GI 100 | Game Changers - K - L
All 100 profiles of individuals and organisations working in diversity, accessibility, charity, mental health, progressive politics, uniting communities, and much more
Lisy Kane and Sarah Moran
Girl Geek Academy
Like many other people profiled for Game Changers, Lisy Kane and Sarah Moran were inspired to act because they didn't see people like themselves represented in the industry.
"We founded Girl Geek Academy in 2014, when our five co-founders Sarah, Lisy, Tammy, April and Amanda found ourselves looking around at tech events and thinking... where are my mates?" Kane and Moran explain. "We are women who wanted something like Girl Geek Academy to exist, so we built it."
Along with Kane and Moran, Girl Geek Academy was founded in Melbourne, Australia by Tammy Butow, Amanda Watts and April Staines. As the organisation has grown in the years since, it is supported by the efforts of more and more people, including core team members Leura Smith and Cherie Tan, and five Girl Geek Academy ambassadors: Alex Miles, Celeste Carnegie, Dayle Stevens, Naureem Allam, and Dayle Stevens.
"Girl Geek Academy is a movement teaching one million women technology skills by 2025. We increase technical aspirations in young girls and women from ages 5 to 95 through coding, making, entrepreneurship, game development, startup skills and more.
"We partner with teachers, parents, corporate leaders and governments and we all work together to see women and girls succeed in tech."
Girl Geek Academy is already well on its way to that admirable target, with more than 10,000 people having taken one of its programs. Among the myriad activities Girl Geek Academy creates and arranges are workshops for young girls to learn how to code and create their own games (#MissMakesCode), hackathons for women and non-binary people (#SheHacks), and Australia's first all women and non-binary game jam (#SheHacksGames).
"The best way to support us is to run one of our programs and get involved," Kane and Moran say. "We have offerings for people no matter what stage they are in their career. You can find out more about running one of our programs and joining our community on our website."
Missing Link Trust
Leena Kejriwal first entered a Kolkata red light district around 20 years ago, as part of an art and photography project on India's cities and public spaces. It would prove to be one of the defining experiences of the next 20 years of her life.
"The experience hasn't left me since," she says. "I found myself particularly sensitive to the plight of a girl I was working with, and I further explored her story as the main subject of my artwork. It manifested as a public artwork titled 'MISSING'."
In her attempt to find the a visual language for the "the utter tragedy of the loss of these girls in the dark holes of trafficking," Kejriwal created an image: the profile of a woman in silhouette, which received acclaim at the India Art Fair in 2014, and has been replicated more than 5,000 times all over the world in the "Missing Stencil Project."
That image became the focal point for a necessary conversation about human trafficking in India, where around 18 million women and girls are estimated to be trapped in "modern day slavery."
"Trafficking is demand driven, and the public, the largest stakeholder in the issue of sex trafficking, is far away from the conversation," Kejriwal says. "Because if it's not your daughter, your sister, or anyone you know getting trafficked, why would it matter? In our passiveness and inaction, we are also perpetrators of the crime.
"Missing Link Trust was born from the simple idea of engaging and involving the public on the role they play in trafficking, through the use of art, technology and immersive narratives."
While the work of the female-led Missing Link Trust takes many forms, the one with perhaps the most reach is a video game -- Missing: Game for a Cause, which represented the experiences of India's missing girls to the country's rapidly growing smartphone audience.
"It started with me wanting to create an experience about what a girl goes through when she's forced/sold for money," Kejriwal says. "To create awareness, to create empathy for victims and survivors of trafficking, for that girl you see standing on the side of the road selling her body for survival.
"The perceptual positioning -- of being able to step into the avatar of the girl, Champa -- is very crucial. It also shapes the outcome, what the player takes away from the game: empathy. Today, the Missing game is a powerful awareness tool for prevention of trafficking. It is part of our national educational program."
It is just one of many initiatives created by the Missing Link Trust, all of them rooted in interactivity -- from murals linked to Facebook chatbots scattered across India's cities, to immersive learning programmes taught in 3,000 of the country's schools. A new version of the game, Missing: The Complete Saga, is currently in development -- it can already be wishlisted on Steam -- and Kejriwal is actively seeking a publisher to help guide the project through its final stages.
"It would be great if we could connect with publishers to help us finish the last leg of the work and publish it across the world -- our target audience," she says. "Our vision is to create a world where every girl is safe. Our mission is to be the motivator, the resource provider, and data house for any entity and individual creating awareness against sex trafficking."
