On the Border: An interview with Merritt Kopas

This week’s On The Border guest is Merritt Kopas, a game designer and developer known for producing acclaimed indie titles such as Lim and Hugpunx. Well versed in the academic world, Kopas earned her Master’s degree in Sociology at the University of Washington. During this time she became interested in games as an alternate form of critical and creative expression, spurring her career as an up-and-coming game developer.

Game designer Merritt Kopas.

Game designer Merritt Kopas.

The Border House: Have your studies in Sociology at the University of Washington at all informed your work?

Merritt Kopas: Yeah, I think they have. I think if I hadn’t gotten the MA, my development in terms of thinking about stuff like social structures would not be where it is right now. And certainly, as a trans person, some academic spaces can provide a certain amount of safety, so I think all of that stuff brought me to a place where I was able to make a game like Lim. Actually when I released it I put a little quote next to it (from the sociologist Erving Goffman) so that stuff has slipped into my work. I think there are ways it’s informed my work [even if it] isn’t explicitly setting out to explain anything. Definitely [my] ways of seeing the world, have been informed by that stuff.

TBH: Did your time at University of Washington impact in any other way your work in games?

MK: I think what happened is that, after being an academic for so long, I realized that I was becoming incapable of exploring other ways of expressing ideas, other ways of connecting with people. I think what happens, at least in academia, is there’s a very strong value placed on the written word as the mode of expression and the mode of information. Being in spaces where that is so valued over and above any form or mode of communication got exhausting. I think that might’ve actually pushed me to explore alternative modes. Before I started making games, I was looking into stuff like photography, other kinds of visual art. Those have all been other ways of thinking. Maybe writing isn’t always THE way to get something across. It can be really useful, but maybe there are alternatives. I think games could be one of those.

TBH: Did you plan on making games on a public scale?

MK: I always sort of had that desire, but it never seemed realistic. Certainly when I released Lim, I didn’t expect the scale of the reception it got. I didn’t expect that big a response. I certainly didn’t see myself moving into making games as my primary mode of expression or creation. At the time, I was very much thinking of myself as an academic; a writer. That was really unexpected for me.

TBH: How has your life as a trans* woman informed your work?

MK: I think the most obvious way is the way that my experiences get encoded into my work: [There’s] Positive Space, or A Synchronous Ritual, a small piece that I did. Those are all pretty obviously about being trans. Then there are more subtle experiences. Lim is definitely informed by my experiences, but I didn’t set out to make a game about being trans. It’s about being in a liminal social position.

Kopas's TERF War.

Kopas’s TERF War.

TBH: Was TERF War the first game that you created?

MK: It was!

TBH: What propelled you to make this game; what inspired your first outing as a digital game developer?

MK: When I made TERF War, I had just been reading Anna Anthropy’s book, Rise of the Video Game Zinesters, and that really made me realize that this was something that I could do, and it was just a matter of finding a tool that would work for me. I was thinking about a lot of things that I could make games about, but I want[ed] it to be something simple because I wanted this to be something small that I could make in a short period of time. I made TERF War in response to really vicious targeting and hate campaigns against trans women. It isn’t something that’s gone away. At the time it was something that was really on my mind, and just incredibly frustrating to me.

TBH: Why did you choose to make a game rather than write a critical essay or article online? What made you choose this medium to express your feelings? You’d never done it before.

MK: At the time, I was starting to think, “Well maybe writing a piece isn’t always the most effective way to get something across.” There were a lot of people writing about this issue, and a lot of them are more eloquent than I am. So I was thinking, “What’s another way to sort of get at the absurdity of this situation?” I realized that that can be expressed in a really simple game. It was a way of sneaking past peoples’ defenses a little bit. First of all, it’s shorter, or takes less time to read than an essay. It involves the player, to show them the dynamics of the situation. So I thought, “Well, there are a lot of people writing about this, and this is sort of an experiment in expressing an idea, in a non-textual way.”

TBH: How was your first time using Construct 2 [the development tool TERF War was made with]? What is your experience with it like now, having made a few games with it?

