Writer. Editor. Leximaven. Game Designer. Vorpal Blonde. Bisexual Brainlicker. Midas's Touch. Schrödinger's Brat.

Competing With Puppies: Designing Games for Kids (Part 1 of 3)

posted on: April 8, 2015
in: Blog, Gaming with Kids

I became a gamer because of my grandmother. A librarian and an avid gamer herself, my grandmother was smart, creative, and utterly ruthless when it came to anything involving cards, dice, boards, and even controllers (it was at her house that I played my first ever game of Frogger). Every time the family got together, she brought out a new game that she was passionate about and got us all to play it.

We played games designed for adults and kids, and while she made sure that we kids understood everything, she never treated us—or even the most kid-focused of games—as anything other than equals and utterly worthy of her time and (competitive) attention. If you wanted to win, your age didn’t matter, but your skills did—you had better be two steps ahead of her (I never was). But if she was on your team, she would take you into the fold and teach you all her winning secrets. When I lost, I learned to take it well so that we could play again. If I was on her team, I felt like her equal. And when I finally won a game against her for the first time, I had already learned a lot about how to be a good winner, after having watched her whomp me graciously for so long.

She was a stickler for the rules—and for finding all kinds of creative ways to bend those rules without actually breaking them. On the other hand, if she thought a rule was stupid or bad for the game, she would explain why and suggest ways to work around it or offer ideas for creating a different, more useful rule instead. She made up games, too. (Or at least, I think she did. We played things when I was a kid that I have never seen anywhere else.).

It was because of her that I started looking at games from a design perspective early on (although I didn’t have the words for what I was doing). Why this rule and not that? What happened when you tweaked one thing but not the other? How could you work together as a team to accomplish the goal?

My grandmother passed away last year. Even as I write this, she’s probably teaching the devil a few new tricks in his favorite game. I’m so glad that she got to see my early game design projects, and I hope she knew how much of an influence she had on my life and work.

Right now, I’m working on a game that I wish she was going to be around to see—and to play with me. It’s a roleplaying game designed for smart kids (and their families, of course), and I bet she could teach me all the best house rules. I think of her often as I work on the game, and of all the lessons that she passed along that I’m using every day.

This is a three-part look at designing roleplaying games for kids. Part 1 and 2 will look at some general game design concepts: Age Matters (And It Totally Doesn’t); Every Kid (And Adult) Should Be Able To Play; and Competing With Puppies (AKA Don’t Be Boring). Part 3 will specifically explore the ideas of designing for accessibility, including for players with dyslexia, autism, and color-blindness.

AGE MATTERS (AND IT TOTALLY DOESN’T)

When you set out to make a game for adults, you are purposefully aiming for a wide age range. A 15-year-old can usually play the same game as a 90-year-old. And that’s one of the points of the game.

Games designed specifically for kids are a different matter. One of the first, and arguably most important, decisions you have to make is “What specific age group is this game designed for?”

“Kids” is a big category, with a lot of variation. A game designed for 5-year-olds needs to be very different than a game designed for 8-year-olds, and by the time you get to 11-year-olds, it needs to morph yet again. Not just the rules and language, of course, but also the entire world aesthetic, the goals of the game, the pacing, pretty much everything.

Within your answer, you’ll also need to be clear that while you have a specific age (say 5-8 years old), the game will have a secondary group of players who are probably adults (parents, teachers, grandparents, etc.) as well as siblings, friends, and classmates who might be outside that age range. 

Using the age ranges described by books can be helpful for narrowing in on your target audience. While the levels have many names, they generally run something like this (with lots of age overlap to compensate for varying skill levels):

Ages 0-3 / Listening / Board Books

Ages 3-6 / Beginning Reading / Picture Books

Ages 6-8 / Reading With Help / Easy Readers

Ages 7-10 / Reading Alone / Chapter Books

Ages 8-12 / Advanced Reading / Middle Grade Novels

Books in these categories can help you gain a better understanding of good image-to-text ratios for each age group, art style, word choices and sentence length, complexity of concepts, and even font choices and size. But of course, every kid is different and their ages may not reflect their reading or comprehension skills.

Where age doesn’t matter is when it comes to treating the material and the players with respect. Try to stay away from art or language that talks down to kids, and always assume that they’re smarter and more creative than you are (they probably are). Respect every player fully for who they are, no matter whether they’re 4, 14, or 41.

