The Different Games Conference is a yearly, volunteer-led conference focused on promoting inclusivity and diversity in games. The fourth annual conference will take place on April 8-9, 2016 at NYU’s Polytechnic School of Engineering in Brooklyn, NY. Our CFP, inviting talks, workshops, and playable games from presenters of all professional backgrounds and levels of expertise, opens October 9th, 2015.
Exactly four years ago, as plans for the first Different Games were being sketched out by a handful of young women from across the NYC games scene, the timing seemed perfect for an event exploring diverse participation in games. Earlier that year, we had heard game designer and author Anna Anthropy read from her new book Rise of the Videogame Zinesters to a packed house at Blue Stockings, the radical bookstore and activist center on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Soon after, Anita Sarkeesian would suffer a campaign of extreme online violence while raising funds for her popular video series Tropes vs. Women. The “#1ReasonWhy” hashtag exploded on Twitter as we were crafting our first call for proposals, further affirming our decision to create an interdisciplinary event where the discrimination we had witnessed and experienced could be openly challenged.
In a sense, Anthropy, Sarkeesian, and the many industry voices of #1ReasonWhy speaking in chorus exemplified the need for a dialogue across the game domains of politically-minded DIY, critical and scholarly discourse, and commercial production. So, while the Integrated Digital Media Program at NYU Polytechnic and Tisch’s NYU Game Center graciously offered us a home, their most crucial support was in our effort to build a coalition that extended beyond their walls. One of Different Games’ most important features was, and continues to be, our effort to draw into conversation voices beyond those that one is likely to encounter at any industry function, academic symposium, or anti-capitalist skillshare alone.
Our pursuit of building a community around collective yet profoundly varied and personal experiences of “difference” has allowed us to bring into focus the structures of power that cut across all our domains. Now, as a larger and more diverse collective than ever before, we remain committed to the need for spaces and dialogues that privilege those marginalized on the basis of their race, class, ability, age, sexual orientation, gender expression and of multiple intersecting identities rendered as “different” through violence, oppression and othering. As the breadth of perspectives and topics shared in these proceedings demonstrates, this is a conversation that must begin at the margins of our community, but that we believe is always and definitively for all of us.
We were fortunate enough to have each of the authors in this special issue present their work during Different Games 2015, held at the NYU Magnet Center on April 3rd and 4th. This year’s conference was a bigger hit than we ever could have hoped for, with nearly 300 attendees from more than half a dozen countries. The conference program included twenty-five speakers and six workshops that showcased wide understandings of the games medium, gaming audiences, and ways to develop and foster diverse gaming communities. In addition to these guided conversations, 42 titles were showcased in the arcade, celebrating the diversity of games and game designers. Both days of the conference began with powerful and inspirational keynote speeches from Katherine Cross and Zuraida Buter. In keeping with the focus on creating safe and diverse spaces, this past year’s conference debuted a revamped draft of the Different Games Inclusivity Statement, which continues to receive praise from attendees and has since been iterated upon by other games organizations.
In addition to offering a great cross section of what was presented at this year’s event, the pieces in this special issue of FPS illustrate the wide variety of topics and perspectives that our conference strives to present. Katherine Cross’s keynote address, “The Lost Levels of New Games Journalism” serves as a fitting opening to this special issue, as it perfectly illustrates the vital need to broaden the ways in which we think and talk about games. In the piece, Cross sheds light on her experience as a critic in games during the past year, and how a barrage of harassment left her unbowed and even more determined to engage the world of games. Cross describes what she calls the “third way” of participation: neither assimilated in the industry nor driven from it, but rather in engaging on one’s own terms — with personal and fearless writing in dialogue with the wider world.
