Different Games: A Report and a Challenge for the Future

Different Games: A Report and a Challenge for the Future

By Alison Harvey.

I had the incredible privilege of attending and presenting at the Different Games conference held at New York University’s Polytechnic Institute on April 26 and 27, 2013. From the moment the conference was announced, I knew that this would be the place to be, as the subtitle for the event was “a conference about diversity, difference and inclusivity in games + culture”, which is basically the perfect summary of my research and activist interests. It also addressed a gap in what is truly an exciting terrain of games events- a place where academics and designers could come together and specifically speak to issues of equity, harassment, and oppression, rather than within the constraints of a special issue summit or other such silo of niche interest. It was also clearly on target in terms of the zeitgeist within game culture, given the tremendous attention being paid to discrimination and prejudice (as demonstrated by the heightened attention to the issue at GDC 2013, for instance). Leading up to the conference, my expectations were only raised, as the @differentgames twitter account posted timely links and the program was shared, proving to be jam-packed with a diverse range of people from game studies, design, and journalism. I felt truly lucky to be able to experience such an opportune event.

In what follows, I will give a brief report on the conference and include some of my thoughts regarding something I believe needs to be reflected on, talked about, and addressed in the future. Different Games lived up to my expectations in myriad ways, igniting amazing conversations, showcasing the variety of perspectives and experiences that underlie difference and diversity in games, and proving that incredible things can happen when you move beyond conversations that end with the call for greater diversity but actually probe what that multiplicity and divergence might look and work like. It also highlighted some places that we need to do better in, specifically ableist practices and language and attentiveness to how we, in our pursuit of inclusivity, must be ever mindful of how every single day our ally card expires and we need to actively work to earn it again, particular when it pertains to the differently-abled.

I was definitely primed to this question, because of the challenge raised prior to the event on Twitter by Professor Jason Nolan (@jasonnolan) and then addressed by the organizers.

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Of course, the fact that disability was the subject of a talk (mine and Sara Grimes’, actually) is not the same as having speakers with disabilities present and visible, and I do think this is something that needs to be acknowledged and pursued more actively should this conference happen again.

Before the panel and keynote on Friday night, we were asked by the organizers to read and sign the inclusivity statement included in the front of our conference programmes. Aside from being a tremendously thoughtful statement clearly outlining what it means to foster a safe environment at a conference, this highlighted the need in other spaces for such a document. The etiquette outlined in this statement included items that should be upheld at any gathering, from waiting for others to finish speaking before replying to engaging in active listening and refraining from dominating a discussion. Importantly, it also included the injunction to refrain from the use of “words that are racist, sexist, homophobic, classist, cissexist, and ableist” providing examples of the latter, including “crazy”, “lame”, and “retarded”. It was interesting to me that no examples of racist, sexist, and homophobic language were included, which indicates that many times people might not recognize that their language is problematic, particularly given the frequency of use of many of these terms in mainstream popular culture, including “white trash”, “tranny”, and any of the ableist terms indicated above. “Crazy” is a particularly sticky one, quite pervasive and difficult to unseat from everyday terminology, and this was exemplified throughout the conference, as it was used on numerous occasions. I will return to this point later.

After the review of the inclusivity statement and the welcome address, Lynn Hughes and Heather Kelley discussed the exhibition they curated in Paris last summer, Joue le Jeu/Play Along. They provided a review of the various parts of the exhibit, and discussed the need for an inclusive definition of games. Hughes mentioned that this is particular important coming from the perspective of being a new media artist and being asked to justify her interest in a seemingly “fringe phenomena”. They fielded some questions about their selection criteria for the games and artists in the exhibit, and admitted to working under many structural constraints, including time. They concluded, “we could have thought more about it”, which I think is not a bad way to move forward in any project.

This was followed by Mary Flanagan’s keynote on critical play, inclusive design, and revolutionary games. I won’t spend a lot of time summarizing this talk because the prolific and lightning-fast games journalist Leigh Alexander has already posted a full recap on Gamasutra. But my favourite observation of hers was that being critical doesn’t preclude making games that are whimsical and fun, so long as they entail reflection.

