In preparation for the NYU Game Center’s PRACTICE conference, we are publishing long-form interviews with some of the amazing designers that will be speaking at the event.

The PRACTICE: Game Design in Detail conference runs this weekend, November 9-11 2012.

In this interview, MFA student Franziska Zeiner interviews Naomi Clark, a freelance game designer based in New York City who’s been making games since the early 90s. She’s worked on producing, designing and writing for games ranging from browser-based MMOs to casual downloadable titles, social and mobile games, and games for new handheld platforms and is currently working on a new independent project with the Brooklyn Game Ensemble.

Franziska Zeiner: In a recent blog post you talk about Indie Game: the Movie and how your approach to game development is different from the one portrayed in the documentary. How do you feel about the film fostering the stereotypical image of game designer, instead of showing what independent game development can be beyond ramen and depression?

Naomi Clark: You said it very well in your question! Indie Game: the Movie presents a fairly narrow idea of what independent game development is like and who independent game developers are. Because there simply aren’t many portrayals of game development in popular culture, Indie Game: the Movie comes across as pretty authoritative — and after all, it’s called Indie Game: THE Movie, not “Another Movie about Indie Games” or what might be the most accurate title, “Quirk-Driven Retro Platformers: The Story of How Some Young White Guys Struggled Financially to Re-Popularize an 80s Game Genre.” If it was one documentary out of many, this wouldn’t really be much of a concern. Neither would the way the filmmakers have skillfully found a story within the material they filmed, a story featuring the “starving artist” as troubled but passionate hero who has to make great sacrifices to realize a creative vision “outside of the system.”

Ironically, a lot of the pressure on the developers portrayed in the film comes from the systems they’re embedded in, like the Super Meat Boy team’s race to make a Microsoft deadline for Xbox Live, or the pressures created by the social scene and expectations surrounding Fez. They’re just different than the systems and pressures on developers in the AAA section of the industry, or anyone who’s not self-employed, and it’s essential that alternatives to the mainstream exist — but even within an “outsider” perspective a standardized, local hegemony can start to solidify. Especially for people who aren’t familiar with all the ways that games can get made, one picture starts to become the first thing that pops into your head when someone says “independent game development.”

It’s worth noting that this picture is also populated with a usual suspects cast of slightly disheveled, socially awkward white guys with facial hair — which is an unsettlingly accurate depiction of what’s typical in independent game development, even moreso than the starving artist motif.

FZ: To someone who is new to the game industry, it can sometimes be very difficult to find your place in the industry and to know what exactly one can contribute to a team of game designers. Can you talk a bit more about how you approach collaborative game design and what you see as your strengths in this process?

NC: Working together with other game designers can be incredibly rewarding and fun, but also very tricky if everyone’s roles and responsibilities aren’t clearly delineated. There are some simple ways to do this — through hierarchy or seniority to determine who gets to make the final call, or through specialization where design is split up into multiple tasks, especially on larger projects. Hierarchical decision-making carries neither the challenges nor the rewarding aspects of true collaboration, though — the kind of process where your ideas and ability to communicate them are tested first of all with your creative partners. It’s still very useful to know your strengths when collaborating, of course, because it helps to be flexible on areas where one of your collaborators has a deeper understanding. For the same reason, knowing what you find most important or vital about your project is useful too — what do you really want to advocate for when you’re picking your battles?

Most of all, I am glad that I have a long background in consensus process — a type of decision-making that doesn’t rely on majority vote or top-down decisions, but where everyone who has a stake in a decision must agree in order to move forward. On paper, it sounds like a difficult way to get things done, but I’m perpetually surprised at how effective consensus is especially in small groups which have already agreed on foundational goals. Even in very hierarchical corporate settings, I’ve found that consensus decision-making is tacitly practiced during most day-to-day decisions in order to keep creative buy-in strong amongst team members. On top of that, there are many “flavors” of consensus process, including some ideas I tend to favor, such as the idea that the people who are most affected by a decision ought to have more voice in discussion and decision-making around it. In practice, this means (among other things) that it’s important for a programmer to weigh in on how a particular feature will be implemented, since they’re the one doing the work!

