Diverse and Inclusive Design: Making Games for and about Social Justice
Promoting games that center and embrace diversity can often be difficult, if not risky, to create, especially for those who hope to challenge systems of oppression in and around the medium. These efforts are further complicated by how terms like diversity and inclusion can become well-intentioned buzzwords, signaling care without a commitment to the actions and structural changes necessary for social justice. Even so, game studies scholars have repeatedly demonstrated how the unique, participatory quality of games can simulate alternative perspectives, interrogate the status quo, and support efforts for meaningful change (Shaw 2015, Mukherjee 2017, Murray 2018, Isbister 2018). As ADL Fellow Karen Schrier writes, “[Games] can enable players to experiment with their own or other’s identities, they can enable empathetic interactions with other players, and they can immerse players in new worlds, systems, and mindsets” (2019). Game designers have likewise recognized the radical potential of games to challenge hate, producing games that can prioritize difference and inclusivity.
When we released the call for diverse and inclusive games in early fall of 2019, we wanted to emphasize the importance of intersectionality in gaming and game scholarship, continuing the work of scholars such as Kishonna Gray, TreaAndrea Russworm, Elizabeth LaPensée and others by fostering a space for social justice games scholarship and game design. Since then, issues of race and justice have taken on renewed focus in United States politics and culture. Throughout the summer of 2020, we mourned and marched as Black Lives Matters protests erupted across the United States against police brutality inflicted on black and brown bodies. While the games in this issue do not necessarily take up the subject of Black identities or experiences, these issues weigh heavily on our minds.
Ongoing activism against racially-motivated violence and marginalization demonstrates the need for critical reflection on how we grapple with systemic injustice as educators, scholars, and designers. As game scholars, we recognize the unique potential of games to offer insightful criticism, imagine new systems and ways of relating to each other, and invite players to consider and experience marginalized perspectives. Games could be a vital and generative tool for social justice if they were motivated by active commitments to community engagement, marginalized peoples, and building more equitable worlds.
On a personal level, each of us comes to the issues of oppression, normativity, identity, and social justice from a variety of positionalities. Fighting for social justice in games and broader cultures requires an unwavering practice of self-reflexivity, considering where we stand in systems that privilege some while marginalizing and silencing others. We must become more aware of our own complicity in the same systems of oppression we struggle against. And, as Audre Lorde reminds us, we must not minimize or erase our differences, but rather seek new ways to respect, support, and center difference in our various struggles for liberation (Lorde 1984).
As scholars in the United States, we work within academies and research structures that have historically excluded entire peoples, cultures, epistemologies, and ways of knowing. As teachers, we participate in settler-colonial institutions while simultaneously attempting to open a space for justice. As game scholars and designers, we engage in a medium that has great potential for imagining and playing with other possible worlds, but that also has a culture of actively resisting changes in representation and attacking women, people of color, and queer folks who advocate for them. In these arenas and others, we are part of systems of oppression even as we seek to dismantle and transform them.
We offer these games and essays as examples of how we might encourage players to consider their own and others’ positionalities in rhetorically-situated contexts. Employing a multitude of play styles and design elements, the games in this issue of OneShot resist, challenge, and critique normative narratives and expectations. These games also demonstrate how we might use the medium to support education about marginalized identities, communities, and discourses; promote more inclusive and accessible spaces, both in and outside of games; and support civic engagement and social justice. In many ways, this issue is a waypoint of sorts––a series of games that suggest new ways we can use the medium to critically engage the world around us. We hope to see this area of scholarship and creation flourish and look forward to the day that we can just say ‘games’ and need not specify ‘inclusive.’
Games in this Issue
Complex representations of diverse gender identities and sexualities are rare finds in most media, but especially in games. Games have offered a handful of examples of bi and lesbian women, and even fewer oft bi or gay men. As a whole, we generally do not see many gender non-conforming or queer identities represented in games. As American mainstream culture becomes increasingly aware of the broad array of sexual and gender identities that exist and how these intersect with other aspects of our human selves, we turn to media to help us express and process what this means for us as individuals and as a society. Enter ACE Detective, by Emma Kostopolus and Brynn Fitzsimmons, one of this issue’s highlights. Made with Twine, this murder mystery puts players in the role of an asexual, aromantic detective trying to navigate the crimescene, the suspects—and her ex. The essay takes readers through the design process and some of the critical research perspectives underpinning the thinking behind this game. Kostopolus and Fitzsimmons—and the OneShot editors—hope that this game serves as a window into a life rarely depicted and opens the door for future games that explore the territory of sexual and gender identity.
