“We Don’t Necessarily Need Religion”: An Interview with Cara Ellison

Game designer and critic, Cara Ellison, recently started traveling around the world talking to some of its most creative people. Our interview covered sexual ethics, the religious imagery of Sacrilege, and her own spiritual upbringing.

Written by Marshall Sandoval / Published on July 30, 2014

image via Luis Hernandez

Cara Ellison began working in games almost immediately out of school, when publishing jobs weren’t making rent. Her career spans from testing for Rockstar Games, teaching English in Japan, and her current role as an international games journalist. Our interview covered sexual ethics, the religious imagery of Sacrilege, and her own spiritual upbringing.

You’ve written about the challenges of accepting yourself as a writer and accepting “permission to be writer”, but was there a moment it clicked that you wanted to be a writer?

I guess I’ve been a writer my whole life. As soon as I could write anything down myself, I was writing poetry. I think my first memory of my mother being proud of me was when she snuck in on me when I was writing some poetry when I was very, very young. I remember her being really surprised but incredibly, visibly proud of me. I felt kind of overwhelmed by that because my family is a sort of reserved, Protestant Scottish family. We don’t tell each other that we love each other. We don’t do the hugs. So, it’s very hard to figure out, in my family, when someone is actually proud of you. I remember that made a big impression on me.

You were a tester on GTA IV and then you went to Japan for two years. Pretty soon on your return you ended up at Littleloud, right?

"I have a really gentle relationship with religion. I think as long as it doesn’t damage people I think it’s absolutely OK. I think religion is incredible at building community."
Yes. I’d moved to London and I was having a dreadful time in London. I worked at the BBC for awhile there. There wasn’t enough work in that. So I started writing about video games for money because I had to. I know that sounds ridiculous, because no one makes money from writing about video games. The truth was that I was temping in London. I was finding it hard to make rent. I was doing lots of editing jobs for book publishers. It wasn’t enough money to pay rent. I used to go to the pub with Kieron Gillen. He was like, “Why don’t you just pitch to my site?”. I did it because I think he liked how I talked about games and wanted to sort of give me a push. That got me started.

My first ever published thing on Rock, Paper, Shotgun, was actually a Twine game. It was a choose-your-own-interview with Anna Anthropy. You can still play it, and I’m still kind of proud of it. That was maybe the first time a lot of people had ever played a Twine game, as well. It was on a website that was very mainstream. I think it was a lot of people’s first exposure to that tool.

Anyway, because I made that I interviewed at Littleloud. [The New Yorker’s] Simon Parkin was the Head of Games there.

What was your role at the company? What did you do on Sweatshop HD?

They employed me as an assistant producer. I did a lot of the press. I did a lot of extra writing and extra organizing in the office. I did a lot of the testing, as well. I was pretty much an all-rounder, because I had the experience with Rockstar, I had good knowledge of the games press, and I had good knowledge of the games development cycle. I had a good all-round knowledge of everything that was going on in games. I could do a lot of things for them. I picked up some of the slack. It was really good, because Littleloud still might be the best workplace I’ve ever been in. It had a really amazing collection of people. For example, well over half of us were women who worked at Littleloud. I always felt super comfortable with everyone and how we worked together; I had a good time at Littleloud.

I think almost everything about that game is perfect. I’m so gutted that eventually it just didn’t make it to the App Store. We didn’t know what was happening with it for such a long time. Eventually, we realized they were never going to let it back on the store. We were really gutted. The morale was incredibly low, at that point. It is sad.

sweatshop 1

Let’s talk about your newest project, Embed With Games. How did you come up with the initial Patreon pitch?

I didn’t even think I was going to get $300 for this. I thought I was gonna get maybe $200 at most.

It was January and I was feeling very alone. I was sleeping in my friends Al and Carrie’s place in Edinburgh. I was visiting over New Year. I was sleeping in their spare room among all the comics. They have a wonderful comic book collection. I was looking at Patreon and feeling very melancholy and down on myself. I was slightly tipsy on Al’s post-Christmas prosecco. I looked at Patreon and was on IM with another critic friend of mine. They were like, “You should just do a Patreon. If you can’t make your rent, it’s OK. Putting up a Patreon for your extra work might be fun. You could do that. Just write an article a month or something. You’ll get a supplementary income.”

I was finding it hard pitching enough articles and stuff. Even though a load of people across the internet actively asked me to pitch them, I still wasn’t able to write enough articles at the rate I was getting for them in order to make my rent. I felt like a failure. I didn’t know what I was gonna do. Then I put up a Patreon.

I had this sudden idea when I was writing it. If it got to $1000 that would be enough for a flight somewhere. A long time ago on Twitter, I was like “You know what I’d really want to do if I had the funding? Just travel around the world and ask developers about their environment and ask them about their lives. How did they decide to make games? How their upbringing might have affected it. I want to know who they are and why they make stuff.” Everyone on Twitter had been like, “I’d love to read your writing about that. That would be a really good idea.”

