A View from Somewhere
Designing The Oldest Game, a Newsgame to Speak Nearby
As the media landscape continues to change, studies have suggested that online games as a medium for news can do a better job than traditional news stories in conveying the complexities of systemic issues through experiential play (Bogost, Ferrari, and Schweizer). Newsgames are games that are built around current news stories, though the issue of currency is not a critical factor in gameplay; enduring social issues that routinely come up in news coverage are also excellent fodder for games. Newsgames have the potential to ask players to move beyond the headlines to a more complex understanding of the complicated systems that underlie social issues and are often poorly covered in typical news coverage that focus on events rather than contexts. Newsgames accomplish this focus on systems by simulating a problem or issue. They make suggestions about possible answers through the procedures that are an integral part of their formal structure.
This chapter explores the production of The Oldest Game: A Newsgame, a game designed to explore the working lives of sex workers in a new regulatory regime. A research-creation project, it engages with a public policy issue that has enduring presence in the Canadian news cycle. It takes an editorial stand that supports the assertions made by communities of sex workers across Canada that criminalization of sex work and its associated activities actively harms them. Through its game mechanics, it demonstrates the implications of Bill C-36, the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (brought into law on December 6, 2014), for sex workers and those around them.
Newsgames are not objective pieces of journalism. Rather, they take an editorial position through their game mechanics (Treanor and Mateas). They attempt to show particular aspects of a system at work in a given news event, story, or ongoing social issue. Demonstrating how the system works not only requires extensive knowledge of the system itself but requires that designers make choices about how the game play operates, which necessarily foregrounds particular elements of a story. Journalists write stories according to established news values and generic conventions driven by form and medium that favor particular ways of telling stories; similarly, games use rules of game play as part of their storytelling repertoire. For instance, the commonly cited example of September 12th uses a simple mechanic to show the philosophy that reckless bombing with collateral damage leads only to more terrorism (Bogost; Bogost, Ferrari, and Schweizer). It is a small one-screen game. It presents an overhead orthogonal view of a section of a Middle Eastern city, complete with tiny people wandering the streets. Most of those people are civilians; some are terrorists. Your mouse places a crosshair over the city. Clicking on the city drops a bomb. Buildings are destroyed. People die. There is crying and wailing. The more dead people and destroyed property, the more the terrorists appear. The point of September 12th is its procedural logic. As long as the only way of interacting with a population is through a gunsight, the only result will be more violence. Clive Thompson has described it as “an op-ed composed not of words but of action” (“Saving the World”).
As such, video games studies, especially the portion of it that focuses on procedural rhetoric and platform studies, can provide invaluable insights into the nature of newsgames (see Bogost; Bogost and Montfort; Konzack; Montfort, as well as various titles from Bogost and Montfort’s Platform Studies series at the MIT Press). However, game studies by itself does not provide the sort of critical context necessary to describe the history and politics of the newsgame form. For that, we turned to the longer history of cultural studies and feminist criticism, especially in light of their welcome invocation in recent significant texts in digital humanities.
Proceeding from the work of cultural criticism within journalism studies and cultural studies (see, for instance, Hall; Hall et al.; Jiwani; Skinner, Gasher, and Compton) and the work of feminist cultural critics (e.g., Balsamo; Nakamura; Nakamura and Chow-White), our project seeks to answer Alan Liu’s call to use digital tool-making in the service of cultural criticism (“Where Is the Cultural Criticism”). Liu’s challenge to scholars in the field to “extend their critique to the full register of society, economics, politics, or culture” was a turning point in the field, even if it marked a familiar point of departure for games studies scholars (Fernández-Vara). It extends the work of digital scholars committed to a digital humanities that recognizes and demands that we acknowledge the ways difference is marked in the digital spaces we make and tools we use (see, for instance, Cong-Huyen; McPherson; Risam; and Wernimont, “Introduction,” “Whence Feminism?,” to name only a few). Making a newsgame about sex workers in Canada is explicitly also making an argument about the kinds of subjects that digital humanities can address, and the forms that it can use to address those subjects. It also highlights the terrain journalists routinely must tread as they attempt to represent controversial and extremely complex topics.
