“Ripple Effect” at GDC 2016

I’m very proud to say that I’ll be speaking at next year’s Game Developer’s Conference (GDC) in San Francisco, at a session entitled “Ripple Effect: How Women-in-Games Initiatives Make a Difference“.

I’ll be joining Stephanie Fisher, Sagan Yee , Rebecca Cohen-Palacios and Zoe Quinn to discuss my path from an all-female game jam initiative to my career and the works I do today: including encouraging girls and women to create games at TjejHack and providing safe social spaces for gamers at LadyCADE. Naturally, I also look forward to exploring the conference and exposition itself – swapping game development ideas and providing insight to Sweden’s diversity efforts for those who are interested.

TjejHack Pyjama Jam - an all-girl game creation event held at Stockholm's Royal Technical College in 2015.
TjejHack Pyjama Jam – an all-girl game creation event held at Stockholm’s Royal Technical College in 2015.

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VideoBrains at Nine Worlds 2015: “Zones 1, 2 & Green Hill”

The third annual Nine Worlds Geekfest has now passed, and as well as sitting on panels with esteemed and talented individuals like Katherine Cross, Maki Yamizaki, George Buckenham and Mary Hamilton, I was also invited to give a short talk as part of a VideoBrains evening at the event. As these talks were not recorded on video, I decided to re-record it myself post-facto, with slides.

Here, then, is my 7-minute talk on public transportation in games, entitled Zones 1, 2 & Green Hill:


Looking Back on Lyst (2015)

At the beginning of this month – when summer was only just beginning to hit the Nordic region – I once again had the privilege of attending the annual Lyst Summit on love, sexuality and romance in games. Its debut event was held in København, and while it took place on a boat, this year’s event in Helsinki went a step beyond. A few dozen of us – academics, developers and artists- descended upon rural Vartiosaari for a weekend of inspiration, creativity, relaxation and (inevitably) emotional bonding.

My own trip culminated in setting up camp on Thursday night, ready for a day of talks in Hakaniemi’s WHS Teatteri Union. A few of us had settled in early, and so introductions were made – with a few reunions thrown in for good measure. Morning brought with it clean air, an abundance of greenery and an exciting journey to central Helsinki via motorised raft, boat and metro.

Travelling from the campsite to the summit venue was far from a typical commute.

The summit followed the same format as last year: a day of talks, peppered with breaks, light lunch and a small selection of games to try out. Just like last year, these talks dealt with a variety of topics: from Dr Hanna Wirman’s opening talk on the classification of games (from dating sims to My Little Pony bukkake); through Prof. Mata Haggis’ practical guide to weaving emotion into plot structures; to frank and demonstrative offerings from dancer Sarah Homewood and porn actor Dale Cooper. The programme was eclectic but never chaotic, once again reminding all in attendance that expressions of love and sexuality are huge and complex parts of the human experience, and yet it’s a topic which games have only just begun to scratch the surface of.

Joy Richardson provides a snapshot example of how fairytales have skewed notions on stepmotherhood so strongly towards the negative (left-hand side of the sheet)

I found there were many ‘takeaways’, as the conference parlance goes, but a few notions stuck out for me from this array of talks:

  • that family and the bonds therein remain a woefully underused area in games, which all too often fall back on bluntness and the assumed family unit of father/mother/brother/daughter (Joy Richardson);
  • that as the field has grown, there are now more examples of art games dealing with very niche aspects of sexuality – often drawn from the author’s personal experiences (Dale Cooper);
  • that a successful plot need not encompass resolution for both a character’s intrinsic and extrinsic struggles (Mata Haggis).

As the summit wrapped up, we headed back out of Helsinki city centre on a boat ride to Vartiosaari, where dinner and drinks were served amidst an open barn. Where we gathered would become a communal hub for jamming over the rest of the weekend, but for that Friday night it became the staging ground for Zack Woods’ Playfully Transmitted Diseases – a running party game in which groups would share stories, cheer each other on and generally ‘break the ice’ with the goal of collecting letters from each other. It also became the stage for this piece of doom-laiden advice from one of our island hosts, Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen.

Saturday morning brought with it the start of Lyst Summit’s 2015 game jam, and although we’d generally assembled in our pre-determined groups the night before, it was here that much of the conceptualisation work was done. To help along with this – and get us motivated after a sluggish/hungover breakfast -a number of us took part in a fascinating workshop led by Sabine Herrer and Henrike Lode. Entitled Let’s Get Personal: Leveraging your dirty secrets for game design, the workshop began with a brief presentation before we were tasked with trying to illustrate a moment from our own romantic or sexual pasts. The idea was to bore down to the essence of this moment as a mechanic. We then discussed these in small groups, refined the idea where necessary, and pursued them if we so wished – either in our assigned jam groups, or solo.

