Monday, August 31, 2015

Manga and Games

In this article, game designer Sande Chen points out parallels between amateur manga and indie game development.

One year, when I was at the SXSW Interactive Festival in Austin, TX, I decided to go to a session on manga called, “How Manga Explains the World.” The presenter was Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future.
I didn’t know anything about manga so all of this was quite new to me. I was struck by some parallels to indie game development.

Manga is really popular in Japan. Tons of fans crowd into marketplaces to get the latest comics. However, what they buy is not the official manga put out by the publishers, but the amateur manga, put out by indie creators known as ‘dojinshi.’ The dojinshi use established characters but create different, and sometimes questionable stories, with these characters.

Pink commented that in the U.S., IP lawyers would have a fit if someone did this with a Disney film. But publishers and dojinshi have an tacit agreement known as ‘anmoku no ryokai.’ The official manga industry has been in decline so the publishers look the other way because they figure the amateur manga will keep fans interested in the official manga. In exchange, the dojinshi don’t flood the market and create limited copies of their work.

In fact, this interest in amateur manga helps the publishers. They use the markets as a way to sign up new talent (and offer them a chance to create a new, original manga). They also learn about market trends by observing what fans are buying. Some of these dojinshi become as well-known as the original creators. They could even branch out and do their original stories without publisher backing.

It seems to me that the mod community is a similar model. Successful mod teams do become successful companies with publisher backing. Is the “official” game industry watching the indies? Just by looking at casual games, it appears they do. Do they look to indies as the barometer of what’s to come? What do you think?

[This article was adapted from an original post on the blog Joe Indie.] 

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG

Monday, August 24, 2015

Upcoming Workshop: Game Writing Portfolio Workout

Last month, I had so much fun leading the Writing for Sci-Fi, Fantasy, & Horror Game Worlds workshop, courtesy of Playcrafting NYC.  I was so impressed by the creativity of the workshop participants.  One request was for a workshop on the ins and outs of getting started in game writing, so I'm happy to announce that I will be holding a Game Writing Portfolio Workout on Monday September 28, suitable for beginners and veterans!  Come share insights about the craft.  I like to foster the workshop environment whereby participants feel comfortable sharing and learning from each other.

Specifically, this is a hands-on writing workshop for people who want to build or add to a game writing portfolio.  Be prepared to write during the class.  I will be going through common assignments given to freelance writers as well as mentioning what in-house duties a person can expect.  Feel free to take what's written in class and use it to spark other ideas or expand it to completion.

There is an early bird special if you sign up early, but tickets may be limited.   If you're in the New York City area, come check it out.  I don't know when I'll be offering this workshop again.

Update:  Just added!  An overflow class on October 20:  Get tickets here!

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

I'm Offended. Is It You, Me, or the Character?

In this article, game designer Sande Chen distinguishes between offensive characters and offensive material, and explains why it's important to keep track of authorial tone.

"I'm offended because it's so misogynistic," said one of my classmates in a playwriting workshop years ago.  I was stunned, not only because she had dared to make an objection against the work of the Theatre Department's current media darling, but that she had given voice to the uneasy feelings I had about the play presented before me.  The young white male protagonist in the play made bawdy jokes about women, the kind that would usually be followed up in real life with, "Awwwww, c'mon, can't you take a joke?" This led the professor to question, "Do you think it's the character that's misogynistic or the play that's misogynistic?"  At some point, I came to the private conclusion that the play itself was misogynistic because of authorial tone, which would suggest somewhat that the author himself was misogynistic.
Image courtesy of fotographic1980 at

If a character in a fictional work is misogynistic, then it's seen as a character trait that isn't reflective of the author.  The character trait could be balanced or justified.  It depends on the situations presented in the fictional work.  There might even be other characters that offer a liberal viewpoint, as in the 1970's popular sitcom, All in the Family.   The viewpoints of the "lovable bigot," Archie Bunker, are constantly challenged and therefore, the show and its authorial tone becomes more about promoting tolerance in society.

