Game designer Henrike Lode has a long list of games she wants to make, games that stray from the typical "default human power fantasies" that dominate the commercial video game market (and even sometimes work their way into game jams, game development gatherings where creative ideas are encouraged to flow).
At the Game Developers Conference this week, Lode was one of 10 game developers, academics and writers who took part in the GDC Microtalks, which features a series of five-minute and 20-second presentations focused on a theme. This year, the theme of the microtalks was "everyone loves to play." Lode's talk focused on making games for "everyone," not just the "default humans" — "You know, the majority of people you see when you look around [GDC]," she said — and the challenges inherent in making those kinds of games.
"Last year, at the Nordic Game Jam, I wanted to make a game about the role of an untrained helper during childbirth," Lode said. The slide she showed as she spoke was a photograph of a child emerging from the womb, that was both graphic and beautifully shot. "But unfortunately the people I was jamming with were too scared of what the graphics would look like, so instead we ended up making a racing game where you would have to drive a pregnant lady to a hospital before she gives birth."
That game was called Express Delivery, and is available on itch.io. After that experience, and time spent at the Lyst Summit on love, sex and romance in games, Lode said she didn't want to make jam-style games like that anymore.
"I don't want to make racing games ... or fighting, shooting, action, dragon-slaying, strategy games fulfilling default human power fantasies," she said. "I go to a lot of game jams and I always run into this problem that most default humans want to make games about silly jokes in oversaturated genres, which of course is normal when you're just starting out...
"My ambitions as a designer have completely changed. So I started compiling a list of jam games that no one wants to make with me."
The first idea she presented to the crowd was a mod for the game Rymdkapsel, Grapefrukt's space station strategy game. "Instead of building and defending a space station, this game will be about pregnancy," Lode said. "You have to run errands and build up a support system while being attacked by more and more frequent waves of hormones and mood swings."
Next, a Grand Theft Auto mod, where you play as one of the game's prostitutes. "You experience the dangers sex workers face when they get into someone else's car and they put their lives into the hands of a complete stranger," she explained. "You have to decide who to ride with and defend yourself if they attack you, and make sure you get your money before you face your pimp."
"I want to play a new version of The Sims," she continued, "where I can select any gender and sexuality I feel like and the characters with vaginas can menstruate and suffer from PMS and mood swings and sometimes they make bloody messes and they have to clean it up and then they feel embarrassed about it — or not, depending on their personality."
Lode's game ideas ranged from the personal to the satirical, like the game jam idea "Nipple Effect."
"I want to make game where you're presented with a pair of breasts that you have to identify as male or female," she said. "And if you think they're female you have to cover the nipples with a picture of male nipples, but if you accidentally place male nipples on male nipples, you lose. Because that's censorship."
That one got a big laugh from the GDC crowd. She continued.
"I want to make a game that features women who don't remove their body hair," she said, "and women who have [polycystic ovary syndrome], which means that they grow beards and chest hair and it has absolutely nothing to do with the gameplay. The other characters in the game don't even mention it. No one cares...
"I want to make a game about xenophobia and racial bias where you are a courier who has to deliver packages. But every day, your avatar is randomized and if you appear like a person of color or a muslim, people receiving the packages might react in different ways depending on their bias."
Here, she showed a clip from a prank video of a man dressed in traditional Arab clothing who throws a backpack at two men who believe it's a bomb.
Lode wrapped up her talk with three more ideas, noting that as a white female game developer, she doesn't have the personal experience to create certain things authoritatively. "I can only speak for my experiences," she said. "If I want to do this right I have to get input from people with lived experiences."
"I want to make a game where your the parent of a transgender girl like Jazz [Jennings]," Lode said. "On her 11th birthday, you have to decide if you will let her undergo hormone therapy, evaluate whether she's able to understand what this means for her body, while dealing the backlash and judgment from your family and neighbors.
"I want to make a VR experience where your avatar is a private investigator in a wheelchair. You have to follow people around, take pictures, eavesdrop on conversations, but sometimes your targets walk down the stairs and you might miss part of the conversation while you wait for the elevator. You have to search apartments and hotels rooms for clues without leaving any trace. You have to get creative about reaching items that are placed in difficult locations and your condition might even come as an advantage if you use it to trick people, feign helplessness so you can snatch wallets and phones out of their pockets.
"I want to make games about taboo topics, like domestic violence against men. But I realize that I am not a man, and I don't have any experience with domestic violence. But I would love to brainstorm this concept with people who do in a community where they feel safe enough to share their personal experiences."
Lode concluded with a twist on the GDC Microtalks theme — "I want to make games for everybody, because every single one of us deserves to play" — and a request that if anyone does want to make those games with her, to get in touch.
Henrike Lode's work can be seen at her website.