Game Designers in Detail: Deirdra Kiai

Game Designers In Detail is a three-question interview series between a current NYU Game Center MFA student and a PRACTICE speaker.
Owen Bell: Your talk at PRACTICE is going to be about awkwardness in design. It is a common theme throughout much of your work, particularly regarding queer identity. What makes designing awkwardness so interesting to you?
Deirdra Kiai: Many mainstream games are designed to make the player feel competent at surmounting challenges. They’re all about mastery and keeping the player in a flow state. Real life, particularly as experienced by those of us of marginalized groups, doesn’t necessarily work that way; we encounter a lot of resistance and bumps in the road even when we try to follow the rules and “play the game correctly”. Awkwardness is a part of life, and I want my work to be about life, and not just be a distraction from it, like a lot of games are. To meaningfully capture what it means to live and exist, a story must convey negative emotions as well as positive ones, and I think an interactive story should aim to express these emotions in play in addition to in text.
The challenge, of course, is that to many players and developers, deliberately awkward design can be indistinguishable from bad design, and many people do see games as pure escapism and will walk away as soon as a game is uncomfortable. This is a challenge that fascinates me, and I suspect that surmounting it will require a radical change in the way games are seen in society.
OB: How has your design process changed as you take the themes from your past work and translate them to Coffee’s multiplayer experience? What is different about asking the players to actually embody awkwardness in front of others rather than just observe it through a computer screen?
DK: In a single player screen-based game, every player experiences it similarly — I won’t say exactly the same way, but still relatively similarly — but in Coffee, there are several different ways to play. You can be a puppet, who performs as the character; you can be a driver, who selects decisions from a dialogue tree; you can be part of the band; or you can be in the audience, spectating. Being a puppet involves the most embodiment of awkwardness, since you have to act in front of an audience, unrehearsed — understandably, not everyone wants to play this role, particularly if they’re uncomfortable reading aloud in front of an audience. Fortunately, having other roles available allows for different levels of participation depending on individual comfort levels, and knowing one has a choice in the matter actually seems to increase said comfort levels.
OB: In your games and past talks, you have discussed your falling out with triple-A development. What impact has your past experience in the industry had on your work since then?
DK: Even before working in the industry, I knew AAA companies were a bad fit for me; I had read a number of horror stories about crunch time (the ea_spouse blog being a particular example), but also simply didn’t want to be relegated to doing the kind of inconsequential grunt work they usually have junior programmers do at big companies. So, I worked for smaller, independent studios that were more single-A than triple-A, hoping that would give me more creativity and flexibility while still granting me the security of a paycheck. The studios I worked for were full of people open to new ideas for interactive storytelling, and were all about exploring alternative means of game publishing, such as digital distribution and episodic content.
When the recession hit, there was this greater sense of conservatism that took hold, not just of the company where I was working, but also everywhere else in the industry. People didn’t want to innovate if it cost them sales, and my ideas were becoming less and less valued. At the same time, I got more and more into feminism and social justice, and became vocal and impatient with how slowly the world was changing. I wanted to work on things I was passionate about, and it became clear that I could not do so in a traditional industry job.
As a kid in school, I was always the one who liked to work alone on group projects, and that still persists today. It’s the only way I know to have complete creative freedom, and given that voices like mine have been silenced for so long, this is the best way I know to make mine heard. I can create stories that are as personal as I want them to be, because I have nothing to lose. I can work with much lower budgets than other games, because I only need to take care of my own expenses. I don’t have to make games the way a studio does, and it’s liberating. Sure, I have to hustle a lot more when it comes to funding and marketing, but these are struggles I’d rather deal with than the ones I faced in industry. And the reason I know that is because I did work in the industry, so I’d say it was a valuable experience overall.