Cinematexas Games Without Borders

Games Without Borders, indeed: Katie Salen defies the rules of digital design.

Katie Salen
Katie Salen

Strong Female Protagonist: Katie Salen

The women's volleyball team won the national championship her senior year as a Lady Longhorn. Now she's designing games instead of just playing them. While jiggling visions of Dead or Alive: Extreme Beach Volleyball may not be dancing nostalgically in her head, Katie Salen will show how she plays with the big boys when she speaks at this month's second massive gathering of joystick junkies in Austin.

Cinematexas Games Without Borders

"She is the single, lone woman who's participating in speaking in the gaming conference. Yeah, that's just the nature of game design," says Cinematexas' Games Without Borders organizer Erich Pelletier of Salen, whose Austin ties also include stints as a UT design professor and co-organizer of the Conduit Digital Festival. While Pelletier emphasizes gender was not a criterion in assembling his speaker roster, he makes sure to underscore the importance of female exposure in the industry. "It needs to be known that women are out there in increasing numbers who play games, gain from them, and who make them. For the festival, I wanted to find the best people that I could who would provide the best, most interesting and intelligent, and in some ways the most edgy or maybe subversive show possible."

Considering Salen's résumé, Pelletier should indeed have an interesting program when Salen presents her Saturday lecture and screening on machinima, the hybrid artform of cinema and digital gaming. About to release Rules of Play, the first textbook on game design as a design discipline, Salen is also fresh from the organizing of a life-sized, reality-game set in the streets of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Full of requisite edginess, her Big Urban Game (B.U.G.) featured three 25-foot inflatable and brightly colored game pieces that raced around the city landscape as citizens voted online for the fastest routes. "We wanted to make people of the Twin Cities more aware of notions of urban design," says Salen of the massive game with no ultimate prize. "We just worked to create a socializing atmosphere."

Applying the community-centric program of Salen's B.U.G. to the virtual world just might help level the gender video-game-playing field. Enabling players to play as groups, this "party game model" brings a whole new audience into gaming, which is also a mission of other movers in the industry, like those spearheading the Independent Game Design Movement. Akin to the trendsetters of the independent film movement of a few years ago, the independent game designers strive to create games that appeal to all kinds of people without market-driven end goals. "This is a step in the right direction in terms of not looking at only one particular audience," says Salen. "But like it is in the film industry, they're wrestling with economics."

Salen is ultimately optimistic about the future of gender-inclusive gaming. The plan is fail-safe because, according to Salen, the very nature of games holds the power to expand accessibility. "The reason I got into games is that for me it's amazing what people do when given the tools to be creative. Games create spaces of play, and for girls and women, that opportunity is really important," Salen says. "I would love to see girls take advantage of that in some way."

Cinematexas' Games Without Borders runs Friday, Sept. 19, through Sunday, Sept. 21. Katie Salen speaks on Saturday at the A.C.E.S. building (24th & Speedway), at 3pm. For more scheduling information, see p.45.

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Katie Salen, Big Urban Game, Cinematexas Games Without Borders, Erich Pelletier

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