Tag Archives: game design

Maelstrom – Unscheduled, Inclusive and now with Sponsorship

There is a new gaming convention coming out soon called Maelstrom, April 4th to April 6th. I want to mention it here because as taken from the website this is something that people here would be really interested in as it’s got a focus on being unstructured and inclusive. They got a lot of attention last year with their Diana Jones Nominated play-testing convention Metatopia for being a great spot to talk about design, as well as being inclusive to their guests with lots of discussion based around queerness, mental health, and social change in games.

That said, maybe Morristown NJ is a little too far for you, and the money isn’t there? Thankfully for this new convention, the people to the IGDN are providing a sponsorship to a designer from marginalized communities whose work supports the discussion and exploration of issues that affect marginalized communities. The best thing, for those who are still worried about it, is that having published material isn’t a pre-requisite to get the sponsorship.

There are more details on the IGDN website.

 

 

Dream Game: The Underground

The following is a guest post from Sun Tzu:

Tzu is a mixed race gamer who has been involved in the gaming scene since Doom. He enjoys writing about social justice, feminism, a wide variety of game genres, and writing about himself in the third person. Any personal inquiries or comments can be sent to Tzuofthesun@gmail.com.

       Edutainment. Let’s all take a moment to look at that monstrosity of a word and let the horror of what it entails wash over us. It’s a Portmanteau that for many brings derisive laughter, dismissive sighs, or painful groans. I don’t know about you, but I’m having flashbacks of low quality elementary school programs that were employed by my parents to try to bridge the gap between my interest in gaming and lack of interest in school. However, despite my prior experiences, I believe that games can educate and enhance both intellect and social consciousness. All that is required is the right narrative to go along with the game itself. To that end, I believe that a game based around the underground railroad in the deep south would present an interesting opportunity for education about racial privilege and oppression.

       Let us start at the foundation: genre. While strong narratives are not bound to a particular genre of games, a Turn Based Strategy game (TBS) is what I had in mind for my theoretical game-let’s call it The Underground. A squad based TBS would allow for a diverse cast that the player could both interact with in game and watch within the context of the narrative (dialogue, cut scenes, etc.). The gameplay itself would be objective based, like many other squad based TBS’s, and task the player with freeing slaves, intercepting hunters, escorting VIPs, etc. Also typical of squad based games, the characters the player employs would be specialists in their own fields and bring a unique set of skills to the table. While all of this may seem rather unimportant when it comes to how race can be presented and explored, the truth is quite the contrary. Imagine this scenario: you, the player, are tasked with rescuing an important abolitionist from the clutches of a wealthy plantation owner. He/she is being held in the antagonist’s grand mansion during a lavish dinner party. What do you do? Send in your combat specialist, a recently freed slave with a sharp eye and a steady hand? No, there are too many guards for a loud operation. So, you look to your stealth character-a black woman who has lived like a hermit in the back country ever since her escape. Unfortunately, the mansion is well lit and the guests are packed in like sardines. The situation might seem insurmountable between the tight security and many prying civilian eyes-that is, until you look at one of the white characters in your squad. Dress him/her up, and they can easily blend in with the crowd. Situations such as those present racial oppression as it is: being white instantly unlocks a whole slew of options unavailable to people of color. In the context of a strategy game such as this, race becomes a constant tactical consideration. Some of your characters can walk around in broad daylight with their weapons at their sides, while others have to hide or disguise themselves just to walk down the street.

       This gameplay integration of a social message (such as: racism is bad) gets the point across better than a pop quiz (I’m looking at you, Jumpstart) and leaves breathing room in the narrative for plot where heavy handed messages might have resided. The big question remains, however, whether this could be an effective way to provoke serious thought and project a positive message. Let’s look at this from two extreme angles: great success and total bomb. The way I see it, a narrative like this could either be pathetically repetitive (Slavery was bad? No way!) or produce a stage for nuanced black and white characters.

       The easy way out would be to paint all abolitionists and black freedom fighters as saints, and while positively portrayed black characters are mildly progressive, they don’t break much ground. As action figures dukeing it out on a historical playset, they are hard to write realistically and flat-two factors that can lower sympathy and interest from players. A better approach would be to make the characters dramatic and conflicted. An example for a black character could be entertaining the notion of escaping to Canada and abandoning the struggle, while a white ally might not have the mental fortitude to take in the horrors of war and slavery on such a personal level. While this is all Literature 101, it is of particular concern for this topic and these characters, because black people in many creative mediums are often relegated to either despicable villains or immaculate saints and white allies placed on a pedestal of moral superiority because of their charitable spirit. In reality, however, people be people. A white person aligned with a minority cause make a very insensitive remark without even knowing it or hold racist misconceptions simply because they are “common knowledge” and people of color aren’t all bastions of righteous rebellion who have infinite understanding of the mechanisms of their own oppression. People, no matter how well intended, make mistakes and can be misguided. Putting these realistic traits into the narrative of The Underground lends gravitas to the story, the setting, and keeps the player interested in the characters as more than just chess pieces at their command. Without such investment in the characters and narrative, racism and slavery lose their social significance. The long lasting and deviously pervasive psychological damage that both systems inflict upon black and white people can only be expressed through characters that feel real and relatable.

