During CoNZealand, a group of fans put together a set of panels, which took place outside convention hours, which would be available for free via Youtube and offer a taster of the Worldcon experience to those unable to participate in CoNZealand's programming hours, or hadn't bought a membership but were interested in the kind of content provided. The result was a set of 15 panels over 6 days, archived and available for all at www.conzealandfringe.com.
As a fringe event in the tradition of Edinburgh Fringe and other international collateral events, CoNZealand Fringe was conducted entirely outside core programming hours and spaces, and panels were not official CoNZealand programming. CoNZealand Fringe is not endorsed by CoNZealand.
Nerds of a Feather, Flock Together is pleased to host the transcripts of CoNZealand Fringe panels for fans who are unable to watch the videos or prefer a written format. This is the transcript for Worlds that Breathe: Interactive Worldbuilding for Games, which ran on Thursday 30 July 2020 at 8pm BST/3pm EDT/12pm PDT/7am NZST (next day) and is available here. Other panel transcripts are available via our transcript hub.
Worlds that Breathe: Interactive Worldbuilding for Games
Panel Description: Games like Horizon Zero Dawn, Dark Souls, Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and Dragon Age immerse us in rich, interactive worlds. What makes worldbuilding in games unique and challenging when players can interact, explore, and miss things? How do game creators balance storytelling with the world itself needing to be a legible interface? How are players influenced to explore or ignore? How do biases on the part of the creators limit worldbuilding, and conversely, how do fans react to them?
Host and Moderator: Noria @Noriareads (she/her)
Panellists: Helen Gould (she/her), Avery Delany (they/them), Tanya DePass (she/her), Elsa Sjunneson (she/her)
NORIA: It’ll take its time, and all of a sudden we’ll probably be live. Aha, we are live! [Audio echoes] Ooo, I think…
NORIA: [With echo] Okay, hello everybody! Can everybody hear me? I think that the disturbance at my end has just tripled.
AVERY: I can hear you okay.
NORIA: [With echo] But I think I’m still audible, so fingers crossed! Okay, okay. People are dripping in, so...
[Pop-up from Zalia Chimera: Hi!!!]
HELEN: Aww, hi! [Waves]
NORIA: Hi Zalia, hi!
NORIA: Hello, welcome everybody! My name is Noria, you’re on my channel, NoriaReads, I read books, but I also play a lot of video games, and I’ve been saying that for quite a while. So when it was I got the chance to host this panel, where we talk about interactive worldbuilding in games, I knew I had to – oh, there is an echo. Yes, thanks, WordsinInk. I have no idea where the echo is coming from, because I have tried restarting but it’s still being the same. I am hoping that when I’m done with my intro and I mute, it might help with the discussion. Okay, so, as I was saying, when I got the opportunity to host this panel, talking about interactive bodybuilding in games, I knew I wanted to moderate, and I got the opportunity to do so! I guess before we go into the nitty-gritty of it, I would have my panelists introduce themselves first. So who wants to go first?
TANYA: I like how none of us talk, I’ll go first [All laugh]. Hi, my name’s Tanya DePass, if you’ve seen #INeedDiverseGames anywhere, that is me being angry on the internet about video games, and tabletop as well. What you might have seen me doing is a lot of tabletop development, a lot of tabletop writing, I’m on an Actual Play show called Rivals of Waterdeep that is on Sundays, 10am Pacific US time, 12pm central, and I do a lot of writing and yelling on the internet about diversity and inclusion, and since there was a Polygon article about it, I’m part of the group of people that got the Diana Jones award for Black Excellence in Gaming in the RPG space, so I’m an award winner, I guess!
[NORIA drops out]
HELEN: [Claps, then gasps] Oh, she’s gone again
TANYA: Oh no, does that mean the thing’s stopped?
AVERY: No no, we’re still going.
ELSA: No, we’re still live.
TANYA: Oh dear, who wants to go next? [crosstalk]
HELEN: Just introducing ourselves.
AVERY: – introducing ourselves. She’ll pop back. I’ll go next, my name is Avery Delany, I am a PhD student in the UK, in the department of anthropology, and my PhD looks at single-player science fiction video games, specifically looking at how video games construct and negotiate aspects of personhood, and what kind of real life concepts, historically, socially and culturally, those constructions of artificial intelligence specifically draw upon. I’m also a co-director of the London Science Fiction Research Community, so if anyone’s interested in joining us, we do monthly book readings, and we have an academic conference coming up. And if anyone wants to talk more about artificial intelligence and contribute to research, I’m doing my fieldwork, so feel free to reach out to me.
HELEN: I’ll go next, if that’s okay. I’m Helen Gould, I am a sensitivity consultant and editor, focusing on fiction and tabletop role-playing games. I also perform on the RustyQuill gaming podcast as a massive orc paladin, and you can find me over on twitter over at @Alecto101.
ELSA: Hi, I’ll go next. My name is Elsa Sjunneson, and I am a deafblind game designer, writer, and editor. I was nominated this year for the Nebula for Best Game Writing, for the Fate Accessibility Toolkit, along with my team. Fate Accessibility Toolkit is the first handbook of its kind to write about how to include disabled people in your game design, but also how to play disabled characters in the Fate system. I’ve also done a lot of yelling on the internet, you can find me @SnarkBat basically everywhere. I am also the editor of Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction’s non-fiction section, and I’ve been doing a thing called Blind Lady Versus for a while, which is where I tweet about what it’s like to play videogames as a deafblind person. The last thing I’ll mention is my article that came out last year on Assassins Creed Odyssey, and what it’s like to see my blind eye, and ocular prostheses used as goal – little tool things you want to steal, in a video game, and why that’s hard to watch.
