What do you do as an early adopter, tech-loving child of the ’80s when gamer bros start spewing hate? We caught up with tech and culture journalist Leigh Alexander via phone (she’s moved across the pond to be with her partner) to discuss her life after Gamergate. As a woman in gaming and tech journalism, Leigh faced her share of vitriolic attacks and threats back in 2014. But her love for games, technology, and Internet culture has absolutely endured. Who to credit for that tenacity and journalistic integrity? Read on to learn who Leigh calls #MyMajorKey.
Flavorwire: People probably know you mostly from your gamer journalism — you relaunched and ran Offworld for Boing Boing with Laura Hudson, dealt with all manner of terrible threats and awful people with Gamergate, and then stepped away from gaming journalism. Can you expand on your trajectory a bit? What are you working on now?
Leigh Alexander: Absolutely. I’ve always been attracted to technology in cultural spaces. I was an early adopter Internet user; I have a memoir that I wrote called Breathing Machine — it’s an ebook which talks about the history of the ’90s Internet and some of my cultural experiences there. I’m not sure why I started writing about games in particular to begin with, but I have about 10 years of experience doing what I would call game criticism and studying game design.
A lot of my games writing was done with the objective of trying to reduce cultural barriers around games, and challenge conventional, mainstream assumptions around games — which, as you know, turns out to be kind of a really controversial thing to do.
I ran Offworld for a year with Laura, and wrote about games that I think are worth people knowing about. Games that fulfill that goal of defying conventional assumptions. Small games, short games, social issue games, individually made games… So I did that for about a year, and you know honestly, by then I was done with games. So for the past two months now, I’ve been writing technology and culture columns in The Guardian, pivoting to do more general tech and culture stuff.
I’ve always been interested in identity in design spaces, and identity in digital spaces, and that’s something that doesn’t have to be confined to games.
I also wrote a really cheesy sci-fi novella that should be coming out within the next couple of months. It is set in the universe of this really dorky board game that I play… The company that publishes the game asked for writers to sort of expand the universe.
So it’s straight-up fanficiton? You got to publish your own!?
Literally, yeah! I added myself to the canon. [Laughs]
And I also do a lot of public speaking. I’ve started to do more futurism. I’m working on a piece now about whether bots or AI can be religious. So, some cool speculative fiction. Futurism, culture, and technology stuff is what I’m interested in now.
So, do you have a particular mentor or teacher that helped define you as a writer, or as you were exploring gaming? You know, mentorship in a male-dominated field can be very complicated for women. Especially in a very homogenous, tech-focused field. I’ve thought about this question for a long time, and I think I became obsessed with games because I did my own thing. And I never did what people told me. Not that I’m going to answer your question about mentorship with “It was me! Who was my greatest mentor? Myself.” [Laughs]
But in terms of the person who has had the biggest influence on me professionally, I’d say my dad. My father was (he’s retired now) a technology journalist. My father started the “home technology” column in the Boston Globe, back at a time when the idea of technology in the home at all was still pretty novel. He covered hi-fis and Betamax and things like that.
And that was my first exposure to computers, and to games. This stuff was coming into our house, because he was covering it, and people sent him an Atari to review that he let me play with… My mother didn’t let me have any toys that could talk, because she thought they’d stunt my imagination. But I was allowed basically uncontrolled and unfettered access to computers.
My mother was kind of like, “Oh, sometimes I worry if she should be [on the computer so much].” And my father’s position was that I should acquire literacy with computers in the ’80s, to make me employable as an adult. And it worked!
Wow, that’s forward-thinking.
Yes! My father was incredibly forward-thinking. He did this technology reporting for the Globe in the early ’80s… He’s never personally spoken to me about this, but he’s alluded to it: My dad is black, and I think that if I, as a woman, and other people of color that I know in technology, are facing challenges having their voices respected now, I can only think what my father must have been up against, becoming the editor of the technology section, for the Boston Globe, in Massachusetts.
It’s not like he’s ever said to me, “Yeah, I faced a lot of racism at work.” But he’ll say that people complimented him on how well he spoke, like they do with Obama…
I sometimes sort of wonder if that’s not where I also inherited some of my interest in doing activism in tech.
Do you consider yourself an activist, then?
I like to be careful calling myself an activist in the modern landscape, but I think some of the work that I have done has been designed for activists to try and diversify the voices that we have in tech. And I wonder, if on some level, I wasn’t unconsciously inheriting that from my dad, as well as his interest in new technology.
I think technology in the home was a new concept for him, the way that technology and human society, human culture, is for me now.
And he also made a journalistic transition, similar to your recent shift. In the ’90s, he was one of the few journalists who was reporting on computer viruses and hackers. When viruses and hackers were brand new, he wrote a few different how-to books on how to protect yourself from “cyber crime.”
He’d always try to specialize in the next thing that he was interested in — and I think my career is very similar in that regard.
What was some of his advice when you were first starting?
He always gave me tips on how to be a good reporter, on how to do networking well… Any professional direction I moved in, my father provided a lot of leadership and support — both in terms of life skills and as a journalist.
Do you still find yourself going to him for advice?
Yeah! It’s actually kind of funny. Because theoretically, at this point in my life, I know more about modern hardware and software than my father. But the minute I spill something on my keyboard, I’m calling him crying, “What do I do?! How do I fix this? Dad, my Internet is broken!”
Even though some part of me knows the illogic of continuing to depend on him for these things, usually my first impulse when I have a computer problem is to call my dad.
I don’t want to reduce your father’s massive influence to just a tagline, but is there a specific lesson or piece of advice that you found really valuable that continues to resonate?
You know, ever since I was little — and he still does this — if he walks into a room and someone is working on something on a computer, he yells, “BACK IT UP!” Like, don’t forget to back up your work… “You gotta back up that file. Are you backing it up?” He’s in his 60s now, and he still maintains an intrinsic sense of the fragility of data security. [Laughs] So yeah, his voice is usually in my head.
Back it up. Right on.
[Laughs] Yeah. Back it up!
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for length. In our Major Key editorial series, we talk with today’s most forward-thinking creators about their mentors, teachers, and inspirational figures who coached them towards greatness. #MyMajorKey is brought to you by Microsoft Surface.