It’s Time To Retire the “Make Your Own” Argument

stopit

It’s a wonderful time to be a nerd on the internet, more or less. There are inclusive spaces almost everywhere, and many of these inclusive communities are doing a great job holding gatekeepers and tastemakers responsible for the chronic lack of diversity in mainstream media properties. Nerds have become the best kind of pop/geek culture critics by fighting for representation and not putting up with people’s crap. It brings a tear to my eye, it does.

Still, the internet is full of opinions, and whenever someone says something critical of a particular property or company, tempers can flare. I spend a lot of time in nerdy spaces, and one of the most common rebuttals to criticism of big-budget, mainstream media properties and companies is:

See, that’s why we need to make our own/tell our own stories/do it ourselves!

or…

If you don’t like how the big corporations do it, stop complaining and make your own!

First, a disclaimer: I wouldn’t dare try to minimize the impact of indie creators who have set out to make their own inclusive, diverse, and representative properties. That’s a huge struggle and a lot of people are finding success striking out in their own directions. Still, I can’t help but feel that on some level, when people throw this out into debate threads, they are using it as an “Aha! Gotcha! Moral High Ground Victor” card, as if a slew of independent properties is somehow going to make people punt their 28 year relationship with Marvel Comics or Bioware games into the gutter. (Not to say that doesn’t happen, though…)

“We Should Make Our Own” is a great rallying cry. Yell it to the skies, or from the top of a mountain, because it’s true. That kind of individual achievement in the face of corporate terrorism (yes, it is terrorism) really speaks to that spark of American individualism and work ethic buried deep down in the squishy places between my organs. Still it is, at best, a lazy rebuttal to criticism of established properties and their regressive practices.

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For one, there are PLENTY of people divorcing themselves from the mainstream and making their own stories, comics, animation, film or video game properties. To some extent, there always has been, and the internet age has made publicizing your own property (relatively) easier than ever. There are Kickstarters and Indiegogo campaigns for anything imaginable. People are using these tools to the fullest extent possible. In fact, (spoiler alert: bias incoming) one of the most amazing anthologies of speculative fiction released in the past few years was funded by a Kickstarter campaign. Your faves are using kickstarter to buck the system. It can’t get any better than that, and people are doing it every day, every hour. More people than ever are seeking out these properties, supporting them, and pushing them into the mainstream.

Furthermore, to think that people’s commitment to mainstream properties will somehow hinder them in their support of independent properties is flawed. This post doesn’t even begin to explore the massive amount of communities that are fully committed to sharing interesting independent properties with groups who may not have known about them otherwise. The foundations are there: People are making their own stuff, and crowds of other people are supporting them. 

Besides, what people really mean when they toss out the MAKE YOUR OWN argument is: “You don’t have a right to criticize what the mainstream is doing when you’re supporting it financially,” which is completely ridiculous. It is a guaranteed right of consumers to criticize things that they financially support. Imagine walking into a restaurant and being served a crummy meal, and when you complain to the manager, the manager replies with, “Well, you could have eaten at home tonight.”

We all know that mainstream media leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to diversity. Still, even if every single person who desires to see diversity and thoughtfulness in comics, literature, film, or video games decided to support independent ventures, the mainstream has an obligation as self-appointed peddlers of culture to fairly and thoughtfully represent said culture. We don’t want diversity in these properties because we’re selfish. We want diversity in these properties because it’s the right thing for them to do. We, as consumers of this media, want the folks who tell these stories to tell our stories fairly whether our eyes are on them or not. The only way that we can get these lunkheads to pay any attention to us and our desires is to keep the criticism coming in strong and fast. It’s rather Pavlovian, when you stop to think about it.

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The idea for this rant came to me while I was listening to the Nerdgasm Noire Network discuss #INeedDiverseGames with @CypherOfTyr. On the cast, there were about 5 minutes dedicated to a rant directed at #/Gamergaters who use this exact same derailment tactic with women and other marginalized groups who have really only just asked to be fairly represented in video games. Apparently, diverse representation and thoughtful storytelling will destroy video games or something, which is disappointing.

Anyway, the rant began with this very important point: Not everyone can make their own. Resources are hard to come by, even when you use a crowdfunding campaign. And this doesn’t even begin to take into account how difficult resources are to get for some groups of creators. Of course, the mainstream would face a lot less flack if they would just hire more candidates who weren’t (here I go being racist) straight white guys, but hey. That’s about as difficult as animating women properly.

