Book Excerpt: One game dev's quest for fight-free fashion agency

In this chapter of 'Game Devs & Others: Tales from the Margins,' dev Vanessa Paugh writes about how she joined the industry because she couldn't find her 'perfect game' -- so she set out to make it.

The following excerpt is the first chapter of "Game Devs & Others: Tales from the Margins", edited by Tonya DePass. The book was published on May 31st, and is available for purchase on Amazon or directly from publisher CRC Press.

In line with the definition of marginalized game developer, I am invisible to the press and the consciousness of the game industry.

However, I do exist and have been on the fringes of the industry for thirteen years. Like most game developers, I started making games because I enjoyed playing some of them, but I couldn’t find “the perfect game.”

I wanted to find a game that didn’t force me to fight and that did allow me to carry my real-life fashion sense into the game. I didn’t realize it at first, but I also wanted to have direct control over my character’s movement. It seems like a small thing, but it is rare to find games with female player characters who have been programmed to allow this.

Looking deeper, I found that the search for a fight-free environment, where I could wear what I wanted and take action, had come from my real life. Being Black, my every move was literally being policed, and being female, my fashion choices were being curtailed. Fortunately, the act of game development increases agency, in games and in real life. For me, that feeling of making textured hair and beautiful clothes for game characters, while wearing natural hair and comfortable clothes, is like no other agency.

"The act of game development increases agency, in games and in real life. For me, that feeling of making textured hair and beautiful clothes for game characters, while wearing natural hair and comfortable clothes, is like no other agency."

I’ve learned how to make games as an independent developer, to eliminate the fighting, in game and out of game. My biggest frustration is the depth of war orientation in the language of the pedagogy. Right now, it is impossible to learn game development without confronting guns and explosions. My hope is that people like me can show that it doesn’t have to be that way.

Ruth Handler must have had girls like me in mind when she created Barbie. I loved paper dolls so much, I made my own. A 3D version of a fashion doll was right up my alley. You can imagine how I felt when Mattel announced Barbie Fashion Designer (BFD), the computer game. It was only available on PC and I only had a Mac, but I bought a copy of the game anyway. My then boyfriend, now husband, graciously allowed me to install it, albeit temporarily, on his PC. I delighted in gaining the ability to design virtual and real clothes for Barbie. The 3D fashion show capability was amazing.

By the time BFD came out, an idea I had for a closet organizer, with a similar paper-doll-style interface, had already been rejected by two thesis advisors as not technical enough. Undeterred, I built it in a graduate-level object-oriented programming class. However, I thought of it as a tool, not a game. I thought of myself as a developer, not a game developer.

Later, when the Mac version of BFD arrived, I bought it also. Having the ability to make virtual clothes at any time made me perfectly happy.  I didn’t want anything more from BFD than more of what it already was. Barbie can never have enough different styles of clothes. I didn’t notice that anything was missing when Barbie walked down the runway, without my control. I didn’t know anything about the concepts of player and player character, versus nonplayer character. The idea that Barbie was the in- game model and that I was the out-of-game designer was enough for me.

I played every dress-up computer game and, later, online game I could find.

Learning how to make them was my gateway to other languages, such as HTML, ActionScript, Java, Javascript, Objective-C, and C#, and tools, such as Hypercard, Director, Flash, Xcode, and Unity. They were my first step into new technology, and they always had the same elements. There was a flat, immobile figure with many, many different outfit variations. She generally couldn’t move her arms or legs, and she couldn’t walk or wear her clothes to places outside the design studio. She was literally all dressed up with nowhere to go.

The locomotion controls in Tomb  Raider were revolutionary at the time. The transfer from real-life hand movement to avatar movement was so fluid that I really felt like I was Lara Croft and Lara Croft was me. Lara’s world was so vivid and she (I) was so much the mistress of it that I knew agency and couldn’t go back. I played Tomb Raider to the point of dysphoria when I hit pause. My ordinary suburban house seemed out of place next to the predator-filled cabin I had just experienced.

Lara was so much an extension of me that wearing the same clothes level after level started to bother me. First, it was the monotony, then it occurred to me that I would have never chosen those drab khaki shorts. I remembered that I had worn a black racerback top and sweatpants at the training level, so I tried to get them into the game, to no avail. Even the ponytail started to get old, since its color wasn’t one I would have chosen. That ponytail didn’t have my own hair color or texture.

Finally, when I noticed that her skin color wasn’t pivotal to the story, but couldn’t be changed to match mine, I contemplated stopping. My frustration grew, but I decided to keep playing because the game got better and my fusion with the Lara avatar grew stronger. I realized that I had taken a step for- ward in agency, only to be forced backward in personalization, because I couldn’t take this step as myself.

If all the levels in Tomb Raider had been only mildly interesting, and not breathtakingly beautiful, I would have continued to be a gamer and  a developer, but I would never have become a game dev. It’s sad that the inability to be myself did not stop me from playing that game. It took a dinosaur biting my head off to do that. It wasn’t the dying that did it. I died hundreds of times in that game and just reloaded my last saved game to keep playing.

It was deep in level 15 or so that the gray caverns gave way to the most luscious green-leaved trees in an underground jungle. I was overcome with the desire to stop and smell the…That was when the dinosaur got me. I had forgotten that I was in a life-threatening game. After reloading the level and killing the dinosaurs back into extinction, I just walked around and allowed the beauty to wash over me. The fact that people had put so much effort into making each leaf look so realistic flashed through my mind.

