Danniele is a community organiser and program manager advocating for the participation of marginalized people in the science and engineering fields.

I spend most of my time, both at my job and volunteering, advocating for the participation of women and other underrepresented groups in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields. As part of this work, I attended the Game Developer’s Conference 2016 (GDC 16) so I could see what was on offer for women in games. It underscored for me that one of the most important tools we have available to us as women and minorities in white male dominated fields is the connections we build with each other.

Centering Intersectionality

Although I had set out to focus on “women in STEM” as my lens into GDC 16, I was struck by how the Advocacy Track was full of so many other intersectional voices and perspectives. I’ve seen this shift occurring since 2015 at women in STEM conferences and within corporations as well. Many organizations are trading women’s committees for diversity committees and even well-established organizations that were built to serve only women are writing inclusive mission statements and inviting the participation of all people.

The gaming world seems to be participating in a shift to centre intersectionality. Click To Tweet

One panel that exemplified this shift perfectly is the #1ReasonToBe panel at GDC 16. Way back in 2012, the hashtag #1ReasonWhy began trending on Twitter to highlight the hardships women in the games industry face to shed light on why there aren’t more women participating. In response to this, Rhianna Pratchett started the #1ReasonToBe hashtag to highlight the positive things about working in the games industry as well. This was a way to keep encouraging the women who were working toward or already in the industry to stick with it, while allowing #1ReasonWhy to highlight the things that still needed to be addressed. Following this, Brenda Romero and Leigh Alexander presented #1ReasonToBe panels at GDC from 2013 to 2015, to feature women’s often unheard voices in a public venue.

Building upon this legacy, the panel was passed onto Rami Ismail to showcase a new set of unheard voices at GDC 16. As Rami said in his introduction for #1ReasonToBe, “These here are 6 of the 6 billion people around the world…they are by all accounts included in the word diversity, but very rarely included in the effort of diversity.” The panelists came from South Africa, Ukraine, Zambia, South Korea, Uruguay, and Saudi Arabia to share their stories as game developers. What followed was like nothing else on offer in GDC’s program, a real international look at what developers face around the world: from gender-segregated conventions, to struggling with tech manuals that aren’t available in their native language. In the spirit of this panel, and the goals of intersectionality, I’d like to uplift their voices again and suggest that you listen to them directly.

Click here to view the #1ReasonToBe Panel

Threats to Diverse Voices

Now it’s February 2017, at the start of GDC 17. In times when political agendas are continuing to shift toward xenophobia and white supremacy, solidarity and embracing intersectionality are essential. The biggest lesson I want to share from my experience at GDC 16 is the value of interpersonal connections. When developers save up to make the pilgrimage to GDC each year, they’re not just going to see the awards show, or play a really neat new VR demo, or even just to pick up new skills; Devs go so they can connect and network. It’s the opportunities for personal, one-on-one interactions with a large swath of the industry that makes GDC so enticing. Even now, as I watch people on Twitter change their handles to indicate they’ve arrived in San Francisco, I wish I were there.

Interpersonal connections are what help us survive and keep going in the face of adversity. They are also the target of many hate mobs and xenophobic propaganda. The “us” and “them” rhetoric works best when the “them” is kept faceless and you’re not personally connected to it. This is why the connections (speculative or not) drawn between marginalized voices were so heavily criticized during the Gamergate harassment campaign. It was a tactic meant to isolate us into silence, and convince us that if we stopped having connections to the people being targeted the most then we might just save ourselves.

This silence was felt the hardest by those who needed allies, journalists, and gaming companies to step up and speak out. We are seeing a lot less silence surrounding the current attacks on civil liberties in the US. People are using their voices en mass, and yet the administration is using larger campaigns to silence them, like creating laws to restrict protests.

The question now is how we will refuse to be silenced by hate. Click To Tweet

Shame & Silence

Another factor contributing to the silencing of marginalized voices is shame. In her talk “Everyone’s Silent Enemy: Shame and Vulnerability” at GDC 2016, Renee Nejo opened up about what it’s like to deal with shame on a regular basis because of your identity. Renee is half Degueño Native American Indian, who are part of the Kumeyaay Nation in Southern California, and, in her own words, half “other stuff.” She is a game designer and artist who, upon being featured on a list of women of colour in gaming, was asked “what colour are you?” (She told them purple.) Renee’s discussion of this internal struggle was something many marginalized folks can relate to, “I have imposter syndrome of the identity…I always held my identity like it was two pieces.”

