“So are you an artist?”
The question hung in the air, and a strange woman was waiting for my answer.
In early 2014, I went to Baby’s All Right, a rock venue in Brooklyn, to see Dragons of Zynth. After their set ended I found myself outside talking with fans and friends of the band. After trying to start up friendly conversation with the woman, I realized this was a make-or-break moment in the conversation. I mumbled something about how I was a game designer.
Her eye roll was the visual equivalent of a record scratch.
I tried to salvage the conversation with qualifiers like “Not those types of games” and I probably said something about the nature of “play” but to no avail. She asked if I made “apps” and the exchange painfully died.
When I meet people for the first time and I’m asked what I do for a living, especially when I’m at an artistic event, I get a little embarrassed. I usually waver between saying I am an artist who makes interactive projects and just flat out owning that I make games (although I don’t just make games). The reason for my irrational shame is both complicated and simple at the same time - culturally video games aren’t considered a worthy pursuit, artistically or professionally; a societal bias tends to paint games as less important or enriching than other interests.
My desire to work on video games as my medium of choice is only partly influenced by my childhood fascination with them. Even though I did love video games as a kid - my mom once told me I would reach out for arcade game cabinets as a baby - I didn’t really own a system capable of playing them until I was 12, and even still I didn’t see them as a definitive (or even possible) creative endeavor for most of my life. My interests lead me to drawing and writing comics and storybooks, eventually leading to type design for those book. My other creative outlets were writing short stories and poetry, making short films, and music.
I couldn't know back then how much that multidisciplinary arts background would set me up for my next career: making video games.
As a kid, video games tested my ability to control some part of a brightly colored surrealist world, punctuated by loud, repeating sound effects set to catchy music. It didn't matter whether I was jumping, shooting, sword fighting, otherwise, I was smitten with game play. But I related to games on a different level when I entered my teenage years.
In my adolescence, I often engaged with fiction that often dealt with inequality, mass abuse of power and struggles with identity. In school we were assigned Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, the classic 1976 novel by Mildred D. Taylor about racism in the south during the Depression. Enthralled by the story, I blew past the recommended class timeframe for reading the work. That novel lead me to seek out more dystopian texts like George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm. As an unusually cynical 13 year old, I loved all of those books, but it occurred to me I was merely a voyeur, passively watching as Cassie, Winston and Snowball - the protagonists of Roll of Thunder Hear my Cry, 1984 and Animal Farm respectively - were tossed around by the plot.
But this time in history was unique - a closer emphasis on narrative started to shape the world of interactive play. Off the page I was able to actively participate in world wide rebellions that took place in the Final Fantasy series of video games. Final Fantasy games were known as the premier series (at least in the West) of story rich games focused on character and mythology driven narratives that entwined technology and magic with a uniquely intricate, yet inviting, turn based system of planning attacks against all manner of soldier, creature and mythical being.
In the 1991 release of Final Fantasy IV (released in the US as Final Fantasy II), a knight named Cecil was banished from his kingdom after his feelings of remorse caused him to question his king’s motives for murdering entire villages to consolidate his power. In the course of the journey, the knight must confront a mountain full of trials and his own dark feelings in order to overcome his internal hatred and become a true hero. In 1994's Final Fantasy VI, the future the world rests on the shoulders of Terra, a legendary warrior born of a union between a godlike creature and a human mother. Terra's decisions will ultimately save or doom the efforts of a resistance to counter the empire she serves.
The stories crafted in these games tackled similar themes as the books I loved, but the interactive nature of the medium meant I could explore the world at my own pace and drive the story forward with my choices. The authored stories of Final Fantasy left enough space to allow the player to infer many things, but also provided striking visuals and an evocative score to guide the imagination.
The Final Fantasy series were not the only games beckoning me with fascinating and intelligent stories. I played Ogre Battle at the age of 13 - in 1995, it was a rare game which took me years to track down. After loading the game for the first time, I was asked a number of text questions at the onset by a wizard in order to determine my morality as a leader, including: “Fate can be cruel. If you could save only one person from the flames of a battle, who would it be?”
The answers were:
- “Your decrepit mother”
- “Your beautiful lover"
- "Your child”.
