The Centre of Excellence in Game Culture Studies has been working towards creating opportunities for inclusive game creation on three fronts:
- Lowering the threshold for participating in game creation (especially for marginalised groups);
- Making game developers and the general public more aware of different issues and imbalances (related to, for example, representation, sexism and racism) in game production;
- Creating and documenting best practices in an accessible fashion in partnership with the industry, institutions, and hobbyist communities.
CoE GameCult has approached this objective in close collaboration with various partners, including different types of game creators, educational institutions, activist groups, organisations, and researchers. The concrete means include organising game jams in educational contexts, researcher game jam participation and game creation, researching and interacting with the game industry and game creators outside the CoE, as well as various forms of public outreach.
Organising and participating in game jams for education and research
To introduce young people from different backgrounds to the possibilities, processes, and practices of game creation, CoE GameCult has organised game jams for students in general upper secondary education, vocational education, and university education.
In a CoE GameCult affiliated research project Growing Mind, the focus has been in developing game jams for Finnish 15–18-year-olds in general upper secondary education and vocational education. The primary goal of these game jams is to teach 21st century learning skills, such as meta skills, soft skills, epistemic flexibility, building self-esteem, and developing learning skills. Learning to make games is seen as a bonus.
In the Growing Mind game jam initiative, game jams are used to lower the barrier of entry into game creation, so that groups that do not necessarily represent the perceived core of game culture can have access and support in game creation. Special attention is paid to accessibility and gender equality, for example in terms of division of labour and the promotion of events. In an educational game jam organised at the Turun klassillinen Upper Secondary School, over a third of the participants identified as non-binary, concretely underlining the importance of an inclusivity-focused approach.
So far, the CoE researchers in Growing Mind have organised six game jams for young students in Helsinki, Tampere, and Turku, with a total of 90 participants. Over 20 games, both digital and analog, as well as game concepts, have been created in these events. One of the game jam events was an official part of the City of Helsinki Education Division’s curriculum planning work, providing young students with the opportunity to participate in the design of secondary education curriculum. The games created and designed by students have displayed a variety of themes and styles, ranging from new sports intended for PE classes to narrative games addressing issues such as student burnout and online hate.
Growing Mind game jamming. Photos by Riikka Aurava.
At Tampere University, CoE researchers have integrated game jamming as a didactic tool in game studies education to teach processes of game development from an applied angle. On the intermediate level course Game Project, for example, CoE researchers have used short-form game jam formats to immerse students in the practical dimension of game development. The aim has been both to develop the students’ own expertise and technical knowledge about the limitations and possibilities of game development and design, and to complement their critical-theoretical knowledge of game studies.
In the spring 2020 Game Project course, CoE researchers organised two game jams, one for board games and one for digital games made with Bitsy. In addition to the game jam games, the students also created 18 games in teams during the course. Within didactic setting, game jamming can have a validating effect, as it allows students to experience themselves as ‘game creators’ and thereby break down barriers and restrictive self-image. Especially marginalised (non-white, women, LGBTQ) students who are less represented in game culture tend to suffer from a negative self-image regarding STEM skills. Especially to those students, welcoming game jamming environments with accessible digital prototyping tools like Twine and Bitsy can have a positive effect on students’ self-image.
Board game fusion jam on Tampere University Game Project course. Photos by Usva Friman.
In addition to organising game jams and other game creation events in various educational environments, CoE GameCult researchers are also participating in these events as game creators (e.g. Quantum Game Jam 2019, Global Game Jam 2019, online Bitsy Game Jams on itch.io). Participating in and interacting with game creation communities is a central source for critical knowledge generation and impact for the CoE, allowing the researchers to dive into the practicalities, structures, and tools of current game creation practices, considering the material dimension of games in a critical way.
In their collaboration project ‘Design Bleed’, Sabine Harrer (CoE Game Cult) and Ida Toft (TAG, Concordia University Montreal) have developed a practice-oriented game jamming methodology for minority jammers. Based on auto-ethnographic data as attendants of several game jams in the Nordic region, they have developed a toolkit for game jammers on the margins of dominant game jam culture (PoC, female, non-binary, LGBTQ+). Beyond academic contexts, this study is aimed at providing practical tactics for inclusion based on feminist intersectional standpoint theory. Another approach to game jamming has been autoethnographic game creation, using ritual theory and therapeutic tools to create a game about the experience of pursuing an academic career (Sabine Harrer, CoE and Doris Rusch, Uppsala University, Sweden). This project uses the jam process and material affordances of the Bitsy game editor as a participatory research platform.
The CoE has also engaged in international collaboration through a European research network, COST Action INDCOR (Interactive Narrative Design for COmplexity Representations). In the spring 2020, the CoE participated in the planning and execution of the online game jam ComplexityJam with the COVID-19 crisis and complexity of representation as its themes.
Game industry collaboration and research
Researchers in CoE GameCult have been further developing game production studies as a key area of game scholarship due to its economic and cultural importance, but also with regards to the notion of ‘democratisation’ of game making and the precariousness of jobs in video game industries.
