Image of Dames Making Games jam courtesy the DMG Flickr pool.
Hey everyone. Women play video games. A lot of women. Heck, they even make video games.
For many grown gamers, the presence of women in the culture is often buried by industrial prejudices and commercial influence. Video games, as oft dictated by ads and magazines, have long been staked out as dude territory: a place to shoot space lasers, massacre mutants, challenge each other's manliness and jump around as Lara Croft. While there have been many influential women behind games, from King's Quest's Roberta Williams to the modern Portal's Kim Swift, the boysclub vibe has lingered. It creates an environment where women interested in being part of gaming may be discouraged from joining the status quo that gave us such chivalrous series like Saints Row, Duke Nukem and The Guy Game.
Cecily Carver, who was immersed into game-making during Mare Sheppard and TIFF Nexus' female game development incubator, The Difference Engine, would prefer to see that status quo changed. That's why she began running an ongoing program to find women willing to dip their toe into game development, and then push them in. It's called Dames Making Games, which sees to just that.
"It's kind of amazing thinking that there's this whole reservoir of untapped talent, that hasn't necessarily come to the surface yet," says Carver. "Game design, and a lot of the game world, has a reputation for being male dominated. There are so many women, in this city and everywhere, that love games, that are passionate about games culture and very interested in games, but who maybe feel like the game world isn't for them."
Dames Making Games (or DMG for short) began shortly after the Difference Engine wrapped in late 2011, formed by Carver and Depression Quest creator Zoe Quinn, who felt it was an exercise that should extend beyond a one-off experiment.
"We wanted to keep seeing work like this," says Carver. "And we wanted to keep making games." DMG has had game jams and month-spanning workshop sessions, their first the four-week "Jamuary"in 2012. The puns have continued to this summer's Junicorn event, which had a social and arcade last weekend.
Junicorn saw ten would-be game-makers assembled. They had backgrounds ranging from illustration to Queen's Park, but no real experience making games. They had weekly Wednesday meetings throughout June, workshopping on paper prototypes, programming and level design. Saturday had more casual sessions, where the members could bring in their games and seek advice from a roster of mentors, other local creators like Damian Sommer, Beth Maher and Alex Bethke.
By the end, each member had produced a build of a game to call their own. These, ranging from Daniella Armstrong's damsel revenge platformer Princess In Distress to Hisayo Horie's genderqueer Twine study Don't Leave Your Friends Behind, represented sensibilities way far away from the usual games beat.
Daniele Hopkins' Spy Jammer, developed with PRISM-perfect timing, has the user controlling a hurricane mass of 3D pixels, weaving throughout the internet and dodging its clandestine watchers. Linda Boden's ‘Monster Rancher for book nerds,' Muselings, lets you create digi-companions based on literary tastes. Izzie Colpitts-Campbell made a self-starring platformer based on being a Friday night partner-in-cruising called Wingman.
"The difference between most platformers and mine is a mechanic for balancing your public drunkenness," says Colpitts-Campbell. "Drink a little bit. But don't get too sloppy drunk or you'll get sent home."
Kara Stone's MedicationMeditation is arguably less a ‘game' and more a zen garden set of activities, based on everyday struggles with mental illness - taking medication on time, musing self-affirmation - yet draped in a gamey veil of pixel-art. "A lot of these exercises come from the mental illness workbook," says Stone, "we often construct mental illness as such huge events, but really it's just tiny episodes that you keep working at. In both mental illness and gaming the notions of getting better, beating and conquering are so pervasive. I wanted to explore that in a different way that wasn't about winning."
There was no requirement that the games be personally tied, but as Colpitts-Campbell points out, "It's what comes from the ether of creativity. It's always personal experience, seeing things, observing and trying to reproduce them."
As it stands, the game industry is rapidly moving towards a stalemate of sameness, privileging the swollen blockbuster titles based on only the safest, tried assumptions about their audience. Gamers are mostly male and trigger-happy, and that games are made by and for that kind of user.
If there's any hope for any future uniqueness, we need creators who play and make against the blasted norm, diversity in sex, gender and race. It's not as if the boobs and kaboom genre of games will cease to exist, if only because that's an easy demographic to please. But with better representation, within and without, games themselves, we'll have a more spectacular selection to choose from. Developers with little formal schooling being trained in programs like DMG ensures a future for games that may not have existed. And that makes us all a winners, dame or not.