Mitu Khandaker and Latoya Peterson
Glow Up Games
Mitu Khandaker and Latoya Peterson were already well-established and well-known before they started Glow Up Games last year. Khandaker was a founding team member at Spirit AI, a frequent speaker at games conferences, and designer of the 2013 comedy sci-fi sim Redshirt. Peterson was the owner and editor of the long-running race and pop culture blog Racialicious on top of a number of roles in television, and a Forbes 30 Under 30 honoree.
But the pair loved playing video games, and had grown frustrated that they never saw characters that resembled them or their stories.
"Gaming is still a field which is 20% female and less than 2% black," they say. "While there are a few companies in the space focusing on serving female players, many founded less than three years ago, we have not seen that same focus on women of color or people of color more broadly. But we knew we could do better."
They describe Glow Up as taking a data-driven design approach to understand what its target audience wants. The first product of this approach is Insecure, a mobile free-to-play title based on the HBO show of the same name.
Glow Up is grateful to the rappers and developers working on Insecure, including Ethan Redd, Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo (Sammus), Owen Bell, Geneva Hayward, and others who had contributed earlier in the project. Khandaker and Peterson also wanted to thank their advisors, like Emily Greer and Jon Hook, Glow Up sister studio Brass Lion Entertainment, and the communities of the Game Devs of Color Expo, Sugar Gamers, and Black Girl Gamers.
And given the data-driven approach it's taking, Glow Up has been particularly grateful to studios like Kitfox, Clever Endeavor, and Yacht Club Games for sharing their own numbers publicly, "which has been instrumental as we try to build a studio that goes the distance."
When we ask what the industry can do to support Glow Up, Khandaker and Peterson call for self-reflection.
"Everyone knows the industry needs more diversity, but to create change something has to work differently," they say. "There has to be a change in process. So if you are a funder or publisher, and you haven't funded a game from a diverse team, why not? What can you change in your pipeline or recruitment process? Or do you need to expand the scope of your fund?
"If you mentor, how many developers of color are under your wing, talking to you each month? If you are a studio with resources, are you sponsoring places like Game Developers of Color or engaging with diverse IP and diverse developers? If you collect data, how much of that data can be accessed by small teams? How are you looking at data collection and what can you collect to contribute to a more equitable understanding of the games industry?"
"Issues of injustice are large, overwhelming, and systemic, but if a lot of people start taking small actions, they really do add up to big changes."
Creator of the ArabicSupport Unity plugin
The Game Changers project is full of pioneers, and Abdullah Konash is one many times over. More than a decade ago, he led one of the first Arabic teams to publish a console game, with the XNA title NanoSquad. Years later, in 2016, he was behind the first successful crowdfunding campaign for a game in the MENA region. But the reason Konash was put forward is more under the radar -- something you might miss if you weren't told where to look.
Across the early years of his career, Konash ran into the industry's lack of support for the Arabic language again and again. The Arabic text in NanoSquad had to be implemented as images for that reason, but he was ultimately forced to remove both the text and the Arabic voiceover to publish the game -- the peer review team wasn't able to translate and verify Arabic content. He started writing a game design blog, to address the absence of any educational resources available in his own language. He became the Arabic translator for the Extra Credits video series.
The Unity engine was not alone in its failure to support Arabic back in 2011, then, but it was where Konash had the biggest impact. He made a plugin for Unity, which was released in January 2012 at an initial price of $5. A few months later, inspired by the MENA region's Game Zanga game jam -- the subject of a previous entry in this series -- he made decided to take down that barrier and make it available for free.
"I have kept the plugin free ever since, to support all developers who wanted Arabic in their games," Konash says. "After that, I open sourced the plugin on GitHub. It evolved into TextMeshPro. Someone made RTLTextMeshPro, which uses my plugin in its core to support Arabic and Persian without coding -- which is amazing. I personally use that now."
Even now, almost nine years later, Konash's plugin is still downloaded hundreds of times each month from the Unity Asset Store, and his Github page receives almost 1200 monthly visitors. Include the plugins that branched from his open source code, and those numbers grow exponentially. While Konash only knows which games used his solution anecdotally -- the list includes hits like Crossy Road and Floor is Lava -- it's safe to assume that the number could be in the hundreds, if not thousands.
