Riot Grrrl Game Design
This is a non-verbatim version of the talk I gave for the Influences panel at Indiecade 2015. Many thanks to Modern Girl Blitz for the riot grrrl images.
I remember cheering when I got the email asking me to talk about my influences at Indiecade. Not just because it’s a rad group of people and an excellent opportunity, which it is. It’s that a lot of the time, if you’re a member of a group that’s underrepresented in games, you just get asked about being part of that underrepresented group. You can only get asked “so, what’s it like to be a woman in games?” so many times before you starts to die a little inside.
I’m sort of exaggerating. I did a lot of activism work, and sought out a lot of opportunities to talk about exactly that. That kind of work is important, and I’m glad to have done it, but… it can be a little bit frustrating. Focusing just on “so how hard do you have it????” glosses over the fact that you are also making art. It leaves less room for you to talk about your art, to publicize your art, to tell people why they might like it and why they might connect.
And this really sucks because if you’re an underrepresented person making art, you likely have an audience of people, just like you, who are desperate to see media that speaks to them. Representation is important for sure — there’s nothing like seeing someone like you, doing the thing you want to do, to make you feel like you can do it too — but playing an experience that speaks to your gut on something beyond that intellectual level is the kind of thing that really affects people deep down, that gets them right in the heart. This kind of communication expresses something you didn’t even realize you were locking up in the first place.
I’ll tell you about the thing that did that for me in a minute.
The worst game I ever designed
First I want to talk about the worst game I ever made.
If you ask me when I first started being a game developer, I’d either tell you it was when I was 17 and interning at gameLab, or 22 when I started getting into the indie scene in NYC. But really I had a long history of game development before that.
The game I most clearly remember is also the worst game I ever made, which in retrospect I’ll call Face Smush. Here’s how you play Face Smush:
- You take your hands and you try to get your face to have the same features and proportions that more objectively beautiful faces have, like models or the girls in your class who keep trying to chase you down, armed with makeup brushes, convinced they’re doing you a favor.
- For challenge mode, you can try to play Body Smush at the same time, where you use your elbows and your muscles and your contortions to make your body look smaller, more delicate, to make it take up less space.
- The win condition: hold as many of these things in place for the rest of your life.
It’s not really the kind of game you can win.
I played this game a lot, too often. And it wasn’t because I had a bad life growing up. I had a family that was super supportive, full of people who took zero guff and apologized for nothing and always told me I was beautiful. But that messaging still seeps in from everywhere. And I don’t just mean advertising — I mean seeing the way that the world treats loud girls, chubby girls, girls who don’t perform femme in the “right” way.
I would try and try to get it right and feel less and less real as I screwed it up. I hated it, but it was hard to see any other options, hard to imagine any other way out.
A series of revelations
I don’t know what changed, but one day I had a series of revelations.
- I knew I didn’t meet any of these standards set for women, but all of a sudden I realized that I had *never* seen anyone who actually did. Even the actresses and models who were unquestionably flawless could have their status as Correct Girl revoked at any time. No one could truly win.
- If no one could ever truly win, it meant there was barely a point in trying — the people making up the rules were talking out of their ass and would change them and make exceptions arbitrarily.
- If those people were talking out of their ass and making up their own rules, there’s no reason I couldn’t just go ahead and make up my *own* rules — sure, mine might not win in the end, but they would at least be a respite from all this other garbage.
- If I can make my own rules, I can value whatever the hell I want! My rules can be all about loving my curves, my too-big nose, my goofy face, my habit of taking up too much space. They can value the things that other people would find weird or awkward or too much.
- If I’m already stoked about making my own spaces where I can value those things about myself, then others must want to have those same spaces created for them.
- If I can make situations that make people feel like they have a moment where they can embrace and love their messiness, I should do it!
So I had this series of revelations, and I was totally drunk off it — it felt like my world was shaken up in this fundamental way, like there was this whole new path I hadn’t seen before.
At the same time, though, I didn’t totally know what to do with it. It felt like it had all come to me a priori, disconnected from anyone else in the world, so I couldn’t link it back to any community or scene. The closest thing I could think of were the punk and culture jamming scenes, but those things didn’t ever quite connect with the issues (the misogyny, though I didn’t know the word yet) that was gnawing away at my gut.
And then I discovered riot grrrl.
What a mind-blowing experience.
It was totally transformative for me to come across women making this kind of art — art for each other, art that challenged the norms around them, art that was specifically about being loud, taking up space, and supporting each other. This was absolutely bonkers for a girl who had a lot of internalized self-hatred. The default status didn’t have to be hating yourself! And in unlearning that, you could lean on other people who had created art about exactly your situation.
To be fair, I was riot grrrl’s target demo if there ever was one. Riot grrrl, even for all its progressive views, still had built-in racism, classism, and transphobia that went unchallenged. It’s important for us not to forget that in the alluring haze of our nostalgia. At the time, though, it gave voice to this set of emotions that I didn’t know how to process, and these values that I didn’t know how to articulate.
The riot grrrl manifesto in particular hypnotized me. “Because we will never meet the hierarchical standards of talented or cool, they are created to keep us out and if we ever meet them they will change” — the start of my original set of revelations. “Because we girls want to create mediums that speak to us.” “Because every time we get anything done, we are creating the revolution.” And maybe the most important one: “Because I need laughter and I need girl love.”
Seeing these women — from the rockstars to the small zine-makers — try to cultivate these these things made me realize I needed to do it too.
I kept wondering: how did these riot grrrl ideas combine with my previous revelations? How could I mash them up? What would a riot grrrl game look like?
