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.

SCENARIO 1: MONTREAL

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.

Possible Scenarios

In this section, we’ve included different video game concepts that could be used to explore the changes occurring to Canadian prostitution laws. We are currently moving forward with Scenario 4. 

The three prostitution laws that were questioned in the Ontario Court of Appeal case have multiple implications not only for prostitutes, but also for Canadian citizens. The key issues at stake are violence against sex workers, the perpetuation of sex work, and the visibility of sex workers in residential communities (along with related crimes that can come along with this). In a video game, players are faced with the reality that these variables do not work in isolation but are interconnected. Players learn that prostitution cannot be treated as a black-and-white issue, and that any action taken on the issue has dynamic implications. Video games as a medium can be superior in clearly conveying the complexities of systemic issues by synthesizing the coverage of the case into a visual format to make the stakes clear. Furthermore, players are encouraged to critically reflect on the information presented and to take a stance on the issues at play.

Scenario 1: players can interact with an information graphic that allows them to understand the interrelated risks at play. Players must decide how to rule on the three laws. They have the option of reading through evidence and testimony that was entered at the trial. When a player clicks on the option to strike down a law or to uphold it, a map of Toronto displays the consequences of their decisions. Graphics on the map illustrate how violence against sex workers increases or decreases, or whether sex workers multiply in new areas of the city.

This is similar to the game Budget Hero or the New York Times game Budget Puzzle: You Fix the Budget. “The graphical display itself is dynamic, changing in real-time to provide visual feedback. One does not manipulate the display haphazardly, but with a goal in mind…” (Bogost, Ferrari, Schweizer 28).

Players will soon realize that every choice has positive and negative implications, and must inevitably prioritize the safety of sex workers or the possible safety of residential neighborhoods. The players’ final choices are then compared to the Ontario Court of Appeal ruling, and a rating is awarded accordingly. The game also keeps track of every player’s decisions, and an individual player can compare their choices to those of others.

Scenario 2: the game puts you in the role of a police officer who must decide whether to enforce all three laws, while crime in the city to a minimum.  You have the option to raid brothels, arrest those living off the avails of prostitution, and to enforce the communication law- all of which are rewarded with points.  However, all these actions can lead to more prostitutes on the street, more violence against sex workers, and sex work and related crimes spreading to residential communities. Every time a sex worker is hurt, you must collect a statement, which leads a player to losing points. Every time you receive a complaint about prostitution from a residential neighborhood, you must collect a statement and lose a small amount of points. Enforcing the three laws all the time inevitably leads to much more crime than a player can handle, while taking no action at all can lead to complaints stacking up from residential neighborhoods. Ultimately, the player must judge how to strike a balance between enforcing the laws and letting certain crimes go. They also must learn that enforcing certain laws leads to more violence than others.

This game is allows a player to experience the trade-offs of the three prostitution laws. It is similar to Zangief Kid – The Game. The Zangief Kid must strike a balance between attacking bullies and avoiding their advances. The rhetoric of the game is one can’t take an extreme position on prostitution.

Scenario 3: You are a police detective that must capture a serial killer who is targeting prostitutes. You must also keep the prostitutes safe. However, the 3 key laws in question are illegal, and you must enforce them, despite the fact that this can lead to more deaths. To help keep violence to a minimum, you have the option of moving sex workers into zones of tolerance (but this can lead to more deaths), dispersing prostitutes across the city, bringing prostitutes to a shelter to keep them safe (although some will refuse to go), or simply arresting them. 

 This game is similar to Operation: Pedopriest, where you are a Vatican official trying to both protect children from priests and also protect priests from police, parents, and the media. The rules governing your job restrict your ability to stop horrible offenses from taking place. In the case of Pedopriest, your involvement with the Vatican inevitably ties you to the crimes of other priests, even while trying to protect children. In this scenario, your role as police officer connects your actions to the deaths of prostitutes, even though you are trying to catch the murderer.

Scenario 4: You are a sex worker who must meet as many safe clients as possible, collecting money to pay your bills and rent on time.  You must avoid getting arrested and thrown into jail, or getting into the car with a violent client that will land you in the hospital. Both kinds of encounters could keep you from meeting your financial needs. It is illegal to keep a brothel, to live off the avails of prostitution, and to communicate in public for the purposes of prostitution. However you have the option to break all of these laws in the interest of avoiding violence, while risking being arrested. Therefore, you can join or open your own brothel, hire a driver or bodyguard, or communicate in public for the purposes of prostitution in order to decipher whether a client is safe. This game fits what Ian Bogost calls a “rhetoric of failure”. This game shows that it is impossible to work as a sex worker safely if the three key laws remain illegal. This game is similar to September 12th. In this game, players must kill terrorists, but soon discover that every death they cause only leads to the creation of more terrorists. Players are informed before entering the game that they will not be able to win. Despite this fact, half a million people have played September 12th thus far, according to creator Gonzalo Frasca’s blog.

Scenario 5: similar to the game Be a Reporter. The player must gather evidence from a variety of sources, becoming familiar with the key players in the case and what is at stake. You must select to be a lawyer representing Terri-Jean Bedford, Amy Lebovitch and Valerie Scott, or the Attorney-General of Canada. You must search a map of Canada collecting testimony or evidence to build your case. When you initially find a piece of evidence or testimony, you are given a small piece of information about it. From that, you must guess if it will help you and you’d like to collect it, or whether you would like to leave it behind. You lose points every time you collect a piece of evidence or testimony that hurts your case.

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 “