Joy in the Moment

Death feeding pigeons in an anonymous, American city square. Rayman and Globox swimming loop-de-loops in a wide-open, undersea valley. Kate Kane dancing with a woman she likes at a high-society ball. Countless moments spent rapt by music and atmospheric light, on the coast at Arcadia Bay and in the shade of Kentucky’s more mysterious transit routes.

All these narrative memories which I have taken to heart have one thing in common: I was able to take charge of the flow of the story in which they sat, and metaphorically hit ‘pause’ – remaining in the moment long enough to savour it before I decided to let the story progress again.

It seems basic to remind ourselves that games progress only through interaction by the user, or that comics display a story in frozen moments of time – but I was only reminded of the true impact of this quite recently, in the course of a PBS Idea Channel discussion on single-frame fancomics. In it, Mike Rugnetta explains how a single frame can allow the reader to remain suspended in a moment for as long as they wish.

As a consumer of these media, I believe it’s important not to forget the importance of being able to stop and enjoy a moment – something which a few recent ‘indie’ games in particular have taken to heart. In many ways, Max and Chloë listening to Amanda Palmer on Chloë’s stereo as the morning sun filters through a makeshift curtain is the standout moment from my entire Life is Strange playthrough.

It may be that such moments feel more potent because they appear in linear narratives. Indeed, when such a moment strikes in a game like Minecraft it feels less like a narrative pause, and more like a particular arrangement of an ongoing scene. Instead I think of these pauses in linearity in the same light as Mamoru Oshii’s Niihama-shin montages in Ghost in the Shell:

It would seem that a key aspect of these moments’ potential lays in the player or reader being able to engage with them at their will, and on their terms – and so they are an inherently tricky thing to author. Nevertheless, I hope that game-makers continue to consider these ‘montage moments’ as part of a wider narrative/design lexicon. I find that as I mature alongside games, my own tastes have led to my favouring this technique most highly.

Not for My Daughter

Yesterday I gave a talk at Stockholm’s Kungliga Tekniska Högskolan (Royal Institute of Technology) on the subject of gender diversity in games. Delivering said lecture from atop a decommissioned nuclear reactor site felt like a remarkable enough thing for me to reflect on, but I was also struck by a discussion which emerged in the Q&A, on why parents might not wish for their girls to get into games in the first place.

It’s easy to make quite a reflexive response to such a question. There is much to unpack there, from the assumption that games are a destructive hobby to the apparent inevitability of boys being sacrificially lost to it. With that having been said, I do feel that – given the space which games still occupy in contemporary culture – it isn’t actually a particularly unusual or unfair question.

It can be hard to evangelise the gaming medium in the face of harassment like that which had been catalogued at Fat, Ugly or Slutty,  and a variety of gaming streams. I don’t think it unfair to view games objectively as a medium still dominated by at best masculine appeal, and at worst misogyny – in a view which is biased by my own work, but also perhaps by sheer weight of marketing. Video games remain, to many people, still a thing of home consoles rather than ubiquitous digital devices – synonymous with identification as “a gamer”. This also becomes a question which cannot easily be argued without drawing in the ‘games as art’ debate.

To rewind a little: I had begun my lecture (to Masters students in media and media technology) by quoting Anna Anthropy’s introduction to Rise of the Videogame Zinesters. In it, she makes the following observation, which related strongly to my overview of games as a male-dominated medium:

Text reads: “Digital games [..] are here, and they take up a lot of [cultural] space. And almost none of these games are about me, or anyone like me. What are videogames about? Mostly, [they’re] about men shooting men in the face.”
Slide from my presentation to Media Technology Masters students at KTH
She goes on to unpack the idea of games as art – creative products which have the potential to impart human experiences through the medium of interaction and game mechanics – and of course spends the rest of the book empowering people to do that for themselves.

Her argument that art forms should reflect as wide an aspect of the human experience as possible is a convincing and powerful one. At the very least, the more we can hold up examples of broader works like JourneyThe Stanley Parable and , framing them properly within the context of “digital-” or even “video games”, the more we can disrupt the stereotype of games as a single, violent, first-person perspective genre.

Furthermore, we tend to consider this problem purely from the creative angle – diversifying game content in order to offer a broader range of experiences. But to what extent are consumers actually seeing this diversity? Even an individual who’s regularly exposed to games in their own work and leisure time will instinctively take pause when considering exposing their children to the hobby, having seen one expression of this medium make its voice heard above the others.