NORIA: Thank you so much, Elsa. I think that now that we are done with the introductions, and you have mentioned Assassins Creed Odyssey, because we were talking about it offline, it got me, of course I think it’s a perfect way to start the first topic of discussion, that I would like us to approach today, which has to do with – the core of what we are here about. We’re talking about today worldbuilding, and creating an immersive experience for people who are playing videogames. My question is: at what point does a game’s worldbuilding become too much, at what point is it just right? And I love that you mention Assassins Creed Odyssey, because I have been playing that game for a lot of hours, and it seems like it’s never going to end. Every single time I think that okay, I have resolved the main mission, there is still something else, there is still some more of the world to explore. So, I guess that’s the first point of question for me: how do you know when the worldbuilding is just right and appropriate enough, to be engaging and intriguing to the gamer? So that’s my first question.
ELSA: I guess I’ll start. I think one of the things that’s important in any project that is fiction, is making sure that your world is believable. And what I mean by that is that, you have to be able to immerse yourself enough that when you look around, you feel like somebody has thought of things. But on the other hand, if it gets to be too much, it’s when you start to see, oh wow, you developed an entire system of currency? Sometimes that’s cool, sometimes it’s too much, it depends on the setting that you’re going for. In Andrea Phillips’s Serial Box project Alternis, they actually go into detail about some of the worldbuilding as a fictional plot device, and this book is basically a game that people play in alternate reality, and it’s how we negotiate world conflict. So in that particular setting, it is interesting to the reader and the viewer, of how the game gets made, as an example. There’s a very funny moment involving petting sheep to get points, and if you’re a gamer, you hear that and you start laughing, because you’re like, ah yes, it’s the thing that you get for trying to build your character up and up and up, and you get points for these things and then you get to level. If all of the things that you level on are too many options, that can make your player confused. So I think it’s about balancing that confusion versus that immersion.
AVERY: Yeah, I’ll jump in next, because one of the games that I was thinking about when I was preparing for today was something that has really interesting worldbuilding elements, but then those worldbuilding elements kind of break the game mechanism to the point where it becomes unenjoyable, and actually unplayable at points. So there’s an indie game called Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, and basically as you go around you tell stories via a form of tarot cards, those stories then get told and they spread around America, and they evolve, and they change the legends and the lore of America. And I thought that was really interesting, I love the storytelling mechanism, how it makes the world grow, but at a certain point within the game, that worldbuilding aspect actually seems to just completely disrupt what was previously enjoyable, to the point where you’re literally just going around grinding, over and over and over again, and at that point I just stopped playing the game, and I never finished it. So that’s an example of where something was actually really enjoyable, but when it wasn’t operating within parameters, it got too much for me as a player. And I was also saying to Noria at the beginning, I also have a little bit of a thing around games that for me feel too big, like the world is too big, the quests go on for too long, and suddenly you’re 150, 200 hours into a game. And if I’ve got a lot of different games I want to play, I don’t have over 100 hours to devote to every single game I want to play. So it’s also looking at, well how can you do worldbuilding when you’re not relying on this massive open world.
TANYA: Yeah, I was thinking about Skyrim as you were talking, Avery, because I have never finished a game of Skyrim. I actually streamed it about a week ago, and I logged in, and I was like, I don’t know where I’m at, what I was doing, there are people chasing me, I talked to a random NPC and now I’ve got like ten more quests. And it’s just like, what am I doing? In Assassin’s Creed Odyssey I put in probably about 200 hours. I’m still not done. I don’t think I’ll ever finish this game, because every time I turn around there’s yet another sidequest, or I find a thing I didn’t find before. So worldbuilding is a lot of things – and it’s harder with a videogame than with an RPG, the RPG it’s all up to discretion of the players and the DM – you can have things like, does your character care about food? Does your character care about culture, and things like that? Or, with a videogame, you have a finite amount of places you can go, constraints and boundaries, but as games get bigger and bigger and bigger, and our time gets less and less and less, I feel like there’s not enough attention to detail of, what do I care about? And granted, that’s subjective, everyone’s going to care about different things in a game – like something that I get really into and nerdy about is housing and game economy, but Elsa – you may be like, I don’t care about this economy, screw the game economy! I just want to finish the game, because I have finite time! And it just feels like, it’s so hard to strike a balance of what every player will want, and just finding that middle ground where people will be happy with it. But as we all know, gamers are something else, and they’re never happy with everything, or anything in some cases. And for me it’s just – Skyrim, The Witcher 3, I love the Witcher 3 but again, talking to an NPC should not generate a quest every single time I talk to them. “Oh this cat is lost, go find it!” I don’t care about this cat right now, I’ve got a dragon to go kill! Or I can’t get from point A to point B without my horse running away or a dragon showing up. So there are things where - every moment of every game does not need to be stuffed with action, with another quest, because a lot of those quests mean nothing in the end of it. There are things in the Witcher, if you don’t cure the young lady in the beginning of the game, she dies from the creature biting her. That makes sense, there’s a consequence. But most of these quests in a lot of these games are like, eh I didn’t pick these twenty berries, but nobody’s going to die. We don’t need filler, we need contextual things that make a difference to me, and make a difference to the story. If that makes sense.
HELEN: It absolutely does.
ELSA: I want to hop in on Skyrim for a second, because I played that game for, I would say maybe 30 hours, and then all of a sudden out of nowhere, there are werewolves?! That’s too much worldbuilding, if you suddenly discover that there is a supernatural component that you had no idea existed. Because I would have gone straight for the werewolves if I’d known they existed ten hours earlier.
