Interview: Laura Kate Dale on games, writing, diversity

July 2, 2014


Laura Kate Dale is a games journalist, co-founder of the website IndieHaven and creator of the upcoming title You Are The Reason. Staff writer Chris Dominowski talked to her about the state of gender diversity in games, how it affects both the fields of games creation and journalism and some games that incorporate gender diversity in thoughtful ways.

Chris Dominowski, Snackbar Games: You have been in games journalism for quite a while, and in that time, you have been pretty prolific in your work. What made you want to get into games journalism, and what inspired you to help start IndieHaven?

Laura Kate Dale: Video games were always something I have had an interest in. At a very young age, I was given a Super NES by my older brother as a birthday present, and there was just something about that as an antisocial child who wasn’t very good with other people. It was a really good place to have adventures and interact with other people — even if they weren’t real. For me, it was just a nice escape, and a way to have some fun even if I wasn’t good with talking with other people.

As I grew up, I started reading consumer guides with game reviews — like I believe a lot of people who got into games criticism did. I think the point at which I started to realize that games journalism could be an actual job was when I started listening to podcasts on IGN. I used to do an after-school newspaper delivery route, and I would download pretty much all of the gaming podcasts IGN was doing at the time to listen while I delivered papers. This was around the time they started doing Game Scoop and some other channel-specific podcasts. That was the point at which I understood that there were people out there that really were getting paid to know a lot about games and who cared about the future of that medium.


As soon as I realized that, I started to write reviews myself, and I realized that I had a lot that I wanted to say about video games, and it got to a point where I had more to say about video games than I actually had time to play them. I think that was where it came from; that desire from saying “Someday, I want to get paid to write about video games.” To break down what made a game appealing or not — that was a really interesting idea.

IndieHaven was something that came about a year or so after I tried doing unpaid writing work. I had saved up some money from other work and took a writing course led by Hilary Goldstein, who was the Editor-In-Chief over at IGN up until a couple of years ago. He had a writing course over Skype with about twelve other people that lasted six months or so. At the end of the course, he gave us all a challenge: “okay, take what you have learned and make a website.”

We had a conversation with him afterwards, a couple of weeks ago, and he said that he never actually thought any of us would go ahead and do it, or at least not stick with it for more than a couple of weeks. But me and two other people from that writing class, Jose San Mateo and Isaac Federspiel, were the ones that stuck through the six months of arguing over site design and came up with a niche. Everyone else sort of fell to the wayside. It started off as something we were challenged to do, and was nice because it meant that we had our own site to post our material to, and it just grew from there.

SBG: I think a lot of people got into games journalism because podcasts let you more easily see the personalities to go with the people writing the articles, instead of viewing them in the abstract sense of reading their work.

LKD: I wonder if that will be the same going forward, in a world where we have Twitter and journalists’ personalities can be more public. I know that back when I started, Twitter either didn’t exist, or at least people weren’t using it. Back then, it was more “once a week, I get to hear these personalities of people who write about video games.” I don’t know whether, in a Twitter world, podcasting is as important, but I know it was to me.


SBG: You have a game in development that you recently demoed at the London Radius Festival called You Are The Reason. What mechanics of your game do you hope will stand out, and what narrative themes do you hope to address?

LKD: In terms of mechanics, the big thing that I am eager to do is this. You Are The Reason is a top-down 2D RPG, and one of the conventions of that genre that has always bothered me was that there was a big focus on offensive skills being the most prized goals. You will often find that your characters are given a mix of options to defend and many options to incapacitate or stun, but the point is that the big, powerful offensive spells are the ones that get people excited about leveling in most cases (I know there are a few exceptions). The main mechanical thing that I want to do with You Are The Reason is that you have to balance upgrading your offensive skills along with your non-offensive skills.

There is a recurring theme in the game where you have to keep battling a growing group of humans that want to track you down. The main character has a moral stance that they do not want to kill these people; they want to find some other way out of the scenario without killing them. So, as well as your normal killing spells, you are also mechanically incentivized to find ways to incapacitate enemies.

