Anti-Oppressive Game Design

Anti-Oppression and Games

Anti-oppression’s encompassing analysis can extend beyond the realm of activism and social work. “Practitioners” of anti-oppression argue that the areas of governance, education and policy development should implement anti-oppressive principles. And while a range of opinions may exist about how to implement anti-oppression into life and society, practitioners have noted that anti-oppressive principles support equity, justice and inclusion to the benefit of marginalized groups. We assert that game makers may apply the principles of anti-oppression to the design of games and their development, particularly games that in some way call attention to and/or seek to challenge unequal power dynamics and inspire players to contribute to equitable social change.

Theorists have spoken to how oppression tends to get reproduced in the media and entertainment industry, in those dominant ideologies reproduced and disseminated by it. Stuart Hall argues that the media is “part of the dominant means of ideological production” and that it produces “representations of the social world, images, descriptions, explanations and frames for understanding how the world is and why it works as it is said and shown to work” (2003, p. 90). Popular media, including popular digital games, tend to mirror the power imbalances of society, privileging the interests and perspectives of those in power.

Paolo Pedercini, the designer behind the Molleindustria game collective that develops online games that seek to express alternatives to dominant forms of gameplay, explains that the game industry “relies on a highly trained workforce, which is produced by universities.” The industry’s “[technologies and processes] are inaccessible to most people” and democratizing the system proves difficult because its structure lacks personal connection and original contribution by most participants (2010). Unequal power dynamics infuse the mainstream game industry’s development practices and human resource processes and norms, as well as its most familiar perspectives.

Yet digital games, particularly those designed outside of the industry, are ripe for the incorporation of anti-oppressive principles. Ian Bogost (2007) explores how video games embody a “procedural rhetoric” that shifts opinion or motivates action of players (pp. 28-29). Video games make arguments about a social system’s structure that can help support or challenge it. In the words of Clay Shirky (2005), games “offer the opportunity for players to change their worldview rather than to impart mere information.”

Because video games have the ability to persuade or inspire people to critically examine mainstream norms and behaviors, we embrace the implementation of anti-oppressive principles, practices and ethics. Game makers can design their work to identify and challenge society’s everyday dynamics of oppression and privilege. They can inspire players to act in new ways to break down those dynamics and divides. They can illustrate what players can do to affect anti-oppressive change in the real world, allowing them to practice and share their strategies for change with each other. By applying anti-oppressive principles in the process of building games, game makers can consciously provide a frame to alter the mainstream’s typical modus operandi, where a small set of experts determine content and methodology. An anti-oppression-inspired process can seek out and incorporate the ideas and perspectives of players and non-players who do not usually have voice in game creation in order to challenge assumptions, stereotypes and norms that inform the look, story, arguments and rule sets of games.

In the next section, we move out of the realm of theory to explore insights of game collectives and partners. Their goals, thoughts and design processes enlighten how anti-oppression principles have been and can be applied in game design and development.

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