Devi Ever is a person who polarises. A trans* woman who has had her share of experience in drama on the Internet, above all she advocates freedom of speech and the varied palette of viewpoints and opinions an open platform would enable. As such, she is pretty opinionated in herself, which tends to fall directly into love/hate for many people on a lot of occasions. I respect her for this, and have participated in a previous game jam of hers before.
And so when Devi announced Gender Jam, I was again eager to take part. It ended up no longer being centrally-hosted on itch.io, but still it was a jam I really was excited about. The idea behind the jam? Simple – create a game based on your own feelings and/or experiences with gender.
I personally have a tendency toward developing what may seem to others as very shallow game experiences. To me, depth is not in any kind of inherent meaning a game may portray, but in the actual mechanics themselves – scope for strategy, scalable scoring, difficulty-ramping. All of this I consider when making a game. The presentation always lends itself more to the function than the form (although exceptions exist) and by not injecting any meaning or real narrative into the proceedings, I invite players to form their own.
Gender jam was to be experimental for me in the respect that I’d go against this. A little.
Gender is a thing I think a lot about. Firstly my partner is a trans* male, still in the process of transitioning himself — which is a journey I am supporting to the best of my ability. Dating a woman who is, in actuality, a man assigned the wrong physical vessel, opens eyes to matters of gender.
On the other hand, I consider myself a gender-nonconforming person whose designation as ‘male’ is more about other people’s perceptions and convenience than my own. Were I able to tick a box labeled ‘not applicable’ for gender, that would be my choice.
But as I am nonetheless a male in society’s eyes, that means certain expectations are placed on me as a person by society, and I do not always agree with their intention nor their implication. Hence, the inspiration for my gender jam game: MAN UP.
That title is loaded, for a start. Those are two words that, when used in conjunction, make my skin crawl. The idea that because I could lack courage or confidence in certain situations calls into question the validity of my physiological configuration is entirely suspect; and that by acting more masculine I could somehow magically solve most problems I had? No. I’m afraid the world doesn’t work like that.
MAN UP’s game mechanic isn’t too dissimilar from Not Pacman, in fact fundamentally they could be argued to be the same game. This was actually because after developing an endless Asteroids, I had been thinking of how to make that same endlessness apply to Pac Man, a favourite of my own. Regenerating pills, a never-ending supply of ‘ghosts’ that aren’t limited to four — a regenerative playfield that lasts as long as the player.
Why I translated this foetal idea into my gender jam game was to clearly set the message of how I see gender: that gender does not define me as a person. That game mechanics are still paramount to my game-about-gender, and operate foremost before the gender portrayal. This is the point. My game is about gender, but gender does not define my game.
Gender doesn’t define me either. When I’m told to “man up”, that is like somebody telling me “embrace your male privilege and you’ll get through this”, as if my societal privilege as a male is a super-power to be used in times of trouble. Or, you know, the power-pellets in Pac Man. Running with that, I decided to make the ‘ghosts’ into symbols of masculinity; a beard, a wrench, a pneumatic road drill and a boxing glove. I personally reject such symbols of masculinity (okay, except maybe the beard – because my partner likes it. Before them, I used to be a regular shaver) because they do not define me. And so, these symbols kill the player; a gender-less green face.
Conversely, male privilege emasculates such symbols into female ones; lipstick, heels, prams and flowers. And then, they can be devoured in the same way I’m told my automatic masculine super-power devalues women regardless of my mutual respect for people of all genders (indeed, this is represented with the gender-less or ambiguous orange icons that totally revitalise the playfield and award the most points).
As such, I’d made the videogame equivalent of a sarcastic soapbox-rant. I acknowledge and understand the various societal privileges that apply to me as a white male living in the UK, but I think occasionally they can be overblown by people who wish to push forward an agenda on their own or some pet minority’s behalf. Equality is a good thing to strive for, and I consider anyone who truly wants it to be a friend, even if we disagree. Actually, especially if we disagree, as I’m as much a proponent of free speech as Devi Ever. And, like many other people, I will in my own way continue to strive toward equality as a goal. Even if our methods differ, consider me an ally.
But also, I reserve the right to say that my apparent male privilege is not the intoxicating megalomaniacal super-power it is sometimes portrayed as. And maybe sometimes I’m wrestling with it as much as I wrestle to overcome the mechanics of a video game.
That was the meaning I put into the first game to overtly have any meaning, but I did craft it to be as open as I could so that players can find their own. Hope you can find your own meaning when you play MAN UP on itch.io.