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It Comes in Waves: Designing Class

This post is part 3 in a series of interviews with the developers of the game “It Comes In Waves” - a research creation game set to release in late spring 2021. The goal of these interviews is to discuss the thought and consideration that went into the game, acting as one method of archiving the process, thoughts, and decisions that go into making social impact games. This post is a collection of thoughts gathered from interviews with the Production and Narrative Team: Courtney Blamey, Lyne Dwyer, and Michael Iantorno.


Previous posts in the series here: Part 1 and Part 2.

The final release of It Comes in Waves might initially seem like a game on frontline workers in the pandemic, having the team also thought through how they would present class precarity within the many facets of the game.


MI: “The previous project we worked on was based around traditional ideas of blue-collar labour. So this is a departure from that previous work we have done by focusing on precarious labour, so part-time labour, and frontline workers specifically which makes sense in the context of the pandemic.”


The team wanted to highlight the precarity that the pandemic exacerbated. Because of this the team was able to decide that:


CB: “The explicit focus of this was that we wanted to use our platform and the project to talk about frontline workers, a term which has arisen dramatically since March. And how the ones who are on the frontline, who are most exposed to catching COVID-19, are also in financially precarious positions because they are the sort of folks who might be grocery store workers, pharmacy workers, your care workers and nurses. So we wanted to delve into the precarity of those workers as the people who are the most out there right now. They are the ones that are still getting on buses, still getting on metros, and were struggling to buy masks or groceries at the start of the lockdown”


However, by focusing on frontline workers the team initially became worried that they had moved beyond their objective of discussing class. As Courtney said:


CB: “It is really interesting because I think as we started we focused so much on the frontline care worker element of it and the general danger they were in that the social class element took a backseat for a bit. So when we went back to it, it was a bit of challenge for some of us without the experience of financial precarity where we did not want to write for someone’s experience that is not our own.”


And as Lyne Dywer affirms over time it seemed that initial plans became more challenging:


LD: “The game’s relationship to class felt more evident initially. We were trying to talk about the pressure and tensions of the kinds of expectations being placed on essential workers and intended to use timed task lists to reflect that pressure. It became a bit more difficult because the game isn’t just about Beattie anymore, it is not about one essential worker, it is about two specific communities of people.”


So the team began to revisit their approach and focused on these communities that exist. This initially meant a change in the literature they used to guide their understanding of class:


MI: “So rather than draw upon a very strong tradition of literature on the working class we are focusing more on broader ideas of precarity within the current neoliberal situation we find ourselves in. Beyond the obvious frontline workers in the nursing homes who are, for the most part, underpaid contract workers, we work in a lot of sharing economy jobs too. We also talk about people working in grocery stores who are affected by implementing policies that go beyond their minimum wage labour and how these occupations all interact with each other a little bit.”

Figure 1. Example of Community Precarity

The cast of character became more than just Beattie’s state of precarity, rather they reflect precarity's existence the community. In order to show this, the game's narrative where they could carve out the distinct class-based focus of the game. It is:


LD: “In the writing process, we really started being able to explore the minutiae of day to day situations. So it is not about programming a game where Beattie has a wallet and you literally have to manage a person’s income. We want to pull on tensions that are familiar to us or that a person might experience if they are being asked to come into work during a pandemic, potentially putting their health at risk, and having to interface with other people who are very scared and trying to keep in touch with their loved ones.”


And this relationship is felt through:


LD: “Her personal monologue [which] does a lot of work in alluding to these aspects of socioeconomic class that we often see quantified in games but not necessarily seen explored narratively.”


Connecting this to the story, the team:


CB: “Took some approaches to signal Beattie as someone who is in a precarious financial situation through some of the decisions the players take during the week. For example, can you order take out this week? Can you splurge or will you feel guilty about it?”


It was in these moments that the team was:


LD: “Trying to communicate the tensions that come with being essential but not having your labour compensated in a way that communicates that you are essential and how that pops up in your social relationships and day to day activities.”

Figure 2. Example of a tough character choice that hints at economic precarity

Re-emphasizing the decision to order food players are forced to answer a question:


LD: “Is Beattie, as a low income person, going to have the energy to make themselves nutritious dinner at the end of the day after having worked a stressful shift telling very afraid people that she doesn’t know if they can see their loved ones again, or is she going to get takeout? We have some text there where she might be deliberating the ethics of this - can I justify spending the money? Am I putting somebody else at risk by getting them to come to my door? Are they being protected?”


These moments are meant to be tough, they exist to have the player see the many questions that are going through Beattie’s mind as she decides to partake in a seemingly simple action. Players are meant to experience class through the story and its embedded decisions and as you play the game, the designers hope that:


LD: “Class comes through with this sort of breakdown of the barrier between her work and her home. It comes through when she isn’t sure whether she can continue to work at both her jobs with the risk that is involved, and then comes home and she can still hear the leaky pipe under the sink that her landlord hasn’t fixed.”


These moments help class drip through the words and images of the game. Precarity over class position means that players will notice the stresses and tensions of the choices they make. Sometimes precarity is subtle, hard to perceive unless you are actively looking for it. The class position of the communities presented in the game is meant to highlight individual precarity alongside others in a community. Your job as a player isn’t to navigate the poverty ladder by spending or accruing wealth. Rather, you are meant to experience simple choices as tough decisions throughout the precariousness of the pandemic and the characters financial situation. Class precarity is meant to enmesh a large amount of the actions, environments and lives of the characters, and if you play the game with a critical eye you will notice it.

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