Anna Anthropy can do it all. The accomplished jack-of-all-digital-trades is the author of this year’s Rise of the Videogame Zinesters and the developer of games like Dys4ia and Lesbian Spider Queens of Mars, and that’s before mentioning her efforts as one of the industry’s leading activists pushing for greater diversity in gaming.
Her latest tour brought her to Toronto for a whirlwind slate of appearances that included a book signing at CanZine, a games workshop at Bento Miso, and a keynote panel on diversity at DigifestTO. She also spoke with Dork Shelf about some of the many issues facing an industry that frequently struggles with alternative perspectives. Needless to say, what follows is a fascinating conversation about life and independent game development.
Dork Shelf: By the time this interview runs it won’t be a preview anymore, but what are some of the key talking points you’re hoping to touch on during your panel at DigifestTO?
Anna Anthropy: When talking about diversity in games, it’s important to talk about the ways in which we actively cultivate it or at least avoid silencing it. Voices that are marginalized are stricken from the discussion, and being aware of the ways in which we do that is important to stop that from happening.
It’s also important to make it a point to foster diversity. A couple weeks ago I was at IndieCade, which is the most diverse games conference I’ve ever been to, and I think the reason is because they actually care. They made a deliberate effort to make their conference feel safe for all these people who are otherwise not in the mainstream in the video games community.
DS: Would you like to see more formal efforts to incorporate those perspectives? The TIFF Nexus program, to name one example, recently organized the Difference Engine here in Toronto to help get more women into game development. Are there any particular strategies or initiatives that are most effective for increasing the number of voices in gaming?
AA: I don’t know if it has to be a non-profit group with a name. Dames Making Games is really rad. It’s the reason I’m here right now. It’s doing a lot to foster the community. Back home in the Bay Area (I’m from Oakland), we host spaces where people get together to make games that are queer-safe and queer-friendly, and organizing places like that is so important because most of the spaces that are related to technology are not places where I normally feel comfortable.
My strongest point of comparison to IndieCade is GDC, and that’s almost all white men in business suits. It’s very different from IndieCade where I see women everywhere. I was comfortable enough to wear a dress in public, and that would not have been the case at GDC. Creating spaces where people can feel safe is a big fucking deal, and I don’t think it requires a budget, either.
DS: While it’s obviously important to create safe spaces, at some point people will have to venture outside that comfort zone, and we’ve repeatedly seen that the reaction is often hostile. Is there any way to make public spaces more inclusive for everybody? How do you get that small community to feel more comfortable going to an event like GDC?
AA: You sort of had it when you said that the solution is making those spaces more public and more inclusive. One of the strongest differences I noticed between IndieCade and GDC is that GDC is deliberately sheltered. It shuts itself off in a convention centre behind security guards. IndieCade, not only do they put their talks on the Internet for free, IndieCade takes place in the middle of a city in open tents, and people can pass in and out freely. It’s not a place that fosters exclusivity. People who are not even connected to the games industry walk in and experience things.
I think that the culture of games – and the culture of conferences like GDC – has to be more aware of the community around them in order to not become completely irrelevant, as I feel GDC by and large is.
DS: Is there a qualitative difference between the games you see at a conference like IndieCade relative to the games you see at events like E3 or GDC?
AA: Yeah, actually. IndieCade judges non-digital games alongside digital games. They gave their technology award to a book for pen-and-paper role-playing gamers. They had card games. They had games where people try to touch buttons on each other’s heads. They had all these games that make sense in the context of community, all alongside each other and in discussion with each other, and that’s tremendous.
We always think that digital games are this one thing, and all other games are this totally different thing. We’re so used to thinking of video games as these Hollywood blockbusters, when in fact we have the most to gain by opening the discussion and involving as many people and as many different types of games as possible.
DS: When people talk about lack of diversity in gaming, they’re usually referring to triple-A blockbusters, whereas the indie community seems to be more welcoming of marginalized viewpoints. Will that grassroots diversity graduate upwards and help make the triple-A industry more inclusive?
AA: The mainstream industry doesn’t have a lot to offer that isn’t tokenism. I think what’s more likely to change the industry is people making games outside of the mainstream and challenging our ideas of what games can be. That erodes a lot of the industry’s control.
I went to this school [the Guildhall at SMU] that prepares you for a job in the games industry by putting you in crunch time, all the time. Now, crunch time is this totally unacceptable thing that people accept as a part of the corporate culture of games. You do hours and hours of unpaid overtime so you get the game done in time for Christmas. You don’t actually end up seeing your kids that Christmas but you do it because “that’s how we do things here,” which is disgusting. People allow themselves to be put through that wringer because they bought into this myth that the big publishers are invested in perpetuating, that they are the gatekeepers to game design.
The more games we make that come from places outside that, the less they’re able to say that and have people believe it. That, more than anything, will change the industry in a positive way.
DS: You’re describing a scenario in which people manage to get attention outside the established system. Do you ever see the system adapting to incorporate those outsider perspectives? For example, will we ever see women or queer people in positions of power in the corporate structure, and would that do anything to change the current standard of men making games for other men?
