All posts by Zoya

Zoya is a freelance writer and historian. Their particular interest is in video games: design, history, and how virtual worlds are inseparable from real-world social and economic networks. Zoya has written a book about the Dreamcast, is Editor of Memory Insufficient games history e-zine, and Deputy Editor at Gamesbrief.

GaymerX: an event is born

GaymerX Logo

GaymerX Logo

“Queer culture, especially gay male culture, discourages geekiness. It puts emphasis on physicality and mainstream pop culture. You almost have to be closeted twice.”

This is the experience of Seattle queer geek community organiser Charles Logan, as expressed in a panel at GaymerX this weekend. The event, part conference and part convention, was a tantalising taste of what the queer scene and games culture could be like; a small hint that maybe one day I won’t feel alienated or isolated.

It was an extraordinary event; while it had precedents in Seattle’s Queer Geek community and the existing Gaymer scene in San Francisco, many attendees had never before had a venue for being openly queer and geeky. I hadn’t seen anything like this before. To look down a conference schedule and see it packed with topics such as ‘Gender in Interactive Fiction’ and ‘How Queerness is changing games media’ was uniquely thrilling and fundamentally affirming.

More than a couple of panelists acknowledged in different contexts that safe spaces are only ever ‘safer spaces’; the creation of a safe space takes ongoing effort, and mistakes will be made. There were certainly eye-roll moments for me: the EA panel calling male femininity an “extreme stereotype” of homosexuality (cringe), or the partner of a trans guy saying, in front of their spouse, on stage and on camera, that they are “not into cis guys” (not cool) [edit: many thanks to the panelist for apologising in the comments (12th August)], or the moment in a panel called ‘Knowing your roots’ where Uncharted’s Nathan Drake was described as someone “everyone can relate to” (perhaps a white, cis, male vision of ‘everyone’).

We’re all still learning how to get this right, but I personally feel optimistic that events like GaymerX will give us more opportunities to learn together.

Watch me hit the gay button

One issue raised in relation to mainstream games was that even though some studios within large publishers like EA are getting the greenlight to include same-sex romance options, there are tight restrictions on how this can be implemented: an engineer working on The Sims 4 recounted an occasion when a test build sometimes showed gay couples cuddling on park benches in the background; they were instructed to change it, because, “the rule is that you don’t get a homosexual encounter unless the player initiates it.” In an interview with the San Francisco Examiner, Anna Anthropy described this as the ‘gay button’.

Jessica Merizan, community manager for BioWare, said that she wanted to see gender options become non-binary in more games. “People don’t trust that community managers actually do anything, but I do advise on what our fans want. I really want to help reshape the misconceptions. Gender and sex are not the same thing, and neither are binary. Unfortunately, because of tech limitations, you always pick male or female. I hope that some day we will get through that milestone–that you don’t have to pick male or female–because that’s not how the world is.”

When queer romances have to be kept out of sight and out of mind, and with each BioWare game having a limited ‘word budget’, it’s hard to imagine EA allowing gender diversity any time soon, but it’s encouraging to know that the intention is there in its studios. The higher-ups may be worried that their bottom line relies on traditional boundaries of sex and gender, those on the EA panel at GaymerX left no doubt about what the bottom line is to them: “If you don’t want to buy our games because they have gay characters, then fuck you.”

Meanwhile, queer indie games are doing great work pushing far beyond the publishers’ comfort zones. Some of the best loved boundary-pushing work was well-represented, with panels on interactive fiction by Porpentine and Christine Love as well as Anthropy herself.

BioWare’s David Gaider put his weight behind the indie scene, arguing, “the publishers aren’t just capitalists; they’re copycats. As soon as one indie game breaks out they will jump on that bandwagon so fast. The best thing you can do is support the indie games that do what you want to see more of.”

The publishers may be keeping queer relationships hidden from view, but it’s clear that one way to ‘hit the gay button’ in the industry as a whole is to put your dollars behind queer indies.