After a run-in with an organization that was appropriating Native American culture and language at their GDC booth in 2014, Renee’s initial response was not to do anything and not to make a scene. Silence was her first response: “I was consumed by shame. I wanted to fight but I couldn’t move past my own weaknesses and feeling of isolation because that’s how shame works.” She’s usually one to speak her mind and stand up for what she believes in, and on that day shame got the best of her. As a way to process this, Renee did some research into work by Dr. Brene Brown who says there is a profound difference between “guilt” and “shame.” Guilt is “I’m sorry, I made a mistake” and Shame is “I’m sorry, I AM the mistake.” It is this definition of shame that oppressors prey upon, focusing on a facet of a person’s identity that they cannot change and making sure they feel like it’s a mistake. Renee said, “Shame silences you. IT is the enemy. Shame makes you hide away from the world and hope that nobody sees you.”

Renee asked, “How do we take our tendency towards silence and turn it into a story that can reach and touch others feeling alone?” As a game designer, her answer was to finally make a game about her heritage and identity, named after a racist and antiquated system: Blood Quantum. Games themselves facilitate the interpersonal connections necessary for solidarity among oppressed people: You can reach people around the world with content that could support someone through a rough time, help someone process systemic oppression, and show people that they are not alone. As Renee said, “Strength isn’t having no weaknesses….strength is doing the thing that’s hard anyway. Our stories with all our flaws and shame is what makes them beautiful.”

Looking for ways to engage with diverse voices at GDC 2017?

Here are some Advocacy Track talks you won’t want to miss:

Networking for Diverse Game Communities 


Advocacy Microtalks: Challenging the Industry in 20 Slides

Diversity Advocates & Community Organizers Roundtable

Making Diversity and Inclusion Work

Evolve: An Adventure in Accessibility Retrofitting
TIP: Many of the Roundtables are great, but space is limited! If you really want to participate, be sure to arrive early!

Impactful Friendships

It’s long been documented that women can feel “isolated” in male-dominated workplaces, so the common solution is to connect the women in the organization to each other so they know they are not alone. While this can be a great outlet, and I leverage my women’s networks extensively, what’s making these people feel isolated is likely a workplace culture in which they are constantly being made aware that they are different. In the best cases, this “othering” comes in the form of microaggressions that are “just being playful” or are “meant as a complement.” In the worst cases, and we all know we’ve got a story or two for this, the culture takes every opportunity to make someone aware of their differences and allows them to shift the workplace conversation away from their work and abilities. Whether it’s asking someone “what’s that?” in a hesitant tone when you see their lunch is something you don’t recognize. Or perhaps it’s policing someone’s self expression in the workplace, such as through garments that you deem not for their gender or criticizing someone for trying too hard because they like to dress more formally than most.

Sitting down in any number of the Advocacy Track panels at GDC, I would see many people with fun colourful hair. Having just dyed my hair bright pink a week before, this was something that allowed me to see “hey, these people are probably cool too” which is a completely natural reaction. This is the same thing that happens in white male dominated companies as well, leaders see people who look, dress, act, or speak like them and think “yes, this person is good.” These are what social psychologists call “in-group” associations, those easily identifiable things that makes you identify whether you belong to the same group.

Not all of us set out into the world to only associate with people like us, but there’s some inherent programming that’s hard to ignore. Add to that the anxiety which some people experience when they are worried about coming across as prejudiced, and people get stuck. One piece of advice for relating to co-workers is the simple act of focusing on someone’s work instead of their inherent traits. When you’re talking about the work, it puts both parties at ease and you may just find a new friend.

Interpersonal connections don’t just reduce isolation for women in the workplace; they are also essential for eliminating the kind of prejudices and biases that cause discrimination against women and minorities. In the paper “The extended contact effect: Knowledge of cross-group friendships and prejudice” it is proposed that if “an in-group member has a close relationship with an out-group member [it] can lead to more positive intergroup attitudes.” Consider the typical games studio where the in-group is men: this would mean that if a man has a friendship with a woman (the out-group) and the rest of the men are aware of it then the men are overall going to have less prejudice toward women. Additionally, it states, “having an out-group friend predicts lower levels of both subtle and blatant prejudice, greater support for pro-out-group policies, and even generalized positive attitudes toward out-groups other than that of the friend. Similar effects were not found when the individual had an out-group coworker or neighbor.” 