Newsgames don’t operate like most video games. They don’t even have to be fun; discovery through play is a common technique in game design used in a variety of games that attempts to compel players to keep playing long enough to determine why the game operates the way it does. In other words, play is also about understanding how a game builds its argument. This approach leads players to engage with particular news stories rather than remaining disinterested in their outcome. The text that introduces September 12th on Games for Change, the site that hosts it, claims, “The game’s main goal was not to convince people that the War on Terror was wrong. Instead, it aimed at triggering discussion among young players. Indeed, that’s what happened in multiple online forums” (Games for Change). Opinions about the game have always been polarized, but as Bruno Latour points out, controversies are the bread and butter of contemporary scholarship. Indeed, the production of newsgames bears a strong family resemblance to some forms of Actor-Network Theory (a major interdisciplinary paradigm that emerged from sociology to play significant roles in cultural studies and science and technology studies over the last several decades). Both ANT and newsgames begin at the site of controversies, attempt to identify the major actors involved and the connections between them, and identify procedures that would allow the sites of those controversies to be “remapped” into some sort of new, more desirable state (Latour, 21, 23).
In both form and practice, The Oldest Game challenges conventional representations of sex work and sex workers in games, and prohibitionist views of sex work, which, as Robin Maynard writes, see it as “inherently violent and exploitative, and propose instead that a carceral, prohibitionist approach must be taken to eliminate [it]” (Maynard).
Incorporating the perspective of sex workers into a game’s mechanics is a powerful example of what Bogost describes as “procedural rhetoric” and what Flanagan and colleagues describe as “values-conscious” (or “value-sensitive”) game design. Procedural rhetoric is a type of rhetoric that is tied explicitly to the core of what games do: building processes that manipulate symbols according to a set of rules. Through the way that they enact these rules, games can express a rhetoric, a persuasive argument. Much like a political cartoon, a well-designed newsgame encourages critical reflection, mobilizing its formal mechanics to communicate an editorial stance and persuade players to take a position, particularly when faced with purposeful choices about how to handle a given situation (Treanor and Mateas). By allowing players to experience the consequences of choices, games can explore systems and dynamic relationships (Anthropy).
Building immersive experiences can have the effect of eliciting greater empathy (Belman and Flanagan), especially toward the subjects of news stories, many of whom rarely appear as actors in conventional news and are represented in narrow, stigmatized ways (see, e.g., Comella; Hallgrimsdottir, Phillips, and Benoit; Hallgrimsdottir et al.; Jiwani and Young; McLaughlin; Mendes and Silva). Editorial newsgames that have a strong bias have been shown to be particularly successful, and demonstrate a long shelf life: “social comment games often cover highly visible, ongoing public policy issues, thus they remain relevant as long as a situation persists” (Bogost, Ferrari, and Schweizer). Moreover, as Miguel Sicart has argued, newsgames also play a role in participating in the public debate about the issues they cover. Newsgames, then, do not pretend to be neutral bits of news reporting. In the face of a game industry that typically represents sex workers as the abject victims of horrendous violence (Dill et al.), making a game that represents a sex worker as a purposeful agent making choices who perceives neither herself nor her colleagues as victims is already taking a stand.
These ideas about the ideological foundation of games connects with the general principle within science-technology studies, the philosophy of technology and culture, and the critical digital humanities—particularly within the feminist literature—that assert that all technical systems embody values (Drucker, SpecLab). Knowing the limited range of representations that existed in both news media and in mainstream games, we set out to design The Oldest Game with a mandate to do representation differently. In the methodologies adopted in the game-making process and the scenarios produced in the game, this project has sought to explicitly answer the call put out by Elizabeth Losh (“What Can the Digital Humanities”) to develop a “paradigm of process and performance in which the network of power formations moves from ground to figure.” From the outset, the team that built The Oldest Game (a sex worker hired on contract, undergraduate and graduate students, and two tenured faculty) sought to embody feminist principles of knowledge production by incorporating the expertise of sex workers and advocates themselves through their published research and perspectives on the game’s design during playtesting.
