Lately I’ve been reading quite a few books on the topic of design, colonialism and ethics. Being someone with strong views on social justice and the idea that equality and diversity is not necessarily a bad thing – in fact I think it’s vital for our continued existence – I’ve started to think about the intersectionality of design, or rather the complete lack of it, especially within game design.
Most of the texts on game design that I know of and that I’ve read are written from a white, male, perspective. I know you’re probably getting tired of hearing that, but the honest truth is that white and male is the default for a lot of “established truths”, and as long as that’s a thing, we have to keep reminding us that the “normal” we see has a very specific starting point. Books like Jesse Schell’s The Art of Game Design, while updated from the first edition, still harbor ideas around the dichotomy of men and women, that there’s a deep divide between what men and women enjoy playing, despite evidence to the contrary where the biggest differences are playstyle and available time.
Instead, the major obstacles for participation seems to be representation in the chosen media and gatekeeping by influential members of the already existing (and very vocal) gaming culture.
I think, for game design to move beyond being a very privileged profession or a profession that requires the time, tools, will and energy for someone to spend hours and hours creating something that may never be very widely spread, we have to start thinking in terms of intersectionality.
With the idea of intersectionality follows ethics and the ethics of design in particular. Game design lacks academic influence, the discipline has historically been the (willing) victim of gatekeeping and practitioners who haven’t given much thought to design theory, meaning that a lot of the ideas around game design theory are grounded in practicalities. What works? Why does it work? These are the questions asked. Not is this right? Or what are the ethical consequences of this design? The thinking around game design theory has also been the purview of white men, as mentioned above. As an anecdote, a team of professional researchers who hired out their services not just to the game team I was working on at the time, but to many game teams across the entire world, revealed that the people they did their research on was predominantly white and all male. The reason for this was that “women don’t play games”. This is a team of professional researchers, hiring out their findings to game teams. If the research at that point was so biased (2013), the question then becomes what else is skewed towards the “normal” audience of games?
The lack of breadth in both the professional games industry, the gaming culture and in the widely available literature (not counting super expensive doctoral theses or articles here) surrounding games help promote the biases that already exist.
The almost intentional lack of academic ambition among practitioners of the design profession in the industry prevents us from investigating our own circumstances to some degree. I’m not saying the profession of game developer lacks academic achievement, there are many people who work with games that have academic degrees of varying kinds. What I’m saying is that the industry in general has always preferred practitioners instead of theorists. Game design is a craft, and so we rarely look beyond “this works”.
In my experience there’s even a strong resistance to research around how the industry works on an academical level, with the exception of user research, which is still focused on what works, why does it work.
This, I think is rooted both in the faint disdain I detect around the idea of theory and the fact that the industry is a secretive space, while research is not. We’re all under heavy NDAs to reveal nothing which also one of the reasons why crunch and other work related practices have remained known but still hidden for as long as they have.
We’re simply not a very searching or questioning lot of people. Part of that I believe comes from the homogeneity of game developers, part of it comes from secrecy and yet another part comes from the “outside threat” that games have had to live with for a long time.
Because games have been considered “toys” and also been under heavy scrutiny with regards to the possibility of games influencing violent behaviour and the moral panic following such a statement, it’s no wonder that game developers are wary of the academic field. After all, academia, or perhaps politics disguised as academia, have severely hurt and undermined the games industry and its professionals.
The above is obviously what comes from reading too many books. I’ll most likely return to these statements and pick them apart even more because this is interesting to me. I’m not sure if I’m actually on to something or if I’m totally wrong. Only time and research will tell.