A Chat with Video Game Designer Nina Freeman About Trends, Women and Communities in Gaming

I chatted with Nina about her thoughts on everyone's Pokemon Go obsession, her advice to girls who want to get into gaming, and online etiquette.
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Publish date:
July 31, 2016
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Dating, video games, interviews, gamers, gamer culture, Online Gaming, Nina Freeman

Video game designer Nina Freeman may be known for making games about her sex life, but it's not necessarily the focus of her work. In the past year, she has released two personal video games, including Cibele, a game about what the internet was like in the '90s when people fell in love on message boards, AOL Instant Messenger and Final Fantasy. Her autobiographical games are nostalgic, poetic, and real.

I chatted with Nina about her thoughts on everyone's Pokemon Go obsession, her advice to girls who want to get into gaming, and online etiquette.

Can you summarize what Cibele is about?

Cibele is a game about a young woman who has a relationship with a guy that she knows in an online game. You play as her as she becomes closer with that guy, until they eventually decide to meet up in real life to have sex.

It's been fun to have Cibele out in the world because I get lots of emails from players that tell me that they once had similar experiences — romantic relationships that started and grew in online spaces, whether games, forums, chat rooms, etc. It has been super-cool to hear people's stories. A lot of people are connecting with it in a personal way.

How long did it take you create Cibele?

I started working on it while I was in grad school at NYU. I formed the team shortly thereafter, and we worked on it together for about a year and a half on the weekends. It wasn't a full-time gig for any of us, and we somehow managed to finish it in a reasonable amount of time.

Where have you been living these days?

I moved from Brooklyn to Portland about a year and a half ago. It's really quiet and cute here in Portland, and it has been a nice place to be a little more low-key while also getting a lot of good work done. I'm very busy with my job at Fullbright, working as a level designer on our upcoming game called Tacoma.

Is the gaming community in Portland more intense?

I'm actually not as involved with the community in Portland as I was in NYC, simply because I'm so busy working on Tacoma and my various side projects. However, there is a nice games scene here. I try to go out to all the PIGSquad events; they run really cool local events and parties for the games community here. I also have a bunch of friends who work on games in Seattle. The Pacific Northwest is full of people doing cool games work.

Pokemon Go just came out, and the layout sort of reminds me of Cibele. What do you think of it? Were you a Pokemon fan in the '90s?

I have always been a big fan of the Pokemon series. I grew up playing it on the Game Boy Color and even got into the trading card game for a while. I used to have this amazing windbreaker with a big Pikachu decal on it, but someone stole it from my gym locker in high school! I've always been sad about that.

I think what drew me to Pokemon was that it was a game that was about collecting cute creatures and grouping them together to form teams and traveling around with them. I never got to go on any trips or vacations, so I often looked to games to feel a sense of adventure, and to think about what it might be like to travel to a really different place. Pokemon definitely made me feel like a child adventurer, and I loved that as a kid.

And Pokemon Go is so cool! I'm always excited to see when a game really blows up in popularity, because I can learn a lot from that as a designer. I think Pokemon Go has really proven to me that there's a lot of appeal to a game that has super-simple mechanics that people can engage with while they're out with their friends. It's a cool example of a game that creates a social space for people, even though it's not really upfront about being a multiplayer or social game; it's supposed to be about individuals collecting Pokemon, but it has the effect of bringing all those individuals together through the game's mechanics. It's been awesome to just go to a cafe and see how many people are playing Pokemon Go — there's always a bunch!

A lot of Pokemon Go reviews rave about the community aspect of the game. Have you heard of any stories of people finding dates? Do you have any reservations since you're basically like a thought leader in online dating?

That's so sweet of you! I think I'm less of a thought leader and more of a careful observer. I met lots of friends (and lovers) when I played Final Fantasy online in high school and college. It's definitely common that people connect that way via video games, or any other kind of digital platform. So, naturally, with Pokemon Go bringing so many people into contact with each other in real life, those connections are going to get made. Bonding over a common interest, like Pokemon Go, is obviously a great way to spark a relationship, because it gives you a way to spend time with someone. Playing together is a really natural way to feel closer to someone. We're just people, after all, and we crave the emotional bonds that play can really help nurture.

What should people know about gaming before becoming obsessed with Pokemon Go?

One of the coolest things about games that really explode in popularity, like Pokemon Go, is that you can start playing that game and join in on the conversation whether you're super-nerdy or just in it for fun or curiosity. It becomes this big social event that a lot of different kinds of people can take part in. You'll see really geeky women who have played every Pokemon game teaming up with women who've never played Pokemon before. That's one of the powerful things that happens when a game becomes popular--it can really help build a community of players that may not otherwise have a ton of stuff to geek out over together.