I’ve long held that cultural education should be one of the gaming medium’s top priorities. Just as theatre makes continued attempts to bring a wide range of works to the public’s attention, we too should support those festivals, creators and platforms which have the will to change public perceptions of what a game is.

I think that what I’m coming to understand now, though, is the depths to which ‘games as art’ actually matters. More than simply having a vested interest in seeing the medium mature, being interested to see what games and technology are capable of, or even feel justified and supported in pursuing art in this medium myself, I think I want to see that creative breadth proven to other people. Just as television can be seen to incorporate soap opera, satire and documentaries, so too should games be recognised as a medium for thrilling action, personal drama and exploration.

Spring Round-up

I’m stepping into a blogging trope here, but what follows is an article in which your humble author has to apologise for having been quite busy lately. I’m starting up a business, annual meetings have been held, and talks have been given – it’s all dragons, democracy and diversity. To summarise, starting with the biggest news first:

For the past couple of months, myself and Delia Hamwood have been collaborating to found a games studio. We’re keeping most of the details hushed-up until the launch of our debut title, but I can say that the games and tools we make will pay close attention to inclusivity and accessibility. Delia and I last worked together on A Planet Wakes, as part of Antholojam; this whole new venture will see us working with the business incubator at Sweden Game Arena.

I’ve also begun spreading awareness and tips regarding inclusive game development at conferences, primarily through a talk entitled The Art of Letting More People Play Your Game. A summary version debuted on the fast track at this year’s Nordic Game Conference (below left), and a more detailed version will follow at Castle Game Jam in July. I also spoke at Gotland Game Conference, on a panel discussing games’ past and future (below right).

Photo by Ian Hamilton
Photo by Ian Hamilton
Photo by Gotland Game Conference
Photo by Gotland Game Conference

A few annual meetings have come and gone too, and as I step up to chair TjejHack for 2016, I’ve stepped down to the position of vice chair at Diversi. Both organisations have a focus on expanding their networks this year, and the latter is set to institute an exciting new membership scheme, to help better fund its activities.

LadyCADE has also been busy recently, as once again I hosted the women-friendly fika at southern Sweden’s Creative Coast Festival. We were invited to run a booth during the festival as well, and so across a span of three days, visitors were invited in to play a variety of women-made games – including TjejHack’s #GemmaHat.

LadyCADE Meet-up; photo by Sebastian Bularca
LadyCADE Meet-up; photo by Sebastian Bularca

Looking forwards, the next couple of months contain some pretty solid development time as we work towards an early access/prototype game release in late August. The intention is to maintain a development blog during this; articles will be posted at our studio website (link to come soon).

I’ll also be a proud host to this year’s Lyst Summit in Hamar, Norway – acting as conferenciér to a typically marvellous array of talks and interactive experiences on the subject of love, sexuality and romance in games.

As long-form writing proves to be a bit more challenging of late, I would humbly invite you to follow these and further exploits of mine on Twitter until normal service can be resumed!

A New Tradition? Nudging the GDC Scholarships Picnic into Being

I kept busy at this year’s Game Developers’ Conference. As well as speaking, networking and learning, I also initiated an international meetup for the organisers and delegates of GDC scholarship programmes – crossing some international divides and experimenting further with a friendly approach to games socials.

The GDC Scholarships Picnic in full swing at San Francisco's Yerba Buena Gardens
The GDC Scholarships Picnic in full swing at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Gardens

For those who aren’t aware: the Game Developers’ Conference runs an annual scheme which helps to bring in student and professional delegates who would otherwise be unable to attend. GDC provides free conference passes, and the scholarship organisers usually work to provide further benefit to those who are brought in – such as bespoke networking and mentorship events. This year, Diversi partnered with King in order to provide one such scholarship for female-identifying students in the EU. We joined around a dozen other initiatives, such as geographical groups from the likes of India and Argentina, and other minority outreach groups – like the IGDA’s women-in-games group, and #INeedDiverseGames.

Soon after Diversi’s scholarship scheme came into effect, I realised (to my surprise) that although such schemes have been running for a number of years, there did not appear to be any precedent for cross-scholarship meetup events. Given the cultural, geographic and experiential reach of these schemes, it struck me as wasteful not to try bringing such a broad range of people together during the conference. So it was that I sought to apply lessons I’ve learned from running LadyCADE to an event which would effectively be co-hosted by up to a dozen people.