This was the first time that the question of ableist language was raised, by Courtney Stanton (@q0rt) on Twitter. Unfortunately, it was not the last time.

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After the first keynote, everyone migrated to a wine-and-cheese reception and then the game arcade held in the Game Innovation Lab. A few of the presenters had games showcased there, including Antidote Games, Tiltfactor, and Robert Yang, and there were also a range of other titles. I particularly enjoyed the aggressive tongue battles of “I Love You But You Kiss Like a Girl”, and overall the juxtaposition of games that were radical, subversive, or experimental in different ways.

The second day of the conference was even more jam-packed. After opening remarks from co-organizer Sara Schoemann, where she made the observation that it is important to bring bodies together in this way in a society where bodies are discussed and disciplined all the time, attendees dispersed to different kinds of sessions, which included panels, workshops, and breakouts. I stayed in the auditorium throughout the day, and so unfortunately cannot speak to what looked like a bunch of interesting sessions and workshops, including discussions on Queering Games and Navigating Sexism in the Industry. But all four panels on Saturday were incredible.

The first, entitled “Who’s at the Table?: Approaches to Inclusive Play” brought together a range of academic projects addressing questions of age, gender, race, and ability in games culture. John Sharp of Parsons discussed a number of initiatives he’s conducted with Colleen Macklin on game-making curricula for children. He notes that his program is startlingly diverse, and attributes this to the fact it is called the School of Art, Media and Technology (and “games” does not appear in the name at all). He posited that the range of students in the program leads to a wider array of games and play experiences being designed by them. But they have concluded that pulling people into games needs to start earlier (prior to college) and start differently (from a different approach than the engineering/corporate models). To this end, Sharp and Macklin have designed a number of game-making curricula, and they have detailed the “gory problems” with these initiatives in their chapter in Games, Learning, and Society. Based on the lessons learned there, they have commenced their next project, ArtPlay, wherein they attempt to integrate games within an arts curriculum, with less of an emphasis on making. Instead, they have mimicked the “experience, create, response” model with “play, make, appreciate” in order to foster ludic literacy. I particularly liked Sharp’s injunction to “embrace failure as a healthy part of the creative process”, as failure was a central theme of Different Games, heavily influenced by Halberstam’s recent Queer Art of Failure and its indirect applicability to games. Their manifesto is primarily targeted at changing the current climate of games, and (re)connecting games to life.  I was left wondering at the end of this talk what it would mean for this ecology if we were to switch the order of play, make, appreciate, and what this ordering of ludic literacy tells us about how we understand making as well as consumption and critique. It was definitely food for thought.

Sharp and Macklin’s presentation was followed by Carolyn Jong of TAG lab presenting on the controversy related to an interview given by Jennifer Helper. Her presentation did a great job of linking the discourse of casual/hardcore games and players to an underlying implicit commentary on gender and legitimacy. In particular, discriminatory discourse related to the Hepler case was linked to time and wealth poverty, and Jong compellingly theorized this through Bourdieu’s notion of cultural capital and then Mia Consalvo’s adaptation of this as gaming capital. She noted that these discussions serve as a means of guarding privilege in game culture, and then she closed by citing some initiatives that break this cycle, including Toronto-based Dames Making Games and the Pixelles project in Montreal.

Up next was Gabriela T. Richard of NYU on “Why Designing Diversity in Games and Play Matters: A Case Study of Latino Gamers’ Experiences Across Gender”. She provided a comprehensive critical review of games and gender equity research and then noted that there is very little research on Latino gamers in particular, wherein it is just as likely that speaking out against oppressive power dynamics will lead to silencing and harassment due to the environmental bias in games.  In order to demonstrate how this leads to stereotype threat, she overviewed 5 case studies from her dissertation. Some interesting themes were that these players tended to be introduced to games by their families, they emphasized social bonding, and they valued role-playing in games. Females emphasized the lack of choices in regards to ethnic representations in the characters, whereas males were quicker to assert confidence in their skills. Very interestingly, and contrary to the great hopes that games will lead to careers in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, none have pursued that path. This was because they had access to consoles but not computers, and also did not have parental support for moving forward with games.

