Sarah is the founder of of Different Games, a conference on inclusivity and diversity in games and game culture. She’s also a PhD Student in Digital Media at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and her research and organizing interest is in social justice issues related to technology. Also, Sarah might be adopting a dog soon, and she’s really, really excited about that.
CB: What do you remember about the first video game you ever played?
SS: I was probably about 6 when my Mom took my older sister and me to get an NES, and I remember the experience feeling pretty epic. We had an Atari that my dad would sometimes set up on top of the TV in their bedroom for us to play with, but this was a huge cultural phenomenon at the time so we were pretty amped up about getting to play Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt. My favorite game was probably the movie tie-in, Home Alone, which involved sneaking around Kevin’s house, hiding from the movie’s two burglars and setting traps to slow them down. You basically had to survive for 20 minutes without being caught to beat it, which I only managed when a glitch in the game trapped one of the burglars mid-shimmy on a drainpipe. Honestly, my Mom was way better than me at this and all of our Nintendo games, almost as a rule.
CB: What did you like to read when you were a kid? What did you love about it?
I was really into ghost stories and mysteries as a kid. I loved Alvin Scwartz’ Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark even though they initially gave me horrible nightmares. I had a much less scary book by him (sort of a Scary Stories primer) when I was too young to read on my own called In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories. I LOVED to have that read to me so much that my mother got me an audiobook version of Scary Stories on cassette tape.
Unfortunately the narration by Broadway actor George S. Irving (whose dramatic performance swings from quavering to booming on a dime) and the foreboding synthesizer soundtrack was a bit much for me as an under-10 listener. I had to wait a few years before I could return to those stories and actually enjoy them, although of course then I had to contend with the book’s gorgeous and utterly terrifying illustrations by Stephen Gammell.
I got into books like Goosebumps, a popular series of scary books for young readers that offer a sort of gothic-horror alternative to The Baby-sitter’s Club. Then I graduated to the Fear Street series by the same author, R.L. Stine, which was teen-themed for more matured tastes. Kind of like Sweet Valley High, but for adolescents who like their high school romance with a side of Santa-suit-donning axe murderers.
I liked more subtle scary stuff, too, like John Bellairs’ books such as The House with a Clock in Its Walls, which featured gorgeous cover art and illustrations by the late, great Edward Gorey. And adult short fiction by folks like Ray Bradbury and Roald Dahl.
CB: What book that you read while growing up had the most influence on who you became as an adult? How did it shape you?
SS: When I was an older adolescent, I got into books by Toni Morrison like Sula and The Bluest Eye and Richard Wright’s Native Son which got me to think critically about identity and race in America and to see the way that current social conditions are tethered to our dark national history. Reading fiction that dealt with those themes was crucial in helping me to make sense of and contextualize the real-life horror of events like the Rodney King beating and the LA riots, which I had watched unfold on TV as a child.
However, even though I now look to literature to teach me, I still appreciate stories as a source of joy. Since my tastes always tended towards dark material like ghosts and mystery I’ve always loved gallows humor. My parents’ coffee table book of funny, creepy drawings by Charles Addams, the creator of The Addams Family, was a big influence on my taste in comics and graphic novels. Seeing the work of great illustrators helped me discover how powerfully visual storytelling can communicate ideas and this has continued to influence me as a game designer.
With that in mind, I think my absolute favorite books as an early reader were the Elizabeth Levy series Something Queer Is Going On (later renamed The Fletcher Mysteries). They were all centered on the adventures of two quirky best friends who solved mysteries while hanging out with their droopy, immobile basset hound, Fletcher. But unlike a lot of girl characters in books, who wanted to impress people or be liked by boys, these girls were awkward and scrappy and seemed like people my sister and I could hang out with.
Not only did they have strong, spunky personalities in the stories but the pictures of them creeping around to investigate sinister goings-on with Fletcher were so descriptive and endearing that they added as much to the characters as the written narrative. These books showed me the way visual media like games and illustrated books are able to tell us things that writing alone can’t. When great writers and artists come together to tell stories visually and narratively, they can be that much more compelling, whether in a video game, a comic or an awesome book.
I expect to continue this series through the October publication of my book Attack! Boss! Cheat Code! A Gamer’s Alphabet. If there’s anyone in the gamer or kidlit camp that you’d love to see me feature in upcoming posts in this series, please drop me a line or tweet at me or just leave a message in the comments.