Thursday, August 17, 2017

A Double Standard for Female Characters?

In this article, game writer Sande Chen implores others to think about how female characters are portrayed and developed.

Women in fields like high tech can feel like they're pushing against a double standard. They have to prove that they're beyond qualified for the job while at the same time, receiving a lower pay. They may feel like they're treated differently or belittled, their ideas claimed by male colleagues who fail to even let them finish speaking. I sometimes feel that female characters must feel the same way.  Think about how you treat your female characters.  Are they given the same opportunities as male characters?

For a long time, in film, the prevailing thought was that movies with female protagonists would never be major successes so why bother?  (Though recently, Wonder Woman smashed box office records.)  This same mantra seems to be repeated in the video game industry.  According to the 2013 Electronic Entertainment Design and Research Report, only 3% of top console games from 2005 to 2013 had female protagonists and publishers had very low expectations, as reflected in the low marketing budgets of those games. One game developer with a female-fronted game commented on how hard it was to get publishers to change their views: "We had some [companies] that said, 'Well, we don't want to publish it because that's not going to succeed. You can't have a female character in games. It has to be a male character, simple as that."

This had led to the male character being the default playable character, especially in mobile games, with female playable characters falling into the optional "pay extra" category or simply non-existent.  Despite it all, female players still clamor to be heard. They want female playable characters.  Repeat, this is just about the mere inclusion of a female playable character!  Even when female playable characters are included, they may be hypersexualized just like non-playing female characters whose only value seems to be their physical attributes.

If your game doesn't have a female protagonist, maybe you have a female character in a supporting role?  Let's hope she's not a badass there just to support the male hero as a plot device, much like the character Trinity in The Matrix. Give her a fully realized story of her own that could function as a subplot.

Does your female character have strong opinions? Careful now. Here's where criticism may come. Maybe she's too brash. Or too unlikable. Comes off as "too male."  These are charges that probably wouldn't ever be leveled against male characters.  Male characters tend to get away with all sorts of off-putting personality tics.

Male characters also don't tend to be threatened by sexual assault.  Yes, sexual assault is a concern for women and pertinent to some stories, but don't use it for shock value or as a plot device for the male hero to seek revenge.  Sexual assault shouldn't be the "go-to standard" for a female character's traumatic childhood. Don't use rape or attempted rape as a way to make a story "edgy." I'm sure there are other ways to insert danger into a female character's life story.

Female characters are deserving of better treatment. They too can have deep, intriguing back stories. We don't have to turn them into seductresses or subject them to sexual abuse.  We can attribute more value to them than their physical appearances.  Let's make sure we aren't applying a double standard and create stories that celebrate female characters.

In an idealized society, I wonder what female characters will be like, and if you would like to join me, I will be holding another writing workshop in New York City, Writing for Sci-Fi, Fantasy, & Horror Game Worlds, next Wednesday, August 23rd, at Microsoft NY.

the details!
Date:  Wednesday, August 23rd, 2017
Time: 6:30 to 9:30 PM
Place: Microsoft NY, Times Square
Tickets sold by PlayCrafting NYC

A writer and game designer, Sande Chen has over 10 years experience in the industry. She studied science fiction and science writing at MIT. Her first published game was the epic space combat RPG, Terminus, which won 2 awards at the 1999 Independent Games Festival. She was later nominated for a 2007 Writers Guild of America award in Videogame Writing for the dark fantasy RPG, The Witcher.


Friday, August 11, 2017

Great Narrative Stories are the Answer

In this article, game writer Sande Chen explains how a narrative story's themes can have an everlasting impact on its readers or viewers.

For several months now, I've been exploring issues regarding social impact and meaningfulness in my PlayCrafting NYC classes, Designing Games For Impact (coming up soon on September 20).  I spoke about the difficulties of measuring impact recently at the Serious Play Conference.  Does impact mean increasing awareness or changing beliefs or changing behaviors or all the above?