Several scholars within the CoE have previously collaborated with the local game industry for example in projects funded by Tekes: The Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation. CoE researchers also have previous and current representation in or collaborations with, for example, Neogames: The Hub of Finnish Game Industry, the International Game Developers Association’s (IGDA) local chapters, We in Games Finland ry, the Finnish Game Jam ry, and the Finnish Game Industry Harassment Task Force. CoE researchers are also active participants in the Jyväskylä game development ecosystem located at the Jyväskylä Digi & Game Center and managed by the local games cooperative Expa.
CoE researchers have a longstanding relationship with the Nordic and international live action role-playing scene as well. In this scene, which is centred around the annual Nordic event Knutepunkt, a thriving play and design tradition has emerged during the last two decades. This vibrant and expressive larp tradition has attracted the interest of game designers, game researchers, (immersive) theatre practitioners, experience designers, and other such actors in addition to larp creators from other traditions.
In various studies, CoE GameCult researchers have addressed the potentials and economic framings of independent game making (Tyni & Sotamaa 2019) and the local particularities and policies around game development (Sotamaa, Jørgensen & Sandqvist 2019; Sotamaa, in press). They have developed critical practices of curating and storing game heritage, taking into account diverse ways of game making and issues of accessibility and inclusivity, in collaboration with the Finnish Museum of Games (Nylund, Prax & Sotamaa 2020).
Olli Sotamaa and Jan Švelch have put together an edited collection Game Production Studies (forthcoming, Amsterdam University Press), providing a timely overview of issues in game production and setting agenda for more critical and inclusive approaches. The volume features both established and emerging scholars and covers areas ranging from sustainability of game labour, monetisation, to local specificities in game production.
The published study “Sustaining intangible heritage through video game storytelling – the case of the Sami Game Jam” (Laiti, Harrer, Uusiautti & Kultima 2020) investigates game jams as an important political instrument for Sami cultural revitalisation and empowerment. The study discusses possibilities of cross-cultural dialogue via game technologies and development processes, and games as inclusive technology for Indigenous perspectives and resistances against the status quo.
The ongoing collaborative book project Contesting Racism and Coloniality in Games Education by Leonardo Custódio and Sabine Harrer is creating an educational resource for teachers and students. It aims at illustrating how games reproduce and reinforce racist ideas, how to identify, contest and deconstruct racist discourses in games, and how to imagine and create respectful anti-racist games. The goal of this project is to provide educators with a tool for addressing the relationship between racism and games in (especially European) society. In Larp Design: Creating Role-Play Experiences (Koljonen et al., 2019), the accumulated design knowledge from the preceding two decades has been brought together in book form. The book covers the whole larp design process and also addresses questions of designing for children, queer and trans players, and intersectional identities. This project brought together more than 60 larp designers and researchers from ten countries. The finished product was published in conjunction with Knudepunkt 2019 to ensure that the work would feed back into the community fast and easily.
In addition to creating games, organising and participating in game creation events, interacting with the games industry and different types of game creation communities, and producing research related to all these perspectives, CoE GameCult researchers are also actively participating in the public discourse related to these topics.
The CoE researchers actively give invited talks, participate in discussion events, and offer media interviews related to their expertise. CoE GameCult also organises events aiming to spread research-based knowledge on inclusive game creation and other game cultural topics to the general public. In 2020, the CoE launched an event series GameCult Talks: Discussing games in culture and society. The first event, organised on the International Games Week, on Friday 13 November 2020, brought together CoE GameCult researchers, industry representatives, and community members to discuss the topic of Equity in games and play.
CoE GameCult’s work towards creating opportunities for inclusive game creation in the form of organising game jams has an impact on the students and teachers participating in the events, and, as game creation tools and events are adapted into educational settings as a result of these events, to the education sector more widely.
CoE GameCult researchers working on topics related to the game industry and the processes of game creation and game production are aiming to find more critical and inclusive approaches in terms of, for example, sustainable game labour and creating respectful anti-racist games. Individual studies and initiatives focusing on cultural accessibility of game creation, Indigenous digital game design, and anti-hegemonic, feminist game jam methodologies, have positive impacts on the position of marginalised groups within game creation cultures. The work on Nordic Larp aims for highlighting its cultural value by documenting and preserving, as well as for increasing the inclusivity of the Nordic Larp tradition.
CoE GameCult researchers also actively participate in and interact with various game creation events, communities, organisations, and public discussions related to them, further increasing the impact of this work.
Unintended positive impacts in this area include unexpected collaborations and networks outside of the fields of games and game studies, as well as using jamming as a tool for other things, such as academic paper jams, attracting participation in students otherwise unwilling to share their thoughts, and showing teachers and principals what the life of a high school student really is like. One unintended negative impact in this area is the gendered division of labour in the game research focusing on inclusivity. Even within CoE GameCult, much of this work is done by women and non-binary researchers. In the future, this should be critically reflected on an institutional level to increase accountability (see also: On Centering Excellence in Game Culture Studies, a Goodbye Letter).
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