26 May 2024

Diversifying video games through creative writing

From Culture 101, 12:31 pm on 26 May 2024


Lisa Blakie

Lisa Blakie Photo: Supplied

Gamers with a passion for creative writing can merge their interests in Aotearoa’s only creative writing paper dedicated to video games.

The University of Otago has this year appointed a Professional Practice Fellow, Lisa Blakie, who’s bringing her real-world experience and expertise to the teaching role. She’s the Narrative Director and Co-Director of Atawhai Interactive, an indie video game studio based in Ōtepoti Dunedin and was previously the Narrative Designer and the Community Director for award-winning developer Runaway Play.

Blakie’s appointment to the role is the beginning of a three-year partnership between the New Zealand Centre of Digital Excellence (CODE) and Otago’s English and Linguistics Programme. 

Along with her experience in the video game industry, Blakie has also written an honours dissertation about indigenous storytelling in video games, and she serves on the NZ Game Developers Association Board.

Creative Writing for Games and Interactive Media is taught in three parts: world building, interactive script writing and software and character creation. Participants are also given the chance to make their own games during the course. 

When you think of video games, most of us may imagine large established worlds with laws and details which can seem overwhelming but Blakie says she encourages the students to start small. 

“Picking one facet of the world building to focus on - the setting, time period or things like politics or even geography. Take that and think about the dialogue you’d want to put into that kind of world.”

The course has drawn in a diverse range of participants. Blakie says there’s a high percentage of female and gender diverse students.

“It’s incredible considering the industry itself doesn’t have particularly good statistics in diversity and gender. It’s largely a cis-male dominated industry, but it’s growing every year which is exciting.”

It’s estimated women make up only 15 percent of the gaming industry.

But for Blakie, women leading has been the norm. 

“I started in the industry at a company called Runaway which is led by women. But also making games with an audience that’s predominantly 50+ year-old women in the US.”

The games are relaxing, centred around nature and mobile-based, making them more accessible. 

“You need diverse voices to make diverse content.”

A keen advocate and participant in the Māori game development community, one of the games taught by Blakie in the course is Guardian Maia. A New-Zealand made game, it’s a third person action-adventure set in 2750 where the world of science fiction and Indigenous Māori culture collide. Gamers journey across Aotearoa fighting ruthless warriors to find the key to saving the people. Blakie says it’s also about subverting expectations.

The paper can be taken online through Zoom workshops giving students the opportunities to talk about video games with other students and one-on-one time with tutors. 

“What students are doing for the assessments is what you would be doing in the game industry.

It’s not just the creative writing, but you’re also making something that would be expected to be shared within a game team”.

Students use software programmes currently used by the industry. 

The gaming industry is a global goliath. The revenue generated by the gaming world is greater than the global revenue of music and films combined. According to Forbes, in 2022, the global gaming industry generated an estimated $305 billion. The global music and movie industry, together generated $86 billion. 

Behind the meteoric and rapid rise of gaming in the entertainment world has been the influence of digital marketing and media platforms. Social media platforms have transformed how gamers interact with their fan bases and communities. Geographical boundaries have been broken down allowing gamers to broadcast their gameplay in real time and engage with loyal fans worldwide. 

This personalised aspect has allowed the industry to become a trove for advertisers. 

As for New Zealand’s place in the world, Blakie says it’s an exciting time to be making games.

The Centre for Digital Excellence has just launched a national funding regime. Anyone can apply to create their own games - ranging from those with no experience to those with prototypes ready to build and expand their game. 

Black Salt Games based in Ōtautahi Christchurch launched a game last year, Dredge, which has been met with critical acclaim, awards and will now be turned into a film.

“In typical New Zealand fashion, we’re definitely punching above our weight in that regard.”

Toroa: Skycall

Toroa: Skycall Photo: Supplied

Outside of teaching, Blakie is also working on her own game called Toroa - where you play as an albatross. It’s a relaxing game based in Te Ao Māori.

Blakie is hoping the game will be launched later this year.

Toroa: Skycall

Toroa: Skycall Photo: Supplied

“There’s a huge audience that wants these kinds of games - they’re having their moment. Games that aren’t combat or action focused. They’re more focused on sitting down and having a chill, relaxing or cosy time - rather than getting your adrenaline buzz.”

Lisa Blakie spoke to Culture 101’s Perlina Lau.