Following the Green Light

Designing Inclusion in Game Distribution

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Andrea Morales Coto is a design strategist with a special interest in how games’ systematic impact is shaped by distribution chains. She is pursuing an MFA degree in Transdisciplinary Design at Parsons, is an Intel IGDA Scholar, and loves thinking about design innovation in the services that surround games.

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The advent of digital distribution

The introduction of Valve’s online distribution platform, Steam, has dramatically changed the face of video game access on a global level: from developers trying to get “Greenlit”, to gamers in emerging economies making the most out of $5 game sales, the current state of the game industry is characterized by an ever increasing digitalization of distribution means. This “direct” and “digitized” model is nothing new, though, and was in fact attempted in the past by several other companies, like PlayCable (1981) and GameLine (1983). So what is different now? Why the dramatic rise of online distribution in the expanse of 10+ years? And who is actually reaping the benefits of online game distribution systems?

Though personal computers have become more affordable and ubiquitous in the past 30 years, deeming this as a “natural evolution” that lead to an increased technological literacy in America would be simplistic and technologically deterministic, and overlooks the organized efforts performed by companies to expand the use of these technologies to begin with. Steam, for example, had some adoption obstacles in the beginning: unveiled at the 2002 Game Developers Conference and released a year later, the distribution platform was reportedly buggy and unfriendly towards users. 2 years later, though, the video game giant that owns Steam, Valve, decided to release all of its games for PC asking for a compulsory installation of Steam in order to play. Coincidentally, in 2004 one of Valve’s biggest games was released: Half-Life 2, now an industry staple that cost $40 million to make, sold more than 1.7 million copies worldwide.

The former example accentuates the relevance of organizations in the dissemination and adoption of technology, and, more specifically, talks about the influence of business and acquisition power in digital distribution of games. This last aspect becomes important when talking about access to games and representation in them, as the now well-known excuse of games not selling well enough amongst minorities was for many years an uncontested “truth” in the industry. That is to say, minorities have been kept away from games under the allegation that they do not invest in games, while at the same time the industry had not actively designed a way to reach out to minorities in order for them to consider investing in them to begin with.

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Graph from https://medium.com/@galyonkin/some-things-you-should-know-about-steam-5eaffcf33218

The digitalization trend in game distribution has trickled into other realms and taken new forms, like Kickstarter’s aid to the rise of indie creators, the episodic release of games, and the creation of “bundles”, or packages of games for low costs, in the name of charity. Still, women, specifically, have faced the same difficulties in access to such modes of digitized distribution models. Although in general they tend to get funded, they ask for less money than their male counterparts, and in the case of video game projects, 90% of all projects are headed by men, and those that are actually proposed by women are twice as likely to be funded by female investors. (Marom, Robb & Sade, 51 and 57). Although there have been no studies on the influence of race, geography, sexuality, and disability on funding success rates, the echo-chamber reflected by the case of women-owned Kickstarter projects calls for a closer study of access to digital distribution in games.

In sum, online distribution platforms, born from an instrumental need to sell more in an easier way, are reflecting the inter sectorial limitations and gaps that diverse game creators are currently experiencing in the offline world. Through my work I wish to raise one question about digital distribution of games: what are its implications for inclusion of dissident voices in the gaming community?

Following The Green Light: a strategic design project

With this knowledge, and as a designer interested in the design of systems that surround games more than the design of the systems in games themselves, I am trying to explore ways of game distribution that are adaptable to change, diverse, and run by community consensus, all through the lens of strategic design.

But why strategic design? There are several definitions for this but I personally define it as using design methodologies to tackle complex problems that can’t be solved by a single discipline. I paired that with my love for games and game design, and my project “Following The Green Light” was born.

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The most important part about strategic design as the lens for my project does not consist in just its use as a methodology, but the fact that the outcomes of a strategic design process depend on the way the challenge is framed. That means that depending on the questions that I propose in the face of a challenge, my solutions will also shape and shift. For example, solutions could be games, services, products or even experiences… Some would say that strategic design is “solutions agnostic”.