Friendships are key. Click To Tweet

An important thread in these kinds of studies is the disclosure of those friendships. They were relationships that were known about, talked about, and involved an investment of time. Making your support, friendship, or romantic partnership with an out-group known can influence how others think. If we are more vocal about who we are friends with, who we support, and show up for them when they need us, we will all benefit. This echoes advice that we’ve been hearing within advocacy circles over the past few months: take care of yourself, build your local communities, and love others in defiance of hate.

Panels & Speakers Cited


  • Rami Ismail, 50% of Vlambeer
  • Tsitsi Chiumya, Founder, SHAPA Studios
  • Tasneem Salim, Shapa Studios
  • Sithe Ncube, Founder, Ubongo Game Lab
  • Elena Lobova, CEO, iLogos
  • Sun Park, Turtle Cream
  • Laia Bee, Pincer Game Studios

Everyone’s Silent Enemy: Shame & Vulnerability

  • Renee Nejo, Lead Artist, 3 Turn Productions

Paper Citation


Intersectionality (or intersectional theory) is a term first coined in 1989 by American civil rights advocate and leading scholar of critical race theory, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw.

Oxford Dictionary defines it as: The interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.


Blood quantum laws

Blood quantum laws or Indian blood laws are those enacted in the United States and the former colonies to define qualification by ancestry as Native American, sometimes in relation to tribal membership.

These laws were developed by Euro-Americans and thus did necessarily not reflect how Native Americans had traditionally identified themselves or members of their in-group, and thus ignored the Native American practices of absorbing other peoples by adoption, beginning with other Native Americans, and extending to children and young adults of European and African ancestry. Blood quantum laws also ignored tribal cultural continuity after tribes had absorbed such adoptees and mixed-race children.

More on Wikipedia

Zoya is a historian and journalist of games and playful art. He is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Memory Insufficient, and a consultant at Silverstring Media.

There is an urgent need for filmmakers, immersive theatre practitioners, and game designers to work together. 360 video and virtual reality offer promise, but there is still uncertainty about how to fulfill those promises. Many of the filmmakers stepping into the VR space are already anticipating the other side of the hype cycle: “it only has such an impact now because it is novel” said multiple creators at Sheffield Doc/Fest earlier this year. So what happens when this is no longer fresh and new?

Myron Krueger (1972) Videoplace

The imaginary of VR is heavily figured on the idea of immersion. In fact, while immersive art as an aesthetic quality goes all the way back to the 18th-century panorama, the technological notion of immersion that has proliferated in videogames originated in early VR research. Although VR pioneers such as Myron Krueger did not use the word “immersive” as they began building installations in the 1970s, by the time VR developers were meeting for annual conferences in the early 1990s, immersion was a common by-word accompanying discussions about how to make users feel a sense of “presence”.

Immersion for these VR researchers was a product of sensory information: higher-resolution displays, faster framerates, more elaborate surround sound, etc. Games developers added user agency to this list; the more you feel able to impact the world and/or your place within it, the more immersive it is. More immersion meant more presence. More presence meant that perhaps VR could go beyond spectacle, and grow into the dream of cyberspace.

This dream is a distraction. In VR just as in games, “immersion” turned out to be a cloudy idea with little immediate use for refining the work of developers. The promise of “immersion” in VR does not provide much in the way of creative benchmarks or even a meaningful goal. Any VR project can claim to be “immersive”, without stating anything about the intent or creative strategies at work — it’s something we attribute to the technology.

In the past few years, empathy has become another shallow selling point. A number of VR and 360 projects chronicle the experiences of other people, in the hope that the illusion of immersion or presence in a different place will create a stronger sense of being in somebody else’s situation. Like immersion, because empathy means a few different things at once, VR developers can claim to have provoked it simply by virtue of the technical facilities of telepresence. When empathy is not triggered by VR, it’s the tech that’s blamed for not yet being immersive enough, with the empathic tech horizon always one more feature upgrade away.

In fact, the very interactivity that is often thought to increase immersion can get in the way of empathy, as one person found when user-testing a (non-VR) game about poverty: player agency can give the impression that negative situations are a result of personal decisions. Even when empathy is triggered, the results can be counterproductive, leading either to an antisocial desire for retribution on somebody else’s behalf, or to that overwhelming sense of empathic distress, and in turn to a desire to remind oneself that this is all just Somebody Else’s Problem.