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Game jam for female protagonists hits Vancouver

Cartoon girl with short pink hair dressed as a ninja

Here at the Borderhouse, the portrayal of women in games has been a major topic of discussion. A couple of months ago, Borderhouse contributor Samantha Allen argued that more games need to be made with female protagonists. On July 12th-14th, one group in Vancouver is organising a big game jam to do just that. The press release is pasted below:

VANCOUVER, B.C. – June 26, 2013 - iamagamer, a new organization that arranges game jams around social causes, seeks to challenge gender stereotypes in gaming with their inaugural event kicking off July 12 in Vancouver, Canada. This collaborative development marathon will bring together game developers, designers, artists, and students to create video games with female protagonists, from scratch, over a 48-hour period.

To be held at Vancouver’s Centre for Digital Media, this unprecedented event will dispute the prevailing opinion that video games are for guys and that games with strong, female lead characters will not sell (as observed in a recent Gamasutra article), sending a message that such stereotypes are not only incorrect, but have a negative impact on the industry.

Since its initial announcement, the event has grown in popularity with several satellite sites around the world and many remote participants signing on, bringing total “jammers” to more than 150 worldwide. The organizers seek to create a fun, collaborative, and energy-filled opportunity for individuals in the video game industry and beyond to come together around a common cause and create something that they believe in.


More information about the motivations underlying the jam

Women in Games History collection

Women in Games

Cover of Memory Insufficient issue one with copperplate print of pirate Anne Bonny

Last month I asked for submissions for a collection of essays on women’s history in games. That collection is now ready! Check it out. It includes a follow-up essay by Samantha Allen after her great Border House post about female characters in games, as well as essays on women in arcades in the early 1980s and adventure game developer Roberta Williams.

I plan to make this a regular thing, at least for a little while. So to that end, please do check out the call for submissions at the end of this latest issue. The next issue will be about Asian Histories in Games, and my goal is to get at least seven essays by May 15th.

To automatically receive future issues of Memory Insufficient and calls for submissions, you can go sign up here:

Call for submissions on women’s history in games

Black and white poster for women's history month, shows an aviator signaling a jet plane

This year’s Women’s History Month theme is ”Women inspiring innovation through imagination.” It aims to shed light on women’s contributions to science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Women have often been shut out of histories of science and technology, and this carries through into the way that histories of video games are told.

I’m hoping to put together a nice pdf collection of articles at the end of the month that celebrate the history of women as innovators in the video games industry. This can include biographical pieces about the achievements of individual women, memoirs from women looking back over their own personal histories in the industry, social histories of women in games, and many more.

If you’ve got something that you think would fit the bill, please email it to me by 20th March:

Why do you think you know that Taric is gay?

A skin that can be worn by League of Legends character Taric; it is very pink, features large gems and furry legwarmers, and is accessorised with a very poofy hairdo

This week, there has been discussion about whether League of Legends character Taric should come out of the closet as a gay man (by Todd Harper, Patricia Hernandez, and Kristin Bezio). It is argued that having a character be openly gay, rather than ‘wink and a nod, maybe’ gay, would represent a positive shift in the game’s diversity. From what I gather about League of Legends, I suppose it probably would; but the assumptions underlying this discussion are not at all welcoming of diverse forms of gender and sexual expression.

It’s claimed that by ‘remaining tight-lipped about his life outside of the league’, Taric as a character is furthering the idea that being gay is a hush-hush thing that should be kept out of public view and just whispered and giggled about behind closed doors. Todd Harper lists a few ways that Taric’s sexuality could be included in the game; maybe he has a boyfriend character, for example. This would, Kristin Bezio argues, positively reinforce sexual diversity, rather than simply using it as an in-joke.