This was one of the first lessons my grandmother taught me when I was a young player, and it’s something I try to carry over into both GMing and game design now that I’m an adult. I think a great game should be designed to make players of all ages feel smart, creative, and cool. And one of the ways a game can do that is to give them all the tools they need, and then assume that they will use those tools in brilliant, unexpected ways.

Continue on to Part 2, where I explore two more ideas: Every Kid (And Adult) Should Be Able To Play and Competing With Puppies (AKA Don’t Be Boring). Part 3 (coming soon) will look at accessibility, particularly for those players with dyslexia, autism, and color-blindness.

Kiss kiss bang bang, s.

On Turning 43

posted on: April 2, 2015
in: Blog
Waking up at 43.

Waking up 43.

I woke up this morning, and like that, I was 43 years old. I like to keep track of my years, my experiences, my growth as a person on this planet.

Some years, I am successful at this. Other years, not so much.

The year I turned 37, I sold everything I owned, and traveled the world, writing about it daily.

In 2012, I wrote a poem almost every day and posted it online.

I wrote this post when I turned 41 and followed it up with a lot of writing and essays.

Last year, the year I turned 42, my grandmother died a few weeks before my birthday. I wrote about her death in March, and then I didn’t blog again until August, when my baby sister got married. That blank space of almost half a year between posts says a lot about my state of space during that time. It was a year that was filled with a lot of highs and lows, as every year is, but for some reason I felt the rollercoaster of it more deeply than I have probably since I was a teenager.

The highs: Numenera, the game of my heart, won a lot of awards and lots of people had a great time playing it. I love my job. I have a partner who makes me my very best self. We adopted an amazing dog. I lived for the first time ever in a house I owned. My life is full of amazing loved ones. My non-fiction book, “As Kinky As You Wanna Be” came out and is doing well. I had the opportunity to travel and meet some incredible, kind, wonderful people. My little sister, who I love with all my heart, got married and I was her maid of honor. My little brother is following his dream of becoming a police officer. My dad retired, finally, from his job as an engineer and is getting to do some of the things he loves best — being outside, building and making things, spending time with family.

The lows: The world is in a bad place–global warming, ISIS, wars small and large, discrimination and hatred and killings. The world is always in a bad place, I know, but this year felt particularly big and hard and unsolvable. The Internet, a place I loved, a place I felt at home in for so many years — is no longer a safe place for myself and for so many others. Shaming and blaming, dogpiling, lack of human empathy and understanding, death threats, and more have turned the Internet from a safe haven for misfits like me into an emotionally dangerous land. There was a lot of illness and tragedy and sadness among my friends and family this year. I lost far too many amazing people in my life to cancer this year. Fuck cancer so hard. This year, I dealt with some intense depression (which for me brings a binge-eating disorder and a lot of apathy along with it) — all issues I thought I had overcome long ago, but which reared their horrible heads in the midst of everything.

And I didn’t write very much, even though I promised myself I would. And that, right there, sums up the truth of the year for me. I didn’t write very much. That’s how I know my state of space is fucked up. I didn’t write very much. And that means I can’t change the world for the better. I didn’t write very much. And that means I can’t change myself for the better. It means I am not doing what I believe I exist on this planet to do.

Last year, at 42, I was supposed to be the answer to the life, the universe and everything. I’d waited a long time to turn 42 on 4/2/2014. The numbers promised so much. In the end, it turned out I was the answer to nothing. It was my year to be the question instead. Being the question is hard, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. It just wasn’t what I was prepared for. I learned a lot, held my seat a lot, listened a lot. I fought hard, sometimes about the wrong things. And sometimes I gave up on the right things. Tough years teach us a lot, and one of things this past year taught me was that I am invincible, fierce, and powerful, even in the midst of difficulty. Perhaps especially so.

43 is a weird number, in the middle of things, half-prime, descending, the interrobang of numbers, sort of this, sort of that, a rhetorical exclamation. I am going in half-cocked this year, like a gun that’s stuck between the mantle and the hand that strokes it. I am going to live fast and dye my hair. I am going to bury the seeds of what could be with no expectation that they will grow. I am going to make promises I can’t keep, because I believe in the power of desires that extend beyond my reach. I will sing to the mermaids when they will not sing to me. I will measure out my life with kisses and coffee spoons and points of punctuation on the page.

Because this is the love song of me.

Do I dare disturb the universe?

