Friday, December 2, 2016

Innocence and Game Development

Last weekend I was up in Vancouver hanging with some of my friends and coworkers. Some of these friends I've known literally since high school, and some of us work tightly together to create a game that we're all very passionate about. It's really awesome that I get to hang out with these folks, and I love 'em all to bits. We got together one evening after I had finished (successfully) apartment hunting, and out came the Jackbox Party Pack 3, and specifically, a game called Fakin' It.

The premise of Fakin' It is quite interesting. The game will send questions to everyone's phones, and depending on the type of game, at the buzzer everyone puts up either a number of fingers, raises their hand (or not), or points to another player. For example, a question we got was "How many times did you shower in the past week?" When the buzzer rang, everyone threw up as many fingers as showers they had.

The trick comes in that one player didn't get the question: the faker just got told to try to fit in. Then everyone votes and asks questions to try to figure out as a group which player is the faker. If the group guesses correctly, then the group gets points, otherwise if the faker escapes they get points.

Fun and Games Until Someone Loses...

It was all fun and games until suddenly the question, "Have you ever donated blood?" came up. Now, many of you are probably thinking, that's a pretty innocent question. Most people donate blood unless they can't for some reason. And there's the rub.

You see, in North America, gay/bisexual men cannot donate blood. Specifically, men who've had intercourse with another male in the past year--it used to be since 1977, but was recently relaxed. Also included on the list are intravenous drug use, being HIV positive, or if you've recently gotten a tattoo, for example.

So I'm expected to justify my lowered hand or be outed as the faker (I wasn't, for the record). I could've lied about it, but I'm a terrible liar. Now, for me, the justification was pretty easy: I've been out for nearly 15 years, and the group all knew I was gay. So having another opportunity to complain that my dirty, gay blood wasn't allowed to be donated wasn't that bad. But there was a moment when everyone was looking at me with suspicion because I was an odd person out, thinking, why is his hand down, he must be the faker because most people donate blood. The only people accused in that round were folks with their hands down.

Suddenly the video game variant of "Never have I ever" became very political, regardless of whether we wanted it to be or not. I doubt the developer who added the question to the pile thought about any of that. I mean, many tech companies have the blood bus roll up outside every once in a while and everyone goes down to donate as groups, gathering people up and giving you questioning looks when you say, "I can't." I've been in that precise situation before. But for many, donating blood is an innocent, unquestionably morally good task.

That innocence--likely borne of the privilege of not being in one of the banned groups--allowed the question to slip through the QA and turned our game just a little awkward.


For me, that question wasn't the end of the world. I had my discomfort. My friends got a little uncomfortable because I had to remind them that yes, gay and bisexual men cannot donate blood. We moved on and the rest of the game was a blast. But the incident--this story--was a good reminder to me that what some people perceive as innocent can sometimes be pernicious, and that even simple video games can be political without the game developers realizing it.

My friends will read this and probably be super apologetic--they'd be really upset that they may have hurt me in any way, because they're awesome, empathetic people. To them I'd say don't worry too much about it aside from just using the opportunity to reflect. This is a prime example of privilege making someone blind to another's experiences. Privilege isn't evil and it doesn't make you a bad person. It's just a lens from which we experience our world.

Heck, I make goofs about women from time to time because I'm not a woman and don't have the insight of living as a woman day to day. In a prior age, I think we'd categorize privilege as "innocence". Innocent of how the wider world works and ignorant of the painful experiences of others. The important part of recognizing it is expanding one's empathy to others' situations. Learn and move forward.

For the game developers, I know as a game dev myself I'd be horrified if my game hurt someone. I don't think anyone threw in the question to deliberately make anyone feel bad about themselves.

But when people try to tell me that video games are (or should be!) apolitical, my first reaction is to laugh at them. Even the most minor of decisions and scenarios have identity and circumstances tied to them. From deciding if your femme fatale should be wearing pumps or flats, to how beefy your male hero should be, to how rich is the neighbourhood your GTA character is running around in and the behaviours of various NPCs in said neighbourhood, to asking how often someone showers or donates blood; everything is a comment or consequence of the--sometimes very different--worlds we live in and the lenses in which we view those worlds.

Nobody really can be cognizant of every permutation of those worlds and lenses, and I'm not even necessarily saying don't put certain things in games. I'm just saying that every decision about content and mechanics has consequences and should be deliberate. But also, by incorporating more people from different viewpoints into our craft and becoming more aware ourselves, we can include those points of view into our games and make them more varied, strong, interesting, and empathetic. #GameDesign, #GameDev, #IndieDev

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