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Additionally, some people DON’T WANT to make their own stuff. I’m a writer. I write short stories, and I hope to finish a novel one day. I’ve written a story for a webcomic. I’d like to write more comics in the future, if I could. But I also like video games. I’ve been playing them for twenty plus years, and I’ve never, ever, not even once, felt the desire to make my own video game. The struggle to acquire enough resources to make the perfect game notwitstanding, my passion isn’t in that area. I only want to consume them. And, since I’m a consumer of video games who would like to be able to see myself in them, I push to see more diverse casts and thoughtful storytelling in the medium. On a personal level, I make that happen both criticizing the current state of the industry AND supporting developers who make games that I want to play. Do you see how this works?

A last bit: I was talking with a friend, and my wife, and they helped me to dig deeper into this and consider another reason why it’s both important that we give people space to make their own stuff AND why we keep the pressure on the mainstream. We’ve gotta do it for the children, who can’t find things on their own, or whose parents, for whatever reason, aren’t able to expose them to independent properties. There are kids all over the world who would love to be able to see themselves in superheroes or fairy tales, but don’t have access to the awesome things that exist outside of the mainstream. They only see Iron Man on their TV, so they close their eyes and imagine that Iron Man is brown, or a woman, or they disidentify in other ways. If we keep up the pressure and support the properties who exist to challenge this status quo, these children might seek out these properties when they grow up–then make their own stories.

Here’s a thought: Instead of tossing out “JUST MAKE YOUR OWN, NOOB!” when someone laments, support them and support someone else at the same time. It’s not hard to say, “here’s something that’s exactly like you’ve been consuming, in case there’s a time where you get tired of blasting away the pasty alabaster veneer of All White Man Everything.” And then let them go on about their business. Stop derailing and be effective.
/rant

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74 thoughts on “It’s Time To Retire the “Make Your Own” Argument

  1. I get your basic thesis, but art by committee is hardly ever art. I don’t really see any solution in browbeating corporate media-makers into whatever version of political correctness you happen to subscribe to. If we want diversity, we need to break the stranglehold these behemoths have on many industries, and to be perfectly frank, I don’t see that happening any time soon. It might, possibly, help to wean ourselves from Disney and Marvel and support indie creators, but there are all sorts of things indie creators can’t do that only the big operations can. As long as people want those things, real diversity of perspective is going to be hard to come by in the mainstream.

    • Thanks for commenting!

      You make some good points. It is markedly difficult to, as you say, browbeat corporate media-makers into political correctness. However, what I want, and what I imagine others want, goes so much deeper than just political correctness. We want honesty in portrayal and storytelling. We want to hear and see and interact with diverse stories, and have these stories told by diverse groups of creators.

      You’re right in that it won’t be easy, and it might not even be a goal that we can achieve in my lifetime. But it will happen. What was it that Black Widow said in avengers? Regimes fall? The white male corporate stranglehold on media is a regime that many, many people are tired of. There are risks being taken in the mainstream on TV, in film, in comics, and in literature. There’s still a long way to go, but there has been progress. And supporting indie properties only adds to this, because the mainstream will follow any trend that makes money–that’s been proven time and again.

      • Indeed, I’m all in favor of supporting Indie producers. I think it’s a much more fruitful path, in every regard, than lobbying media giants to make what we, or you, want. At the very least, let them buy one or two of us out before they put our work through the corporate mill and reduce it to pablum. Encouraging them to make their own pablum from scratch with a pinch of diversity and a nod toward social insight just cuts the authentic voices out of the loop completely.

  2. This is a very good piece. I believe the phrase “write what you know” refers to the way we process information. If we write what we know it is easier to show rather than tell, and we all know how important that is in writing. It is because we can feel, see, hear, smell and taste everything that is being put on the page, the reader will be able to experience those same feelings and better relate to the story. In my opinion, “write what you know” difers the good writing from great writing.

    • Thanks for stopping my and double thanks for commenting!

      I agree with your opinions, and I’d like to add that it is, in fact, possible to write convincingly about something that’s thoroughly researched as opposed to intimately known. Thoughtfulness is key here, and thoughtfulness shows up in spades in great stories. The creators of Avatar: The Last Airbender aren’t Asian in the least but look at how amazing that story turned out.

