INTERVIEW: Naomi Clark On Improving Humanity Through Gaming
GaymerX is a gaming convention that takes place every year in San Jose, CA. GaymerX is a “queer space”; a convention where panels center on queer themes, but all are invited and welcomed. Unicorn Booty is a proud media partner of GaymerX; to that end, we’ll be interviewing the Bosses Of Honor for this year’s convention.
Naomi Clark is a game designer and professor in Brooklyn — she’s even written a textbook on designing games! She works with the Brooklyn Game Ensemble, and was one of the designers of the 1999 viral hit game Sissyfight 2000. She also is involved with the Sylvia Rivera Law Project (a gender-expression advocacy group), designed the game Wonder City for PBS and created the card game Consentacle. You can find her on Twitter as @metasynthie.
Unicorn Booty: How did you first get into gaming?
Naomi Clark: I was really lucky in that I got two presents in the early ’80s that made me really excited about games. First, when I was five years old I was given a copy of the Basic Dungeons & Dragons set, from back when the game was split into “Basic” and “Advanced.” I played this game on the school bus without any dice or books, which mostly involved a lot of me saying “OK, what do you do now!?” to other kids.
A couple years later, my family decided to get an Apple computer, which was a really expensive investment back then. We didn’t really figure out its potential until my aunt, who was a bit of a software pirate, sent us two shoeboxes full of 5.25″ floppy disks. Most of those disks had games on them, and my father — who’d spent a year reading The Lord of the Rings to me — helped me play Wizardry, Ultima, Zork, and other ’80s classics.
There are people that argue that games are sex-neutral. What would you say to that and how does that relate to GaymerX?
I can understand why people would like to imagine that games don’t care about sex, or gender or orientation, but it’s mostly wishful thinking. Many games have this escapist quality, where they let you step outside of who you are for a little while. You’re embodied in a digital world as an avatar that might look nothing like you, or you’re role-playing as a character you’ve come up with, or you get to suspend ordinary social dynamics for a second and team up with your sister to deal a crushing blow to your father in Risk or Mario Party or whatever; you laugh and yell “in your face!” and nobody’s mad about it afterwards. That’s great, it’s healthy, and it can be a valuable form of relief for people who the world makes uncomfortable in various ways — if you’re uncomfortable in your skin, in the position you’re put in by society or your peers, etc. — even if it’s only temporary.
But alongside that, games have been turning into products designed and marketed with specific audiences in mind, for many decades. They’re made by all sorts of people, but every one of us is embedded in culture, raised with certain ideas about gender, working in communities and cultures and industries around producing games, and inevitably thinking about some people more than other people as our potential players.
I worked in the toy industry for years before devoting my career exclusively to games, and I saw the effect that gendered marketing has had there since the ’70s: So many toys are either for boys or for girls, and they’re marketed as such. Because so much of our cultural constructs of masculinity are about “not being girly,” the targeted content and presentation of toys for boys gradually become more and more macho (in a little kid way) throughout the ’70s and into the ’80s.
Then the same thing started to happen in video games as well: you can watch the shift in advertising. Along with a culture of creation that was very much about “I want to make the kinds of games that I want to play” shading into “I make games for people like me,” and a low percentage of women making games… well, everyone knows what the rest of the story is, and it’s not too far off of conventional wisdom.
Are there any video game abilities, like the fire flower or the portal gun, for instance, that you wish you could have in the real world?
I’m going to have to go with the ability to roll up everyone and everything — yes, everything — into a ball that grows larger and larger until it becomes a new star in the sky.
If games are art, what sort of power do they hold as cultural artifacts?
All forms of art have immense potential to express truths, to inform and enlighten, to move us emotionally and change the way we think. In many ways, games aren’t so different from other forms of art — I think different modes of expression shade into each other more than taxonomic boxes and product categories suggest — but as a loose class, they do work a little differently with our brains.
I think games are particularly good at exercising parts of our consciousness — our ability to make decisions, figure out how to reach our goals, or deal with situations where we can’t make decisions. Our capacity for active empathy, our ability to coordinate and communicate, even the way we reflect on our own mental processes — games can exercise these in different ways. Games are weirdly good at changing the way we think about or see things, too — I see more research studies on how games can do this every year.
The funny thing is, most of us who make games don’t consider how potentially powerful the things we’re making are in all sorts of ways — it’s a little scary, so we tend to focus on their ample capacity to entertain and delight. On the other hand, if we all just kept making and playing the exact same kinds of games, it’d be a little bit like only working out certain muscles in your body — like if you just pumped your left quad up to a ridiculous degree. I can’t help thinking about that when I see certain kinds of gameplay continuing to be popular for decades and decades, and it excites me when creators delve into new territory or twist up our very notions of games.
If you could live in any video game world, which one would it be and why?
A world I created myself! That’s the cool thing about being a game designer — it’s part of my responsibility and craft to imagine and bring worlds to life, whether they’re simple or rich. More and more I think about how we tend to make games with awful problems in them — dystopias, scenarios of danger and fear — and I understand why those can be challenging or exciting, of course, and sometimes even help us reflect on problems in our own lives and the rest of the world.
But I’m also working on trying to imagine and construct worlds that are just as interesting to play in, but express some kind of utopian vision of how the world could be at the same time. There’s something mysteriously sweet, refreshing and unique about games like Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing — they’re full of this particularly Japanese nostalgia for traditional life in a pastoral setting, but they point at lots of potential for games as well: What if the fantasy you were experiencing in a game was just one of how to lead a good life, and how to hold and sustain a world, a community, a setting that made a good life possible?
GX3: Everyone Games marks the third year of the GaymerX convention, a meeting of LGBTQ tabletop and console gamers with panels, meet-ups, parties and more! The convention takes place December 11 to 13 in San Jose, California. This year’s Bosses of Honor include RuPaul’s Drag Race alum Trixie Mattel, Mass Effect’s Jennifer Hale, and many, many more! Tickets are available at GaymerX.com.