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It Comes In Waves: Oversight Reflections

This post is the last 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 an interview with the project lead Dr. Mia Consalvo.

Previous posts in the series here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5.

The Idea:

Every creative piece starts as an idea that grows into its final design. The creation of It Comes in Waves is no exception. Spearheading the development and management of this team, Dr. Mia Consalvo reflects on the larger context behind her role in the creation of the game:

“A few years ago, while working on other projects, I had gotten the idea that social class had not received a ton of attention from game studies. I had seen a few studies on race and class or gender and class, but class was always tacked on. When I did initial literature searches I found out that there was not much out there at all.”

This eventually led to Consalvo receiving a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Alongside a small team of graduate students she began:

“To look at how social class was depicted in games, both in terms of narratives and gameplay mechanics. We were hoping to also look at players’ social classes and how class affects the industry.”

Importantly, research needs to adapt to the contexts within which it is centred. So of course the global pandemic caused the team to re-evaluate their focus.

Figure 1. Art for Louis one of the care home workers in the game.

“When COVID struck we kept going with our game analyses, but I was reading a lot about how class was impacting people differently during the pandemic. There was lots of talk initially about the essential workers needed to keep things running during initial lockdowns - and then defining who was an essential worker. I don’t know how many of us a few years ago would have said that grocery store workers or nursing home staff were essential, but suddenly it became obvious that they were. These were the people who had to keep working in unsafe conditions but were not getting paid much to do so. So I started talking to the team about it and said, ‘why don’t we make a game that points to the precarity of the lives of these kinds of workers?’”

Leading the Project:

The goal of It Comes in Waves is to highlight the precarious positions that underpaid essential workers experience due to the pandemic. However, as the team members discussed (Link to Other Post), designing a game about the pandemic during the pandemic was a major challenge. For Consalvo, this led to considerations in how she led the project:

Figure 2. Art for Cecelia who lives in one of the game's care homes.

“I have to acknowledge the challenges for the team working on this in a pandemic. This would include making sure they take a step back when they can and providing spaces for them to take time off. Some of the stuff we read can be horrifying such as the CHLSDs in Quebec and Ontario, so we would talk about it as a team but also make time for us to step away. But not just for us but also in the game. I helped the team consider if the character can take breaks, can they take a day off, or can they have a pet to provide some joy. So we made sure that breaks were built into the game character’s day and into our lives as designers.”

Consalvo’s main role was to oversee the project, however she also helped with some tasks like writing character histories and playtesting the game for bugs. Consalvo’s past experience with other game labs helped her envision her role here as the game’s ‘Product Owner’ stating:

“I worked at MIT for a couple of years as a visiting associate professor, when they were running the Gambit Game Lab, a partnership with the government of Singapore. Each summer university students would come to the lab to make games that had a research component. Every game had a staff liaison who had development experience and the product owner who had the original idea with the research question but didn’t necessarily have a deep background in design but was involved in the process to keep things focused on the research question.”

For It Comes in Waves, the product owner primarily worked with the team to make sure the goals and objectives of the project were coming through in design. Of course sometimes this position brings its own challenges.

“I will joke with friends sometimes that doing this is being the Crusher of Dreams. The team all comes up with these great ideas, and they are really great ideas, and half my job is to say no because otherwise we will never finish. It kind of sucks, but my role often is to say, ‘maybe for the next iteration’, ‘maybe for the expansion’, or ‘maybe if we do a future iteration’. We are a small team, we have limited resources. So my job is to keep steering the ship back to that central line around the possibilities of what we can do with scope but also let’s keep coming back to that essential question of how class fits into this.”

Through weekly meetings, Consalvo helped the team scope down their ideas and focus on project expectations. She would keep bringing them back to specific questions:

“Because it is easy in game development to have 12 great ideas and wander off the map. In this game, I would ask myself and the team: What does it mean for this game to be successful? Yes we want it to be about an orderly in a nursing home, but in terms of a class perspective how does that fit in, and how do you do that without it being preachy or a trauma simulator while maintaining a meaningful or thoughtful experience?”

Making sure the Goals are met:

The team were hyper aware of how players would experience the game, and by pushing the team to focus on effective representation of the life of a nursing home orderly, social class had begun to slip through the cracks. So Consalvo would sometimes prompt the team to inject it back in.

“This is a thing that we wrestled with the most. Because I think we were so focused on the healthcare side and getting that right - that the precarity side kind of slipped away a bit. So I have been talking with the team about how to build that back in. So there are small moments where it exists, such as Beattie wondering, ‘should I get take out tonight or eat the leftovers in my fridge’ to save money, but I am always thinking about how to see more of that built into the game (Figure 3). In fact, I think the end of the game is where it comes across strongly - where Beattie (the game’s protagonist) has her own agency and future challenged.”

Figure 3. Game snippet of decision to order food.

Reflecting on this, Consalvo suggests that this situation might have occurred because the goals themselves shifted alongside the pandemic.

“The goal has changed a little over time. When we started the game we were closer to the start of the pandemic ourselves and now we can look back at that time with some perspective. The pandemic has a history now - remember when we didn’t wear masks, or debated wearing masks etc, and PPE was scarce. So in a way the game has been about documenting that shift in the pandemic. However, I still want people to take away the sense of precarity that is tied to being an essential worker. I want the player to think about what it might be like to have to go in to work even if you don’t want to, even if you don’t feel safe, because you need to earn a living.”

Thinking about the Future:

When asked if she thinks the game will be successful in meeting these goals, she said:

“That is a hard question. Anything you make is hard to judge on its success because we know where all the gaps are. I really want to see some thorough playtesting so we can get feedback from folks who have not been intimately part of the construction of the game. Like, is it doing the things we want it to do - does it give you a sense of the uncertainty of the situation, the precarity of the work, and the general sense of needing to work even if they do not feel safe because working from home is not an option. We want to convey that tight spot that these people are in.”

As the other interviews discussed, the team has put a large amount of work and consideration into every detail of the game. Because they had to scope down, there is lots of content and narrative that never even made it into the game. Consalvo and the team are still considering if it will just be one game or if sequels or others will be produced:

“I don’t know. We vary between calling it a game and a prototype. We decided for scope that we would make the game four days. Yet, this was a project that was added onto the larger grant, it was never envisioned in the grant, so we need to get back to the other elements of the project which also helped shape the scope. But it could be the case that if we do some testing and it is well received we could follow Beattie beyond the shift to working at just one facility. We also had ideas for other games, but for now I want to focus on finishing this one first.”

Thanking the Team:

In the end, a product owner cannot succeed without the team putting the work into the project. Consalvo iterated just how talented all of them were and I hope this series of posts has helped reflect that. In her concluding thoughts she said:

“All of the team has just done a great job. It is so amazing, every week, to hear from them in terms of, not just what they have done, but their resiliency and how everyone has pitched in to help one another. Which in academia is the dream. It has been wonderful to see and has already made this project a success in terms of team work, team building, and tackling a challenging problem with care and consideration.”

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