My own idea – depicting the moment I felt my pre-formed concepts of sexuality drop from underneath me – didn’t make it past the pencil-and-paper stage. However, the workshopping process was as personally gratifying as it was fascinating to see around me, since games with a personal story attached are so often seen in isolation. They give every sign of having come out of nowhere, and while I’m not sure to what extent that is true or false, sessions and game jams like this one at Lyst allow a group of people to support each other in connecting to that creative process.

There’s no easy way to segue into the fact that the game I helped make at Lyst Summit was at some remove from these sorts of deep and personal motivations. As Joon, Raimund Schumacher and I returned to discussions we’d begun over dinner, we began to prototype the game which would become Noah’s Arks.

We tested the idea of “Noah’s Arks” and its interface at the same time, using an iPad drawing app. and my paper prototyping kit

Borne initially from an idea which riffed on the phrase, “ships passing in the night”, we made a straightforward game in which two players must fling animals between their on-screen arks in order to make mating pairs, and so save them from the biblical flood. It leans heavily upon co-operative, social interaction and a crisp art style, exploring relationships through the lens of a heavily-fantasised, long-lasting myth – with an absurd, modern twist. The game can be downloaded for free from itch.io:

The game was kept intentionally simple, and so the three of us were generally at liberty to soak up much of the jam atmosphere on Vartiosaari. Moments came and went, such as when rain forced more jammers indoors at the wooden kindergarten cabin or the Artist House, overlooking our campsite. Well into the first solid day of jamming, we came to realise that said cabin had a mother bird nesting in it, and we adopted her as our mascot. There was good food, bright Nordic midnights, and an unforgettable night spent in the sauna – with Richard Lemarchand leading us to embody The World’s Quietest Synthesiser. In reality this became an organic jamming session, with haunting vocals and a beat made all the more spell-binding for the fact it was held up by a dozen nude game artists. I simply cannot express how fundamentally and intimately human the game jam became after that.

I began the Sunday morning with a walk around the island – reflecting on many personal revelations and re-charging after the previous month spent dashing around the Baltic region. The day’s work comprised of animal art assets for our game, ready for the jam’s evening closure. As is traditional for game jams, we swept aside our working tools for this, and began a round of presentations – to each other, and a selection of invited guests.

Runa Haukland, Mathilda Bjarnehed and Simon Stålhandske with “Myling”

The results were even more varied than last year, all tackling wildly different aspects of the theme: from a point-and-click photosphere story of woodland spirits (Myling) to a card game about domestic arguments and our own quirky, arcade-style title. There were also two performance-style games, including Sabine Herrer’s Fashion Party (customise paper cutouts of various anatomical parts in order to try and impress the nominated Fashion Pope) and a profoundly intimate game for all the summit’s attendees, about pleasing a member of your trio through non-sexual, physical stimuli.

Said game (which was named Surrender) went on to garner the most votes from this summit’s participants, and I can see why. For me personally, it married an innovative and physical expression of game mechanics (the player being tended to must make their choices known by stepping towards the source of the most pleasing sensations) with a truly intimate (yet safe) play experience.

The transition from mock-blindfolded arousal of one’s hands and wrists to gathering for the closing group photo and then dinner was always going to be abrupt – but then, it felt like a macrocosm of the experience to come as Lyst began to wrap up. We went out with a bang, as Sabine held a ceremonial bonfire for the death of Fashion Party (which I captured below), but as Monday came around we departed from Vartiosaari in waves, all heading our separate ways across northern Europe and even further afield.

Just as in 2014, Lyst Summit is an experience too intimate and detailed to sum up neatly. It mirrors its subject matter in both form and outcome, leaving participants like me dazed and inspired. That’s not to say that what it does is somehow wishy-washy or artsy, though – at its core seems to be a strong belief that games can and should address these fundamental parts of the human experience. By bringing together the people that it does, Lyst expresses this goal with practical and thought-provoking guidance, support and inspiration. The more this movement continues, the more I feel we’re going to see real change in games like these, as an art form and artistic medium.


#GameDiversity in Action

With due apologies for my recent quietude (even in regards to my ongoing Patreon campaign,) these have been decidedly Interesting Times as far as my games diversity efforts are concerned.

