Three years ago, writer Jennifer Hepler left her work at BioWare on Dragon Age amid a tumult of death threats, including threats against her family and children.
But her departure, she said at the time, wasn't because of the online bullying and harassment, it was for "family reasons."
Last week, during a talk at Games for Change Festival, Hepler talked in more detail about that decision to leave and where it led her, both in terms of her career and her view of games, gamers and gaming.
"I started wondering what it was that we were doing that was leading to the behavior we are seeing," she said.
Last year, Hepler joined Kognito, a company that uses the power of interactive conversations to educate, motivate and help people. The game-like experiences they produce deal with discussing post-traumatic stress disorder, fighting obesity, talking with your child about alcohol, and on and on. All of the works are meant to help direct and shape engagement through conversation.
Hepler seems to have come to an epiphany of sorts as her eight-year career at Bioware wrapped up.
"A lot of big commercial games are selling stories about a male power fantasy," she said in her talk on Friday. "In a lot of these stories, the hero tends to be rootless.
"Dragon Age wanted to try something different, about a character with a family, a home to protect, citizenship. The whole team wrote very independent-minded characters."
As the team continued to explore those ideas in deeper and different ways, Hepler said it started to fly in the face of the power fantasy that developers, including herself, had been training gamers to expect.
"A lot of hardcore gamers lost their collective minds about it," she said. "They spewed a ton of vitriol, most of it aimed at me. It was really horrific. But I'm not the first person to be targeted like this.
"Bullying is an epidemic."
Hepler told Polygon in 2013 that after Dragon Age 2 came out in 2011, many of the people involved in the game's development received angry emails, abusive forum posts and petitions calling for them to be fired. About that time, someone dug up an old interview Hepler participated in six years earlier. In the interview, Hepler mentioned that her least favorite part of working in the game industry was playing through games and combat. Some of the interview was put in the official forums as evidence that Hepler was to blame for changes in Dragon Age 2's combat. The forum post was removed, and Hepler went on maternity leave. But then, the following February, someone created a forum post resurfacing the interview and called Hepler the "cancer" that was destroying BioWare.
In August 2013, Hepler left BioWare, moving on to work as the lead writer on Game of Thrones Ascent.
"I started to feel like I really didn't want to keep making games that rewarded the people who were attacking me with gameplay that allowed them to do the same things they were doing to me in real life," Hepler said.
Hepler was clear in pointing out that she isn't criticizing any of the writers at BioWare.
"They're great writers trying to write stories that engage players," she said.
But that work, she said, was sometimes curtailed by the expectations of the games they were working on, expectations that the developers had unwittingly created.
"Dragon Age Inquisition represented our view of what we thought gaming was," she said. "Our goal was to create a power fantasy for the player."
In developing the game, the team originally decided to have a huge tentpole moment early in the game where the hero from Inquisition met with the hero of the first two games, Hepler said.
"In peer review it kept falling flat," she said. "In order to spotlight those characters, we were allowing them to have ideas and think, and the players felt upstaged. We had to scrap that scene and start over because nothing could threaten that feeling of being in control.
"I've done as much as anyone to foster that belief among gamers."
Hepler said that when she left BioWare, she tried to take what she learned and do something meaningful with it: "There is no reason to consider the other person's point of view when no matter what you do you always get the information you need."
After a failed Kickstarter for a relationship-driven science fiction RPG and spending two years working on Ascent, Hepler landed at Kognito.
"After a while, I found Kognito and saw the simulations they made that used interactive dialogue that put other people's needs first," she said.
While she thought the transition from creating traditional game dialogue to creating dialogue for Kognito's products would be easy, it turned out to be a much greater challenge.
Traditional games, she said, use conversation trees that are more akin to a string of beads: Typically, every choice is built around a path meant to lead players in a specific direction, no matter what they say. Even if a player shuts down a conversation with their behavior, they can usually get what they need by trying again or finding another person with the same info.
Kognito's creations attempt to use active listening and clues pulled from dialogue to fashion replies.
"We use a complicated mapping system in which player's choices lock and unlock down the lines of conversation," she said. "What is acceptable to say next comes entirely based on what's been said."
In her talk, Hepler showed off an app called Calm Parents Happy Kids, which is designed to teach parents how to deal with a misbehaving child without losing their temper or showing frustration.
Each choice unlocked or locked conversation options during the demonstration. There was also the option to click on thought balloons to see what others are thinking, and you could get feedback from a virtual coach.
The results of Kognito's creations so far have been surprisingly strong.
In one survey of 307 pediatricians, the American Academy of Pediatrics found that 93 percent of the doctors who used a 15-minute training app about patient interaction planned to change the way they interact with patients.
One month later, 88 percent of that same group said they did make the change they were planning.
Another program, dealing with at-risk students in high schools, seemed to have a significant impact on the way counselors dealt with students in Texas.
Those who played the game approached 71 percent more students to see if they needed help, and 37 percent more were referred to different services.
Seth Bleecker, instructional designer at Kognito, said that the company is working on a number of new programs, including ones that will help pediatricians talk to teens about performance-enhancing drugs and deal with how to support military children in classrooms.
"The real world has plenty of dragons," he said. "And good words can help us fight them."
Disclosure: The author is an unpaid volunteer member of Games for Change's advisory board.
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