Documentary filmmakers working in VR and 360 seemed a little lost at sea at Doc/Fest in Sheffield earlier this summer. Many of the cinematic techniques that they have grown accustomed to using are not workable when the user is experiencing telepresence. Move the camera, and you risk inducing motion sickness. Frame a shot around one object, and the user might still choose to look the other way. And that’s before you even begin to get into room-scale VR such as the HTC Vive, where the user might choose to walk away from the scene entirely. Finally, the viewer may use any interactive abilities they have to disrupt the action deliberately.

To work in VR, filmmakers have to think outside the image-frame, and tell stories through spaces. Click To Tweet

Interventions by architects into film could offer a model for filmmakers moving into spatial media such as VR. Instead of concerning oneself with the frame and the scene, architects such as Steven Jacobs in his study of Alfred Hitchcock films point to an approach that centres on charged objects, familiar spaces made unfamiliar by the uncanniness of a medium, and the juxtaposition of structures arranged near one another.

In My Shoes installed at Union Street coworking space in Sheffield. Photo by Ellie Robinson

Those from the immersive theatre world know a lot more about how to do this: In My Shoes is currently one of the most effective 360 video projects out there, and that’s because it is presented as part of a bigger installation that recreates the tactile and even olfactory sensations experienced by the protagonist of this first-person film. Created by Jane Gauntlett, an artist with experience in immersive theatre, the video is organised not around the framing of shots, but the entrance and exit of characters. In My Shoes makes deliberate use of the minimally-interactive quality of 360 video and the disorienting feeling of wearing a VR headset to foreground a sense of helplessness. You feel that you are in a space that is both familiar and unfamiliar, your body is heavy, and you are running on autopilot.

Documentaries rooted in film traditions, such as Clouds Over Sidra, take a different approach, placing a 360 camera at the site of the documentary and then giving viewers the illusion of being there as a passive observer. The feeling alternates between a dreamlike sense of being present but unseen, and suddenly being aware that a passer-by is staring at you — no, not you, the ball of cameras that had been suddenly brought into their environment.

360 video arranged for Google Cardboard

These projects reflect different understandings of what empathy is and how it is achieved. In My Shoes, as the title implies, is about experiencing a slice of somebody else’s life. Clouds Over Sidra is about temporarily feeling that you are there with someone, as they narrate to you what their life is like. In both, I was left with a sense of powerlessness; In My Shoes implied that the powerlessness belonged to the narrator, but in Clouds Over Sidra this feeling is more troubling: I know that an unprecedented number of people are braving life in refugee camps, and I have increased admiration for the resilience of Syrian refugees, but I don’t know how this knowledge will change my behaviour or political activities.

“Immersion” and “empathy” alone don’t give me tools that translate into the rest of my life. Click To Tweet

Attempts to insert some kind of agency through interactive elements are limited, and are complicated by the social politics surrounding documentary and even theatre. Nobody wants to be accused of making a videogame: some filmmakers speaking on panels at Doc/Fest even headed the accusation off before it reached them. “People asked me if I was going to make a videogame and I said of course not, haha”. Any form of interactivity in documentary media has to balance meaningful agency against the need to display the formal and stylistic trappings of a informative media. I get the impression that if one was to step too far into playfulness one risks losing status as a true documentarian.

A concrete example of this is currently touring the UK. Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness is an interactive 360 experience that accompanies the excellent movie Notes on Blindness. Both use audio from the diaries and memoirs of the late theologian John Hull to explore questions about how we experience the world around us and how we cope with the distance between us and the people who we love. The directors have said that their intention with the interactive element was to give people the opportunity to experience more of the diaries than they were able to fit into the film, and I imagined being able to spatially explore a representation of a world without sight, being surprised by the audio recordings that I find along the way. The experience is actually much more static; a predetermined set of recordings are played as digital animations are displayed in various locations, and sometimes I am instructed to stare intently at one of the animations in order for the scene to continue. Imagine a point-and-click adventure, but with only one clickable object on screen at any given time, and no ability to move from room to room. I had no sense that I was unearthing knowledge independently: it was being presented to me, and I was being scolded if I didn’t look at it hard enough.

To make the documentary interactive might require leaning into the feeling of exploring a space as an outsider, rather than always aiming for the up-close personal encounter with a single person’s experience. Owen Vince has offered a model for this in an essay for this publication, forcing game spaces to “disintegrate” in order to better understand them. I can imagine documentaries that give users the ability to see their impact on the environment, and feel their own responsibility for it — rather than simply being an inert camera-head as in Clouds Over Sidra. If giving users the ability to impact an environment through their interactions seems contrary to the need for documentary to present things as they are, consider that any system of interaction is a simulation that necessarily makes an argument about how a space comes to be. In the same way that a highly-interactive simulation of town planning reifies the power of the planner over the agency of local people, a 360 video that makes you feel present in Syria but erases your impact on the local area can actually downplay our global interconnectedness, by reifying the position of the neutral observer.