Multiple pieces critically examine conventional approaches to game design and encourage designers to experiment with alternatives. In “The Importance of Abstraction,” Natasha Chuk examines how abstraction is not only a key ingredient of video games, but also a feature that fundamentally shapes players’ ideas, experiences, and impressions during and after gameplay. For Chuk, abstraction is both a sign of games’ growth and source of exciting potential for new creative possibilities. Pierre Depaz explores the inherent political aspects in game development in “Simulating Life: Political Game Design.” By taking his own game Social Contact as a case study, Depaz illustrates how software code encapsulates the ideas and biases of its creator. Depaz deconstructs the way we understand simulations to allow a more nuanced view on the subjectivity involved in their representations. In “Can Computers be Feminists,” Gillian Smith, Tayna Short, Amanda Phillips, and Michael Cook enter into a post-humanist framed conversation about agency in machine-human dialectics, artificial intelligence, and procedural generation and interpret the meaning of diversity through mechanized forms of game design.
Two pieces extend this focus on game design further to push for more diversity and inclusivity in the design process and distribution of games. In “Flexible Times Need Flexible Game Design,” Ben Norskov and Mohini Dutta discuss the need for a plurality of methodologies in creating games for different cultures across the world. They connect the processes of developing a game with our fundamental understanding of the world around us, and how creating games for other cultures requires a broader, more inclusive methodology for heterogeneous audiences. In “Following the Green Light,” Andrea Morales Coto chronicles how a desire to address the exclusionary practices present in today’s predominant game-value chain led Morales Coto to start Follow the Greenlight, a project that seeks to create a new game distribution system that is communally run and includes dissident and marginalized voices.
Finally, three pieces highlight games’ powerful sociopolitical potential. In “The Illuminator” Grayson Earle describes some of Earle’s own works and activist collaborations to illustrate how games can function as provocative and engaging radical art projects, including works that explore the class imbalance in the U.S.’s legal system and government surveillance. Yifat Shaik tackles the issue of subversive humor and how it can be utilized as an effective political statement in “Subversive Humor and Games.” Shaik gathers evidence from the history of games to show the value of subversive humor as a tool to invert the power structure of media-based discourses and critique institutions and systems. In “Critical Game Creation as Intergenerational Social Participation,” Margarida Romero describes how an interest in the use of participative critical game design to promote social inclusion led Romero to construct an intergenerational project involving students collaborating with a person with migration experience to design a game about immigration.
As the diversity of these proceedings illustrate, Different Games has grown in many ways, including the number of attendees, the number and breadth of panels, the arcade’s size, and the expansion to a three-track panel schedule. The co-organizers have also increased in number, which has allowed us to more closely consider a greater number of submissions. We consistently strive to expand the reach of our call for participation and will continue to work at encouraging emerging designers, scholars and players to feel that their voices are welcome and desired. We’ve also increased our budget for offering travel grants for speakers, in the hopes of continuing to increase the accessibility of the event.
Different Games has also made two major organizational moves since 2014. First, we have made strides to organize ourselves into a fully collectivized structure, flattening hierarchies wherever possible and bringing in new co-organizers as peers and co-creators rather than helpers. Second, we have branched out from the Conference into other forms of engagement, collecting these efforts under the banner of the Different Games Collective. As the Collective, we have been running inclusive game events, including talks and game-making workshops in Atlanta, where some of our members are located. We have plans to expand these activities to other cities where the Different Games Collective has a presence.
The cultural climate of games is not what it was when Different Games debuted in 2013. Voices challenging the status quo and pushing for greater diversity and inclusivity in both games and gaming communities have become more prominent. However, since August of 2014, a conspiratorial mess of harassment campaigns has haunted games, and particularly targeted people who represent and champion a broader, more kaleidoscopic idea of what games can be and who can participate in this conversation. DG does what it does to try to support that vision of games.
We want extend our deepest thanks to the generous editorial staff of First Person Scholar for offering us this opportunity to publish our first ever conference proceedings and for working closely with our conference presenters to include their excellent works in this special issue. We’d also like to thank collective member Brian McKernan for giving this project so much of his time and attention. Finally, we’d like to thank the brilliant authors of this collection of essays and reflections. Their contributions here, as well those they shared alongside of all of our presenters, speakers and attendees, continue to further a conversation by and for all of us. We hope you’ll find it as meaningful as we have.