Riot grrrl game design
This question nagged at me all throughout college, into law school, out of law school a year later, and finally into design school and the indie scene. I wanted to take the things about the genre that I found so transformative and start applying their ideas directly to the mechanics of games, so I started building things that played with these ideas.
My practice focused, and indeed continues to focus, on:
- Deliberate messiness
- Cultivating expressive spaces
- Cultivating relationships through art, not just relationships to art (a la relational aesthetics)
- Communicating with my audience directly, not trying to use mechanics to explain them to anyone else
There are two games I made that express these values the best.
Scream ’Em Up
SEU is a 2 player knockoff of Space Invaders, but with 2 crucial differences. Your ship is controlled by the kinect, so in order to move, you need to run laterally. And your gun is controlled by a mic in your hand, which you have to scream into as loud as you can. Here’s a video.
The thing about win conditions in games is that they justify the most ridiculous behavior used to achieve them. That meant I could create an environment and a set of rules where you were required to be loud and messy and take up spaec and justify it by being a game. I coul take something that I felt self-conscious about and literally translate it into a game mechanic, giving me — and other folks — a release valve and a place to explore this kind of expression.
I watched players like a hawk. I was originally really worried that it would only attract loud, manspread-y dudes. But a steady flow of neat, normal looking, quiet girls started to come by and play it. After the game they no longer looked neat and normal — they looked feral, voices hoarse, bodies sweaty, laughing loudly with this glint in their eye like by letting loose they had noticed a part of themselves that they hadn’t noticed in a while.
I hope they took that with them.
Slam City Oracles
The thing about installation games is that they require the most amount of work for the fewest people reached. The rat’s nest of code and cables required to run SEU meant that I had to be there, every time, the whole time. Despite showing it a bunch, probably less than five hundred people were ever able to play it.
This, to me, felt like a shame. I was always happy when even just one person connected with something I made, but I envied my friends who could release work into the world, to be consumed by someone else at their own pace and on their own time. Plus, it felt more zine-like to do it that way — I could release something super-personal and spread it out without having to be there all the time.
So when I was commissioned for 2014’s No Quarter, I decided to give a distributable game a shot. But not just any distributable game — a game that would be infused, from top to bottom, production to mechanic, with this riot grrrl ethic. How far could I push it?
Slam City Oracles is like Katamari Damacy plus GTA. You and your friend have 2 minutes to create as much chaos as possible. You create chaos by slamming your body into the ground. The force bounces you higher and sets objects spinning and soaring. The higher you start, the harder you slam. There are only women characters, and indeed Team SCO (me for design and programming, Jenny Jiao Hsia for art, and Scully for the music) ended up being overwhelmingly female. I like to say that I got NYU to give a woman money to give other women money to make a game about women (I love you, Game Center).
Again, I knew I wanted to make a win condition that valued the things I wanted to value: girls literally taking up as much space as possible and not caring about anything. It was also very much inspired by the feelings of loneliness and vulnerability I had from being a woman in games, which can be tough work. SCO is a game in which women are invincible and all-powerful, who exist only to delight and impress and dazzle each other.
At the same time, I also made a really conscious decision that I didn’t want this game to be me explaining my experiences to anyone else. My first No Quarter prototype was a prototype of Face Smush, but it just made me feel too empty — not because it was sad (I love sad stuff), but because what my soul needed at that moment wasn’t to explain myself, but to connect on this level and through this joy with other women. I wanted me and my P2 to be able to acknowledge some of the sad inspiration behind the game and then slam around and laugh and show off for each other and leave the game giggling and high-fiving.
People sometimes laugh at me when I say that SCO is a very personal game, and I think that’s because we have a very limited perception of what a personal game is. Somehow the field has defined it as something that’s autobiographical, sad, and that explains and educates about a particular kind of trauma by mapping it onto a system, making it understandable to outsiders.
These games are super important, and I’m glad people are making them. But it feels weird to limit our definition to that, if only because it means that a personal game must always be about making something legible to outsiders — which feels like the opposite of personal to me. I didn’t want to make a game that was literally explaining the stress I’d felt as a kid, screwed up over body image and being good enough, or about being an adult who felt lonely and anxious in her field — I wanted to make the media that I needed to push through it. And I wanted to make that media for other people too.
Riot grrrl not only spoke to me in terms of the experiences it was relaying: it also spoke to me in the way it focused on its audience. It created a space for joy and solidarity. It wasn’t super concerned with explaining the patriarchy to outsiders, it was concerned with ripping it apart with power chords at a concert so we could dance it out of our systems. Explanatory, educational media couldn’t have done that for me: I needed the joy, the space to create that temporary utopia.
Sometimes the defintion of personal games feels like it cuts off that ability for us to make joyful spaces for each other in our own language. To be labeled a “personal game,” we have to be educating or autobiographical in a way that outsiders can parse. I don’t like being coerced into that corner when I don’t want to be.
For that reason, I personally shy away from making any game that explains itself too clearly. If I could make someone understand the game perfectly just by telling them about it, I tend to let it go. It’s a bit of a risky move, but it creates these scenarios where 70% of the time, people will go “cool, that was fun” and walk away unchanged, and 30% of the time, people — usually women — will run up and hug me and grab my shoulders and tell me how much they LOVED it, and ask where they can get a copy for themselves and their daughters and their nieces, even if they can’t explain why. It’s a sort of glint that makes me feel like I was able to share one of those moments with them that riot grrrl let me have with other women and myself.
And that’s pretty much when I know I’ve done something right.
You can view the original post on my blog here.