The best trick I’ve learned from running LadyCADE events is to apply a delicate touch, and let common sense prevail. Rather than delving down into the minutiae of logistics and rigorous delegation of responsibility, I have found that one can achieve similar results in a much more satisfactory way by empowering people to step up on their own. I then make a point of filling any emerging gaps myself. It’s a philosophy which relies easily upon the fact that everybody’s who’s volunteered to help run an event is already invested in it, and so will already have ideas or experience which they can pull on. Why waste time and trample over that with attempts to provide a concrete plan from the start?

So it was that I began with a series of outreach emails – first to the other scholarship organisers whom I already knew, since I also wanted to be sure that it was an interesting and valuable new idea. Thence to the published list of GDC scholarships, which as footwork goes was a surprisingly chaotic affair. Eventually though, with a little over half a dozen email responses, I could invite the various organisers to a Slack forum in order to continue a more directed conversation.

As expected, the planning of this event basically boiled down to conversations amongst a few of the more experienced event organisers. This was not something I wished to discourage, as our focus lay on having a simple, solid and safe event. With a remit like that, there’s less of a need to ensure that all creative voices are heard. However, it’s worth stating that in any volunteer venture one must still ensure that no-one goes unheard, as it is important for all participants to feel they have agency.

Plans bounced back and forth and arrived at a simple and cheap idea, of arranging a picnic. The details came together relatively late, as we had to contend with interweaving the conference schedules of potentially hundreds of people – a hurdle we’d anticipated well in advance. In the end though, we managed to put together a drop-in event at GDC’s quintessential outdoor venue. We sent details of the meeting spot and times to all those organisers who’d been involved in the planning process, as well as to those who might be able to forward on to the more elusive scholarship organisers, whom I’d failed to reach earlier in the process.

Diversi & Pixelles at the GDC 2016 Scholarships Picnic
Attendees and organisers from the Pixelles and Diversi scholarships, along with industry guest Michel Koch from Dontnod

In the end we drew in organisers and delegates from #INeedDiverseGames, International Ambassadors, the IGDA’s Women in Games SIG, Pixelles, and Diversi – plus a couple of conference associates and other interested parties. Not everyone was in attendance at the same time – we knew that the schedules of individual scholarship programmes and the conference itself would not allow for that. However, the result was still a 3-hour, rolling social event which brought together students and professionals from at least four continents. We gathered during the middle of the conference in the California sunshine, to chill out somewhere friendly and meet new people from similar-yet-different circumstances.

It is my hope that the scholarships picnic will become a regular feature – especially now that the pilot work is done. Its simplicity makes this an easy event to run, and the concept of having delegates bring their own snacks and drinks makes it an affordable one, also free of the sorts of social pressures which may be instilled by meetups hosted in a bar. Finally, it also proved to be a good opportunity for myself and my Diversi colleagues to meet the heads of other scholarships, many of which are attached to diversity interest groups themselves. Although not a formal networking event by any means, it was nevertheless fun, informative and reassuring to have met some of our peers from overseas.

My thanks to everyone else who was involved in the process of founding this event, and to those who came on the day! Suffice it to say: if you’re looking to run a GDC scholarship in 2017 and would like to join in planning for a follow-up picnic, do get in touch!

GDC 2016 Personal Highlights

This year was the first time I’d been able to attend the Game Developers’ Conference in San Francisco. I went primarily to talk on the subject of women-in-games initiatives and how they make a difference. This panel session – in which I was joined by Zoë Quinn, Rebecca Cohen-Palacios, Sagan Yee and Stephanie Fisher – will be made available on GDC Vault in the coming weeks.

Photo credited to GDC / Trish Tunney
Delivering my micro-talk as part of the “Ripple Effect” panel. Photo credited to GDC / Trish Tunney

I also attended in order to seek inspiration and some new direction, and to meet people working outside of Europe. Although I skipped past many talks in favour of the sorts of activities I couldn’t simply catch up on online afterwards (a strategy I’d recommend strongly to future first-timers), I did nevertheless come away with new insights – some whimsical, and some practical.

What follows, then, is a collection of personal reflections on the talks I saw, along with my tips for recommended GDC Vault material.

Continue reading GDC 2016 Personal Highlights

My name is Gemma Thomson, and I'm a British game designer living and working in Stockholm. I play, draw and explore, and I strive to create engaging interactive experiences.