       Games that market their socially progressive values overtly have been met with lukewarm reception and, honestly, it’s not a big surprise. Would you rather play a game about a badass space marine escaping a military facility infested with aliens/demons (a la Doom) or a game about a socially conscious bureaucrat trying to penny pinch and micro manage a sluggish, ignorant world out of a climate change disaster (a la middle management)? Those types of games, while well intended, miss the entire point of being a game-that is, to be fun and interactive. And in losing the strength of their genre, their arguments and information fall before hands just itching to ALT F4.

      However, through engaging gameplay and (hopefully) well written characters, racism can be dissected, examined, and presented to the player in every minute of the game without resorting to giant walls of text that would be more at home in a sociological study. That is why, in the ideal game of my dreams, racism isn’t just seen in boring quotes on the loading screen, but experienced through gameplay and humanized through dialogue in a sublime wedding of what I would like to say and what I would like to play.

WisCon Panel “Feminism in Gaming 2013”

Stealth elf - a dual blade wielding character from Skylanders

Stealth elf – a dual blade wielding character from Skylanders

At the end of last month, Madison, Wisconsin was home to the annual science fiction feminist convention known as WisCon. Gaming has made its way into some of the panels in recent years and the following will be a summary of some of the points made during the Feminism in Gaming 2013 panel.

Panel description - 2012 was a watershed year for discussion of misogyny in gaming, in many ways: Anita Sarkeesian’s Kickstarter to examine misogyny in gaming, the backlash against it, and the counter-backlash; discussion of art direction in D&D Next; attacks on Felicia Day; the launch of the Gaming as Women blog; and other developments. What has happened so far in 2013? Is the amount of backlash more an indication that misogyny is getting worse, or that we’re finally getting around to the painful but necessary conversations? How much progress have we made, and what still needs to be done? #FeminismInGaming

There was a wonderful handout available at the panel and it is still online for those that would like to see it: Links to websites and interesting articles from 2012/2013

 

Some important moments from the last year

- the interviews during promotion for Tomb Raider that referenced wanting to protect Lara and threats of sexual violence against her character

- the backlash against Anita Sarkeesian’s Kickstarter but also the counter-backlash that quickly funded the project

- the closing of Glitch, the multiplayer game

- #1ReasonWhy, the Twitter hashtag used by women in the video game industry describing some of the misogyny that they have experienced in their careers

- Dungeons and Dragons Next art direction

 

Does buying problematic games mean that we end up supporting their further development and also continue to support the stereotypes that the games portray?

-Having limited funds for games also means you limit your choices – if you can only get one or two new games a year, it can become difficult to decide where to spent your money.

- One possible way to experience a game that you feel may have problematic elements without first purchasing it is to either rent it or borrow the game from a friend and then make the decision if you want to purchase the game itself.

- These decisions are further complicated when games have things that you love and want to support but still have problematic elements. One example mentioned was 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors. It is a puzzle/adventure game that is text heavy which is an under represented type of game, but it had sexist representations of female characters. But the game as a whole contains both of these elements.

- One way to deal with problematic elements in games is to spread the word about those issues. Take screenshots, post blogs, talk about it on Twitter, write messages on the game forums,  tell your friends, spread the word however you feel comfortable that you are dissatisfied with different aspects of games and gaming culture. Discuss good aspects of games, but also discuss the things that upset you.

- Some people dislike financially supporting games in which violence and military action are the only solutions to a problem.  There is clearly a call for more creative games or simply more games that go outside the first person shooter genre.

- In the end, we all choose where we draw a personal line when it comes to financially supporting developers that make problematic games. There is no ONE WAY that will work for everyone.

 

Tabletop gaming

- One positive aspect of tabletop gaming is being able to create your own worlds and rules/alternate worlds and rules to circumvent problematic rules sets. While this is possible it also puts an additional burden on the players.

- One problem with tabletop gaming can also be the players themselves, and not just the game world. People bring their own assumptions to the table. One person mentioned a group that would always threaten any female player character with sexual violence at some point during a campaign. Those types of situations can occur even if those threats are not present in the game’s official campaign or storyline.

- Some groups attempt to make sure that everyone is comfortable by first discussing topics that should be kept out of campaigns. Someone mentioned the use of Safe Words and other tells so players could freely express when a campaign was making them feel uncomfortable.

 

Gaming Communities

- At times it can be the gaming community, rather than the game that is not inclusive.

- Audience members mentioned muting players when going online, never speaking up so that people don’t hear a woman’s voice, or only playing with friends when going online. The harassment drives people to cope in a variety of ways.

- Another person mentioned only playing single player games because they found online interactions to be too hostile.

- Yet another person mentioned not finishing Mass Effect 3 after having a traumatic experience with a multiplayer group.

- Communities have the potential be more harmful than games themselves in making players feel unwelcome and diminished.