In terms of narrative, the game centers around Vena, a young girl that grows up knowing she can use magic in a world where that is incredibly discriminated against. Anyone in that world who has used magic has ultimately used it for personal gain. The times in which it has become known have been when people use it to, say, try to take over the world, or any of the other nasty things you could do with such a power. So this big stigma developed that if you do use magic, it will eventually corrupt you. The narrative follows this girl as she goes through the world and tries to prove that she can do something good with her abilities, while escaping this mob that knows she can use magic and is trying to track her down. That is part of the reason that she doesn’t want to use offensive magic against these people; she doesn’t want to legitimize their fears and make them think she is dangerous.

There are other narrative threads that link into this — the primary one being that the game world’s discrimination against magic-users is meant to parallel other forms of discrimination in the real world, particularly relating to LGBT issues.


SBG: It’s so rare that we see RPGs that take a nonviolent approach. What were some of your influences in making this game — can you name anything in particular?

LKD: I was a big fan of RPGs during the Super NES era. Games like Final Fantasy IVVI or Chrono Trigger; this era was where I first got my interest of video games in general. It has always been a genre that I have had a passion for wanting to see moved in interesting directions. I think the biggest thing that inspired me to make a game like this was the game To The Moon, a really moving experience that was made in RPG Maker. For someone like me who wasn’t terribly competent with game development tools starting out, this game was a nice reassurance that a simple visual-based tool like this could still tell stories that were impactful and emotionally resonant. That was the big thing that said to me that even now, in the 2000s, that top-down 2D RPGs can still have a lot of emotional impact. That was what I had passion for, and I had easy tools to make it, so I could jump in and start telling my story.

SBG: Based on your time spent in games journalism, what is your opinion of the state of representation of women in the field? What have you noticed about how the gaming public — as well as your peers — tend to treat people of different genders and sexes?

LKD: I think the primary thing I have noticed in the two to three years in which I have been writing about games (and a sign that we are definitely moving in the right direction) is that women’s representation in games has gone from being an issue almost exclusively discussed by women to something that is much more often being discussed by men in the field. When the first men started to bring up the issue of female representation in games, there were a lot of instances where men were bringing up their own opinions on the issue. What has been happening more in the past few months and years is that more men are now saying “Okay, if there is an issue with the representation of women in games, ask women what they think about it, and signal-boost that message using your privilege as a man in the games industry.” There are a lot of men that are now helping by doing this for women in the field, and that has been a really welcoming thing to see.

I think, in general, we’re a long way off from where we need to be in the games industry; there are some statistics out there that show the amount of games with playable female characters versus ones with exclusively male protagonists. The disparity is still so huge, and even when you look at the playable female characters in games, there is often an issue with how they are represented. It’s not a battle that is over by any means. However, I think that the most important step has been taken: that of men signal-boosting the opinions of women in the industry related to this issue. I think that this alone will speed up the rate at which representation progresses considerably.


SBG: At this year’s E3, one of the biggest talking points was about Ubisoft and its excuses for the lack of female playable characters in its games. However, the conversation was limited to discussing the diversity of a playable character’s sex, and never seemed to expand into gender diversity as its own discussion. Why do you think we haven’t seen that take place yet?

LKD: As much as the representation of gender in games as a separate discussion from sexual representation is a personally important issue to me, I think (rightfully or wrongfully) a lot of the discussion of how we classify the different genders in games is still struggling on a very basic level. There are some very basic production pipeline problems in major games corporations — such as you mentioned with Ubisoft and Assassin’s Creed — where adding a female playable character is nearly impossible, at least at the stage where it was noted as a problem. I think until we handle the very base issues of making sure that the majority of studios starting projects are at least accounting for the possibility of a female player so that further down the line, it would at least not be difficult to implement. I think that until such issues are resolved, the issue of sex-vs.-gender in video games needs to be sidelined. In situations like this, there are bigger problems going on, and you need to deal with the surface-level ones first.

I think when the topic of sex and gender in video games is discussed, it will be because something is done wrong. Not something thoughtless like Assassin’s Creed: Unity not having playable female characters, but instead something that is outright damaging and malicious, or at least a situation where not including a particular kind of character would have some negative implications. That is when you will having those sex-vs.-gender discussions, but I still think we are a way off from dealing with some of these more nuanced issues. Which is a shame, because they are important issues to me.

SBG: So, you would say it’s a matter of focus, right?

LKD: Yes, let’s get them to deal with the bigger issues before we move on to things like this.


SBG: Do you think there are any games out right now that try to incorporate gender diversity, or at least try and provoke that next step in the discussion?

