene from the game you'd want to capture? 

Oh my word this is a very dangerous question to ask me, but I think that I would sum it up by saying that I'd want literally all of Tomomi Kobayashi's artwork on fabric. She did all of the art for the games in the SaGa series. Her brilliant and beautiful designs are so striking and colorful, complex yet delicate. There's a drawing of an intense battle between two mage brothers which is in no way male-coded and in fact painted in pink hues.

I feel like in most mainstream games I practically expect butch metal and lug nuts to fly out of a male "sorcerer's" hands.

The game SaGa Frontier 2 did a great job of building this beautiful feeling through its use of digital watercolor style artwork. It feels almost like cheating, but even the sprites in that game are gorgeous. Even a single room you only saw for one scene in the whole game is so complex and stunning.

What makes a space "safe" to you? Does "Toni the event organizer" have a different standard of safe than "Toni the rad friend who makes pizza"? What does it take to make a relationship (romantic or otherwise) with someone who has privilege over you "safe"? 

"Safe Spaces" is a term that I struggle with from time to time. I think it does a good thing as a tool for creating comfort, but I wonder sometimes if I'd leave it for "responsible" space.

That's what makes a safe space, in my opinion. It's the belief that people will be responsible with and be held responsible for their actions in a nonviolent and productive way. Disenfranchised and marginalized people need to hear the word "safe" because even a slur or microaggression in your day to day life can be the beginning of a violent or fatal incident. 

Pizza-Friend-Toni (not to be confused with Toni Pizza) is probably safe in any situation where people are known and accountable. Anywhere that I feel enough reasonable, like-minded people are around and that something ridiculous, such as a rape joke, wouldn't fly.

With regards to a relationship with someone with privilege, I think that's a loaded and complicated question, mainly because I don't think I adhere to the philosophy that privilege is quantifiable. Rather, I think that it's worthwhile to treat each situation very independently. Maybe we're walking down the street in a not-so-well-lit part of town, and my femme attire makes me a target for violence. However, maybe I'm at a business event and my hypothetical partner's brown or black skin makes people gloss over him or think he's working the event as a caterer or something.

Any time I know people with lots of different and common privileges, I try to be available for them to ask questions and share their feelings about it. It's a very sad thing but being a decent person is something that isn't taught in schools, and it's something I believe most people want. However, one of the cruelest realities is that the most readily available resource for information about what is offensive is a currently-offended individual voicing their concerns.

The problem with this is that it's like running over to a stabbing victim and saying "Hey, I'll let you go to the hospital in a minute, but first can you explain why you don't like this knife in your sternum?" 

So, I do think we need people around who can teach folk these things so that the don't have to rely on unfair interactions with hurt people to learn. Maybe it's not anybody's "job," but I'm gonna do it. The important thing is not to speak for anyone but to share how you feel about certain things and to leave room for people to accept they might not understand how others feel, but that their feelings are valid and real.

Have you ever made a mix tape or playlist for someone? What was on it? 

Oh heavens I have no idea when but it must have been years ago. Likely it contained too many Fiona Apple or Blonde Redhead songs. I find that my tastes in men don't usually jive with ones that like the music that I do. Or, perhaps, I just gave that up at some point. As for friends—heck, I don't even know how many friends listen to the kinda stuff I do—not many. If I did make one, it'd probably just be some excuse to link up Blonde Redhead songs together with some other tracks for filler. The band's music is a lot more like me than I think I'd ever let friends see.

You like bears. A lot. Has this "ursine appreciative" identity and aesthetic helped to anchor you in times where you, as a white passing trans woman of color, have felt "not trans/WoC enough" to be a part of the community? 

Haha, is it that apparent? I have said before, perhaps in a telling way, that being "the person who likes ___" is a much easier thing than traversing the ways people make heaps of mistaken assumptions about me. Well, it makes shopping for me easier, I think.

"Bear Lover" is perhaps a much more comfortable identity than anything else. I don't even know that I feel like "woman" is something I'm comfortable with—it feels so loaded, and like I might get attacked if I used that word, sometimes. I don't want to make anyone feel like I'm co-opting their lives and identities, I just wanna be me.

When I've tinkered with my own gender I've gotten a lot of "shit or get off the pot" vibes from both cis and trans folk who were more comfortable with their identity. There are times when I've taken the entire heap of research on my own gender identity and thrown it into the garbage while throwing verbal middle fingers out on twitter.

I know for a fact that I'm a person who likes bears. They're big and majestic, beautiful, deadly, and yet they're dorky, awkward, and silly. I don't think I'd want a partner to be deadly, but all the other stuff for sure. Maybe I watched Totoro too many times as a kid, who knows? Now as an adult, its so easy for me to fall in love with things like the game Night In The Woods and the comic Night Physics which have bears but explore more grown up concepts.

