The face of gaming is changing and Aléz Odendaal is leveling up
Words: Dylan Muhlenberg | Photographs: Nick Gordon
We reached out to Aléz Odendaal after reading her excellent piece in the November GQ, the gist being how people who aren’t straight, white and male are finally getting representation in video games. And because gaming is becoming much more inclusive we thought we’d skip the old 'white guy living in his mom’s basement' schtick, and ask the petite twenty-something honours student to school us instead.
However, when we arrive at her home, a man with a shock of bright pink hair and more energy than a pillowcase full of puppies answers the door. He can stay though, because it’s YouTuber Grant Hinds!
“Oh hi, Grant! You’re a pretty lucky guy, dating a girl who’s also into gaming.”
“That’s a very old-school mentality you have there,” says Aléz in a tone that’s more explanatory than accusatory. “Why wouldn’t you say that I’m lucky to be dating a gamer? It’s really cool for me, too!”
Let’s just say that they’re both lucky, because not many partners would tolerate two flat screens mounted to the lounge wall, six consoles on the shelves below it, a laptop on the coffee table and a huge computer sitting in the corner of the room. Right now everything is light and bright – but the curtains in a heavy black fabric can fix that easily enough.
Aléz reckons that the lounge is just the half of it, and leads us into a second room, 'the studio', which has a wall unit crammed with some of the couple’s 1000 games and other paraphernalia. There’s also a green screen, mics, lights and the other things Grant uses to record his YouTube channel with. But before we get sidetracked, we move back to the main gaming room where we ask Aléz to drop some knowledge bombs. And she abides.
Insert coin, player one ready…
My boyfriend had a console and I started playing it when he got Alice: Madness Returns, because I love 'Alice in Wonderland'. I then moved on to Skyrim and have played about 400 hours now. When I broke up with that boyfriend my parents were like, “Hey, here’s your own setup!”
I’m studying at the moment. Busy doing my honours in English Literature and finishing my deferred thesis on 19th century women’s literature. I once wrote a paper on DotA 2 jargon where I recorded Grant and some of his friends playing and then wrote down all of the words that they used. It’s weird because three people in my class did papers on games and all of them were women.
Games teach you real life skills. Skyrim taught me to save money. When you play as a thief you learn to slowly accumulate money until you have enough to buy sought-after weapons and so on. I guess it also teaches you that money isn’t everything, because after a while you don’t care much about spending. Video games can teach you a lot.There’s even a guy who saved his sister’s life with skills that he learned from World of Warcraft. Simulation games are the next big thing in gaming. They use car simulators at driving schools in the States now, especially to simulate accidents and teach proper reactions. Ice Land is a virtual reality game where people move through an area that’s quite cold and soothing and they’re using that with burn victims. I’ve been told by workers at the Red Cross Children’s Hospital that Kinect and Nintendo games are also useful for burn victims, both for distraction and for getting them up and moving around safely.
People have this negative assumption that gaming is this reclusive single player experience, and it can be, but with games like DotA 2 you have to work out how to communicate with teammates in order to win your match. You’re practising communication skills. In games like Minecraft, you’re building things together and problem-solving. Also, the Mass Effect series is like a space opera where there are different races of aliens that all have problems that you have to sort out, and there are serious consequences for failing. So you’re learning diplomatic skills.
There was a DotA 2 tournament in Seattle and the prize pool was bigger than the Tour de France’s. The person who won the Tour de France actually got less than each individual member in the team that won the DotA 2 tournament. It’s huge. And it’s all community driven. The eSports community is an exciting one to be a part of right now.
There’s this amazing documentary called Free To Play. It’s about the DotA teams leading up to The International. It’s crazy because they’re making money and training every day as you would with a real-life sport. And there’s this guy trying to speak to his really conservative dad, who wants him to go to college, and he explains to his dad how he’s making money playing video games and his dad is really traditional and can’t understand. We’re living in some pretty interesting times.
Games have got so much better. Developers have rendered entire universes where you can pick up and interact with everything in an entire world. PC games still rule the roost when it comes to excellent graphics, but consoles have their moments, too.
Gamers are trying to be better. Especially with name-calling and being more inclusive. Tauriq Moosa, Han Cilliers, Rodain Joubert, Pippa Tshabalala, Tarryn van der Byl are all big in pushing the gaming community to become one that’s more likely to ask questions.
Lots of people make a living off of gaming. It’s a multi-million rand industry in South Africa right now. That money is going through retail, eSports, developers making games and people making content about it. It’s a huge community.
Bro Force was made in Cape Town. A group of cool people made it big, moved into a mansion, hired a personal chef and finished the game in style. Broforce is a throwback to the 80s. It’s very hyper-masculine, and you play as different bros, all done 8-bit style. Kinda like Contra but with total chaos on screen. The game play is so tight! They’ve gone into partnership with an international publisher, Devolver, have done stuff with PlayStation, and even made the official The Expendables 3 (2014) game, Expendabros.
