Building Queer Community

Report on the Queerness & Games Design Workshop

(Report on the Queerness and Games Undergraduate Design Workshop at UC Berkeley, Fall 2014 [1])

Despite its relative novelty, it is easier to explain the Queerness and Games Design Workshop than, for example, to tell family back home what film studies is and why being a film studies major doesn’t necessarily mean learning to make movies. Perhaps explaining the Queerness and Games Design Workshop (QGDW) is easier because family in the Midwest aren’t the ones asking about it—they don’t mention the Queerness and Games Conference (QGCon) when I post about it on Facebook either. Those who do ask are already prepared, in a way, for the answer. It is oftentimes difficult to explain anything at all to family back home.

But then this has always been part of the reason why we need queer communities in the first place. A recent UC Berkeley Campus Climate Survey found that more than 1 in 4 students at UC Berkeley felt uncomfortable with the campus climate. Those who identify as LGBTQ experienced exclusionary conduct at a much higher rate, even in the classroom. Outside of widespread infrastructural transformations (which we should never stop fighting for—gender-neutral bathrooms, better training for faculty about micro-aggressions), the workshop was conceived of as a small way to help combat these experiences of exclusionary conduct.

The Workshop

The QGDW was a three-month-long, four-part workshop in which undergraduate students interested in the intersection of videogame design and LGBTQ issues made experimental games addressing these issues in a sensitive manner (no prior experience necessary). Over the course of three day-long sessions, participants broke into small teams of up to 4 and worked together to develop one small-scale game, which was then presented at the subsequent Queerness and Games Conference. At QGCon, students and their work were introduced to the wider queer community, academics, and game developers in attendance.

The three, day-long meetings (held every other week) were modeled after mobile application design challenges or campus hack-a-thons, but with time allowed for work between meetings. Roughly twenty students attended, from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds and surprising ranges in experience and comfort with computer programming.

The first meeting avoided immersion in the technical nuts and bolts of game design; rather, it was a primer on the major issues we wanted the workshop to address, with the goal that students would start to identify an area of critical intervention by thinking of themselves—in teams—as part of a shared creative enterprise. In order to keep students engaged throughout the seven-hour day, the first meeting was a flurry of different activities—never the same for more than thirty minutes.

After introductions and a discussion of the basic concepts of queerness and games, students were assembled into small groups to draw webs or diagrams of key terms related to queerness and videogames. This was important for producing a common lexicon that subsequent conversations would build upon. Part of this lexicon included establishing the boundaries that would help make the workshop a safe and inclusive environment for everyone involved (e.g., protocol for asking about preferred gender pronouns or for turning unintentional micro-aggressions into shared educational moments).

After a brief morning break, the workshop co-facilitators presented on the general categories of game studies, queer theory, and queer culture. While many students were already familiar with the core texts and objects in each area, the presentations were important, once again, for creating a shared constellation of ideas and references for later discussion. When we transitioned into a discussion of games per se, it was helpful to review some experimental games that already addressed queerness (such as Anna Anthropy’s Dys4ia and Dierdra Kiai’s Quing’s Quest VII: The Death of Videogames!) to help establish a range of different aesthetic and design approaches.

Because none of the co-facilitators were actual game designers, the workshop invited guest speakers to instill some core game-design concepts. Dana Nelson, senior game designer at PopCap games and Kinda Sweet Studios, led two different game-design exercises in the afternoon of the first day, and then shared her experience inside the industry as a female designer. Students came away with tools for imagining the core mechanics of their own games, as well as with some frank and helpful advice about pursuing a career in design.

Finally, at the end of the first day, in a productively chaotic speed-dating arrangement, students mingled and coalesced into provisional design teams. The instructors served as mediators here, suggesting potential affinities and collaborations to students that did not immediately find a place in any group. And since the teams were provisional, the dread of commitment was lessened. Students left with homework for the second meeting, which included brainstorming game ideas, developing a working plan, and deciding on a game-making program. We also asked that they attempt to download that program ahead of time (and later reimbursed them for any purchase made).

The goal of the second meeting was to finally dig down into the design technicalities. This meeting began with a brief recap of student interests followed by short presentations of the initial game concepts (their homework). We welcomed game designer and artist, Dierdra “Squinky” Kiai, (also one of QGCon’s co-organizers) who led two technical workshops— one on Twine, and another on Game Maker. The rest of the time in the afternoon was spent testing each group’s chosen program, testing basic procedures with Kiai on hand to troubleshoot. The second meeting ended with a group-by-group discussion about design goals and a proposed timeframe for completion. Homework for the third and final workshop meeting was the task of producing a playable game demo, even if very rough and short.