HELEN: I think that what all of us are touching on, is this thing where I feel like worldbuilding should be focused on what the player needs and will want to know. And I think that’s as true in videogames as it is in TTRPGS. Although with a tabletop game there’s quite a bit more agency given to the DM and to the players around the table, that text is still used as a guide. And there’s always that example – I can’t remember the name of it, was it called Fatal or something, where you had a million things to tick, and you could choose like, how big your anus was, and it was bizarre, just the worst thing.
ELSA: No, not Fatal!
HELEN: I remembered the name, yes! So, that’s the ridiculous side of it. And obviously a player is not going to care about that. So I feel like, worldbuilding is just right where you’ve answered the likely questions that are going to come up. And where everything is thought through in terms of “okay, so, if this exists, then what does that mean for the rest of it?” That everything is connected, and it’s not just a bunch of things where you can tell that someone’s gone, oh this will be cool, and put it there. And then you’re like, “ah but what does this mean?” I think that a good immersive experience is one that focuses on the player’s needs.
TANYA: Is Noria okay, she’s frozen for me?
HELEN: Ooh, she is frozen!
ELSA: It’s not my fault!
HELEN: We can keep talking until she gets back online I guess, because just to hop on on the Skyrim thing – oh, there she goes
[Noria drops out].
HELEN: The thing with the Skyrim stuff, in the email that was sent round, we were asked to think of games that failed in worldbuilding, and Skyrim was the first one that I thought of. Because – I really enjoy it, I really really like it, it’s like a big comfy blanket because I’m so familiar with it, I’ve played through so many of the quests, probably all of them by now. But you know – there’s those big long loading screens, there’s the NPCs that weirdly turn to stare at you as you was by, there’s these janky animations, there’s hanging off a mountain at 170 degrees, and then there’s the kind of stuff that I end up consulting on, which is things like, how they’ve portrayed khajiits and stuff like that. And it’s kind of, [strained tone] “ooooh, ooooh okay…” Much as I do enjoy playing Skyrim because I can turn my brain off like that, it’s not the best example of worldbuilding. And also, to continue with what you were saying Tanya, there’s an obsession with open world games that’s going on at the minute, and not every game needs that, at all.
ELSA: It’s interesting that you bring up character choices, I guess I’ll jump us to another section of worldbuilding for a second since we don’t have a moderator – oh look, it’s a freeform game! – I think a lot about how we make choices for character worldbuilding in video games. I’m deafblind, I play The Sims, I play all of these other games where you can customise your character to look like you, while you run around Skyrim, or the SS Normandy, or various other places. And in every single game that I’ve ever played, I can’t get my character to have my two eyes. So we are making conscious choices about, when we create these character creation modules, where you get to pick as the designer of that game, what people can look like. Now if you’re in a Skyrim game, I’m pretty baffled as to why you can’t have a character with two non-matching eyes, with a cataract, because in Viking times there were a whole lot of people who were blind. But this goes to other things, besides disability. In the Sims, I absolutely should be able to have a disabled character, where are my wheelchairs, where are my hearing aids, where are my cataracts, where are my facial disfigurements, where are they. But this also goes to race as well. We have all of these various settings, but I have friends who can’t get their own skin colour in a game. Yeah, Tanya is pointing at herself very viscerally. So this is the kind of stuff that -- your worldbuilding is not just about the world that you’ve built, it’s also about the characters your players can play, and you’re making implicit bias decisions based on what you do and don’t allow within character creation.
TANYA: Yeah, it’s one thing that bothers me a lot, especially in a game – Dragon Age: Inquisition was in our email, and anyone who’s talked to me for more than five minutes knows that I love Dragon Age series, but I also have a lot of issues with it, because, one there’s racial issues. We finally get a Black character in Inquisition and she’s dark-skinned, she’s beautiful, but she got where she is by basically cuckolding an old white man. And she’s not romanceable, she’s an ice queen, she’s literally a bunch of stereotypes, she’s not even voiced by a Black woman. A lot of games where I do get to be myself, quote-unquote, I’m reduced to what a lot of people think is standard attractiveness. You know, I can’t be short and fat like I am in real life. Although in a video game, I’d probably die a lot sooner if I was actually short and fat, depending on what they’re doing. But it’d be nice to not be forced into a size 2 bodyshape, lighter-than-a-brown-paper-bag, and straight hair, when that is not at all what I look like. Even when I was a teenager, I wasn’t a tiny little waif-y thing.
The other part of that is that even when you have games that let you pick what you look like, the narrative does not follow, the narrative does not care that you are brown-skinned, that you have made certain choices. With Inquisition, there’s one mission where your class and race make a difference, but that’s the only time it does. The rest of the time the game doesn’t care if you’re brown, short hair or long hair, whoever you’re romancing, the game literally doesn’t interact. That’s where I wish we could have this kind of, we’re on the same path – if you’re going to let me make a brown character, and race is an issue in this game, the two need to interact – that’s why I love Mafia 3 so much. With the caveat of yes, it’s a very violent game, you’re playing a mobster, you’re playing a Black dude that’s come back from the Vietnam war, that has a lot of issues, including PTSD, but the game does not shirk from it. It is very, very intentional, in that, you’re going to get called racial slurs as your character walks down the street. You’re going to deal with these things. And they warn you, but they also say the game experience wouldn’t be the same if we stripped all of this out, because that was 1968 America. I mean, it’s 2020 America if we’re real, but. Your character walking around not having anyone call him the N-word, or not having people called various slurs, would not fit what we know historically, and there’s a little bit of historical inaccuracy, but at least they did their research, there were Black people involved in writing the game so it wasn’t just like, “this is what I think it was like to be Black in ‘68 Louisiana”, so that is one place where I think the worldbuilding served the world and served the player. And there were a lot of reviews of, “I’m so tired of being called the N-word”, and I’m like, [rests chin on hand] “do tell, please, please tell me, tell me what you’re tired of, I would like to know”.