We followed a participatory design process where users became participants in the design process by following an iterative cycle of game design between playtesting prototypes. Marilyne, a sex worker who had worked as a massage parlor worker (and became an owner of a parlor during her work with us) and a self-employed escort was hired to act as a consultant on the game. This was a first principle of feminist game design in that we explicitly sought to use our seed funding from the university to hire her for her expertise as a worker with a range of experiences in the fields we were describing and as an advocate for sex worker rights. Paying her for her time was a given. We also explicitly sought out sex workers to be part of the early phases of playtesting and made a point of visiting at least one massage parlor in the city, a visit that Marilyne facilitated, in order to better understand how this type of sex work took place. As Mary Flanagan, Daniel Howe, and Helen Nissenbaum write, “Playtesting can be a time to discover and verify values in a particular game design” (“Values at Play,” 754). However, we quickly learned from our playtesting with sex workers that the values our playtesters wanted to see were far from uniform, sometimes conflicted with good game design, and were sometimes simply impossible to represent.
A game exploring sex work and Bill C-36 is a ripe target for further controversy. GamerGaters are always ready to attack explicitly feminist games, while abolitionist feminists were very active in the debates leading to the passage of the bill and even have much of their language enshrined in the legal text of the bill. This chapter explores our team’s iterative design process, describing the risks inherent in such a project, particularly at a historical moment when a misogyny, vitriol, hate, and doxing were common practices online, especially directed at feminists and feminist game designers and players. Our process was an explicit attempt to valorize the experiences of sex workers, who often challenged us to do better. It continually forced us to reconsider our categories of knowledge and practices of knowledge making based on the feedback we received (Alcoff; McPherson). The process also forced us to confront issues implicit in the digital representation of knowledge.
If the practice of making newsgames involves shaping topical stories according to the contours of an appropriate procedural rhetoric, it could arguably be described as part of the field of knowledge representation. As John Unsworth argues, knowledge representation is “an interdisciplinary methodology that combines logic and ontology to produce models of human understanding that are tractable to computation” (“Knowledge Representation”). Following the work of John Sowa, Unsworth describes a three-part structure to this methodology, consisting of logic, ontology, and computability. “Logic disciplines the representation, but is content-neutral. Ontology expresses what one knows about the nature of the subject matter, and does so within the discipline of logic’s rules. Computability puts logic and ontology to the test, by producing a second-order representation that validates and parses the ontology and the logic of the knowledge representation” (“Knowledge Representation”). Unsworth contends that the value of such a project for humanities scholars lies in its heuristic function: “because the rigor it requires will bring to our attention undocumented features of our own ideation” (“Knowledge Representation”). Subjecting the experiences of sex workers to the logic of game code—how much value a “risky” choice has over a “safe” choice, weighing safety over health or financial security—forces the design team to confront the situatedness of the variables of the constructs themselves: what is risky in one context changes in another; what is risky for one body type, skin color, or ethnicity is not the same for another.
If the use of computers and the programming that it entails is novel, Unsworth’s closing sentiment is not; it is, in fact, a very familiar, Innisian notion: the idea that close attention to the bias of a given media form, especially an unfamiliar one, might allow us to locate our own critical blind spots through the application of a comparative framework. Inevitably (and Unsworth acknowledges this too), this will also be lost, but that’s how media bias works. A newsgame will make some aspects of a complex story visible while obscuring or ignoring others. Our wager is that the process of fitting our research on sex work (ontology) into the procedure of the game form (logic) in a way that makes it playable by others (computation) adds a dimension to the story that has been obscured until now. Certainly the ongoing process of making the game has been useful for us in terms of identifying our own blind spots. After a brief review of conventional representations of sex work and sex workers in news and mainstream games, we explore two issues that arose through our test sessions with self-identified gamers and sex workers.