Support for Arabic has improved since the vacuum of ten years ago. The first console with an Arabic interface was PlayStation 4 in 2015, followed by Xbox One in 2017, and Konash places both in the context of a growing "economic" interest in the MENA region on the part of the global industry. Nevertheless, a significant gulf between demand and supply remains, as evidenced by the ever-growing number of downloads for Konash's pioneering plugin.
"I get some random thanks from here and there online and from people I meet -- it really makes me happy," he says. "I think the main reason the plugin is still being used today is Unity still does not support Arabic after all these years -- it is [also] free and it does the job. For a developer who does not know a thing about Arabic, I would imagine the Arabic problem would be a nightmare."
Indian culture has often been employed as a visual reference in games, but in many cases it has been used by majority non-Indian teams, leaning heavily on stereotypes. With the new multimedia project, Antariksha Sanchar, Avinash Kumar intends to reset expectations of what a game from India can look like.
Kumar's expansive range of creative interests is encapsulated by his two complementary organisations: Quicksand Design Studio and UnBox Cultural Futures Society. The former is a respected design consultancy that specialises in social impact and development; the latter, which was incubated at Quicksand, is a non-profit focused on nurturing a new, interdisciplinary creative culture in India.
"As homegrown practices and communities, Quicksand and UnBox both owe their origins and trajectories to a larger commitment towards India and the Global South," Kumar says. "Consequently, culture -- whether historical or emergent -- is an extremely important part of our work."
Antariksha Sanchar, or "Universal Transmissions," is a project that encompasses graphic novels, live dance performance and music, but with a game as its "hero asset." Ostensibly a point-and-click adventure, Antariksha Sanchar draws on parts of Indian culture and history of which many outside the country will be unaware.
"Our adventure is an ode to Indian imaginations of flight and space travel -- telling the tale of a mother-son duo who conquer the challenges of space travel on an aircraft powered by dreams, music and dance," Kumar says.
"The project is inspired by the work of Guru Jayalakshmi Eshwar [Kumar's mother], an Indian classical exponent of the ancient dance of Bharatanatyam. She produced a dance production by the same name in 2010 and 2011 that presents vignettes of Indian mythologies and advances in human flight. As a visual collaborator to this project, I felt this premise was a splendid starting point for an Indian science fiction video game, and that's how the journey began."
As the project developed, it became an expression of South Indian culture in general. The great Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan inspires the game's protagonist, for example, while the score is composed and played by Carnatic musicians.
A demo of the game was featured at both Indiecade and Sheffield Doc/Fest, giving Kumar hope that this distinctly regional creation will find an international audience. He expects the first episode to be released at the end of 2021.
"My dream is that a decade from now, Indian games would be accepted for their uniqueness on the global market, much like games and anime from Japan," he says.
"Indian culture and its myriad expressions are well known throughout the world, though often stereotyped and still suffering from its image development during the colonial era. We chose science fiction and speculative narratives as a central thrust to our project because we wanted to 'decolonise' Indian video game culture by showing an independence of spirit and action -- in our project as well as in the choices in storytelling."
Kumar adds: "Indian culture is astonishingly varied, deep and complex, with room for making thousands of video games. I feel privileged to even be trying to make one."
Gamedev.world and Keycard Workshops
Myriame Lachapelle is the producer of gamedev.world, which began last year as an attempt at making the world's first truly global gaming conference -- free-for-all, with in-person and online talks close-captioned and translated into eight languages, repeated at various times around the clock to allow as many people as possible to share in the knowledge and insight of the many accomplished speakers.
Lachapelle also produced the gamedev.world GDC Relief Fund bundle, a week-long fundraiser that raised more than $80,000 to help offset the costs of the Game Developers Conference cancellation for creators around the world.
She is also working with her gamedev.world collaborator Rami Ismail on Keycard Workshops, another project in the same vein. After the Game Developers Conference began advertising a series of masterclass day-long workshops that would cost attendees $1,000, Lachapelle and Ismail decided to re-envision that concept as well, with an ideal price point of $50 to $100 per workshop.
The common thread here is that gamedev.world and Keycard Workshops are attempts to remove privilege from the question of who gets to make games. How much money someone has, what language they speak, and where they live should not prevent people from making games, and Lachapelle is backing those beliefs with action on top of her freelance producer, project manager, marketing and business development work.
