U of M presses play on video games

Video game making is easier and more diverse than ever

By: Kevin Bunch | Roseville - Eastpointe Eastsider | Published October 14, 2015

 Alexander, a video games critic and journalist, discusses how new tools make it easier for people — particularly historically marginalized parts of the population — to make and distribute their own games.

Alexander, a video games critic and journalist, discusses how new tools make it easier for people — particularly historically marginalized parts of the population — to make and distribute their own games.


METRO DETROIT — For decades, making video games was the sole domain of people trained to speak the arcane languages of computers and the major companies willing to publish those titles.

In the past few years, however, the Internet has opened the door for new creators, new audiences, and new, socially aware and personal video games made by people who never learned a line of BASIC, according to video game journalist and critic Leigh Alexander, who spoke at a talk presented by the University of Michigan School of Information Oct. 1.

Alexander said that traditionally, video games have had barriers for newcomers, whether those barriers were a lack of experience with the pastime, the cost of the games, or having the reactions and skills needed to progress in the games.

In contrast, new creators frequently produce cheap or free games that run on computers or even in Internet browsers.

She said such games could be educational, although not necessarily in the sense of a game trying to teach a person math or reading skills. Instead, Alexander said she thinks of “smaller moments” that help people see the world in a new way, or understanding something that they otherwise could not because it is being done in a safe space.

“Suppose we think about games as a medium for human expression, as an outlet for creativity and communication,” Alexander said. “I suppose I truly consider games as a modern avenue for play, in the sense that animals play in order to learn about themselves and the rules of their world, and to experiment with those rules in the real world.”

She highlighted games like “Papers, Please,” which put the player in the role of a bureaucratic border guard in an oppressive country, deciding who gets to come in and who stays out while contending with rebels, refugees and desperate migrants. With that game, players begin to express their own values of right and wrong, whether it’s what the state wants or what they want, all while trying to earn enough money to feed their digital family.

“Boo Flag” is a game where you have a Confederate flag on the screen, and by booing it using a laptop microphone, the flag will come down a flagpole and catch fire. Alexander said the game is short, and it feels good to boo the flag, but it also expresses the view that booing the flag does not solve any broader issues of racism.

“Real Baku 2015” portrays activists “competing” while in prison to protest Azerbaijan’s hosting of the European Games earlier this year.

Another game, called “Passengers,” casts the player as a smuggler taking migrants and refugees to safety on boats based on their jobs, names, whether or not they have families, and how they treat the player.

“You begin to see some issues a different way when you start literally weighing the cost of human lives,” she said.

More personal games about the experiences of women, gay men, non-white people and transgender people have been popping up in this small-scale game space too, she added.

Christian Sandvig, associate professor of information at U of M, said this expansion of what a video game can be and who can make them is nothing less than a “rebirth of the medium.”

He said that from the beginning, distribution was the bottleneck that limited game creation, since people would need to work for, or publish through, larger companies that could afford the production costs. While there was some independent distribution of early computer games, it was limited to floppy disks and cassette tapes, or it required copying game code from a paper printout to a computer.

“Today, the distribution bottleneck is largely gone,” Sandvig said. “Unusual indie games like ‘Dys4ia’ and ‘Candy Box’ are easy to find. Part of that is the rise of third-party distribution systems geared toward small publishers like Steam Indie and XBox Arcade. But we also have web clearinghouses, like NewGrounds.com, and simple web pages that people make and share.”

Sandvig said game creation tools like Unity, GameMaker Studio, RPG Maker VX, Construct 2, Fixel, Adventure Game Studio and Stencyl are publicly available, with some of those being free and most requiring no programming knowledge to use. Other tools exist to help people learn how to code, such as Scratch, which is a programming language designed for kids to use.

Many games have also been made with a free program called Twine, Alexander said, which gives people who do not know how to code the ability to make little text games that run in an Internet browser. These games can involve making a series of choices that let people choose their own adventure, or they can be start-to-finish tales as personal as the creators want to make them.

“Even I can make them, so I make the people that I love these little tiny playable greeting-card-sized games about our inside jokes or whatever — a person-to-person exchange of games,” Alexander said. “Now I can use games to communicate with someone that I care about.”

With tools like Twine making game development easier, she said more people are making games, especially women and historically marginalized members of the population. In turn, more games are being made that show the perspectives, experiences and voices of these groups.

Alexander said that this push for broader diversity from the small game-maker side has trickled up to some degree to the commercial game space, which has sparked a backlash from some people who liked the status quo.

Alexander said she and others have been targets of harassment, and that it is important to teach marginalized people not only how to make games, but how to handle that possibility.

She argued that bombastic, multimillion-dollar commercial games likely will continue to be what they are for years into the future, and that if anything will change to reflect the diversity of people, it needs to involve more new people making games.

“I believe ultimately video games, as a form, are broadening in scope so much that we can still have pioneering, fantastical, technical marvels — wildly profitable works at one end, and then revolutionary, anti-capitalist, short, accessible works of human expression at the other,” she said. “What matters most to me is that we consider these works good enough and important without having to prove their worth and positive effects.”