Sex Work in Journalism
A goal of the project from the outset has been to engage the problem of how to tell the story of sex workers differently and engage in a public dialogue about sex work differently than conventional news coverage has historically. Media accounts for the most part have adopted a neutral viewpoint that sought to balance arguments for the legalization of prostitution with arguments against it, providing the reader with little guidance as to how to evaluate the validity of each side in relationship to the lived experiences of sex workers. The classic limitation of neutral reporting—what media scholar Jay Rosen has described as the “view from nowhere” (“View from Nowhere”)—is that it produces news coverage that leaves the readers themselves disengaged from the issue under scrutiny. This is especially problematic when dealing with the issue of sex work, since the discourses surrounding it are often couched in a moralizing discourse that either infantilizes sex workers who require rescuing or dismisses sex workers’ needs, since they are not seen as virtuous women and thus in need of basic protections (Hallgrimsdottir, Phillips, and Benoit; Hallgrimsdottir et al.; Jiwani and Young; McLaughlin). Other key findings from research on news representations of sex work have found that street sex work is overrepresented in the news media, leaving citizens with a fairly narrow sense of the range of work entailed in sex work (Jiwani and Young; Van Brunschot et al.; see also Grant). Violence is almost always associated with sex work, and it represented rare moments when sex workers’ voices were actually heard (though this level of representation shifted in coverage of Bill C-36). Generally speaking, sex workers are not sources of expertise in news stories, but rather are called on for their personal experiences. Sex workers are often seen as vectors of contagion, whether of community or psychological malaise, disease or criminality. Hallgrimsdottir and colleagues found that there has been a shift over time from focusing on the risk sex workers pose to the public, to sex workers’ “risky” behavior. This conveys the message that sex workers are to blame for the dangers they face, “offering them up as the appropriate target for legal and moral intervention” (“Sporting Girls” 133).
Sex Work in Games
In games, one of the central issues with how sex workers are typically represented is that they are almost always non-player-characters (NPCs) and therefore lack any agency of their own beyond the game’s built-in artificial intelligence. Their presence in the game is exclusively as something to be interacted with, and often even more reductively, something to be acted upon. These portrayals are often sensationalist, clichéd, and heavily coded in violence.
Representations of sex workers in video games date back at least to the 1980s. Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards and PimpWars, a 1987 version of the venerable Star Trader arbitrage game, present the most stereotypical end of the spectrum of sex-worker representation in video games, as “hookers” to be bedded or “hoes” to be infested with diseases or stolen from your enemies with crack. Porky’s, the unlikely Atari 2600 tie-in of the Canadian teen comedy film of the same name, featured a level set in the eponymous bar that required the player to avoid foes such as strippers while planting dynamite to blow up the club.
The most well-known contemporary examples of portrayals of sex workers in video games comes from the Grand Theft Auto (GTA) series. It is possible for players to hire a sex worker, then recuperate their money by killing her, in no fewer than four titles: Grand Theft Auto III, Vice City, Liberty City Stories, and Vice City Stories. In later games, more choices are introduced: players have options in how they respond to solicitations; interactions are longer and more complex (including specifying services); and multiple voice actors play a wider range of sex worker characters. Yet, if a player stands near a sex worker too long without interacting with her in GTA V, she will ask him to leave. But not respecting her request is rewarded with a “star,” a metric that will positively alter interactions between police and player.
In Hitman: Absolution, women who work at the Vixen bar are forced into prostitution by bar owner Dom Osmond, who controls them with threats of violence. The threat of violence is real, as players can kill sex workers throughout the game and then distract the police by strategically disposing of their bodies. Red Dead Redemption offers the player the option to rescue these women: in one scene, a man is beating a sex worker outside a saloon and the player can intervene; in another, a man is pictured carrying off a hogtied sex worker and a player can intervene then too. However, should a player put that hogtied sex worker on nearby train tracks and allow a train to run her over, the player earns a secret achievement known as the “dastardly” trophy. Sex workers—or “hos,” as they’re called in Saints Row: The Third—are often portrayed with their pimps, and kidnapping them is often central to several missions. In virtually all Triple A games we surveyed, when sex workers appear, they are never represented with agency, they are frequently the subject of violence, and actions done to them are often a mechanism for unlocking secret game play or points. No matter the game, she (and, she is overwhelmingly female) is never represented with dignity.
Designing The Oldest Game
Given the limited range of representations of sex workers in games, it was crucial that we offered an alternative to these portrayals of sex workers in The Oldest Game. In particular, we focused on their lack of agency (players typically interact with sex workers or adopt their appearance in games as a disguise but are never asked to play from their character or position), the lack of empathy players are encouraged to have for sex workers (their characters are often used for titillation, plot device, currency, or humor), representing only a single type of sex work (street work) and reducing their work to a simple cost/gain interaction.
In The Oldest Game, players assume the role of Andrea. In playing from her perspective, her complexity and agency are reinforced with every decision the player makes. She controls every interaction with clients, and chooses how to respond to every consequence and random event. Rather than the player character walking up to and interacting with a sex worker, the NPCs are the clients; this completely changes the representations of most sex workers’ agency in commercial games.