She's not doing this all on her own, and is quick to point out the help and trust Ismail and voice actor Sarah Elmaleh gave her in putting on gamedev.world. And even before gamedev.world was a thing, she credits Square Enix Montreal creative director Dominique Ferland for encouraging her early steps into gaming, and Game & Colour co-founder and director Reb Palacios for mentoring her through the Montreal non-profit Pixelles. She says there's no shortage of other people deserving of her gratitude, too.
"This industry, as harsh as it can be sometimes, has some of the most kind, supportive and nicest people I have ever met in my life, and I could not see myself working anywhere else," Lachapelle says.
Beyond supporting whatever gamedev.world and Keycard Workshops announce next, Lachapelle says the best way to support her is to support organizations working to make the industry a more fair and accessible place, like AbleGamers, Pixelles Montreal, POC in Play, I Need Diverse Games and Girls who Code.
"Thanks to them and their resources, they are teaching me to not only be a better person by broadening my own horizons, but inspiring me every day to keep going forward and keep working and find new ways to break barriers and make the game industry more accessible."
University of Lapland
Outi Laiti wears many hats. In addition to her work for the University of Lapland, she is project manager at Finnish Pensioners' Federation, one of the organisers behind the Sámi Game Jam, and a consultant for several games and related projects.
As an Indigenous Sámi herself, both her studies and her work with the game jam centre around personal interests, exploring ways to empower Sámi people through games development.
"Games have always been a part of my life," she says. "I think I was around four years when I programmed my first lines using Commodore 64 so that I could play. Sámi culture is the core of my being, but games have been a solid part of it. I like to think of this as an 'old ways of knowing, new ways of playing' type of thing."
On the drive behind the game jam, she says: "Games are much needed in Sámi culture and, in my opinion, the ways of producing these games are as important as the final piece and what it includes. After all, Sámi people have always made and played games, so we can be cultural consultants in gaming projects but also game developers. This just needs a spark to become a roaring fire, as we also have a history of colonisation that had an effect on gaming."
Laiti is also involved in projects to make gaming -- and specifically esports -- more accessible to elderly people. She was a key part of the Eläkeliitto Netikäs project, which collaborated with Lenovo Finland and its esports team, the Grey Gunners. In addition to organising a live event where people could see the Grey Gunners in training, she is helping to plan a league with another elderly esports team, Senior Fighters.
Laiti is even working with Finnish libraries on events to introduce tabletop role-playing games to the elderly -- although this had to be piloted online due to the pandemic.
Her ongoing work in its various guises is all about bringing down the barriers to underrepresented voices -- barriers, she says, that are fortified by a lack of resources.
"Our games are mostly serious games and funded by other projects, where Sámi are cultural consultants," she says. "We had the privilege of having games industry sponsors when organising Sámi Game Jam, and support is still needed in future. This support can be anything, like supporting Indigenous game developing events financially, to organising game dev tool workshops and sharing tool knowledge or collaborations.
"Elderly people also need support and, most of all, acceptance as players. Promoting gaming through their lifespan, and seeing the elderly as potential customers -- as individuals, not as a group."
Amanda J Lim
Amanda J. Lim began composing music when she was 17. More recently, she has been learning audio implementation, making multiple Unreal Audio implementation tutorials specifically aimed at beginners, and publishing a free sound effects pack for developers to use in their projects -- including commercial ones.
Last year, Lim found herself in a situation where she couldn't use her dominant arm for a brief period, and began asking for recommendations of games she could play with one hand. Since then, she has been an advocate for more accessible games, specifically within the Singapore game development community and in spaces where accessibility is less-discussed and often not thought of at all.
To further this, Lim wrote and published an accessible design document for the Singapore Games Guild. It serves as a basic resource for developers to understand the importance of accessibility in games and begin to implement it, especially in locally made titles. It includes articles, references, consulting resources, papers, podcasts, videos, and more. She also frequently asks questions of developers at local conferences about accessibility, prompting those in the community to think more frequently and critically about accessible design and its importance.
She says the best way to support her is to support her music on Bandcamp.
"I am looking for work and I'd love to collaborate with like-minded developers," Lim says. "Especially ones that understand the importance of good audio design and accessibility in games, which I think is an underserved audience."