Even when a fictional work can be considered to be misogynistic or racist and so forth because of the authorial tone presented, or in the case of games, because of art or game mechanics that can be interpreted in societal light, it's hard to say that there is one person at fault when it's a group activity.  An unproduced script has only the author, but a play on the stage is subject to the interpretations of the director and the cast.  The blame often goes to the person who is seen to have the most creative control.  Filmmaker D.W. Griffith is considered a racist for A Birth of a Nation, but it turns out that he might not have cared about racial politics.

In game development, there are so many moving parts.  Who exactly is in control of authorial tone?  Is it the narrative designer, the creative director, or the artist who decided to add something extra?  Whether it's due to lack of research, lack of sensitivity, or a lack of understanding how the content will be perceived, there will be players who find offense.  The offense doesn't even have to be about gender politics.  Maybe the player doesn't like how a mythological creature looks because the creature has symbolic meaning in the player's country.   It's known that Chinese and Korean players are offended by the Imperial Japanese rising sun flag.  Are these players just too sensitive?

From a customer support viewpoint, it really doesn't matter.  This doesn't mean that a game needs to changed right away or at all, just that an understanding reply can mean the difference between a player who feels his or her concerns are heard and a player who is mad enough to lead a campaign and rile people up.  If players are so offended that they won't buy the game or buy an in-game item, then I'm sure the marketing department cares about that.

The best approach, of course, is to carefully consider these issues before the launch of the game.  How will the situations in the game be perceived by different populations?  Does the game have a particular message that could be considered offensive?  How are minorities and underrepresented subgroups treated in the game?  Are there stereotypical characters?  Ask others for their opinions.  Learn and listen.  Games are cultural artifacts and as such, they do reflect the values of their makers.  Thus, game makers should be concerned about the game's meaningfulness.  If players are offended and no offense is intended, then that's a sign that something has gone awry.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Current State of Educational Game Development

In this article, game designer Sande Chen reaches out to educational game developers to help her understand the issues hindering further adoption of game-based learning. Please take my survey!
10 years ago, David Michael and I wrote a book called Serious Games: Games That Educate, Train, and Inform.   We were very excited to learn about these interesting projects that ranged from subversive art games to Unreal mods that conquer phobias.  Our article, "Proof of Learning: Assessment in Serious Games," has been cited in numerous papers and books.  We have even had the introductory chapter of the book translated in Chinese and published in one of China's local game development magazines.

This summer, I have been undertaking a research project to understand the current state of educational game development.  I want to discover if the issues we reported in our book are still plaguing developers and if any new challenges have arisen.  I do know that the Department of Education has recently released its Ed Tech Developer's Guide and that half of its SBIR portfolio now consists of educational games.  Educational technology investments have been skyrocketing and according to Ambient Insights, revenues generated by consumers of game-based learning products were around 328 million in 2014.

But, as edSurge notes in this recent article, "Education Technology Deals Reach $1.6 Billion in First Half of 2015," numbers can be misleading. That's because educational technology could also mean backend administrative software or a photo sharing app.  They're not necessarily games.  Moreover, money spent by schools that you'd think is being spent on innovative educational games may actually be going to interactive blackboards.  Even the numbers for game-based learning may be more reflective of language learning programs and brain trainers like Luminosity than educational games for the classroom.

To be sure, all of this is complicated, but you can help me understand what's going on by circulating my survey to educational game developers.  My hope is that the research will bring about policy recommendations, specifically to non-profit organizations, schools and government agencies.  I am also conducting one-on-one interviews, so if you're an educational game developer who'd like to be interviewed, please let me know.

Here's the survey link:
August 14 Update: I've closed the survey for now but am still seeking interviews with educational game developers.
August 16 Update: I will be moving the survey to another provider.   
September 3 Update:  Here's the survey on SurveyMonkey.  Please take it if you weren't able to complete it on Qualtrics.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.