I ended up giving my first Local Scene post over to the GLBTQA Gamer Meetup I’m currently organizing, but I’ve actually been planning to talk about interesting Boston-area events for a while now, and the Local Scene category was pretty much invented so I could talk about Women in Games Boston. Organized by the amazing Courtney Stanton, WiG is a monthly event at one of my favorite local pubs, The Asgard, designed as a safe space for women and allies connected with the game industry to get together, talk about games, and share news about job openings, upcoming events, and various other social groups. In practice, it’s really open to most women and allies of women, whether they’re actively employed by the game industry or not – developers, testers, writers, community managers, and other game company employees, yes, but also students and people in between jobs. In fact, I’ve met a few people at these events who aren’t really in the gaming industry at all, but nevertheless share an interest in gaming and women’s rights and women’s issues and make for perfectly lovely company.
My friend Katie and I have been attending these meetings since September, and just a couple days ago, Women in Games Boston made its triumphant return from the 2011 holiday break with a fantastic night of good food, good company and great conversation, as well as a full presentation from Heather Albano, author of Timepiece and game designer for Choice of Games, a company that makes wonderful interactive fiction adventures. (Honestly, Choice of Games deserves its own post, but I have to say I’ve been trying out all their products and I particularly enjoy Choice of the Vampire and Choice of Romance/Choice of Intrigues, recently collected in an omnibus edition for the Kindle.) Ms. Albano had quite a lot to say on the way gender and sexuality impacted their game design, and their struggle to balance maximum player choice with the demands of the genre, and her notes on the design process and the revisions they made based on feedback from beta testers and active players were absolutely fascinating.
From the relative gender neutrality of Choice of the Dragon, to the decision to allow a complete gender swap in the C.S. Forester/Jane Austen-esque Choice of Broadsides (in brief: you play an up-and-coming naval officer fighting wars and seeking romance, but you can choose to play as either a male or female character; if you choose to play a woman, the Navy is exclusively female, and the men of this world occupy the domestic sphere), to the creative substitution of gender roles with a completely different array of social roles in Choice of Romance and Choice of Intrigues, the solutions were inspired and intriguing but far from perfect. Ms. Albano was perfectly willing to admit as much, and showed good humor throughout, even as she pointed out areas in which the team had, perhaps, failed somewhat and areas in which players perceived failure due mainly to their own assumptions. As an example of the latter, she recounted player feedback from Romance and Intrigues pointing out that, male or female, your character predominantly plays the ‘woman’s’ part, just as characters in Broadsides predominantly play the ‘man’s’ part, regardless of sex. In Romance and Intrigues, though you can act boldly, though you can scheme and manipulate, you are the one who is courted, not the one who does the courting. You are the consort, not the queen, nor the lord, nor the wealthy merchant. You can have a profound impact on society, but you hold little tangible power. Some players objected to that, feeling that they should be allowed to go courting. Other players have commented in the case of this game and others that there is little to no substantial difference between the male and female roles in Choice of Games’s offerings – and to an extent, they are right, though I honestly prefer it that way. Maybe I’m saying this because I’ve been spoiled by Mass Effect, but with some exceptions, I play games to escape the pressures of gender roles and other societal constraints, not to suffer those constraints all over again.
And, of course, there were players who complained about the ability to play a gay character in all those games, arguing that there ought to be social consequences to such relationships, up to and including execution. Again, I prefer games that allow me to escape that grim reality (which is, sadly, still a reality in some parts of the world – the storm raging in Uganda springs to mind) rather than games that force it upon me once more. There is certainly room for games that explore these topics, that educate players on the real horrors of homophobia, misogyny, separate spheres and other social constraints, but I don’t think we need to address them whenever women or gay people or minorities are involved, and I am glad to see that the people of Choice of Games apparently feel the same way. (The exception to the rule is Choice of the Vampire, which is written with historical authenticity in mind – it begins with the Battle of New Orleans and currently carries the player through the Civil War, and the credits for the game feature a bibliography! Naturally, if you pursue a same-sex relationship in the 19th century, you must keep it hidden; but even in the case of Vampire, there is no risk of discovery and summary execution. The dangers are noted, but the game assumes you take certain precautions. Choice of Broadsides, based as it is on Regency romance and Horatio Hornblower novels, takes much the same approach; homosexuality is frowned upon, but the game assumes a certain amount of discretion.)
I won’t try to sum up the whole presentation – if nothing else, I certainly don’t remember all of it! Hopefully Ms. Albano will put it online in some form at some point. I will instead say that this is exactly the sort of thing you can expect from WiG guest speakers: a thorough yet entertaining exploration of a truly fascinating topic. In October, Matthew Weise from the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab spoke about gender politics in horror/slasher games; later this month, Alexander Sliwinski from Joystiq will be offering a crash course in handling interviews and getting coverage for your game. And, of course, there’s also the awesome people, the good food, and all the conversation and networking you can handle. If you’re a woman in the gaming industry in Boston, or a friend of women in gaming, I seriously recommend this event.
I’ve already reserved my ticket – make sure you reserve yours.