Yes. Yes, I fucking do.

Kiss kiss bang bang, s.

 

 

 

How To “Know” Someone on the Internet

posted on: March 25, 2015
in: Blog, Life
Me, as part of an anti-war protest in 2003.

Me, as part of an anti-war protest in 2003.

In my 25 years as a writer and activist, I’ve been called everything under the sun, even before the Internet existed. When I came out as bisexual in the late ’90s, I was a “confused fake lesbian.” When I worked as the managing editor of Nervy Girl! Magazine in 2000 and we published pieces from Muslim women who believed wearing a hijab was an act of feminist strength, I was a “woman-hating misogynistic asshole.” When I wrote sexy books about people of all walks of life, I was “a slut-devil who will surely burn in hell.” When I came out as a gamer and a geek, I was “jesusfuckingchrist another fake geek girl.” Last year, when my company created a succubus-like creature in one of our games, I was “sexist, homophobic, and transphobic.” Most recently, I am a “racist ass.” (Yes, I’ve kept records of all of these interactions over the years, and these are actual quotes from various letters to the editor, emails, comments, and tweets).

At almost 43 years old, I know who I am and what I believe in, and most of the time, other people talking about me in a negative way is a something that just lives under my skin like some vestigial, permanent part of me. To me, it’s just the cost of standing up for what I believe in, and the price continues to lessen with each attack.

But it took me a long time to get here, and not all of us are in that place. People are losing their jobs, their families, and their lives over being mislabeled and misrepresented on the Internet. They’re experiencing depression, anxiety, fear, and PTSD. Young people, trans people, minorities of all types are being slut-shamed and bullied to the point where they take or consider taking their own lives.

It doesn’t take much work to find hundreds of Internet forums, social media sites, and blogs that are full of conversations that start out about important issues — discrimination, sexism, homophobia, censorship, suicide, global warming — and quickly spiral inwards to become angry disputes attacking the characters of the people involved. “He’s an asshole.” “She’s homophobic.” “What a total racist dick that person is.” “I agree.” “Me too.” “No, you’re the dick.” “Look at what she said one time.” And on and on.

Not only do conversations like this take away from the issues at hand, they are also impossible to “win.” You are the only person who truly knows who you are, and the forty other strangers discussing your virtues and flaws are never going to get close to that core of your personality and essence.

The truth is that it’s so much easier to believe something negative about someone than it is to believe the positive. Think about this: Studies have shown that if someone tells you you’re an awful person (or that your work is awful), it takes TEN TIMES of someone telling you that you’re a good person (or that your work is good) to eradicate the first statement. Negative things are louder than positive, almost always. This, I think, is especially true if:

a. You don’t actually know the person in real life. The internet makes it easy to erase other people’s humanity and assume the worst.

b. You already like or trust the person being talked about. You think, “Oh, damn. I really liked them, and now someone is saying they’re an asshole. I must be a terrible judge of people.” And that makes us feel hurt and vulnerable.

c. The person being talked about doesn’t get involved in the discussions, whether because they don’t know about them, they’re busy doing other things, or they’re purposefully not getting involved.

Conversations like these can contribute to all of the emotional issues mentioned earlier, creating a place where most people don’t feel safe being themselves, because who they actually are doesn’t matter as much as what other people say about who they are.

One way to not be part of that shaming and bullying culture is to learn more about the person in question before you decide–and publicly talk about–who they are. And then choose your actions accordingly.

Here are some suggestions for getting to “know” someone as best you can on the Internet. Yes, the steps take a little time, but imagine if someone accused you of being [insert untrue or unflattering personality trait]. Would you want everyone to just jump on the bandwagon and repeat that untrue or unflattering thing about you, or would you rather they take a few minutes to learn more about you before making a decision? It seems only fair to give other people the same courtesy (or at least reserve judgment if you don’t want to take the time to learn more). Even if, in the end, you decide that someone really is a [insert untrue or unflattering personality trait], you will have at least given them a fair shake.