I don’t disagree with the value of both fictional characters and real-life human beings coming out of the closet. I’ve benefited immensely from other people speaking and writing publicly about their identities and experiences. If there was someone like me on British TV, I would have a much easier time explaining my identity to my mother. But by assuming that Taric is gay, people are contributing to heteronormative assumptions from which I have only been able to escape in recent years, thanks to other people coming out and being public about their diverse gender identities.

Only because of other people coming out and speaking about their identities do I know that gender-variant people are not always defined by labels relating to sexual orientation. I’m not against coming out, but I am against the assumption that everybody will or should manage their social lives and personal identities in the same way. And even though I don’t play LoL, this call for an apparently feminine male character to come out as gay is deeply troubling to me as a genderqueer person.

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UN competition to celebrate cross-cultural understanding in videogames

Image of a saffron-robed monk holding an umbrella and an iPhone, with Tim Cook of Apple quote: “Apps that you create can fundamentally change the world”

The power of video games to help us construct ideas about international relations and foreign cultures is being recognized by the UN in a competition for game designers, which reaches its application deadline tomorrow.

Video games have a bad record for negative depictions of non-hegemonic cultures. I feel like every other action or RPG game instructs me to plunder the ruins of a former colony and use the treasure to kill menacing foreigners. But some games can have a real impact on our ideas about how the relationships between cultures formed historically. The Civilization series has taught me a lot about the kind of forces that can motivate and sustain colonialism, while little-known simulation game Peacemaker was built by political scientists to educate players about the challenges preventing a resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

The United Nations Alliance of Civilizations is hosting an international app and game design competition on the theme of cross-cultural understanding. If you’re making a game that fits the bill, you have one day left to apply.

According to a press release, the competition “encourages developers to approach the dialogue from many angles or issues, such as gender equality, religious pluralism, and media bias toward other nations or people.” 

“The project, Create UNAOC (United Nations Alliance of Civilizations), is an international competition judged by a diverse group of academics, developers and writers. The developers can be amateurs or experts and do not have to have already developed the app; they just need to submit a video, slideshow, or prototype of their work by November 30th. Five finalists, as picked by the jury, will be awarded $5,000 to finish the creation of their game or app to present at the Annual UNAOC forum in Vienna. Here are the rules of entry and details about the awards.”

I’m bored of hearing about your wife

Almost every time I go to a tech- or gaming-related conference, I hear middle-aged white men in suits talk about their wives and children. This would be lovely and rather sweet, were it not for the fact that they all seem to be married to the same woman, and they all seem to be raising the same children.

A photograph of a blonde woman smiling and holding two blonde children. FlickrCC image by Micah Taylor

“The wife”, as she is often called, is frequently described as “not very good with computers” or “not a gamer.” Often, I hear humbling stories about how The Wife provides an amazing insight into the human condition. Or how she teaches The Exec about what it’s like for the ordinary user, who isn’t familiar with the high-end technological wizardly in which he is apparently so accomplished.

“My son”, says the exec, “is already using an iPad, and he’s only a year old.” There are older children in the family too. “My daughter would be so embarrassed to be seen using a Blackberry!” remarks The Exec, concluding “young people are all using iPhones.”

It’s taken me a while to figure out why this bothers me so much. So what if the people running technology companies make public reference to their wealthy, heteronormative lifestyle in an attempt to give examples of use cases from ‘ordinary people’? They’re bound to draw on their own experience in their work. Far be it from me to tell them to leave their personal life out of it.

I’ve realised that it bothers me because they never once talk about focus groups, and only ever reference market research on a macro-level. These two things combined – coarse, macro-level demographic data and constant reference to the upper-middle-class nuclear family, are leading to design and product decisions that are bad for women, bad for the elderly, and not even that good for business.

I don’t care about this guy’s wife. What she spends her time on is her own business. I do care that he gives his technologically inept wife as the key example when talking about the vague demographic of ‘women aged 35-50′. I don’t care how talented his children are. I do care that he calls tablets “a technology that doesn’t require any training – your children will teach you how to use it” – someone actually said that at the Global Mobile Internet Conference this week. What if I don’t have any children? What if my children don’t have their own iPad?

