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Interview with Strix: Myths, minorities, and feminine horror

Jonas (he/him)
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I had the opportunity and pleasure to interview Whitney Beltrán about her research (larp and archetypes; and games as a means for preserving myths and passing them on) and her upcoming game (Bluebeard's Bride, co-designed with Sarah Richardson and Marissa Kelly). We also talked about how to diversify our hobby: a wider range of games and people to play with.

Throughout this interview, we're using the spelling "analogue" instead of "analog" (as in "not-digital").

Whitney, would you please introduce yourself to those of us who don’t know you? Who are you, what do you do?

RPG Designer: Whitney "Strix" Beltrán
Hi! I’m Whitney "Strix" Beltrán. In gaming circles I go by Strix. I’m an academic and a PhD student who studies mythology, psychology, and play. I’m currently doing research on larp for Carnegie Mellon’s game lab at their Human Computer Interaction Institute. I also work and consult in the creative industry. I do script doctoring in Hollywood, and work with a variety of publishers in analogue role-playing game design across the United States. I’m very active in the gaming community as a minority advocate, and my advocacy crosses over into mainstream non-profit work as well. I like to surf and listen to J-pop. I’m obsessed with Bollywood movies. I am a mind slave to a Siamese cat.

How did you get into games? Are there more gamers in your family?

I got into games because of my mother. She cultivated my imagination very strongly when I was a child. She was a Lord of the Rings fanatic long before it was cool. When I was born she even wanted to name me Arwen! But my father didn’t agree with her because he thought I’d be picked on in school. She used to read me folktales and myths from all over the world when I was a kid. Some of my particular favorites were those like The Seven Chinese Brothers or Hiawatha. She’s also the person that brought our first Nintendo into the house, and was the one that played it the most. Games and stories have always been a part of my life. It makes sense that I would be so driven to put them together. If RPGs had been around when my mother was younger, I have no doubt she would have been all over it.

I started playing video games before I could even walk. When home computers rolled around and I finally had access to the internet at around age 13, that’s when I began playing text based RPGs online. I played my first in-person tabletop RPG when I was 15, my first larp when I was 19. It’s all part of the same fabric though.

What excites you about games, and what type of games do you prefer?

We all go through phases. At one point online freeform RPGs were my favorite, hand down. Then I was singularly devoted to World of Warcraft for six years. Then I had a strong stint with Dungeons & Dragons, switched over to running Legend of the Five Rings larps, came back to playing a variety of traditional tabletop games, discovered the indie scene, and now I’m somewhere in a muddled middle. In regards specifically to analogue games, I currently enjoy splitting my time between indie tabletop, larps, and the emergent American freeform genre.

StriX wrote:
A lot of what drives me
is the desire to help
minority groups keep their
cultural wealth alive.

I love beating the tar out of people in video games like SoulCalibur or League of Legends, but I want something else from my RPGs. When it comes to role-playing games I am always about the story. Telling a good story through play puts me on cloud nine. I’m definitely attracted to creating poignant moments. I think this is why my characters die so often! Games make a safe space for us to experience things we otherwise wouldn’t in real life. I see RPGs as an access point to exploring the breadth and depth of humanity. Not only that, but we get to create in concert with other people, weaving the threads of our adventures together. I find that terribly exciting! It’s beautiful to create a story through play with another person. And it’s very addictive too.

We’re probably carrying owls to Athens here, but why did you adopt the nickname “Strix”?

What can I say? I’m a geek. In my early teens I kept to myself, and any time I was faced with a compulsory social situation I stuffed my nose in a book to avoid getting bullied. For a while the only time I really talked to people was online. This was back in the days of Instant Messenger. Online I was a different person, and I was always the last one up chatting. I was quite an insomniac, actually. My friends online correctly perceived that I was a total night owl, and that’s where the nickname comes from. Strix is Latin for owl (because of course geeky teenagers think Latin is cool). It is also synonymous with “witch” and there is a rather dark Greek myth that goes along with the name. I could tell it at length, if you like, but suffice it to say it involves a blood thirsty Thracian princess out for revenge against the gods because Aphrodite made her sleep with a bear. She and her half bear sons start eating house guests and Hermes turns her into an owl as punishment. Pretty badass, actually. Anyway, the name has stuck ever since then.

Badass indeed. Thanks for the night owl explanation, though I’ll admit I assumed that the connection to myth came first, given your interest in mythology. Is there a mythological tradition that holds a special place in your heart, or that you focus on in your studies?

