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I Am a Gamer: Jamming to develop a video game with a strong female lead

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I want to caution everyone against rushing to point the finger at external sources of sexism. When we do we miss the opportunity to look within and see how we maybe unconsciously contributing ourselves. It’s easier (myself included) to point fingers at other folks than it is to look inside. That’s the hard work.… but the very fact you’re jamming this weekend says that you’re not afraid of that.

[...]
Why do I need to do this jam?

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Because I look at a woman and assume she’s an artist, not a programmer, for no good reason. I assume that’s what people think of me, so I don’t tell people I’m an artist. I say I’m a developer. Both are true, but I’m ashamed to say only one makes me feel worthy. That’s why I need do this jam.

[...]

Because I’m not a game developer. I’ve made lots of games, and helped people with many more, yet I’m too scared to publish. Because if you catch me late at night, after a couple drinks, I’ll tell you that I’m not good enough. And then I might quietly whisper, “… because I’m a girl.” That’s why I need to do this jam.

Gamers unite

I mentioned a fanfiction a friend read about a Harry Potter universe where Harry was not raised by his awful uncle and aunt. He was raised by his parents who were scientists. He goes to Hogwarts and his struggle is the choice between magic and science.

Phil started to throw in ideas of how the innocent girl could be an alchemist, who made traps and special items in the game. Matthew added some level design ideas as well, that the girls could collect respective items for their abilities while trying to survive. Laurel agreed with the idea of science and magic embodied in the two characters, and we asked where she wanted to go with the art style as it would be a top down, Zelda-esque adventure, horror game. I love Laurel's choice to have Oriana be a woman of colour, because their representation in video games is woefully low.

We eventually came down to a title for our game. We didn't want something too literal, a Latin named seemed confusing and too serious for our style, and we wanted something abstract. Laurel suggested we look into the Salem Witch Trials. I went off in many directions with this research, but came to the Malleus Maleficarum, which was a document used to prosecute witches. The German name for this was "Der Hexenhammer". I kinda just blurted out Hex was a cool word, and after being discussed throughout the group, we chose "Hex" as a title. We scoped the story as well, to fit in the gameplay a lot better and to deal with the time constraint.

This was generally how we worked together. An idea would be raised and circulated amongst us, all with different design intentions, so we had a full-bodied eye on the ideas we shared. Our communication was top notch, so even in moments of confusion, we quickly helped each other out. In moments of extreme progress, I think we tamely cheered for each other, when I know a whole marching band was going on inside ourselves.

Though, Friday night, I isolated myself and began writing the script. A big challenge for me was that I did not know what the levels were like yet, and furthermore, that the game finished whenever the user beat the monster. So I could not have a plot driven story, which would penalize the player by not allowing them to see the main bits of the story if they kill the monster early on.

Girl talk?

I am a big fan of the Bechdel test. The test has three questions to see if a movie or game is sexist or not: 1) Are there two women and do they have names? 2) Do they talk to each other? 3) Do they talk to each other about something more than a man?

If the movie Machete can pass the test, masculinity won't disappear if we apply this. I still believe the Bechdel test has its flaws. One quick flaw I can point out: women can talk about other things than men in movies, but it is still gosh-awful stupid. (See: dieting, other girls being bitches, babies, shoes, cleaning... you get the point.) But really a theory having flaws should not be the end all to applying the theory in action. The designer just has to be aware of what those flaws are if they use the theory.

I wanted the girls to be fascinated by each other at first, then hesitant, then frustrated and question each other, but then go into a phase of trusting each other and then going back to normal banter. This to me seemed perfect, because, say the player beat the monster during the frustrated moments, the ending could seem like a good end to an argument. During the moments of hesitation, maybe the future of their friendship is just a cordial one.

Another big influence on the story was Cat's Eye by Magaret Atwood. When I first read it, it was blown away. I wanted to read more about how imperfect yet cohesive female friendships were.

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