The Exec decides where to allocate the product development budget. He decides what products get made. He decides the direction the tech industry is moving. And the future he sees is one in which women are removed from the means of production, and anyone who cannot afford to buy an iPad for their children is irrelevant. All because he can’t be bothered to carry out a focus group or buy some qualitative survey data.

This narrow-mindedness appears particularly stupid when you consider the millions of elderly people who are completely neglected by the tech industry. Many of them have a sizable disposable income and lots of leisure time on their hands – perfect for selling computer games to, as long as you get the platform and design right. I always wondered why they were being ignored by the market. Could it be because they don’t fit into the image of the nuclear family with which execs feel compelled to ally themselves?

Why Lim is an incredible accomplishment

A screenshot from Lim – shows a labyrinth with walls made of black squares, the protagonist as a purple square, and other characters as brown squares, against a pale magenta background.

I played Merritt Kopas’s Lim a couple of weeks ago. I was very impressed, but thought it was too obviously brilliant to be worth writing about. But now it’s been featured on Rock, Paper Shotgun and commenters are calling it ‘pretentious’, and saying it’s a bad game, and nothing more than an art exercise, and feels like a drawn-out level of Dys4ia, so I feel I have to write something. Spoilers follow, as well as triggers for bullying and gender dysphoria.

Play and strategy

Lim is a game about fitting in. It’s a metaphor constructed out of game mechanics – the playable character is a square that is able to take on the colour of the majority of surrounding squares – or it can just stay the same colour as it already is. It’s up to the player to choose. The level design takes the form of a labyrinth. When the protagonist is spotted not fitting in, it is attacked by the surrounding squares. There’s no depleting health, no chance of dying, but the attack is loud, uncomfortable (physically so, as the flashing and juttering of the screen causes motion sickness for many players) and makes it harder to move around the game space.

The answer seems simple at first – just always blend in with your surroundings – but as the game progresses it turns out that this isn’t enough. Some spaces are mixed, and in those spaces you’re bound to be attacked. Some squares notice you looking different before you have the chance to change – by then it’s too late, and they attack you anyway.

When things go wrong

I don’t know whether this happens for all players – it felt like a bug, but many commenters have mentioned it happening to them too – but at some point, the square may end up pushed out to the outside of the walls of the labyrinth. This makes it easier to get to the end, as nobody can get to you to attack you, but in the words of one commenter, “it doesn’t feel much like freedom.” It feels lonely and meaningless. Eventually you find another square just like you – in Merritt’s own words, ‘multivocal’ – and you stand on either side of an impermeable wall, both flashing in many colours, both free from having to choose one colour or another, but both isolated.

When this happened, I imagined that if this ‘bug’ hadn’t occurred, I would be able to actually be with the other multivocal square. I thought other players would experience the game without this unfair event, and I had just been unlucky. I was on the outside looking in, imagining that we could have been friends and supported each other if I wasn’t so isolated.

Being an insider

One of the charges of pretentiousness stems from the idea that you wouldn’t ‘get it’ unless you looked up information about its author. Merritt tweets publicly about the physical and social effects of coming out as trans and undergoing hormone replacement therapy. I feel uncomfortable describing someone else’s personal experience, but my understanding is that at the moment, she is sometimes read as male, sometimes as female, and can adjust her gender presentation for certain circumstances.

I knew this when I was playing the game, but I felt that the metaphor was much more broad than that – it’s not an autobiography, but a metaphor that represents a social phenomenon surrounding fitting in. I thought this was something we all struggled with.

I went through it a lot at school, because I didn’t hide the things about me that made me different – all the people I respected were telling me to be myself. It was only a couple of years later that I realised there were lots of other people who would have also stood out for the same reasons as me, but they did a better job of concealing them or re-presenting them in order to fit in. Even though people’s disapproval can’t hurt me the way it used to, adulthood has been about trying to find ways of skilfully and strategically re-presenting or concealing my idiosyncracies – and like all strategies, it doesn’t always work. That’s what Lim demonstrates for me.