As I've mentioned before, convincing someone to change one's beliefs is a very hard task. Because of confirmation bias, even new evidence to the contrary will cause a person to cling more fiercely to those beliefs.  As Christopher Graves, founder of the Ogilvy Center for Behavioral Science, noted in his keynote at the 2017 Games For Change Festival, arguing the facts simply makes it worse. People who believe differently will just reject those newly discovered facts.

So what's the answer?  How can we convince people who don't seem willing to look logically at the facts?

Graves points to the theory of narrative transportation whereby people become so enthralled with an immersive, narrative story that their attitudes change to reflect that of the story's, even when the story is known to be fictional.  In fact, neurophysiologists have discovered mirror neurons in the brains of the storyteller and the people listening to the story.  Mirror neurons may even be the basis for empathy.

Christopher Graves speaks at the 2017 Games For Change Festival
Storytellers, did you realize that your story's themes could be this powerful?

But not all stories trigger mirror neurons.  The listener needs to feel so enraptured by vivid and concrete imagery that the listener feels like this is a living world filled with believable characters and situations.  In essence, great narrative stories may be the way to change people's hearts and minds.

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 3, 2017

A Brief History of Game Jams

The following is reprinted from The Game Jam Guide, available from ETC Press. Download your copy now for free.

At any given weekend, there is a game jam happening somewhere in the world. Professionals and students alike converge on these game jam sites to further their skills, to foster community, and to experiment with game design. These game jams may focus on a social cause or a specific technology. The developers may want to explore a theme and use a word or some starting point to spark creativity. No matter the direction, the goal of the participants is to create a playable game within the constraints in a relatively short period of time.

The earliest known game jam, dubbed the 0th Indie Game Jam, was founded by Chris Hecker and Sean Barrett in March 2002. Intent on encouraging innovation and experimentation within the game industry, they invited a select crowd of well-known designers and programmers to develop games for a specialized engine. Indie Game Jam, which continued in subsequent years, tended to focus on technology-driven constraints. Participants worked on their own, on multiple projects, or in a team.

The following month, in April 2002, Ludum Dare (from the Latin "To give a game"), the first virtual game jam, was launched. The idea for it had grown organically from the Internet forum of the same name. Ludum Dare, which now has solo and team tracks, challenges participants to create a game based on a theme rather than conforming to a technological constraint. Themes are suggested and voted on by the Ludum Dare community. Its community also determines which games are the winners, according to various judging standards. Though source code is required to be uploaded, participants retain all rights to their games. In more recent years, participants have broadcast livestreams on Twitch or created a time-lapse video of their game development progress during the event.

These early examples from 2002 were informal affairs. Nordic Game Jam, which would later grow to be one of the largest single-site game jams in the world, began in 2006 as a collaboration between the Denmark chapter of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), IT University of Copenhagen, and local game companies. The organizers there emphasized the spirit of collaboration and sometimes would not release the theme until teams were formed. Once given the theme and restrictions, teams had just 48 hours to complete a working prototype. Participants of all skill levels were encouraged to come, stressing the educational aspect of the game jam.

Inspired by Indie Game Jam, Ludum Dare, and Nordic Game Jam, Global Game Jam (GGJ) holds the Guinness World Record for the largest game jam in the world. Founded by Susan Gold, Ian Schreiber, and Gorm Lai in 2008, GGJ is a multi-site game jam with many of the same characteristics of its predecessors. Participants may work alone, though teams are more common, to create a game based on a theme and optional diversifiers. In 2017, over 36,000 participants in 702 sites in 95 countries attended, making over 7000 games in one weekend. The games, all available for play on the GGJ site, range from tabletop games to virtual reality, Kinect games, handhelds and tablets, console games, and traditional PC games.

It's clear why educators often recommend that aspiring game developers attend game jams. Not only do the events foster creativity, collaboration, and community, but they also instill the fast prototyping and iterative design culture found in many game companies. Participants learn the lessons of "failing early" in order to perfect a game. They must work with teammates within a time constraint and are exposed to a diverse set of skills and personalities. They come face to face with production realities, which force them to decide which game features remain or must go. There may not be any monetary gain from game jams, but the entire experience of completing a game and learning from others may be priceless.

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.