- Alternately, it is wonderful to see when games attempt to bring community together. You can see that in some cooperative games or in things like Guild Wars 2 where the incentive is there to help other players rather than hamper their progress.

 

Clothing/Art Design

- There are a lot of examples of failure in this specific category! This occurs in terms of artbooks, game design, character design, and miniatures.

- In the family friendly game of Skylanders there is a character called Stealth Elf that is a dual blade user and she wears what is essentially a bra as a top. Even in games aimed at children there are female characters that wear revealing clothing as their default. This type of character design is pervasive in the industry.

- A comment was made about the character design changes of Samus Aran since the start of the Metroid series. The suit has become slimmer over time.

- In terms of art design, let’s not forget the failure of the headless torso figure from Dead Island.

- Another art design failure can be seen in the upcoming Dragon’s Crown game.

- To avoid some of the problematic female character design, some people mention only playing as male characters in games. We’d all rather see a change in character design rather than players feeling forced to do this to avoid problematic art direction.

- BioWare was praised specifically for their art direction with the female Commander Shepard when compared to the male Shepard.

 

Games/things we look forward to in the future (let’s be hopeful for a moment)

- Remember Me

- The next Dragon Age

- Roll 20 : a KickStarter project that focuses on bringing tabletop rollplaying online

- Minecraft mod ScriptCraft

- Odyssey: The Complete Game Master’s Guide to Campaign Management – a tabletop game guide done by the Gnome Stew blog that has a cover showing a woman of color as a game master.

 

Other points made during the panel

- The solution cannot simply be “Then go make your own games!” when people point out issues in the current batch of games. Yes, it is wonderful that more toolsets are available for general use, but putting the burden solely on the players is unjust. Independent games are wonderful and are part of the solution, but they are not the whole solution to the problems facing the industry.

- As always, there was a call for more diversity in characters and character creation options. Why must the default always be straight, white, and male?

- There is needs to be more of a focus on the discussion of games and the industry. Let’s keep reading good stories, listening to good podcasts, checking out reviews that go beyond “was it fun?” and spread the word about these things.

- We WANT to give the industry our money. Give us something we WANT to support!

 

One final point!

- Don’t let jerks strip us of the gamer title! There have always been, and always will be a diverse group of people that play video games and tabletop games. Let us not let them fool us or others that we don’t exist because we have ALWAYS been here. Don’t surrender that title over to them because it is not, nor was it ever, only their property. Be gamers and be feminists. They are not mutually exclusive!

Postpartum: Mainichi – How Personal Experience Became a Game

A screenshot of Mattie Brice’s Mainichi displaying an overhead view of several rooms in an adorable apartment, and a cute stylised character with dark skin and dark hair wearing a white and purple outfit.

This will be a design article on my game Mainichi, aiming to be insight to my thought process during its creation and serve as a guide for others to make games. To get the most out of this, download Mainichi here and then come back to read this! If the download is giving you problems, use my contact info and I’ll send you a copy. For extra reading, I also suggest getting a copy of anna anthropy’s Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, as I’ll be speaking to many of the ideas she advocates in it.

There is a movement. A movement that says “You can too.” It is growing in size, accessibility, and voice. Game design is, and always has been, for everyone, but the narrow path the industry took blocked off many peoples’ opportunity to join in on this artistic revolution. It’s assumed you must have the best graphics, know how to code, have the money to develop a game that can speak to the world.

I only know life with computers and video games in them. My father is a programmer and shared a love for technology with his children. I grew up surrounded by games and, naturally, wanted to make them. But my father never passed down the skill to code, and I never realized how important programming fit into making a game until I tried making them years later. Coding became a monster; I couldn’t get it and felt my creative energy dissipate every time I tried to learn. I entered university believing game design wasn’t for me and gave up on that dream to join the industry.

But now, I’ve come full circle. The industry badly needs to diversify and there’s still roadblocks. Publisher model game development is choked by putting profit above all else, and the monochromatic landscape of non-AAA development still values methods that require monetary investment and a previous buy-in to programming culture that many of us just don’t have. Despite this, I still had something to say, or rather, something I didn’t know how to say. I had something I needed others to play.

This is how Mainichi was born. It was an experiment in translating a personal experience into game mechanics, and also a push to prove to myself that I can make a game, even if the video game industry wouldn’t accept me. I want Mainichi to be a call to arms, a triumph of the personal. I made a game that only I could make, and I’m hoping this exercise empowers others to express a life that is uniquely theirs.

Choosing Vocal Chords

The biggest roadblock I had to overcome was choosing the program I would use to make my game. I asked for suggestions, consulted lists, and tried out many to no avail. I ran into many bumps; usually, the more free and open source something is, the more programming is integral to the making process. Though, some did come with their own scripting language that was easier to learn and a viable method for those who aren’t completely code-phobic like I am. Many of the more popular game makers are primed for certain types of games, like shooters or platformers. Looking to make something akin to an adventure game, the obtuse methods to simple get someone walking across the screen on a level plane and generating a textbox from an NPC were quick to grate my nerves.

