It has been a tumultuous year for reproductive rights in this country. Too many states have passed restrictions on abortion or attempted to defund clinics and organizations associated with women’s health issues. This has caused a crisis for women’s health advocates across the nation. They have struggled to stay afloat; despite this, they are admirably fighting to keep floating on. Texas became the flashpoint in the debate thanks to the wonderful Senator Wendy Davis and her courage to throw up a middle finger at Rick Perry, Anti-Choice advocates and the Texas Republican Party. Her filibuster broke the internet. That is how important it was. People have begun to take notice. I hope they will attempt to learn more about the situation and become more informed.
In this quest for information I hope people find the game that is being developed by two amazing women, both of whom I had the pleasure of interviewing. Carly Kocurek and Allyson Whipple are developing a game called Choice: Texas, a free to play web-based interactive story. I gave them a whole gamut of questions to answer and they provided great responses. What follows are the questions and answers by both Carly and Allyson and I have tagged them as either C or A in the response section. I had a great time talking to both of them and I look forward to following up on their quest.
First Carly, tell me a little bit about yourself. I know you wrote a piece for P-Mag once! So it is nice to have a fellow unicorn to interview.
C: I’m originally from a tiny town called Burkburnett, Texas, and I went to college and graduate school in Texas. This past year is the first time I’ve ever lived outside of the state, and my family and a lot of my friends are still there. So, what happens in Texas is really important to me for a lot of reasons, one of which is what I think of as a kind of state-based dual citizenship. I live in Illinois now, and I love Chicago. I’m an assistant professor at Illinois Tech, and my research and teaching focus on the history and culture of video games.
And Allyson, tell me a little bit about yourself, I mean other than having an awesome first name.
A: This part is always tough because I do so many things! I’m the director of the Austin Feminist Poetry Festival, which was a brand-new event this year, and I’m currently working on plans for 2014. I’m the author of a poetry chapbook entitled We’re Smaller Than We Think We Are (Finishing Line Press). I make my living working for Pearson Education, and this semester I’ll also be teaching at Austin Community College. I’m thrilled to be getting back to the classroom! In what little spare time I have, I enjoy studying Kung Fu.
How did you get involved with Choice: Texas?
C: I was playing a pen-and-paper RPG a while back, and I thought about how the character building process felt so much like a ranking of the kinds of privilege and access people have or don’t have in real life. In the games, there’s a cap on someone’s overall power, usually, but in real life there isn’t. That idea really stuck with me, and then in fall of 2012, the news cycle came around to abortion again, and the deep unfairness of who has access really upsets me. Somehow those two ideas got stuck together, and so I’d been thinking about an RPG about abortion for a long time. But, then I started playing some recent serious, issues-based games, like Spent and Depression Quest, so I thought something web based and easily accessible might be better.
A: I’d let Carly bounce some ideas off of me in the very early brainstorming stages, back before this was even going to be an online game. When Carly asked me to help her out with the writing process, I immediately said yes. I was excited about the game, and also had been seeking ways to merge my artistic life with my political life.
Who came up with the idea of this game?
C: It was my idea initially, and I asked Allyson to work with me, but at this point, we have equal ownership of the project. It’s our project, and we’re working in a really collaborative way, which I think shows in the preliminary work we’ve done for the game.
Is this the first video game either of you have worked on?
C: It’s the first game I’ve worked on that’s intended for public release. I’ve been dabbling in making games for a couple of years, and I go to a meetup for indie developers in Chicago. But, this is the first project I’ve worked on that is definitely made to be played by strangers.
A: No, but it’s the first video game I’ve worked on that will be completed. Another friend and I explored writing a text game about aliens together during a time when we were both unemployed, but the project fell by the wayside when we got busy with new jobs and other activities. In general, I’m way better at starting things than finishing them, so I’m glad that Carly and I have been able to sustain focus. The political relevance certainly helps! (Interviewer’s note: I need to ask Allyson to make the aliens game because alien games need to be made!)
How long have you been developing Choice: Texas?
C: We started working off and on in January, but then the most recent legislative session in Texas really energized the project. Before, it was kind of something we were working on as a side project, but in the wake of the legislative session, it’s become more timely and felt a lot more pressing.
Do you have a release date target in mind?
C: We are shooting for a completed game in January, which we are, so far, on track for. We are taking a prototype of the game to the Future and Reality of Gaming (FROG) 13 conference in Vienna next month, so we have some rough work in hand already, and we’re really excited about getting some preliminary feedback at the conference.
