Friday, August 8, 2014

A Q&A with the creators of 'Choice: Texas,' a video game about reproductive justice

Posted By on Fri, Aug 8, 2014 at 10:04 AM

click to enlarge choicetx.jpg


While the recently released PlayStation 4 and Xbox One consoles dominate video game news coverage, one of the most groundbreaking games of the year is a free-to-play browser game called "Choice: Texas." The game is a choose your own adventure story following five women handling unexpected pregnancies in Texas, the developers’ home state and a “Grade: F” state for women seeking access to abortion. Developers Carly Kocurek and Allyson Whipple successfully rose over $10,000 through the crowd-funding site IndieGogo to fund the game’s development and were kind enough to answer a few questions about "Choice:Texas," the first and only game about reproductive justice.

First off, congratulations on releasing "Choice: Texas!" Could you talk a little bit about how the project came to be? What were the design, development, funding, etc. processes like? Why is it named "Choice:Texas" specifically?

Carly Kocurek: We’re still working away on the last three characters, but we’re getting close. We’re pretty happy with the first release, which is a good feeling. I was playing a pen-and-paper RPG a couple years ago, and I was really interested in the character-building process. But, RPGs balance characters. You can’t have a character who is the strongest and the smartest and the richest and the fastest, because it messes up the game balance. But, real life isn’t like that at all. Nobody balances the game. It’s unfair. It’s a lot easier for some people to win or to get what they want. And, I was really struck by the rhetoric of choice, it sounds like everyone’s just choosing things in a vacuum, but in fact everyone’s choices are so constrained by time and money and health and healthcare access and all kinds of things. I started out wanting to make an RPG, but that fundamental unfairness meant it wasn’t going to be a way to talk about real problems. So, it sat on the backburner. Allyson and I talked about the idea, but we couldn’t quite figure it out. Then I played Depression Quest, and I was so impressed. That is such an important game. The format seemed like a fit for the kinds of stories I was interested in. So, Allyson and I talked about it more, and we really wanted to go forward. We did some preliminary work, research and things like that. Then, Wendy Davis’s filibuster happened, and that was so inspiring, and it really felt like the time for this was now.

So, we really seriously budgeted it out and decided to fund-raise through Indiegogo. We tried really hard to be organized and to do things right, but, we learned a lot by doing. Our friends and family were really supportive, but so were some people we didn’t know at all, which was amazing. It’s so moving to have a lot of people really invest in something you want to do, to have faith in you like that.

The name was just sort of always the name I had in my head for the project. It’s a game about choice in a really literal way, because it’s a choose-your-own-adventure-type game, but it’s also about choice as a rhetoric and a metaphor. And, of course, it’s about Texas. I’m originally from Texas, so for me, at some point, everything is about Texas. I see the world through the lens of thirty years in Texas, through the lens of being raised in Texas, through the lens of loving Texas even when I find it a difficult place. I had to move for work a couple years ago, and I really miss it, its home. 

Alyson Whipple: Wendy Davis’ filibuster really was a turning point. We’d bounced around ideas for the project off and on, but the political upheaval made us prioritize. I remember talking about the project all afternoon one weekend when Carly was in town, a few days after the filibuster. And then a few nights after that, I was down at the Capitol protesting, and it really hit home how important this project was.

Fundraising was exhausting but also exhilarating. We did our best to plan and prepare, but you don’t know what it’s really going to be like until you’re in the thick of it. There were some days I was sure we weren’t going to meet our goal, but then we picked up momentum, and I was amazed. Having strangers believe in you is inspiring and humbling at the same time.

Why did you choose a video game as the medium to discuss reproductive justice? What do you think a game about abortion can accomplish that blogs, news coverage etc. can’t?

CK: I study the history of games, and I teach cultural history and game studies and game design. I’ve long been really interested in games as a medium. What can games do? What kinds of stories can they tell? How can a game surprise us? What are the limits of the medium? I have been so excited about the rise of empathy games lately, and I want to be part of that conversation and that movement towards games that do things that maybe won’t make money or aren’t supposed to — although absolutely people deserve to get paid for their work, and a lot of mainstream games do awesome things. I like games that do unexpected things or make you think or cry or stay up too late at night. I hope "Choice: Texas" does at least a little bit of some of those things.

What has been freeing about writing these stories in the context of a game is that we’re free to look at and consider different options and possibilities simultaneously. Yes, the choices each player makes are going to send them down a certain path, and sooner or later they’re going to wind up at a specific ending. But the beauty of the game structure is that you can go back, play again, make different choices, and see what other challenges or successes arise. A blog or news story can paint a portrait, but to sit down and play as a character, and then sit down again and play that character in a whole new way and find yourself at a completely different end point—that allows the player to really see the multiple scenarios.

AW: The game structure also has allowed us to really give attention to the choices of birth, abortion, and adoption. We can get deeper into these issues than a magazine article with a word limit. Because the game mode allows us a broad focus, we’re able to present the different choices and outcomes. We’ve gotten some criticism (largely during fundraising, when the game didn’t exist yet) that this game is all about abortion, that it glorifies abortion. But because the game gives us lots of room to move from a narrative perspective, we’re able to discuss and imagine all the different choices a woman might make.

click to enlarge choicetx2.jpg

Although most of the press covering the game calls it “the game about abortion,” the player has several different options when playing as the various women. Do you think the game has the same effect on players who choose not to have an abortion, in terms of learning about the intersecting difficulties of having one safely?