If there was something I learned, it’s the increasing amount of tools for people to use all assume different competencies, wants, and conventions. Authoring programs are prepared for certain users, and make it easy or difficult to do particular things. This isn’t simply a practical thing to know, but political. Many programs assume you have the privilege, tastes, and wants of the hegemonic man. However, some of these tools come with communities that make it easier to subvert this assumption, and is, in particular, something I encourage others to factor in when choosing a program for themselves. Here is what I came up with for myself and the needs I perceived I needed for my game ideas:

*Programming unnecessary or extremely minimal/optional
*No to low cost
*Made it simple or easy for me to use textboxes, characters, variables, cutscenes
*Has an active enough community to provide custom content

These and other factors contributed to me picking RPG Maker VX, despite its price tag. Mostly, my personal disposition and skills overcame the cost for it after not feeling compatible with all my other options- I was familiar with the toolset already, had the skills to edit its art assets enough for my own devices, and most of my ideas would benefit from the assumption of an RPG/adventure game being made. There were narrow expectations about the kind of game I wanted to make inside those conventions, but there was room to subvert these paradigms. As an aside, RPGMVX does have a cheaper sibling, RPGMXP, that I ended up not choosing because I had the familiarity with the former. However, for those new to both and interested in using them, XP is as viable, just for different reasons. I think others can find similar, free programs and still do what I did with Mainichi, RPGMVX just happened to be right for me.

Training My Voice

It’s easy to have a story or an idea. What makes a game significant is its designed experience. Coming into this experiment, I knew that current attempts of doling out social awareness just through story devices plainly didn’t work. I had to choose methods of design to communicate the feelings of my experience to the player, because otherwise I could simply point them to an essay I’ve done. I would say Mainichi lets someone feel rather than tells them what to feel. It’s a key difference to create empathy instead of telling the player what’s right to think.

If this experiment is judged successful, I think it will be because of my philosophy of being hyper-personal, or like what my colleague Jenn Frank says is “alarmingly specific.” This applied not only to the topic but the design as well; I wanted to draw upon my ideas about sociology, postmodern art, ludonarrative resonance, and diversity politics in video games and have them influence the way the player interacted with the rules. I wanted this game to be dripping with the intersection of all of my influences, and create a new way of looking at design as a byproduct. I think for a personal piece like this to work, you have to speak to the world in general through a very specialized perspective.

How to design a game for social good is a fraught question. It’s difficult to position the player in a way that doesn’t have them exploit the minority and unknowingly replicate the problematic ideologies the game set out to defeat. This is why I stressed reactivity of the system and eliminated min/maxing of any sort. When you look at the system as a metaphor for society, the suffering that happens to the character doesn’t become something the player enables but joins ranks against.

There is something to be said about being too referential in a game, but I decided to be extremely so. I made the character after my likeness and named them after myself, I have a Japanese title, there’s a Dragon Age II cameo, etc. However, everything does have a personal link to add to the aesthetic and ‘meaning’ of the piece. Since the game is essentially interacting with a system, it could be replicated with numbers and without any sort of cultural representation. So it felt right to imbue as much of the game with my personal easter eggs because the game won’t make complete sense without the meta-awareness of how it fits in. And really, all games that try to mean something have to do that as well.

Speaking

I also recognized there would be audiences for my game, but no ‘perfect player.’ There is no one person that can absorb everything this game is meant to do. I’m not even the perfect player for my game. Rather, I knew that it would be released to the world and many people of different relationships to games would play it, including those who don’t game at all. So my game doesn’t have a target audience like many other games, and I didn’t have a genre in mind when making the game. However, I was aware of the different expectations people would bring to my game.

A lot of this game is speaking to the game development community. It is a community that finds making a game about minority issues near-impossible, so I ended up making one in about a week. There are also different paths for it to be analyzed, genealogy-wise, and one could see Mainichi as an offspring of Dys4ia and Passage. From Dys4ia I am intentionally making my game political through the personal, merely repeating the idea in a different format to diversify how we see, define, and interface with games. Another game in this lineage would be Merritt Kopas’ LIM, which also relies on mechanics replicating emotional experiences. I also see Mainichi as a critique to Passage in this regard; just because this isn’t AAA development doesn’t mean the types of games coming out of the indie scene aren’t dominated by heterosexual white men’s narratives. I want the community to know that some people don’t have the luxury of mulling over something as long term and general as the passage of life towards death or saving the world. Some of us have to worry for our physical safety every day we leave the house, some of us will live and die unequal citizens in a system that doesn’t care; the street scene in Mainichi hopes to be referential to the design of Passage for the community of developers that care about that sort of design canon.

Because of the look and that it is in fact made with an RPG Maker, I knew some players would be bringing the baggage that comes along with RPGs. I also have quite a lot to say about RPGs, how I think they are evolving, and my answer to ‘what is an RPG.’ So I specifically highlighted certain conventions, like choice, time management, NPCs, cause/effect, multiple paths to the end goal. I then proceeded to flip the expectations players would have with elements; the choices you make aren’t epic or demarcated by a clear morality, the player is taught to avoid as much interaction as possible, and the player will be depressed looking for the ‘good’ ending. Mainly, I find RPGs abstract things so we can interact with them, an exercise in turning something qualitative into a system. The player gains empathy through my attempt of abstracting how people gender me, and allowed the player to experiment in the system to realize the experiences I’ve been through.