The living traditions of Central and South America are the mythological systems that are the nearest and dearest to me. I served in the Peace Corps in Ecuador, and my experiences there are what led me to pursue mythology at a professional level. I’ve always had an interest, but I had come in with an environmental policy degree and plans to become a lawyer or work for the EPA. That all changed after spending time with the storytellers and shamans among the remote areas where I worked. While I was there I took up cultural preservation work, and was very privileged to have access to myths and stories I have never seen recorded anywhere else.

The situation with indigenous cultures around the world is very dire. Far too many are under threat of extinction as local languages and traditions are lost. And not an eventual extinction, we’re talking a time gap as little as 40 years. A global monoculture isn’t good for anybody, and a lot of what drives me is the desire to help minority groups keep their cultural wealth alive. So when I came back from Ecuador the question burned in me. What do I do? How do I do this? It was then that I decided to throw myself into the academy full tilt.

StriX wrote:
One way to keep the mythic knowledge and stories
of cultures under threat of erosion and extinction
living, breathing, and reiterating is through
narrative play via analogue and/or digital mediums.

Your research questions include psychological processes in larp. Why are you using models from Jungian depth psychology to describe how the engagement with archetypes has effects on our personality?

I often joke that I’m the most Jungian non-Jungian you’ll ever meet. I’m not a Jungian, and Jung definitely has some problems, but I find his model so apt for application to larp that I simply cannot resist exploring the implications. The study of larp is also so nascent that we don’t really have any established models to talk about it with at an academic level. There are a lot of people doing groundwork, but we don’t yet have a cannon. If we want to understand what larp is, what it does, we have to start somewhere. We have to have a language with which to speak, even if it isn’t a perfect language. That’s why in addition to Jung, I often borrow from ritual studies and theories of play.

What aspect of Jung’s theory do you find suitable for modeling your larp theories?

Specifically, Jungian notions of active imagination and archetypal patterns within human psychology.

Is your PhD also on these research topics, or does it have a different focus?

My PhD topic is...complicated. And not entirely sussed out out. I’ve recently passed my comprehensive exams, but I’m still some time away from a proposal proper. PhDs take a long time. My thesis has already taken several quantum leaps, and I’m sure it will take a few more. What I am essentially working on is this: I am looking for ways to preserve the mythic knowledge and stories of cultures under threat of erosion and extinction. Not just preserve, but keep them living, breathing, and reiterating.

I posit that one way to do this is through narrative play via analogue and/or digital mediums. The issue at hand is that the old transmission method is failing. Oral traditions no longer work where, for example, grandparents speak a different language than their grandchildren. That’s something I saw a lot of in Ecuador. Or children go away from their communities to go to school, and would rather play video games and chat online at internet cafes than sit at home. I don’t want to over generalize, but we are seeing big gaps between generations in a lot of areas. So what to do?

This is where my work in psychology and gaming comes in, and this is also where I think my fellow RPG nerds will really get it. When you play a narrative game, a game that tells a story, it’s like watching a movie, but deeper. Why? Because when you play you actively engage with the story. You invest in it, reach out to it, and in some ways it reaches back out to you. This is something we call active imagination. I was raised Catholic, but I couldn’t tell you the 12 stations of the cross off the top of my head. However, I can tell you everything there is to know about Lolth, the spider goddess of the Drow in Dungeons & Dragons. Or Farore, Din and Nayru, the deities of the The Legend of Zelda franchise. That is because I spent a lot of time actively engaging them with my imagination, through games. Not only that, but also engaging with other people to create the story.

Video Game: Never Alone

I'm reminded of a video game released last year, Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna), which was created in collaboration with Iñupiat storytellers, Alaska natives. Is that what you have in mind?

Actually, I was just about to bring that up! Never Alone is a very good example of the type of work I’m talking about. I think one of the most important things about this type of project is that it has to have a strong co-design element. If you’re working with a minority population, the work has to be done with them, and in service to their needs, not for them and for the benefit of status quo consumers.

You are also doing research for Carnegie Mellon. What’s that about?

My work with Carnegie Mellon is very cutting edge. They just opened a game lab out of their Human-Computer Interaction department, and I’ve had the pleasure of working with one of the lab’s co-leaders, Dr. Jessica Hammer. We’re conducting research on technology and larp, with some very interesting finding so far.

Sounds cool. What are those findings?

I can’t tell you yet! The finding will be published some time late this year. However, there’s been some interesting hints at complex relationships between social stratification and the types of games people seek out to play.

We'll be patient and wait, then. Does the academic perspective sometimes distract from or add to your enjoyment of games?