That’s when it hit me: I shouldn’t have to kill everything to see something so beautiful. There could be so many interesting and glamourous places recreated in a game world that would be ruined by having to have a battle first to experience them. Instead of predators, there could be friendly people who would ask me to tea. That was the moment when I became a game developer,  even though I didn’t realize it at the time. In my mind, I could see a game that didn’t exist—and that wouldn’t if the same people kept making the same kind of games. To get to the peaceful virtual place where I could wear my own skin, hair, and clothes while directly control- ling my avatar’s arms and legs, I was going to have to up my game dev skills and make it myself.

This quest for fight-free, fashion-filled agency in a game mirrors my real-life struggle. After I had shipped a couple of games with brown- skinned protagonists, a well-minded white friend asked why I was limit- ing my market share. No one asks why a company with only white male protagonist games is limiting its market share. Everyone just assumes that females and males of color will play their games, if they are good. My friend didn’t tell me to make sure my game was good so males and white females would play it. He, and many others, just assumed that they wouldn’t play it. Quality is irrelevant when the protagonist doesn’t look like the player.

This argument is still being used to keep the default game protagonists white and male, which keeps the default writers, artists, and developers white and male as well. When the game company’s core team is white and male, they decide that the default player is white and male, which justifies making the default protagonist white and male. The circle of white males is formed. There is no place for people who look like me to move into. We lose our agency at every level in the game and the industry. They don’t see us in the meeting, so they can’t see us playing the game, so we don’t end up in the game. We become those flat, immobile figures who they dress up in the nongamer stereotype and give no place to go.

To resist, I don’t play fighting games, for the most part. I steel myself, if I need to do it to learn something. The first thing I do in a tutorial is change the race and gender of the protagonist. This has led to some interesting mods where I, a black female with a weapon, am chasing down white males and killing them.

I don’t show them at game dev meetups, but I have been to a few. Before going to my first one, I agonized over my attire. I chose red high-top converse, black menswear jeans, and a plain red T-shirt with an open red and black plaid shirt over it. It turned out that I had on the same shoes as one of the organizers and I looked like I belonged. However, that isn’t how I normally dress, and I didn’t feel comfortable at all. The second time, I felt comfortable wearing teal and blue weaved crock sandals, teal earrings, a gray and white striped maxi skirt, and a white jewel neck knit blouse with a gray and white sweater over it. Needless to say, I didn’t match anyone, and I didn’t look like I belonged in that room full of white men. I just want to hang out with other game developers and not feel like I have to wear someone else’s clothes.

"I cherish the moments when I imagine some female’s face smiling in delight as she finds her skin tone among the choices."

When I’m working, I wear whatever I want, because I work from home. If I need to know something, I read a book or find an online tutorial. Although I took several college classes in programming, 3D modeling, and Photoshop, I only took one university course in actual game design. When the professor of that class announced that feminism was dead, I did wish it had been a video, so I could have just turned her off. To be fair, it was in context. On the other hand, she and I were the only women in a room full of twenty-something white males.

As much as I hate fighting,  I chose to fight in that instance. I said that feminism is still alive because we still don’t have equal pay for equal work. I didn’t back down because that is the only class I have ever been in where “feminism is dead” has been proclaimed. If I hadn’t been in that class, no one would have pushed back. Perhaps, dead feminism would have become part of the curriculum. Game design pedagogy is problematic enough without generations of new male designers being told to keep using that woman-in-refrigerator trope because women don’t care about equality anymore.

While I learned most of what I know about game design from that professor, she, like many women in the industry, have adopted the game = war mentality from the men. She critiqued the game that I made for my master’s capstone project and asked about the main gameplay mechanic. I told her it would be designing clothes and dressing models. She said it wouldn’t really be a game. I said there could be a game with no fighting. She asked what you would do in it otherwise. This is true to the nature of the industry. At a game meetup, a gamer expressed a similar sentiment— that without fighting, it isn’t really a game.

This perspective is so deeply ingrained in game playing and game development culture that it is impossible to even learn to make games without confronting virtual weapons. This was a huge turn-off for me, as it is for many women and some men who don’t want to make war games. I’ve learned to keep my ideas and designs to myself during the incubation period of a game project. People will tell me that something isn’t a game or can’t be done, when I’m unsure. The best solution is to try it and build the prototype, which eliminates the “can’t be done” argument. Then it doesn’t matter whether or not someone else calls it a game; it’s out there in the store.

During my dev retreat, I cherish the moments when I imagine some female’s face smiling in delight as she finds her skin tone among the choices. I remember playing a game where anything but blonde hair cost game currency. I do the tedious job of adding one more texture to the hair pack while my favorite songs play. I remember when a game company gave players a choice of three male protagonists, but said that having one female playable character was too much work.

I get high on my code running the first time after a slew of changes. I remember when the Internet lost its mind because players had to play as randomly chosen female characters. I feel so happy when my virtual clothes fit and look cute on. I remember all the times I had to code-switch my language when talking or when I understood something when trying to apply what I’d learned. I wake up in the morning, and I can’t wait to get to work on the next piece of the puzzle.

Although I thought my work was done when The Sims came out, it taught me the difference between direct agency and indirect autonomy. As designed, the main gameplay mechanic of the game is not fighting. Sims can be customized and personalized. Sims can move and walk, and the real player can tell them what to do. However, the actions are indirect, and so is the connection. I view sims like minions versus extensions of my real self.

Since I still haven’t found everything I want in a game, I keep trying to learn more about game development, modeling, and storytelling. I will keep making games until I realize my vision of the perfect game. It will feature zero fighting, fashion flexibility, and all agency, all the time.

This book extract made possible by Gamasutra's sister book publisher Taylor & Francis, or one of its related imprints

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