Outside of the highbrow stuff, I wanted to communicate an experience that I couldn’t do with words alone. Ultimately, this could be a project in telling my best friend why I was often depressed despite the good intentions of my support group. Similarly, I wanted players with cisgender privilege to also empathize with one aspect of having a queer gender or presentation. It can also serve as a tool for a trans* person to share with their friends if they have the same trouble explaining like I did.

You Can Too

A huge reason I made Mainichi was to say that, yes, anyone can make a game of critical merit. You don’t have to be a programmer, you don’t need a whole bunch of disposable income, be on a triple digit design team, or a part of the indie in-crowd. The important thing is to know game design is something everyone has the capacity to work on, and the implementation into a program is the hard part.

This is important to note because video games aren’t the only types of games there are: I am currently working on a card game that will allow players to simulate and interrogate the dynamics of a first date or sex. In addition, as The Border House has already shown, there are also non-traditional formats of digital games that beg to be used and experimented with, like Twine and Ren’py. What I think a lot of the non-AAA developers forgot was that one leaves the publisher model behind in order to do something different. I’ve seen many failed projects because so many want to make the next Final Fantasy with RPG Maker and don’t see the dissonance in politics concerning that. Instead, take part in diversifying not only the characters and stories we see in games, but how we fundamentally interact with them as a whole.

Metatopia 2012 – Panel Schedule

There’s a designer convention coming up next week in Morristown, NJ. It’s called Metatopia, and it’s main focus is to let designers come out and playtest their new games with a wide group of people who are interested in seeing what’s in development and giving their feedback.  It’s a lot of fun, and most people I’ve heard from have said that it was a phenominal time last year. This year shouldn’t be any different.

I’m posting these panels here because there I think they are of interest to the readers of The Border House. These aren’t all the panels, there’s a wide range that will be made available with the final schedule, but this one is pretty much complete and people were able to start posting this information. There may be some last minute changes, but for anyone in the North East who were looking for a convention to attend this may be something you want to check out.

“Addressing Controversial Topics” presented by John Stavropolous, Bill White & Brennan Taylor. Join our panelists for a discussion on handling delicate and/or controversial topics in your game design. Subjects include political correctness, sexual and romantic interactions and religion.

Saturday, 9:00AM - 10:00AM; One Session; All Ages. Location: Cairo.

“Women in Gaming – Shaping the Future” presented by Shoshana Kessock, Amanda Valentine, Avonelle Wing & El Wood. This panel of women in the gaming industry will discuss the importance of mentoring and encouraging women in the world of
game design and writing.

Saturday, 12:00PM – 1:00PM; One Session; All Ages Location: Cairo.

“How Not To Be A Jerk” presented by John Stavropolous, Amanda Valentine & Brennan Taylor. Seriously, this roundtable will address keeping inadvertent negative portrayals of gender, race, religion or culture out of your games. Sometimes you don’t even realize that something you’ve written will offend an entire group of people.

Sunday, 11:00AM – 12:00PM; One Session; All Ages.
Location: Cairo.

“Women in Gaming – Handling Sexist Confrontations” presented by Shoshana Kessock, Amanda Valentine, Avonelle Wing & El Wood. Sexism happens. How do we respond when it occurs? How do we tackle unconsidered sexism in our professional lives?

Sunday, 2:00PM – 3:00PM; One Session; All Ages. Location: Cairo.

What do you think about the panels? What questions would you like to ask, or what topics do you hope are covered in these panels?

Should game developers avoid triggering players’ PTSD?

This post might contain triggers due to discussions of PTSD.

Photograph of an orange sky with dark clouds covering the sun and a flock of birds flying away.

It’s nice on a blog like this to be able to see a trigger warning and then make an informed decision about whether or not to read on. Edge magazine doesn’t give you the same luxury, instead in this month’s issue plunging you feet first into a graphic description of the Lara Croft sexual assault scene right at the start of the article. It’s a writing strategy perhaps intended to intrigue the reader and make them want to read on. Instead it caused me to curse loudly on a crowded train and then angrily throw the magazine on the floor in a kind of post-traumatic hulk smash reflex.

I want to pose a question. It’s not something I want to attempt to answer on my own, but it’s something I want to talk about.

The discussion about rape in games took an interesting turn when someone very generously wrote a difficult and emotional post for The Escapist explaining to the unaware what it feels like to hear the rape discourse in and around games if you are a rape survivor suffering from PTSD.

The writer didn’t say that game developers should avoid triggering his PTSD, rather that there should be a greater awareness of what rape survival is like, and a greater sensitivity in the wider gaming community about possible harm caused to the invisible masses of survivors.

Still, it’s worth considering the question: should game developers – and other media producers for that matter – be more careful to avoid triggering PTSD in their audience?

