Leaving Sex Work and Writing Complexities

We are getting closer and closer to the final stages of game design, but there are still some questions that haunt us, particularly how to end the game’s narrative in a way that represents the diverse experiences of sex workers. Representing and writing complexly has been a challenge throughout the entire project. The more and more research we do, the clearer it becomes that there is, of course, no singular experience of sex work. However this becomes particularly more nuanced when we consider the ending of the game, as the note we decide to end on will likely leave the most lasting impression on the player.

Our solution so far has been to brainstorm more than one end state for the game, so that players’ experiences can vary between playthroughs. But the player may not realize there are different end states and therefore will still be left with one, very specific representation of sex work. In order to challenge stagnant representation, we are considering ending the game with a variety of quotations from sex workers that will further complicate how leaving sex work is represented, both in our project and more broadly.

While researching end states for the game, I came across a piece published by the Pacific Standard about “Getting out of Sex Work.” The unnamed author describes their experiences leaving sex work and how difficult it was to get out due to lack of experience in other kinds of work, the stigma place on sex workers, and financial need. Sex workers are told by advocates that they should leave, but they are not always given the tools to make that transition.

Hearing about the diverse experiences of different sex workers is critical to the development of our project, however what I found particularly interesting about the Pacific Standard piece was that the author also pointed out how interviews with sex workers don’t always a fully complex picture either:

So desiring to think and to project an image of themselves as decent, respectable, free-thinking human beings competent of making decisions and running their own lives, the women I interviewed refused to disclose anything that might be construed as evidence to the contrary. How could I blame them? At this time in my life, I couldn’t have either.

This is what I’ve wanted for the past decade. But at 19, the idea of sex work as a subversive and transgressive act — which emerged as part of a series of discourses glorifying sexual practices which were seen to destabilize or “trouble” the categories of sex — was a theory that enticed me. Pro sex industry rhetoric was an improvement on radical feminism’s representation of sex workers as disempowered victims, which fails to recognize women as agents in their own right. For me, claiming that sex work was transgressive was a way of reconciling my identity as a feminist with my chosen occupation.

And yet, I failed to take into account the truth of my experience. For starters, I didn’t make a lot of money as a stripper, I realize today — only a couple hundred dollars a night. Beyond this, the work hadn’t been easy. Whereas I experienced what Foucoult would describe as “moments” of transgression, my experience as a sex worker was that these moments became fewer and farther between. More often, it was, well, as I described in the Huffington Post article — physically demanding and emotionally taxing. Within weeks what was once exciting had turned boringly routine.

I find it important to acknowledge that, throughout all the research on this project, we have also encountered very different testimonies to this one, and that we are by no means dismissing the importance of each of these narratives. What I think is useful to remember is how complex these stories are on every level of their telling and the subsequent importance of maintaining that complexity. In what ways can we best represent these complexities in our project?

The Oldest Game in the Headlines

At the beginning of this new year, we’re thrilled to announce that The Oldest Game is moving along in development and is coming ever closer to beta! We’re in the process of putting the finishing touches on the script in its current form, and after the last gameplay kinks are worked out, we’re looking forward to getting down to play testing. It’s an extremely exciting time for the whole team and we can’t wait for this project to finally debut!

Since we released the trailer for The Oldest Game at the beginning of December to coincide with Bill C-36 being signed into law, there’s been a great deal of interest in the project, to our delight. Jen Zoratti wrote a profile on the game for the Winnipeg Free Press. She spoke to one of our project’s team leads, Sandra Gabriele, who stated that one of the goals of the game was to make the lives of sex workers something less sensationalized, and more real:

“It’s easy to get wrapped up in the morality questions around sex work,” Gabriele says. “We lose sight of the fact that, for many people, it’s a question of survival. It’s a question of working. It’s a question of earning money. The same kind of questions that every other person has.”

Emma Wooley also wrote an in-depth piece about the game for the Globe & Mail, which focussed explored the idea of the newsgame both within and outside of the academy. In this interview, Gabriele also talked about how difficult it is to finalize a script for a game when the discussion surrounding it is evolving all the time: “Just yesterday I said to [writer] Natalie [Walschots]: ‘NOW said they would continue to accept ads on behalf of sex workers, we need a pop up of that!’ The game is constantly changing as story is emerging.” That’s the problem with finishing newsgames: there is always more news!

In the cleverly-titled piece “A Game of Life with Crooked Rules” in The Link, Verity Stevenson spoke to Gabriele about the importance of hiring a sex worker to be a part of the development team as a consultant. Gabriele also discussed some of the specific ways that The Oldest Game hopes to illustrate how Bill C-36 will impact the lives of sex workers, and how “the new laws would force sex workers into dangerous situations by isolating them from their support systems.”

Most recently, Kate Richards also wrote a great feature on The Oldest Game for Comics Gaming Magazine. He piece focussed on the complexities of building the game, the collaboration required and challenges that the newsgame format presents: “The team faced many challenges, Lynch said. After some consultation with more experienced game designers, the team realized the importance of not only getting the message across, but of portraying a realistic representation of the sex worker character in the game and the situations she faces.”

Not all of the responses have been positive, however: in Feminist Current (the one publication that did not interview a member of our development team for their piece), Meghan Murphy questioned how well news games functioned as journalism, stating “not only does this form of “journalism” not count as “journalism” at all, but it succeeds at doing much less than even most lazy mainstream journalism does, in terms of covering this issue, presenting an extremely limited, biased, and underresearched [sic].” We engaged with Meghan Murphy on Twitter, and hope the discussion was productive.

We’re looking forward to getting our games into the hands of supporters and critics, and getting even more responses to the project. Onward!

The Oldest Game: The Newest Trailer

On December 6th 2014 (the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women in Canada, commemorating the l’École Polytechnique massacre in Montreal in 1989) Bill C-36 officially came into force. Replacing Canada’s previous laws on sex work, which were struck down as unconstitutional on On December 20th, 2013, the new bill have drawn a great deal of criticism for being even more dangerous to sex workers than the old legislation. While the government has maintains that the bill, dubbed the the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, will make conditions safer, sex workers and their allies have campaigned actively against the bill for placing sex workers much greater risk.

The Oldest Game, a newsgame developed at Concordia University in Montreal QC, seeks to demonstrate how Bill C-36 will impact the lives of sex workers in Canada. The bill continues to criminalize various aspects of sex work, often removing safeguards and strategies that place sex workers in dangerous situation, placing at risk the very vulnerable people the bill ostensibly exists to protect. The Oldest Game allows the player to assume the identity of a sex worker and experience exactly how the legislation will impact the life and work of those it most directly affects.  Through various encounters with clients, colleagues and aw enforcement in three difference Canadian cities, players will experience how the legislation changes the way sex workers live and work, and play through the additional challenges sex workers will face when trying to remain safe.

The official trailer for The Oldest Game is now online,  and development of the game is in the final stretch! The design team will soon be reaching out for beta testers to play through an early version of the game, and can’t wait to release the final product.

The Oldest Game is being developed by Lisa Lynch, Sandra Gabriele, Amanda Feder, Martin Desrosiers, Stephanie Goddard, Ben Spencer, Esther Splett and Natalie Zina Walschots. Follow us on Twitter too!