Jung-Sheng Johnson Lin
A decade ago, while indie gaming was experiencing a renaissance in the West, Jung-Sheng Lin (aka Johnson Lin) noticed the Taiwanese scene was under-developed by comparison. It lacked public events, large-scale meet-ups, and community support structures. The local gaming media was consumer-focused, with little coverage relevant to developers, adding to a knowledge gap for Taiwanese indies.
As a programmer in the open source community outside of gaming, Lin wondered why Taiwan should have a vibrant open source scene with regular meetups and events attracting thousands of people, but relatively little to speak of for game developers.
Together with some friends and colleagues, Lin co-founded IGDShare to address these disparities. The monthly developer meet-up has been running since February of 2011, with a YouTube channel stocked with more than 100 videos of those meetups, and a website packed with the kind of articles speaking to developers' interests that have been translated or written specifically for the Taiwanese indie community, as well as other resources.
In keeping with the collaborative emphasis of IGDShare, Lin wants to thank the community and all those who helped IGDShare along the way.
"In particular, my colleagues who are still on the same boat or have contributed along the way, Kun-Wei Lin, Maxwell Lai, Yusen Jeng, and Jui-Shan Two; friends and mentors I have gained and collaborated the most often with, Thomas Fan, Faust Li, Chun-Fu Chao, Lee-Kuo Chen, Tuxio Tzeng, and more; many international friends that we met over the years, such as friends from IGDA Japan, other IGDA connections and [Global Game Jam] connections; all the developers and speakers who have responded to our event invitations or collaborated with us in some fashion. All of them are invaluable in what we do."
In addition to IGDShare, Lin also serves as chapter leader of IGDA Taiwan, is the co-organizer of the Taipei Game Developers Forum, and is a volunteer member on the Global Game Jam Executive Committee.
As for how the industry can best support IGDShare, Lin says the organization is fortunate enough to not need much in the way of outside resources. However, it is always looking to build more connections to help elevate the Taiwanese dev scene onto the international stage.
María Luján Oulton
Game Arts International Assembly
It wasn't so long ago that claims of video games being art were roundly dismissed by the wider public and critics of other media. However, María Luján Oulton has been challenging that viewpoint since 2008, working to promote video games as art and high culture in Argentina and beyond.
Oulton was running an art gallery at that time, and an exhibition exploring new media led her to the work of the Argentinian game designer Daniel Benmergui, and through him she discovered indie studios like Tale of Tales and Amanita Design.
"After the first edition of Game On! El Arte en Juego, I began looking at games from a different perspective, getting more and more involved in the experimental and academic side," she recalls. "I like to think that both Game On! (the exhibit) and myself grew alongside the artgames movement; we all evolved together."
Ten years ago, the view on games as art in Argentina was "a definitive no," Oulton says, though she argues that would have been the case in most countries around the world. That situation has changed.
"I'd say it is due to a mix of things," Oulton continues. "The growth of indie [development], international games art and culture exhibits and festivals, and the arrival of new generations that don't carry the same old prejudices."
People like Oulton have played an integral role in that change, creating new contexts that allow the artistry of video games to shine. Among her myriad contributions are academic work, published books and public events, both in Argentina and around the world.
In addition to the Game On! Exhibit -- which has been updated six times since its 2009 debut, and spawned a host of related smaller events -- she is the co-founder of the Game Arts International Assembly (GAIA), an international conference that has been held in Buenos Aires and Toronto. She is also an active part of Women in Games Argentina, which she believes has a similar final objective.
"I strongly think that diversity is crucial for games evolving as an artistic and cultural form, and actually it's kind of how it all started," she says. "Artgames show a different side of the industry; they are about empathy, experimentation and activism, they explore other sensibilities and narratives, they deal with different protagonists and stories… If games want to really be considered widely as an art and cultural form they have to be representative of a wider culture."
And the industry has a duty to support an aspect of video games that is not commercial by nature. The main obstacles Oulton faces in her work are "funding and visibility," and while she has been supported by various cultural institutions, the games business itself could do more.
"Those are key in order to thrive and quite difficult to find," she says. "I get a lot of encouraging words, but when it comes to sponsor activities it is a dead silence… There is a discourse on the importance of games as culture that is not being matched with proper action.
"It is highly crucial for the big games and tech companies to realise that this is an ecosystem we live in, that we are all in it for the same [reasons]. If you really think that games are art and culture, then support those who work towards that. The indie world and the art/experimental field are part of the industry, and they are quite crucial."