Different Games, a two-day conference at NYU’s Polytechnic Institute in Brooklyn, New York ranks up there as one of the most inspiring conferences I have yet to attend. It’s the only event I’ve been to that specifically focused on inclusivity and diversity in games, and it did so in a number of different ways. For one, I’ve never seen so many women on stage at a game-related conference. Both the attendees and the speakers represented a wide range of different genders, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and so forth, and many spoke specifically about how their identification with these different categories affected how they made and experienced games. The organizers also did an amazing job of setting the tone by incorporating an inclusivity statement into the conference program and having us all sign the statement at the beginning of the event. The presentations themselves covered a range of different issues. Some key take-aways for me were:
- Celia Pierce pointed out that as soon as something starts making money, you start seeing fewer women and other marginalized groups working in that area. While in the early years women were heavily involved in making and designing games, the number of women working in the industry has been steadily decreasing since games became big business.
- Mary Flanagan argued that the release of Doom marked a turning point for videogames. Prior to that time games had covered a wide range of themes, and it was only after this point that violent first-person shooters with macho man characters became the norm. Mary suggested that the era of the FPS was a sort of Dark Age from which we are only just beginning to emerge.
- Mattie Brice and Anna Anthropy spoke frankly about the impossibility of making money while still creating the sort of games they make. They said that they made these games because they knew that if they didn’t, no one else would. Doing so, however, meant giving up their financial security and personal comfort, and this reality was something they felt every aspiring developer should be aware of.
- We need to re-examine our cultural assumptions about how games can or should be made, what games are, and what constitutes play. There’s no one size fits all. Sometimes this means listening to our audience. As Mohini Dutta pointed out, different cultures often have their own ideas about games, and we need to be careful not to take on the role of the colonizer teaching others how to make and play games. On the other hand, Mattie suggested that sometimes it’s better not to bend our games to fit the players. If we do, we may end out creating a sort of mirror where all players see is their own assumptions and desires reflected back to them.
My own presentation was about the controversy surrounding Jennifer Hepler, a BioWare writer who was harassed online after making several unpopular statements about videogames. I looked at why self-proclaimed gamers might want to defend restricted definitions of videogames and gameplay, and talked about how language, even in everyday conversations, often plays a role in disguising, guarding, and reinforcing privilege and power. Lynn Hughes and Heather Kelley also gave a great retrospective of the show they curated with Cindy Poremba in Paris last summer.
There was also an amazing arcade featuring a broad selection of games, covering everything from personal voyages of discovery to condom guns to neocolonialism.
A lot of participants talked about how refreshing it was not to have to argue for greater inclusivity and diversity in games. Instead, these things were taken as a starting point, a shared goal, and this allowed us all to talk about our own unique perspectives on the issue, and to share strategies for moving towards this goal. This was the real strength of Different Games, and something I hope to see again in the not too distant future.
P.S. Allison Harvey and I will be giving a recap of our talks at the Dames Making Games (DMG) social in Toronto on May 2, at 6:30pm. If you happen to be in the area, come check it out.