The Oldest Game - Creating A Newsgame about Sex Work in Canada

The Oldest Game in the Headlines

At the beginning of this new year, we’re thrilled to announce that The Oldest Game is moving along in development and is coming ever closer to beta! We’re in the process of putting the finishing touches on the script in its current form, and after the last gameplay kinks are worked out, we’re looking forward to getting down to play testing. It’s an extremely exciting time for the whole team and we can’t wait for this project to finally debut!

Since we released the trailer for The Oldest Game at the beginning of December to coincide with Bill C-36 being signed into law, there’s been a great deal of interest in the project, to our delight. Jen Zoratti wrote a profile on the game for the Winnipeg Free Press. She spoke to one of our project’s team leads, Sandra Gabriele, who stated that one of the goals of the game was to make the lives of sex workers something less sensationalized, and more real:

“It’s easy to get wrapped up in the morality questions around sex work,” Gabriele says. “We lose sight of the fact that, for many people, it’s a question of survival. It’s a question of working. It’s a question of earning money. The same kind of questions that every other person has.”

Emma Wooley also wrote an in-depth piece about the game for the Globe & Mail, which focussed explored the idea of the newsgame both within and outside of the academy. In this interview, Gabriele also talked about how difficult it is to finalize a script for a game when the discussion surrounding it is evolving all the time: “Just yesterday I said to [writer] Natalie [Walschots]: ‘NOW said they would continue to accept ads on behalf of sex workers, we need a pop up of that!’ The game is constantly changing as story is emerging.” That’s the problem with finishing newsgames: there is always more news!

In the cleverly-titled piece “A Game of Life with Crooked Rules” in The Link, Verity Stevenson spoke to Gabriele about the importance of hiring a sex worker to be a part of the development team as a consultant. Gabriele also discussed some of the specific ways that The Oldest Game hopes to illustrate how Bill C-36 will impact the lives of sex workers, and how “the new laws would force sex workers into dangerous situations by isolating them from their support systems.”

Most recently, Kate Richards also wrote a great feature on The Oldest Game for Comics Gaming Magazine. He piece focussed on the complexities of building the game, the collaboration required and challenges that the newsgame format presents: “The team faced many challenges, Lynch said. After some consultation with more experienced game designers, the team realized the importance of not only getting the message across, but of portraying a realistic representation of the sex worker character in the game and the situations she faces.”

Not all of the responses have been positive, however: in Feminist Current (the one publication that did not interview a member of our development team for their piece), Meghan Murphy questioned how well news games functioned as journalism, stating “not only does this form of “journalism” not count as “journalism” at all, but it succeeds at doing much less than even most lazy mainstream journalism does, in terms of covering this issue, presenting an extremely limited, biased, and underresearched [sic].” We engaged with Meghan Murphy on Twitter, and hope the discussion was productive.

We’re looking forward to getting our games into the hands of supporters and critics, and getting even more responses to the project. Onward!

The Oldest Game: The Newest Trailer

by Sandra Gabriele

On December 6th 2014 (the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women in Canada, commemorating the l’École Polytechnique massacre in Montreal in 1989) Bill C-36 officially came into force. Replacing Canada’s previous laws on sex work, which were struck down as unconstitutional on On December 20th, 2013, the new bill have drawn a great deal of criticism for being even more dangerous to sex workers than the old legislation. While the government has maintains that the bill, dubbed the the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, will make conditions safer, sex workers and their allies have campaigned actively against the bill for placing sex workers much greater risk.

The Oldest Game, a newsgame developed at Concordia University in Montreal QC, seeks to demonstrate how Bill C-36 will impact the lives of sex workers in Canada. The bill continues to criminalize various aspects of sex work, often removing safeguards and strategies that place sex workers in dangerous situation, placing at risk the very vulnerable people the bill ostensibly exists to protect. The Oldest Game allows the player to assume the identity of a sex worker and experience exactly how the legislation will impact the life and work of those it most directly affects.  Through various encounters with clients, colleagues and aw enforcement in three difference Canadian cities, players will experience how the legislation changes the way sex workers live and work, and play through the additional challenges sex workers will face when trying to remain safe.