LKD: Well, I might as well use this as an example and plug my own game! One of the things that I am quite proud of that I have been doing with You Are The Reason is that there are characters that have already been scripted out (some of which will be in the playable demo coming in July). There is a transgender protagonist where the fact that they are transgender is not a core plot point nor a big reveal, it’s something that just exists about the character. It impacts some of their relations and impact some of the things that go on around them; it’s just a thing about them.

I have trans voice actresses and actors in cisgender roles in the game and vice-versa; it was just a matter of putting the right people in the right roles. Beyond that, later in the game, there is a character who is going to identify as agender: they prefer gender-neutral pronouns and have a more androgynous look. Again, it wasn’t an issue of including these characters in an attempt to force diversity. It’s just that having experienced fiction before that uses different parts of the gender spectrum to build character and impact interactions, the characters were just better-explored by having a background that was an atypical gender. That way, it’s more clear to see why they interact with others the way they do.

So, moving away from pitching my own game for a second, it’s a tricky question to say what games do this well. There are some that do it better than others, but most of the examples I have have downsides to them. My go-to answer for this used to be Erica from the game Catherine, and what I really appreciated about that character was that she 100% passed as her target gender, and you would have never identified her as trans throughout most of the game. There are subtle little nods throughout the game that — while not trying to hint “she was a man” — they’re instead trying to hint at some of the struggles she goes through.

Good examples of that include at one point she is discussing with her friends in the game that she is struggling to get onto a particular sports team. The implication is that neither gendered sports team wants to take her on, because both view her as the wrong gender for the team. There’s also instances of her opinions about the female perspective of the world being discredited by her peers, but the player likely won’t think much of it until they realize that she’s trans. That said, they way they reveal it is a bit “brute force,” and was unpleasant enough that many people disagree with how it was implemented.


SBG: I agree with that, but I also think that Atlus is one of the few major developers that attempt to seriously incorporate gender diversity, even if it isn’t always handled perfectly.

LKD: Actually, there was one more that I wanted to bring up, because it tackles this from another perspective, Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies. It’s unique because it doesn’t necessarily deal with someone who was dysphoric because they were born one gender and identify as another, but what it does it take a character who was born female, puts societal pressure on her to present as male for societal gain, and then shows that if that person tries to live as the wrong gender, then that will cause them feelings of dysphoria. I really appreciate that; while I don’t know how much of that was intentional, it showed that someone who was born the gender they identify with can be put in a situation in which they feel so uncomfortable that they understand what gender dysphoria feels like.

There’s a great book about this (I forget the name as of now) about a real woman who spent a year trying to live as a man, and had essentially the same reaction; by the end of the year, she was very dysphoric. So it was just interesting in Ace Attorney to see the use of cisgender characters to explore the feelings that transgender people have.

SBG: There are a lot of transgender and gender non-binary people in the world who want to get into game development, design or journalism, but feel that the industry isn’t a safe place for them. Would you have any advice or words of encouragement?

LKD: As far as words of advice, be very sure that you’re ready for this. Be sure that you’ve got a strong support network, and that you have people around who can be there for you if you need them. I’d be more than happy to hear from anyone who does have any issues coming up because they are trying to improve diversity in games. That being said, there are so many stories that need telling from people who are not represented in video games. There will always be a market out there for any story you want to tell, particularly for any group that is not being represented at the moment. You will likely find people who love the concept and want to support you. Just know that there are people out there who are craving the kind of things you want to make, and the only way we are going to see these experiences is if you go out and make them yourself.

There are some tools you can use that are easier than others. Twine is good for very simple choose-your-own-adventure text-based stories, and RPG Maker, as mentioned, is a really nice visual tool set for making RPGs. If you want to be a bit more adventurous, there’s Unity, for which there are a lot of pre-made resources available on the asset store, so all that considered, there are good tools out there to get you started on your journey. I have a huge amount of respect for anyone who puts themselves out there in an attempt to create something that improves representation in our medium.

There will be times where that will be a hard thing to do, and there will be issues that come up, but just know that you are making the gaming landscape a more interesting, more accepting place, and I will do anything I can to help make sure that is the case. Anyone that needs help, just come find me on the Internet.

Laura Kate Dale can be found on Twitter, as well as at IndieHaven (which you can support on Patreon). A demo of her game, You Are The Reason, is slated to release later this month.