You know, it’s all one piece for me. I’m an academic because I enjoy thinking, theorizing, and researching. It’s a constant thing that’s integrated with my daily life. If anything, my academic life adds to my enjoyment of games, because I’m always trying to puzzling out what’s going on with them as I play them.

From gallery of jasri

From gallery of jasri

You are currently co-designing Bluebeard’s Bride with Sarah Doom and Marissa Kelly. What was the initial spark for this game?

It’s kind of a funny story. I’m good friends with Mark Diaz Truman of the IGDN (Indie Game Developer Network). He and a few others hosted a hacking as women event at Gen Con this last year and he made me promise to come. It was at the end of a long day and I had been cosplaying in a complicated corseted outfit, so I was tapped out and kind of grumpy! I schlepped into the hacking event feeling super not into it. However, by the time the event was over I was jazzed about what had gone down.

I was randomly paired with Sarah to come up with something and we found we both had an interested in fairy tales. I was like hey, let’s write a game about Bluebeard! It just felt right to both of us and we jumped in from there. Marissa was originally just supposed to mentor our development work during the hacking event, but she got wrapped up in it too. It was very compelling. By the end all three of us agreed that we would keep working on it, and here we are now! We’ve done several playtests and are in talks with Magpie Games for its release.

What is the game about?

If anyone is not familiar with the fairy tale of Bluebeard I would encourage them to go read the different interpretations of it around the web. It’s one of the more twisted fairy tales out there. Basically, Bluebeard is a rich nobleman who has had a bunch of wives who have mysteriously faded into the background. He plucks up a young virgin from her village and makes her his new bride. He brings her to his mansion and gives her the keys to every room, but he points out the smallest key on the ring and says, “That room you must never enter. Never!” And then he conveniently leaves on an extended business trip.

StriX wrote:
The genre of feminine horror is
virtually untapped in the gaming
world. We’d like to fix that.

This is, of course, a psychological trap. She explores the mansion and finally is compelled into that last room, where she finds the bodies of all the previous brides. He shows back up right then, and there is a confrontation. There are several variants to the fairy tale, so how it ends depends on who you’re listening to. My preferred variant is the one in which Bluebeard cuts off her head. This is of course very grim, but to me it is appealing because it underlines the violence present in feminine horror.

In our game you play pieces of the bride’s psyche, archetypal figures like the witch, the animus, the mother, and they have to navigate the mansion and find out what the deal is with Bluebeard. Does he love the bride? Is she safe there? Of course the mansion itself is also a metaphor for the bride’s own mind.

From gallery of jasri

How does the design process between the three of you work? Can you give us an example of a design choice you had to make, and how you reached a decision?

We do work in two ways. One way is that we have weekly video meetings to discuss progress, outline goals, and make major decisions. Then we divvy things up into individual homework, or make email threads to discuss an issue at length, and we bring all that back to the next weekly meeting. Our meetings are very structured. We have a written agenda and three roles that we trade off on; facilitator, time keeper, and note taker. It works very well.

We make decisions by consensus. We were having issues in play-test with a particular Sister (one of the archetypes) and two of us felt it needed to be cut. The one who came up with the archetype listened to what we had to say, and then together all three of us decided to take it out of play, at least for now. Consensus is sometimes hard to reach, you have to be willing to give and take a lot, but when we make sure everyone agrees before moving on it provides a really solid foundation to work from.

Since we’ve touched upon the relevance of stories for ourselves and our communities, let’s take a look at the mythic or archetypal level of your game. What would you say can we experience with Bluebeard’s Bride?

That’s an interesting question. For us, the game is about feminine horror, designed from a feminine perspective. That means dealing with issues of agency, power, the need to be loved, being trapped in an impossible situation. If we think about it on a mythic level, consider the story of Theseus and the Minotaur. It’s a very masculine story about masculine power, and how Theseus goes into the labyrinth and slays the Minotaur. But a woman’s story is different. In a woman’s story the labyrinth is your home and the Minotaur is your husband. You may not have the power or the physical strength to kill him. What then? How do you live? What does it mean?

I see Bluebeard’s Bride as a way to take the desperate narrative of feminine horror and shrink it down to a manageable bite size. Putting it in a game makes it safe, or at least safer. You can play the game and feel super creeped out in a good way (I have), or maybe you can use it to find context in your previous lived experiences. What I do know is that the genre of feminine horror is virtually untapped in the gaming world. We’d like to fix that, because there’s a lot of interesting stuff in that box.

