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

The Different Games Conference

We were thrilled to be invited to present at Different Games: A Two Day Conference on Diversity and Inclusiveness in Digital Games.  The conference was held on April 26th-27th 2013 at NYU’s Polytechnic Institute in Brooklyn, New York.  It showcased the diverse and important work that is taking place in the world of games by designers and academics who are dedicated to fighting for social justice.  I will only highlight a few of the presentations that were useful to our project, though there were many talks that were productive and enlightening.

Firstly, I presented on a panel entitled “Critical Design”.  This panel featured Mohini Dutta presenting “Games Colonialism: Cultural Assumptions in Game Design”, and Raiford Guins with “Radical Entertainment Arts: It Needs to Be In the Game”.  Overall, the panel clearly showcased their commitment to making games more inclusive and diverse, whether it be through representations in games or being mindful of the diversity of game players. The panel led to an interesting and challenging discussion with how game designers can bridge difference. Should designers be making games about marginalized communities when they are not part of these groups?  Should representatives from this community be part of the design process? Will players encountering representations different from themselves simply experience them as exotic?  These questions are not easily answered, and are currently what we are grappling with in dealing with the representation of sex workers in our game. It led me to reflect on feminist approaches to ethnography and how they might be useful to our design process. This scholarship highlights the importance of reflexivity and transparency, and a model of “speaking with”.  This involves making our position as media-makers clear so that its limits can be recognized and challenged, fostering a dialogue about these kinds of dilemmas.

Renowned video game scholar and designer Mary Flanagan gave one of the keynote addresses entitled “Critical Play: Inclusive Design, Revolutionary Games”.  She expressed the importance of looking at what values games perpetuate through their gameplay. Flanagan spoke of her innovative game designs created through Tiltfactor game research laboratory, which she founded in 2003, and gave an overview of her process of creating games to encourage girls’ interest in science. Flanagan asserted that balancing fun and play with social values is crucial. Based on the work of Judith Butler, she argued that working within the systems of power that exist does not necessarily mean you are perpetuating those systems of power.  This related to her use of the traditional party game format, or her experimentation with corporate partnerships to help market her game. This argument is particularly useful to our project. While we want our game to fight stereotypes against sex workers, we also may want to use more traditional gameplay to reach a wider audience that may not be thinking about these issues prior to encountering our game.

The panel “Difference In Design: Creating Space Through Personal Perspective” highlighted how games based on personal experience can be used to challenge the status quo. Anna Anthropy spoke about her games based on her polygamist relationships and her experiences being a dominatrix. While these works are extremely personal, they also work to promote the visibility of queer identities in video games. Similarly, Mattie Brice spoke about creating games based on personal experiences that in fact challenge gender inequalities and bring diverse voices to game design. What was interesting about both these speakers is that they both mentioned creating gameplay based on interpersonal/potentially sexual dynamics. Overall, this panel asserted the value of personal experience, highlighting that the personal can be political. This is very relevant to our project, as we do hope to ground our project in the personal experiences of sex workers. I look forward to blogging more about these artists’ games.

On the whole, the conference spoke to the amazing and diverse initiatives that are taking place in the world of games to make the field more inclusive and potentially transformative.  For example, Lynn Hughes and Heather Kelley spoke of the games exhibit they curated at the Gaite Lyrique in Paris, an exhibit which highlighted the vast potential of the games medium, and the ability of designers to think outside the box and push the form forward while exploring socially conscious subject matter. What I took from the conference is that we need to find more innovative ways to fully exploit the medium we are working with, to use it to its best potential.

We’re starting to prototype!

Prototyping is an essential development stage to creating a video game. It allows you to create your video game idea relatively cheaply and rapidly for the purpose of testing your game play concepts. A creative team should not get attached to their prototype. Prototypes are used to test whether game mechanics are successful or problematic, and therefore should be easily discarded if they don’t work in an effort to redesign the video game. A prototype should focus more on the game mechanics than the visual look of the game- and many online blogs/articles recommend that you don’t focus on it looking professional but keep the aesthetic very simple.

Some online resources for thinking about prototyping:

 Jonathan Blow gives a talk about prototyping at the Independent Games Summit 2007, sharing the prototype for his very successful indie game “Braid”. This is a good example of how prototypes should focus on the game mechanics rather than aesthetics.

“Lessons of Rapid Prototyping” by Douglas Lynn

Lynn highlights good questions a team should ask before prototyping, such as: what is the time length of gameplay going to be? How many different gameplay elements will be involved? How many different functions do you need to code?

“Why Newsgame Development Should Look to Paper Prototyping” by Simon Ferrari

Ferrari recommends paper prototyping as it allows creators to test their game without needing advanced computer programming skills.

“Paper Prototyping: 5 Facts for Designing in Low-Tech” by Rich Marmura

Marmura has some good tips, such as: test your paper prototype with a few non-team members before testing with larger groups to check for kinks, and think think of size of final platform and recreate this in your prototype, as this can affect game play.

“How to Be an Indie Game Developer” by Mode 7

Mode 7 recommends prototyping high-risk components of your game to make sure they can be successful. Mode 7 also offers these helpful tips:

“Try to get the player making interesting, meaningful decisions as quickly as possible. Try to minimize the total amount of time the player has to do boring things. Try to include at least one completely innovative element, even if it’s just a small thing “

Prostitution in computer games

Prostitutes are often depicted in video games as minor, non-player characters. These representations are usually negative, associating prostitutes with social ills and perpetuating stereotypes of sex workers as deviant, subservient to male desire, and victims of violence and drugs. Player interactions with sex workers can sometimes lead to a “health boost” or some other form of reward within the game. Prostitutes are therefore represented as objects to be exploited for the player’s personal gain. Often, prostitutes are simply present in virtual worlds to contribute to a seedy atmosphere, meant to convey that a particular environment is crime-ridden. Few video games offer insight into the perspective of sex workers

Prostitutes are repeatedly depicted as victims of violence and drugs. Some games depict them as victims of horrendous murders (Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the RipperHo-Tel), others portray them as drug addicts (Liberal Crime Squad). Sometimes, players are given the option of intervening or allowing for the prostitute to be killed (as in the case of Red Dead RedemptionHeavy Rain). In other games, most famously in Grand Theft Auto, the player is actually given the option of beating up a prostitute for gain within the game.

When prostitutes are characters in the story, as in the case of Gun Showdown or Heavy Rain, the narrative situates them as looking for ways to escape the world of prostitution. Sex work is not depicted as a choice but the product of difficult life circumstances. In both of these games, the prostitutes are attacked and players decide whether to intervene or not. In Deus Ex: Human Revolution, there is a somewhat positive representation of a prostitute in the character of Mei Suen. She runs a brothel, takes care of her employees, and is clever and strong enough not to succumb to the wills of the criminals that eventually take over her business. However, she can be knocked out or killed by the player.

Ho-Tel, “A Game of Ho’s & Whores”, puts the player in the position of a pimp who must build a sex industry empire. This game explicitly depicts sex workers as objects to be controlled and exploited. Although to have a successful business the player must keep their employees happy, this can done through buying sex workers cocain or allowing them to “suck on your dick”. All other options the player has, such as buying employees “whore clothes” or paying for their plastic surgery, have to do with making sex workers more attractive and therefore more profitable.

Because prostitutes are non-player characters, they are awarded no agency within game play. Prostitutes are never portrayed as empowered subjects but as victims to their profession. Furthermore, interactions between a sex worker and a player are not portrayed as negotiated business transactions. Prostitutes simply succumb to the sexual “desires” of the player at the click of a console.

RESOURCE: Giant Bomb