My thoughts on Gotland Game Conference 2013: Creating Equal Spaces

Gotland Game Conference 2013

By Malin Lövenberg.

A few weeks ago, I was a juror at Gotland Game Conference, judging the student projects and giving them feedback on what I liked and on what I thought they could improve, and of course, asking them uncomfortable questions. I was also fortunate enough to be able to speak with others jurors, who some of them were speakers at the event. Their thoughts and ideas gave me so many other intriguing questions that I’d like to summarize them for all of you to enjoy as well.

So first thing first; how many of you have been offended by a comment on “the internet”?

There are problems (and liberation) with anonymity and freedom of speech, we all know it. Some do not believe they should have to care about the receivers of their bile, as anyone can lash out, even in real life, if the person in question has had a bad day and something in the community triggers it.

However, the receivers might have had a bad day as well, and what you have right there is the beginning of a flame war. Sheri Graner Ray, a Studio Design Director from Schell Games mentioned, “my grandmother had a saying that went; it’s only funny if both are laughing“, to which her co-worker, game blogger and designer, Amanda Lange (who gave a speech about the gaming community) agreed, saying that she can appreciate good slander, as long as it’s actually creative.

That made me ponder on something I read in a narrative book once; saying how many young writers loved including swear words for the mere sake of effect, and how writing without it, but still getting the aggressive tone you wanted, is actually an amazing (yet difficult) creative process.

There are typical slurs we’ve all heard that are known to affect the receiver negatively. It’s to trigger a response, and one of the unfortunate yet effective ways to make them disappear if a moderator is not there to step in, is to ignore/block them. As Amanda Lange mentioned in her speech; ”don’t feed the trolls”.

But there might be other ways to prevent this. Will Bonner’s speech “Safe by Design” went into how video game companies are working against this aggressive behavior between players, and how they want to build a steady community, showing examples of rewarding community events. We all want to play hero/ines in games, so why not make a game mechanic out of actually helping real players instead of only non-playable characters, right?

And speaking of non-playable characters; Heidi McDonald’s speech referenced how our feelings towards them can help with breaking down gender barriers and stereotypes. McDonald argued that these in-game romances with NPC’s, as they are most often called, are functioning as a safe space for players who are experimenting with sexual identity. She also slightly touched on how we as players tend to admire NPC’s who would make terrible partners in real life, explaining that we are drawn to the shadow personality — a key idea in Jungian psychology. It’s like this in a lot of popular culture, the TV-series Girls’ highly dysfunctional yet popular character Adam Sackler (I-disrespect-you-and-pee-on-you-in-the-shower, stalker ex-boyfriend) being a great example. Could these stereotypes deafen our warning signals when it comes to a dysfunctional partner, and are video games a part of that?

Gotland Game Conference 2013 2Another question also arose, asking why it was difficult to make religious NPC’s romance-able, which in an inclusive-perspective intrigued me. Are all religious characters seen as extremists in video games? I have encountered many religious side-characters, but not many of them are allowed to have a major impact on the player’s video game life. Are we as developers shying away from giving religious and political views to the players, and is that good, or bad? Would the players listen and even agree to racism (or on the other side of the spectrum; anti-racism), if they wanted to sleep with a non-playable character?

As the speeches were given out one by one, questions just kept on popping up in my head. Derek A. Burrill’s speech “Watch Your Ass!: Masculinity, Play and Games” actually made a point of having that as its pure intention. He had many slides with a mere image, wanting to trigger a response in the listener’s head, to which he succeeded; at least with me. He went through mixes of human and cyborg; half-there, half-not, gender vs non-gender, what is masculinity, the regressive state of boyhood and the reason a human being playing a video game is able to disconnect itself from its body and transfer itself onto a character on screen, which Heidi McDonald also nudged on; Identity Tourism.

Why aren’t we taking more thought into that fact?

I might be new to this, but the realization that I am not the only one who was incapable of answering easy questions such as “what time are you going to work tomorrow“ after playing Guild Wars 2 felt amazing. I usually need a whole hour to be able to connect to my body and the real world again; I just never questioned why.

Gotland Game Conference 2013 3As Derek proceeded, video games started sounding confusingly spiritual. However, what I feel is that we often uplift ourselves within a game by playing the hero/ine, instead of going through experiences that uplifts us into the real world. How far can we push our mind from our body to be able to experience and understand new things?

If video games such as Anna Anthropy’s “Dys4ia” can make us understand how it is going through hormonal treatment, and the game “Social Anxiety“ (that was presented by two students on Gotland Game Conference’s show floor) can make us grasp social anxiety by using the mechanics of a stealth game… What else is out there?

Derek also mentioned that many sexual assaults in the army go unreported, overwhelmingly perpetrated by men against women, and how he studied players (particularly players who have gone on to serve or who are vets and have played) of the video game “America’s Army”; a game more or less designed to make people enlist. I thought of the characters of Apocalypse Now; the insanity that was portrayed in it, and how jokes about sexuality and gender made the seriousness of the “batshit crazy”-stuff around them disappear.

