Different Games conference gives voice to marginalized video game makers

Video game developers and academics are putting a spotlight on games that tackle subject matter left off the industry's main stage at the Different Games conference in Toronto.

'Fun, weird games' by LGBT, other underrepresented creators featured at Toronto gallery

Players knock zombie mannequin heads around to defeat enemies in the indie game Disco is Dead at the Different Games exhibit and conference in Toronto. (Jonathan Ore/CBC)

Headlines about video games usually highlight how big they have gotten in the last 20 years. Million dollar budgets, development teams of hundreds and sales totaling in the billions of dollars worldwide.

But on the other end of the spectrum, developers and academics are putting a spotlight on games tackling subject matter left off the industry's main stage.

Founded in 2013 with bases of operations in New York and Atlanta, the Different Games collective holds conferences and public events featuring games that have little in common with a summer blockbuster release like Call of Duty or Forza Horizon.

​"I was part of the New York indie games scene and was noticing a lot of issues, particularly around gender inclusion, but also just a lack of conversation around LGBTQ issues," said co-founder Sarah Schoemann. "The scene is very white, as it is predominantly in the industry as well, and so the conference sort of came out as a response to that."

Monster Girls Gayneration is a lesbian dating sim where the main characters are a wizard, a werewolf and a medusa. (Spooklight Games)

This year, the collective took its conference on the road, teaming up with Toronto's independent games community and other sponsors to bring it to OCAD University.

The selection of games available for the public to play at OCAD's McCaul Street gallery heavily feature games by "emerging voices and perspectives not typically supported by the commercial industry."

A Mortician's Tale puts the player in the role of a mortician preparing cadavers and consoling bereaved family members at a funeral home. Monster Girls Gayneration is a lesbian dating sim where your potential partners are wizards or werewolves.

Different Games members Sarah Schoemann, left, and Yifat Shaik helped bring their games exhibit and conference from New York and Atlanta to Toronto's OCAD University. (Jonathan Ore/CBC)

But there are also games that aren't immediately recognizable as so-called "diverse" games. Disco is Dead tasks players with knocking a zombie mannequin head to defeat enemies with Michael Jackson-like dance moves.

"It's not like a 'serious games' conference or a 'games for change' situation where, you know, everything is incredibly didactic and serious. There's a lot of fun, weird games that are going to up this weekend, and I think that's really important too," Schoemann said.

"I don't want to replicate 'white feminism' writ large, like, 'Let's have a women in games event!' because clearly the issue is deeper than that. There are men of colour that are affected [by the same factors] as well," Shoemann said. "The conversation is not around specific parties that feel excluded, but by having conversations about structural inequality in a larger way."

In other words: while many of the games and conference talks feature women, LGBT and other voices not often seen in the predominantly white or male Western games industry, no one is excluded from the party.

Niche becoming mainstream

Since Different Games was founded, discussions about diversity have slowly become more prominent in the wider games industry.

"The conversation that we were having seemed very niche at the time, has really been adopted and brought into much more mainstream conversations around games," Shoemann said.

Former Different Games members and associates have gone on to achieve wider success, such as Nina Freeman, maker of Cibele and How Do You Do It.

Freeman also hosted the 2017 BAFTA Game Awards, which awarded games writer and designer Brenda Romero a special achievement award to commemorate her decades-long career in the industry.

Players embalm cadavers and console bereaved family members in A Mortician's Tale. (Laundry Bear Games)

Big-budget mainstream games have slowly introduced more marquee titles with leading female characters, like Aloy in Horizon: Zero Dawn, or black men tackling racial or economic tensions in the U.S., like Lincoln Clay in Mafia 3or Marcus Holloway in Watch Dogs 2.

It hasn't been an easy ride, however.

Discussions about the proportion of women and people of colour in the games industry, as well as the general viability of those who are, continue. A recent Buzzfeed story interviewed several women in the industry who say they have been mistaken for "booth babes" at industry events, rather than fellow developers.

"The games industry suffers from a lot of problems that tech in general has, added with some of the problems the art world has," said Different Games member Yifat Shaik. "It's very hard if you're not a white male, and usually cis [cisgender] to survive in this industry, for various reasons."

"There's still a need to keep representing marginalized voices and under-represented people and identities in games. So the conference hasn't really stopped being needed," Schoemann said.