Simplicity and complexity

The other charge of pretentiousness is that the message wasn’t ‘deep enough’ – commenters impatiently described it as ‘bullying is bad, be yourself.’ It’s ‘pretending’ to have a deep meaning, but it’s actually very simple. But a metaphor doesn’t have to be deep in itself. It’s the emotional and discursive domino-effect that it sets off that’s interesting.

Is the message of the game really ‘bullying is bad, be yourself?’ Is it telling people not to attack those who are different? There’s no good or bad outcome of the game from which to draw a moral conclusion. It’s just descriptive – this is what socialisation looks like.

As for the ‘be yourself’ side of it – for me, the game doesn’t say that at all. There is no ‘yourself’ to be in this game. You’re floating between states of presentation, and you settle upon them dependent on the situation. You would have a hard time finding ‘yourself’ in this. The reality presented by Lim is that you can’t just ‘be yourself’ without a social order structuring the entire problem – only when society is far away can you float again and not have to think about ‘being’ at all. ‘Being’ is a social question. The game isn’t preachy. It doesn’t even present a solution. It just describes a problem.

Beyond gender

What’s really incredible about Lim is that it elegantly uses simple game mechanics and good level design to describe a phenomenon without putting language to it. This is a phenomenon that is immediately complicated by language. If it was presented as a game about ‘being trans’ then it would immediately set that ‘multivocal body’ as one thing or another.

This game was made at a time when the entire discourse around gender variance is changing. Some people identify as one gender, find themselves in the ‘body of the wrong gender’, and are simply trying to repair that dissonance by transitioning. But within this, gender identity can still be complicated for some – “Yes, I’m a ‘he’” said one person to me this weekend, “but I’m not *that* kind of ‘he’. I’m a faggy dandy kind of ‘he’. So I’m kind of ‘they/he’”. Some people are ‘non-binary’ and may or may not experience dysphoria related to their bodies. Still others are cis-gendered but still have their gender presentation policed every day because of their career, their interests or the way they look.

There are no words to describe all of these people in a way that they would all be happy with. It’s something we struggle with at DapperQ and Saint Harridan all the time.

Lim could be about any of these people and more. And it can only be so because of the simplicity and ‘meaninglessness’ of its metaphor. How the game has been presented turns out to be just as important as the mechanics themselves – it is after all, a game about how you choose to present.

What is the social class of an adventurer?

Coins arranged in the shape of a question mark

A while back, Mattie Brice tweeted a very interesting observation about her play style. She said, “For some reason, I really dislike using items. I usually just sell them.”

Adam Flynn then responded with a link to this article, asking “I wonder if this relates to your internal metaphors of value and income”. The article paints different characters of middle class graduates with different metaphors about money, arguing for example that entrepreneurs don’t consider $1m to be an obscene sum of money but instead see it as one year’s running costs for a 6-person startup.

Mattie pointed out that her own background doesn’t match those identified in the article, “I’ve never (on by own) been financially middle class,” she tweeted. She said that it was perhaps significant that she grew up lower middle class, surrounded by upper middle class culture.

Reading this conversation got me thinking: does class affect play style? How might we expect it to make a difference? And is this something neglected by game designers?

Does class affect spending?

Before looking at how class affects item use in games, I tried to find some studies of how people of different economic classes use money in the real world. We all, I think, have a habit of using social class to explain idiosyncracies, so I didn’t want to take Brice’s class-based explanation at face value.

To contradict her statement, it would have been very useful to get evidence of the kind of phenomenon described by this Cracked article on stupid habits you develop when you grow poor – ‘stupid’ here meaning ‘no longer rational if you have money in the bank.’ [Editors Note: The author of this post is not endorsing Cracked's use of the word 'stupid'] I want to be able to confidently point to the situation described by Zygmunt Bauman in Wasted Lives – he argues that consumer culture has created a social need for brand-name clothes among people whose means would suggest that it is more rational to buy the most basic clothes possible.