We like to believe that if we had more control over the events in our lives or if we could revisit them again, things might turn out differently. Sara Lovett’s live-action role-playing game (LARP) of the Election 2016 explores the rhetorical positions of various stakeholders during the last weeks leading up to the 2016 United States presidential election, placing participants in the roles, not of the candidates themselves, but their campaign teams, media representatives, and constituents whose opinions will determine the election’s outcome. Role-played faithfully, the conflicting ideologies and priorities clash and make for frustrating, but illuminating gameplay and discussion.
Despite the apparent links between food and culture, many games neglect the possibility of using food representations to acknowledge and explore diversity. Sean Pauley’s Food for Thought challenges this design paradigm through its focus on dietary choices (or a lack thereof) in college dining halls. For Pauley, food is not just about taste, rather “what we eat can depend on an allergy or health-conscious choice, or can even reflect our values, religion, or cultural background.” Acknowledging diet as a “form of invisible diversity” exposed when we dine together, Pauley’s intentionally unbalanced card game uses simulation and roleplay to encourage empathy for its young adult characters as they confront institutional barriers to their dietary preferences and nutritional needs. Food for Thought depicts a diverse range of perspectives to advocate for more inclusive college dining meals that cater to a wider range of diets and bodies. The game also addresses problematic discourses about diet and body image, emphasizing the importance of nutrients in addition to caloric intake. In doing so, Food for Thought simultaneously illustrates how similar nutritional goals might be met through a diverse range of diets while highlighting the striking disparities in college students’ access to foods that can satisfy their unique dietary needs.
The tabletop game industry is feeling the pressure of continual public accounts of marginalized game designers mistreatment in the workplace. A Seat at the Table makes this issue explicit in the form of a fun, chaotic trading card game that emulates the fast-moving nature, tokenization, and exclusivity of publishing tactics in the industry. The authors pit publishers, forms of privilege, and four marginalized roles against one another in a fast grab trading game with the objective of collecting enough mechanics to make a game. While the marginalized roles have disadvantages, overall the game emphasizes unity amongst marginalized groups. This game was exciting to play with a larger group because those who had the marginalized cards quickly realized how this reflects the current state of the industry, which facilitated great conversations after the play session. Students and players frequently remarked on how the limitations of marginalized roles were frustrating and led them to carefully strategize with other players in these roles to beat the system. The relatively short playtime of this game makes it ideal for classroom and workshop settings, and it would make for a fun, generative addition to any game night.
Juan Llamas-Rodriguez’s The Sewer Transnationalists (TST) draws on the conventions of popular cooperative board games to model inadequate sewage disposal at the U.S.-Mexico border. The problem of sewage disposal at the international boundary is a complicated one that is defined by an array of factors including geography, industrial manufacturing, border policing, and more. Llamas-Rodriguez beautifully captures some of the complexity of this problem in the game’s design, which asks players to assume the roles of various stakeholders to address the sewage issue. TST encourages players to envision and collaboratively enact logistical solutions to the cross-border issue of waste disposal by collectively confronting several elements of the problem, such as resource allocation, geographical barriers, and infrastructural limitations. Moreover, the game asks players to think and reflect critically on the necessary conditions for finding and making real-world solutions possible. Gameplay in TST demonstrates that solving the crisis of sewage disposal at the border requires not only communal action but also a shift in perspective that emphasizes regional politics over national policies.
Juxtaposing the contrasting, yet similarly interpretive arts of computer programming and Tarot card reading, Hong-An (Ann) Wu’s Troubleshooting With Tarot is an experimental browser game that challenges normative expectations for the highly gendered of gaming, technologies, and Tarot reading. The game poses players the task of interpreting a Tarot card, rather than lines of code, to progress, all for the sake of problematizing the technologies, systems, and industries we take for granted or believe we cannot challenge. As she writes, it “is my gesture of queergaming aimed at resisting hegemonic narratives of technology and normative expectations about programming language literacy through playfully centering communities of Tarot practitioners that engages Tarot as a technology.”