Designing games’ value chains

My choice of topic arises from game’s ability to, as systems and as new media, join the fibers of digitization (the 0s and 1s of code) and mass media distribution. As Lev Manovich expresses:

“We should not be surprised that both trajectories —the development of modern media and the development of computers— begin around the same time. Both media machines and computing machines were absolutely necessary for the functioning of modern mass societies. […] Mass media and data processing are complementary technologies; they appear together and develop side by side, making modern mass society possible.” (22-23)

The potential of games, then, is astounding: both as part of an industry deeply tied to technological advances, and as objects of ideology and dissemination of content, games reflect the current status of our society in the systems that are embedded in them and that are born out of them. If “dissemination”, as Manovich calls it, is so important to technology, then games distribution is a topic that we should pay attention to.

Video games, and by extension those who play them, are one culturally and economically prominent example of computers and media merging. From this, players of games have access to the phenomenon of experimenting digital systems at their fingertips, and modeling and learning from them, even if unconsciously so.

This daily interaction with technology, or, as Dilnot explains it, “the artificial”, has come to define who we are as humans, and how we will envision the future of humanity as a whole:

“The change lies in the structure of the artificial. The latter is no longer confined to what we have previously called “artifice” or even “technology” in the older and now inadequate senses of the term, rather the artificial—thought in the expanded sense as including not only technical systems but also the entire realm of symbol production as well as the take up and processing of nature—now forms the totality of our existence, to the point where we can say that it is no longer nature but the artificial that constitutes the horizon, medium and the fundamental determining condition of our existence.” (6)

Though some might contend that such a statement is ambitious, to say the least, from Dilnot’s reflections I want to rescue the understanding of our human condition as one at the same time natural and artificial (and, I would suggest, “systematic”, as games themselves are). Because of this, then, technology (or, rather, “the artificial”) has become and will continue to be not only a tool, but a way of approaching and framing the world itself. This, of course, carries ethical and moral consequence for those involved in the development of the artificial, and, as a strategic designer, I believe that it is time that we begin to analyze the game industry as a space for design interventions:

But precisely because of this the task also becomes that creating a subject ‘adequate not only to the tasks of contending with what we have made, but also capable of developing the humane—as against the destructive—potential from within what the onset of the artificial-as-world opens for us.’ This task is not outside of design. To the contrary, precisely the onset of world-as-artificial/the artificial-as-world, emphasizes the demand, since it is now no longer possible to conceive of a subject adequate to engaging with—that is acting in relation to (and this word now takes on a sharper meaning)—this condition, who is not in some manner capable of “designing.” (Dilnot, 10)

Therefore, if, as Dilnot proposes, the artificial comes to encompass symbol production and the processing itself of nature, it makes sense that we broaden our scope as designers to look into game design and the game industry beyond the production of games themselves. Specifically, I want us to think about the proportion of our interest in games, and how we are going macro or micro with our practices as game designers or with our consumption of this medium. And yes, I’m using the word “consumption” in this case because what I mean by this is to ask a simple question: how are we designing inclusion in games in the context of value chains?

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I’ve created a visualization of the current game value chain. We can more or less summarize the value chain of production of games as a cyclical process. I’ve made some slight changes to what a usual commodity chain would look like by placing the creators as key figures, for we ourselves are a part of this community and tend to focus heavily on consumption or creation or games. And when we’ve been talking about inclusion, specifically, we have indeed focused once again on the creation of games, and on the point of sale of games. By that, what I mean is that when we talk about inclusion in games, most of our discussions right now center on increased representation in game companies or increased representation in marketing and game content itself.

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But what about inclusion in the rest of the value chain? Have we thought about how inclusion works in the infrastructure we use, in the distribution and point of sale, in the circulation from player to player, or in the way we dispose of games? I believe we should as it is possible that our social and production system surrounding games is biased towards exclusion at these points too.

I have chosen distribution as a focus point because of my concern with three particular trends in the game industry that relate directly to its history (which we will see later) and to an increased technocentric approach to games. These are commoditization, virtualization, and centralization. These three are, I believe, detrimental in the long term to our sustainability (financial, environmental, and social) as a community. Which is why I have come to ask myself a simple question…

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When looking at inclusion in games beyond representation and depiction of underserved communities as a way of keeping our industry healthy and adaptable to the upcoming global perils, and focusing on game distribution, could we create modes of circulation that are resilient in the long term, diverse enough to include dissident voices, and run by community consensus? And what would that look like?