Putting the player in Andrea’s shoes was also crucial to developing empathy between her and the player. We also made an effort to develop a sense of Andrea’s personality and personal life outside of her job as well—portraying her relationship with her family and colleagues, building in choices around interactions with friends, even giving small glimpses into the potential for romantic relationships. We wanted the player to identify with Andrea, to feel for the choices she is asked to make and be moved to make the best choices possible under the various conditions that she faces.
We also chose to represent sex work in several different forms, each tied to a specific city: in Montreal, Andrea works in a massage studio; in Toronto, she works from home as an independent escort; and in Vancouver, she does street work. Each situation presents different challenges and choices, and the scenarios are structured differently to reflect these. For example, in Montreal, clients are screened for players by a receptionist, while in Vancouver players have to choose to interact with clients before or after getting in their car. But in Toronto, contact is established through email and, after running potential clients through a Bad Date database, players can choose to meet the clients in a nearby hotel. Players must then choose whether to ask their driver to wait for them (thereby incurring greater costs) or send him on his way. By representing different types of sex work and the myriad of choices that are circumscribed by geography and opportunities to evaluate potential dates, we hoped to offer alternatives to the often extremely narrow view portrayed in games, which is generally limited to street work and always with little to no agency given to the sex worker characters.
We equally wanted to present a more robust sense of Andrea as a character not only to elicit more empathy for her but to recognize the fullness of sex workers’ lives outside of work. We added a pop-up, for instance, that informs players that it’s time to do their taxes. The pop-up provides common tax problems that sex workers who wish to claim taxes face at tax time. At one point, players have the option to spend money to buy a present for a sister’s birthday, to take a night off and go on a date (or have a coffee in the afternoon), or spend a night with a friend watching Netflix, and we included dialogue with other sex workers, particularly in the massage parlor, where socialization happens frequently between clients. We used these scenarios as well to recognize the intersectional and varied nature of sex work. Dialogue between these characters (who are all named) and Andrea reference fears of being caught without legal papers to work, opportunities to take drugs, the presence of pimps, issues of doing sex work while transgender, and a fear that an indigenous colleague has gone missing.
What ended up being most complicated, however, was how to handle the actual mechanics of the game in a way that also served these goals and dissuaded the player from metagaming, or “gaming the game.” Initially, we did this by removing any traces of traditional systems of metrics from the game entirely. Aside from keeping track of money earned and spent, there were none of the bars or meters to indicate progress, resources, or health status that games typically use as an index of success and progress. These were represented only in Andrea’s changing expression (a nod to the original DOOM’s method of indicating injury through facial expression), which would become more haggard and stressed when she was tired or in debt. The idea was to privilege the emotive and narrative connection over one developed through interaction and to keep the focus on Andrea’s story rather than making the players feel as though they wanted to “win.” We wanted to discourage playing to the metrics, rather than playing for Andrea’s well-being (which wasn’t always the same thing).
Through playtesting, however, we found that the lack of metrics actually hindered the player’s ability to identify and empathize with Andrea. In our first feedback sessions, playtesters noted that the lack of clearly visible metrics prevented them from evaluating a sense of how they were “progressing in the game.” More importantly, what we discovered was that the metrics served an important pedagogical function: they helped us to demonstrate what was in Andrea’s best interests or what were typical consequences for particular kinds of choices. One playtester noted that their lack of presence encouraged them to care about Andrea less, noting “there is no sense of urgency, I never need to spend money on food, or pay my debt off, or incur unexpected costs” and “when bad things happen there are no long-term or cumulative effects,” which led to no pressure to make any risky decisions at all. Conversely, we also heard that “the lack of irreversible consequences” made it more likely for players to engage in risky behavior. This feedback led to our choosing to put these metrics back in, to engender empathy and give a sense of measurable consequences when it came to choices made. That is, money often comes at the cost of health and well-being.
Another area of The Oldest Game that presented challenges in terms of bringing balance to our representations of sex work was the element of risk. One of the elements that Marilyne, our sex work consultant, insisted on from the outset was that the interaction not skew overwhelmingly toward the negative. Her instruction, based on her own experiences and perspective on sex work, was that most interactions with clients generally proceed without incident, are occasionally banal, often neither traumatic nor exciting, with exceptionally good or bad clients in the minority.