AVERY: I think, just jumping on the Inquisition thing as well, one of the go-to examples of this for me as well, is to do with gender. Because in terms of worldbuilding, you know that trans people exist, because Krem is there. And it’s very specifically mentioned at one point in the game, then it doesn’t really come up again, and on top of that, there’s an assumption that you, as the player, aren’t trans. Because you can be male or female, that’s it. There’s no other options. And that is really frustrating, because I think it’s also reflecting back on you as the player, who the developers think is playing the game. Because if you don’t have visible disabilities that you can play, you don’t have particular skintones, you don’t have different genders and gender options, there’s an assumption in that of who is actually playing the game, reflected in the customisable options that you have, and it really bothers me. And the only time where I felt like I was starting to get somewhere with the gender part, was The Sims 4, having the option to actually be like, I want to have this kind of body but present in this way, and I want to be able to sit down when I go to the toilet and be impregnated, or impregnate someone. And actually having those things integrated is really great and is a great step, but then on the other side of that, I can’t do things like change my height, I can’t do things like have various disabilities, so I can only, if I can represent myself in a game, it’s only one aspect of my identity that I can have in a game, and that really for me fractures the worldbuilding, especially when you have one NPC or something, but that isn’t expanded upon. And for me that feels like this thing of trying to keep some marginalised gamers happy, and “the gamer”, which is like, the white cis gamer – trying to keep everyone happy, but not committing to either thing, and that’s really disruptive for me when I play.
ELSA: Going to the Sims again, because I think that this is important, it’s also a game about building your own house, and all I really want is my universal design mod pack for the Sims, where I can do things like have ramps for wheelchairs, which sounds really funny, until you think about the fact that – when we think about building houses or creating spaces for people to live in them, there’s an implicit bias here that disabled people don’t live there. And this happens out in the real world. What we consume in media does influence the way that we interact with our actual lives. If you play The Sims and you never think about the fact that a wheelchair user can’t get into your building, are you going to notice when you go out into the real world, and you can’t get into a building with a wheelchair? Wheelchair entrances are primarily placed where you can’t see unless you know where they are. So, I end up trying to get into a building with a friend of mine, and we have to go all the way around, to the back, to the garbage entrance. So, this is the kind of stuff that when it’s not in our media, it does actually affect the real world, and I think that’s really important to think about. What we consume for fun does actually impact what we do in the real world.
HELEN: Totally agree with that. I think, Avery, you touched on a really important there, in terms of character creation, the choices that you’re offered just completely expose who the creators think is playing the game. When you end up with ten shades of white and two shades of brown, you know [laughs]. It’s like oh, okay, alright. I’m wondering whether, there was a question that was in the comments on YouTube, do we want to, because it doesn’t look like Noria’s coming back? There was a question which said, which games do you think over-promised and under-delivered on their promise on how players can craft their own narrative and influence the world. Is that something that we would like to talk about?
TANYA: I think most games that are open world, because most of them give you options, but only up to a certain point. Like, I love The Division 2. For those who don’t realise it, I play other games besides The Sims and Animal Crossing and Dragon Age. The Division 2, a perfect example of that is, you’re in this post-apocalyptic world – which is a little too real right now, considering a virus gets you to this point – but there’s no Black hair options other than the usual, short fro, super-tight short fro, and the curly hair that really isn’t the proper texture but it’s curly, and it’s your short hair option. And there’s no dreadlocks, there’s no braids, there’s nothing like that – even Rainbow 6 gives you braids – and you then meet an older Black man that has beautiful, silvery, locs. And I’m like, so they’re in the game, but I can’t have..? And I don’t care that I can’t see myself. Why couldn’t I have locs that are a ponytail, or something like that, if the model’s in the game – it’s not like I’m asking you to do anything extra, you’ve clearly put in there your recolour, make it an option. There are times you see yourself, because you can do third-person view, so – things like that where, it’s like “put yourself in the game!”, it’s like “put yourself in the game” usually means, if you’re lighter than a brown paper bag, not super dark, because let’s be real, games don’t light Black people properly – I feel like most games are in that view, because until I can actually get close to making myself, it’s not going to ever let me have that experience. I don’t get to be the one saving the world, I get a facsimile or my ideal self, that will never be me.
AVERY: I think one of the things I wanted to do, was connect this question to something Noria raised in the email earlier, around transferring bias. Not only in terms of character design, but also in terms of narrative. Because one of the games that I look at within my research, and I’ve been spending a lot of time with, is Detroit: Become Human.
TANYA and HELEN: [Wince]
AVERY: Yeah, and just. Having a game that draws upon and integrates “worldbuilding” elements, without actually recognising or acknowledging that you are appropriating those worldbuilding narratives and stories and lives and experiences, and for me that is a really huge thing that’s really important. Is that often when people might go to worldbuilding, and they’re thinking about integrating a world with people who aren’t like them within in the game, that there isn’t any accountability around whose stories you, essentially steal, for your own game and your own profit, and that are done really badly. And that was again marketed really much around the fact that you could have an android liberation, and you could choose how it goes, and you can influence the world, and all of these things, but actually that narrative was directly taken from the civil rights movement.
AVERY: But that the game developers were like no, it’s absolutely not political, it’s got nothing to do with the civil rights movement. That’s just trying to tie in those aspects of having the ability to craft your own narrative, but then also essentially playing in worlds and stories that are not yours to play in.