This third and final meeting of the workshop began with presentations of these playable demos, and served as equal parts inspiration and formal critique. We tried to press the students to talk about the thematic import of their design decisions, but also offered practical solutions to problems. We capped off this final meeting with a conversation about how to make the best use of the time between then and the conference—where students would unveil their games for a wider audience at the student panel (as well as, optionally, in a special section of the conference’s videogame arcade). Since many of the students had never before spoken publicly, we asked each team leader to prepare and deliver a mock presentation of the issues their game sought to address. This was intended to help quell anxiety about speaking at the conference, and gave a chance to address issues of manner, tone, volume, etc.

Reasons for Repeating the Workshop

Though originally conceived as a UC Berkeley program tied specifically to the 2014 Queerness and Games Conference, there are reasons to consider repeating the workshop at Berkeley and elsewhere. Rather than a one-off event tied to a particular “moment” in a broader social movement, the workshop’s core goals would actually be best achieved were the event repeatable. These goals were to increase visibility for queer members of the academic community, connect students with an innovative technology sector, and to help make queer gaming visible and officially recognized on campus. As a secondary goal, it was hoped that the games produced in the workshop would serve as useful pedagogical tools in both queer studies and videogame studies for the university. Of course, this tool will become more useful if it continues to grow and respond to ongoing conversations about identity and community.

Combating systemic discrimination is an ongoing responsibility, and universities strive to be leaders in a struggle that clearly was never going to be won “overnight.” As a repeatable program, the design workshop serves as a practical way for universities to be even more active in the pursuit of equity and inclusion.

Even within the workshop, the recurring nature of the meetings over the course of the semester gives students the space and time to feel like a valued part of a supportive community, helping to increase their sense of belonging. It is, of course, hoped that future LGBTQ students might have access to this opportunity as well. It is also hoped that future students will feel more open to the possibility of seeking work in the videogame industry—an industry now construed as a hypermasculine, heteronormative space that is hostile to women and sexual minorities. Increased diversity in industry would likely have wide-reaching ramifications.

In the 2014 workshop, students who attended all meetings and presented their work at the subsequent conference (QGCon) reported feeling included in a broader community, often “for the first time.” Having overcome that intimidating hurdle of developing their very first game, they stood in front of their peers as videogame designers. The positive feedback they received for their games at the conference was echoed in the general enthusiasm reported in seeing the undergraduate designers take this first step—it was a moment that, for some, heralded a better future for the industry as well.

Strategies for Repeating the Workshop

The workshop’s student turnout and enthusiasm were surprising. But the workshop was not perfect, and we came away with some lessons for improvement.

We were saddened that one student dropped out of the program between the first and second meeting, despite strong efforts to retain them. The student made valuable contributions during the first meeting’s group exercises, but consistently expressed concerns over a lack of experience with videogames. We felt vindicated by group exercises that demonstrated how those with no games experience can still make valid contributions. But we had failed to address the student’s true (and unvoiced) concern: time-commitment required for a novice to make a game that looks as good as the commercial or indie games they were familiar with.

From the failure to retain this student, we learned that it is actually crucial to address the time-commitment involved with game design. In a future workshop, we would spend time discussing “queer aesthetic” as a potential counter-aesthetic to the high production value (flashy, polished visuals) of “AAA” games produced by large production teams in the games industry. One of the central ideas of queer game design is that everybody should make games (not just white, straight males with programming backgrounds). We were very careful to stress that students did not need programming experience, but could have done more to address time-commitment and queer aesthetics in the first meeting.

And on the topic of time, we also learned that the timing of the meetings is crucial. Holding the workshop early in the fall semester on Saturdays worked well, but it was a mistake to space the meetings evenly across those six weeks. Rather than hold all meetings two weeks apart, it would be better to compress time between the first two meetings—perhaps holding them on back-to-back weekends—to sustain momentum across those initial meetings. It would also be better to add extra time between the penultimate and ultimate meetings, as the construction of game prototypes (playable demo’s) is very time-consuming. Though eager to participate, the students have many time commitments, and it is best to really think about the schedule of work the workshop entails.

It was difficult to predict and prepare for student enthusiasm and expertise. In the inaugural workshop, the students who attended knew a great deal about queer theory and videogames, and were already involved in LGBTQ activism around campus. Despite this, students still reported it useful to begin with presentations of the workshop’s core ideas, since not everybody shared the same level of expertise, and even those who have already studied these ideas benefitted from establishing of a common store of ideas and terms that come up in discussions throughout the workshop and, later, at the conference.

Our workshop was made possible with a grant from the Division of Equity and Inclusion at UC Berkeley. There are many funding opportunities for programs like this, identifiable through Google searches, though many of the best opportunities come through word of mouth. It is also helpful to sign up for university list serves about grants and other funding opportunities. The case for this cause is not difficult to make.

[1] Special thanks to my co-facilitators for the Queerness and Games Design Workshop: Bonnie Ruberg and Laura Fantone.