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Interview: Metanet's Sheppard Talks Toronto's Difference Engine Initiative

Metanet Software's Mare Sheppard talks to us about Toronto's Difference Engine Initiative, and how disrupting game development homogeny through diversity and collaboration can improve games.

Leigh Alexander, Contributor

July 29, 2011

7 Min Read

Plenty of people are happy with video games exactly as they are, and more of the same is just fine by them. But to those who are truly passionate about games as the century's next great entertainment medium, we're nowhere near done yet. Here's a theory that's getting too popular to ignore: Games don't meaningfully evolve because the population creating them never changes. Kid grows up playing certain types of games, and then he becomes an adult, who makes games for other people like him. He's part of a team that shares his same general background and interests. The result is that a massive swath of game developers are a similar type of person, and that most games are created by that type of person, for that type of person. Not only does that insularity limit gaming's audience and exclude other potential players, but it's a model that resembles genetic inbreeding, and as such has the same consequences. When inbreeding happens in nature, for a few generations, certain desirable traits are emphasized. But it comes at the expense of others, and then beyond a certain point, homogeny begins to weaken the species. Sameness kills. Diversity is necessary to sustain life - and this is true in art as well as in nature. We don't just love indie designers because they're quirky and scrappy - we love them because their freedom from corporate constraint and their relative disinterest in mass-market appeal results in games and creative expression we just don't get in the mainstream. Even if we can accept the business reasons (risk aversion, high cost, massive teams, fans want sequels, blah blah) that mainstream games are slower to evolve, we look to the creative fringe for the driving forces that will help the industry keep growing and changing. A creative group of Toronto independent game developers believes that the games industry needs a little more hybrid vigor. Encouraged by what emerges when different kinds of artists - including those not necessarily from the world of games - collaborate, these game developers are fast-tracking initiatives to bring even more different kinds of people into the field. Toronto's Artsy Games Incubator has been working to this end since 2007, with the support of Jonathan Mak's Queasy Games (Everyday Shooter) and Raigan Burns and Mare Sheppard's Metanet Software (N/N+). The goal of the incubator - and of the development networking group that sprung from it, the Hand Eye Society -- is to welcome creative people from all kinds of media who may be interested in making games, but who lack the tools or knowledge to actually engage in development of their ideas. Using accessible, relatively-simple development tools like GameMaker and GameSalad, Toronto's indie game developers gather in support of newcomers to help them realize their ideas. The Toronto developer community's initiatives to welcome artists from other disciplines have spurred the creation of all kinds of games, from action games to interactive fiction, to simulators and persuasive games and beyond. Then, recently, the Hand Eye Society teamed up with the Toronto Independent Film Festival on an event called the Arcadian Renaissance, an arts festival where custom-built arcade cabinets played host to indie game s from the community. TIFF wanted to continue expanding its mandate into the world of video games, so joined by the Hand Eye Society, they together applied for funding with The Ontario Media Development Corporation, known for its generous support of local artists. One indie enjoying the Ontario Media Development Corporation's support is Metanet: "They're the backbone of so many Toronto indies that it's unreal," the company's Mare Sheppard tells us. The new funding will support four major projects between TIFF, the Hand Eye Society and Ryerson University focused on mixing things up a little in the game industry. In addition to an event that matches up hardware hackers with game developers interested in new physical inputs, there will be one that encourages comics creators and game makers to collaborate, and a youth-oriented initiative. First up, however, is the Difference Engine Initiative, a project coordinated by Sheppard focused, at least at first, on bringing more women into the games industry, in the continuing spirit of the idea that more diversity means better projects. "There's this huge, homogenous, very insular, established set of developers right now in the game industry, and it happens to be mostly white and mostly male," Sheppard says. "From that, you can really only get a certain amount of innovation." Sheppard's viewpoint echoes that of a recently-published, widely-circulated Edge column by Clint Hocking, at least to the extent that the latter expressed a belief that a male-oriented culture could be problematic for industry growth. Just like cross-disciplinary collaborations in the art community have resulted in more interesting projects (for example, Gamasutra just spoke to Jon Mak on his work with Shaw-Han Liem on Sound Shapes), the Difference Engine Initiative believes that more diversity on teams can only mean better games. "If we had more voices and more opinions and more people coming in, then we would be able to take bigger steps in releasing games that represent different people, because they're involved in the development process," Sheppard says. "Indies in particular are usually making huge progress in terms of innovation… if there were even more diversity in the industry, I think we'd be seeing unbelievable things," she adds. "The collaboration is great, because it brings in people who aren't limited by the structure of the games industry; they have no preconceptions about what they should be making." One barrier to entry for people who wouldn't traditionally be attracted to game development is not just the preconception that it's not inclusive, but that it appears so complex that it's hard for those less familiar with the industry to know where to begin. The Difference Engine wants to start there. "There's a lot of resistance in the current games industry -- that's the thing about homogenous groups. They really repel outsiders," suggests Sheppard. "There's a ton that we have to do, this is all a cultural problem. We actually have to change how people think to make these environments more appealing and welcoming to outsider groups." One way to achieve this is to have visible role models in the field, so that women curious about game development can observe a number of successful figures already working therein. Difference Engine participants will have the opportunity to meet notables like ThatGameCompany's Kellee Santiago and Robin Hunicke, and Kokoromi's Heather Kelley, among others, as an avenue to see what's possible. "We'll bring in local women game-makers and some international developers to chat with people, give them feedback and help them along," Sheppard explains. Six participants will be selected to attend six weeks of sessions, one three-hour night a week, along with coordinators who will help them make games. "It's like a crafter's circle," Sheppard describes. "It's loose and low-key, and it's about peer mentorship. You get feedback from people, you show your progress so people can play your game, and it's a supportive atmosphere which will ideally help people take ideas they have and bring them into fully formed games." It's a place to start, she says. "One of the main things we want to note is we know this is not going to be a perfect solution… but if we sit around and keep talking and waiting for this opportunity to come, we're going to miss times like this when we can actually learn from people." Sheppard herself was slightly concerned at the initial conception of the Difference Engine - a low-pressure entry-level game development group for women. "I was concerned about the idea that this is going to set people up for easy sexist criticism," she admits. "I really don't like emphasizing the difference in gender. It's irrelevant; there are nurses and there are male nurses, I don't want there to be 'developers' and 'female developers,' it's ridiculous." "And then I thought… some people really respond to this, and it's totally worth it to help those people," she reflects. "I don't have any ideas for the women who don't find this idea appealing; I haven't got anything to go on, so until I do, this is a place for me to learn." "I think, in light of that, this could work," she adds.

About the Author(s)

Leigh Alexander


Leigh Alexander is Editor At Large for Gamasutra and the site's former News Director. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Variety, Slate, Paste, Kill Screen, GamePro and numerous other publications. She also blogs regularly about gaming and internet culture at her Sexy Videogameland site. [NOTE: Edited 10/02/2014, this feature-linked bio was outdated.]

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