FZ: How do you as a game designer deal with stalemate situations in your game development process?

There are two types of stalemate that come to mind for me when thinking about game development. One is a situation where two members of a creative team have a difference of opinion that isn’t easily resolved. In my experience, if there are two people on a team who cannot figure out how to agree, compromise, or simply back down to choose a different battle, then your team has much deeper problems than simply figuring out what decision to make at that particular moment. That team probably has process and personality issues which are going to cause more problems, and which need to be addressed and talked through! If you let a bad creative culture fester in ways that are creating irresolvable conflicts, it’s likely that you’ll have a hard time making a really good game.

One way to resolve a creative conflict easily is to put an idea to the test. A large percentage of arguments about design ideas are hypothetical, with team members arguing about which method is better before the actual work of developing it. The proof is in the pudding: all you have to do is pick one, usually whichever can be implemented in a quick, testable fashion, even in a rough form. Once you have that decision represented in your game system, prototype, ruleset or however you’re going to play and test your game, it’s much easier to find out whether the assumptions and arguments you’ve been tossing around are correct — whether that means seeing how playtesters react, or whether the system produces the intended results.

Another type of stalemate happens when a designer is struggling with the system itself, rather than with another person working on the same project. Thorny design problems, results that were expected and failed to materialize, or a simple lack of fun — all these things can happen during a design process, sometimes multiple times! Collaboration and getting fresh perspectives on a project from outside can help tremendously, and so can “backtracking” to an earlier or simpler phase of the design, even a prototype, to see if the design decisions you’ve made took a wrong turn somewhere.

FZ: In your 2011 GDC talk with Eric Zimmerman you talk about the cultural context in which players play games. What is your opinion on localizing games. Do you believe in its purpose beyond maximizing profits? Or should we rather challenge players to play ‘outside’ of their comfort zone?

NC: Game developers have to be careful not to pander to what we think our players want. Marketing-driven decisions about what goes into a game, a film, a television show are rarely as accurate as the people touting those methods would have you believe, and the risk only goes up as you start trying to cater to audiences who you don’t know very well, whether that means a different demographic in your own culture or somewhere else entirely. Games are relatively new at this, but most savvy consumers of culture are pretty aware what kind of films and television come out of these processes: critics use terms like “watered down” and “overly focus tested” to describe the distinct lack of flavor or unifying vision that can result.

That said, there are certainly a few good reasons to do localization of content beyond just translation of text or spoken dialogue. Maybe the game you’re localizing has very little to say beyond its ability to generate profit, and it doesn’t matter! Maybe the people making this game made a trivial, cosmetic choice in the culture of origin, something that doesn’t make a huge difference to the game’s aesthetic or vision, but which turns out to mean something completely different in another culture. Leaving an issue like that in a game would be an annoying, accidental distraction.

Lastly, maybe you have collaborators or colleagues who are part of the culture that you’re bringing the game to, and you have an opportunity to work with them to make the game genuinely better. In the last case, the industry too rarely takes the opportunity to go deeper than cosmetic changes to text or graphics, and the result can be insultingly shallow. I’m reminded of the episodes of the Pokemon cartoon where the characters are eating rice balls, but the voice-over dialogue refers to them as “donuts” — even though they look nothing like any donuts ever seen on earth. The idea that American kids have to be pandered to in this way, because “rice balls” would be more confusing or bizarre than referring to non-existent “donuts” represents the worst of this kind of impulse.

FZ: There has been an ongoing discussion about women in the game industry and the way women are portrayed in video games. Do you think the way women are portrayed in video games is offensive and/or misguiding? Why hasn’t there been an outcry from the average male gamer about the way men are often portrayed as beef-cakes in video game?