The last talk of the panel was by me and Sara Grimes of the Semaphore Lab at the University of Toronto’s iSchool, and you can download our Prezi if you want to see what that was about.

The second panel focused on “Critical Design”, and these presenters detailed a number of serious games projects, both actual and utopian. Mohini Dutta of Antidote Games presented on “Games Colonialism” and how to make serious games that do not encapsulate Western values, learning from experience. She noted that many times the actual player is the last consideration in game design, because we are “making games for ourselves”, which presented a needed call to action. This tied in very well with Amanda Feder’s (of Concordia University) talk about making a newsgame about prostitution in The Oldest Game. Both Dutta and Feder emphasized the shortcomings of relying on academic research in the content of games, which is very often conservative and Western-focused. “Can we highlight the gaps in academic research in our game?”, they both asked, while trying to also balance ethical relationships to the subjects of their games. For Feder, the question in particular was how to accurately present sex work without stigmatizing or stereotyping it, a design challenge she continues to grapple with. This was followed by Raiford Guins’ depiction of a way in which we might unsettle default whiteness in game design by bringing a utopian perspective to imagining an anti-racist, anti-CIA game. In question period, Guins (from Stony Brook University) went into more detail about how to do this by referring his notion of a First Person Resister, wherein we bring a different language/terminology into games. These three talks provoked a lively conservation about whether the act of designing games for cultures that are not your own are in effect well-intentioned neocolonialism.

This provocative conversation was followed by what was acknowledged by many as a superstar panel on “Difference in Design: Creating Space Through Personal Perspective”. In the wake of the growth of small and very personal games, often made in Twine, these four presenters spoke about the “personal” in games. In Robert Yang’s talk “First Personal” he proposed the use of the term ‘focalization’ as opposed to immersion, flow, and point of view in order to talk about consciousness and catharsis as well as how games say things as opposed to asking what they say. The power of this term is that it allows you to think about presence and distance at the same time. This was followed by Anna Anthropy on “How to Make Games about Being a Dominatrix”, with live-illustrated slides by Daphne David. Her entire talk was inspiring, but the take-away was definitely “Context is everything!”, including in no small measure the social and political systems of power that shape our lived experiences.

Next up was Mattie Brice and her talk “Life is a Game” in which she introduced her game Mainichi, characterized as an empathy sim. She says that we need to ask “who are our audiences” in all their plurality, because we speak to many different kinds of people at once. She noted that the mechanics of Twine allow her to demonstrate structurally the subtleties of privilege. She also talked about the movement in games journalism to embrace more personal experiences and how acknowledging subjectivities allows for greater substantive diversity. She concluded by noting that some current issues that circulate around personal games are cultural legitimacy, accessible development, digital supremacy (when we say game we really often mean video game), and the need for more voices. Very compellingly, she posited that it can be fruitful to engage with non-iterative design in personal games, as editing can diminish one’s voice in this form- an argument that raised a lot of discussion later.

The final talk was by Haitham Ennasr on “The Fabricated, the Modern, and the Personal”, wherein the subject of the cultural imperialism of digital games was raised again. He noted that indie gaming has a narrative as much as triple A, which can be just as exclusionary, a needed reminder in many circumstances. Leigh Alexander then led a thoughtful discussion on how to choose what to say when making a personal game, on which the panellists had little agreement (Yang said he was too boring to make a personal game, whereas Anthropy said she made those personal games because nobody else would). Alexander wrote up yet another comprehensive summary of this panel for Gamasutra.

At this point the problem of recurrent ableist language was raised again, which led to the organizers reminding everyone of the inclusivity statement and the need to avoid discriminatory language. I think it’s important to note that this was pointed out in a non-accusatory but also unapologetic tone, and that the organizers addressed the issue immediately by reminding attendees of the inclusivity statement and its reference to non-exclusionary language. I appreciated the direct and transparent approach to maintaining a safe space.