However, I’ve had trouble finding evidence to back up the anecdotes and opinions. The Consumer Expenditure Survey asks people ‘what do you spend money on?’ but not ‘do you buy the cheapest clothes possible?’ or ‘what do you do with your tax rebate?’ Measuring spending isn’t the same as measuring the attitudes to commodities that Mattie seems to have been referring to.

Fictional economies are different

Eventually I realised that no real-world evidence would really be applicable to virtual worlds and fictional economies, because the models of wealth, production and labour are deliberately constructed around a fantasy of a simpler, more forgiving world. This is something I looked at in a term paper on Final Fantasy games last year – the economic models of video games often reflect the economic changes happening in the real world at the time the games were made, but they are deliberately recalibrated to give players a great deal more agency. Often that agency is a kind of virtual artisanship or mercantilism, with game mechanics that encourage crafting items out of found materials and the exchange of goods for virtual money made relatively frictionless. Selling off your possessions for cash in the real world is not nearly as easy as in video games.

The means by which middle class people generate and hold onto their wealth are not available in most video games. Keeping money in the bank to accrue interest is not an option. There’s no investment, no leveraging of debt, not even the ‘three for two’ shopping deals that John Cheese writing for Cracked identifies as a rational purchasing decision that he fails to take advantage of because of his experience of poverty.

In the majority of video games, there’s just objects, gold values given to those objects, and gold received in exchange for time spent grinding. The economy is simple. You put time in, you get gold back, and you spend the gold on better goods. They are giant virtual shopping malls, and players are effectively made into lower-middle-class consumers by the fictional economics of the game itself – money is earned, rather than grown as wealth.

So do personal money metaphors, or class-based experiences of wealth or poverty, affect play style? In most games, probably not – the question is whether the economic landscape of a given video game world really gives that much freedom for class differentiation. But I think the economic behaviours engendered by the constrained economic structures of video games could tell us a lot about the relationship between social class and gaming. It’s something we should look into more often.

Game accessibility guidelines aim to remove barriers

A photograph of an XBOX 360 controller. Shared on a creative commons license by Dan Rodriguez.

An exciting, free, online resource has launched to help game developers remove barriers and welcome players with cognitive, physical or sensory impairments. The Game Accessibility Guidelines is a comprehensive set of considerations to make sure that a game’s UI and controls are inclusive to the broadest range of people possible. Their about page highlights why every developer should care about accessibility:

15-20% of gamers are disabled (PopCap). Other conditions that aren’t registered disabilities can also hit barriers. 15% of the adult population have a reading age of below 11 years old (NCES / BIS), 8% of males have red-green colour deficiency (AAO), and many people have temporary impairments such as a broken arm. Many more have situational impairments such as playing in a noisy room or in bright sunlight, and all players have different levels of ability – there’s no ‘typical gamer’.

The guidelines focus on motor, cognitive, visual and auditory impairments, with helpful advice such as allowing controls to be remapped and providing both autosave and manual save features.

The resource serves two purposes – it shows all developers how their game design can be improved for greater accessibility, and also offers detailed advice for projects specifically targeted at differently abled communities. The ‘basic’ and ‘intermediate’ lists contain advice that is relatively cheap to implement and in many cases simply represents good game design that benefits all players. The ‘advanced’ list targets the more specific needs of niche audiences, with design practices that take significant resources to achieve, such as playtesting with “representative samples from relevant categories of impairment” and providing “full internal sampled self-voicing for all text”.

The result is a startlingly thorough resource for any game developer who wants to do the right thing. Overall, the message is about giving players the ability to choose how they engage with the game; giving players options about how input and feedback are configured, and communicating all important information with a combination of sound, visuals and text. By removing barriers that privilege some abilities over others, the experience of all players can be improved.