  • Ask: is the person anonymous and if so, why? There’s nothing wrong with being anonymous. In fact, anonymity is an absolutely vital safety mechanism, especially for those who go against the status quo or who fear for their safety. However, anonymity can also be a shield behind which someone can issue attacks without repercussions.
  • Have a look at the person’s website or blog if they have one. What does it show about who they are, and what they believe in? Sure, someone could make a fake website extolling their “virtues” or lying about who they are, but most people don’t have time for or interest in that kind of deceit. Look at what they say about themselves, their dreams, their goals, and their actions.
  • Take a moment to visit the person’s social media sites and see not just what they talk about, but HOW they talk about things. What causes or issues do they support? How do they interact with other people? What is their overall message? What is their tribe like, who are their friends and supporters?
  • Take their job, work, or affiliated organizations into consideration IF it’s applicable and public, but remember that a person is not a company or an organization. You can dislike a person and still like the organization, and vice versa.
  • Things like someone’s Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, or donation history can also show you a lot about who they are and what they support. (Note, I am NOT suggesting that you stalk, harass, or otherwise get all up in someone else’s private shit, or that you use this information for nefarious purposes. All the things I’m suggesting here are recommended as information sources just for you, for your own personal learning experience and knowledge. If something is public on the internet, there’s nothing wrong with looking at it to get a sense of someone’s personality).
  • Listen to the other people talking about that person, both good and bad. I don’t mean believe, I mean listen. Who are they? What are they saying and how are they saying it? Do you trust their judgment more than your own? Do you trust their judgment more than you trust the person they’re talking about? Are they reliable sources of information?
  • Think about your own experiences with the person in question, if you’ve had any. Your gut is a good judge of people. Don’t be afraid to believe the good, but don’t disregard the bad.
  • Ask the person directly. Listen to what they’re saying and it HOW they’re saying it when they respond to you. There’s so much to be learned from just one personal interaction with another human being.
  • If you don’t want to take the time to do these things and learn more about the person (and who can blame you — the world is big, there are lots of people in it, and most of us barely have time to learn about ourselves, much less anyone else), it’s okay to step out of the conversation and/or reserve judgment until a later time (or never). In fact, even if you do your research, and decide how you feel about someone, it’s still okay to step out of the conversation (or to do your best to keep the conversation from being a character slam-fest.)
  • Realize that you can never fully know someone from this kind of research and interaction. Everyone is far more complicated that we think they are, and most people change constantly.
  • It’s important to remember that there’s a difference between “knowing” someone and liking them. You may come to know them and realize that you don’t actually like them, or that they believe in things that you’re against, or that all of the things that the Internet has said about them is true. An informed opinion is a solid opinion, whichever way it leads you.
  • Remember that everyone makes mistakes, even you. Don’t judge someone on one or two things they’ve done or said. Instead, try to get a whole picture and see patterns of someone’s personality, instead of the outliers.

In my experience, this type of exploration usually shows us what we already know in our hearts: most people are neither devil nor saints. Most people are just humans. Broken, beautiful, angry, kind, and utterly unique. And maybe that’s the best part of “getting to know” someone in this way. We all become humans to each other.

And perhaps that is the first step toward less bullying, less harassment, less harmful negativity. It’s a reminder that whether you like someone or hate someone, whether you agree with them or don’t, they are still a person, another human being. Whatever you think about the person, you can still make the choice not to say hurtful things to or about them. Or you could choose to say something awesome about someone else instead.

Kiss kiss bang bang, s.

P.S. As always, I’m sure there are lots of great suggestions that I haven’t thought of — please feel free to share them in the comments!

Saving The World [an excerpt]

posted on: February 24, 2015
in: Blog, Geek Love, Shanna's Writing

Screen Shot 2015-02-24 at 9.24.54 AM

My baby’s a superhero.

And Sweet Jesus, but she’s got her powers turned on tight tonight.

You’d think she was the only one up on that stage and not part of a five-man band, from the way she holds court, all but mouth-fucking the microphone. Girl’s got the biggest, plumpest lips you’ve ever seen, and tonight they’re the purple of just-ripe plums, of bruises, of that half-moon mark where teeth tighten together over skin.

If you can bear to take your eyes off her mouth, go down. Slow. Open neckline, dark blue curls falling against her olive skin. Hint of cleavage. Long vanilla scar down the top right of her breast. Black spandex that works her curves like no-man’s land, makes you just want to taste that shine with your tongue all over.

