What’s (Not) In a Name


A few weeks ago I published an article and was accused of plagiarism (actually, “desperate and sad biting”) by a certain games critic. This surprised me for several reasons. One was that I had never seen the article the accuser claimed had been stolen. The second was that both articles appeared to be riffs on a well-established joke format that has been used by multiple writers over many years. Third, the article was not actually on the same topic as the one that was alleged to have been copied. Finally, compared to what I feel are my more important contributions, the piece in question was very goofy, very silly. There was not much value in it, though it did parody standard game reviews.

Among writers, plagiarism is a very serious accusation. The editors of the publication that had run the piece did the requisite due diligence and determined that no plagiarism had taken place.

I don’t begrudge anyone in creative work who has felt ripped off. It happens to all of us. I also know that emotions can run high as a result of systemic inequalities, and that any one flash of anger is the result of a potentially great number of incidents that have built up over time. So I’m not saying this is something that happened in a vacuum away from the larger forces at work which inform individual behavior.

But I want to talk about how, after the initial accusation, the person used my piece as a jumping-off point to talk about how the industry’s lauded critics were “usually white, usually male, usually cis, usually straight.”

* * *

Sometimes people tell me, “You don’t look how I expected you to!” when meeting me for the first time, after having only seen my name written down. It’s possible, too, that I’m treated in different ways when people only know my face and not my name. So I knew this might happen eventually, that someone would make an assumption about my identity based on my name. I didn’t expect it to happen, however, from within the community of progressive game writer-critic-podcasters, where I thought most of the people who participated were generally aware of one another. Nor did I expect it to come from someone who takes care to mention in their Twitter bio that they write about race.

In regards to myself I don’t often bring up race; that’s a personal choice of mine. For example, I don’t expand the S. in Matthew S. Burns, even though if I did, it would probably lead people to make different (not necessarily better) assumptions about me. One of the reasons I don’t is because I always thought of the S as a pointer, a signifier of something that can’t be there in its true form. It’s not in English; it doesn’t actually start with S. And I won’t even start with the “Burns” except to say that it, too, is more complex than it might seem at first.

All that said, I don’t deliberately hide who I am, either. That’s why it was so saddening to witness a writer who writes about race assuming I was white in order to criticize the larger system. I recently published a piece that includes some notes on my racial experience within the game industry (it’s on my site, you can find it). A search query and a cursory look at my page to find out a little bit about me takes about twenty seconds. Instead, the way the accuser framed their complaint erased an important part of my identity.

This is especially unfortunate because, while the person did not appear to know about me, I knew about them, and I had liked what I’d seen from them. But right now I feel let down. I don’t want to continue to participate in a community that does not recognize there was a problem with what happened, nor one that tells me, through inaction, that my getting caught in a broadside against an enemy is acceptable collateral damage.

I understand the frustration of struggling to have one’s voice heard in an industry and in a world that is not equitable. But if we make it our business to wage war against an unfair system, it makes sense to look around first and make sure what we think we see is really there. Those are the foundations of being a good writer and a critic, after all: to be able to make keen observations, to accept and describe complexity, to see more than others do.