      • That is true, but what we like about the story is how simillar those characters are to us. Their emotions, actions and world views. Universal principals we can all relate to. In some point, the writers for those and many more fiction types write about what they know. Good vs evil, self doubt, resilience, triumph, failure, etc… those are aspects of live we can all regardless of race, gender, age, or social status relate to. I really liked your post though, it certainly thought provoking, and I have also felt the way your group felt when I first heard that in my English class haha…

  3. “Besides, what people really mean when they toss out the MAKE YOUR OWN argument is: “You don’t have a right to criticize what the mainstream is doing when you’re supporting it financially,” which is completely ridiculous. It is a guaranteed right of consumers to criticize things that they financially support. Imagine walking into a restaurant and being served a crummy meal, and when you complain to the manager, the manager replies with, “Well, you could have eaten at home tonight.”

    +1 I was just informed by a commenter who herself is Asian-American, about an Asian comic super heroine: Silk. I had no clue.

    Note: The world of super heroes and heroines is foreign to me. I haven’t been a comic book reader but found out via local bookstore how popular they’ve become!

    Making your own story requires learning skills ….

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Jean!

      Making your own story *does* require learning skills, and I hope that more people take up the challenge. But I’m not going to try to force anyone into doing that.

      I’m going to look into Silk, because I haven’t heard of that character either!

  4. Nice. I agree with you completely! I am also a video game consumer of 30 yrs now. I don’t want to make my own. I am a writer and photographer. Thanks for you words!

    • Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

      Yes, I too have absolutely no desire to try and make a video game. Like you, I have other interests that take up the majority of my time. I barely have the time to *play* video games, much less make them.

  5. Imagine the effort needed to make even a subpar video game on your own. It’s mind boggling. Even 100+ gamers remaking morrowind from the ground up with Skyrim’s engine are seeing the amount of work that has to happen.

    • Thanks for stopping my and commenting!

      Re: your statement – Exactly this! I wouldn’t dream of trying to make my own video game. I’d much rather leave that to the experts.

      Also, I would LOVE to play Skywind. Unfortunately, I’m a mac. I have the sads.

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  7. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed. I agree with your point and have only one thing to add, to the restaurant analogy: if the manager takes your criticism to heart, it doesn’t matter what all the patrons who overhear you have to say. If the criticism is ignored by the establishment, be ready to put your words to action.

    It’s just my impression of course, but I think the reason why videogames of the past ten years have been so homogeneous and predictable is because the companies cranking them out assume their consumers are addicted and will buy anything and everything if certain banal criteria are met, and that is the problem. Are you willing to stop playing? Will you help your children find other arts and hobbies if the mainstream isn’t going to work, and will you teach them how to express their frustrations properly so if change can’t come in our generation, perhaps it might come in theirs?

    What if everybody really can “make our own?” There’d never be large collaborative efforts to make a so-called AAA videogame or Hollywood blockbuster film, and while I think there would still be room for things to become famous in a world like that, I think it’s not the kind of world the people on either side of the argument want.

    • CHunter,

      Thanks for your insightful comments. Mainstream games are stagnating but indie games are taking up the slack, I think. You bring up a really valid point in regard to putting action before talk, and it’s a strategy that I wish more would employ. I gave up mainstream comics earlier this year, and I’m giving up the films from those properties as well. It’s difficult as all hell, but imagine if more of us said, “no more.” and moved on to more diverse, more thoughtful pastures?

      Of course, there are levels to “making ones own”, but I’m not the one to judge them. I would like to see independent works get as much buzz, attention, and resources as AAA or blockbuster stuff. Plenty of people are making their own way, and that’s such an important thing. I, for one, would welcome a world where indie-house films get as much press as the latest Brad Pitt war movie. But this just speaks to the larger inequality present in all levels of the creation process here.

  8. Thanks for writing about how “make it yourself!” is just “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” rebranded. Critiquing and analyzing the ways where a game or film reinforces oppressive power structures is democracy at work. I enjoyed this so much!

  9. “There are kids all over the world who would love to be able to see themselves in superheroes or fairy tales, but don’t have access to the awesome things that exist outside of the mainstream. ”

    And those images are powerful. My mixed race daughter was SUPER excited when she started kindergarten and discovered that the principal had “hair like me.” That same year President Obama was elected and she was just over the moon to see that the President had “brown skin like me.” And a couple years later Tiana was her favorite princess. So I completely agree with this.

  10. Stack (can I call you Stack?),

    Thanks for reading and double thanks for commenting. Am I following you back on twitter? If not, shoot me a message or something and I’ll return the favor.

