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."

TERA
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.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Viability of Spec Game Scripts

In this article, game writer Sande Chen weighs the primacy of gameplay inspiration over story, and story inspiration over gameplay, to opine on whether or not the game industry would ever accept spec game scripts.

While the game industry may share some terminology with Hollywood, its business practices for story development are not that similar.  Therefore, when I've been asked on occasion if game companies routinely accept spec scripts or game ideas, I usually remark that if that happened, it would be very rare.  In a recent article, "Could there be a speculative script industry for narrative games?" writer Hannah Woods explored the possibility that this might change for interactive story games.


In general, I have found that most game companies start with tech or gameplay or a theme, but I've also seen games that very obviously were created story first, gameplay later.  In those cases, the game may seem like a collection of ideally related mini-games made to support the story.  For example, in Missing, a game about the tragedy of human trafficking, the gameplay goes in very short order from choosing branching narrative to an action mini-game and onward to resource management.  Cynically, I thought that even though the game appeared to have a way to escape the traffickers, I knew in deference to the story that the player-character would not be allowed to go free because otherwise, the full story of what happens to girls forced into prostitution would not be revealed.

Even when the basic gameplay is of primary concern, this does not necessarily mean that the story has been ignored.  Game designers often think about verbs associated with activities, so it may very well mean that the story elements have been the inspiration behind gameplay actions.  When the gameplay can become more interesting and complex in progression while also dovetailing with an exciting story, then the chances of ludonarrative dissonance are lower.  Our challenge is to have gameplay and story development working in concert.  My best experiences as a game writer have been when I've been treated as part of the team, leading to gameplay inspirations from the story, and vice versa.

Many game writers have complained that the gameplay first, story later methodology presents issues and as I pointed out above, going story first, gameplay later faces similar challenges.  Moreover, video games can be very different in their gameplay.  For this reason, how one approaches writing one game versus writing another game may be radically different. Therefore, for most games, especially the AAA games that most aspiring game writers would like to write, a spec game script would not make sense. But what about narrative-driven games?

Even within the umbrella of narrative games, there are different engines and different gameplay.  A text-based Twine game won't have the running and shooting actions that Mass Effect has. The only way I see spec game scripts working is if there's specificity for a particular engine and particular type of game.  That's how it is right now with companies like Choice of Games but if a writer wrote an entire spec game in ChoiceScript, I doubt another company would want it as is.

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.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Upcoming: 2017 Serious Play Conference July 18-20

https://seriousplayconf.com/

I've been collecting my thoughts on social impact games in blog posts such as "Issues About Impact" and exploring the nature of persuasion, empathy, and emotional hooks in my Designing Games For Impact classes.  Just as I had done with my research into educational games, I wanted to look at social impact games from different angles.  I learned about storytelling, as defined by marketers, and with my knowledge of cinematography, began to analyze commercials and PSAs.  Serious Games: Games That Educate, Train, and Inform had briefly covered social commentary games or op-ed games and I was interested enough to revisit the subject and take a deep dive.

Next week, I will be presenting at the 2017 Serious Play Conference, a leadership conference for both those who create serious games/simulations and those who implement game-based learning programs.  Specifically, I will be talking about issues surrounding designing games for social impact and will be looking at techniques used in games and other media to further impact and persuade without preaching or browbeating.

It’s become apparent that it’s not so easy to convince others of a different viewpoint or to generate empathy for a cause. Within our social media bubbles, beliefs are constantly reinforced and entrenched. So how can social impact games break down these barriers? How can they go beyond preaching to the choir?

This year, the Serious Play Conference will be at George Mason University, on July 18-20, 2017.  Passes, including student tickets, can be purchased here.

Sande Chen is the co-author of Serious Games: Games That Educate, Train, and Inform. As a serious games consultant, she helps companies harness the power of video games for non-entertainment purposes. Her career as a writer, producer, and game designer has spanned over 10 years in the game industry. Her game credits include 1999 Independent Games Festival winner Terminus, MMO Hall of Fame inductee Wizard101, and the 2007 PC RPG of the Year, The Witcher, for which she was nominated for a Writers Guild of America Award in Videogame Writing. She has spoken at conferences around the globe, including the Game Developers Conference, Game Education Summit, SXSW Interactive, Serious Play Conference, and the Serious Games Summit D.C. 

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Diverse Character Design and Representation GDoC Expo

In this video from Game Devs of Color Expo, panelists Amaryah Shaye Armstrong, Sande Chen, Yussef Cole, Tanya DePass, and Dina Abou Karam provide an in-depth look into the issue of diverse character design and representation.

Did you miss the Game Devs of Color panel, Diverse Character Design and Representation in Games?

We had a lively conversation about the portrayal of minorities in games, the lack of minority characters especially in fantasy settings, and how assuming the default character is white affects game development processes.  As a call to action, the panelists urged audience members to support minority game projects through Kickstarter or Patreon, to consider hiring a diversity consultant, and to look more closely at company hiring practices.

Diverse Character Design and Representation in Games 
Game Devs of Color Expo
, June 24, 2017

Five games industry professionals will further the case for diversity in character design during this panel. Topics to be discussed will include the portrayal of dark skin in games, representation of Arabs in video games, queer people of color in games, whitewashing, and cultural appropriation.

PANELISTS:
Amaryah Shaye Armstrong 
Sande Chen [Writer and Designer]
Yussef Cole [Writer and Visual Artist]
Tanya DePass [Director, I Need Diverse Games]
Dina Abou Karam [Artist/Game Designer]

Check out the video below:




Thursday, June 29, 2017

Upcoming Class: Designing Games For Impact

The day after July 4th, I invite those of you near NYC to join me in a class about Designing Games For Impact at Microsoft NY. Within these classes, I have been exploring a range of topics, including emotional intensity, social impact, and persuasion.  Learn to cultivate that spark within you and pass it to others.

Whether you are an entertainment developer who wants to add another layer to gameplay and story or an activist or educator who wants to reach out through video games, together we'll discuss different methodologies to achieve your goals.

On the subject of change and empowerment, I was recently interviewed for the book, Empower Yourself Through Your Memories: Use the Lessons From Your Past to Create a Happy Present and Future by Frank Healy.  Healy, a counselor and life coach, has helped people deal with traumatic memories. 

I'd love to do a giveaway of one book at the upcoming class.

As always, Playcrafting NYC, which offers classes and events related to game development, offers Early Bird tickets, but if they sell out (and they have in the past), you'll have to pay full price. 

The details!
Designing Games For Impact
Date: Wednesday, July 5
Time: 6:30-8:30 PM

About Me 

Sande Chen is the co-author of Serious Games: Games That Educate, Train, and Inform. As a serious games consultant, she helps companies harness the power of video games for non-entertainment purposes. Her career as a writer, producer, and game designer has spanned over 15 years in the game industry. Her game credits include 1999 Independent Games Festival winner Terminus, MMO Hall of Fame inductee Wizard101, and the 2007 PC RPG of the Year, The Witcher, for which she was nominated for a Writers Guild of America Award in Videogame Writing. She has spoken at conferences around the globe, including the Game Developers Conference, Game Education Summit, SXSW Interactive, Serious Play Conference, and the Serious Games Summit D.C.