An EXPersuasive on how inclusive design plays a much larger role in building games communities, not just games.
Inclusivity plays a major role in many different types of mediums and acts of life. It has both a large social significance as well as political significance. Back in 2013, Lars Nerback made a speech that spoke of how inclusive design is a series of choices. In games, it’s a way in which we design our games to include one another, yet also is the choices we make to deliberately exclude one another. The main purpose of his speech is to speak about how the design of games should be a conscientious design. Something that needs to be discussed within the industry is not only how inclusive design is part of the building of games, but also the building of communities. Games communities, what they are, and who they are made up of are a huge part of discussion in the last few years. Applying inclusive design to communities is essential for the growth of our communities to become more that just stigmatized, alien groups that fit within social stereotypes.
But before we delve any deeper, let me provide a bit of context to what I’m saying.
One of the things that I’ve been working on lately is working with MEGA (The Makers of Entertaining Games Association, the USC game design club) to think about what role they play fitting within USC Games program. They’ve recently been having a bit of identity crisis as they fill this role that’s both professional and social and everything in between. One day, they’re having internship lectures; the next, Smash Bros. tournaments and Retro Game Night. Not to say that having either of these types of events are wrong, but it has been an issue where knowing exactly how they should best serve the community and if they actually are succeeding in doing so has been of topic as of late.
So this writing really comes with two agendas: firstly, to answer their question and secondly, to tackle a much broader topic that is the reasoning behind my answer.
Over the course of my year at USC, I’ve learned quite a bit about the games industry that I wasn’t aware of in the past. In particular, the kinds of conversations going on in the games industry as of late and what kinds of developments are happening both in the AAA and indie spaces have been really interesting. After all, developments like Cuties Killing Video Games, GamerGate, and the continued rise of alternative crowdfunding platforms have all been happening in the last few years, amongst other things. Overall, I have a much larger understanding of the academic, political, and critical side of games and the games industry. (And also, a whole bunch of books and readings to add to my backlog of things to do!)
One of the topics that came up in my studies, both recently and significantly, was Lars Nerback’s ideas on “Inclusive Design”. In his 2013 talk, he discusses ways in which game design should include an active acknowledgement that all design is choice and that those choices should be conscientious. Game design should be a series of conscientious decisions that understand how it is inclusive and how it is not.
Inclusivity in games is such a broad and critical topic within the games industry, especially today. I doubt anyone would disagree with that. Hyper-masculinity, misogyny, depictions of race, class, sexuality and culture. They are on the forefront of pervasive conversations within the industry at this time. As they should be, as diversity is important. (Although, if you ask me it’s part of the problem. But that’s a topic for another day.)
Diversity and inclusivity are obviously not exclusive to the design of games, however. But I do think that a heavy amount of attention has been brought to how games themselves are inclusive/exclusive and a lot has been diverted away from how differences are sources for empowerment, not embarrassment and humiliation.
Pause for a second. I do want to say that this is highly varied. This idea that the games community is exclusive or alienating is not original. My prior examples of Cuties Killing Video Games and GamerGate are a testament to that. But I think that it’s really important to strike home, that playcentric design, what they teach at USC, is not exclusive to how we design games. Crafting experiences is simply that. Those experiences, however, can both be games, but they can also be events like parties and the sense of community.
These are experiences that we need to be conscientious about as well, because social boundaries, communities, and the political landscapes, of games and of not, are constructed. As constructions, they must require inclusive design as well. People that know me know that I harp on this a lot, but it’s something that I don’t see in all parts of the games industry. In particular, it’s been quite a problem at USC.
Now I’m not saying that the games program at USC is bad. In fact, I think that in a lot of ways, it succeeds. I probably wouldn’t be able to write these ideas that I’m exploring without USC. But, there has been recent skirmishes within the USC games community as to how people are represented within that community.
I will vehemently argue, however, that USC Games is not a community or if it is, it is failing as one. It has taken too much effort thus far into working as a source of brand, rather that community. I say this, not out of hatred or spite, but because I truly wish it was a community. I want it to become better. And I want all other games communities to understand that if we are truly to be communities, on every scale, large or small, we must become more conscientious of how we are designed as organizations.
I should elaborate. Let me preface, one last time, however. This stems from my wish to see the games community improve at USC and is merely a critique and advisement as to how I wish to see it change. But, it’s also a case study for those of other communities whom I hope can learn to understand community as constructed and ways in which to manage that kind of construction rather than do so in ways that are unaware of the consequences of its actions.
I digress. Part of the problem that I see within the USC games community is the inability to understand itself outside of itself in a larger frame of mind. Communities exist, not only as part of a larger world, but are interwoven and interconnected within it. Communities do not, and should not coexist. They should be woven as part of the same fabric.
(This is a bit of cosmopolitanism and interculturalism versus multiculturalism, but I’ll try not to delve too deep into that as that’s another topic for another day.)
The biggest failure I see within the USC games community is that it acts as an independent whose boundaries exist only around its programs. Unfortunately, this is largely a side effect of the fact that USC Games is both the name of the community, but also the name of the brand established by the faculty administration of a university. It’s still very much a school. Obviously, the main focus of the USC Games brand is the programs that the faculty are meant to administer and manage, specifically the IMGD and CS Games majors. However, if this fact should account for much of the problems within the program’s attempts to foster a community, then forgive me for being a little pessimistic about the abilities of the administration to actually do so. If this is indeed a community, that means it should stand beyond its roots and be representative of the group of people that are involved within it, not solely indicative of the program’s successfulness.