MK: As someone who doesn’t have background in programming, getting into any kind of design environment that requires [it] is really intimidating. Construct is a really great program in that it doesn’t require you to write code; it simplifies things a lot. Nonetheless, it’s hard for someone like me who’s used to writing in literary or narrative-based ways, to start thinking in terms of logical structures. My experience with the program has been characterized by spending a lot of time find[ing] workarounds for things that there are probably really simple ways to do, because I don’t have the training.

Kopas' game Queer Pirate Plane.

Kopas’ game Queer Pirate Plane.

TBH: Queer Pirate Plane, one of your Twine games, reads very much as a stream of consciousness piece. Was there anything you had in mind in terms of vision and design?

MK: I made that game for a group of friends’ New Years Eve party I wasn’t able to be at. It’s really a piece about getting on a plane and getting all your friends together and just flying somewhere else. I was able to make that game in a few hours, and the folks who were at this party all played it together; they all put it on one screen and took turns reading the lines. So that felt really cool. It felt like we’d been able to connect because I’d made this thing and we were all able to experience it together.

Kopas' game Lim.

Kopas’ game Lim.

TBH: In contrast, Lim has been probably your most highly publicized game in Construct 2. Can you describe the creative process in crafting Lim? How does the coding impact the creative flow of making the game?

MK: I should say first of all, it was incredibly haphazard (proceeded in steps rather than a smooth flow). The game changed quite a lot from the first time I started writing down notes for it. It was actually inspired by this game called Prototype: there’s a reading to that game that emphasizes passing and how the player character is expected to blend in with people. I think that really got me into thinking what a game about passing or about liminality would look like.

So I just started with these squares. The strongest visual that I had when I was starting the design was the final part of the game when you’re sort of expected to choose, and it’s the only part where you’re actually allowed to make a choice like that. Regardless of which way you go, it’s really difficult [but] the challenges are slightly different. It turned out to be really complicated. A trivial problem to someone who’s been doing this a long time turned into this really involved, difficult issue for me.

TBH: What was it like letting people into your personal history, with regard to your mother and her struggles with your gender identity, through Conversations With My Mother?

MK: It wasn’t an easy thing to do. I decided that I didn’t want the player to be in my position, because it was really important to me that it did not come across as “Oh my mom is so terrible with gender stuff,” or “I hate my mom,” because I don’t, I love my mom. She has had struggles with this stuff but she’s also made real and important efforts. It’s sometimes frustrating and not always perfect, but it can be different on different days. It was important to me that if I were to put this out there, I want[ed] the player to be in the position of my mother and not of me, and to make those decisions for themselves and see what those impacts would be.

TBH: How do you think your design aesthetic has changed from your first forays into the medium to now?

MK: I think one thing that’s remained constant is that I’m still really interested in the use of abstract models and representations. I don’t feel very competent in putting forward strongly representational or detailed narratives or models. So all of my Twine stuff, for the most part, is really minimal or based around some kind of mechanical hook. In terms of things that have changed, that’s a little harder to say. Hopefully I’m growing. If I’m making things that are minimalistic out of fear, hopefully that’s become less true and it’s more of a conscious design choice.

TBH: What is something that you look forward to creating in the future?

MK: I think the thing that I’m most excited about, is [a game] based on an experience that I had in a women-focused hot tub space with a group of mostly trans women at midnight in the middle of winter. It was this profound experience and my first time being in a space like that. I’m really excited about the possibility of making something that expresses that. But, it absolutely has to be a first-person kind of experience. I don’t see any other way of doing that. So I’m trying to learn Unity right now, and then the next steps will be learning 3D modeling. So it’s probably a ways off, but that’s my dream project right now.

The Border House would like to thank Merritt Kopas for interviewing for On The Border! For more on her work in games and elsewhere, check out this link to her website. Be sure to check back next week for the Part of Threes featuring Merritt!

3 thoughts on “On the Border: An interview with Merritt Kopas”

  1. Hey, that was a neat interview. I’d seen most of these games, but didn’t remember that it was Merritt who made some of them. Now I know where that “Notorious Skyqueers” patch came from :)

    Can you add links to the games or just a link to her website?

  2. Thanks for the interview! I never expected to hear Prototype and Lim mentioned together, but it makes a surprising amount of sense. I think the minimal/abstract approach Merritt has is great.

    It’s also my first time playing Conversations With My Mother, really quite moving. The first-person dream project sounds very interesting! Thanks again.

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