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wowmonopoly

WisCon Panel “Gender and Class in Gaming”

World of Warcraft branded Monopoly set.

The Shepard/My avatar discussion from WisCon was one of several gaming related panels this year. A section titled “Gender and Class in Gaming” had the following description:

This panel uses Dragon Age II, Mass Effect and classic tabletop games as a starting point to discuss class and gender issues that have been raised by players. We’ll discuss the ways in which class and gender are used in past and current games. How are gender and class issues used in the plot of the game? Does this detract or add to the gaming experience? Is it possible to be a feminist gamer?

It is clearly possible to be both a feminist and a gamer. I assume that line was added to get people enraged at the dismissal of such a person existing and get audience members fired up for the panel. WisCon is a feminist science fiction convention, therefore most audience members were likely feminists and gamers.

 

The following are my notes from the panel:

 

Games that discuss these issues

- Tales of Graces f

- Dragon Age series

- Dreamfall (a game that values traits that are coded as feminine)

- Sims 3 (Alice and Kev – roleplaying a homeless family)

 

Representation

- Seeing yourself represented in game/media is important for many people. So, games where girls/women get to be active and integral to the storyline help send the message to girls that they matter.

- It is important to look at who doesn’t get represented in games. Who do companies use their resources to represent? Who gets left out?

- There are so many more options than just a white, straight, male as the lead for games.

 

 Gender expectation/stereotypes

- The avatar you choose in multiplayer games often affects how other players interact with you.

- Some games impose their own stereotypes based on gender -> dexterity/agility high for women, and strength high for men. But ask any acrobat and they will tell you that strength is required along with agility.

- The characters of Sten and Shale in the Dragon Age games address gender stereotypes and expectations in their stories and dialogue.

- The more games rest on sexual dimorphism, the more stereotyping may exist.

- Even if we concede that a female and male character in a game have different strength and size, how much does that matter when the characters are using tools and magic?

- World of Warcraft had a line in the Cataclysm expansion where Garrosh Hellscream said to Sylvanas Windrunner “Watch your clever mouth, bitch!” Within the game they use a gendered slur used to silence a female character.

 

Fantasy class and race

- Tolkien fantasy intermingled race and class and has become part of the backdrop for much of fantasy. We see the same stereotypes repeated over time.

- Dragon Age had two different classes of elves and neither one were the high/rich elves of Tolkien fantasy. But while class and race were present, did the stories discuss either one enough to our satisfaction? The strata of dwarves allowed for a discussion of class, power, and oppression. What more could they have done? What do we want to see done next?

 

Board games/ Role playing games

- Monopoly was based on The Landlord’s Game, which was meant to show the negatives of monopolies. But the more popular Monopoly game is all about acquiring as much property and money as possible.

- Small World is a world conquest game that allows players to play with a mix of fantasy races but is still about world conquest and occupation.

- Puerto Rico is a game where players each run their own plantations using colonists (represented by brown pegs) as the workers.

- Eclipse Phase role playing game lets your characters play with/change genders throughout the course of the campaign. You can be gender neutral, change gender, or inhabit other characters.

 

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The panel covered a very broad topic, but what are some of your thoughts on gender or class issues in games? What other games have discussed class issues but were missed in this discussion? What has been done well and what do we want to see done differently?

Cortez

Same Sex Romance and Mass Effect 3

Though rare, same sex romance options are not new to video games. We have seen them Jade Empire, The Sims, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and the Dragon Age series. But lately, BioWare has had some shining moments in this area. When they announced that Star Wars: The Old Republic was going to add same sex romances post release The Family Research Council got members to send thousands of letters to EA to denounce the move. EA did not back down, and instead stood by the decision to include the romance options http://kotaku.com/5899246/homophobes-slam-ea-with-thousands-of-letters-over-same+sex-romance. When a forum poster complained about the inclusion of bisexual NPCs in Dragon Age 2 David Gaider explained that “The majority has no inherent “right” to get more options than anyone else.”  http://social.bioware.com/forum/1/topic/304/index/6661775&lf=8 Several recent BioWare games had same sex romance options, but Mass Effect 3 is especially important as a big budget game that has characters who are exclusively gay or lesbian.

 

 Some logistics first … Let’s look at the numbers!

(Author’s note: My Shepard romanced Liara and stayed faithful to her throughout the series. Information on which other characters can be romanced was taken from the Mass Effect wiki and some YouTube clips were referenced while writing the post.)

Steve Cortez from Mass Effect 3

Before delving into Mass Effect 3, it is important to look at the series as a whole. Let’s look at what character romances result in the Paramour achievement/trophy in each game. I call those the primary romances or relationships. The original Mass Effect had had 2 primary romance options for both the male and female Shepard. As a man you could romance Ashley Williams and Liara T’Soni while as a woman you could romance Kaidan Alenko or Liara T’Soni. While Liara is often considered by fans as a same sex romance for a female Shepard, the game specifies that asari are a mono gendered species. They do not talk about a male/female gender binary; they are simply asari. So we walk away from the original Mass Effect without an official same sex romance.