NC: There’s been more outcry from people claiming to represent the “average male gamer” over beefcake male characters in games in the last year than in the two decades before, because we’re seeing a strong backlash from people who prefer the status quo rather than admitting that games ought to grow up and stop being a male-dominated club. There’s never been an outcry before that because sexism does not affect men and women equally, even though it’s harmful to all of us. Sexism is an ancient, foundational principle of our society which, contrary to what some people would have you believe, has not completely unraveled or become reversed, and its core principle is that women exist to be daughters, sex objects, servants, and mothers for men. To explain the reason nobody complains about “beef cakes” I can simply quote what’s become conventional wisdom on the internet: unrealistic portrayals of men in video games (or comic books) are not about those men being sex objects, or objects at all — they’re usually aspirational in some sense for the player or reader, part of the subject-hood of that character. The reverse is usually true of unrealistic, exaggerated portrayals of women. All you need to validate this theory is go out and see what male characters look like if they’re actually being sexualized and objectified for female audiences; Japanese yaoi comics are a good example, and they’re nothing like muscular beef-cake depictions. That’s most commonly a male fantasy, not a female one.

I don’t particularly care if anyone is offended by a sexist game — to not do something simply because you cause offense is a pretty weak-minded reason on its own, and one that lacks in principle or conviction. I’m not offended by sexism myself; that would be like having a sand allergy in the Mojave desert, especially in the game industry. I just believe it’s unjust and wrong to support and shore up the structures of sexism, which have been crumbling slowly for a century. I think it’s pathetic and sad to try and create little pockets of culture in which it can hide and where immature people can feel better about their sexist attitudes rather than growing up. I care about games as a form of culture, as a conversation that should grow to be enriched by many voices, and as a legacy for future generations. I even care about what people outside the game industry and fandom think about the current state of games, and a lot of people think we’re pretty immature and sad in this regard. So yeah, I think there’s some growing up to do in how women are represented, because we’re way behind the rest of culture, sitting in a remedial class with comic books and those rubber flaps on the back of 16-wheeler truck tires. Keeping games useful as masturbation fodder for boys is not a particularly high priority for me.

I really do think things are changing, and that’s why we’re seeing a lot of grumbling and vicious backlash against people who care about making games less sexist. That’s all the more reason to keep going and improving the culture of games, rather than stopping halfway to try and make everyone happy. But hey, I’m all in favor of masturbation fodder being available to people who just want to masturbate. I hope the sex-games genre will be invigorated by the fact that most games are going to have to think about wider audiences than adolescent and post-adolescent straight boys, and more rationales for character art than sex fantasy. If we moved in that direction, I bet we’d eventually get to the point where we have richer, more interesting, and less one-dimensional representations of sex, love, sexuality, and romance in games.

FZ: A new generation of game designers with a more formal education in game design is emerging from schools like NYU. How do you think this will change the industry and the current practices of game designer?

I think there are going to be a lot more game designers out there, with a more sophisticated understanding of game design. The bad news is that it may be harder to get a job! The good news is that I think it means games will mutate, evolve, and serve as experiments in ways that build on what we’ve collectively learned so far in the history of games. The number of people who could build on that history has been very, very small until the last decade or so, and it means there are exciting times to come for games.

I’m also wary of the institutionalization of our profession, however — right now, it’s not mandatory to study game design at a school with a degree to become a game designer. There are plenty of other professions where a degree has become virtually mandatory, where knowledge has been codified into less fluid and flexible shapes, and where there’s a perceived pecking order of good, expensive schools to mediocre, less expensive schools. Those kinds of institutions can be very profitable for those who run them, but make relatively minimal contributions to advancing the value of a profession or the expansive, interesting evolution of a creative form.

Naomi Clark is a speaker at PRACTICE this year. Join us on the weekend of November 9th – 11th for a deep dive into game design theory and practice with Naomi and a collection of the best game designers in the field.