By Elizabeth Ballou
The annual Game Developers Conference (GDC) wrapped up its mammoth week-long roster of videogame talks and showcases in San Francisco. Some of the biggest GDC news, like the announcement of Google’s Stadia service or the fight between Steam and the Epic Store, has already been chewed over by dozens of gaming sites. But GDC isn’t just for tech giants – indie developers, academics, and gaming nonprofits had surprising insights, too.
Since the Critics Circle is all about what games can teach us – and how we can teach games – I attended events that weren’t sufficiently covered. These involved insights into learning and education.
Speculative Sci-Fi Game Development in the Classroom
When videogames are at their best, they challenge real-life status quos and put forth new ways of looking at our own world. However, when Marcelo Viana Neto, a game artist and art director, started playing the 2016 title No Man’s Sky, he was troubled by what he saw. He didn’t feel like the game was challenging anything.
The game’s complex procedural generation promised unique adventures. But some things, Viana Neto noticed, were always the same. Why did every alien race have a capitalist economy? Why was it possible for explorers to rename planets that already had names? Viana Neto realized that No Man’s Sky was “a playful re-enactment of a colonial fantasy,” one that many sci-fi games had tread before. These games didn’t try to examine the power dynamics already at play in our world.
When Viana Neto became a visiting assistant professor at the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC), he created a class aimed at students who wanted to upend those power dynamics: women, people of color, first-generation college students, and members of the LGBTQ+ community, among others. Viana Neto taught the first “Speculative Futures: Games for a Different World” class in the winter quarter of 2018 to 19 undergraduate students. Because UCSC is on the quarter system, students had just ten weeks to form groups, pick a social problem they wanted to challenge, and create a game that solved that problem.
Projects that came out of that first class included Just Be Happier, a Sims-style game that focuses on mental health; and Meet Me in the Garden, a puzzle game about platonic intimacy. Just Be Happier was a solo project by student Roy Cramer, while a group of five – Yani Fauzi, Liam Dugard, Caleb Valdez, Reno Rivera, and Emily Rodriguez – created Meet Me in the Garden. The latter title was shown at E3’s IndieCade in 2018.
Since students have repeatedly succeeded in completing thought-provoking games, Viana Neto hopes that the class will spread to other schools. “I don’t think there’s anything…that would prevent it from being equally transformative in high school or other universities,” he said.
In New York City, the Critics Circle does something similar by teaching students in the Bronx to make statements on social justice through game design. We’d be happy to see Viana Neto’s curriculum appear in high schools and universities all of the country.
Games for Change Debuts Accelerator Program
Games for Change, a New York City-based organization that supports developers making games with positive social impact, announced on March 21 that they were creating an accelerator program for five teams of game developers. During a five-person panel, Susanna Pollack, president of Games for Change, said that the New York City-based accelerator will provide initial grants of $150,000 but may provide up to $500,000 for particularly promising teams. Business mentorship will also be part of the accelerator program.
To create the accelerator, Games for Change has partnered with Quake Capital, a startup accelerator, and i(x), a holding company. According to Pollack, the idea for an accelerator languished for five years before Games for Change was able to find the right partners. The relationship with Quake Capital seems particularly significant, as Jim Brisimitzis, Quake’s managing partner, said that the chosen teams will operate out of Quake’s New York City offices.
Games for Change has made the application available on its website, and hopes to inaugurate the accelerator’s first class of funding recipients in September. The application due date is May 31, 2019. Some of the social/cultural areas that applicants’ games could target include climate change, gender inequality, affordable housing, and accessible healthcare. Pollack noted that Games for Change will be casting a broad net, and developers whose games have the potential for any kind of social change can apply.
Tracy Fullerton, a panelist director of the USC Games program, said that the accelerator would be a particularly good fit for recently-graduated game design students with promising game projects already in the works. Accelerator advisors will help participants figure out the best distribution strategy, a process that’s hard to navigate for first-time game developers. “Where these projects generally stop is at the distribution milestone, when you really want to reach the public,” Fullerton said. Fullerton and Noah Falstein, a panelist and former chief of game design for Google, mentioned that other ideal applicants might include healthcare and educational game developers, indie developers, and scientists.
An important factor that may hamper some applicants: remote work is not allowed, and the accelerator doesn’t currently provide a housing stipend for relocating to the New York area. Pollack said that these constraints may be lifted in the coming years.
Personal Games as Lessons on Empathy
Jean Leggett, Jessica Fong, and Ella Lowgren didn’t set out to make games that would cause players to better understand the psychological toll of trauma. But eventually, the three women – each working on distinct game projects around the world – realized that their games allowed players to step into the shoes of people suffering from trauma, abuse, and mental health issues. During the GDC panel “Stories that Haunt and Heal: Mental Health and Game Narrative,” they discussed how they made empathetic games informed by personal experience.
Leggett, who lives in Toronto, Canada, is the co-founder of One More Story Games. For the past few years, she and the One More Story Games crew have been adapting the Charlaine Harris novel Shakespeare’s Landlord into a mystery game called The Body in Shakespeare Park. Protagonist Lily Bard is a survivor of sexual assault, as is Leggett. Much of The Body in Shakespeare Park deals with Lily’s quest to heal, and Leggett, who wrote the game’s script, was determined to present Lily’s trauma and recovery as humanely as possible. That way, players who have not been sexually assaulted can understand the survivors’ struggle to return to a normal life, while sexual assault survivors will not feel triggered while playing as Lily.
“Players can understand healing mechanisms and coping mechanisms. There are nods to therapy,” said Leggett, who also mentioned that she was speaking to other sexual assault survivors, as well as mental health counselors, to represent as complete a picture of trauma and recovery as possible.
Ella Lowgren’s Shrinking Pains, while shorter and smaller than The Body in Shakespeare Park, is no less impactful. During the 2018 Global Game Jam, Lowgren and her teammates in Melbourne, Australia hammered out a visual novel based on Lowgren’s experience with disordered eating. Once the flurry of game jamming was over, they realized they had something worth sharing and published it for free on Steam. “Games are an amazing tool to build empathy and understanding among players,” said Lowgren. “That’s my primary goal in releasing games for free.” Since the game’s release in February of 2018, Shrinking Pains has been played over 50,000 times, according to Lowgren. (I also interviewed Lowgren about making a game centered on disordered eating.
Jessica Fong, who spoke last, brought some in the audience to tears as she described a childhood of physical and psychological abuse by her mother. As a teenager and adult, Fong tried to understand her mother’s abusive behavior. Fong, who is Asian-American, recalled that her mother told her, “‘Life is war, and no one is on your side.’ People talk about moments when your life ended and began again. That was one for me.” Eventually, Fong began to grapple with the abuse through by making games. As a child, Fong would draw to distract herself from the world around her, and much of her art depicted a young girl wandering alongside a strange, long-necked creature.
Fong co-founded Lonely Egg Studios and began to incorporate her work into a game called In the Keeper’s Shadow, which deals metaphorically with child abuse. For Fong, dealing with the trauma of abuse by making a game felt natural, because “the line between life and art, for me, is blurred.”
Leggett, Lowgren, and Fong were hopeful that their work would show the gaming community the potential impact of serious games. “Games don’t necessarily have to be ‘fun,’” said Leggett. Creating empathy in players, she continued, was just as worthy of a goal.
Elizabeth Ballou is a New York Videogame Critics Circle intern/contributing writer who’s part of the MFA program at NYU’s Game Center. Follow her on Twitter: @lizbetballou.