HELEN: That’s a really interesting one to bring up, because I’ve not played Detroit, what was it, Being Human? But I know of it, I’ve seen other people’s commentaries of it, and am I correct in thinking that if the robots choose to physically protest for their rights, then that’s framed as being oh this is awful, this is a terrible thing, how dare you throw rocks at these institutions that have locked you out? Is that correct, I feel like that’s what I’ve seen happens if it becomes more of a violent situation.
TANYA: So I played most of it, even though I knew what I was getting into, and I watched a lot of people stream it, and I got to a point where I could not – and it’s going to sound terrible and I know people will probably get mad in the comments, oh well, deal with it – I got to a point where I could not watch a non-Black streamer watch or play the game, because there was no interrogation of the narrative that there was no message here, that it’s without politics. And I watched one of the endings, which is a very kumbaya, we will sing our way to freedom and the police will not shoot us, and I just sat there, and I made faces like I’ve been making today, and I made a comment of: that’s not how that works, we cannot sing away the police! And it’s BS and all this other stuff. And it was like, “it’s a game!” and I was like, “have you read the news? Have you been outside?” And it’s like, there are so many Black people that have been murdered by police, not just in America, it’s a problem elsewhere too, you can’t sit there and say, oh well it’s just a game. You can not literally use quotes from Malcom X, Martin Luther King, have this android played by Jesse Williams, who is the only unique android face in this whole game, a Black man, literally stand in the back of the bus, and then go, “oh there’s no message!” And I’m like, how did you? Okay, there’s no message. But there’s a moment after he gets pushed around after he gets off the bus, he’s a caretaker to a rich old white dude who’s human, and there’s a moment where he can literally get beat up, and it made me think of Rodney King when he was pulled out of his truck, and yet there’s no message, there’s no politics. And that’s the kind of thing that makes me more angry, I think. Even just, someone going, I’ve just put androids in the place of Black people, I accept this, I screwed up, or this was my choice, because I can’t deal with politics as a white dude, or go, you know what, you’re right, I missed the mark on that. But anytime anyone pushed back on it, it was, there’s no politics. [fake shrug of indifference] Politics, ehh.
HELEN: That’s the reason I bring it up, because I feel the insistence that one can make any kind of art without there being politics in it, is so incredibly harmful to any kind of worldbuilding. I’ve given feedback on lots of different games and books, and more than once I’ve had to say stuff like, you cannot just have slavery in this world without interacting with what that means for all of the different countries that you want, for all of the different cultures, without reckoning with, does that mean that there have been rebellions, without thinking about well, how do the characters feel about this. You can’t just be like, “oh yes there are slaves.” There’s often a lack of follow-through on this kind of thinking, because people just try and separate art from politics, and it just doesn’t happen. Even the fact that he’s saying, there’s no politics in it, that is a political choice for him. Because, to him, maybe it can be. Maybe he’s like, “ah, this is a completely made up situation.”
ELSA: It is also a political decision, and this is where I get on my soapbox, it is a political decision to not have disabled people in your science fiction stories, especially your science fiction games.
ELSA: It is a political decision to decide that disabled people will just accept all of the nice little cures that you built out of your technologies that you made for your science fiction world. Disabled people are going to exist in the future, you know why? Because our bodies are not robotic bodies, our bodies are going to have interactions with technology that don’t always work. You’re going to have people who can get injured, injuries are not just going to vanish in the middle of nowhere. It is a political decision that you make if you decide to not have disability in your fiction. This is the same soapbox I get on every time we start talking about art and politics. Because if you want to vanish a disabled body, what you’re saying is that disability, oh, it’s fine, we just fix it, never going to happen again. Well, I’m here to tell you as a deafblind woman who can’t be cured and wouldn’t accept one to begin with, you can’t vanish my body. And it’s not likely that we’re ever going to see that in this world. So put disabled people in your worldbuilding, in your science fiction stories, and your fantasy, because we do exist there. Also, the medieval era was chock full of disabled people. Don’t @ me.
[Pop-up from Stephen Kilbride: heck yeah, art always has politics, we can’t make art in a vacuum]
AVERY: I think, just picking up on that as well, this is one of the things that I have become really increasingly interested in, for myself and also within my research, but this idea that worldbuilding in fiction is not divorced from worldbuilding in our lives. Because that worldbuilding is sending a message, and especially if it’s something based in the future, you’re making a political statement about whose futures, whose worlds, what bodies you see as belonging in those futures and in those worlds, and by not including those bodies or including them in particular ways, you are sending a message. We can’t pretend that these things are not so entangled, because they are entangled within our current context, our future context, our past context. And I think, in terms of worldbuilding, that’s so essential for people who are worldbuilding to understand.
TANYA: And also, to piggyback off what Elsa said, Black people existed back then, we did not just become manifest with slavery, we didn’t just show up on a boat one day because y’all put us in chains, there are Black people in actual medieval history, and if you bothered to open a book and did some work, you’d know that, and stop using “historical accuracy” as an excuse for us not to exist. I can’t remember the knight’s name, but I know that there’s a famous knight in a castle that’s near New York, and I saw it when I was visiting Nora, and I’m blanking on the name. Look up MedievalPOC, they do a lot of work in art history and medieval art, and show you that Black people existed, with a lot of academic research behind it, not just here, here’s one thing. So, when you make these stories, especially high fantasy – which, we can get out of England. It is okay. We can leave England behind for high fantasy.
HELEN: Please leave England behind!
