Wonder City Designer Naomi Clark on Busting Sexism with Games

Wonder City game graphic

Wonder City game graphic

Girls’ games are chock full of stereotypes. A Google search for “online games for girls” leads to makeovers, “movie star kissing,” and “cute cinnamon rolls” recipes. But Games for Change is hoping to reverse that trend. In support of the Independent Lens documentary Women Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines (streaming on PBS Video until June 14), game designer Naomi Clark has produced Wonder City, a narrative, choose-your-adventure game where players navigate through a high school where people are mysteriously granted superpowers. Each episode explores stereotypes, beauty myths, harassment, bullying, and peer influence. It gives players the chance to fight back against all of those influences and stand up for others.

“The goal is to show that heroism isn’t just in the realm of those who have super powers,” writes Games for Change. “Being there for others, taking care of those who need you, or having an amazing career is just as heroic as fighting villains and saving the day.”

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Naomi Clark, Wonder City game designer

Naomi Clark is a freelance game designer who’s been making games since the early ’90s. She’s worked with Gamelab, LEGO, and Fresh Planet, among other companies, and has produced, designed, and written for games ranging from browser-based MMOs (massively multiplayer online game) to casual downloadable games, social and mobile games, to board games for policy-makers. Along the way she’s taught game design classes and workshops at Parsons, NYU, and the New York Film Academy; blogged about gender and pop culture for Feministe; and helped found the Sylvia Rivera Law Project collective. Clark is currently working on independent projects as part of the Brooklyn Game Ensemble.

She shared with us her creative process and her hopes for the hip and empowering game, Wonder City.

What changed the most in Wonder City from the initial concepts and prototypes, to the finished product?

When we first started working on the concept for Wonder City, we knew that we wanted to make a game that would complement Wonder Women!, the documentary. The original idea was also a story-driven game of characters and choices, but it was a more traditional superhero tale starring an adult superheroine trying to balance work, family, and social life alongside the responsibility of her powers — a little bit like some of the strong real-life heroines of the film. When we workshopped the game at the Bay Area Video Coalition Producer’s Institute, a more focused idea of audience and purpose emerged: we wanted to make a game that anyone could play but that would be tuned to speak meaningfully to tween girls, an especially underserved audience in gaming and superhero narratives. With that in mind, and with the help of writer Phoebe Elefante, we crafted what’s become a really distinctive and different kind of superhero world, one where the protagonists are students, and the superpowers are more about the way you see the world, and how you find and recognize your own power to make change, than being a “chosen one” who happens to be bitten by a radioactive insect or struck by a magic lightning bolt.

How did you translate the themes and message of the documentary into a game? What was the most difficult part about doing this?

Character from Wonder City

Character from Wonder City

From my point of view as the game designer, the most difficult thing was jumping from non-fiction stories of real people’s lives to a fictional universe, and from the kind of media the audience watches to one where we’re asking the player to make a lot of choices. Because games often strive to convey an experience — or facilitate a conversation — that’s about the player and from her point of view, it’s tricky to use them to describe things that have already happened. On the other hand, they’re fantastic for opening up imagination, possibility, and encouraging self-reflection through the act of making choices. There’s a big leap to make between those things, and that conceptual leap is probably the hardest part — but fortunately for our ideas, Wonder Women! the documentary is very much about the power of fictional universes (comic books!) to impact our own feeling of agency in life, in what we do. Once we identified that theme, and found a great question to ask via the game (“What kind of hero will you become?”) things really started to click into place.

How does Wonder City avoid “girl game” clichés, such as cooking, shopping, makeup, and dating?

We knew from the beginning that games dealing primarily in those areas are the most predominant kind of game that’s out there for girls. Websites and game portals are saturated with them! So we just made a conscious choice to avoid all that. As to how we did it? Well, we just didn’t put any of that in. Girls can and do get themselves into all kinds of amazing, exciting situations that don’t involve cooking, shopping, makeup, or dating. Telling stories about other kinds of scenarios is even easier once superpowers get added into the mix, especially since uncontrolled bursts of quantum energy tend to interfere with precise makeup application or preparing hors d’oeuvres. Hmm, that might be interesting to explore in a future episode, though. ;)

How long is the Wonder City pilot episode? What kind of scenarios and content is included?

The first episode of Wonder City will take most players somewhere around 30-40 minutes to complete — not too different than a pilot of a television show, but with a lot of interaction and choices along the way! A lot happens in this episode — it starts off with an “origin story” about how the character you play as end up with superpowers. Of course, things just get more intense from there! I don’t want to give too much away, but naturally as a new superheroine you’ve got to figure out when and how to use your new powers —and in what cause.

How many episodes are planned for the future? What will the focus of those episodes be?

We have a ton of ideas in the oven for future episodes — I don’t want to give away too much, but there’s a broader world of superpowered beings out there beyond the walls of the high school where the first episode is set. We don’t have a set number of episodes plotted out yet — we’d really like to see what our players like about the first episode, among other things.

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Wonder City protagonists

Awareness campaigns like #1Reason, and official discussions and panels like those that were happening at this year’s Game Developer’s Conference are more important than ever. As a woman who’s been working in the game industry for over a decade, I can say without hesitation that the last year has been a watershed time where calls for change have burst into public discourse in a way that’s hopefully too loud to ignore. There’s been a lot of backlash, too, and I’m sure that there are plenty of powerful figures in the industry who have their fingers comfortably plugged in their ears, assuming all the heated outcry over representation, inclusion, and treatment of women is just going to blow over. I’m crossing my fingers that it doesn’t, and continuing to talk about this and encouraging others to do as well. The game industry has got to get more inclusive and less sexist if we’re going to reach our true potential as a creative form, one with limitless expressive possibilities and real social influence for good. As for how the industry can be more inclusive — I think the mass-market retail section of the industry has got to listen to people inside its walls, like David Gaider, who are pointing out that they can be doing a lot more not to outright alienate women as an audience. The rest of the industry already is making more diverse types of games, and we’ve got to keep that going and encourage more women to get involved in making games, as students, professionals, artists, and hobbyists. Lastly, I think we have to get a whole generation of girls to start making games from a younger age, instead of just dropping out of gaming entirely when they get to be teenagers! I’m excited to see what the riot grrl of games looks like in the near future.

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