TjejHack Pyjama Jam in full swing, with a Scratch workshop by Inger Ekman
TjejHack Pyjama Jam in full swing, with a Scratch workshop by Inger Ekman

On the 15th of May, I was involved in TjejHack‘s efforts to host a wildly successful ‘Pyjama Jam’ at Stockholm’s KTH (Royal Technical College). Girls between the ages of 11 and 16 gathered for 24 hours of tuition, geekery and game development with a wide variety of tools at their disposal. Around 8 games were made in all, expressing various and novel aspects of touch.

Days later, I caught a train to Malmö and represented Diversi at the Nordic Game Conference, as part of a team which not only hosted 14 female students as part of an all-inclusive outreach for the conference, but also put together meet & greets, a diversity mixer and a stellar panel on world-changing games.

The Diversi Summit at Nordic Game Conference 2015, hosted by Karin Ryding with panellists Åsa Roos, Ann-Sofie Sydow, Annika Fogelgren, Dajana Dimovska and Rami Ismail
The Diversi Summit panel at Nordic Game Conference 2015, hosted by Karin Ryding with panellists Åsa Roos, Ann-Sofie Sydow, Annika Fogelgren, Dajana Dimovska and Rami Ismail

I write a mere two days before I take another train to Sweden’s south coast, this time to host LadyCADE‘s first social outside of England, as part of the brand new Creative Coast Festival. It forms part of an exciting, cross-media programme which is sure to set me in an excellent headspace for Lyst Summit the week after, and Castle Game Jam some weeks after that.

Suffice it to say, my calendar turned rather busy, and it’s not for reasons directly associated with game development. I am, however, content with this. I still receive no income for this sort of outreach, which does turn every decision into a financial battle – these demands on my time are vying against things which would otherwise help keep the roof over my head. Nevertheless, I take small pride in the fact willing sponsors like Intel Software are now coming forward to cover costs for such events, and as somebody working to try and improve this medium from within, that is gratifying to see.

Paradox Interactive's Susana Meza Graham gave a particularly informative talk on workplace diversity, and invited CEO Fredrik Wester to 'defend' the inclusive vacancy to which she had once applied
Paradox Interactive’s Susana Meza Graham gave a particularly informative talk on workplace diversity, and invited CEO Fredrik Wester to ‘defend’ the inclusive vacancy to which she had once applied

Nordic Game Conference was, itself, something of a reflection of this changing attitude within games. It is of course the Nordic region’s largest games conference, hosting at least 1,000 attendees for a programme stretching two-and-a-half days. That programme is an eclectic one, meandering smoothly between the concerns of big-budget studios, independent developers, business and artists. The talks I saw included a trailer-heavy, business-minded keynote from Ubisoft Annecy’s Rebecka Coutaz, a spoken essay on games critique from freelance writer Cara Ellison, and a humourous-yet-informative session of straightforward PR experience from Coffee Stain Studios’ Armin Ibrisagic. There’s no ‘indie summit’ here, and nor are the diversity sessions herded off into their own track where they can be ignored; instead lessons from all aspects of the industry are smoothly incorporated into an open and friendly conference programme.

The people we meet at conferences are almost always the best reason to attend, and the crowd at Nordic Game is uniquely friendly. More than that, though: through attending in my capacity as chair of Diversi I was able to meet dazzling individuals whose enthusiasm for games, encouraging others to take up their craft, and the change that this medium can wield were inspirational beyond reckoning. I was also honoured to meet the many fine and talented students we were able to bring along, learning much about the quality of education in this region. Here too are we starting to see change, although it’s clear there is much work yet to be done – especially in encouraging more women to apply for these courses, and keeping them there ’til graduation.

Intel Software's sponsorship enabled Diversi to bring 14 female students from across the Nordic region to attend this year's conference
Sponsorship from Intel Software allowed Diversi to bring 14 female students from across the Nordic region to attend this year’s conference, including travel and accommodation

Gratitude, awe and inspiration are powerful motivators, and I’m riding high on them at the moment. Flippant though this may sound sometimes: more power to this sort of thing. I do what I can, but I’m glad those with the power and money to facilitate this change have decided that they ought to step in as well.