TANYA: Leave everywhere behind! We can go to Egypt, we can go to Marrakesh, we can go somewhere that is not just all white people, or only acknowledging the white people and not acknowledging all the people. Especially all the British folks that brought over people from India and enslaved them, and did other things, and just want to act like they didn’t exist in any kind of high fantasy set in Britain or the UK. So, we exist as well. Yay, Noria’s back, hello!
NORIA: Yes I am, hello everybody! Fingers crossed that my internet behaves itself, but just to come from what Tanya said, I’m currently reading a book, Black and British, by David Olusoga, and he’s been chronicling the presence of Black people in Britain, starting from the Roman era, with actual proof, and anthropological and archaeological findings, to show that – oh yes, there are burial sites that have been tested to confirm that there were Black Britons in the Roman era. Every single time someone tells me that, “oh well you see we’re trying to be historically accurate”, I’m like, the fuck does that mean? [Laughs] I call bullshit. But yes, I totally agree with that.
ELSA: I will also just say that as a trained historian – I have a history degree, I have a masters degree in women’s history, I do historical research as part of my job, and I will tell you this, there are a lot of things in history that you don’t know, because the way that we have been taught history is specifically a sexist, racist, colonialist lens. There are a lot of things that you don’t know because nobody’s bothering to teach them to you from the paradigm that has been used traditionally. There’s a lot of research out there that you can find that will support your worldbuilding to be inclusive.
NORIA: Thank you so much Elsa. And like Tanya said, the books are available, the books are there. I think it speaks to laziness, and this belief not to include other people that are different from you, whose experiences are different from you – it speaks to a laziness for you to say, oh they don’t exist in my world, when the whole point of creating an immersive experience is to create a world that people can see themselves in. And the minute it is that you find this world is just in a particular type – it’s so straight and so white and so abled and so cis, when you consider all of this - and of course so male - when you consider all of this it takes you out of that experience, because you’re like, this world is not – it’s fantasy, but there should also be a little bit of realism built into it, to have that full-on immersive experience. And that just had me thinking a question with regards, how have you reacted in those situations of erasure, when you’ve encountered them in any form of media, particularly the games that you’ve been playing?
TANYA: So, I write a lot of fanfiction, and I often put those things in there when games do not give me what I need. And also, as a GM, and someone who does a lot of RPG stuff, I have had no shame in making games very very very Black on purpose. Especially when, something like DnD, where people want to go, elves and orcs but no Black people, or the only Black elves are drow, I’m like: no. Like the show that I’m on, all of our characters are Black, we are Black as fuck. When one of our cast members mentioned potentially making his high elf a Black man, the immediate response was, so he’s a drow? And it’s like, no, he’s not a drow, because we will be here all day yelling if we get into the drow, or at least I will be, you’ll have to cut me off and mute my mic. But, this idea that we can’t exist in these spaces without being certain types, and you know, why I happily jump into consulting gigs where I can go, “ooh no we don’t want to do this, we’re going to put this over here in the corner, we’re going to take this out of this game, we’re not going to do it”. And the fact that more people are listening, more people are actually seeing the value in consulting, and sensitivity readers, and all of us and what we do is that we’re going to get games that are better, and not just for us in terms of representation, but you’re finally going to get a game that doesn’t ignore a bunch of basic facts. That doesn’t force you into a corner when you want to play a Black character – or, @MustangsArt is doing a lot with creating and editing things so that disabled characters are not just an afterthought. So that if a disabled character is going to an inn, it’s not like, well, there’s steps, can’t so in, sorry! Things like that. I just use derivative media, or twist what is. At least with RPGs, those books are a guide, they are not set in stone.
ELSA: I mean, this is literally why the Fate Accessibility Toolkit exists, because, six years ago now, at GenCon, there was a conversation on a street corner, and I basically said, this is the book I want to write, and someone decided to pay me for it. So I’ve basically just been volunteering myself to fix things until the point at which more people get hired to fix more things, so I don’t have to do it myself. But a lot of what I do is, I write. I just have gotten to this point where I write until things get better, because that’s what I do. I am basically an activist as a writer. So, I go and fix things, I then started to get asked to fix things, which is how I’ve quietly been inserting disability representation into a large chunk of the Onyx Path White Wolf books. It’s like oh look, I did the thing with Changeling, oh and then I also did a thing with Wraith, and slowly, I’m just handing these things off, and saying okay so I’ve done those and now you have to keep it in the canon. So, that’s a part of what I’ve done, that’s what I’ve reacted to.
HELEN: Yeah, I followed quite a similar route, in that everything I write, all of my characters, all of my main characters are Black, that’s just how it goes, that’s just how it be. And, I think – one of the interesting things about being a sensitivity consultant is that so much of my job is just pushing people to be more creative. It’s like you said Tanya, we’re rarely taking things away from the game, we’re encouraging them to put more things in, and more interesting things in, than just relying on the first thing that came to their head when they thought of whatever character or situation. So I guess the way I react is by attempting to change it. In terms of immediate reaction, it depends on how bad it is. [Laughs] Sometimes it’s no more than an eyeroll, and sometimes it’s, oh, um, I’m going to stop playing, thank you very much.
ELSA: When I played through Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, there is a quest in which you are supposed to go steal someone’s prosthetic eye. And when that happened in the game, I actually turned off my computer. I got to the point where I had to steal someone’s prosthetic eye, which is an adaptive device that I wear every day, and then I was supposed to shove that prosthetic eye up the butt of a goat. And every single fibre of my being was crawling. And in the game, people are laughing, and thinking that this is hysterical. And I’m like, I’m sorry, you’re putting a porous prosthesis into an actual body, and then you’re just going to be like, oh, it’s so funny! Do you have any idea how hard it is to have a prosthetic eye made? Do you have any idea how painful it is to have a prosthetic eye made? Let’s start there, but also just, ew gross, why! Why is this funny? So my reaction was that I literally just did a hard press the power button and walk away, because I couldn’t even engage with the idea of quitting and saving. That’s the cost of using a disability as something that’s funny. So that was my immediate reaction in that context.