    BEWARE: WALL OF TEXT INCOMING

    First of all, to be clear, my point is not that people should not endeavor to make their own games or comics or anything else. Toni Morrison said to tell your stories, and I totally agree with her. My point is that the “Why Don’t You Just Make Your Own” argument should not be an end-all tactic to keep people from criticizing mainstream properties. I apologize if I was unclear in communicating this.

    Now, I fundamentally disagree with the assertion that mainstream media properties don’t owe us anything. At they very least, they owe us good stories, because that’s what they said they’d give us. And we all have the right to criticize things we pay for, at least in the United States of America. This is not a dubious claim. There exists an entire industry where humans are paid to give their criticisms of media and then these criticisms are publicized for mass consumption. These criticisms are taken seriously, to the point that the craft of criticism of art is art unto itself. Yelp is a thing that exists, and people–again–post their criticisms, which are–again–treated as word of law in some cases by the public. Why should our criticism of big budget properties be less valued, especially when our criticisms are just as valid? I mean, Gamergate’s entire (stated) premise is based on criticism of the critics. If that claim dubious for my argument, its just as dubious in Gamergate’s execution.

    And, as to my second point, well…I don’t even know what to say here. Of course, they’re obligated. American media should be representative of America, point blank. There is documented evidence of negative social outcomes when media representation isn’t diverse. It even makes good business sense, which is why we get pandering from these companies. Unfortunately, the pandering is wearing thin, and people are starting to clamor for actual change not only in on-screen representation, but in that of the groups that are allowed to create. I see nothing wrong with this.

    As far as my own criticisms, I’m not asking that the video games industry produce properties that tackle hardline issues salient to different marginalized communities. Honestly, I wouldn’t trust makers of mainstream entertainment properties to do this effectively, and ultimately, that’s not what I go to video games (or any other type of escape) for. All I want to do is indulge in my escapism and not be offended, or not have to shut off part of my brain to avoid being insulted. This is why I can’t buy into the “Slippery Slope of Political Correctness” argument–i mean, it paints fairness and equal representation as a consequence of being fair and equal, when things are far from that state now. As gamers, we have to ask ourselves why the mainstream games community is so afraid to make protagonists nonwhite, or to make character creators have options for people who aren’t the classic demographic (hint: it’s not “all gamers”.).

    Stuffing a bunch of brown faces into a game setting as scenery (because that’s what NPC’s are) is not the same as making the central narrative of a video game about the experiences and journey of a nonwhite, non-male character. This is not the same as filling a game with secondary characters who aren’t based on stereotype. Ultimately, I want games and other forms of media to get rid of harmful stereotypes and lazy character tropes as storytelling tools. It’s impossible to please all consumers, but what we have here is not an entitled group of people whining because something isn’t done their way. People are saying “THIS IS NOT FAIR.”, and there are documented results of how this lack of fairness manifests IRL.

    I think it’s cool that you’re a dev and I think it’s cool that you want to make your own RPG. Honestly, I’d probably support your game before I’d support anything from a AAA company if your game looked more interesting. And it’s because I feel like you’d at least attempt to thoughtfully tell a story in your game. That’s something that a lot of creators of mainstream properties aren’t doing.

    If I’m reading you correctly, I see a lament that there aren’t more black people with your mindset. I would implore that you not get it twisted: there are quite a few of your kin out here making dope stuff and putting in the work to get it publicized. And all of our efforts are important to changing the landscape.

    Again, thanks for stopping by and bothering to comment. You could have just written my post off instead of thoughtfully engaging with me on this.

  11. I truly agree with you. I notice this ” make your own ” argument everywhere…. Its a tool to slash opinions and praticed by this genre of socially active nerds. If that’s the way nobody can voice his opinions unless he has” made his own “. So rightly pointed out..nice work !

  12. I agree. My feeling is everyone should be able to see (non-stereotyped) reflections of themselves in mainstream media.

    Although, I also believe we should support independent fare that resonates with us. It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition.

    As far as the mainstream media “not owing anyone anything” argument made in an earlier comment, I disagree.

    As for-profit concerns who depend on paying customers, mainstream media and entertainment companies have a responsibility to create products their customer base wants – including more diverse content that goes beyond mere tokenism.

    Troy, thank you for writing such a relevant and thought provoking piece.

  13. Great post!

    I get a lot of power developing comedy for my community and allies, but we still need to put pressure on to change corporations and society.

  14. The corporations are all about profit, as the demographics change they slowly evolve into what makes money in the new reality. They don’t give a rip about social issues…. unless it is profitable. Sad, but a cold, cold fact. Since I am probably the only old white guy in the room, I thank you for your even-handed treatment of the subject. Seriously, I mean that. Thanks.

