A few months ago, when I started working on an audio piece about indie gaming in New York, I knew that I wanted to talk to designers who were pushing the boundaries of what a game could be. I set out to find women and non-binary designers who knew that games had the power to do more than entertain us, that games can help us become better people.
Luckily, I found a department on my own campus at New York University where students can develop innovative, socially-conscious games. At NYU’s Game Center — an MFA program where designers of all skill levels can learn to build a game from the ground up — I found Allison Cole and Chelsea Shepard, two students who are making the gaming industry a better and more inclusive field.
Allison connected me with her friend and peer Chelsea Shepard, a non-binary game designer who is changing the face of the game development world. In a recent ivoh story, Chelsea and I spoke over bowls of ramen about the game she’s developing, how to tell stories through game design, and trans visibility in the future of the game industry.
Cole spoke with me over an audio recorder about the ability of games to teach empathy, to inform players about complicated issues like gender, sexuality, and consent. In the story below, we discuss her game “She Said She Said,” where the players wear a blindfold and headphones to experience the verbal abuse many women are subjected to at work.
At the game center, Cole is developing games called LARPS, or live action role playing games. The players physically act out what the characters are doing in the game, sometimes utilizing props or costumes. But Cole’s LARPS are more than medieval garb and foam swords. “I’m trying to use LARPS to design intimacy into games in a consenting and safe way,” she says. “That’s not something games traditionally do, but it’s something that they can do well.”
The desire to incorporate complex social issues into her games led Cole — alongside her fellow developers at Tweed Couch Games — to create “In Tune,” a physical game where two players navigate the boundaries of consent using their own bodies and a controller.
The players stand facing each other in front of a large screen. Projected in front of them are the outlines of two mannequins, similar to the wooden figures sculptors use to study the shape of the body. The figures on the screen are posed in a particular way, whether holding hands or grasping the other figure’s leg. The players must hold whichever pose is shown, however awkward or intimate, unless one of the characters decides to opt out. So let’s say the models on the screen show you touching someone on their bare stomach, and you realize that you absolutely hate when someone touches your bare stomach, then you just let go of the button on the controller you’re holding, removing your consent.
“As long as you press button, it means that you’re continuing to opt in,” Allison says. “We made that specific choice so that opting in and consenting is an active activity. You always have to be holding down this button if you’re comfortable with what’s going on.”
“In Tune” became a huge hit, making it all the way to the prestigious E3 Expo video game conference held each year in Los Angeles. Allison set up the game in a booth and played with visitors for hours each day, some of whom were Nintendo executives in full suits. The pose she struggles most with is touching someone’s bare feet. “As little as two years ago, virtual reality was just putting on a helmet and sitting in a chair, but we’re asking people to hold each other’s hands.”
Going forward, Allison is pushing to expand “In Tune” to a wider audience. She developed instructions on building the game so that groups like college campuses or businesses can use it for educational purposes. “Video games can be a medium of social change,” she says. “They give their players a space to learn and test the boundaries of their comfort and knowledge without the risks of real life, and that’s what makes them exceptional.”