[Pop-up from Stephen Kilbride: yeah that quest was not ok]
AVERY: I think it’s interesting as well, because there are so many really legitimate and valid ways for people to respond to these things. I am always very jealous of all of my wonderfully talented friends who use these moments to write their fiction. I can’t do that because my anxiety is just heinously bad around creative writing for some reason, but I’ll boost those stories. You want to know about worldbuilding, go and read these books. Here are these books that do worldbuilding really well, and that’s why, before I went back to do my PhD, I was a diverse book blogger. To try and champion those books, because they deserve to be championed. And then, these kind of things that we’re talking about is the reason I ended up doing a PhD. Because I was like, what on earth is going on with this Detroit: Become Human game, where and why did they feel that it was appropriate to use these narratives and stories and futures and bodies, and then from there, thinking more about, when developers make these games, A) where are they drawing these ideas from, and how are they historically and socially and culturally produced? And on the other side of that, how are players responding to those, what do they think, how are they interpreting it, what is their relationship between what they’re experiencing in a game, and how is that transferring to the “real world”? Does it change their behaviour, does it provoke certain reactions, so trying to look from an academic perspective of how are these things produced, and how are they also negotiated, because the wonderful thing about fans, is that fans are vocal. And there’s a lot of use in that. And also actually seeing people go from fans to critique things, really validly – like a lot of the people who are on this panel with me – and then go onto to create their own really wonderful worldbuilding, diverse, inclusive futures, and worlds. And that is a really nice thing to also see. So I think I’ve come at it from a similar angle, but it’s taken me down a bit of a different path. And also, panels! When someone comes to me, and they’re like, this bullshit thing, I’m like, yes I will speak on a panel about this, and I will tell everyone why this thing is bad. Or turn to Twitter, or just be vocal, in being like, this is not okay. This is not okay, and here is how to actually do it better.
NORIA: Thank you. I love the fact that we have reached the collective point where we are calling out those behaviours, demanding better, being able to walk away, being able to create alternative forms of media that actually does accurately represent us. I love the fact that, that is the steps we’re taking, because I definitely do see changes, and I’m hopeful that the industry as a whole is actually listening. I like this quote by Kritty, Kritty made the point about bringing up the Henry Jenkins quote with regards fanfiction, that fanfiction is a way of repairing a damaged system, that is owned by corporations and not by folk. I do love the fact that by the time it is that the work has got into fanfiction, it’s now collectively owned. It’s a society thing, it’s a community thing, and the community, one that is invested in having accurate representation, does step up to the plate. Now, WordsinInk does have a question, and they said, “would you say that game worldbuilding needs as much research as a novelist would put into researching the world they’re creating?”
[Pop-up from Kritty: There’s a favourite quote by Henry Jenkins in the context of fanfiction: fanfiction is a way of repairing a damaged system that is owned by corporations and not by folk. Or something like that.]
[Pop-up from WordinInk: Sol asks: Would you say that game worldbuilding needs as much research as a novelist would put into researching the world they’re creating?]
ELSA: I just want to answer the question that just popped up on the screen for me, which is that yes, I think that novel worldbuilding and game worldbuilding need to be at equal levels. In fact in some ways I think that game worldbuilding needs to be even deeper, because you’re dealing with creating an entire space that your players can and will interact with. If we can talk to an NPC, if we can go to a town, if we can do these things, we do actually need to have a depth of worldbuilding and thoughtfulness that exists there, that your novel reader can’t talk to the people on the street that your protagonist walks past. Your game character can.
AVERY: I think one thing that I really quickly wanted to respond to before responding to this question, is, I love fanfiction, and I think fanfiction is great, and especially using fanfiction as an activist tool in a way, I think writers also deserved to be paid for their work, and deserve to be recognised for their work. All of these things are great, but we actually deserve to be paid and recognised, for the change, for the work we put in, and for the activism that we do, because we are not being promoted into those jobs. People doing substandard work are being promoted into those jobs, and then us, as fans, have to try and fix that, for little to no money and recognition, so that’s the only thing I would caution around that. In that, it is great, but there is also another side to that that we do need to think about as well.
And in terms of the research question, I mean: yes. Absolutely, possibly even more research, because with a video game your players are interacting with it in a different way, and they can actually really probe a lot of the holes in that story, and you have to think about how it’s going to be immersive and interactive in a different way. And also when we were talking about historical accuracy and things like that, I think it was one year I did a talk about transmasculine people in military wartime history, and that trans men actually did exist, and they did go to war, and they did wear armour, and then a year, or a year and a half later, a cis person was actually offered money to write a book about James Barry, misgendering James Barry, and denying that James Barry was a trans person. And that’s why I’m like, these conversations are really valid and really important, this is something I’ve spoken about at conventions, but you don’t see me getting the book deals. Those book deals are going to cis people, to tell my story, or other trans people’s stories. So yes, putting in a lot of research, getting sensitivity readers and consultants, and paying those people for that work.
