Women In Games Conference – with Francine!

Video Games

The day began with an exciting journey straight into the heart of London. The Event? Women in Games. A conference designed to uphold and enact ideals of diversity and equal opportunity within not only the workplace but also the games industry as a whole – ranging from the people who play games, to the people who make games, and the people who support them.

The conference was a fair journey a way for me being based in Beaconsfield, and it meant an early start was destined. After a devilishly late night spent editing voice actor scripts (for the conference fell upon the same day as my recording sessions for Keyframe) it was time for a tired Kai and an equally sleepmungerous Francine to make their way to the University of Westminster.

How often does one get a chance to dive into the unknown? For myself, it was most importantly a new opportunity to meet, greet and listen to the women (and men) who were the front running individuals in gender equality. Shocking statistics and anecdotes were also the order of the day, highlighting acts of misogyny and unfair treatment based on gender.

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The conference started with a talk by Jenny Richards who is the CEO of Women in Games. Thanks and appreciation was given for attendees. Her introduction was followed by a keynote speech from Andy Payne, Chairman of the UKIE tradebody. I’d previously met Andy as part of a UKIE volunteer internship where I had helped man the UK stall at Gamescom 2015 in Cologne. It was a great pleasure to hear his support for WIG, not only from a moral perspective – he expressed his great displeasure at how the games industry behaved, even though it is a young industry he saw no excuse for asymmetric treatment of women compared to men – but also an economic reasoning that was geared towards increasing roles and skillset in the industry. Interestingly later on in the day Dr Jo Twist would also later mention her disapproval of fiascos like Gamergate that severely damage the potential uptake of women into the games industry at a time when it needs the most diversity.

Following Andy’s keynote speech with another keynote speaker, (Katherine Bidwell of Lumnio City fame) and with an all-female panel on all-thing virtual reality, (plus a brisk coffee) was a well-programmed segment of the morning.

ScreenshotGatehouseWarmerTest

Seeing Francine’s eyes light up during the Lumino City talk was fantastic! It was a great opportunity for me to show Francine how that the methods of game creating are as broad, deep and varied as the theatre arts and other creative industries.

Simply having a computer and some coding experience doesn’t make you good at games design (although the potential of course is all there!) however maintaining passion and the drive to try new things is what Katherine in my eyes was able to impress upon the audience through the example of her company State of Play. It was amazing to hear her story of how Lumino City came about from the smaller venture ‘Loom’ – a beautiful and simple precursor to the much larger puzzle-adventure game.

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Above is an image of the flash-made prototype animations during production of Lumino City.

By following her love of hand crafted things and cross-media components she was able to touch into the soul of the concept. I later remarked to Sam Browne and Sophie Knowles (friends currently based at the NFTS) about how we often separate the roles of visual artist, games designer, audio designer etc… when really the complete experience is truly a combination of all these aesthetics. To obtain the ‘soulful’ game that they desired, State of Play needed to infuse the game as a whole with the hand-crafted principle, however the burden of delivering that principle could well be shouldered by only one main aspect (in this case the visuals) and still the game would be perceived as unique and interesting.

Lumino City may be seen as the exception to the rule – I mean, who has time to spend three years laser cutting staircases and fitting microwave motors into windmills?? – however I was glad how much traction the game has garnered due to it’s unique development and I’m sure it will continue to inspire game makers and players for years to follow!

I later met Katherine amongst a bountiful mix of hungry attendees queuing for lunch. We spoke about the difficulties that arise when working with artists, specifically my own struggles with the Keyframe project. We both agreed that finding someone who can add flow and passion to your project is no easy task. For State of Play, Katherine mentioned how they came across their programmer, and how taking on board the right person can take much luck and time despite the saturation point of our industry for well-established roles. I certainly learned the value of planning time to develop a network of good potential contributors from this particular conversation.

In the VR talk I managed to ask a question about self-identity in VR, specifically tackling the design challenge of giving players freedom over their own appearance much like in modern RPGs. Each panel member understood the question differently: one took the example of empathy building and how taking the identity of another coan be used as a tool for social change, whilst another mentioned how even allowing the player to choose the colour of the inflicted virtual hands in a game (whether it be pink, brown, blue or gold) helped with ownership and therefore buying into the VR world.

It made me aware and pondersome about how as a male I might be experiencing the conference differently to women partaking in the same talks and workshops. Sharing the experience with Francine was great, as I was able to gain a secondary perspective on the conference. We share a whole heap of views and interests, and yet we are different enough in our history and approach to let ideas refract between and around us like a collection of prisms. It was invaluable and amazing to share WIG with her.

