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.