Friday, November 18, 2016

Five or So Questions with Avery Alder on Monsterhearts 2

Hi All! I recently contacted Avery Alder about doing an interview for Monsterhearts 2, the second edition of Monsterhearts that is currently on Kickstarter, and she accepted! The original flavor of Monsterhearts is one of my favorite games and was one of my first steps into the story gaming culture and gaming style, and I've written about my experiences while playing it a little bit in the past. I hope you enjoy reading this interview with Avery!


Tell me a little about Monsterhearts 2. What excites you about it?

Monsterhearts 2 is a game about the messy lives of teenage monsters, exploring what it means to have a body and desires that are changing without your permission. It's written with a queer lens for understanding desire, though that doesn't necessarily mean that every character you play is going to be queer. I think the project is really exciting for me personally because it's an opportunity to focus on refining something I was already proud of. I published the first edition of Monsterhearts in 2012, and since then people have often told me how lucid and inspiring the text and design are. And looking back at it, I agree that it's solid. But I also see all these ways that it could be tighter, that I could better contextualize the mechanics, that rough edges could be smoothed down. And so it's exciting to have a chance to do that work.

I've played Monsterhearts quite a few times and the issue of attraction and asexuality has come up a lot. I saw in your new sneak-peek of the game you address this. Could you talk a little more about how you're addressing it and the motivations behind it, for the readers who haven't delved into the material yet?

Definitely! Monsterhearts explores what it means to have shifting, confusing desires. There are rules about turning people on and gaining power over them. The way those rules are designed intentionally challenges some of the dominant narratives that our culture has about how sexuality works - that it is fixed, that it is predictable, and that it is binary. I think challenging those narratives works out really well in play, too. It means that every session is surprising and feral.

But there was this other dynamic that the first edition introduced, of unwittingly reinforcing another set of dominant narratives about sexuality - that everyone is sexual, and that everyone is equally available for sex. And I think that in designing the game the way that I did, I did a disservice to asexuals and to survivors of sexual trauma. I aligned myself with dominant narratives that erased and hurt them. Since 2012, I've had people bring that to my attention and I've sat with their criticism. I knew that the core of the game should stay the way it was, but that I needed to create space for these other stories as well. I'm still figuring out how to introduce these new mechanics into the game gracefully!

A subject near and dear to my heart is boundaries and safe experiences in games. You've written about it in Safe Hearts, and I'm interested to know more - what are your goals with your new chapter on the subject? How do you personally, as a creator, approach tough subjects while still allowing for the inherent mistakes in social interactions that are so common for teens?

Part of my approach in writing Safe Hearts (an essay from 2014 that's being adapted into a chapter in the new book) was to establish priorities. It's easy to over-simplify questions like "How do we take care of each other's emotions while doing something emotionally vulnerable together?" It's also easy to over-think them until you feel anxious and immobilized! And so my approach was to suggest a list of priorities: focus on this first, then focus on this if you have the capacity, and then finally this. The three concentric circles of priorities that the essay outlines are: first to ourselves, then to others at the table, then to the characters we're portraying.

The text I wrote in that essay isn't being revised very much as it makes its way into the new book. I feel like what I wrote on the subject in 2014 remains solid. Most of the revisions are just adjusting the way it flows to make it fit better as a chapter in a larger text.

Strings are a really interesting in-game currency. Can you tell me a little about what new you're introducing for them and how you hope it will impact gameplay?

Strings are at the core of Monsterhearts. They tell a story about how power is unevenly and intimately distributed between characters. They represent the way that leverage is gained and used. The biggest change to Strings in the new edition is that they've been streamlined. This was really important, because in the first edition people would work to acquire Strings, but then they'd just sit there idle on the character sheet. The mechanics for actually spending Strings were a little too cumbersome for new players to grapple with, so they would get ignored. And other bits of the game (like the Manipulate an NPC move) directed players away from figuring out how to use the Strings economy. In the new version, the mechanics for spending Strings are more simple and more visible.

What do you hope to personally take away from your experience working on Monsterhearts 2, beyond satisfaction in a job well done?

I published the first edition of Monsterhearts while I was still figuring out where my place in queerness was. A year later I started coming to terms with being trans. And throughout that time, I started to gain recognition from wider audiences. Returning to write Monsterhearts 2 is exciting because I'm in a different place now personally. I'm a queer trans woman, I know my own politics better, and I'm excited to bring new voice and perspective to bear on this text.

Another thing I'm excited to take away from my experience working on Monsterhearts 2 is a better understanding of how to synthesize community feedback and incorporate it into a revision process. I'm holding four years of feedback in my brain. I put out a survey to learn more about people's experiences and it garnered 766 responses. But at the same time, I'm the person most intimately acquainted with the game's goals and pitfalls. How do you make sense of all that data, honour all that feedback, while still remaining confident in your own instincts and vision? I'm learning new skills.

For a game about queerness, Monsterhearts & Monsterhearts 2 could seem hard to approach for someone out of the queer community, and I've seen your work raise a lot of awareness for people like that. What do you think straight, cis people can gain by playing a game like Monsterhearts - or what would you hope they do? 

I think that everyone has confusing, complicated memories about what it was like to be a teenager. And a huge part of Monsterhearts 2 is telling those sorts of stories, exploring those sorts of feelings. While queerness adds an important dimension, I think that everyone is able to bring their own life experiences to the table. And I hope that straight, cis people feel invited to engage with these themes and be challenged by them.

or like, I hope everyone plays Monsterhearts 2 and I hope it makes them gay.


Thanks so much to Avery for the great interview! I really enjoyed talking with her and I hope you all enjoyed reading it. Check out Monsterhearts 2 on Kickstarter now, if it sounds like your kind of game!

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