The official trailer for The Oldest Game is now online,  and development of the game is in the final stretch! The design team will soon be reaching out for beta testers to play through an early version of the game, and can’t wait to release the final product.

The Oldest Game is being developed by Lisa Lynch, Sandra Gabriele, Amanda Feder, Martin Desrosiers, Stephanie Goddard, Ben Spencer, Esther Splett and Natalie Zina Walschots. Follow us on Twitter too!

Creating a Newsgame about Sex Work

We have grown as a team and are building a prototype!

Our design team consists of Martin Desrosiers, responsible for programming the game, Stephanie Goddard, our artist and graphic designer, and Esther Splett, who is writing the dialogue and scenarios with the help of Amanda Feder, research assistant. This project is led by Associate Professors Lisa Lynch and Sandra Gabriele.  You can read more about our team here.  We are meeting as a  regularly, bringing all our respective expertise to the table, in an effort to create engaging and effective gameplay based on our research.

In Newsgames: Journalism at Play, Bogost, Ferrari & Schweizer (2010) argue that newsgames make for an ideal medium to portray a complex system.   We are using a newsgame to demonstrate how the shifting Canadian legislative system governing sex work impacts the lives of sex workers.

But what about when it comes to using a newsgame to depict a marginalized community?  And a marginalized community that is, more often than not, reduced to stereotypes and demonized by the media?

This is what we are currently debating and working through as a team. We want to exploit the video game medium  to inform the Canadian public about legislation that has dangerous implications.  However, we’ve found it can become far more complicated to use a newsgame to offer a complex and realistic depiction of Canadian sex workers.  There is a tension between creating a fun and engaging game and depicting  a lived experience.

As this is a newsgame, it will likely be played for a short period of time.  We need to ensure that a casual player will leave our game knowing more about the realities of sex work in Canada, and will leave the game with a different impression of  sex work than what is portrayed in the media.

To avoid the pitfalls of many other media products that depict sex work in a negative light, we are rooting our creative process in as much up-to-date and specific research about the lived reality of Canadian sex workers. We are also hoping to be transparent about this process on this blog, to spark discussion about the strengths and limitations of creating a video game about a marginalized community.

Some key factors we have been discussing and refining in our game: the look of our sex worker protagonist, how to portray clients, how to depict police interactions, whether to incorporate a ‘pimp’ character, whether to incorporate drug use.

We have also been debating how sexually explicit we want our game to be.  While we clearly can’t shy away from sex, we want the explicitness in scenarios to be framed carefully, to avoid the game being misused as pornographic.

Our game will be taking place in three different cities- Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver- to show how municipal, provincial and federal legislation govern the lives of sex workers, and consequently, how realities for sex workers shift across the country.

Right now, we are currently fine tuning the Montreal portion of the game.


The increasing number of illegal massage parlour in Montreal has been a hot news story as of late.  The city has a reputation for its underground sex trade, and there are approximately 350 illegal massage parlours in the city, with many Montreal boroughs seeing a high escalation in the last few years.  Concertation des luttes contre l’exploitation sexuelle (LaCLES) estimates that 70% of the sex trade on the island of Montreal takes place in massage parlours.

Mayor Coderre announced in November 2013 that he would lead a crackdown on these establishments, as they are assumed to be sites of sexual exploitation and human trafficking. However, such criminalization of sex work can have very dangerous repercussions for those working in massage parlours, even for those that are in fact victims of human trafficking.

Due to this recent focus on massage parlours in the news in Montreal, we’ve decided our Montreal game scenario will take place in a massage parlour.  We want to demonstrate how recent intensification of policing of such sites, and enforcements of Canadian prostitution laws as well as other municipal regulations, put sex workers at risk.  Most commonly, sex workers forgo safety precautions due to fear of being arrested.

For example, massage parlours will sometimes obtain municipal licences as salons, massage therapy clinics, or medical clinics.  These licences allow for police to enter the premises to ensure that the municipal licence regulations are being met.  If police are suspicious that sexual services are being offered at an establishment, they will go in and search for evidence, in particular, condoms, and use this to incriminate sex workers.  This consequently puts pressure on sex workers to forgo protection in fear that it will get them arrested.

This is a key example that we’ve decided to use in our Montreal scenario, as it shows how municipal and federal legislation work together to police sex work.