The design process of Following The Green Light

So to begin to answer this I created “Following The Green Light”, a direct play of words on Steam Green Light, as is obvious, trying to think about possible futures of game distribution. This project has three phases that overlap (and are currently still ongoing):

  • research,
  • cocreation,
  • and prototyping.

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Research

For research, I have done 3 interviews with game developers, and secondary research, mostly. Without going into details, the most important part of the research has been the way I, as a designer, have visually expressed the results to see hidden or unforeseen connections in the issue of game distribution and inclusion. The purpose of research for me, as a designer, is to inform my solutions but also lead rapidly to prototyping in order to validate my frames. As a first approach to synthesizing my research’s results, I’ve created what I call a historical conceptual map.

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In the map, what is clearly visible are the connections of certain clusters of information with others, and I have drawn those connections to make them more obvious. This allows me as a designer to device spaces for innovation in the problem’s landscape. So let’s zoom in on some of the parts of this and let me give you a “tour” of my brain, basically, and of how I’m organizing the topic of game distribution.

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One of the first things I did as part of this project was to look at games distribution from a historical perspective. This meant, of course, going all the way back to thinking about whom were the first people with access to games. Although physical games have, of course, been very accessible, games have undergone process of exportation and appropriation from country to country from very ancient times. Still, this process was slow, and depended heavily on infrastructure and technology. For that same reason, many times elites that had access to faster transportation or to cities where the first to play new games and adapt them to their customs. This ended up in mixing of ideology and religion in games and their worldviews. One example is Snakes and Ladders, that came originally from India to refer to virtue and sin in life as a result of fate, and was adapted by Christians in England later on to include 10 sins and ten virtues. Eventually, this connection in the “West” (bare with me on that concept for a moment) between religion and games became muddier as the concept of progress and capitalism was mixed with that and games that were seen as a “waste of time” began to be related to “sin” and gateways for leisure.

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This of course all meant that physical, infrastructural, economical, and even religious constraints were set on the kinds of games that were being massively (or as massively as possible) produced. One clear example of this is that the first board games to be mass produced were printed by lithographies that used to sell books. This in itself set differences of literacy and determined what kind of players could buy the game or even understand it. Later on piracy would be a direct reflection of this and a “throwback” to times when people with lower access would share games without concerns of IP.

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Tying this back into the physicality of games, it is clear that the game objects themselves and the spaces of distribution can include or exclude entire communities. A clear example of this was the Xbox polemic surrounding the sharing of physical disks.
The physicality of video games, as represented in “disks” or “downloads”, for example,Tying this back into the physicality of games, it is clear that the game objects themselves and the spaces of distribution can include or exclude entire communities. A clear example of this was the Xbox polemic surrounding the sharing of physical disks.

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The physicality of video games, as represented in “disks” or “downloads”, for example, also calls for an analysis of the role of infrastructure in game distribution. Trains and boats, for example, were vital in the worldwide distribution of boardgames across the world. The Internet, in the sense, also has systematic impacts and affordances in the process of distribution. Not everyone in the world has access to a fast enough connection, for instance.

Finally, the game objects and infrastructure predetermine modes of cocreation, challenges of cocreation, and even challenges of bundling and presentation of products. The “bundling” of a game online is very different from that offline, as Humble Bundles have made obvious.

All in all, this means that the conceptual map is a screenshot of how distribution works currently, but most importantly of the factors to be taken into account when talking about it. It’s not just about Steam, for example, but also about digital gaps, language, physicality, even what a “download” is envisioned as by the players.
Co-creation

As a part of the project, we have had one 2 hour co-creation workshop. The participants were, on average, 20 people, and include advertising professionals, NYU students interested in digital media or social innovation, NYU game design students, industry game designers, board game designers, and overall gamers. Most have been men, ethnicities have been varied. The goal would be to develop 3-4 more of these workshops.

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The objectives of the workshop is twofold:

  1. To uncover insights regarding game distribution and how it has excluded or including diverse populations throughout time.
  2. To leverage today’s existing distribution platforms for more inclusion through initial ideation.

