Emerson Group Makes Game Design Inclusive

Erin Clossey

February 10, 2016

Members of Emerson Game Developers watches as one student plays a video game in the Engagement Lab Tuesday, February 2.

Sitting around a lounge at the Engagement Lab on a recent Tuesday night, a group of Emerson College students plays a card game that ends with four video games—or at least the ideas for four video games.

The students, all members of a new informal campus club called Emerson Game Developers, break into groups, each of which draws four cards from decks provided by Grow a Game. Each card has a word, and each group must use three of the four words to form the basis for their new game (sample draw: silence, transparency, releasing, snobbery).

In one game, inspired by the water scandal in Flint, Michigan, a town is poisoned by contaminated water, which gradually makes residents violent and gives them strange powers. You are a researcher who must collect ingredients to fix the water supply and save the town. In another game, a snobby family moves into a mansion formerly inhabited by an old lady and her hundreds of cats, all of which died there. Your job is to free the cat ghosts trapped in household objects.

The ideas run the gamut of genres: horror, post-apocalyptic, comedy (provided you think dead cats are funny). But they have one important thing in common: all of them were created by people who just love games and wanted to tell a good story.

“You can all call yourselves game designers,” Emerson Game Developers President Kathryn Knutsen ’16 told the group.

Emerson Game Developers arose from a workshop called Girls Make Games, organized last fall by Visual and Media Arts faculty Sarah Zaidan and Miranda Banks, and Engagement Lab project managers Becky Michelson and Christina Wilson.

The gaming industry has been marred in recent years by controversies such as Gamergate, in which women developers and a media critic were harassed and doxed on social media and websites by those objecting to feminism and diversity in gaming. But that was not the impetus behind Girls Make Games, or for that matter, Emerson Game Developers, which is open to all genders, Zaidan said.

“The goal was to make students aware of different inroads into gaming,” said Zaidan, faculty advisor to the Game Developers, of the workshop. “The group of people we brought in represented the more unorthodox…ways of getting into gaming.”

Those ways are gaining steam, Zaidan said.

In the earliest days of video games, when motherboards had to be built from nothing, game designers were by necessity people (men, mostly) with computer science backgrounds.

Then, as the industry grew and content began to overtake function in focus, gaming underwent forces similar to the film industry, Zaidan said. As budgets swell (the cost for making first-person shooter game Destiny was $500 million, according to Zaidan), game developers (and filmmakers) are less willing to take risks, and by extension, less open to including nontraditional designers and their ideas.

“When you’re making games with that kind of budget, you want to make sure it sells,” she said.

But in the past five or six years, tools have been springing up on the Internet that make it possible for people without programming backgrounds to conceive, design, and launch their own video games. Sites such as RPG Maker, Game Maker, and Steam mean that virtually anyone with an idea and the time (and usually a small amount of money) can “tell the stories they want to tell,” Zaidan said.

“It’s about empowering students to be able to make the games they want to make. There’s room to experiment, whether people are going to be supportive or critical,” she said.

Emerson Game Developers vice president Sarah Spiers ’15 has already experimented with a number of games, both analog and digital. She made a computer game based on Jacques Lacan’s theory of ego and has begun work on a contribution to the canon of Shia LaBeouf parody games.

Spiers said as a woman game designer, she’s felt nothing but welcome at gaming events in the Boston area, but knows some have encountered hostility.

“We’re hoping this club is a safe place for people who are interested in games, so they talk about games or learn how to design them, and maybe…connect with industry professionals who can mentor them or maybe even be future employers for them,” Spiers said.

Knutsen said the club is still evolving—in fact, the group is in the process of drafting a constitution, the first step in getting formally recognized on campus. But Emerson Game Developers will probably involve some combination of game analysis and hands-on game play and design, she said.

Many of the more than a dozen members are Interactive Multimedia Majors, but Knutsen said she knows Film students and WLP majors who are interested in gaming, and at least one of the members is studying Journalism.

“I knew there was definitely a community at Emerson that wants to learn more about game design outside Interactive Multimedia Majors,” Knutsen said.