Not only that, but due to its nature serving its own programs, it alienates itself. The USC Games community is thought of as being composed of IMGD and CS Games. Sometimes, they will also include the Roski School of Art majors, and other School of Cinematic Arts majors like IML. This is where I feel inclusive design is not being administered.
The almost total disregard of other types of people and representation of those people is neither a conscience choice nor an ethical or logical choice. In the eyes of the USC Games community, if I was not considered to be an IMGD student outright through social perception (since I talk about games a lot and attend many of the events), I by definition of the program am neither important nor recognized. Just recently, I was accepted into the IMGD program as an official School of Cinematic Arts student, but up until then I was solely from the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences as a Narrative Studies major. Yet, although I have taken multiple IMGD courses, been an active participant in the community, and often speak in length about the program and its goals, I have not once, heard about Dornsife, the largest college on campus, included within discussion of the community. You will consistently hear about SCA and Viterbi, the engineering school, presence within the community and how the programs underneath each, IMGD and CS Games, need greater integration. But integration within the larger USC community, literally thousands of other students, is never emphasized.
This is why I don’t believe that USC Games is a community. A community should not consist merely of people who decided to base their life around an interest. It should include those that explore and in any form participate as well. Designers, artists, creators, academics, etc. that have a strong focus in games are not the only people who have an interest or stake in games. And when it comes to fostering community, it should be conscious of the need to be inclusive of those that are not necessarily devoted to the field.
A recently pervasive ideology within the games industry is the idea that being inclusive in games means understanding that games are for everyone. Games are ancient and pervasive within culture, even if the general public perhaps has a negative connotation associated with games and is not actively aware of its significance within society.
But, in response, alienating and serving a small group of people is just illogical. Especially when this group’s goal is to foster a wider understanding and appreciation for games as a practice and art to oppose these sentiments. Instead, USC Games should focus on how it can bring more people into its fold. How can other communities on campus interact with USC Games? How can we spark interest in its programs to those that have never considered games before? But most of all, how can enrich and establish a community that is both inclusive and empowered by the interaction with all types of people, even those that merely dabble within the art of games.
I always use the example of my roommate during this year to hit home what I mean. My roommate is a music producer. He is not a games music producer. He is interested in EDM and the music industry. Not the games industry. But when I asked him to make music for my second game jam game on campus, he did so with glee. Not only that, he offered to make music for my games in the future. Does this mean that he has a desire to make games or games music? No. He doesn’t. He wants to make music and for me, it just so happens that he can make it for games. But explain why someone like him is not a significant or recognized as a resource for the community. He is not the only one I know that has services to offer the games program. There are droves of writers, artists, musicians, psychologists, designers, architects, etc. that have skills that can be applied to games. Does this mean that they seek to find permanent places within the games community? Not necessarily. But they are an important part of the USC community, and they are an untapped resource for inspiration, ideas, and most of all, participation in games.
If games are for everyone, why are we not allowing everyone to be involved with games? Some of these people might even stay within the games industry. Some of these people might continue to work with people in the games industry. In order to foster a community, there must be diversity and agency within it. The part that infuriates me the most, is that I believe that the current state of affairs is not what those that currently participate in it desire from the community. I am not the only one who knows of people within the school who would love to participate within it, but fail to understand how they can participate within it. One of my personal friends merely thought that MEGA was a place where people played Super Smash Bros. She did not understand that it was made for the purpose of game design even.
Is that a result of failure to understand on her part? Perhaps, since I’m sure I’ve told her a million times that its a game design organization. But does that fault lie completely with her? No. It also falls on the so-called community’s failure to communicate with those outside of its core demographic.
Building communities is hard. It takes large amount of work, time and progress. But if games communities are to advance, they need to become more inclusive. Open discussions, beginner-friendly workshops, outward-facing transparency and branding. These type of events are necessary to create environments that are conducive and welcoming to others who wish to engage with the games community. Other types of events should showcase how games are a part of culture and engage outwardly. Games as a source of therapy such as MEGA’s Proteus-themed yoga sessions, or speakers who speak about how games technology can be leveraged in other industry like journalism or biomedical engineering. Games are more than just for entertainment, but are also a source of education, therapy, exercise, intellecutual stimulation, etc. If the games community can showcase how games interact beyond the games industry and show itself to be more than a type of entertainment, but instead as a pervasive, flexible, and diverse medium, the community can engage with a larger assortment of individuals. This kind of designed interaction is something that game designers both need and do for a living.
More specifically, games communities need inclusive design. As said before, inclusive design does consider exclusivity. There are many parts of the industry and of games that will be exclusive and unappealing to certain demographics of people. Consciousness of the decisions to foster community in ways that are exclusive is critical, however.
I would like to remind everyone that this is solely the opinion of a student of USC, and not indicative of the opinions of the program or the industry in which it prepares one for. They are my opinions alone, but I would hope that my voice is heard to some extent as a voice of critique and of good faith. I fully believe in the ability of the both USC Games and the larger games industry to grow and mature. But, the industry should be well designed, especially because it is a field of design.