Dames Making Games: Q & A with Merritt Kopas

Video game designer Merritt Kopas speaks to Rye about the role of games. (Emily Joveski / Ryersonian Staff)

Video game designer Merritt Kopas speaks to students about the role of games. (Emily Joveski / Ryersonian Staff)

Video games often require you to hurt other characters in some way to win the game, but rarely is it because characters ask you to. That’s what makes the game Consensual Torture Simulator so unique.

It’s a kinky interactive text-based game, made using the simple online game development platform Twine, where the goal is to make your virtual girlfriend cry.

You can hit, slap and spank her (there are no names in the game) but it’s all pre-negotiated, with opportunities for regular breaks and check-ins to see how your partner is doing, and you can choose to comfort her when it’s over.

The game is less about the inflicting pain and more about consent, testing personal boundaries, incorporating the concept of care into games.

Merritt Kopas is the designer behind Consensual Torture Simulator. Kopas’ work is known for dealing with themes of violence, consent, and caring for others. She’s also known for a maze game called LIM, which incorporates themes of violence and isolation in society, and the game HUGPUNX, where flowers and happy cats pop up as the player hugs people in the game. You can even hug the cats.

Her blog, Forest Ambassador, features curated free games she discovers around the web and she is editing an anthology of Twine games called Videogames for Humans, set to be published this year.

Her involvement with Toronto-based organization Dames Making Games, brought Kopas to Ryerson’s Transmedia Zone on March 19 as part of the RTA School of Media’s research centre, Studio for Media Activism and Critical Thought. Kopas led a talk and workshop with students about rethinking video games and the role they play in our lives.

 Q & A with Merritt Kopas

 What do you mean when you talk about “utopia” in relation to game developing?

For me one of the really cool things that games can do is ask us to imagine some other way of being. Usually, the scenarios that games ask us to imagine are not that revolutionary. They’re about, like, what if there were aliens and we had to shoot them? Or what if there was magic and people used it to fight each other?

But I think games can ask us to imagine, what if we lived in radically different ways that were more sustainable or ethical? Or what if we related to each other in healthier more ethical ways?

So games that deal with societies, or even just individual relationships, can be really cool because they can give us new ideas for how we structure our lives.

 How does the concept of ‘care’ intersect with feminist game development?

Care to me is an undervalued form of labour. Not just in games, but in society. But especially in games, we’re not often asked to care for other characters in games. Sometimes we’re asked to take care of pets or animals, but rarely other people. We mostly use other people in games, like resources, or get information out of them. Sometimes we have less instrumental relationships, but we usually don’t have to comfort people or care for them. I think we’re sort of not dealing with this whole facet of human relationships and interactions. And I think there’s really compelling work than can be done there. That’s sort of some of the stuff that I’ve been trying to do.

 Why do you prefer not to talk about Gamergate at talks like these?

I don’t think it’s useful. There’s this dynamic where that conversation becomes so much about the actions of abusive people and less about the actual work of women in the industry. It just always comes back to what these people are doing to people. And people are always framed as victims or resisting, and aren’t really allowed to be people, or to be complex artists, or to do interesting things other than just survive. It becomes this spectacle.

So I don’t want to not talk about it because it’s not happening anymore, because it totally still is, but I think it’s important to have spaces where we can talk about: What are we doing day- to-day? What do we want to be doing? When we talk about not what we’re against but what we’re for, what does that look like?

 What is Twine and why do you think it has it been such a popular medium in activist communities?

Twine is a tool for creating any kind of interactive text-based work, like choose-your-own-adventure games, interactive poetry with hypertext or anything like that. People need to create all kinds of different things. I think one reason why it’s been doing more activist or political-oriented work in games is that a lot of the people interested in doing that work are people who have also been kept out of the pipeline of tech. They’re people who are maybe tracked out of, or discouraged more informally, from doing programming or from taking tech skills in school. Twine is a tool that can help you get into that sort of stuff, without having had as much background in those things, because it’s the same people who want to create their work who don’t necessarily have access to those skills. It’s really useful.

 What’s unique about Dames Making Games?

A few important things about it for me are that it’s not an advocacy group for the industry, so it’s not about getting people into the industry. If people want to, then they’re totally able to support that, but it supports a really wide range of work: People doing independent, fringe, weird stuff. People trying to do more mainstream things. But it’s not just about getting women into the industry, it’s about getting people doing what they want to be doing.

Also, it’s multi-issue, so the group is built around the idea that gender isn’t the only issue. Race and class and other stuff matter too. So they’re doing really great things like working with creating this project called Indigicade, where they’re teaching indigenous girls to make games, which is super cool and not something I’ve heard any other feminist group in games doing before.

 What does “video games for humans” mean?

I guess when I talk about video games for humans, which coincidentally is what I titled The book of Twine games that’s going to be out next month, I mean games that fit into the lives of actual human beings. I feel like games, as we know them, have become so bloated and so dictated by the needs of capital, in this sort of weird, cyclical structure. Like, “Oh, games have to be big because they’re expensive, so they cost more because they’re bigger.”  They become these huge sprawling things that can’t fit into most people’s lives except for the most dedicated people. So, games that fit into people’s lives and are relevant to their lives as well. They have things to say about people’s lives that aren’t just tools for escape or power fantasies.

 What is the relationship between the games you’re talking about and mainstream gaming?

I think a lot of this stuff is happening outside of mainstream games. People are just creating their own things, and not waiting for the industry to catch up or not appealing to the industry to do things that they want. I think there’s sometimes a dynamic where we get encouraged to beg for scraps and people are not really satisfied with that. There’s a sense that we can actually do our own things and it may not be a multi-million dollar blockbuster game, but maybe we don’t actually want to do that anyway.

 Do you consider yourself an “indie” gamer?

Not really, maybe, I don’t know. I don’t consider myself a gamer, just because it feels like a really consumer identity. I don’t consider myself a “reader” or a “watcher” either. I play games but they’re not the core part of my identity.  I think the indie thing is interesting and it works for some people, but for me I’m more interested in talking about interdependence and collective work rather than indie stuff.

 What’s the problem with defining what a “feminist game” is?

I think it really gets us off track. I think once we start trying to ask, “is a game feminist or not,” we’re basically saying is it okay to enjoy it or not, or is it good or bad.  That’s really reductive. I think it’s way more useful to ask: Is a piece of media useful to us in some way — and it may have flaws and it may have issues. Does it do something that’s useful and interesting to feminist projects, rather than, is it feminist on the whole? To me, that’s a way more fruitful question.


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