The rhythm of the workshop was varied: from sitting down and individual tasks, to high-energy group oriented activities.

The overall structure included several activities:

  • Participants shared individual stories of the first time they owned a game. 20 min.
  • Each participant received a persona that represented an underserved community in the games industry. Along with that persona, they get a historical scenario. They then wrote the story of how that persona first played games (or didn’t play games) in that historical scenario. They were encouraged to research more if needed. They then shared their stories with their groups.  20 min.
  • Now participants went back through their own history with games, from that first moment until now, summing it up in a small personal storyboard. 20 min
  • Participants then stood up around a white board and rapidly wrote down phrases regarding games, both negative and positive, that they had heard as they were growing up. They put these on post-its over the board. 10 min
  • Each participant then chose a phrase that encouraged them to keep playing and one that didn’t. 5 min
  • Participants then made an innovation opportunity map (like a c-box for opportunities). The c-box will have two axis. The post-its were placed in the C-box as they wished. 5 min
  • They then identified the opportunity hotspot in the map and marked it with a sharpie. 3 min.
  • They then choose a how, where and who post-its from the map. 5 min
  • And, finally, they ideated on how they would move them to the opportunity hot-spot on a small storyboard. 15 min
  • As a last step, they presented their ideas to the other teams to encourage cross-pollination. 20 min.

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The most important result from this workshop was the incredible amount of insights collected by the participants. These included:

  • Circulation is different from distribution (and perhaps more relevant), as it involves the community directly. For example, distribution tends to include brick and mortar stores, or already cemented online distribution platforms. Circulation, on the other hand, involves piracy, passing games from person to person, playing in alternate physical spaces (like impromptu arcades).
  • Monopolies of distribution tend to be justified by ease of access for the consumer. When people talk about Steam’s power in the market, they express that this makes indexing of games easier. This relation might not be as causal as people believe, though, and there can be potential for intervention here.
  • Visualization of paths of distributions and their links to infrastructure has been seldom explored: gamers ignore how access to physical means and economical means in order to play games affect minorities.
  • Players remember games as tech-related experiences because the industry does so too: they define their experiences with games according to the console they used, the TV, the differences in interface from one to another. Technology is seen as the experience of playing itself, in many cases.
  • Heavily concentrated distribution models are prone to crisis due to lack of resilience to tech changes. The history of distribution itself proves it: whether dial-up, brick and mortar, CDs…the truth is that when the distribution model is too concentrated, it can easily succumb to economical crisis (like the 1983 video game crisis).
  • Physical distribution lowered the barrier of apportion and modification. In the beginnings of gaming, the physicality of board games and simpler hard-coded consoles allowed makers to tinker with the games directly, and therefore create their own versions. Digital distribution, on the other hand, makes access to games dependent on more factors, like electricity, and internet connection.

Prototyping

Though this stage has not yet started, I hope to take the results from the workshops and my research to create actionable interventions in the game value chains in order to promote diversity and inclusion. These would be prototyped through 3 rounds.

Next steps

Overall, the process of design of this project has shown that there is space for shaping the design of games through the design of value chains themselves. This is not only a possibility, but a responsibility of designers in the field. If we are to question the social implications of our industry, we should also look into whom are playing games and how inclusive spaces for minorities are being designed in the whole value chain of games. It is my aim to continue this project until we can reach new design interventions that open previously unknown spaces in games, both offline and online, for inclusion and diversity.

References

Dilnot, Clive. Design and The Question of History. Work in Progress. 2014.

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, Massachusetts.: MIT Press. 2001.

van Dreunen, Joost. A Business History of Video Games: Revenue Models from 1980 to Today. 2011. Available at https://superdataresearch.com/content/uploads/2011/01/BusinessHistoryofVideoGames.pdf

Poe, Marshall. A History of Communications. New York: Cambridge University Press. 2010.

Marom, Dan, Robb, Alicia & Sade, Orly. Gender Dynamics in Crowdfunding (Kickstarter): Evidence on Entrepreneurs, Investors, Deals and Taste Based Discrimination (march 10, 2015). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2442954

  • Felan Parker

    Really interesting perspective on an under-examined aspect of games. I would be curious to know your thoughts on itch.io, and how it factors into your analysis.