"If we make that main character, it won’t be appealing to fans.”
“I don’t think this story is very relatable.”
“Why does a white person writing ‘Asian fantasy’ get more attention than people from the original culture??!”
I imagine many of us have seen the discussions, the debates, the criticisms, the arguments—in fiction publishing, in video games, in movies, in tabletop games—that point to an ongoing problem: the entertainment industry is still dominated by Western, white, often United States-centric creations and themes.
This dominance doesn’t continue because no one else exists in these creative spaces. A diverse range of people, across multiple aspects of identity and experiences, are creating entertainment.
But who gets funding?
Who gets PR?
There are exceptions, sure, but the majority still focuses on the same demographic.
There’s a conversation we can have about accessibility and resources (and many people are, which is great) but there’s another element at work: the challenge of creating a sense of resonance when you don’t belong to the majority culture.
What do I mean?
The last few weeks I’ve split my downtime between returning to World of Warcraft (WoW) and participating in beta testing for the Classic (original 2004) version of WoW. Returning to both games at roughly the same time, after not playing any version of WoW for almost ten years, led me to automatically compare and contrast the versions.
This post is a casual reflection on those comparisons with some ending thoughts on game design.
A number of creative disciplines use some form of the daily sketch. For artists, this often means doing one rapid sketch a day. In creative writing, this might take the form of writing a few paragraphs or pages each day based on a random prompt. In crochet and knitting, you can practice a new advanced stitch for a few lines each day. With musical instruments, this might mean practicing a new scale or passage focused on a specific technique.
These exercises have a dual purpose: they build a daily habit and focus on experimenting with new techniques, instead of a finished product.
But what does this kind of practice look like for designing tabletop RPGs?
Some people suggested that game jams fulfill this purpose. I disagree. Game jams usually emphasize or even require a finished game. It can be rough, untested, and short, but there is still an expectation of a game. This keeps a product-focus rather than a technique-focus.
I decided a few months ago I would try to find a form of design sketching that works for me. The rest of this post will review the process I developed, some example prototypes, and what I learned along the way.
I am terrified of the game I'm currently designing:
It is a game about cultural disconnection, the harm family members do to each other, and children growing up and needing to decide their place in those dynamics.
It is a game that could be made very, very wrong.
It's also a game I haven't been able to get out of my mind for over a month.
Developing a chronic illness in 2018 fundamentally changed how I play games, which also changed which games I can play. This past spring I've started to take what I learned as a player to modify my design approach so I am creating games people like me can actually play.
This is not, to be clear, "how to design games while coping with a chronic illness," but more about how I have changed my own views on "good" game design as a result.
A little over a week ago I wrote a post about decolonizing games which generated some questions on Twitter about how this applies to video games and the role of design methdologies (e.g. using gameplay loops as a design tool) relate to decolonization.
Question 1: Can these [cultural] explorations happen in video games given the binary nature of computers?
My first reponse is on Twitter, but today I want to expand on the topic some more.
All game design—tabletop, video games, road trip time-wasters—happens within a cultural context. Or more accurately, within multiple contexts (context of the designer, context of the genre, the market, the individual players, etc.) but I want to focus for now on the context of the designer.
Before we dig deep into the discussion, I want to introduce some tools for examining culture. Culture, especially if you belong to the dominant culture of your area, can be like the water surrounding a fish: it is easy not to actively notice its existence or implications. In fact, as anthropologist Ralph Linton once famously said, "Water would be the last thing a fish would notice."
To step back and start noticing our own water, it can be helpful to start recognizing that our entire world and perception of it is interpreted. There are several lenses that affect this interpretation; today I want to focus on the idea of epistemology. Put simply, espitemology is the study of knowledge: what methods do we use to know something, how do we determine if something is valid, and what is the scope (or limits) of our knowledge?
In really practical terms, our ways of knowing shape how we understand and interact with our environment; it also strongly shapes what we would see as "valid" interpretations, and act as a filter for our expectation for the "default" way of understanding and reacting.
Conversation about accessible rulebooks often raises the question: why aren't more tabletop roleplaying games in epub and mobi format?
Diversifying the formats offered would allow more control over layout for those who need it. MOBI allows you to tap into all of the Kindle app's features like color of text and background, column size, text size, font, etc. EPUB allows control over font size, and also offers an easy to use text-to-speech feature.
I'm pretty sure that Jason Pitre was the one I first heard suggest a workflow involving markdown to allow easy adaption of your game text into ebook formats. Based on this idea, I decided to try and create a workflow that would allow me to publish games in 3 formats with the least amount of extra work: interactive PDF, EPUB, and MOBI.
So how did it go?
Since getting horribly sick last night means I couldn't finish my next blog on design theory, I want to focus instead on an important practice for my own development: seeking out new perspectives and lessons on design. I try to either read or listen to new content every week. It sharpens my skills, and also keeps me inspired by hearing the insights of others.
For today's post I want to point at a few of the resources I've found helpful for shaping my own thoughts about design.
Note: This post is very U.S. centric in nature.
Note the Second: I make broad statements in this piece; any discussion of culture is extremely complex and open to nuance and one blog post cannot do that justice
The folklore game jam has helped me realize what bothers me with a lot of the conversation around decolonizing games.
I didn’t plan on making a folklore game; then I ended up making two. One is based on a Cherokee story; the other was inspired by a Scottish story. As I worked on the games I found myself revisiting the stories I grew up on. Looking at Cherokee and Scottish stories at the same time made one thing very clear: folklore reveals a lot about culture. It captures the values we want to pass on from one generation to the next.
This statement may seem a little “no duh” for anyone who has considered folklore before. But it feels revolutionary in this moment to me because folklore takes the unspoken values and make them blatant. It takes the cultural assumptions and teaches them outright. I’ve returned to a number of stories I grew up on with a new eye, and feel like I’m crystalizing in my mind the unspoken, transmitted values that surrounded me throughout my life.
How does this relate to decolonizing games?
I hit the designer’s version of writer’s block for the first time this winter. I wasn’t sure how to deal with it, so I decided to avoid the issue by throwing myself into playing a lot more games. And reading even more.
Turns out, that’s exactly what I needed.
Every time I read or play a game two things happen:
I won’t dive into every game I’ve played or read, but I want to focus on one specifically: Interstitial: Our Hearts Intertwined by Riley Hopkins a.k.a. The Kingdom Hearts roleplaying game.
I had no idea what to expect when I agree to play this game. I’ve never played more than 30 minutes of Kingdom Hearts. I’ve never played a game where I roleplay an existing character. And I’d never actually heard of the game until someone suggested we play it. The game is made with the Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) system, and at this point I’d had lukewarm experiences with PbtA games.
So it’s probably fair to say my reaction going into this game was, “Meh.”
My reaction coming out was, “I love this game. I have so much to learn from this game. When can I play again?”
If you want to hear me talk about the game as a player, you can keep an eye on the Voices at play podcast, where I was part of a roundtable discussion about the game. That episode will be coming out in the next month.
Here I want to focus on the game as a designer.
This blog is a mix of game design analysis, commentary on issues affecting indie dev spaces, and some personal reflections.