SCWIST Special: Interview with Kimberly Voll
Kimberly Voll is a game developer, researcher and artist, and a strong and active voice in the Vancouver tech community. Among many other activities, Kimberly has spearheaded the Vancouver Global Game Jam, where a record number of independent developers flock to create new games in 48 hours. After teaching at both the University of British Columbia and the Centre for Digital Media, currently Kimberly dedicates 100% of her time to game development at Radial Games. Ana Pesquita interviewed Kimberly Voll for SCWIST (15th of September, 2015).
SCWIST: How did you get into game development?
KV: Gaming has been in my DNA from the beginning. From the time I was two or three years old playing on the Atari 2600, I was totally captivated by the narrative aspect of video games and fell in love with their ability to transfer us to places that otherwise couldn’t exist. Simultaneously with the love for games I developed a love for computers. From a very young age I started programming, writing my own games, and playing with chat-bots. This was all part of a meandering route that led me to become interested in how humans work, how they think and how they speak. Ultimately, this interest colored my approach to University where I ended up doing a Cognitive Science degree and later a Ph.D. in Computer Science focusing on Artificial Intelligence. All throughout this time my creative and intellectual outlet was playing games and creating my own games. After completing the Ph.D. I started seeking connections with companies in Vancouver that were making games. Very recently, I decided that I wanted to challenge myself to publish my own games. And so I did; I now live and bread video games.
SCWIST: To which extent do you consider video games to be a reflection of culture and society?
KV: I think of games as fundamentally human. To create great experiences you have to understand more about people. How they think, how they fell, how they look at themselves, and how they find their place in the world. There are always amazing facets of humanity that are reflected in games. By extension games are also a reflection of our culture. For lack of a better expression, we can see the health of our culture reflected in the health and diversity of games. Games today speak to the nature of our culture. Currently, I believe that our culture is in a state of flux. A lot of that flux is around how we identify as individuals. Some fundamental shifts are in course in regards to how we perceive self-identifying concepts such as gender. Gender as a binary concept has started to be replaced more frequently by gender as a spectrum. This is a major foundational shift. In general, games reflect a lot of the socio-normative binaries that we have in life. And gender is one of the big ones.
SCWIST: Your motto “games for all, by all” voices a need for inclusivity in the gaming world. Where do you see the biggest need for change, in the community or in the industry?
KV: In the community there are more people now that are becoming more comfortable with the notion of gender fluidity. Gender as a concept should be less a mandate of who you are as a person. But given that, what is gender? A lot of us grow up in an environment that tells us that gender is the thing that defines whether you like pink or blue, play with these toys, pursue these careers, are good at these academic subjects. This is all dictated magically, it would seem, by gender. Gender has served to help us make faster assumptions about people, but I would like us to slow down and back off a bit, and just get to know people by who they are. On the flip side, when looking at the industry it’s easy to see that they are in a really tough spot. They exist to make money. They are not intrinsically evil. They are trying to pursue a goal, which is to push a product or a service. One of the tried and true ways of getting people to buy a product is by leading them to identify with that product on some dimension. And one of these dimensions is gender. Industry is part of a catch 22. Products are marketed to people in such a fashion that they reinforce gender binaries, and then people are exposed to these gender binaries, which leads to their reinforcement. It is a really hard thing to break out off.
SCWIST: In your work as a game developer, how do you deal with implicit gender stereotypes?
KV: I found it challenging and disturbing when I discovered that I was making a lot of assumptions with my language, the way I carry myself, the jokes I make… I try to be a good person, and yet I might find myself accidentally contributing to misconceived stereotypes. So as a game developer, and in general, I have got to be vigilant. I believe that the most important thing is to create a safe spot where it is ok to talk about these issues. For example, if you are developing content for a game, the best thing is to have a conversation about what are the implications of this content. It’s going to be hard to get it right, we are never going be perfect, we might still accidentally step on a toe, or stick a foot in our mouth. But if our intentions are good and we have access to safe spots to discuss the issue, I believe we can all learn together. The more effort we can put into helping people find the tools and spaces to have these hard conversations the better.
SCWIST: Do you see games as a tool for societal change?
KV: Games are fundamentally an interactive media. Unlike a movie or book in which you are more of a passive consumer, games put you in a position of agency, where you have the control and the ability to make choices. Game developers can invite players into alternative situations and expose them to choices that they otherwise would not be exposed to in their daily lives. Thus games provide us with a tool to demonstrate different perspectives, and effect growth in people’s worldviews. For example, one of my favorite games is Journey in which you and other people are dropped in a gorgeous world and develop a shared experience of this new world. Another good example is Papo & Yo, which explores the challenges of having an alcoholic parental figure. Games can provide a safe way to experience someone else’s reality. Games can be a safe way to put oneself in someone else’s shoes. Or at least put a toe in their shoes, and through that experience potentially start appreciating something differently.
SCWIST: Can you give us some tips on how to become a game develop and in particular, on how to transition from academia to industry in this field?
KV: The number one thing you can do to transition into industry is to just make things. Make your own games, make your own interactive content, write programs, and build apps. Look for opportunities to get your hands dirty. Do things that are reflective of the things you would be doing in industry. This will build up our resume, but it will also build up your own confidence, and most importantly it will highlight holes in your own understanding, so you can then seek ways to fill those holes. If you are in academia and you don’t push yourself in those ways, when it comes the time to transition to industry you might not have the relevant experience that companies are looking for. Thus for the people on the hiring side it may be difficult to see how you would translate into the matrix of their company. So build stuff, create stuff and then the transition can often be very seamless.