The ongoing discussion and criticism of Bill C-36 has intensified conversations about sex work in Canada. While the law – which came into effect on December 6 and is also known as the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act – has intensified news coverage of sex work, most Canadians don't understand what it's actually like to earn a living in the sex business. One team of academics at Concordia University is looking to change that with a game that begins with a simple premise: sex work is work.
The Oldest Game, currently in development, focuses on assuming the identity of a sex worker in one of three Canadian cities: Toronto, Vancouver and Montréal. Known as Andrea (or Andréa, if players choose a francophone avatar) the character will be either be a street worker, masseuse or an escort. The objective of the game is to make as much money as possible while staying safe. which creates a difficult, no-win scenario for players to show the very real constraints sex workers experience. The game's new trailer encourages viewers to "experience the stories behind the headlines," a theme that came up a lot in my conversation with Sandra Gabriele, one of the co-leads of the project.
"I approach this as an academic," she told me. "So my question is: How well do news games succeed in helping us understand stories beyond the two-sided debate in typical journalism? We wanted to see if we could devise a game that explored the systems and point to the complexity of the situation, with the hope that people would then better understand exactly what's at stake."
Gabriele, an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Studies, told me she first began considering the news game format when she read Ian Bogost, Simon Ferrari and Bobby Schweizer's book, Newsgames: Journalism at Play. "The argument they make is basically: games are really good at demonstrating how systems work, so in order to be a good player, you have to understand what all the factors are that you're trying to balance," she says. "So I just kind of got the idea. It was right around when the Bedford challenge was being launched and I thought to myself, isn't this a great example of a place where understanding how certain systems work together, like the legal system, like policing in individual communities, like poverty and debt, lead to certain kinds of choices that sex workers are often forced to make."
After partnering with Lisa Lynch, an Associate Professor in the Department of Journalism, Gabriele secured internal funding for the project. They created a team from students at the university who were studying video game development and design. Students producing the game include Stephanie Goddard (art and design), Ben Spencer (sound design), and Martin Desrosiers (development). The team also includes writers and researchers Amanda Feder, Esther Splett, and Natalie Zina Walschots (a PHD candidate, freelance writer, and – full disclosure – a friend of mine whose posting led me to learn about the game).
"As we started working, I became uncomfortable with the idea of us devising a game about sex work outside of our research – we were doing a ton of research – without conversations with sex workers," says Gabriele. "So we hired a sex worker [Marilyne Hudon] who has been a consultant on the game. She has played through every iteration and came to a production meeting where we had a long conversation about what worked, where we should focus our energy, everything from gameplay feedback to important questions about representation and the challenges that sex workers face."
The Oldest Game illustrates these challenges through a variety of scenarios based on everyday decisions that sex workers make, such as assessing clients, asking drivers to stay (or go) while visiting clients and replacing receptionists who quit to avoid being charged as third parties. And as Gabriele mentioned to me, the game is developing at a crucial time for understanding just how oppressive the new legislation really is.
Canada's previous prostitution laws were struck down for being unconstitutional, and the new legislation finds itself facing a similar challenge. Supporters say the laws will protect sex workers by criminalizing the buying of sex and not the selling but sex work advocates claim that by continuing to criminalize sex work at all, the industry is forced underground where safety is compromised. Action against the new legislation continues, most recently on Dec. 17 during the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, when several organizations met in Queens' Park Studio to "bring powerful messages to the provincial government."
In such a particular moment of time with so many negative stereotypes of sex workers in mainstream media, creating The Oldest Game has had its own challenges. "One of the key issues that comes up in journalism is that question of how you represent other people's stories. It's a perpetual problem and we've faced it at every single turn," says Gabriele. The team has had extensive discussions on how the character should look, how much sex should be shown (they're not making an X-rated game, after all), and how issues like violence and drug use should be represented, or if at all. But Gabriele tells me the work and wait has been worth it to explore the possibility of games as journalism.
"It has been interesting to think about this as a form of news because the story keeps changing," says Gabriele. "Just yesterday I said to Natalie: 'NOW said they would continue to accept ads on behalf of sex workers, we need a pop up of that!' The game is constantly changing as story is emerging. There will be a point when we stop, but that's the challenge of trying to do this as the story is unfolding. At some point we have to launch it and see what kinds of conversations will emerge."
The Oldest Game is being beta tested with seasoned gamers over the next few weeks to determine flow and quality of gameplay, but the team is also planning on play testing with other sex workers as well to gain more perspective on nuance and quality of the scenarios presented. Gabriele estimates the game should be available to play for free in February, 2015.