When we started preparing this series, I knew that there were going to be more relevant stories out in the world than those that we could focus on. Knowing your limits is a big part of being an editor and a journalist, and it's one that I've come to terms with. But that didn't mean that it didn't sting when Alejandro Quan-Madrid reached out to me on Twitter to let me know of an angle we weren't able to hit:
And hey, we might be journalists who need to prioritize and focus on the stories we've committed to, but we're bloggers too, and that means being responsive and reactive. And I had a little free time today… So:
Letters form Incarcerated Gamers is a pay-what-you-want zine that collects "a selection of letters written by inmates at correctional facilities to Electronic Gaming Monthly magazine in 2007." After a brief forward, the letters are presented without comment, offering a window into a part of games culture that many would never consider looking at.
Some letters are mundane, and others bear the familiar excitement of fandom—requesting info on Zero Suit Samus' plasma whip, wondering (seriously) if EGM knew about a potential Beyond Good and Evil sequel.
One letter even offers some pretty prescient industry analysis. Jeremy writes:
When you consider it cost less than a million dollars to create a game during the Sega Saturn generation, and now it costs $10-20 million, I can't help but wonder when it becomes too cost prohibitive to graphically keep up with new hardware? When do developers decide that it's simply too expensive to take full advantage of the new consoles' graphics capability? Art asset creation is responsible for most of the increase in development cost. Where is the cost ceiling here?
In a short talk about the zine, Quan-Madrid introduces the audience to the letters as a sort of absurdist comedy, but then shifts towards their value as ephemera that offers insight into a part of society that we so rarely pay attention to. "They're kinda funny," he says, "but when you consider the context with which they were written, they actually become really sad all of the sudden. Because, it's like, 'Oh, shit. This is some guy who can't play games at all, and he's just trying to remember his past, trying not to be where he's at."
Two of the letters work in parallel: One is carefully typed on prison letterhead and requests credit for issues of the magazine never received. Another, hand written with a pasted-on mailing label, asks that a subscription be extended because issues failed to be sent to the prisoner.
"There are power dynamics between the people who are part of the institution and the people incarcerated by it. But they have the same interest. They both still like video games, they both still want to read this magazine, and they both have this problem of their magazine going to the wrong place."
It is a reminder, as Quan-Madrid himself argues, that people play, and that prisoners are people. But the zine works to complicate this simple argument: It is not enough to remind ourselves that those who are incarcerated are people, too. By showing us the physical form of these letters—the handwriting, the envelopes, the mailing labels—Letters from Incarcerated Gamers both underscores the humanity of those who write them and highlights the conditions under which they were written.
You can purchase Letters from Incarcerated Gamers here, and for more on the zine, check out this feature story on it by writer David Wolinsky.