Kimberly Voll

Interview: Kimberly Voll is a Gamer

Kimberly Voll - iamagamer Game Jam

If you can pull yourself out of the auteur haze of last weekend’s Molyjam, an empowering game jam is right around the corner. The first iamagamer jam kicks off at the Centre for Digital Media in Vancouver on Friday, July 12, with official satellite jams in Denver, Boston, and Mountain View, California. Participants will set out to make games featuring strong female protagonists, offering a direct challenge to a triple-A industry that insists that such games don’t appeal to the broader public.

The jam is the brainchild of Kimberly Voll, an educator and organizer who runs the Vancouver arm of the annual Global Game Jam. She created iamagamer in response to a Gamasutra article in which the developers of Remember Me described the barriers that games with female protagonists face within the industry.

“The assumptions are maddening,” said Voll with regards to the industry logic that bakes a masculine glaze over everything. “I don’t want to be a male online. I just want to be me.”

iamagamer seeks to reclaim that identity.

“I’m very conscious of the general discomfort in identifying as part of a community that you don’t feel accepts you as you are,” added Voll, who counts herself as one of many disenfranchised female gamers.

Beyond the four official sites, remote jam participants have registered from places as far-flung as the UK, Australia, and Brazil, while the jam has generated roughly two dozen articles. More importantly, iamagamer has successfully attracted a more diverse segment of the gaming population — Voll estimates that 30-40% of the jam participants are female, compared to 20% at most jams.

The sexism that inspired the jam is also working against it, and Voll – like others who have addressed gender in gaming – has faced hostility.

“I’ve been called sexist for having a ‘female-only jam’ and for trying to push a campaign against games with male leads. It’s frustrating because instead of engaging in a dialogue, [people] just attack,” said Voll. “I’ve been accused of saying that games with female lead characters are inherently awesome, which makes no sense either.  If a game sucks, it sucks. I doubt gender is going to sway that.”

Kimberly Voll - iamagamer Game Jam

Voll remains diplomatic despite the criticism. She emphasized that she’s not setting out to demonize male gamers, nor is she suggesting there’s something wrong with male lead characters or sexualized female ones. (“We’re human, we like sex,” reasoned Voll.) She’s merely calling for increased representation, suggesting it can be difficult for women to identify with gamer culture when there aren’t enough characters that speak to their experiences.

“There are lots of terrific games out there that have male characters and we should celebrate those great games,” said Voll. “But there aren’t so many with strong, female leads that aren’t hyper-sexualized, or that haven’t reduced the character to a female-skinned male. So let’s change that—let’s create more great games.

“Women can be rescued in a game,” she continued, referencing one of the more common video game tropes. “It’s nonsense to say that idea is inherently wrong. What’s wrong is when we only have men rescuing women, and we never see examples of women rescuing men.”

Voll isn’t taking away anyone’s toys. She’s instead building new playgrounds that allow for a wider array of acceptable narratives and styles.

“I’ve encountered resistance from folks saying that there are ‘lots’ of games with female lead characters in them,” lamented Voll, though she notes that her detractors are always less forthcoming when pressed for examples beyond usual suspects like Samus and Lara Croft. “They always say, ‘There are plenty of others, they’re just not coming to me right now.’”

At iamagamer, Voll expects jammers to demonstrate the diversity and viability of games with female protagonists, which can force deconstructing the default assumptions that dismiss any female-headlined video game.

“I’ve been coming to terms with the ways in which I’ve inadvertently behaved in a sexist manner and have contributed to the perpetuation of biases,” she admitted. Voll also chronicled her sins in a recent Corona Labs blog post. “I’ve always identified as an exception — a gamer, a programmer — which is harmful because it underscores that I don’t actually believe that I’m a part of these communities.”

Voll hopes her confession — as well as the jam — can motivate other people during the same critical self-examination.

“It’s easier to point fingers at other folks than it is to look inside,” said Voll, who acknowledged her own fears prior to publishing. The reaction to her post has been largely positive, with most of the feedback expressing sympathy and thanking her for publicly confronting issues that typically remain hidden.

Those responses have Voll feeling like the jam is already a success, another step on gaming’s inevitable march to maturity.

“I want a world where anyone, however you identify, whatever you stature in life, feels free to make and play games,” she concluded.

Voll would eventually like to host more jams to increase representation for other underserved demographics. For now, however, she’s focusing on iamagamer as she attempts to make her vision a reality, one jam at a time.