Anti-Oppressive Game Design

Guidelines for Anti-Oppression in Game Design and Development

An overview of anti-oppression principles, as well as insights provided by collectives and partners on equity issues and games, informed the guidelines we suggest in this section. These guidelines serve as a starting point to understand practicalities in building anti-oppressive games.

1. Disrupt Stereotypes

On a preliminary level, anti-oppression in game development and design entails making conscious efforts to disrupt the reproduction of oppressive assumptions in the look, feel, and play of a game. Makers must avoid uncritical stereotypes and “othering” depictions, especially of groups that are most marginalized in media and society. Richard Dyer (1996) draws connections between stereotypes and unequal power relationships between groups. He writes that “stereotypes express particular definitions of reality, with concomitant evaluations, which in turn relate to the disposition of power within society” (p. 248). In questioning “who proposes the stereotype” and “who has the power to enforce it,” Dyer demonstrates how stereotypes tend to reinforce the worldviews and position of dominant groups (p. 248). While stereotypes of dominant individuals and groups certainly exist, the full harm of stereotypes play out against those who have less power to define reality, to deem who and what is “normal” and “abnormal.”

For example, in creating RePlay: Finding Zoe/ReJouer: Où est Zoé, mainstream understandings about gender—how girls and boys are “supposed” to look—the designers provide players with a wide range of options in choosing the look of their character. Given the invisibility and vilification of dark skin in media and negative connotations having dark skin carries in mainstream society, the game makers made a conscious decision to provide players with the option to choose a dark brown skin color for characters. However, as alluded to by Pedercini above, diversity that appears “photoshopped” can be problematic where it is tokenizing or exists on a purely surface level. When consciously representing groups of people typically underrepresented, game creators should not simply use a window dressing approach.

Game makers must adopt intentionality and conscientiousness when broadening diversity and challenging mainstream stereotypes in games. The Diner Dash franchise provides an interesting example. Many incarnations of the game have a young female character as the diner’s server, Flo. While some may consider this a stereotyping depiction, deeper complexity is embodied in the character and her role. Flo is a former stockbroker who quit her job to run the diner. She is an entrepreneur who must utilize a variety of strategies and skills to successfully manage and expand her business. In many ways, Flo’s portrayal moves beyond a one-dimensional understanding of women’s role and qualities even if she engages in service and nurturing work in the game. Dyer (1996) distinguishes “social types” from stereotypes in media. “Although constructed iconographically similarly to the way stereotypes are constructed,” he writes, “social types can be used in a much more open and flexible way” (p. 248-249). They can “figure in almost any kind of plot and can have a wide range of roles” while stereotypes “always carry within their very representation an implicit narrative” (p. 248-249). Inclusion of social type characters like Diner Dash’s Flo is a helpful way to disrupt stereotypes in game representations.

2. Consider Players and Communicate With Them

Careful consideration of a game’s target players and their unique experiences—power they may hold and oppressions they face—is critical to anti-oppression in game creation. It entails moving away from the assumption that only one type of player exists or that all players use games the same way. Game designers and developers must think reflectively about assumptions they make about target players’ ideas, preferences, and needs. Before creating Darfur is Dying, for example, Take Action Games sought out information about mtvU’s audience and network, as well as the evidence that pointed to their lack of knowledge about the situation in Darfur. Only then did the team feel equipped to start designing a game to expose these complex issues to American college-aged youth, with the intent of provoking and inspiring those players to take real-world action.

Communication with target players must have real implications for the shape a game takes; it cannot consist merely of testing pre-formed ideas. For the development of RePlay/ReJourer, focus groups with diverse Anglophone and Francophone young people were essential to conceptualizing a game targeted to youth aged 8 to 14. METRAC dedicated a segment of the development budget to travel across the province of Ontario and meet with children in schools and community settings. METRAC incorporated principles of community-based participatory research when it directed focus groups (Israel et al., 2005). Among other features, community-based participatory research “facilitates a collaborative, equitable partnership … [It involves] an empowering and power-sharing process that attends to social inequities” (p. 7). Community-based participatory research computes with anti-oppression and proves useful in the design process for anti-oppressive games.

3. Attend to Multiple and Hidden Perspectives

An essential element to anti-oppressive practice involves multiplicity, and game makers should open space for marginalized communities to share their ideas, opinions, and perspectives. Developers cannot assume that their own perspective is definitive and need time in the development process to proactively search out and reflect upon other perspectives, particularly those hidden in mainstream discussions. Through an anti-oppressive lens, it is clear that academics and professionals are not the sole experts on a subject. In the case of Darfur is Dying, they do not only consist of Westerners with particular perspectives on the crisis.

Game makers should converse with a diverse body of experts and witnesses. Chris Swain (2010) advises game developers to conduct needs analyses with the support of experts, to yield a list of pertinent concepts. These concepts contribute to the learning objectives of value-based or ethical games.

Game makers face a challenging and time-consuming task of identifying and opening space for hidden and marginal perspectives, which can require significant resources. So Help You God's developer, Take Action Games, experienced a long and costly research phase because of the difficultly the creators faced in accessing criminalized people, especially those implicated in serious and highly newsworthy crimes. Beyond that, the process of building trust and comfort between criminalized youth and the game’s developers presented its own difficulties and implications for project timelines.

Interestingly, hidden perspectives do not only lie with marginalized groups and can be found among those who have a great deal of socio-political power, whose perspectives, understandings and actions may be clouded by anything from propaganda and mainstream mythology to the sheer complexity of what they do. Molleindustria’s Oiligarchy highlights oppressive practices of the oil industry by exploring a dominant perspective not often addressed in media, government, or policy development. Some may accuse the game of exaggerating the predatory intentions of the industry, but Oiligarchy’s depiction of the oppression and degradation that arise from oil addiction provokes players to reflect on a complicated and mystifying system, one with far-reaching but often hidden impacts on most peoples’ daily lives.

4. Marginalized Groups Guide Design and Development

Applied to games, anti-oppression entails looking to marginalized groups to guide the process of design and development. Mary Flanagan speaks to how the Tiltfactor Laboratory has created opportunities for marginalized students, designers, and collaborators to participate in game design and build games that better reflect their ideas and play preferences. Since anti-oppression is a power-sharing perspective, one that seeks to decrease the divide between those considered experts and those viewed as non-experts, it is essential that game makers provide opportunities for laypeople to contribute to a game’s development. The Grow-a-Game Cards make the specialized process of game development accessible and meaningful to people without game expertise. Global Kids’ community-based initiatives exemplify how game makers can engage marginalized people to lead the game design process. Some Global Kids initiatives transfer programming skills to young people who may not otherwise have access to them, allowing them to plan and build their own digital games and interactive experiences.

Of course, sharing programming skills cannot be undertaken lightly or quickly. It may require significant resources and time, and unexpected issues that directly relate to oppressions marginalized people face may arise. A telling example comes from Joseph, who says they did not have adequate time to support a young development team who wanted to find a less “black” name for a game character. The harms, pains, and internalized concerns that oppression creates in the lives of marginalized people reveal themselves in many ways. For people who do not experience the same oppressions, it can prove difficult to anticipate these concerns in the planning process. As a result, allowing for flexibility in time and resources to process these concerns proves essential to anti-oppressive game design.

Game makers can establish balanced partnerships with non-governmental organizations and groups who work to support and learn from diverse communities as a means to get guidance from marginalized people. The partnership between Take Action Games and METRAC was not only instrumental in accessing funding for RePlay/ReJourer, it also supported information-sharing between game developers, Ontario youth and violence prevention advocates.

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