Super Friendship Arcade. All the developers in Cape Town get together and have a party, and demo all the side-project games that they’ve been working on. Super edgy stuff you probably won’t see elsewhere, like Wang Commander. They often also build their own game controllers – cool stuff like that. There’s a spin-off now called Super Sellout Arcade that looks great.
It’s a nice time to be in the scene. People are mad creative. Cadence is this phenomenal musical puzzle game made by developers, Made with Monster Love. In it you have to connect the dots in a 3D space, and as they connect you make melodies. It’s kind of like a looper. So you start a loop, like, bum, dum, bum, dum – it’s beautiful.
YouTubers are creating interesting content. Who would’ve guessed that people would want to watch other people playing games? Let’s Play – it’s crazy. It’s almost on the tail-end now but they’re huge. It’s the most watched content on YouTube. PewdiePie videos are massive. He’s a YouTuber with over 40 million subscribers. There was even a South Park episode about him. The Let’s Play phenomenon isn’t just people playing games, but also people creating stories or some sort of narrative, or information that’s valuable to the person watching.
I’m really keen to get into YouTube. It’s such a creative, amazing space right now. Grant was a YouTuber on the side, but it has now grown into his full-time thing and his TV stuff is taking a backseat. I’d love to do more writing work, but that’s not where the hot stuff’s happening. I’m probably going to use my writing skills to do some essay-like videos in future, similar to what Feminist Frequency does on Youtube.
There’s money there, too. KSI just plays Fifa on his channel. He’s bought himself a few million-rand cars and an apartment in the centre of London.
It’s like if you’re into sport. You don’t play or watch every sport; you’re into one or two. Some people can just sit down and jam a game, others dedicate their whole lives to a game and will just play Minecraft or just play Call of Duty.
Gamergate. It’s kind of difficult to know where it all began. It just evolved into such a fustercluck. But I think it started when Zoe Quinn made a game called Depression Quest. It’s an incredible game, and one of very few to be talking about mental illnesses. Then Quinn's ex-boyfriend found out that she was dating somebody at Kotaku, an online gaming journal that had featured Quinn in a previous, unrelated article, and basically shamed her online. That caused a huge debate about ethics in journalism and the concept of gender prejudice.
Calling names isn’t acceptable anymore. It’s bad enough when you’re a white dude but when you’re a black woman and the comments are things like, “I’m going to come to your house and rape you.” Wow. Games like DotA 2 now have reporting systems now where admins can put antisocial gamers in a kind of purgatory. That’s a matchmaking pool that’s terrible; low priority and you take ages to get into a match.
It’s crazy that you don’t see more black protagonists in games. It’s always this white dude with a half shaved beard and like a machine gun. Boring. Call of Duty now has a lot of multiplayer skins that are women. That’s so cool, especially because they look like soldiers, not the way women are often portrayed in games if they are there.
If you don’t have a lot of internet you’re screwed. Often you’ll pay R900 for a game and then you still have to download a 20 gig patch on the first day otherwise that game won’t work or won’t work well. It’s crazy.
RPG is a role-playing game. That’s the kind that I like best. And when you hear that you think it’s quite dirty sounding. But it’s simply a game that’s a bit longer and you choose a type of character and level them up with different character traits.
FPS is a first person shooter. Call of Duty. Battlefield. Anything first person with a gun. Shoot-em-ups like Duke Nukem, Doom, Castle Wolfenstein, etc.
Then there’s Survival Horror. Until Dawn is my latest of this kind. It’s an interesting thing, playing this genre. You can’t hide, the game doesn’t carry on unless you push through. It starts out as a typical slasher flick. I don’t want to give too much away, but there are some jump scares and cool story-telling. You need to make some really scary decisions.
Story telling is great. Shadow of Mordor came out last year, which was the first 'Lord of The Rings' game that was actually good. It featured an incredible mechanic called the nemesis system. You’d encounter these orcs where, if you engage them in battle but don’t kill them, the next time you two meet they’ll remember you and have something against you. But if you beat them then someone else might take over who is stronger than them or has different political allies or enemies, and that orc will take your kills place. It’s like an army with army ranks. And you can avenge people. So, if Grant died because of a certain orc, I can go into my game and avenge him by killing that orc. It’s crazy.
Story-telling has also done a lot for social issues. I’ve played games that have taught me a little more of what it’s like to be gay, to be ill, to be black. I’ve even played a game that’s shown me what it’s like to be a good sibling. I watch movies, listen to music, read a lot of books. Those are all great. But nothing tells a story like a video game.