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.