I tried recreating the male characters in that film as video game players in my head, interacting with female players playing the same game.

Do you all remember the Playboy models in Apocalypse Now? How they almost got torn off the stage, and how they met up with the main characters later? How the models wanted to connect to them while all the boys at war could think of were the objectified “Bunny” images they had seen of them, and how they wanted to re-create it? “Could you wear this black wig? Pose like you did on that poster, I believe you were holding your hand right here.”

Some of the war veterans couldn’t even touch the game “America’s Army” after they came home from war, but some actually came back to it, saying it was cathartic (and other players Derek had studied unfortunately committed suicide after returning home). It made me wonder how many players of war-oriented games are suffering from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, and what in those type of games made it specifically a cathartic experience for them. How are they acting towards their environment while playing it?

Gotland Game Conference 2013 4I started questioning how games can be created to help people deal with issues they can’t otherwise. As an example, I created a concept for a game a few years back about a non-entity who changed masks to be able to interact with non-playable characters (as I myself at the time was struggling with the question: what is it to be truly “me”, and what is “me” hiding behind a mask?), and Derek mentioned he was working with a transgendered person to create a game about constantly needing to fit in with the NPC’s, and if you did not “pass” they would harm you.

In a way, these two are about the same thing; exploration of oneself, not the imaginary world around you, and it made me happy to see that people are on the same track. A lot of people might shy away from that type of game however, just because that they’re uncomfortable with the subject.

So how can we take players outside of their comfort-zone; outside of their own bodies, without scaring them? For example, how can we make a serious game without using the label that most people connect with *”boring”?

*sorry, but in my experience, they do.

One of the jurors; Jan-Jaap Severs, a founder of a game company whose motto is “both entertainment and serious games should be ‘seriously entertaining’”, mentioned that he likes Serious Games who aren’t so blatantly obvious about it. It made me wonder; if a serious game’s main goal is to teach you something, what if the learning part was a conscious decision by the designers, yet a subconscious side-effect for the players? What would it look like if a serious game would hide the intention of its mechanics? Would it work the same way? Would it be morally wrong not to mention its intent?

Another interesting question was why many females stopped playing video games when they were twelve. Is that the age a female is pushed into her social inheritance? A man once told me that his father burned all of his gothic-oriented clothing and make up when he was sixteen, saying more or less that he wasn’t allowed to look like a girl anymore. Is that the age a male is pushed into his social inheritance as well? Why?

It’s true that the “Boys Club” was at many times under the microscope during this conference, and it did offend a lot of people in the audience. Many asked “Why do you see us as the enemy?“, and unfortunately, even though there was a panel hosted by Pernilla Alexandersson (creator of Add Gender; a creative analysis and advisory company for equality), which had many talented and well-prepared individuals, they were only given an hour, which was far too short to really go anywhere. The juror and speaker Thor Rutgersson even had a 12-page document on his iPad with responses to questions he believed would come up.

The thing I believe many were offended by was that they forget they can choose not to be a part of that which is “Boys Club” behavior as long as they accept its existence. This includes women as well, which Game Designer Åsa Roos explained by telling her story of being a sexist until the company she was working for at the time maltreated her with its “Boys Club” behavior, which in turn sledge-hammered her into reality. I’m very happy that she took the moment to broadcast how many women in this industry might treat their own gender badly just because they believe it’s necessary to belong, and that they shouldn’t have to.

Gotland Game Conference 2013 5To quote a famous article from; “In Which We Teach You How To Be A Woman In Any Boys’ Club” : “[The] Megan Fox Syndrome, aka Wendy from Peter Pan. It is the delusion that you can become an official part of the boys’ club if you are its strictest enforcer, its most useful prole. That if you follow the rules exactly you can become the Official Woman. If you refuse other women admission you are denying that other women are talented, which makes you just as bad as any boys’ club for thinking there would only be one talented girl at a time.“

This includes other minorities as well, not just women. And to be frank, you can‘t blame people who think this way, seeing as a lot of popular culture still only has one slot to fill for its “one minority ethnicity“, “one queer“, “one female“ criteria. Heck, sometimes they even try to push them all into one person so they don’t have to bother with more diversity, or believe that if they have one out of three, they’re good to go. There should be more than just one mold and one role to fill, but many of us have been imprinted to believe otherwise.

Gotland Game Conference 2013 6The point of this conference was not to exclude anyone, quite the opposite. It wanted to make students question what video games as a popular culture and work-environment is doing to those who are involved with it, so that they themselves could be a part of changing it for the better.

As Tom Abernathy (Narrative Designer at Microsoft Studios) said it in his speech “Diversity Equals Dollars”; “Our audience is not only leaving us behind; we haven’t even realized they’ve already left.”

If you’d like to watch the speeches I’ve mentioned, they are all readily available at Gotland University’s youtube channel.

Malin Lövenberg is a story writer and game designer who has worked on games like Deponia 3: Goodbye Deponia and The Night of the Rabbit. She has a BA with a major in Game Design from Gotland’s University and enjoys any sort of narrative that makes her feel like she’s somewhere over the rainbow. Her twitter is @malinlovenberg.