Based on the feedback that we received from the last round of playtests, however, we had swung the pendulum too far toward the positive. Sex workers who later played the game referred to the “lack of consequences” as a barrier to both the realism and enjoyment of the game. In not wanting to portray sex work as sensationalist and negative, we eliminated the sense of urgency and real risk that is necessary to create a sense of tension in gameplay but also to give a sense of the specific work-related challenges experienced by the sex workers we sought to represent. Subsequent revisions of the game have introduced additional challenges and consequences, especially when health and happiness metrics get too low, to create a more nuanced portrayal of the difficult choices sex workers are often forced to make. For example, we added a random number generator to both Toronto and Vancouver in order to recognize the constant potential for police surveillance. One script in Vancouver involving a police officer specifically referenced helping Andrea get “cleaned up”:
Officer. The street is no place for you, honey. Why don’t you let me take you somewhere you can get yourself cleaned up and off the street?
Andrea. Are you kidding me? I certainly don’t need any help from those people! I can take care of myself.
Officer. It’s never too late to change your mind. I’ll ask you next time I see you. If you’re still alive, that is.
This randomized scenario was an important addition for recognizing the explicit bias toward “saving” sex workers, both in terms of common attitudes among the general population and law enforcement and explicitly within the language of Bill C-36. The final revisions to the game will include a pop-up that will reference the recent coverage of police assaulting sex workers, which led many to call for discussion of the issue at the federal inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (Macdonald).
Adding numeric values to the metrics was a key way to demonstrate consequences. After our last round of playtesting with sex workers, we added a scenario where Andrea gets a sexually transmitted infection. A pop-up informs players that they have lost money because of time off work to go to the health clinic and to purchase the needed medication. There is also a hit, however, in terms of mood and health. In addition to giving the option to have intercourse without a condom, we provided other opportunities to engage in risky behavior such as being hired for group sex. Should a player choose to take the clients, the financial gain is substantial; however, there is a slight consequence in terms of mood and health in order to recognize the toll that the stress and worry of the potential for violence pose and the fatigue that comes with this kind of work. Emerging out of our iterative game design process, these changes to the mechanics of the game forced recognition of our knowledge assumptions and ontological choices that prescribe a particular point of view in the game.
Many sex workers do not believe sex work is inherently violent; rather, they point to criminalization, stigmatization, and misogyny as sources of violence (Benoit and Shumka). The difficulty of representing the lack of consequences for systemic misogyny and police indifference, let alone (sexual) assaults and abuse committed by police, have posed a particular design challenge for our team. One respondent’s feedback was particularly instructive. When asked what was the one thing they would change about the game, the respondent wrote,
More consequences. One thing I appreciate is that the actual sex acts weren’t porn-ified and the game focused on the before and after. It was appreciated, trust me. I really appreciated that my character wasn’t raped.
But in general, there just weren’t any consequences—jail? STI’s? Threats of violence? If you don’t “choose” well, you’re at risk. And it’s not the work that puts you at risk, it is the complete lack of protection for sex workers’ rights. The government and law enforcement doesn’t do anything to protect us so we have to be hyper-vigilant. For someone like me, it was easy because I just “got it” but for many sex workers, it can be very difficult. There are men out there who know how difficult to can to [sic] prosecute crimes against sex workers and they exploit the sex workers because of it.
It’s not the work that puts us in danger, it is the fact that there are no consequences. Men think they can rape us or beat us up and get away with it and the sad fact is, they can.
This respondent was a self-identified frequent game player and thus, the respondent’s comments about not being raped clearly reference the common tropes found in typical game play that involve sex work. But as a newsgame, the target demographic here is not dedicated game players specifically, though they will obviously be part of the audience for the game. Though we have adjusted our metrics to better reflect the possibility of experiencing some negative consequences when engaging in risky behavior, we also wanted to leave the variability in place because this is precisely the point. Even as sex workers establish a wide range of best practices to ensure the health and safety of sex workers, like any workplace, there are no guarantees that all safeguards will succeed. Further, when faced with the very real need to engage in risky behavior because of lack of funds, not all chances taken end badly. Variability, then, is as much the point of trying to represent the everydayness of these experiences. With the added unpredictability of game play, the experiences and “messages” taken from game play may vary from player to player and length of game play (Consalvo, Cheating).