I realized that no publication would pay me that much money. To do that. The days of that Rolling Stone rock journalism are over. So, sitting in this bed, by myself I was like, “You know what would be funny? If it got to $1000.” It would be enough for a flight. I could stay on someone’s couch and write. If it went under a thousand I can just break it off and not do that. Anyway, I put this one goal up. It was $1000. After I think an hour and a half, it was over that amount. I was like, “Oh my God. Shit.” I panicked. I sent an email or phoned my flatmate at the time. I said, “I’ve done a really stupid thing. I did this thing on the internet. I think I’m moving out.” Meanwhile, the money was still going up. I was freaking out. I was thinking, “What have I done?”

Within an hour and a half, in January, I basically made myself homeless and was moving out of my flat. I’ve had $2000 to write about people ever since, I guess. It’s been amazing. It’s a terrifying job and situation. It feels very precarious. It feels like I’m hanging by a thread that’s suspended from 450 people. It’s still very fulfilling. It’s still fulfilling to write something you care about, something you love, about a medium you love, and about people you think are some of the most interesting minds of your generation. It’s really exciting to do that for a living.

Your more recent Twine game, Sacrilege has been described as a sex-positive game, especially in the optional book at the end. Two of your stated inspirations were the The Handmaid’s Tale and the “Sacrilege” video by The Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Can you talk about how that influenced Sacrilege?

I didn’t actually think of it being sex-positive at all when I made it. Then Richard Lemarchand said, “This is a really good sex-positive game”. And I said, “I guess it is”. It’s all about sex and there’s no shame about sex in it whatsoever. I feel like that’s a super American view of it. I think everyone in Europe wouldn’t immediately say, oh it’s sex-positive. It doesn’t occur to us that we’re sex positive. There’s no shame that comes with desire. Or there’s less shame that comes with desire that women have.

I’m also aware of the fact that I did call it Sacrilege then I continued to be sex-positive in a game called that. Then I put these guys from the gospel in it. Then I was like, “Wow, maybe this is kind of, not ok.” Then I also feel like, all of my friends who are Christian are also sex positive. I feel like Jesus would be a sex-positive man. I feel like he would be cool with it. So, I didn’t feel like it would be offensive. I’m sorry if anyone is offended, of course. I feel like as long as you treat other people well, that is to me, very Christian. I guess Sacrilege is all about treating people well. So, that’s how I feel about that. I was aware it might unsettle some Christians and I accept that. I apologize, but I did it knowingly.

You’ve talked about how you’re this lapsed Protestant. You grew up with this spiritual awareness and now you have this major political awareness. I’m wondering where that leaves you now on the religious spectrum between those who think religion is mainly damaging, to the unbelieving folks that hold religion does more good than harm. How do you perceive the role of religion in the world?

I have a really gentle relationship with religion. I think as long as it doesn’t damage people I think it’s absolutely OK. I think religion is incredible at building community. For me, that’s the most important thing about religion, is community.

For example, my grandmother is a pillar of her little community and her church. She lives in the middle of nowhere in Fife. Specifically, she lives in Falkland. It has this giant palace that Mary Queen of Scots used to summer in and go hunting around there. The only thing that’s there is a tiny village. It still has cobblestones and all that stuff. It’s very picturesque. The only other thing that is there is this really old church that sits right next to the palace. My grandmother finds a huge sense of community and well-being from just participating in that. She gets a sense of belonging from it. I feel like if it wasn’t there, she’d be very lonely. I feel like churches serve as meeting places. I know that for a lot of places in the world they can be shelter or offer space in which to think about life when there’s trouble. I think those spaces are really important. The idea that there’s an actual space in which you can go to think. I know that in most hospitals and airports now there are multi-faith chapels where you can go. You don’t necessarily have to pray, even. It’s just a really nice space in which to think. Possibly a place to get to chat with someone else who’s there just so you can talk to them. I think that’s incredible. I guess it’s like therapy almost. I think those are the things that are important to me about religion.

I don’t think we necessarily need religion. I think the fact that it exists isn’t surprising to me. It also can help people out of a hard time. Where I think it isn’t valuable is where people over-think religion. Reading the Bible literally. There are all these people being prejudiced first and then finding an excuse within religion to indulge that prejudice. I think that people misuse religion a lot. They use it as an excuse to do something that is hurtful. That’s where it goes wrong. That’s when it becomes harmful. I don’t know. I don’t think that religion is inherently good or bad. I think you can be a perfectly moral person without religion.

So kind of a pluralist secular humanist stance?

Totally. I know a lot of my friends who have recently stopped being religious in some respects. They felt a bit lost afterwards. They were like, “Oh no. Now I don’t know if I’m a moral person. I’m not a Muslim anymore. I’m not a Christian anymore. I don’t know if I’ve got a moral compass.” I guess eventually they realized all of us have a moral compass; it’s whether we attach that to a religion or not.

About the Author:

Marshall Sandoval is an aspiring games writer in the Bay Area. He writes about games, faith, and culture at marshallsandoval.com. Follow him on Twitter @marshllsandoval

  • The Dark One

    Oh man, I totally missed that the guys in Sacrilege are right out of the Gospels.