CK: I suspect people learn different things from each path in the game, but I think it’s important to realize that none of these options are easy. It’s not easy to access an abortion in a state with restrictive legislation; many people find adoption really difficult for a lot of reasons, and there are still children who wind up going unadopted who wind up in social services for a long, long time because people want certain kinds of children; and, of course, being a parent isn’t something I think most people would say is easy, either. And, for all of those, personal circumstances really shape how accessible or appealing a certain choice might be. So, probably you learn a different thing if you play character A and take her through the process of an adoption than if you play that same character and have her go through the process of an abortion, but I’d like to think all those things are important to know about.

AW: I think there are misconceptions surrounding all aspects of reproductive choice. I’ve heard people who are opposed to abortion call it an “easy way out,” as though it’s a choice that everyone makes lightly, or that it’s simple to just walk into a clinic and get one. I’ve heard anti-choice rhetoric that paints adoption as something simple, something ideal, not an issue that is complex and fraught with both emotional and legal difficulties. No matter what path a player chooses for their character, what I hope they come away with is an understanding that no path is simple, that no choice is unilaterally better than the others. Abortion can be frightening, it can have complications, but it can also be the best choice in a certain set of circumstances. Adoption might fit in best with a woman’s personal or religious views, but she might also end up in a painful legal battle, or experience feelings of regret. And keeping a child and choosing parenthood can yield powerful love and incredible intangible rewards, but it can also lead to complications of its own: not just the typical challenges of raising an infant, but also financial or family instability, especially in areas where there is a lack of support services or resources to help people out.

Could you tell us a little about the writing and research processes? What sources are you drawing from as you write the storylines?

CK: We dug through a lot of things. I’m a researcher by training. We went through data from Planned Parenthood and the Guttmacher Institute. I looked at the U.S. census data at some point. We went through a lot of the court cases and legal codes from the past few years, anything that might give us some sense of broad trends or general circumstances. I read a lot of academic research on adoption. We went through pages of state agencies and nonprofit organizations. We read a lot of the editorial content from the Texas Observer and other newspapers and magazines where women were sharing their stories. So, there’s anecdotal information mixed in with the data, but we really relied on the data as the backbone. The data tells us we something is happening and where it’s happening and maybe who it’s happening to, but the stories people share tell us more about what that looks like, what that feels like. We started with research, and we spent a lot of time on that before we did anything else. And, really, that’s been ongoing. We still send each other links to news stories pretty regularly; it’s a habit now.

The writing process was a little different for each character, and Allyson really took charge on that. But, I can say that with all the characters, we started off with a really short sketch that told us some basic biographical things about the character: her job, her age, where she lives, a little glimpse of her personality. We wanted to know what each character was like, so we could know what any of these choices might look like in the context of her life.

I also have to give a shoutout to our testers and copy editor. Once the character is written, there’s a whole testing and revision process we’ve been going through. I think that’s really helped us catch our mistakes and make sure the game is as strong as it can be.

AW: Research has been so important, because it’s essential to get the facts right to make an accurate game. With everything so in flux in Texas, we really had to stay on the ball.

There are a lot of women and a lot of stories out there, but there’s a lot of overlap in terms of the struggles people face. No character is based off one single person; rather, they’re composites.

A few weeks ago, I was having lunch with a poet friend and we were talking about the game and its characters. She said to me, “I know all of these women. One of them is me.” Carly and I have worked hard to create characters that are diverse and yet relatable, and that comment made me realize we’ve done a good job with that.

How have players, specifically women, responded to "Choice: Texas"? What are you hoping women, on either side of the political spectrum, take with them after playing the game?

CK: This is like a lot of projects where you complete it, and you put it up or you publish it, and then you don’t entirely know what people are doing with it or what they make of it. I’ve gotten some feedback here and there. There was a review in Paste that was really positive about the game, and it said something I thought was interesting, which is that the game is probably not getting as much attention as it would if it was more deliberately controversial. We got a lot of coverage, and I got some really kind of menacing e-mails and things, when we were fundraising, based on what people imagined the game would be. Now it’s out, and people seem a lot less interested. I really just hope, no matter what people’s beliefs are, I hope the game encourages people to be more empathetic, to be kinder. Women are really, I think, always trying to make the best choices they can for themselves. Those choices aren’t going to look the same to everyone, and they aren’t going to always be obvious choices, and I just hope the game shows some of that.

AW: I think some of the people who were most vitriolic during the campaign probably ended up being disappointed that this game wasn’t some abortion-glamorizing animated game complete with sound effects (yes, some critic out there claimed there were going to be sound effects). But this isn’t a game designed for shock value.

When we were in Vienna presenting the prototype at a conference, I was very interested in the ways men and women responded. One woman who was playing the game put it down partway through and told me it hit too close to home. Most of the men, on the other hand, played all the way through. Some of them were wincing every time they had to make a decision. Presenting that prototype made me realized we hit something that hit a nerve, resonated with both men and women. 

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