Thursday, August 25, 2016

Jay Sylvano, Game Chef, and Making Simple Games

Y'all know I love me some simple games.

I make games that are hella simple a lot of the time - little written games, question games, lonely games, those kinds of things. So I love hearing about people making games that are simple, but do more. Ask bigger questions. Challenge assumptions. Push harder.

Jay Sylvano has done that.

I met Jay at a podcast recording for the IGDN (Indie Game Developer Network) in November 2015, for Metatopia 2015. She was a recipient of the Metatopia Designer Scholarship. Her work thus far has been really interesting, and I'm always excited to see more.

Her 2016 Game Chef submission is an examination of a dystopian authoritarian high school, where questions of mind control and propaganda. It's a live-action game, which is really cool, and I think that it has a lot of possibilities for play that are thoroughly fascinating. 

I've put together some of Jay's words on her project further on, but here's some background from her:
I'm from South Africa and have been living in Portland, OR for the past 4 years. I'm a full time graphic designer by day and an analog game designer by night, with a specific focus on story games and freeform larps.

I've created a number of games now including Shame, a freeform game about "honor" violence and patriarchal killings, Into The Gale, a tabletop story game about differently abled animals coming together to solve mythical problems, and The Illustrious Magnolia Hotel & Spa, a roleplaying game about a group of highly incompetent hotel staff trying to keep their crumbling establishment afloat.

I'm also on the board of the Portland-based nonprofit Games to Gather that focuses on inclusivity and social consciousness through play. My pride and joy is my main monthly gaming event "Ready, Set, Game: Womyn's Night" that is all about womyn coming together in a safe space to play games, talk about game design and offer support and advice about participating in the typically misogynistic universe that is analog gaming.
This year I also launched the analog game design challenge Vernal Star, which encourages new designers to make games about obscure topics and research the lived experiences of others. The results of this year's challenge will be announced at the end of July.
Jay obviously has a really nice set of qualifications, and the depth of thought put into her Game Chef submission is pretty great. Game Chef, for a little more context, is a game competition with simple elements that has a very brief turnaround for submission. I've tried it, and I was awful at it, but there have been some amazing games submitted, and some have even progressed to full development. Totally worth trying if you're into it!

When I first asked Jay about her submission, she said:
The ingredients for this year's contest were Sun, Dance, Alarm and Sketch, and the overall theme was Technology, with particular interest in how technology can influence and be used in analog games.

I was so excited about this theme and immediately wanted to create a game that would combine the isolation we associate with using technology with the in-person interaction and teamwork usually seen in larps. I've also been itching to create a game in a dystopian setting.

My final submission is called Intellectual Property. A game that deals with an authoritarian panopticon in a near future dictatorship. It is a freeform game that can take up to fifty players and engages with the trend of dystopian coming of age narratives found in stories like The Hunger Games while using the omnipresent technology on our bodies (and in our smart phones) to create a space for engagement.

Essentially, players take on the roles of high school students going through their first day of government training to protect their minds from terrorist attacks, during recess. The game requires players to make no overt attempts at communication and relies on audio and recorded propaganda to keep players distracted, occupied and frustrated, while still trying to be teenagers and connect with each other. The game was designed to explore the subject of government propaganda and subliminal messages and the effects these have on the ideas, creativity, relationships and sense of safety of the young citizens of a county.
Sounds pretty cool, right? Jay's integration of technology into analog design with the propaganda being played is something that really piqued my interest. I love technology, so much, and I love the idea of literally influencing thought while playing a game. That's really freaking awesome, and I wanted to know more about Jay's concepts and purposes for the game.
I was particularly intrigued with Game Chef's theme this year because of conversations I've been having in my own game groups about incorporating technology into analog games as a way for further conveying a message or reaching a desired goal. There is so much room right now to expand what an analog game is and how it works, and with American freeform being such a new and largely unexplored form of interactive, in-person gaming, I think we're barely scratching the surface of play as an engaging art form and I can't wait to see where it will go from here.

The ingredients, sunlight, alarm, dance and sketch were also something that caught my eye and struck me as "happy" words. I've been giving a lot of thought lately to the value in creating a sense of shared joy or euphoria in a group of players - especially considering the trend of freeform games that are considered to provide impactful play experiences being dark, brooding and designed with the intent of evoking sorrow. There's a sort of in-joke in my Portland freeform community about "waiting to die" games and how every freeform we play is secretly just that. I hope to see more games exploring a spectrum of emotions and themes, and these ingredients looked like something I could utilize to make one that does.
The term "'waiting to die' games" is hilarious and terrible and I love it. What kind of experiences do you have designing a Game Chef game? Well...
I'm a notorious procrastinator with a full time job who's also co-directing a positive action gaming non-profit with 9 monthly events, so as much as I wanted to enter this challenge I was 98% sure I'd fail. It came down to one sleepless night of writing it all, creating an hour long audio track, mapping out the layout and designing a decent cover. I managed to submit it a few hours before the deadline and I was pretty thrilled to have just managed that. It's not quite the grand vision I had started off with, but Game Chef encourages participants to go back and polish their entries, and Intellectual Property is getting a lot of finishes touches right now. I'm actually hoping I'll get to run the final product at Metatopia 2016 in November.
What's the game really about, though? 
The game itself, when it's really boiled down, is a weird attempt on my part to convey what it's like to have your voice silenced and your thoughts and sense of identity policed, and then to have to move through the world and interact with others with a smile plastered across your face and no outward signs of rebellion - something women come to accept as the norm from a very young age. This game is an extreme and warped scenario of what patriarchy does to us and the ways we adapt and learn to rebel, often quietly. The constant assurances from the audio track that these measures are in place to protect you, that violating the rules will hurt not only you but those you attempt to enlist in your rebellion, that you aught to be policing others and punishing them for stepping out of line, all of this is a very focused, exaggerated example of what living within a patriarchy is like. Coupled with the highly sexist, exuberant radio commercials that bombard players at intervals, I hope the game will manage to convey this message subtly in the guise of control of the people by the state.

Most of my games are overtly feminist and tend to drive home a very specific point about oppression without metaphors or veiled mechanics. They're very "on the nose" I guess you could say. While I want to use game design as a platform to raise awareness about things that matter to me, theses games look like serious business to the average consumer and can be pretty intimidating to jump into. I'm generally all about not pulling punches in that sense. This time, I wanted to make something that could convey this message more subtly. I wanted it to be fun and weird and open to interpretation in the hopes that people wouldn't be terrified of playing it and hopefully didn't have to fear for their emotional well-being. Men often have trouble in my games with feeling like they have a right to fully participate when themes are so overtly feminist and about the lived experiences of women. That or they avoid the game entirely thinking it's not "for them". Hopefully a scenario that's more subtle and open to interpretation will dispel some of that hesitation and enable everyone to participate freely.
When Jay talked about what she wanted people to take out of the game, I was really happy with her answer:
I hope people will come away from playing Intellectual Property with a sense of camaraderie, since its core mechanic is forming emotional bonds with others in a world where you're not supposed to. I also hope it will stir up thoughts about how our government and media shape the people we become and how we regard and treat others. If people can walk away from something fun and uplifting and still retain those ideas, I'll have contributed in a tiny way to making the world a happier, more inclusive, respectful place.
This is excellent. The game itself is a simple concept: kids in high school in a dystopia, with propaganda playing. The questions? There are so many, so many good questions. And the intentions outlined by Jay, to form "emotional bonds... where you're not supposed to," and questioning the media and government? I love it. 

Thanks so much to Jay for the interview, and I really hope you all enjoyed reading!

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