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The last panel of the day was “Queering the Encounters and Querying Representation: the Question of Embodiment in Gaming”, a fairly theoretical engagement with questions of queerness, with full acknowledgement of the multiple definitions and applications of queerness in games culture. Adrienne Shaw gave Ben Aslinger’s talk (he is from Bentley University), which challenged the applicability and power of queer theory when talking about games, game design, and game culture. Queer theory can provide compelling insights but can also be critiqued for its focus on texts rather than the embodiment of queer living. Staci Tucker provided the evidence of needing to talk about actual people, experiences, and materiality when she reviewed the case of an out lesbian player being suspended from Xbox Live for expressing her sexual identity in her gamer tag. This rule no longer exists, but it did until 2009. Tucker, who is at the University of Oregon, reviewed a number of incidents in gaming culture related to sexism and homophobia in order to suggest some conclusions about griefing. In particular, many see anonymity as equalling no consequences for harassment and hate speech, or their hate speech as simply irony or humour.

Adrienne Shaw of Temple University followed up with a compelling presentation on representation in video games, and the rise of the discourse on why representation matters. She asked how she could tie her belief that representation matters with what she heard from her research participants, which is that they don’t care. If people don’t care, can that be an argument for the importance of representation? She posited that many marginalized populations have simply given up on seeing themselves represented in games. “People like us” rarely appear in the media in any case and the assumption that marginalized people must demand representation marginalizes them further. This rhetoric also tends to segment identity further, and she cites Audre Lorde’s callout to second wave feminists about using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. Too much of this is argued through the positioning of diversity as profitable (ie we can target new markets for our products if we represent diversity in our franchises).

The moderator, Jacob Gaboury, asked about the checkbox-checking nature of diversity discussions today to question whether there is a method we can use to queer games. Shaw noted that queerness can be many things, including queerness as a game design practice, queer players, queer content, etc. She also noted that games are not inherently unqueer, indeed she cited failure as queer (mentioning both Halberstam and Jesper Juul’s The Art of Failure).

The final event of the day was Celia Pearce’s presentation “Kickstarting a Revolution: One Tweet at a Time”. In her keynote, she provided a lovely overview of the history of games and gender-based exclusion as well as recent events that have challenged this norm. Two points that she highlighted throughout was 1) the increasing visibility of male allies and 2) the attention being paid to sexism in the games industry in mainstream channels such as Forbes and The Huffington Post. She noted that both Anita Sarkeesian as well as Shannon Sun-Higginson, maker of the GTFO documentary, come from outside games culture and are able to see what so many within games culture have been numbed to. She said we still have a long way to go, and pointed everyone to one strong example of suggestions for how to create a more inclusive video game industry.

Social media engagement throughout was very high, as evidenced by the fact that the hashtag #differentgames was trending in NYC. I highly recommend a scroll through the tweets for a sampling of the takeaways from the speakers as well as the discourse amongst participants and attendees. You can also see Carolyn Jong’s blog post or Samit Sarkar’s article for two other takes on the event.

As this review hopefully evinces, the level of discussion, political engagement, and provocative and challenging thought was high throughout the conference, fostering dialogue that not only celebrates diversity but probes what it means- within spaces, across practices, throughout texts, and beyond. It was an incredibly inspiring conference, and I think that the gaps that remain, as highlighted through the issue of ableist practices and language throughout the conference, are well within our ability to deal with effectively and thoughtfully. I did hear in unofficial chats some disagreement with whether this even constitutes an issue, and whether the intentionality and identity of the speaker should come into play when considering whether “crazy” in particular as it was used was ableist language. Given the above-mentioned absence of people with visible disabilities at the conference, and the fact that there is disagreement in some quarters about whether this constitutes discriminatory or derogatory language, I hope that next time this conference happens (which I sincerely hope it does), we can think and talk about ability and inclusivity in more depth. In the meantime, we can all work on the precision of our language. But given the high level of critical engagement with diversity and inclusion in practice at the conference, I hope we can go beyond language to more actively engage with disability in the future.

Alison Harvey is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Faculty of Information (iSchool) at the University of Toronto, where she is co-leading a project on inclusive design informed by the adaptive play of children with disabilities. She recently obtained her PhD from the Joint Graduate Programme in Communication and Culture at York and Ryerson Universities, where she studied gender- and age-based exclusion related todomesticated gameplay technologies.