We know that the wide range of perspectives and experiences of sex workers can never be fully represented in one game. Yet the unpredictability and variability of game play also mean that there won’t be a singular game experience on the other end. At some level, we must proceed with our design and representational considerations while remembering Hall’s aphorism that in this attempt to represent sex work in a game, we are practicing “politics without guarantees” (Hall, Representation and the Media).
We want to highlight that the risks embedded in the game extended outside the game too, especially to the team: our sex worker consultant had not yet revealed her profession to her family. We held off on releasing the trailer on YouTube until she had told her family because she was named as the “consultant” at the end, using her given name. The students working on the project also faced attacks online, especially at the height of GamerGate, but also from virulent antifeminist and anti–sex work public discourse, especially online. Though this risk is nothing like that experienced by sex workers themselves, it’s part of what responsible designers must confront in a time of hate. By challenging the classic approach to news reporting through a guise of neutrality (the “view from nowhere,” Rosen; Haraway), we’ve discovered that designing with a “view from somewhere” has meant confronting goals that often conflict.
As a contribution to the creation of a genuinely critical digital humanities, our project strikes at the core of the impossibility of a politics of representation grounded in truth claims. This game cannot be the definitive display of sex work. It cannot show every challenge sex workers face in their intersectionality; it cannot succeed at showing lived experience for everyone. It engages with a very specific piece of legislation from a very specific moment in Canadian history, and the effect that that legislation has had on a portion of the Canadian labor force. Though we have aimed to represent a wider range of racialized and gendered bodies, we worried continuously about charges of tokenism (and rightly so). We still don’t know what it means to win at the game, or what it means to lose. We’ve added some dialogue with a fellow sex worker who references the missing and murdered women in the Vancouver area because it was problematic not to recognize this terrifying context for many sex workers in this region. Further, those risks are not even for all sex workers. We know that trans workers (especially trans women) face higher risks for abuse and violence, and that First Nations, Métis, and Inuit women are disproportionately disappeared across the country (Benoit and Shumka). But at the same time, putting it into the game runs the risk of reifying that all street work ends up in murder and violence. In other words, once we take seriously Johanna Drucker’s imperative to recognize that signification is always done on behalf of someone somewhere (2009), it points to the risky business of gamifying variously marginalized bodies.
At the same time, however, our process and design also lead to specific questions about the promises of newsgames to address issues of representation in journalistic practice itself: is it possible to produce games that capitalize on the currency of news events; avoid the same traps of conventional, stereotypical news coverage; and pay attention to the deep dynamics of game mechanics in a rapid prototyping model? Though the production time of this game has been exceptionally long, how can a feminist commitment to public (or civic)-oriented journalism that seeks to work alongside community groups fit into a model of more rapid game design like typical journalistic production? Will an iterative prototyping model that works with the communities being represented have any impact on other forms of journalistic practice?
While one outcome of this project has been to question if journalism in any of its forms can fully represent the experiences of such marginalized populations precisely because their social, political, and economic contexts are so precarious, we have come to realize this perhaps shouldn’t be our goal. As Trinh Min-Ha has so eloquently suggested, rather than speak for, one true contribution of a project like this to the larger project of expanding knowledges within the digital humanities may be to find a multitude of ways of “speaking nearby”: “In other words, a speaking that does not objectify, does not point to an object as if it is distant from the speaking subject or absent from the speaking place. A speaking that reflects on itself and can come very close to a subject without, however, seizing or claiming it. A speaking in brief, whose closures are only moments of transition opening up to other possible moments of transition” (Chen, 86–87). A truly feminist contribution to a digital humanities that engages marginalized communities seeks not moments of closure in its acts of representation; it, in fact, resists closure as a goal. Yet, though we value games and other immersive journalistic forms for their ability to create empathy, we have also become acutely aware of how readily the game can slip into a state of knowingness whereby singular experiences become generalized, like in much conventional journalism. “Speaking nearby” has meant making space for a dialogue about leaving sex work, even though the government framed the legislation, with the support of abolitionist feminists, as promoting this end state as the only desirable outcome. “Speaking nearby” has meant making space for violence, pleasure, flirtation, and abuse in uncomfortable ways, in unpredictable ways. It’s meant providing a view from somewhere recognizable, even if not fully knowable from the outside.