 

Mass Effect 2 had many more romance options than the original game. As a man, Shepard could romance Miranda Lawson, Tali’Zorah, or Jack. As a woman, Shepard could romance Jacob Taylor, Garrus Vakarian, and Thane Krios. None of these are same sex options.

 

Mass Effect 3 has the largest number of romance options in the series. As a man, Shepard can romance Miranda Lawson, Tali’Zorah, Jack, Ashley Williams, Kelly Chambers, Liara T’Soni, Kaiden Alenko, or Steve Cortez. As a woman, Shepard can romance Garrus Valkarian, Kaidan Alenko, Kelly Chambers, Liara T’Soni, and Samantha Traynor.

Game Shepard Primary opposite sex relationships Primary same sex relationships Asari relationships
Mass Effect Female 1 0 1
Mass Effect Male 1 0 1
Mass Effect 2 Female 3 0 0
Mass Effect 2 Male 3 0 0
Mass Effect 3 Female 2 1 1
Mass Effect 3 Male 5 2 1

 

             

Secondary romances

However, there were also relationships that were not tracked by the Paramour achievement. In Mass Effect 2 either Shepard could show interest in Samara, Morinth, and Kelly Chambers. This last option of Kelly Chambers is the only one in Mass Effect 2 that could definitely counts as a same sex relationship option. In Mass Effect 3 either Shepard could have a sexual relationship with Diana Allers which which add another same sex relationship option for a female Shepard.

 

All those numbers mean something  

When looking at the numbers, there is a clear trend for greater diversity in sexual relationships within the Mass Effect series. But there is something else in those numbers: a male Shepard has more options than a female Shepard. Part of this is due to the exclusion of Thane and Jacob as romance options in Mass Effect 3. Yet, even if those two were included in the group, a female Commander Shepard would still have fewer potential romance options than a male. The quantity of options appears to favor a male Shepard.

 

This favoritism falls apart when discussing same sex relationships. If we look at Liara as a same sex option for female characters, then a lesbian Shepard has had a romance option since the beginning of the series. Even ignoring Liara, a lesbian Shepard could start a relationship with Kelly Chambers in the second game and then have that carry over to Mass Effect 3. BUT, a gay Shepard had to wait 3 games in order to have a possible relationship. If you choose to role play Shepard as a gay male, romance is left out until the end of the series. See http://kotaku.com/5909937/with-the-galaxy-in-flames-my-video-game-hero-finally-came-out-of-the-closet Denis Farr’s article about this issue.

 

What could have been done differently?

 

Liara from Mass Effect 3

The relationship with Liara T’Soni deserves discussion. Does she “count” as a same sex romance for a female commander Shepard or not? If she is considered female, then there is a potential for a long term same sex relationship between her and Shepard stretching from the first game through to the last. But by describing her as part of a monogendered species the series denies players one positive lesbian romance portrayal. While a relationship with a genderless species could be interesting the asari are not androgynous, they are heavily coded as feminine. Because of their appearance, the relationship looks like a same sex romance with a female Shepard but should it be read as such or should we look at it as something different? I am not sure. Even after 3 games I do not know if my Shepard’s relationship with Liara can be considered a lesbian romance.

 

Kelly Chambers in Mass Effect 2 is also potentially problematic. Her relationship with Shepard is not considered a canon romance in that game. It is a flirtation, a quick hint of a potential relationship. When she joins Shepard in her cabin at the end of the game she is wearing a tight fitting outfit and does a sexy dance. The point of the scene is to provide sexual arousal for Shepard but does not allow for a further relationship within that one game. There is nothing wrong with that, but as the only portrayal of a same sex relationship in Mass Effect 2 it conforms with a male gaze, “two women are hot” portrait of lesbian relationships that is all too common in media. We need more diversity in the portrayal of lesbians. This relationship can become deeper in Mass Effect 3 but only if Shepard goes though this more superficial experience in the second game.

 

What makes ME3 special?

The final game in the series does several important things in terms of relationship options. The game portrays them as something that can be persistent and evolving over time. It is possible to have started a relationship with Liara in the first game, stayed faithful to her in the second game, and continue the relationship in the final episode. This is something unique and not available to a player that just wants to begin a relationship with Liara in the final game. The way the trilogy was set up allowed for the possibility a dynamic relationship. The NPCs were treated as having potential beyond just sex. These were characters whose stories mattered, with their own journey and growing relationships with Shepard.

 

However, one of the new characters in Mass Effect 3 is incredibly important. Steve Cortez is a pilot in the game. When discussing his past, you learn that he lost his husband in a Reaper invasion. This fact is handled wonderfully. We have a man, discussing the loss of his husband, and there is no pause in the discussion. Shepard does not stop to say, “Whoa, hold on, are you saying you are gay?” or ask any other question all too often heard by people in same sex relationships. Cortez mentions his husband and we are meant to mourn the loss with him. It is no different than if he mentioned the loss of his wife. This one simple thing is incredibly important. Imagine a world where all players of Mass Effect 3 accepted gay individuals as easily as Shepard does in the scene. Cortez being attracted to someone of the same sex is not an issue; it is a not an oddity, it just exists as one option within the universe. Cortez is shown as an exclusively gay man, and yet his sexuality is never shown as a problem. His sexuality is not used to impose tragedy in his life. This is not the tale of a difficult coming out story or an attack on a gay man. He is allowed to be a gay man and not have that one trait define his character arc. It is not something we see very often in media. This portrayal was done beautifully.