TANYA: Yeah, I think it absolutely needs that kind of research, especially if you’re trying to make this giant world that players are going to spend hours, a hundred, maybe two hundred hours, if they do literally everything. Because believe me, gamers will find the most obscure thing to get mad about, and then complain it’s not historically accurate, even if that never actually existed. Keep in mind, gamers will be mad about Black characters in a game, but then play the same earlier iteration of the game where you can ride on a horse that has flamethrowers on it, and ride a F-22 in a World War II game. You have good worldbuildings, you have a living breathing world, and not just the characters, and not just what the player puts into it, you absolutely need to do that research, and maybe even more, because you have to put it in such a finite space, unlike an RPG, where you can keep going for years if you want, and everybody works together. There’s way more leeway with an RPG than with a videogame.
HELEN: I would like to just say that I totally agree that you need so much more research for a game, because you cannot control the narrative that your players are going to create. Especially in TTRPGs, because you’ve written this book, but you’re also giving it to this group of people, and you don’t know what stories they’re going to tell with it. So you often have to think about the mechanics of it, and think about what they can imply. I’ve had a couple of instances where – oof, I’m trying to think how to put this. Where there might be a kind of servitude, or someone might be a kind of robot, and someone might say, oh your work was in companionship. And each time I’ve had to be like, you’re going to have to specify, what that means, because otherwise you’re going to end up with players who are like, ah, a sexbot, excellent. And I don’t think, I don’t know if you want to bring that to your table, and you need to be able to think about, whatever your decision is you need to think about what that means for the rest of the world, because a world in which you can get robots to be your friend, and a world in which you can get robots to be your own personal sex worker, are two extremely different concepts to bring to a table. So it’s not just research, it’s also following through all the logic and all the things you’re creating that you’re putting into your world.
ELSA: So I want to hop in on what Avery was saying about paying us and publishing us and using our work. I actually do have a book coming out next year from Simon and Schuster, which is about what I was talking about earlier, which is that our media really does influence what we think and do and see, and how we interact with people. And it’s specifically about blindness and deafness in media, so you’ll be seeing me talk about what that representation does, and why it matters. But I think that that thought process of, what we create really does shift the world, is something we should be thinking about for all of these things. Because like what Helen is saying, if you have this robot who can be any of these things, what those options are do matter for how you think about them ethically. Those ethical decisions are also involved in that worldbuilding choice that you’re making.
NORIA: Thank you so much Elsa, and all the best with your book, and I’m putting it out to everybody in the comments, be sure to buy it when it’s out, publishers only think about the money, they’ll be like, okay, we want more stories like this, because people actively bought. So thank you so much. And I think this was a really cool panel even though I was out for like fifteen minutes (laughs) but it did work out in the end, and we have hit the one-hour mark, so I guess I will just ask the final question, of is there any final thoughts you want to share before we officially wrap up this panel?
TANYA: Remember that research is not going to hurt you and it actually help you and the game you’re making at the end of it. And don’t be afraid to use diversity consultants, but a better idea? Hire queer, disabled, Black, trans, neurodivergent people to be on your staff. Because, while it’s great that you want to give me some money to come in and basically help you fix your product, it’d be better if you could offer me an actual job. Because the well is going to run dry eventually. We can’t always be there just to fix things, and to fix what you broke. Let us be there at the beginning because we can go, oh that’s a bad idea, and then you won’t have to spend that money on consultants because you’ll have a good staff.
ELSA: Yep, diverse writing rooms are going to be what makes our media better, do it, and hire us. Everybody on this panel is worth hiring.
HELEN: Well, got to say I agree with that. And also, I think, in general, if you’re making a world from scratch, get as many eyes as possible on it, from as many different perspectives as you can. Because each person is going to be able to bring something different to it, and add to your world and make sure that you make it better. There’s no downside to it.
AVERY: Yeah, the last thing I wanted to say really quickly because I just remembered while we were talking about research. There’s one game that I really like that I think does worldbuilding really well and did a lot of really interesting research, which is called In Other Waters, which is an indie game. If you go onto the Steam page and read back through some of the blogs that the developer put up, there are some really interesting ones which are specifically about his research process and what he did, and what ideas he was drawing on when he made that game. And then related to that, is also that although we have spoken about a lot of games which are like, triple A, open-world, big games, there are a lot of indie games that do worldbuilding fantastically, which do not rely on having an open world. There are so many really interesting ways that you can do your worldbuilding in actually quite simple ways. And it’s worth just thinking about like, not always looking at an indie budget or your skills or things for example, as constraints. But actually those things can improve your game, because it forces you to be creative. So that’s a last food for thought. And just to echo what everybody else has said: we’re all fantastic, hire us!
NORIA: Thank you so much, thank you so much Tanya, thank you Avery, thank you Helen, thank you Elsa. I think that this panel has been very enlightening, and I’m certain that, because it will be live, for those that don’t know in the comments, it takes, it’s extremely hard but about a day to fully process it, but it will go live, but I think that this can be a reference point. So if you’re someone working in the industry, if you’re someone that is thinking of building a game, you can always come back to this, and like my panelists have said: hire them! Pay them the money, you know they are good, you have listened to them for an hour, so pay them the money, [laughs] let them create immersive, authentic worlds, that we can all love and spend hours in, and absolutely adore. This is where we will be wrapping up the broadcast for today, for tonight actually cos it’s 9:06pm my time, thank you so much once again for joining me on this panel, it was so much fun, a huge thank you to everybody in the comments that joined in the livestream, and we’re interacting and also engaging, and if it is that you’re watching this post-livestream, thank you for coming back to watch this video, and we hope you’re able to take things you’ve learned from it. But at this point, we’ll say bye, and keep playing, and hopefully getting more immersive games. Bye everybody!
Special thanks to Charlotte Geater for drafting this transcript! Responsibility for final text lies with Adri Joy - for any corrections or comments, please get in touch via Twitter.