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Daniel Cook, Blogger

May 13, 2013

10 Min Read

The good people in my life come from all sorts of walks of life.  Some women, some boys, some rich, some poor, some gay, some transgender, some young, some old, some confused, some depressed, some wildly liberal and some staunchly conservative. Some embrace labels. Some can't abide labels. They sport different cultures, colors, nose shapes, hair types, sizes and everyone single one of them has a bizarre personal history full of dreams, joys and misery.   

I'd like all of them to play my games. 

I'm a rather reserved fellow and my games are one of the few  ways that I connect with the rest of humanity.  In my ideal world, people would approach my games with an open mind and if something sticks, great.  What I find can happen instead is that I blindly duplicate standard video game fallbacks and in the process accidentally and needlessly alienate people I really respect. 

Some inclusive design goals
The following is a list of design goals I try to keep in mind.  Not all my games succeed at every one of these and some are goals for future games that I haven't managed to release.  But the attempt is made.  Then I will listen to feedback and try again. 

1. Less visceral violence
Visceral, bloody violence where the game revels in harming realistic people is only fun for a very specific audience.  It turns out that you make an impact on people without the use of shock. Turning everything up to 11 in terms of gratuitous gore becomes a choice rather than the default that all games must attain.

Cartoon violence has its place, especially in the clear communication of physical cause and effect. Yet even this class of violence can be avoided if you start exploring system that don't involve hitting or shooting things. 

2. Fewer pinups
Let's hear it for the wonders of great sex between willing adults.  However, many cookie-cutter sexy characters are more about non-consensual power, dominance and ogling than they are about sex, sexiness or love.  

Do you really need bikini babes or beefy man nipples to make the sort of games you want to make?  Could you improve your game by adding interesting relationships or clothing? 

3. More cooperative social dynamics
Instead of strict player vs player, I try to make games that encourage cooperative play.  Is the game set up where helping one another is possible or encouraged?  Many games drift thematically and mechanically towards harming others.

While, it is certainly possible to have competitive play that encourages sportsmanship, there are some great opportunities in games outside pure individualistic competition.  Change the dynamic from "If you play, I will destroy you" to "Hey, let's play together" 

4. Less Pink and Blue art
There are historical (post 1940's) art styles that are marketed as distinctly 'pink' for feminine audiences or 'blue' for masculine audiences.  Think Barbie and G.I. Joe.

I prefer what I think of as 'green' art that is its own thing and doesn't actively push one audience away.  This isn't compromised 'purple' art, which in the end is still just a muddled committee's reaction to stereotypes.  Instead, push all that aside and aim for a raw expression that appeals to people with an appreciation of honest beauty and delight.

5. Fewer wholesale stereotypes
Stereotypes, as a form of pre-baked mental schema, can act as an entrance into a game.  With a single word or phrase, you trigger an entire model of how the world works. But these cheap schema have two critical issues:

One, they can also blind people to the unique quirks of another person or another perspective.   Two, the wholesale usage of a stereotype brings along a wide variety of uncomfortable baggage that while invisible to one group ends up being blatantly off-putting to another.  

An alternative to using stereotypes is to thoughtfully construct your themes piecemeal from a large variety of influences. When you look at the art for Road Not Taken, it can be difficult to put the world into a broad existing stereotype. By constructing your own theme, you can at least ensure any insults or blindspots are something you own. 

6. More avatar variety
Where appropriate, enable selection of character of a variety of genders, skin tones and personalities.  Allow mixing and matching so players feel a sense of ownership over their identity within the game.  Not exactly rocket science.  Even narrative games could stand more player ownership of the character without overly sacrificing their god-given right to author choose-your-own adventures. 

7. Welcoming divergent sub-cultures
Does the game support the growth of divergent sub-cultures?  I can't represent everyone but I can provide nurturing play spaces for people whose experiences, personalities and goals are unlike mine. 

One of my favorite class of systems that encourage the growth of sub-cultures is the authoring tool.  If you look at Game Maker, RPG Maker and Twine, they are all systems that give smaller groups the power to make the play space their own.  How do you turn your game into an authoring tool in the broadest possible sense of the term?

8. Low cost of entry
I try to make games that almost anyone can play without spending a large amount of money. Class separates people. I try to avoid the rich man's cover charge of $60 or ask people to spend $300 on specialized gaming hardware.  If you already have access to a computer or cell phone for whatever reason, I'd love for you to be able to try one of my games.  It isn't perfect, but I like that the marginal cost to play my game is zero dollars. 