Maybe it's just easier to tell folks what I know about myself than the muddy mess I am. I've got an entire lifetime of learning about my own identity before I feel I'll even be remotely secure in defining it, but hey, I know a lot about Ursus Middendorffi.

I miss #MinusWorld—or rather I miss being on #MinusWorld. I think there are a lot of queer people who don't identify as "gamers" but still feel an affinity for the medium and the community. By making space for those people (i.e. me), you've tangibly changed the definition of "gamer" and "games."

I miss it too! I was contemplating making my own podcast—I'd be honored to have someone like you as a guest some times of course! 

I think that queer people have an affinity to art in general. Art is an expression, for the most part, and marginalized people often feel that expression is the only empowering thing they've got. Of course, games are absolutely drowned in capitalism, so the art is hard to find but you can find it in some of them, left in there by accident sometimes.

I'd have to thank Matt Conn for creating the idea for GaymerX, then GaymerCon. He's a great guy and I'm really lucky to be working with someone like that. He's a total gamer that has always felt like his very existence argued with what "gamer" meant, basically a straight white guy and then built the tools for others who feel like that to come together. I had a very different experience growing up.

In my circles in my youth gamers were often girls (and I think the SNES-Playstation 2 era was more friendly towards girls). So I grew up with female friends repeatedly kicking my butt in the first Soul Calibur or Mario Kart 64.

I remember when gaming took that first person shooter direction and seeing all the machismo dripping from games. It was strange for me since so many people I knew who played games were girls. I think this was the time when a lot of girls thought they were "growing out of" playing games. I think the entire game industry utterly failed women in an astonishing display of ineptitude around that time. So many marketing numbers were based on upper middle class and pre Y2K white men buying their boys a game console, because most men bought gadgets strictly for their sons. Nevermind the girls that played their brothers consoles and beat Link To The Past at breakneck speeds.

It became a self fulfilling prophecy, and it felt so sad when I saw all those Gamergate boys saying that girls never played games, or that Portal was the first game a girl ever played. Most of them were just too young to ever remember the times when it was a lot easier for girls to pick up games without them being macho fantasies of bang bang and then save the ditzy half naked lady.

I actually saw a 17 year-old Gamergater call Leigh Alexander a "noob". That woman lives and breathes games on a nearly terrifying level.

What would sandwiches based on the first generation starter Pokemon [Squirtle, Bulbasaur, Charmander] have in them? Or "on them"—I guess sandwiches are governed by the same linguistic conventions as pizza. Would the Charmander sandwich be toasted? 

Oh goodness, I wasn't that big a fan of the first pokemon—at least not that it stood out all that much. You'll have to forgive me, I discovered the rom for Romancing SaGa 3 around the same time and my life was practically consumed for the next decade by it.

Of course, I have a Mew and Mewtwo under my belt like most warm-blooded humans who've touched a GameBoy so I know enough. I think that I didn't care much for the starters, however. They just felt so . . . branded, so common. I think I was a little hipster back when I was a tween. (I remember getting the Pokemon Yellow Japanese Rom to be oh-so-cool.) 

Now, Missingno—can we talk about Missingno? Now, there's a queer pokemon. I've joked before that Missingno was my gender. I wonder if that could be my entire personality. I think that if I made a Missingno Sandwich I'd probably put random things in it every time. I'd serve it open-face, upside down. Heck, maybe it'd just be chopped up and turned into a salad. 

But to actually answer your question with the starter I chose: Charmander would be a meatball sub, but the meatballs and the sauce would be incredibly spicy. From there, you'd want to use a provolone piccante—a 3 year aged provolone with a bite—and then some kind of loaf that isn't very fatty. The goal there is to create a burn that lingers, because a Charmander's tail can't ever go out.

Yes, I watched the cartoon.

That time we held hands to get burritos and I was going to impress you by ordering in Spanish but choked and had to start the order over two sentences in—please tell me this is not the most pathetic thing anyone has done to endear themselves to you. Even if isn't true.

I don't think it's really my jam to judge people on stuff like that. I feel like I would like to return with "I order stuff in Spanish all the time, and what do you think I look like when I fumble my words?"

I think it's cute when people try to be cool or impress people and "fail."

Frankly I love people who are clumsy or dopey or dorky. I love people who are imperfect around me because its so much more comfortable laughing about tripping ourselves up than to hold our breaths and attempt to rigidly conform to some bizarre construction of what perfection is.

You can support Toni on patreon here. Or, buy a ticket to GX3 and tell her in person that you appreciate what she's doing.

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