Skin Deep: An exercise in making an empathetic game about racial stereotyping

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I’ve been thinking a lot about how games are great for awareness of issues because they’re so flexible, empathetic and immersive – part of the reason why I arranged Asylum Jam last year, because games are such a flexible medium for us to tell our stories. I’ve lived all over the world in numerous countries with a bunch of different cultures, and there’s a true beauty in learning from people different from you. However, racial stereotyping from others towards friends/colleagues/strangers is something I encountered a lot and is something I would at least like to contribute even the tiniest change to. It’s a huge barrier to great intercultural communication and sharing, and it sucks big time. This is still a basic barrier we need to overcome, and that’s why I thought about Skin Deep.

How it works is that you select a difficulty at first – you can play from a privileged (Caucasian) perspective, or you can play from the perspective of someone who may not always receive the ‘easy’ conversation choices from people who racially stereotype. Each round will be a different conversation or scenario, and depending on what difficulty you pick, the dialogue will be different. Bubbles will pop up around your character’s head of things they could possibly say – things that have become normal for people of colour to hear while being racially stereotyped, or perhaps the conversations we who are privileged are more accustomed to.

(there used to be sketches here, but there’s things I already want to change– the instigator of the conversation to the player will be a grey figure, as profiling can come from anyone)

While I don’t want there to be a score, I’ve been trying to come up with some metric that will incorporate both game play and awareness of the topic, which has not been easy as I don’t want to cheapen the issue at hand. My first idea was, to emphasize how frustrating it often is for POCs to have to justify themselves or correct racial stereotyping, there will be a stopwatch counting up until you reach the cessation of the conversation. Naturally, by the end of the ‘difficult’ stage you will have a much higher time score than the ‘easy’ route. I’m perhaps thinking of even forcing the player to play through the ‘easy’ mode first and then the difficult one so they can see the comparison, and (hopefully) empathize with some of the stuff POCs have to put up with. I’m still going to think about this, though. Another suggestion from someone I consulted with was to somehow display microaggressions, but that’ll take some pondering.

As I want this to be as accurate and honest an experience as possible, I want Skin Deep’s conversations and scenarios to be totally extrapolated from real life situations and conversations POCs have been privy to where they’ve been racially stereotyped by someone else, should anyone wish to challenge the legitimacy of the issue. There are (sadly) an inexhaustible stockpile of these, and they need to be shared to help bring light to the fact we need to change. I’m also working with people of colour that are involved in the independent gaming scene as well, and will continue to consult with them closely to make sure the game reflects an accurate picture (as I am aware I am developing it from a position of privilege myself). Even before writing all this, I wanted to check to see if this game would be welcome or constructive, and thanks to their feedback (positive!) I’m going to go ahead with it.

So, as a first step towards developing Skin Deep, I’m putting out a call to all people of colour who have a story, conversation or situation of their own that they want to share. You don’t have to share your name, or anything else personal apart from your ethnicity and your story, so if you want to stay completely anonymous, that’s totally fine. However, if you’d like to be credited at the end of the game, you can submit a moniker if you’re comfortable with that.

You can submit them here, and if you do end up contributing, you have a great deal of my appreciation for being willing to share your experiences for the game.

(As for my terrible drawings, the game is in it’s development infancy, so please bear with me!)

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How to ‘get into’ indie game freelancing (as told by hilariously fat cats)

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I’ve been asked a lot of questions about how to wriggle into freelancing in video game related pursuits recently – mostly artwork, because that’s my specialty – and as I had such a rocky road trying to figure everything out when I was starting out, I figured I’d write a blog post about things that I did that worked, and things I did that didn’t. As a foreigner in Germany, everything when I started was infinitely more complicated than it would’ve been if I were living in a country I was fluent in the language of (mein Deutsch ist nicht sehr gut), so that amplified the stress, physical taxation, and, well, everything. I don’t want others to endure the same struggle, so I’m going to give my advice out in the form of really fat cats, because there’s not a single time a pudgy feline doesn’t put a smile on your face.

NOTE: THIS IS NOT A GOSPEL. THIS IS ADVICE FROM MY PERSONAL PERSPECTIVE. I CAN BE WRONG ABOUT STUFF, BUT THIS HAS WORKED FOR ME. MEOW.

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I cannot stress how important this is. Probably the biggest and best piece of advice I received when I started freelancing was one that I didn’t believe at the time as I scoured oDesk for nuggets of a job.

“The best freelance contracts won’t be ones you apply for – they’ll be the ones from people who find you.”

It’s true. Down the track and looking back at half a year freelancing, the best contracts I’ve had haven’t been the ones I’ve desperately applied to on oDesk, hoping for a job that will pay me a measly $100 for an entire game worth of assets, but ones from people I’ve networked with. People who had seen my portfolio, saw the works in progress I posted, people that I follow on social media and interact with.

  • Get a social media presence if you don’t already have one, and be active in the community if you want to work with them and for them. Someone you befriend today could be a client in the future.
  • Post stuff you’re working on regularly. Remind people of your skill-set.
  • Don’t be afraid to advertise the fact you’re looking for work on social media, but do so with restraint. It’s okay to tweet once in a while you’re looking for work, but wouldn’t it be effective to add it to your bio too?