A: And now I must go make a small sacrifice to the deities of game development to ensure our continued success.
Both Allyson and Carly are sharing the writing credits on this game.
Has it been tough to write with another person?
C: Not really. Allyson’s one of my closest friends. And, we’ve been really good about communicating about the process and not sort of grabbing the reins away from each other.
A: Collaboration can always be difficult, especially when you’re working with a friend, but Carly and I have similar aesthetics and work ethics, and that helps. We’ve been friends for a long time, so we have a strong foundation. There’s also a lot of trust and communication, so we can give each other constructive criticism and not get offended.
Has the distance between the two of you (Chicago and Austin) been an issue when developing this game?
C: It hasn’t, really. I always joke that my preferred mode of conversation is instant messenger, but that’s actually pretty true. We’ve been using Google Drive a lot to share files and keep track of things. We aren’t necessarily writing at the exact same time, so it’s a lot of passing documents back and forth. I know whole novels have been written by letter, so it’s a bit like that with conversations between to make sure we’re staying on top of things.
A: We have written quite a bit in that (Google Drive), and it’s easy to share files and track comments and changes. I would love it if we could be in the same city more often, but thanks to technology, the distance is manageable.
I have seem some of the artwork you posted of the characters and it looks great. What is the final game going to look like?
C: All the credit for the artwork goes to Grace Jennings, who is the illustrator we are working with. The final game is going to be text based, illustrated with Grace’s artwork. We wanted players to have a real sense of who these women are and what their lives are like. The game started with research, but the second thing we did was to write out the character sketches.
A: The artwork will feature prominently in the game, but in terms of overall site design, we’re going to work with a professional website developer on that. Carly and I can write the game and make the mechanics happen, but neither of us are designers.
So far you have released two character sketches and names. How many characters will end up being in the final product?
A: Five. One will be a high school student not ready to be a mother; one will be a mother-to-be facing dangerous medical complications with her pregnancy. The other will be a married mother struggling to make ends meet and raise the children she already has.
C: We’ve been kind of revealing the women as we have the illustrations ready, and we’ll probably continue doing that in the coming months. We’ve been posting that information on our Tumblr.
What will the overall game play be like?
A: Each character represents a different level of difficulty based on the obstacles facing her. None of them have it easy, because even if you have the privilege of money and paid sick days at work, there are still other obstacles to deal with. But certain characters will be much harder than others. The obstacles each character faces (geography, money, time, transportation) will influence which choices a player can make throughout the game. Think of it as a choose-your-own adventure story, but with the adventure being very tied to where you live or what kind of job you have.
Have you interviewed many women from Texas and put their stories into the game?
C: We aren’t doing interviews at this time; that may change. We have been working from published accounts and testimony, of which there are a lot, particularly because of Wendy Davis’s filibuster. But, before that, a lot of news outlets like RHRealityCheck and the Texas Observer have really prioritized publishing women’s stories.
A: A few years ago I volunteered for the Lilith Fund, which is an organization that helps low-income women get funding for abortions. I worked the hotline and spoke to dozens of women in desperate situations. Those experiences have stayed with me, and I used that knowledge when creating characters. None of the characters we use represent specific women. They are composites, created from a number of different factors and influences.
Carly, you mentioned earlier that you were accepted into a gaming conference in Vienna. What was that experience like?
C:We did. It was so exciting. I’m an academic, so I submit my research to conferences all the time. However, this was the first time I’d submitted one of my creative projects, so I found it really nerve wracking. I kind of did it on an impulse. I’d read some quote about how you can spend your whole life waiting to be ready to do things instead of doing them. I wanted so badly to make this game, and we’d been working on it already, and so I was trying to embrace the idea of not waiting to be ready.
Was the selection process for them arduous?
A: This wasn’t my first time being considered for a conference (I participated in a few literature conferences in grad school), so I had a rough idea of the kinds of peer review involved, and the knowledge that there would be some stiff competition. But when I saw the feedback from our peer reviewers, it was clear to me that Choice: Texas really fit in with this year’s conference theme, which is “Context Matters!” We had a lot of competition, but I think the timing was right for us.
C: They (Peer Reviewers) saw the game – which is a game about the way cultural, geographic, and socioeconomic context impacts women’s access to reproductive healthcare – as a good fit.
Will you be showing a prototype there?
C: Yes. We’ll be showing a rough version of the game that includes two characters’ storylines.
A: I can’t wait to see people play it in real time.
