A seasoned industry veteran, a stalwart of the gaming education sector as well as a long standing campaigner of inclusiveness within the games industry, Jenny Brusk strives to challenge conventional thinking with all she engages in. Outside the box thinking is her forte and she hails Monument Valley and Braid for recent strides in game design. This is her profile!
Chart your entry into the industry up until your current role? Started as a Lingo-programmer in 1996 at Tati/Vision Park. The first games I worked on were The Great Moomin Party (a children’s game), BackPacker 2 (travel quiz, one of the most sold games in Sweden at the time), and a surreal adventure game called Kosmopolska. I stayed at Tati/Vision Park until 2002 and started working at Skövde university 2003 with their game development programs that had just started.
Game design and development were not regular subjects within the academia at the time, so what we did was pioneer work – trying to create course and program curriculum that matched the industry’s needs while providing a relevant theoretical foundation. We invited industry representatives to help us with this and from there we have grown from two to five programs and 60 yearly intake to 220. I attended one of the first DiGRA conferences in Utrecht 2003 and I guess most of the participants there are among those who have contributed to forming game studies as an academic field and even though there had been a few academic papers published in the field, I would say that after this conference it almost exploded.
After years in the development side, what led to your move into the academic field? I worked at Tati/Vision Park until 2002 when the company now had become Pan Vision after a fusion with Pan Interactive. This was after the big IT crash so Pan Vision (or rather Kf Media, the owner) decided to close down our development studio in Gothenburg. This coincided with me becoming a parent so I just went on maternity leave until I was offered a teaching position at Skövde University at the newly started Game development program in 2003. I have a M.A. in computational linguistics and I was enrolled as a PhD student when I started working in the industry so going back to the university wasn’t a difficult decision. In 2005 I moved with the family to Gotland to take up my PhD studies again. They have a game development program there so I was also somewhat involved in that and that is also how I got in contact with Supermarit, a project that worked with gender equality within the games industry and that very much worked as a source of inspiration for me when I started Donna.
What current trends are at the forefront of your lectures on game design? Any trends you’d like to do without? I think the indie scene has much more to offer when it comes to innovation and diversity, both with regard to the developers as well as the design. Since I work within academia, I encourage the students to think outside the box, experimenting with new forms for gameplay and themes.
What titles do you hold up as references with outstanding and in some cases innovative game design? I think Braid is an excellent example as well as the more recent Monument Valley. Both are based on a single novel game mechanics (time manipulation and architectural manipulation respectively) that they manage to vary in a number of ways. The games force the player to come into a new mindset and when that happens the puzzles are almost straight forward but never trivial.
You’ve been a long standing advocate for an increased representation of women in the industry? What do you see as the primary challenge to this? The challenge is to be able to work from several angles simultaneously; the developers, the game content, the players, the game educations, and the attitude towards games in society. We need to recruit more female students to our game development programs to feed the industry with female game developers. This means also that we need to encourage young girls to study tech and there are some really good initiatives out there, such as workshops and summer schools for girls in for example game design and programming (in general). We will have a hard time succeeding with this unless we manage to improve the attitude towards games in society, but as long as there are reports of women being harassed in the game community, female characters are either absent or objectified in games and the main theme in the games we read about in the daily press is violence, this will be difficult. In order to succeed with that we really need to stop the harassments and sexism that female gamers face and create games that reach out to a broader market (among other things).
Locally, gaming education has had a hard time reaching minority groups, why do you think that is and what would you suggest could be done to reverse that trend? Games have become a male-only member club and most AAA games are developed for that target group (male 15-25, basically). One could say that computer games traditionally have been created by men for men, that is the developers create games for themselves. By having diversity within the teams I am pretty sure that games in time will be more diversified. We will see a broader range of stories and experience stories told from other perspectives
This means that there have been only a few games where you can choose to play as a female protagonist for example, or with another ethnicity other than caucasian.
We have to actively reach out to those places where these youths are, rather than visiting classes where a majority of the students are white males. This is not because we don’t want white males, but because they apply anyway. So by carefully selecting arenas where potential students can meet us and our students we reach out to new target groups, in December a team of Donna-students presented our programs and Donna at Confusion for example. This is a perfect arena I would say, since the convent attracts a diverse audience that share a common interest in Japanese pop culture and games.
As a key cog of Diversi as well as your work with DONNA, how do you integrate a mindset of inclusiveness into your current role as program director and lecturer at HIS? First I am very clear about where I stand when it comes to questions concerning inclusiveness and I am always prepared to discuss these issues with the students. More concretely, we encourage the students to think outside the box and the first year student project always has a “non-violence” theme. This has resulted in several successful games such as Grief, that won the Swedish Game Awards – Best Scenario in 2013. The same year we also collaborated with Doris Film, an organisation that works with gender equality within the film industry that resulted in a game project that was created according to Doris manifesto which means that it was free of stereotypes, had a majority of female developers and a strong and active female protagonist.
Are there any developers in the Nordic region you feel have an open approach to challenging cultural conventions? Difficult question! But I would say Toca Boca is a good example of this.
Any game design essentials you’d like to pass on to an aspiring game designer? Be open minded, generous with your ideas, and keep yourself updated with things going on in society and culture. To me, the most interesting designers are those who challenge conventions and explore new ways to think about games and game design.