Narrow Focus, World Stage

A recent article by Mattie Brice, in which she outlines the apparent shallowness of some games diversity initiatives, has added further clarity to an argument which has been rolling around in my head for a while too. In her piece, Brice describes feelings of isolation and abandonment as the games industry chases the figurehead of diversity, leaving behind those creators who neither want nor require the kinds of coding camps and changes to education which so attract corporate money and interest.

Although I’ve been reflecting upon related issues from a different angle, it is worth acknowledging that hers is a very GDC-focused perspective, and while that is by no means a bad thing, I think it is where I both sympathise and disagree with Brice’s insightful yet negative position. I feel a need to draw distinctions here because of a very different-feeling climate where I reside in Sweden, and again in the UK, my home country. Activities undertaken in the former seem to be of a different order – more practical, and already yielding good results – whereas British efforts seem more likely to tackle recruitment over education in games as a craft.

With that having been said, I too have had cause to focus on GDC – the Game Developers’ Conference, which is held annually in San Francisco. It is but one of many worldwide games conferences, yet it’s one which commands a great deal of weight and emphasis within the industry. It is the de facto hub for many discussions affecting this medium (at least in the so-called ‘western’ hemisphere), and I state this both to provide context to my views, but also to introduce one of the problems I have with the way diversity initiatives in games are currently being addressed. Suffice it to say, I’ve never been to GDC in San Francisco, and in all honesty it’s unlikely I shall be able to any time soon.

The bottom line is that year on year, GDC is at least treated as the only conference with a half-way strong diversity focus. It is at least one of very few in the world to devote a whole discussion track to the subject. This isn’t a bad thing, of course – having a central hub like this can have many benefits. However, GDC is also a prohibitively expensive conference for many – not just for conference passes, but also in flights, especially for anyone outside of the USA. This is something Matt Duhamel has reflected on too, with attendance as an expression of privilege.

Initially it feels strange to apply ‘privilege’ to something like attending a conference, but the fact is only a handful of people can ever be part of the conversations which happen at GDC. The problems which may arise from that are manyfold. For starters, diversity’s raison d’etre demands that a variety of voices to be heard, and while no-one can be inclusive to everyone all the time, any recurring diversity initiative at this conference is going to wind up homogenised based on who can physically get there. The practical result of this is that while companies and the wider gaming medium look solely to GDC in San Francisco for guidance or as a barometer on inclusivity, what they’re getting is a non-representative view. More than that, those who turn up with cash to invest (especially those wishing to “appear diverse” as Brice puts it) will only end up doing so within US borders.

Photo by Emma Clarkson
Photo by Emma Clarkson

Take for example this slide from GDC 2015, and a panel entitled “Turning the Tide”, which sought to address inclusive recruitment to the games industry. Whether or not the author realised it, all but one of these organisations (apparently picked knowingly as “just a few”) are based in North America, and only one of those has an international focus. That said, and at the risk of criticising WIGI unfairly: I can only ever find events of theirs as being held in the USA. This is by no means a representative slice of women-focused community groups worldwide, but they are all groups which many have heard of. Why? They get noticed, year on year at GDC and in the gaming press which follows.

How can we fix this? The only solution I can think of involves other conferences making a much more concerted effort to offer a platform for discussing diversity and inclusivity, reflecting and involving their local attendees. I believe it actually damages the diversity initiative if we keep focusing on the same part of the world – just as much as it does when we focus on the same minority (a topic for another time, perhaps). Press attention would need to follow, as otherwise the effort amounts to nothing. The ideal alternative, of course, would involve more diversity advocates coming to GDC, but unless your organisation is already the recipient of corporate sponsorship, it’s very likely you have no budget at all with which to fund such a venture.

As a side note: it cannot be left to the ‘indie sector’ to cover this inclusivity angle, as I’ve seen happen at a few conferences and festivals. Indie game development may be a much more accessible medium than so-called ‘AAA’, and its works may be addressing more societal issues and diverse player bases, but that doesn’t mean it should be the sole forum for discussing inclusivity – and nor should it mean that diversity issues should crowd out discussion of the issues which already affect this sector of the gaming medium.

It is my hope that those with the wits to realise this risk of homogenisation, and the power to actually change it, will do so. I did not expect to be so disheartened by the imbalance at play between the sort of focus North American initiatives receive, when compared to European ones – let alone those enacting real change in Africa, Asia and beyond. The games industry is centralised upon the USA in many other areas as well, but at a time when inclusivity and diversity sit so far forward in this medium’s consciousness, it is galling to see so many efforts go unheard of – and to see opportunities go untapped.

So ends an uncharacteristic rant on my part.

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.