Game Developers Celebrate Access, Diversity at PAX Unplugged

From December 6 to December 8, 2019, developers, funders, and fans alike flocked to the convention center in Philadelphia, PA for three days of dice rolls, panel discussions, and high-octane fun.

Philadelphia, PA – Attendees walk into the Expo Hall on the first day of PAX Unplugged. (December 6, 2019 – Photo Credit: Maggie May)

PAX Unplugged is the analog gaming edition of the Penny Arcade Expo series. “PAX” refers to a collection of games conventions founded by Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik, authors of the popular web comic Penny Arcade. Held each year in Seattle, Boston, Melbourne, Philadelphia, and San Antonio, these conventions are an opportunity for celebration, new releases, demonstrations, and discussion surrounding the rapidly evolving world of gaming.

The funding and philanthropy opportunities in the games world are enjoying a similar expansion as audience attention shifts to games that turn traditional themes on their heads. Likewise, foundations focused on bringing diverse voices to a traditionally white male-dominated industry are gaining strength. At the same time, gamers give back to their communities through organizations like Child’s Play. This charity, founded by the same Penny Arcade team that founded PAX, provides donations of games, consoles, and other age-appropriate entertainment devices to children’s hospitals.

The games world is evolving, and it’s a great time to be a fan.

What’s so exciting about developments in gaming?

The games development world is going through something of a Renaissance. As pen-and-paper roleplaying games enjoy a new surge in popularity, so too do video and board games with an emphasis on diverse characters, deep psychological topics, and themes that speak to more than simple dice rolls and point collection.

For example, games like Alderac Entertainment Group’s Inner Compass gamify the complex process of working through trauma, dealing with one’s inner emotions, and searching for meaning in everyday life. Similarly, Gather Round Games turned heads with Someone Has Died, a playful improv-based game. This “silly game about serious business” is the brainchild of an all-female team of designers (Adi Slepack, Ellie Black, and Liz Roche, to be specific).

Jonathan Bobrow, Move38 Founder & CEO and designer of the Blinks Gaming System, demonstrates the capabilities of the smart tiles and their accessibility for colorblind gamers. (Photo Credit: Maggie May)

Other developers are exploring the possibilities available for accessibility in games.

Move38 sold out of their groundbreaking Blinks game platform before they even arrived at the show. Although the light- and color-based smart gaming system was initially built for game capabilities alone, Founder & CEO Jonathan Bobrow has designed the color palettes the games use to be adaptable for people with red-green colorblindness.

Another developer exploring accessibility is Monocle Society, the studio responsible for the card game and mobile app hybrid Weave: Storytelling Redefined. Weave is a storytelling game at its heart. To break down the barriers of character and story creation, Weave uses a tarot-inspired deck of cards with an integrated app to build player characters, create an adventure, and jump headfirst into gameplay within a few minutes.

For my demo of Weave, I sat down with CEO Kyle Kinkade, COO Mike Hayes, and Executive Producer Tristan Llewellyn Morris. I’ve played plenty of tabletop roleplaying games in my time, so I’m used to a character creation process that takes at least an hour or two. But in three tarot cards and about four minutes, I had a fully fleshed-out character: Spork the Goblin, expert tinkerer and visitor to the moon.

From L to R: Monocle Society’s Tristan Llewellyn Morris, Mike Hayes, and Kyle Kinkade celebrate Weave (and Spork the Goblin King’s untimely demise) at their booth at PAX Unplugged.
(Photo Credit: Maggie May)

Moments after building my character, I had dice in my hand and an adventure to follow. Weave won me over because of its absolute ease of access: gone were the struggles of complicated math and endless character sheets. Here was a game I could play with a young niece or nephew, or whip out to introduce a friend to the RPG genre without the intensity of a full pen-and-paper campaign.

Plus, the four of us were laughing over Spork’s exploits in a matter of moments, and I left the Expo Hall with a great story to tell.

How can the feminist giving sector work together with the games industry?

In much the same way that politics, environmental activism, and social justice are evolving with funding that directly supports diverse voices and campaigns, the games world can benefit from feminist funding.

According to the International Game Developers Association, women make up 47% of the people playing video games, but only 22% of the people creating them. However, drawing from personal experience, I met more female and LGBTQIA+ games developers at this convention than any other I’ve been to in the past (and trust me, I’ve been to a lot!).

The voices of girls, women, and minority communities are gaining major strength in the games industry. Panels focused on diversity and accessibility, discussions surrounding cultural consultancy and inclusion, and a constant feeling of celebration permeated the weekend, giving me one of the most optimistic looks at the gaming industry I’ve experienced in a long time.

The best way to support healthy change in the industry is to support organizations that help women, girls, and members of the LGBTQIA+ community become the next generation of coders, developers, and game designers. Support for organizations like Girls Who Code, Generation Giga Girls, and the Women in Games Conference helps guarantee there will always be enough seats at the game table to go around.


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Author: Maggie May

Maggie May is a small business owner, author, and story-centric content strategist. A Maryland transplant by way of Florida, DC, Ireland, Philadelphia, and -- most recently -- Salt Lake City, she has a passion for finding stories and telling them the way they're meant to be told.

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