The gaming industry has a well-known diversity problem.
However, amid the bustle at PAX Australia, the largest gaming convention in the southern hemisphere, a new exhibit put underrepresented games and developers at the forefront.
Led by Australian curator and Rumu gamerunner Ally McLean, the NEXT exhibit featured six games that shake things up, including one by an all-woman developer team, a creator with autism, and a game that examines life as a transgender teenager.
“I know that diverse teams make awesome games, and I know that there are barriers to diverse teams getting to do things like show their games at PAX. It’s expensive, it can be prohibitive, especially coming all the way to Australia,” McLean told Mashable.
“It’s equally as important that consumers and the largest fan base of gaming enthusiasts … are exposed to diverse developers, so that they can broaden their minds to not just what games can be, but who game developers can be.”
McLean dreamt up the idea at PAX East in Boston in April, when she was showing Rumu as part of the Australian showcase.
With an aim to launch NEXT at PAX’s Melbourne instalment in October, McLean accepted applications until the end of July, by which she received over 100 submissions for six exhibitor spaces. The final selection of games to make up the very first NEXT was decided by a panel of diversity advocates and developers looking for unheard stories in gaming.
“The driving question was really, what does this game offer that we haven’t seen anywhere else?” McLean said.
“What does this game offer that we haven’t seen anywhere else?”
The six chosen games came from teams like Montreal-based Artifact 5, who’ve developed a surrealist game exploring mental illness in Anamorphine, and fellow Montreal crew Kitfox Games with its dating sim and adventure crossover Boyfriend Dungeon.
She and the Light Bearer is a point-and-click adventure based on Indonesian folklore, developed by Mojiken Studio.
There’s also the all-woman team of 3 Fold Games, who’ve created Before I Forget, which explores life with dementia. While a Brazilian team of students called Pugcorn were behind Florescer, which examines the hardships and prejudices of a transgender girl.
An Aspie Life
One particular game that was featured at NEXT is Bradley Hennessey’s An Aspie Life, which reflects on his own experience of living with Asperger’s Syndrome.
Released in March on Steam, Hennessey taught himself how to make the game while he was in the last year of high school. PAX is the first gaming convention he’s ever attended.
“I think NEXT is really important because PAX is mainly about AAA gaming, with lots of brand new shiny things,” he explained. “But in the indie space there’s so many games that try and push the boundaries, which get left behind because they’re different.”
In An Aspie Life, you play as a character living with Asperger’s Syndrome, who has to face the outside world after your roommate mysteriously leaves.
While developing the game, Hennessey paid more attention to his own traits, which includes noise sensitivity and body language perception.
“The difficult part was trying to turn my traits into game mechanics that can be playable, and that was very difficult because it hasn’t really been done before,” he said.
In the game, you’ll take on a task as mundane as grocery shopping. But that becomes a mission, with loud police sirens and interactions with strangers posing a severe challenge in the game, punishing your happiness levels.
For Hennessey, not only does showing his game at PAX expose his story to a new audience, but it allows him to further grow as a developer.
“Online you can get your comments and stuff, but there’s no human interaction, so as a developer you can’t see how people find bugs, or how they got to that position,” he added.
“But being at PAX and seeing people play it, and seeing how they interact with it helps with me as a developer on future projects.”
What’s next for NEXT
While the gaming industry has a long way to go when it comes to diversity, NEXT is one of several groups that are fighting to do better. But will the rest of the industry notice?
“I’m definitely of the belief from my experience in the games industry that people are willing to help if you give them a way. So when we put out the call out for sponsors for NEXT, we were really blown away that people responded,” McLean said.
While the first NEXT proved an exciting, impactful start, the ultimate goal is for the exhibit to have a larger presence in future.
“Six games is not enough,” McLean added. “We’d love to see this become a bigger part of PAX, we’d love for this to part of shows all around the world, and giving a platform for developers that would otherwise not get to be here.”