ivoh summit panelists explore how gaming can enrich storytelling

By Ronnie Lovler 

I never thought of gaming as a storytelling method or as part of the Restorative Narrative genre. My millennial-age sons are gamers, but the phenomenon has passed me by, and I was never inspired to learn more. That changed when I attended a session on gaming at ivoh’s Restorative Narrative Summit.

Our panelists were designers representing three basic types of video games — mainstream gaming (or the kind of games my sons used to beg me to buy them); educational gaming or games that teach on purpose; and indie gaming where the focus is on social relevancy, innovation, and digital distribution.

Across the board, the games have stories — different stories, with different layers, but in some way they all tell stories that offer different avenues of participation for players. Restorative narratives? Not all the time, but it seems there is always some kind of chronicling of experience that unfolds.

“You have to look at games as more than just numbers, and people who play (games) as being more than input into the game,” said panelist Laralyn McWilliams, who was named one of the top 10 developers of 2014 by Gamasutra, a leading video game development website.

“How do you (confront) the holy grail in gaming, which lets people address how you want to be, (and) do what you want in the game?” asked McWilliams, who as creative director for Free Realms at Sony Online Entertainment, helped figure that out. That game paved the way for the massively multiplayer online roleplaying video games that are so popular today.

Dan Norton, founding partner and CCO at Filament Games, takes a different approach as a game designer who has made games about topics that range from marine turtle ecology to the electoral process. He said his company wants to develop games that have “useful strategies for people to have playful experiences that can speak to something on purpose that can create positive change.”

Some may have a preconceived notion of gamers as males, but even the composition of our panel — three women and one man — put that stereotype to rest. In the world of indie gaming, it seems that women are truly taking the lead. Panelist Phoenix Perry advocates for women in game development and started the Code Liberation Foundation, which offers free development workshops aimed at helping more women create games.

“I had dealt with bias and sexism as an educator, so I thought, ‘why I am teaching predominately male students when I can bring women into field?’” Perry said. She has taught simple game development to about 1,000 people, mostly women, age 6 to 60.

Panelists Dan Norton and Phoenix Perry. Photo by Sanjeev Chatterjee.

So who’s a gamer? From the outset, moderator Ann DeMarle — director of the Emergent Media Center at Champlain College and an ivoh trustee — told attendees that we’re all gamers. When she asked who identified as a gamer, only a few hands went up. But as she went down the list of games, she let us know we all have the seeds of gaming within us, even if we have only played board games or once upon a time participated in that innocuous childhood game, “Duck, duck goose.”

McWilliams said there really are no reliable statistics indicating who gamers are. “When you ask about who buys games, honestly we don’t know,” she said. “The assumed audience of games is based on stereotypes, when truth is, all kinds of games are played by all kinds of people. And the answers depend on whose data you are looking at and what day you are looking. “

There’s a whole lexicon of gaming as well, running the gamut from “agency” — or the level of control a player feels he or she has in a game — to the “magic circle” that keeps people in a boundary within a fantasy or virtual world separate from the real-life world we inhabit. There are also tools that make it easier for people to create games, including Twine — an open-source tool for telling interactive, non-linear stories that doesn’t require coding knowledge.

“Story is the core part of a huge community I deal with,” Perry said. “People make narratives about their lives and experiences.” There are games about being transgender, about teenage sex, and even a “Hush” game about Rwanda, where players hear the enemy approaching and need to sing a song to quiet a baby.

“When you make a choice in a game, you confront yourself,” Perry said. “You are confronting what you might have chosen. … (and) in a well-constructed game you can learn more about yourself and you can grow from it.”

There’s a whole world out there that I had ignored, and while I don’t expect to totally jump on the gaming bandwagon, my eyes were certainly opened during the panel. I learned that games can teach you, clarify ethical conundrums, tell a story, let you play a role, and help you understand a world that is not your own. And of course, they can also be fun.


For more coverage from ivoh’s summit, click here. 


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