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Speaker Q&A: Julia Keren-Detar on the intersection of history and game design throughout the years

Alongside the many technical and artistic talks you'll find at GDC 2018, we're also lucky to be joined by developers interested in talking about the impact video games have on culture at large. For years, game designer Julia Keren-Detar has been discussing the ways that historical events have influenced game design across the years, and this year she's back with a session on inequality and player behavior that should be especially worth your time!

To get you ready for Keren-Detar's talk, we've reached out to her for a brief Q&A about her work and philosophy on working in games. You can check it out below!

Don't miss out! The Game Developers Conference in San Francisco next March is going to be full of interesting and informative sessions like Keren-Detar's. For more visit the show’s official website.

1. Tell us about yourself and what you do in the games industry.

My name is Julia Keren-Detar, I'm a game designer at Untame and I've been doing game design for several years. Before that I was a game artist and programmer.

2. What inspired you to pursue your career?

I discovered Hypercard back when I was in high school and wanted to recreate Myst. Being able to build worlds with software was so powerful. I didn't have a computer until then and didn't know computers could do such cool things.

3. Without spoiling it too much, tell us what you’ll be talking about at GDC.

I've been doing a lot of research into economic inequality (particularly focused in the US) trying to better understand current events. I've come across a number of studies that look at how people's behavior can change when navigating systems of inequality, and so I'll be presenting my findings in this talk. This talk is different from my previous ones because I am trying to understand current events instead of looking into the past, and as a result a lot of my questions are still ongoing and sometimes I end up asking more than I started with. I'm hoping that game designers can learn from some of these studies since al lot of what we do is design unequal systems for people to interact with.

4. What are some of the biggest challenges you face in your work?

I'm a new mom so my most recent challenge is work life balance. This was an issue before baby but now it is even more so. A lot of places still have crunch as an integral part of production and work life balance is a big issue that developers struggle with. We love our work, but there is just so much pressure to get work done and deadlines can be unrealistic, and it can affect your well-being.

5. What are the most rewarding parts of your job?

My favorite part as a designer is to examine how people interact with systems in interesting and unexpected ways, and design better systems with these observations. I love researching different aspects of system-thinking, particularly through a historic lens.

6. Do you have any advice for those aspiring to join your field someday?

Don't be discouraged if your creations don’t turn out as good as you want it to be. Even the best designers go through countless iterations and failed ideas before something valuable comes out. Draw on other design fields for inspiration. There is much to learn from other disciplines.

7. Learning about history often means navigating a story told by the winners. How do you encourage students of board game history to dissect narratives and seek out new perspectives?

It is hard to see all the complexities, viewpoints or random events that lead to something happening. We humans aren’t designed to slow down and analyze many different viewpoints or experiences that we don't identify with or don't have in our own history. This is not because we don’t want to, but because we might not have that familiar information or reference points to draw on when navigating those stories. That is why it is important to focus on different perspectives while learning about historical events. If we are primed to think about other narratives, we will be better informed and have a fuller understanding of what we are studying. But it takes deliberate action. Another important point to remember is that we can't help viewing the past from our own historical perspective. In games, this priming is important because we might look at a system as basic compared to some of the contemporary games, but that doesn't mean they aren't good game experiences. They may have been designed for a different audience, have technical or cultural limitations, or designed with a more complex social system around the game that we might not understand from just reading the instructions.

8. Games driven by “history” and economics also tend to come with baked-in models for interpreting and understanding historical events, what practices do you think developers can pursue to make sure even if they’re relying on those models, they’re helping their players get a broader context for the past?

I think the best is to make sure that you have a diverse team making these games and that there are people who are historians on the team from the beginning. This again goes back to the fact that unless we are thinking about different viewpoints, we are most likely going to miss or not address them just because they are not in our immediate mental space. But if we have team members with different reference points, these perspectives are going to be identified, considered and addressed. Economics is a whole other layer of complexity because it is a culture's value system coming into relief, and these value systems don't always translate between cultures and players. I think it goes back to understanding what the game's goal is. Is it to provide an entertaining experience for players, do you want players to question something about a value system that they might not be paying attention to? Do you want them to learn about an aspect of history or economics in a different way? Then that will change how the system should be built and what kind of things designers need to be mindful of. But even when making systems of providing escapism or entertainment, designers still need to make sure they understand, and are responsible to, what they are communicating to the players.

GDC 2018 will take place March 19-23rd at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. For more information, visit the show's official website, or subscribe to regular updates via FacebookTwitter, or RSS.


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