From gallery of jasri

You’re listed as a stretch goal writer for Dead Scare, a game by Elsa S. Henry that was recently successful on kickstarter. The game is using the popular Powered by the Apocalypse. But what is Dead Scare about?

Dead Scare is cool! It’s essentially a pun on “red scare.” It focuses on 1950s housewives during the United State’s deep enmity with the Soviets. A biological weapon is dumped on suburbia and people start turning into Zombies. It’s up to them to save the day.

And what are these “postcard” stretch goals? Are they effectively scenarios for Dead Scare?

They’re setting snapshots. My own postcard will focus on the Greenwood district of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Once known as Black Wall Street, it was razed in a terrible race riot in 1921. And by race riot, I mean white people went into Greenwood and burnt it to the ground. It was once one of the most prosperous minority communities in America, and it never recovered. The stories of women from Greenwood would be drastically different than the typical white housewife with a picket fence and a chrome toaster, which is why I wanted to have them told.

You are part of the Gaming as Other initiative, working towards a more inclusive culture in our hobby. How are your own experiences in the RPG community shaped by your race and gender?

That’s tough to answer succinctly. Over the years I’ve gotten it from both angles, for being brown and for being a woman. At times it’s been very unpleasant. But on the other hand I love this community and I want to make it an awesome place to be, no matter who you are.

I know that my lived experiences have greatly shaped my viewpoint, and that my viewpoint is different from the typical status quo gamer. In the early days I just kept my head down and pretended to be like everybody else, but I was missing something. I was yearning for stories that I recognized as my own. Now I am much more proactive about bringing inclusive culture into gaming, and about engaging in telling minority stories myself.

You are also part of the Different Play initiative. What’s that about, and what is your part in it?
From gallery of jasri

Different Play is the brainchild of James Stuart. He approached me last year about forming an organization dedicated to fostering the development of diversity in analogue gaming. His idea was to take relatively new designers from diverse backgrounds, give them mentoring and access to people who could, say, lay out their game and such, and then actually pay these designers for their product. So of course I said yes!

We started out with four designers and a Patreon page, and it’s gone really well from there. We needed a minimum of $400 support per project in order to make it all work, and as of right now we’re sitting at more than double that. Some of these games will be coming out really soon, and I’m very much looking forward to it.

StriX wrote:
It’s beautiful to create a story through play with another person. And it’s very addictive too.

What can I (or anybody) do to make gaming more inclusive?

I could teach a whole class on that! Gaming as Other has a lot of resources devoted to this, so taking the time to check them out on my website wouldn’t hurt. But for now, here are a few concrete tips:

E Direct invitation. This is the biggest one. Reach out specifically to people and invite them to your game, your play space, your community, to write for you, or whatever else. A lot of us are so used to being ignored that without a direct invitation we won’t believe you actually want us there.

E Showcase diversity prominently. Women and other minorities are often very adept at reading for cues as to whether a certain space will be safe and welcoming. If the primary points of contact are all white dudes, this is a subtle sign that they may not be welcome there, or will have major problems feeling comfortable.

E Do not tolerate bad actors. In your community do you have That Guy? The one that tells misogynistic jokes that nobody actually laughs at, or says things like, “Don’t worry, you're not one of those Mexicans.” Well guess what, That Guy disproportionately affects people who are already marginalized and may have a hard time speaking up for themselves. Including That Guy is not the type of inclusivity we’re talking about here.

E Play different kinds of games. Everyone enjoys a good murder hobo expedition, but that’s really only one kind of story, and maybe not one that everyone can identify with very well. Try specifically focusing some games on the types of stories that wouldn’t normally be told. Some examples would be Night Witches, a game about badass Soviet airwomen during WWII, or How We Came to Live Here, a game modeled off of First Nation and Native American mythology. A lot can be accomplished by simply changing the setting as well.

E Media representation. This is especially for game designers and artists. Put minority folks in you games! Show us that we’re welcome and that we belong by acknowledging that we exist. When we see ourselves in the games that we are playing it goes a long way towards making gaming more inclusive.

Thanks for taking the time for my many questions and sharing your views - I enjoyed our conversation very much! Is there anything you'd like to add?

It’s been a pleasure, Jonas. Coming up I’ll be a stretch goal writer for Epyllion, Marissa Kelly’s fantastic game about playing baby dragons. I’m also working on some game related academic essays and papers that hopefully will be seeing publication some time this year. This includes stuff related to the research I’ve been doing at Carnegie Mellon, so I’m excited! If anybody wants to keep up with what I’m doing they should follow me on Twitter (@the_strix) or add me on Google+. Thank you again!
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