“I’m happy to have you at TMAC.” – Henry Faber, Founder of Gamma Space and President of TMAC.
Toronto has long been a hub for a variety of great gaming events, but none of them have been quite as unique as the recent Damage Camp. The new festival of games and ideas brought together a diverse group of developers, artists, and designers to share their passion and ensure that everyone has the opportunity to participate in Toronto’s gaming community.
The inaugural Damage Camp (and hopefully the first of many) took place at the end of September at 36 Lisgar St., the legally tumultuous final home of TMAC. TMAC is the Toronto Media Arts Centre, an independent charity organization that includes Gamma Space, Charles Street Video, Dames Making Games, and the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre as members.* After a years-long legal battle with site developer Urbancorp, all signs now indicate that the long and arduous journey will soon come to a close as TMAC approaches finalization talks with the city of Toronto. The Lisgar site will provide a permanent home for numerous arts groups in Toronto, creating a more stable infrastructure for artists and organizers in the city.
That is already paying dividends with events like Damage Camp. Organized by a volunteer committee from Dames Making Games – an all-star team that includes Kaitlin Tremblay, Jennie Robinson Faber, Kimberly Koronya, Jen Costa and Izzie Colpitts-Campbell – Damage Camp featured a stellar lineup of games and talks that were at once moving, thought-provoking, and hilarious. That’s in keeping with the event’s mission statement. Damage Camp was launched to help make gaming more accessible, and it’s incredible to see so many diverse voices at one event. For instance, Meagan Byrne started her talk (and the weekend) with a stark but true statement.
“There is not a single culture or people on our planet that has not been touched by colonialism.”
Byrne is an Indigenous person and a recent graduate of Sheridan’s game development program who now works on games for TVO. She discussed her game Wanisinowin – which is Cree for Lost – and the ways in which mechanics can help people grappling with issues of cultural belonging. The talk went on to explore aspects of exclusion and belonging that hover over people that come from two different worlds, and specifically how others will demand that you pledge allegiance to one over the other. As a child, Bryne was made to feel that she wasn’t native enough. Her game draws inspiration from her very first Pow Wow, which she attended when she was around 12 or 13. She recalls eating hotdogs in bannocks and seeing dancers and drummers up close, before one of her aunt’s friends asked Bryne if she lived on the reservation.
“We were like, ‘no we live in the city,’ and he was like, ‘not very native of you.’ At that point we felt like a visitor, like the white girl at coachella with the Indian head dress, like I’m only a tourist.”
In Wanisinowin, you play as a spirit who finds out you’re half human and must venture to an unknown world much like the one that Bryne herself had to deal with. The player platforms through a space where they don’t belong and must navigate with the help of an illuminated Deer spirit while trying to avoid the negativity of a trickster Moose Spirit. The game is free and can be found here.
In a separate talk, Rachel Kahn and Daniel Kwan explained why tabletop Role Playing Games should be used in the classroom. Both have used games like Dungeon & Dragons, Pathfinder, and Dungeon World to teach kids about science, math, teamwork, problem solving, and history.
Kwan works at the Royal Ontario Museum running D&D sessions for groups of 8-10 year olds . Kwan also works with an organization called Level Up Gaming that helps adults on the autism spectrum learn social skills through play in board games. Kahn, meanwhile, has provided illustration, writing, and playtesting for a number of tabletop games. She had recently did a pilot program at the Aga Khan museum that ran 9-12 years olds through a campaign set in the world of the Shahnameh, a 1000-year-old epic poem dealing with the myths and legends of ancient Persia.
During the talk, Kwan explained how his D&D class – called Monks and Mercenaries – incorporated pieces of the ROM’s own exhibits.
“Recently we talked about heavy material. The ROM has excellent exhibition about Auschwitz, called the Evidence Room. It’s architectural forensics that prove what happened there.”
Similarly, Kahn talked about how they brought the kids into the Shahnameh through a specific story. The kids followed the characters from Rostam’s trial using the system from Dungeon World, a tabletop RPG that focuses less on math and stats and more on story and narrative.
“It can be about being different from your everyday self, about being an explorer. Being someone who’s not afraid to try a bunch of things,” said Kahn. “Maybe in your everyday life you’re much more cautious. It’s about test driving things and you get to have a say.”
However, there are some drawbacks to working with children. As important as it is to encourage the kids to try new things, both Kwan and Kahn acknowledged that you also need to know when to pull back.
“We realized not to let the 8-year-old decide your combat strategy,” said Kahn.
One of the more surprising talks was delivered by Osama Dorias, a senior game designer at Warner Bros. Dorias offered a guide to representing Muslims in videos games, a subject that Dorias illustrated with keen observations and startling facts.
“I am Muslim. I was born in Iraq,” said Dorias. “I was really, really young when I came to Canada about 30 years ago. I’m married have three children and I make games.”
He then asked everyone to name a Muslim from a video game that is not a terrorist. Only two or three people put up their hands (and I was not one of them).
“I have been Muslim all my life. I have never met a terrorist. I never met anyone who became a terrorist. I wouldn’t know where to look for them,” continued Dorias.
He went on to argue that proper representation isn’t just about putting Muslims into lead roles (though that’s a part of it), but about adding Muslims to the collage of characters in video games. Making Muslim characters who are real, complicated, and fully fleshed out is more important than portraying them as perfect.
That kind of insight is what made Damage Camp such remarkable event. There were so many great games mixed in with engaging and heartbreaking talks that connected the Toronto game community with people from outside the GTA. It’s also a sign of things to come. With any luck, Gamma Space and Dames Making Games will soon have a permanent home. That stability will allow them to host more events and continue the conversations started at Damage Camp. Dames Making Games is building a community, and I can’t wait to see how it grows in the next year.
*An earlier version of this article suggested that TMAC is run by Gamma Space, when it is in fact an independent charity organization of which Gamma Space is a member. We apologize for the error.