The band behind her, they’ve got capes over their jeans and t-shirts. But no cape for her. It gets caught in her heels, she says, but you know it’s really that it covers too much of her. She likes to show off those hot-damn hips, that fine-as-rain-ass, those missing legs that end in something different every show

Tonight they’re steel filigree from her knees down; leaves and flowers and a hundred tiny metal creatures tucked into the empty spaces. She’s got a thing for whimsy wrapped in an enigma tucked into a weapon. Her legs, her feet really, end in six-inch knifed heels that could kill a man. Probably have killed a man. I don’t ask most times, because I don’t need to know. Sometimes she tells me anyway. And that’s when I have to buy a bottle of fine-ass whiskey and walk away from her, go down to the strip where the boys play ball in corner pockets and they’re all-too-happy to wield a fist to a face, a paddle to a place where the ass meets the mind.

Up there, on that stage, she looks like she’s singing, but she’s not singing. What she’s doing is so far beyond singing there are no words. A place beyond thought and sound coming together. If I believed in God, I’d say she was making the world, one note at a time. She just opens her mouth and suddenly things are in the world that weren’t there before. You. Me. Love. The sound of your breath leaving you, never to find its way back. I guess you’d call that death.

She makes the sound that makes death and life and love and when she stops, the crowd becomes a room of silence. Waiting. Teetering. Here, she could utter one more thing and blow them all over, explode them apart. End of days and all these delicate bodies would go down smiling.

One of these nights, I expect her to do it.

Not tonight. She smiles. Takes a deep breath. Bows. Her legs shine fierce as roughcut diamonds, sharp as a hand of razor blades before the fist. Some fan in the front row reaches up to the stage and touches the very edge of her toes. The metal protects him from her, but not from himself. Coppery blood arches into the air, and he draws his hand back, clutching himself. Ask him in five years, after he’s forgotten what it was like to have a finger there, and he’ll say he’d do it all over again, just for a taste of her, just for a single life-bleeding touch.

Bloodspill raises the crowd one more notch, fists in the air, fists in each other’s faces. They’re chanting, “Val-tora! Val-tora! Val-tora!” Once in a while someone screams, “Woooonder Caaaaaapes!”

Valtora, that’s her.

The Wonders, that’s her superhero backup band.

They think she’s saving them.

No one’s cheering for me. They don’t know about me.

 

 

Valtora wasn’t always a superhero. She wasn’t even always Valtora. Life gives you letters and you make letternames. That’s the kind of stuff Valtora doesn’t say. She just does it. Survivors, we just do the things that other people mouth about.

First Valtora was Valentino. Italian mafia. Man of a hundred wives and a million hits. No one cut off any of his body parts.

Then she was Valerie. Beautiful girl with a beautiful mouth. High-class escort in the pretty city. Everyone liked her body parts. Even when they found out most of those parts weren’t original model material.

When the war blew into town, she became Val. You want a gender? Hers was tough-talk-no-takebacks and sly-in-the-night. Someone was slyer, though. Someone with a big blade and the desire to make her talk. You lose two legs at the knee, turns out the sounds that come out of your mouth aren’t words, aren’t song, aren’t nothing so much as a whole lot of fuck yous.

By the time I entered the big picture, she was already on her way to becoming Valtora. Bombshell. Vibrato. Superhero. Weapons of choice? Curves that’ll knock you sideways if you don’t look away quick enough, a voice that’ll devastate you right off a high cliff and a pair of legs that’d as soon fuck you up as run.

And me? I stand next to the stage and I get knocked on my ass by those goddamn curves. I open my veins and let that voice work its way inside me like a virus. I design those legs that’ll fuck you up. But mostly, well mostly, I save the world.

 

 

You want to know what she is, right? You’re thinking: Really a superhero? Some kind of immortal? Maybe that’s just a lie upon a lie upon a lie. Maybe she’s just a human who lost a pair of legs and a pair of balls in a suicide car over a bridge one starfucked night.

Or maybe the lie is the one you tell yourself, in those dark nights when worry and fear beats the skindrum of your ribcage and God’s on your side and there’s no such thing as devils or demons or even superheroes that can fuck you up with the slip of a tongue.

Those lies have no place in me anymore. Not with Valtora in my life.


 

[Excerpted from “Saving the World”, Geek Love: An Anthology of Full-Frontal Nerdity]. Read the rest of the story by picking up a copy of this beautiful book. It’s full of amazing stories of sexy, subversive geek boys and girls getting it on, all accompanied by art and comics. (As a point of trivia, the graphic design for Geek Love is by Bear Weiter, who is now the art director at Monte Cook Games. This was the first project he and I worked on together, way back when).

geeklove_cover_medium

 

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