As part of our Gaming For Pixels interview series, The Pixel Project spoke to Hyacinth Nil and Reed Lewis, co-founders of Abyssal Uncreations. Hyacinth Nil is a nonbinary interactive artist, musician, and game maker from New York. They make things about gender, kink, computers, alien ruins, dead gods, and the stuff that scares us. Reed Lewis is a nonbinary novelist from New York. Abyssal Uncreations was formed when they realised that they had a story that they wanted to tell that they hadn’t seen before. They are purveyors of dark media with a purpose, creators of multifaceted narratives meant to simultaneously unnerve and shine a light on issues of identity, queerness, gender, neurodivergence, and other themes they’d like to see more of in media they consume. _transfer is their first video game.
Abyssal Uncreations is a Gaming For Pixels partner. They have donated some goodies to the 1st Gaming For Pixels Spring Slam from April 7th – 9th 2017.
Abyssal Uncreations’ debut project is called _transfer – “a game about computers, memory and identity”. Tell us about _transfer and your unique approach to game design.
REED LEWIS: _transfer grew out of an attempt to deal with the experience of being nonbinary—identifying as neither male nor female—in a way that was exciting but also true to us and our lives. The game forces to player to take cues about who and what they are from those around them and construct an identity from these suppositions and assumptions.
As for a “unique approach,” on my end I had never written a video game before, or played them very much, and have pretty much gone into this project as a total outsider. In terms of innovation I was mostly interested in accomplishing things that had never been done to my satisfaction in novels. Giving the player/reader a variable experience has been tried time and again by writers and always falls flat in my opinion, but the structure of the game enables each play-through to be quite different without asking anything of the user.
HYACINTH NIL: _transfer is a story that we had never seen before. There’s plenty of science fiction that deals with issues of identity, artificial life, memory, etc but none that we are aware of use sentient computers as a metaphor for gender and gender identity. We wanted to make a game that was narratively complex, mechanically confusing, tonally frightening, and one that makes players feel like they’re trapped in a box and unable to get out.
We mostly work on our own section of the game and then bring it together when we need to – Reed will write a bunch of it while I work on systems to integrate the writing as well as systems to allow for cool weird user interactions. This gives the project an interesting multimedia feel. We’ve pulled from theatre and film and interactive fiction and sound art and glitch and numerous other artistic forms in addition to games to make the thing as strange, spooky, and singular as we want it to be.
There has been a history of women characters being sexualized, objectified, or even absent in popular mainstream games, with far fewer playable female lead characters than playable male lead characters. With women and girls comprising 52% of gamers, why do you think the gaming industry has been slow to reflect and cater to this demographic? What would both of you suggest be done to address this?
HYACINTH: This is a very complicated problem, as a lot of it is rooted in the longstanding misogyny and transmisogyny of the mainstream tech industry at large.
There are a few ways I see this being worked on in the games space, but none are without their issues. A sort of top-down approach would be to somehow incentivise larger companies to hire more folks who aren’t men. The inextricable challenges here are A) how? And B) dealing with communities who are primed to hate anyone who’s not a white dude. Look at the recent Mass Effect: Andromeda nonsense for an example of what can happen when a woman exists at a company. I think the onus is on these larger companies as the de facto “leaders of the industry” to not produce material that will engender hate in its players, put resources they have towards community management, and create a healthy culture within its players.
Sometimes even this isn’t enough. Look at Riot Games – they have an entire behavioural science division meant to figure this stuff out and still have one of the most toxic player bases in games. We still haven’t really cracked the code on how to fight online toxicity, especially in a culture that by some metrics demonstrates that being the absolute worst will get you everything that you want.
The bottom up approach is basically for those of us who aren’t cis straight white dudes to leave the mainstream industry and hope that it becomes stagnant as a result. That leaves a lot to chance and assumes that most players aren’t hateful and want to play games that are colourful and different and that maybe involve stories or designs or mechanics that they aren’t intimately familiar with in addition to their gritty realistic modern military shooters. I don’t know if this is the case; I hope it is.
REED: Women and girls may make up 52% of gamers but according to a quick google search, they make up only 22% of industry professionals—so there is the all too common situation of men trying to puzzle out how to market to women as a demographic rather than considering that those women are in fact the people consuming their product already. The obvious solution would be for more big gaming companies to hire and promote female game developers.
Successful gamer-run charity events like Extra Life, Child’s Play, and Gamers For Giving have shown that gamers have a huge heart for helping causes. What do both of you think gamers can do to support efforts to end violence against women and girls?
REED: I think the most basic thing that can be done, especially for male gamers, is to call out misogyny when they spot it, and be honest with themselves when they say or think misogynistic things. Don’t allow gaming culture to be a misogynistic culture, and don’t let gamers’ spaces be spaces where violence against women is joked about, dismissed or encouraged.
HYACINTH: Yeah, in talking with really good community managers, you see that the best communities basically don’t tolerate hate. It’s part of their culture to shut down anyone who wants to be vitriolic. Those folks often then either stop or leave. So I’d echo Reed in suggesting that the first step is to not let any of that pass, especially now that the barriers between virtual and non-virtual spaces have been shown to be completely arbitrary.
There are a number of actions that the gaming industry is taking to address the issue of sexism and misogyny and support women in gaming ranging from female-only eSports tournaments to working on tech-driven solutions to curb online harassment against women and minorities. What additional solutions and steps would both of you suggest to effectively tackle the sexism and the online harassment faced by women in gaming?
REED: Like I said above, being able to be honest and accountable personally, especially if you are a male gamer, is paramount. In terms of steps that the industry may take to address this, supporting their own critics would be a good start.
HYACINTH: As designers, we need to think about what the things we make mean and what they can say or incite. Realising that these issues exist is step one for building systems to counter them, or removing systems that create them in the first place (e.g. look at the ways by which Blizzard has taken traditionally extremely toxic genres and made game in them markedly less so by a few small changes in Heroes of the Storm and Overwatch).
As players we need to remember that everyone has a right to be in this space (though I might suggest that this doesn’t include people who are hateful towards others, they don’t belong here). It sometimes feels like we’re screaming into the void when the culture surrounding the entire industry seems set up to counter that kind of progress. But I figure that if we get enough voices together we might just be loud enough.
And finally – why does Abyssal Uncreations support The Pixel Project and our Gaming For Pixels campaign?
REED: As a team, most of the projects Hyacinth and I have done together have involved supporting women and gender minorities, so being able to do that while also creating some evocative and interesting media was a natural choice.