  15. That ‘/rant’ had me cracking up. Again, excellent argument. I’ve heard the ‘you-should-make-your-own’ point before (never at me), it’s such a weak and absurd comeback. As you said, I like playing computer games (sometimes, heh) but I don’t want to be a gamer… JUST to promote the diversity that should be there already… that’s crazy. e_e

    Long Hidden looks amazing! I’m definitely adding it to my… enormous reading list =/

  16. Before I say anything else, I want to make clear that in general I agree with you. I just want to say, though, that your analogy re: consumer complaints is flawed. What a lot of people do – and what, in my experience, the cry of “make your own then” is often aimed at – is less like going to a restaurant once, getting a bad meal, and complaining. It’s more like going to that same restaurant over and over, getting a bad meal every time or nearly every time, and then complaining about it, not to the owner or the cook, but to other patrons and people on the street nearby. At that point, you can complain as much as you like, but even if you direct it at the proper people, you’re still sending a much louder message with your wallet than you are with your mouth. At some point you have to stop giving your money to companies who consistently turn out poor products, or else, IMO, you have no right to complain about it. It’s one thing if you do it once or twice, but after patronizing the same business for 28 years (to use the number you used in your post) I think it’s time to poop or get off the pot, if you see what I mean by that. Complaining, at that point, is disingenuous.

  17. true as you said that to make on our own we lack resources and lots hardship is involved.so what individual can do in my option is that when we are not satisfied and not happy with commodities as consumer,we keep on hoping through different brand which sell same commodity so that we can compare and finalise as to which one satisfies is.

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  19. Thank you for writing this. A lot of what i’ve been thinking and feeling are encapsulated here. The “make your own” argument is tossed at us so often like rubbish, all the while ignoring the power and influence of the oligarchs. Would love to have you on my Slovenly Gamer podcast to talk about this a little more.

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  21. I’m sorry, but this argument is flawed in a multitude of ways. For starters, you’re trying to say those who did decide to make video games or whatever form of media you’d like to reference to should be forced to make what you want. That is not moral. Just because you want more of something doesn’t mean someone else must be forced to do it for you.

    The reason the argument is made that you should make your own merely points to the fact that this is a free country, and you have the right to do it if you please. If you don’t want to or don’t have the means to, it doesn’t mean you have the right to force your will on anyone else.

    Also, the idea that media (I’m assuming your making a reference to America) needs to be more diverse is absurd in the first place. It represents the majority and minorities. So what you’re saying is that we should make sure there are just as many of each race for everything when that isn’t the way it is in society? So the majority should feel outcast to help the minority feel better? Where is the logic in that? Either way, thanks to the free market, there are games and plenty of other forms of media that do show other races. It isn’t as much as the majority, but that’s to be expected. It works in everything.

    Do you have the right to force beanie baby to make pink statues of liberty just because there’s a group of 5 people who really want that? Of course not. The company has the right to make whatever they want.

    And your reference to other countries was probably the most ironic of all. They have their own movies. And guess what? Their movies represent the majority in their country. Should they worry about people in other countries who just so happen to watch their movies? Of course not!

  22. Also, I think you’re missing the whole point of “make your own”. You’re coming somewhere and telling someone that they must make their form of media a different way. You’re going beyond saying that you didn’t like it. You’re saying they shouldn’t have the right to make it the way they did.

    It’s because of this that people say for you to make your own. They want you to see just how hard it is and how costly etc. and to show you that you that you have no right to tell them what they can and can not do.

  23. Keep in mind that this goes both ways. What if I told you that because I want more diversity in this blog, you have to write more about Asians? That’s not right of me. You work hard to write for this blog, and just because I don’t want to do it, I shouldn’t have the right to force you to do what I want. That’s like the ultimate form of laziness. That’s like saying just because I’m not willing to do what it takes to start a blog, I should tell you what to do when you are willing to do what it takes.

  24. My next and final note is that you’re mad at the wrong people. AAA games cost millions and millions of dollars to make. They’re going for the biggest market so they have the highest chance of getting their money back. You should be mad that more diverse people don’t play video games. The developers can’t help that mostly white males play. How is that their fault? It’s only normal for them to aim for the biggest audience and for you to want them to aim for the lowest audiences is quite immoral. There are plenty of small groups who like things others don’t. I get into RC making. There aren’t many blogs about it, and I hate that, but I understand. It’s because their aren’t many people who do it. At least not as many as other entertainment mediums.

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