The author wishes to thank the reviewers for their generous and thoughtful comments on this essay; this essay is stronger for their efforts. The author also wishes to thank Concordia University for seed funding for this project.
1. The project is led by Sandra Gabriele at Concordia University. Lisa Lynch, formerly of the Department of Journalism, was a co-investigator on the project in its earliest stages. The project was possible only because of the amazing work of a group of talented students who researched, coded, designed the graphics, wrote the scenarios, created the soundscapes, ran the play tests, and contributed to the overall design of the game: Martin Desrosier, Jennifer Sunahara, Natalie Zina Walschots, Amanda Feder, Eileen Holowka, Sadie Couture, Esther Splett, Marilyn Sugiarto, Stephanie Goddard, Rebecca Waldie, and Ben Spencer. See theoldestgame.com for a trailer of the game and the latest blog posts.
2. Bill C-36 is formally known as the “Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act. An Act to amend the Criminal Code in response to the Supreme Court of Canada decision in Attorney General of Canada v. Bedford and to make consequential amendments to other Acts.” It arose after the Supreme Court ruled that the laws surrounding sex work (selling sex itself was not, and is still not, illegal) were unconstitutional because they made it impossible for sex workers to avoid breaking the law. Chief Justice Beverley McLauchlin wrote in the 9–0 decision, “Parliament has the power to regulate against nuisances, but not at the cost of the health, safety and lives of prostitutes,” further noting, “it is not a crime in Canada to sell sex for money” (CBC News, “Supreme Court”). Three laws in particular were struck down and formed the basis for game play in The Oldest Game: prohibitions against keeping a bawdy house, living on the avails of prostitution, and communicating for the purposes of prostitution.
3. For example, stories that appear in the pages of the daily newspaper often follow an inverted pyramid style, while weekend newspapers offer a variety of writing styles and layout that are distinct from their weekday counterparts.
4. One issue that came up with playtesting done in spring 2015 was paying sex worker playtesters for their time. Though our budget was limited, we were prepared to pay these playtesters for their time using a similar logic to hiring Marilyne as a consultant on game design. Unfortunately, the university research ethics committee determined that paying the playtesters would constitute a major revision to our Ethics Certificate and would warrant an application to alter the conditions of our ethics approval. In the interest of proceeding with the playtesting, we opted not to pursue this avenue, but are doing so for the final playtesting session as a way of recognizing the expertise of sex workers and that their time should be compensated.
5. For those unfamiliar with the Gamergate phenomenon, see Lewis, “Gamergate,” for a brief introduction; Consalvo, “Confronting,” and Chess and Shaw, “Conspiracy of Fishes,” among others, explore its implications for feminist game scholars.
6. PimpWars should not be confused with Pimp War published by Happy Empire Inc. Launched in 1999, it now has over a million “pimps” registered on the site. As the website explains under the watchful gaze of a racialized pimp conventionally dressed:
“You will become a master at the art of pimping your hoes, commanding your thugs and battling your enemies to protect what you have and to help your empire grow. This game is NOT for whiners. PimpWar players have 5000 ways to call you a bitch ass. So if you think you can handle it we suggest you get a couple friends together so you are not alone in this bad bad place and then bring yo bad self.” (Pimp Wars [video game], http://www.pimpwar.com/).
7. Losh, “In Country,” describes the development of a trust meter in Tactical Iraqi, a military training game designed to enhance language acquisition of spoken Arabic to facilitate deploying soldiers. The trust meter was developed by the game designers in order to provide immediate feedback to the player, yet also had the effect of teaching the critical skill of establishing trust in dialogue.
8. Though Rosen is describing journalistic practice specifically, my point here is highly indebted to Donna Haraway’s specific mobilization of the phrase to describe the political implications of speaking from situated knowledges.
9. The long production time in many ways is a product of building games within an academic and professional context: Lisa Lynch left Concordia; our student team members graduated or left their programs of study, necessitating hiring new students; our sex work consultant purchased her own massage parlor with her partner and subsequently had a child; and the lead investigator was maintaining a demanding service position as chair of her department, and now as a senior administrator.
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