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This is another huge thing. I know it’s really tough when you’re starting out as a freelancer and it seems like you have to undercut what you’d like to be paid by heaps because you’re thinking, ‘if I don’t get this contract, I’m fucked’ – but don’t. If you don’t ask for a decent living wage or ask for very little, people aren’t going to think that you’re proud and confident in your work. This is also why I feel that freelance websites like oDesk are very dodgy unless the job is a short one. There are a bunch of international people on oDesk – and most freelancing websites – that live in countries with a lower cost of living than you, so they’re going to charge way less. Don’t make this fact make you undercharge yourself, though.

I talked to a good friend of mine recently who is in the tech business and works with an investor who contracts out a lot of development/design/UI work and he told me:

“Actually, yeah. We ignore all bids from freelancers on jobs we offer that are below a certain amount. People deserve to be paid.”

Dude, dudette, whoever is reading this – you need to charge enough to live on. Freelancing is not the most stable of jobs, so you need to be able to charge enough for a decent living wage for what your profession is, and then account for the possible time you’ll be between contracts. There’s a bunch of good websites out there for calculating how much you should charge as a freelancer, and it was something I struggled with a lot when I started. Here’s roughly how I did mine (and I work mostly with per hour payment, unless otherwise discussed with clients):

  • Figure out how much your bills are costing you per month. This is your overhead and your business related expenses are tax deductible in most countries as a freelancer.
  • ‘Shop around’ and see what others are charging for the same services. It’s good to see what people of a relative skill level are asking for your work, but again, don’t undersell yourself.
  • Add a profit margin of 20-30% to tide you over between contracts, or add enough to get a decent wage per hour that you would expect someone in your field/profession/skill level to have.
  • GET A TAX ADVISOR. Mine does all my taxes, deductions and everything, saves heaps of stress and I don’t have to worry about one more thing.

Obviously, as you freelance for a while, you will be able to tweak this figure. But seriously, don’t feel bad if someone inquires about your rate, you give it and they don’t reply. Working for less than you’re worth will make you feel like shit, most of the time.

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When I first started freelancing, I was like a moth to a flame when someone would said, ‘hey, this project will be great exposure for you, and you can build up your portfolio at the same time!’. NO. DON’T. PLEASE. READ THIS, IF YOU’RE STILL UNDECIDED.  There are some very few exceptions to this rule, which is why I only wrote 9/10, but don’t let yourself get exploited. You waste time you could be using to do actual, paying freelance contracts, and a lot of these ‘unpaid’ projects often don’t get seen to fruition anyway. You will not feel motivated to work on this, and you will not feel committed (9/10 times). You are worth more than exposure, unless it’s a project you’re sure you a.) have the time to handle, b.) have the stress capacity to handle and c.) you know you’re not being exploited by whoever you’re being asked by. Tread very carefully here.

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This is one of the biggest issues I had after going from full-time, corporate work to self-directed freelancing. So much of your environment changes, sometimes it’s hard to handle. My nutrition went to absolute shit, I stressed heaps (I still do!), I didn’t leave my apartment for one to two weeks at a time, and I generally felt terrible. It’s hard. You no longer see people every day at work, you just have yourself and 9/10 times, your home will be your office. You feel like you never leave work. I really don’t want this to happen to anyone else the way it happened to me, because it was a turd of a time. Here’s some things I learned that helped, though:

  • Work 9 to 5 and give yourself breaks. Don’t let yourself work on contract stuff past these hours unless you have a particularly tough deadline, because this helps separate your work and leisure life.
  • Eat regularly. This sounds dumb, but when you’re home all the time, it’s easy to snack constantly OR not eat at all. I’ve done both and my health has gone to shit – make sure you eat good, eat regularly and eat right.
  • Find an excuse to leave your house each day if it’s your office. Go for a walk.
  • Schedule stuff with friends and your social circle and go to events to make sure you leave the house often and get your social injection. This is so important.
  • Make sure you have a support figure in the picture, whether it’s a best friend, your SO or a colleague in the same field. You’re going to need to vent, and there’s usually no-one else in your workspace at the time.
  • Install productivity software, like StayFocusd. If you’re just starting freelancing, especially from home, your mind will automatically have profiled the home space to be your fun-happy-time-place and you’re going to waste a bunch of time on Facebook/Reddit/Twitter/whatever. You will probably need the extra force to help you stay on the job.

These are the main points that were big for me, so now I’m going to list some resources that really helped me get into game freelancing.

  • /r/gamedevclassifieds – A great place to advertise yourself and see job offers that are going for freelancers or even permanent team members.
  • PeoplePerHour – There’s sometimes game stuff posted here and I admit I haven’t used PPH a lot, but it runs on testimonials which seems like a good way of putting yourself ahead of the pack.
  • oDesk – Game stuff is posted here, but beware of taking jobs that pay you nothing. I often see jobs on oDesk that give maybe $100 for a full game of assets. Only take jobs that pay you what you’re worth.
  • TIGForum’s Offering Paid Work subforum – The TIG Forums are well known and respected in the indie dev community and can be a good place to look every now and then.
  • IndieDB’s job page – A bunch of indie companies looking for +1’s, but be careful of whether it’s paid or not.
  • IndieGamer’s Paid Work subforum – Like TIGForum’s. Also good, reliable place most of the time.
  • Pixel Prospector’s Big List of Freelancer Things – Self explanatory, and Pixel Prospector is the best thing ever.