"A Closed World": Approaching Gender in Games and Real-life

In 2006, the Singapore government began working with The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in a partnership to research digital media. One of their core projects was the Singapore-MIT Game Lab, whose goal was to research how the latest game technology, culture, art, history, and business could contribute to Singapore’s gaming industry. For the past 5 years, this lab has been producing game prototypes that have pushed the boundaries of game design by testing new ideas, topics, and approaches.

Much of the Game Lab’s work revolves around their summer program. For 9 weeks, 40 – 50 Singapore students come to MIT to work directly with students and faculty. The amount of students and faculty working on projects creates a fast paced environment that allows for the rapid creation of short, yet fairly complex games.

One of their most recent projects is A Closed World, a game prototpye that aims to explore LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer) issues. As part of their research, the students wanted to challenge the lack of queer content in games, while navigating the challenge of “getting it right”, or in other words, creating content that feels organic and appropriate. To learn more about the challenges in creating A Closed World, I conducted an in depth interview with Todd Harper, a postdoctoral researcher at the Singapore-MIT Game Lab.

Todd Harper, Gambit GameLab at MIT

1. Where did the idea of building a game to address LGBTQ issues and their lack of representation in popular media begin?

When I first started at GAMBIT in September of 2010, there was a sudden surge of gay youth suicides in the news, including the story of Tyler Clementi at Rutgers which got a lot of press. Even though the end result didn’t have a lot to do with bullying or “outing”, one of the seeds of the project was my thinking about the situation that led Tyler to take his own life and going, “How do you model this in a game? How could you use a game to tell this story?” Beyond that, Edge Magazine ran a really great article that same Fall called “Playing it Straight”. The article focused on asking where queer characters were, and they talked to developers and marketers alike to ask what the barriers were to including them. Wanting to see what we could do about those barriers they talked about — the idea that “getting it right” is hard, that straight players won’t be interested in/play a game with queer content — was another big inspiration for the project.

2. Can you explain more about your game mechanics and aesthetic choices for *A Closed World?*

During the prototyping phase of the project, we cycled through a lot of different ideas for core mechanics and core ideas; everything from a stealth game-like metaphor for being in the closet to an info-gathering game about finding allies. Part of the problem we had was that we wanted the mechanics to do a lot of the heavy lifting, but this idea of what “a game with queer content” would be like was really amorphous and hard to grab on to. More to the point, the question we constantly asked ourselves was, “How do we make the issue apparent unless we get really heavy-handed?” When we didn’t find a compelling way to make the queer-relevant aspects of the game to hinge on the mechanics, we decided to let the fiction do a little more of the heavy lifting. We still wanted queer issues to be part of the procedural aspect of the game, and that ultimately was how we came to including this avatar creation-like opening sequence that forces you to choose a gender, but then the game itself shuffles the gender of characters at random. We tell you up front this decision is crazy important, and then we make it more or less meaningless… the goal being that, in the process, we might open people’s eyes to how constructed this social thing we call “gender” is — and by extension, how sexuality can be the same way.

On the flip side, the aesthetic choices are really from the minds of the summer design team, especially our artists. Up front we gave them some things that we wanted to include; for example, we had them look at Earthbound, which we wanted to use as a model because it really emphasizes how arbitrary menu-driven combat can be. To put it another way, in Earthbound the “Fight” command makes you hit an animated stop sign with a frying pan, and in Dragon Quest it makes you hit a dragon with a broadsword. In the end, the mechanic is the same and the presentation totally different. So, a lot of the inspirations for the aesthetic were 16-bit SNES-era RPGs, in terms of the art. That said, the aesthetics also had to fit our concept of the message. This is why the main character has an androgynous look, for example.

3. What has been the response from both the queer and non-queer community about the game?

The reaction to the game has been really varied, and I’ve been (pleasantly!) surprised by just how much of a response we got. In truth, it’s also really gratifying that there was a big range of reactions, too, because we learned a lot. We had people who thought the story was really engaging and people who thought it was a little cliché. In the same vein we had people who thought the gameplay was clever and people who thought it was too simplistic. I think one of the most important things was that, regardless of how they felt about the game itself, the reaction was very positive to the inclusion of these themes, and pretty universally that the project was worth doing. There were certainly more specific compliments and criticisms. We got feedback from transgender players, for example, who were frustrated and turned off by the way we engaged the gender binary at the very beginning of the game. And really, that’s a great reminder of just how diverse a group “queer individuals” can be, and that part of the challenge of trying to create queer-relevant content

4. Are there any other games out there that explore queer issues?

Part of the difficulty answering this question comes from considering what “queer issues” involves in the first place. That response from transgender players I mentioned earlier is a good example of that. Can you engage the gender binary that way and still say the game is “engaging queer issues?” Even drawing from my own life experience, I think dealing with feelings of alienation, or trying to fit in and be “normal,” or being persecuted for being different are “queer issues” too, and many games deal with them, though perhaps not in explicitly queer terminology. So I guess the answer here is, there are plenty of games out there that explore queer issues, though few do it explicitly.


Visit the game profile page for A Closed World to learn more about the game and leave your feedback.

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