AA: The industry goes where the money is. If queer games start making a lot of money, we’re going to see a lot of “queer” games coming from the mainstream. But I don’t think that’s necessarily a good thing, if we get to collude in our own oppression.
I feel like the exciting things happening in games will always come from outside of the mainstream. Maybe the mainstream can be changed a little bit, but if the CEO of Valve is a woman instead of a man, I don’t think that will change whether Steam Greenlight expects me to pay $100 for the privilege of maybe being on their website. Corporate class issues like that are more embedded and will take more than just token representatives of minorities in the corporate structure to change.
DS: If people are looking for those outsider perspectives, what are some games and developers that people should be paying attention to right now?
AA: My friend Porpentine is a really exciting author. She has amazing ideas of how Twine is helping decentralize game-making. I’ve been maintaining a list of Twine games that are out there, and the majority of them are written by women, queer people, trans people. Porpentine’s games are some of the most amazing and most aggressively queer of them. Howling Dogs and The Sky in the Room are both good examples that people should check out.
Also, Merritt Kopas created a game called Lim about a square trying to exist in a world where squares are either this colour or this colour, and react violently when threatened. That game renewed my belief that violence in games could be meaningful. We’re so desensitized to violence because it’s all aliens and chainsaws and sniper rifles. This game was just about existing and passing and I think it says a lot more about violence than anything that’s come out in the mainstream. It’s brilliant.
DS: You mentioned Twine already, but are there any other resources or programs out there for people looking to create their own games?
AA: Twine is usually the first thing I recommend. It’s a good starting point for a lot of people. For more graphical games, there’s The Games Factory 2 on Newgrounds.com. They have a free version that will only let you upload to Newgrounds, but it’s good for learning how to make games and get your game online. Stencyl is another free program that will make games you can put on the Internet. I’ve made a bunch of really terrible, amazing games in it. A lot of people are having success making their first games with Stencyl.
DS: Your book, Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, came out in March. How has the reaction been so far, and how has that raised your profile over the past year?
AA: It got me a lot more press, especially from outside the games press, which I appreciate because frankly, they keep asking the same questions. Some people have accused the book of not being academic enough, but I think they missed the point. Almost unilaterally, people have told me positive things and have sent me games they made after reading it, which has been inspiring. It’s going into its second printing, so the message is something people care about.
We debuted it at GDC, which is not the target audience, yet the book sold out twice there, which I think speaks to people within the industry who recognize that the model that we currently adhere to is broken. People recognize that there need to be more voices and that’s exactly what I was hoping would happen.
DS: Could you talk about the potential impact of the non-gaming press? How would gaming culture respond to increased attention from non-gaming but still mainstream sectors?
AA: To judge by every time games do receive scrutiny, incredibly hostilely. There was a situation recently where a person played a selection of fairly mainstream games and wrote about how they didn’t really connect with her [Lucy Kellaway, for the Financial Times].
Gamers, of course, were horrified, and suggested that maybe she shouldn’t be playing games. I think we should be asking why she didn’t understand them. Why are video games – these video games that we care so much about, these things that we hold up as examples of art and meaning – why do these have no meaning for this person? If anything, the things these outsiders have to say will challenge us to examine why video games don’t make sense to a lot of people, and whether we should be worried about that. I think we should. Games can be so different, but very few people who aren’t already invested in games get to find out about that.
DS: What would happen if the mainstream press provided the same level of scrutiny not necessarily to games themselves, but to the culture surrounding games? I’m thinking in particular of the Anita Sarkeesian controversy, because that did get some mainstream coverage, most of it unfavorable. Would that kind of continued attention have an impact on gaming culture as a whole?
AA: If anything, games culture needs to connect with the outside world. The Anita Sarkeesian example was good because it generated so much discussion about why it’s important to games culture that this woman be silenced. It also prevented them from silencing her.
There’s this attitude among a lot of gamers that people who are critical of games – especially women – are mommies threatening to take away their toys. Games need to be able to respond to criticism, even if the criticism isn’t particularly well-informed. A question that a 50-year-old mother has about games is an important one that we should be addressing. Games culture at large is so afraid of having to justify anything about itself, so we resist all these questions that maybe would help us to examine why things are the way they are, and I think those outside voices are really important.
AA: I’m working on a textbook about game design, level design, and how to think about our games as stories. I’ve also written a choose-your-own-adventure book that is all deaths. You open to a page at random and find out how you die. I just found a publisher, which I’m very excited about.
Hopefully, in the next couple of years, there will be a few more books out. The textbook is going very slowly, but at some point it will exist, and hopefully will be a much-needed jumping-ff point for discussions about game design.
DS: Finally, since we are in Toronto, what’s your take on the city and the local community so far?
AA: I happen to know a lot of people from here, and I’ve heard wonderful things about Dames Making Games and the community that they’re fostering, but this is my first time actually being here. So far, I’m impressed that this space [Bento Miso] exists, and also that it’s actively endeavouring to make itself safe for women. It’s really rad and really, really impressive, and I struggle to create the same sort of spaces in the Bay. So Toronto so far has been beautiful and wonderful. And rainy, but I like it.