Will you be publishing the prototype video online for people to see?
A: Not at the moment. We want to take the feedback we get at F.R.O.G. and really focus our playtesting. Side note: I was a little overwhelmed by the number of gaming friends I have who have already volunteered to play test.
C: We really want to take the time to get the game tested and cleaned up so that people’s first encounter with the game is with something we can feel really confident in.
Do you have other gaming conferences or expos in mind to exhibit the game at?
C: We’re thinking about them, but we’ve really been absorbed with fundraising and development at the moment. This first conference is already really soon. We’d love to get the game out to more people, though. So, those plans are on the horizon, but not fully developed yet.
Carly is credited as a writer and a cultural historian in their intro so I was very curious about what the cultural historian aspect for her has been like.
How has your background as a cultural historian shaped your experience on this game?
C: I think historical work is often about pulling on and following narrative threads, looking for where they intersect or unravel. I’m actually revising my book manuscript right now, too, and that process has really been about cleaning up the presentation of the trajectory I’m following. So, I’d say it’s influenced my approach to research, absolutely, but being a cultural historian has also influenced my approach to storytelling.
Allyson has the rare triple combo of credits as poet, writer, and editor.
How has your background as a poet/editor/writer shaped your experience on this game?
A: As a writer, I’ve been especially drawn to prose poems and short stories. As a reader, I love nonlinear narratives. Writing this game has been like writing a collection of linked short stories, with more than one way to an ending, and more than one possible outcome. I don’t think I’ve loved writing fiction more than I have while working on Choice: Texas.
What is your goal in mind with the development of this game?
C: Games always have this lure of being able to create sort of experiential knowledge – it’s why there are so many simulation games. And, my hope is that this game provides a means for people to maybe think through what it might be like to face some of these types of issues not as abstract news, but as a fact of daily life.
A: To me, this game is centered around two things: awareness and empathy. Many people, including privileged pro-choice people, do not realize the extent to which people with less privilege struggle with geography, time, and money to obtain abortions. It’s not necessarily willful ignorance, but if you’re lucky enough to have a well-paying job, your own car, and the ability to get time off, you might not realize just how bad other people have it. So one of the goals of this game is to make people aware of how difficult abortion is, and how certain communities and groups may have an undue burden put on them in an already-difficult situation. The other aspect is empathy. There are people who want to shame and demonize women, and I think that if they worked for a hotline like Lilith Fund, or otherwise interacted with women in impossible situations, I think some of them would change their minds. Even if they still thought abortion was wrong, they would have a better understanding for why women chose abortion, and perhaps consider avenues for activism other than shaming. (Maybe I’m too optimistic, but I really believe that once something becomes concrete rather than abstract, has the potential to radically alter your perspective.) I would hope that this game would put a more concrete, human face on the issue, that players would not see these women as evil or shameful, but understand the difficult (often impossible) situations they’re in, and the difficulties they faced in making and achieving their choice. When I volunteered with Lilith Fund, I never talked to a woman who was happy to be having an abortion. I hope that this game make people see just how difficult and serious this decision is.
Besides awareness raising, do you plan on using the game in any political arena?
A: Reproductive rights are a major issue in a lot of states right now, and Texas is one of them. Making this game has been an intersection of art and politics, and I do see this as a tool for activism as well as awareness.
I am so pleased to have been able to interview both Allyson and Carly. Reproductive rights are something I feel very strongly about. They are raising money right now on their Indiegogo site and they have some awesome perks. I am personally thinking about funding it enough to get a tote bag because this girl cannot have enough tote bags. Their Tumblr is the source of all their news and I am sure will get busy as the release date draws near.
Bonus Round: I gave them three off topic questions as a bit of fun.
What is your favorite book currently?
C: I’ve been telling everyone I can to read The Drowning Girl. It’s just so beautiful and haunting.
A: Loose Woman by Sandra Cisneros. It’s fierce poetry.
Would you rather own a single unicorn or three miniature horses aka Lil Sebastians?
C: I’m not convinced unicorns can be owned, but I’d go for the unicorn. Miniature horses seem fundamentally undignified. I saw one wearing a diaper once. I don’t think a unicorn would stand for that.
A: I think a single unicorn would be less maintenance overall, so I’m going to go with that one.
Finally a near and dear question to my heart
Jay Z or Kanye West?
C: Right at this moment, Kanye West.
A: Jay Z…though to be honest, Atmosphere trumps both of them in my mind.
Carly wins the bonus round with choosing Kanye.