Last weekend in Vancouver, programmer and game designer Kimberly Voll staged a game jam. As the Vancouver coordinator of the annual Global Game Jam and a few other jams in recent years, Voll is an old hat at producing events such as this.
What made “iamagamer” unique was the theme: games created during the jam needed to have a strong female protagonist.
Some 250 people worldwide participated. There were official satellite sites in Boston, Denver, and San Francisco, and remote participants from Australia, Brazil, Germany, and the United Kingdom. In Vancouver, 158 game makers grouped at the Centre for Digital Media for the 48-hour challenge.
So far, 62 games have been submitted to the archive—you can play them if you want—and more are coming.
For the record, here’s what Voll had to say to the participants as the jam kicked off.
Kimberly Voll on the first iamagamer game jam
On March 19th I read an article on Gamasutra that quoted the industry as saying, in a nutshell, that games with strong, female lead characters will not sell. I immediately tweeted, “You know what this spells? WTF.", followed by “Cooking up a new game jam this summer—theme is strong, female leads—any kind of game you want. Join me?"
And here we are. Way, WAY beyond my wildest expectations.
Most important, I want to thank you, each of you, for being willing to come out and spend the next 48-hours making games to try to make the world a better place. Your support, your dedication, mean more than I can say.
Who am I to host this jam? I dunno. I’m just me. But I want to live in a world that is tolerant and open and celebrates the wonderful tapestry of life, woven of the richness and diversity of every one of us.
And I know I’m not alone.
iamagamer is about more than gender, it’s about bringing together a community and providing an opportunity to put our beliefs into action and create things, things that hopefully help make the world just a little bit better place.
Today we’re here to celebrate gender diversity and to address a very real and very serious imbalance. The intent is not to demonize anyone, or any gender (however you identify), nor is it to say that games featuring either gender are inherently good or bad (a good game is a good game and should be celebrated, regardless of gender). Rather the intent is to come together in mutual respect for our fellow human beings and together start to explore how we can increase and improve female representation in games toward creating a more balanced industry.
I want to caution everyone against rushing to point the finger at external sources of sexism. When we do we miss the opportunity to look within and see how we maybe unconsciously contributing ourselves. It’s easier (myself included) to point fingers at other folks than it is to look inside. That’s the hard work.… but the very fact you’re jamming this weekend says that you’re not afraid of that.
It’s easy for behaviours that seem innocent on the surface to carry a deeper meaning, perhaps not in one utterance, but in the continued way in which we communicate or interact with people, or even in how we refer to ourselves. I don’t want folks to become paranoid, and I think there is a definite “chill” factor where we need to take a deep breath and try to interpret things as graciously as we can if we’re ever to achieve some level of harmony.
But I do think each of us needs to spend time reflecting on how some behaviours lead to larger trends, which become accepted by a community as normal, fading insidiously into tacit acceptance and into the next generation.
This jam is all about questioning the status quo and trying to push new boundaries, within society and within ourselves. We’re all here together in the spirit of exploration. None of us have all the answers (and maybe we have none), but what we do have is a vision of a better world.
So what IS a strong, female lead? Don’t feel bad if you don’t have a fast answer to that question—after all, that’s in part why we’re here. As a start, though, I challenge you to think of what it means to be strong and to set a positive example, regardless of gender. Parodies and spoofs and one-sided characters are one thing, and part of a balanced ecosystem (when it IS balanced), but today we want to create female characters that anyone, any age, any gender can look up to.
We’re not necessarily going to get everything perfect. But in the spirit of exploration and mutual respect, we’re going to work together and do our best to sow the seeds of some real change, in ourselves here this weekend, and hopefully in a few others, too. Maybe that’s at least part of what strong characters is— someone who goes forward even in the face of their fears.
So in the spirit of facing fears and with open heart, let me share some of my recent confessions about why I’m here and why I need to do this jam...
Why do I need to do this jam?
Because I always picture Shepard from Mass Effect as male—I chose him because it felt more normal.
Because every time I play a game, I choose the male option. That’s why I need to do this jam.
Because I feel the need to justify myself as a “real gamer,” hiding that I also play casual games so I’m not labeled “girlie.” (Because I went back and added the word “also” so it was clear I play “real games” too.)
That’s why I need to do this jam.
Because I look at a woman and assume she’s an artist, not a programmer, for no good reason. I assume that’s what people think of me, so I don’t tell people I’m an artist. I say I’m a developer. Both are true, but I’m ashamed to say only one makes me feel worthy. That’s why I need do this jam.
Because I grew up in a world that showed me I was different, and I accepted that. I want a world in which every child sees only possibilities free of the constraints of outdated ideals. A world where we don’t worry what people think if we pick a gender (or no gender at all) in a game. That’s why I need to do this jam.
Because when we fail to set positive examples we create a void—invisible, yet conditioning the next generation to accept a broken and unbalanced reality. Individually, we need to shine a critical light on ourselves and the unspoken messages we are sending. It won’t be comfortable and it may mean we are forced to change something inside, the way we talk and joke, the way we view ourselves and others, the way we make games, and that’s hard. That’s why I need to do this jam.
Because I’m not a game developer. I’ve made lots of games, and helped people with many more, yet I’m too scared to publish. Because if you catch me late at night, after a couple drinks, I’ll tell you that I’m not good enough. And then I might quietly whisper, “… because I’m a girl.” That’s why I need to do this jam.
Because for too long I never thought there was anything wrong at all. That’s why I need to do this jam.
So thank you, and welcome to the very first iamagamer jam ... let’s go make some awesome games!