Authorial intent

Were the writers cognizant of these depictions and their implications? In an interview, Patrick Weekes and Dusty Everman show that members of the BioWare staff were aware of how they displayed these relationships. As Patrick Weekes said about writing a gay character:

Liara’s relationship in Lair of the Shadow Broker can be with players of either gender, so I was familiar with writing dialog that needed to work for a same-sex romance. Nevertheless, I’m a straight white male – pretty much the living embodiment of the Patriarchy – and I really wanted to avoid writing something that people saw and went, “That’s a straight guy writing lesbians for other straight guys to look at.”

 I also really wanted the romance with Traynor to be positive. One of my gay friends has this kind of sad hobby in which she watches every lesbian movie she can find, trying to find ones that actually end up with the women not either dying or breaking up. I think the most positive one she’s found is “D.E.B.S.” I wanted to avoid any kind of tragic heartbreak, to make this a fundamentally life-affirming relationship… at least, as much as possible within Mass Effect 3′s grim war story.

 

Samantha Traynor from Mass Effect 3

Similar to Cortez, for the exclusively lesbian character of Samantha Traynor her sexuality is a part of her but not her sole defining feature. Patrick Weekes again:

 I worked hard to create a character who addressed her lesbian identity in a positive and intelligent way. My first draft of Traynor’s pitch was all about how her character arc would be about identifying and overcoming the challenges of being gay… and my friends and managers called me on it. I’d been so focused on writing something positive that I hadn’t made a real-enough character. So in the next draft (closer to how she shipped), the focus was on her as a mostly lighthearted fish out of water, a very smart lab tech trying to adjust to life on the front lines, with her identity as a lesbian present but not shouted from the rooftops.

 

From Dusty Everman:

 I believe that by the 22nd century, declaring your gender preference will be about as profound as saying, “I like blondes.” It will just be an accepted part of who we are. So I tried to write a meaningful human relationship that just happens to be between two men.

 This interview shows that the team at BioWare was conscious of the implications of their character designs and story arcs. They were aware of some of the pitfalls often found when creating gay characters and they at least attempted to avoid them. The full interview can be found  http://blog.bioware.com/2012/05/07/same-sex-relationships-in-mass-effect-3/

 

What do we want to see next

BioWare did several laudable things in Mass Effect 3. So what do we want to see in future games? From both BioWare and other companies I ask for one thing: DIVERSITY! We need more games to show the complexity of human experiences. Let’s have some asexual characters. Let’s have NPCs that are straight but are NOT interested in the main character despite a match in gender and orientation. Let’s have more gay characters. Once we have more diversity, we can tell more stories. The Princess doesn’t always need saving by the Prince and the Prince may not want to marry a Princess anyways. Let’s step out of the box a bit more and get creative. Who would want to play a game with a lesbian necromancer as the main character? I would! And I doubt that I am the only person. Games are meant to be fun to play, so let’s play with the stories and create some new experiences.

The Border House Podcast – Interview: Choice of Games Designer Heather Albano

A rose, logo for Choice of Romance (my favorite!)

A rose, logo for Choice of Romance (my favorite!)

 

A first of hopefully many to come, this is TBH Podcast’s answer to the community’s request for experts in the industry to speak on diversity issues. I had an awesome time talking with Heather Albano, designer at Choice of Games. Many (I want to say all!) deal with gender and sexuality issues in both minor ways and as focal points, and everyone should give them a try! The main games we talk about in this interview are Choice of Broadsides and Choice of Romance, and I strongly encourage you all to play them before listening, though anyone can enjoy this conversation. Also be sure to check out Heather’s website and check out her other writing I’m sure many of you will enjoy: www.heatheralbano.com.

Anyone who is involved with game development, journalism, criticism, or activism and would like to chat with me about how diversity issues relates them, leave a comment here or find me on Twitter to get interviewed!

 

Opening & Closing Credits - Was that away message for me? by 8bit Betty

Armor Watch

We have written about women’s armor in video games several times. Too often we see characters in plate mail bikinis and high heels. But a Tumblr titled Women Fighters in Reasonable Armor has me looking for some positive examples of women’s armor in video games.

I can point at :

Jeanne D'Arc: wearing metal armor that fully protects her chest and arms.

Emma Honeywell (from The Last Remnant): wearing armor with metal plating on her arms, chest, and legs.

 

Samus from the Metroid series: wearing full body armor with no visible vulnerable points.

What are some other games that show women in appropriate armor? How many positive examples can we find? Let’s find some great examples to counteract the plate mail bikinis so often seen in this media.