What do you do with the rich people in this scenario?  When someone does spend money, I ask "How can I make this person benefit the rest of the community?"  It is trivial to use technology to make a game about 'me' but this leads to isolation and social stratification. It seems far more beneficial to use those same technological super powers to strengthen the concept of 'us'

9. Low skill barriers
I attempt to make deep games that can be played for dozen or even thousands of hours.  Yet at the same time I'm wary of placing large skill requirements on new users.  These skill barriers come in two forms.  

The first is simple mechanical complexity. When I'm building original systems, it is quite common for me to make something that I love and other people find obnoxiously difficult to wrap their head around.  This is a matter of balancing and breaking complex systems into smaller, learnable pieces. 

The second is more insidious. Many designers grew up playing classic titles and bring with them assumptions about what pre-existing skills a new user will be guaranteed to possess. "Why even bother teaching how to use an analog stick?  Everyone and their brother knows how that works"  

Yet many do not.  The gamer culture assumes certain highly specific mechanic and mental skills and in the process excludes those who did not share the same formative experiences.  This in one reason why I like building original games.  I'm forced to toss out the past, which in turn forces everyone to start from a common ground. 

Risk: By making a game overly inclusive, you create meaningless work
The specter of blandly generic commercial art hangs over this discussion.  If you try so hard not to offend people, isn't it difficult to provoke deep reactions?

I see exclusion more as an issue of accidentally pushing people away.  You can be all about actively challenging a player and still create an inclusive game. Inclusion becomes an act of listening, understanding and taking responsibility for your impact on the audience. 

Consider the works of Miyazaki, which quite powerfully explore themes environmental destruction.  Yet, they still remain inclusive films and manga, welcoming both a broad general audience and a dedicated following.  

Risk: Spending time on being inclusive is an extra cost
Won't I put my very tightly budgeted project at risk by spending so much time on inclusivity?

What I like about many of the concepts above is that their costs end up being a tiny fraction of a game's overall budget if you design them in upfront.  And as a result, for a little extra effort, you end up with a dramatically broader audience.  

Triple Town could have gone with a hardcore city building theme with monster and bluer artwork.  Or it could have gone heavily pink and turn the cute, casual dial up several notches.  Many of the clones did just this.  They took the cheap, easy, stereotypical route.  Very few of those lazy efforts have done all that well in the market.  

Triple Town, not an expensive design by any means, follows some of the inclusive design concepts above.  It is played by both men and women across a whole range of different groups.  Just watching the Twitter feed of players talking about the game is a mixing bowl.  They all think of it as their game, discovered virally by friends in their sub-culture. 

Risk: Inclusive games just support the dominant culture
By making a game for everyone, won't only the most mainstream of communities form around it?

Here lies a substantial risk and I think you need to treat it with great care.  An essential component of communities is the formation of group norms and boundaries that protect those norms.  Groups determine who is inside the group and who is outside.  On the surface, this appears antithetical to the concept of inclusivity. 

Think of your game as a platform for seeding and growing communities.  Instead of aiming for a single community, provide tools for groups and sub-groups to co-exist.  To me a grandly inclusive game consists of a thousand vibrant niches, all playing the game in their own manner.  With a little prodding behind the scenes, you may even encourage groups to cross populate at times.  So that the exclusive groups in your inclusive game start discovering a little about inclusivity themselves. 

This is a topic I really want to invest more time into. 

Closing thoughts
You'll notice that the design goals I've listed aren't that complicated. There is little recursive navel gazing or hand wringing  My take on this topic is essentially pragmatic. Inclusivity is treated as a rational issue of how to efficiently and effectively make richer games that spread broadly.  

What justifies promoting an engineer's perspective when talking about a hot button issue like inclusivity? While it is essential to explore the emotional and critical landscape of an social issue, ultimately pipe need to be laid, bridges built and inclusive games crafted.  Though some find the language of craft deeply alienating, this is the way I work; methodically building games piece by piece for audiences of millions. Much like laws or city planning, may the results benefit even those that find the process uninspiring.

To a degree, the mechanics of inclusivity are not about serving specific communities and preferencing their needs above others.  It is about sending out welcoming signals, removing barriers and creating safe spaces.  I can't tell each special and unique person's story.  But I can try to build a game that empowers them to do that on their own.

take care,

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Daniel Cook


Daniel Cook writes regularly on design, the business of games and product development techniques at Lostgarden.com. He has previously worked with Epic Games, Anark and Microsoft.

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