There was a willingness (a hunger perhaps) from all parties for engagement with the issues facing women, and I was very pleased to see a good number of men at the conference too to act as more than a sounding board but as contributors to the efforts of WIG.

I then checked out the STEMNET and UKIE talk hosted by Melanie Washington and Dr Jo Twist (UKIE’s CEO) about becoming a UK Video Games Ambassador. The programme allows anyone involved in the games industry to act as an inspiration to young students, organising and presenting workshops (related to the game industry) in schools and after-school clubs. I was engaged by STEMNET’s goal of expanding the focus of STEM curriculum to include art, enterprise and design (the new term Jo coined being STEAMED over STEM) and to help increase diversity overall. I’ll be certain to join as a VGA, and if you’re interested you can find out more here – http://ukie.org.uk/videogamesambassadors .

IMG-20150807-WA0010Dr Jo Twist and I working together on the UKIE stand, Gamescom 2015

Other workshops were going on in the lecture theatres nearby. Francine dipped into a tech and programming session with Hazel McKendrick. The simple act of code was incredibly interesting for Francine. It was perhaps challenging due to the classic combination of a perceived barrier to entry (creative vs data-handling) and the actual language barrier…

float f = Mathf.cos(theta*whaaaaaaaa????));

Afterwards Francine said to me that some of it was definitely still Ancient Greek to her! However the sheer act of interacting with code, playing around with some basic functions in a browser-based code compiler, allowed her to move a virtual cube, change it’s colour, and stretch a capsule without any foreknowledge whatsoever. She was really pleased with the discovery of her impact on a digital artefact, and it’s this form that engages so much better than an explanation or dreaded PowerPoint slide! I’m very glad this was included in the schedule of the day and the event would do well to offer even more activity-based workshops such as this.

After lunch the wonderful programme of events continued! Of the several panels and workshops I was a big fan of the games design workshop with Katie Goode. Our team was tasked with designing a game for VR headsets, and I think we made a great contribution! See below.

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The educational games panel was also a highlight. The discussion explored the responsibility of game makers to avoid IAP and free-to-play models for young people, and the need for educational games to empower both the student and the teacher to holistically review and track a student’s understanding of the content – not just progress. I of course was taken straight back to the days of playing Zoombinis, where I kind of knew I was playing an educational game, but didn’t feel patronised or monitored- it was to have fun with! The tricky balance of cramming in curricular necessities vs fun gameplay was also a hot topicĀ  for Ruthine Burton of conversation in the panel.

The final panel was focused around branding and getting yourself out there. For the women in the panel they had all had different experiences of their chosen social outlets – Twitch, television, Twitter, Reddit etc – but universally they had received a brush with misogynists online. Julia Hardy was refreshingly quick-witted about the fact, having set up a Misogyny Monday blog that “named and shamed verbal abusers by simply showing them up for the idiots that they are”. Check out the link for some genius sass! http://misogynymonday.tumblr.com/ The others mentioned how comradery and staying vocal were not optional for the advancement of women in the games industry, a notion I whole-heartedly agree with!

Francine got involved in the conversation by asking about the impact of Youtube’s new Gaming platform, to which Hannah Rutherford replied how buggy it was, and restrictive the copyrighting algorithms were when it came to in-game music. She also mentioned the responsibility she had to her subscribers on Twitch, where her community was strongest, and it reminded me of an article on Reddit about the responsibility of the creating community and not just abandoning these structures. For example the problems Reddit has experienced with harressment groups, trolls etc is not thought to have subsided with the migration of users to other websites (voat.co being one of the more popular contenders right now), so the responsibility of Reddit members to increase diversity, nurture it’s community and solve it’s issues had been ignored and discarded. (article here : https://www.reddit.com/r/conspiracy/comments/39iq91/thinking_about_moving_over_to_voatco_and_ditching/)

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Makes we want to search for abandoned forums in a sorta digi-anthropological study! Maybe contacting old forum members and getting a snapshot of their experience.

And so, the WIG conference came to a close with a quick snaffle of wine and some kisses goodbye to Sam, Sophie and of course Lucie who had also attended as a representative of WIGJ (my project manager for Keyframe). I left feeling that I had touched base with my own concerns regarding the games industry, and it was encouraging to see the progressive intentions of not only the organisers and speakers, but the attendees as well. I’d fully recommend getting in touch with Lucie (lu.prunier@gmail.com) to gain a perspective on where the games industry is at with gender diversity, and to get involved with tackling the discrepancies of representing women across the culture of gaming.

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