This type of question would throw most adults off their game. (Seriously, how do you even answer that?) Here I was, a kid struggling to answer questions that included the words “abdicate” or “expansionism” in the answers. As I thought about each question I was asked in Ogre Battle, I started thinking about my own morality, something the game would constantly challenge for the many hours that I played. I’d argue I was more challenged in that game than I would be in my sociology class in college.
What I learned from these experiences and hundreds more over the course of my gaming life is that video games are a powerful medium. Even if the stories weren’t always groundbreaking and introspective like Final Fantasy or Ogre Battle, the very act of interaction and play within a constructed world has always been a powerful device for involving the audience and invoking emotion in ways that more passive art forms like books and movies cannot.
As a teenager I wrestled with my identity, moved away from religion, and worked to understand the world better. To work through some of my own angst, I began working on a story about a character struggling to understand faith and betrayal, using a combination of different mythologies from every corner of society.
I began by writing my ideas down on paper but I felt more and more constricted. I began to feel that the only way to effectively convey a change in beliefs, a change in perspective, and ultimately prompt actual self reflection was to make my project into game in which players would be the ones who guided the hand of the lead character, and hopefully felt invested in their choices.
I eventually stumbled on NYU’s game studies program, which featured free lectures and opportunities to meet game developers like Anna Anthropy, Naomi Clark, Frank Lantz and Eric Zimmerman. These luminaries had been thinking about the importance of video games as a medium for quite some time, and battled preconceived notions in order to continually challenge the idea of what games are. Attending these events lead to me finding other spaces, like Babycastles, a space for connecting game developers with the greater art community and Indiecade, an independent games festival.
Attending lectures, meeting designers and artists, engaging in conversation and seeing a more alternative side of video games helped me expand my vocabulary about what makes games important and also reinforced that they were in fact a valuable medium. The concept of “play” came into discussion a lot, that people have been playing games for thousands of years, with the oldest Checker like game being almost 6000 years old. Video games are just the next frontier of play that has been so integral to our lives and society as a whole.
It isn't that video games are perfect - there are a multitude of problems in our industry, just like the ones that plague book publishing and Hollywood. Some are fundamental disagreements about game design and the future of the medium. There is a tyranny of "fun," where games are seen as being a bad medium to tackle difficult or hard to stomach subjects in a way that provokes emotions like sadness or grief. If a creator tries to redefine the form, the more vocal game fans on blogs and online are known to viciously badger those people (especially if they are women). The dark side of gaming fandom includes threats, releasing private information like addresses and social security numbers, and other types of menacing behavior.
Video games also have a problem with ethnic diversity. Even with the growth of the amount of creators in the video games space, there is still a marked lack of black and brown people making games. In a 2014 study by the International Game Developers Association, with around 2,000 respondents, only 2.5% identified as “African or African American” compared to 79% who identified as Caucasian.
Changing this dynamic starts with me.
My latest game is called Treachery in Beatdown City. Starring multiple minority characters with positive, atypical backgrounds (like a Puerto Rican woman training to be an MMA fighter while also going to school for forensic science), Beatdown City is an old school style fighting game, kind of like Punch Out meets Double Dragon. Traveling through a fictional New York City, your characters have to fight various archetypes of people like the gentrifying drunken socialite, protected by a privatized police officer wielding mustard spray, or a cowardly punk wearing an expensive leather jacket who can’t figure out if he needs money for more studs on his jacket, or to feed his dog.
Going back to tropes, the game also has cyborgs and ninjas, because…well, because. Ha!
I'm lucky enough to have gained some success in the industry so I use my platform to discuss what is going on in video games. I speak out against the lack of black and brown voices, as well as the lack of women, in this space. I have given talks around the country (and a couple internationally) at events such as SXSW, and the aforementioned GDC about the need to grow and diversify the culture and ethnic backgrounds of those who create video games, and of the characters we portray in them.
Video games aren’t some weird hobby for outcasts; they are a part of our collective culture. My embarrassment is kind of foolish in hindsight. The question is not "why do I make games?"
The real question is "why don't more people make games?"
Shawn Alexander Allen is a visual artist, writer, game maker, aspiring activist, mildly obsessed with the internet culture critic, speaker, thinker, RBG (hell yeah).