Have you participated in arena gaming events? I say this because the Pokestops and Gyms are super-interesting concepts in terms of interacting with strangers in a "duel match." What's some basic etiquette people should follow?

When I played Final Fantasy, I took part in a lot of multiplayer events and was often teaming up with folks I didn't know very well. Some of those people were nice, some were rude — they were all very different. It was definitely intimidating at times. I had to learn how to be comfortable always playing at my own pace, and I learned that I don't ever need to impress anyone; I can just play the game as seriously as I feel like and have fun with it.

Sometimes that means you should bring a friend, because teaming up with someone you know is more comfortable for you. Sometimes it means you go alone, because you want to be a social butterfly and meet a ton of new people. I think you really just need to do what's comfortable for you and know that you can step out and take a breather, or even just leave, whenever you want. Engage with the game in the way that feels right to you, and don't worry too amount about "doing it right" or "wrong" — just do what makes you happy.

Can you give girls advice about breaking into the video game industry?

When I was in grad school at NYU, I taught some classes as part of Code Liberation, which teaches game programming to women. It was a really good opportunity because I was able to help women learn how to make their own games, while also learning a lot myself. I was still pretty new to programming then, so having a class to teach really motivated me to get up to speed so I could be as helpful to my students as possible. It felt really good to be a part of a community of women who care about helping the industry become more diverse and inclusive. It's definitely an important pursuit.

For people who want to get into games, I'd recommend starting off with really small projects. Make a game in a weekend, and then show your friends. Then, try making a totally different game the next weekend. Making a lot of small games quickly can really help you polish your technical and design skills, while also helping you find your voice as a game maker.

When I started, I did a lot of game jams, which are basically events where you make a game in a weekend. It's super-important not to get too tied down to one idea when you're just starting out; be flexible and open to letting a project go when it stops being exciting. Move onto the next game, and keep building your skills.

My advice to women specifically is to make and ship games, while also paying close attention to and cultivating the conversation around your work. Show people how interesting the design of your game is — its technical achievements, whatever makes it special. Don't let people minimize your work by focusing more on your gender than on your accomplishments as a creator. It's important to be a woman in games, but it's also important to be recognized for the amazing work that you're doing. Be aware of the conversation around your work, and engage with the community to make sure it is evolving in a direction that feels right to you.

You finally released Bum Rush on your site! Congrats! What was the inspiration behind that game? How long does it take to finish a game like this?

Thank you! I'm excited that it's out. We'd been taking it around to shows and parties over the last year and had enough people asking us for copies that we decided we'd put it out for free so that people can bring it to their own parties and events. It's really meant to be played in a party setting. It's the kind of game that draws a lot of players who pick it up and play a short round, then take a break to grab a drink, or bring a friend over. Then other people come over to spectate because they see the characters doing these flirty animations, and they're like, "Whoa, what's that?"

Bum Rush is a two- to eight-player dating sim racing game about a bunch of college roommates. You all race through your dates to get home and get the room first, but you can pick up some extra dates along the way, too, if you want. It's basically a fast-paced, cute, and light-hearted party game.

There's an emergence of sex portrayed in games, and it's murky territory. What are your overall goals when designing sex-based video games?

Sex has been in video games for as long as I can remember, but it hasn't been as widely discussed or visible as it is nowadays. It makes sense, since video games have evolved into a mainstream medium and are thus discussed publicly a lot more than they used to be. Cara Ellison wrote a really great column at Rock Paper Shotgun for a while called S.EXE that I would recommend to anyone trying to find really great writing about games that address or involve sex.

The games that I design that have sex as a topic are vignettes that seek to illustrate a moment in a specific person's life. So, they're not "sex games" in that the whole focus is sex. They're vignette games within which sex and cultural perceptions of sex is a part of the story. I'm less interested in sex itself and more interested in real, human stories. And real people think a lot about sex, and are surrounded by sex culture wherever they go. So, I think it's pretty natural that sex comes up in my games a lot, since they aim to explore the lives of ordinary people.

What's next for you?

Right now, I'm focused on working on Tacoma at Fullbright as a level designer. Tacoma is a first-person narrative exploration game that follows the lives of six crew members who live together on a space station, set in the near future. You learn about them by looking through their rooms and the spaces that they live in on this station, while also exploring these leftover recordings of what they were up to.

I'm really excited for people to play Tacoma. We've been working super-hard on it!