It would be reductive to say that the answer to all of VR documentary’s problems is game design. Goodness knows, videogames have their own problems to contend with, within and without the VR space. But when filmmakers ask questions such as “how do we guide the viewer to look in one place in particular without having a fixed frame of view?” or “how do we allow people to explore a wealth of information at their own pace?” then the architectural techniques developed for games seem to offer some solutions. The Doc/Fest alternate realities exhibition featured a fantastic example in Tracy Fullerton’s Walden, a 3D videogame in which the player explores an environment to unearth fragments of poetry. Walden is not VR, but it is an immersive experience that recreates how nature is known to those who have dedicated their life to giving it their full attention. It combines the active participation of game design with a sense of peacefully witnessing a part of literary history.

More people in games could take on the challenge undertaken in Walden of helping players to navigate documentary sources. Likewise, more people working in VR documentary could learn spatial storytelling from videogames.


Christopher Goetz (2015) “Stepping Outside the Virtual World Paradigm” in Memory Insufficient
Oliver Grau, “Immersion” essay at Media Art Net
Jamie Madigan (2010) “The psychology of immersion in games” at The Psychology of Games
Steven Jacobs (2013) The Wrong House: The Architecture of Alfred Hitchcock
Owen Vince (2016) “Games Criticism as Architectural Disintegration” at Memory Insufficient
Owen Vince (2015) “The Death and Life of Simulated Cities” at Memory Insufficient

We have explored this idea of an “imaginary” of VR before in a piece by Christopher Goetz:

This article demonstrates the common slippage between the novel experience of three-dimensional graphics and the fantasy of immersive virtual reality. There is an important difference between “immersion” in the general sense of any engaging or engrossing activity—certainly many or most games fall into this category—and “immersion” as a narrative “mode of address,” which occludes the space of spectatorships (hidden behind a “fourth wall”) and offers a window onto diegesis, the world of the story.

Christopher Goetz (2015) “Stepping Out of the Virtual World Paradigm” at Memory Insufficient

Surprisingly, participants in the virtual reality scenarios (which used graphics rather than filming) had less empathy for the victim than in a normal video.

The researchers weren’t 100 per cent sure which elements of virtual reality led to the lower empathy levels, but they hypothesise that we relate strongly to things that look “real”, as opposed to virtual scenarios which simply have a 360-degree purview. Therefore, they write, “findings here suggest that photorealistic graphics should be used in VR simulations to evoke empathy”.

Barbara Speed (2016) “How Virtual Reality Could Combat Compassion Fatigue” in The New Statesman

[…] the empathy effects were cancelled out by the effects of feeling personal agency. Even more troubling is the fact that the game actually lead to more negative attitudes when the participants were low in meritocracy beliefs (and likely to feel positively toward the poor). Playing the game convinced them that poverty was personally controllable, turning their positivity into negativity.

Gina Roussos (2015) “When Good Intentions Go Awry” in Psychology Today

Empathic distress is the feeling of intolerable pain triggered by seeing somebody else’s suffering. While the ability to experience empathic distress is highly valued, it can prevent someone from acting to aid the other person and hastens burnout in care workers.

Somebody else’s problem (also known as someone else’s problem or SEP) is a psychological effect where people choose to dissociate themselves from an issue that may be in critical need of recognition. Such issues may be of large concern to the population as a whole but can easily be a choice of ignorance by an individual. Author Douglas Adams’ comedic description of the condition, which he ascribes to a physical “SEP field,” has helped make it a generally recognized phenomenon.

Wikipedia article

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Images copyright nai010 2013, from DesignBoom

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Images copyright Owen Vince 2016, from Memory Insufficient

For more on this, see Owen Vince:

A city needs real people, but also needs institutions and infrastructure. Placemaking is about how to achieve these things without hurting the poor, the marginalised, the oppressed. It’s about enabling space for transgressive uses, the unexpected, the daring. These are cities many, many miles away from the cities of Sim City. They are more like the city of City Life v.3 (a game), or of Occupy (a movement), or of the E15 Mothers group in London’s Stratford (a community protest). It is about rejecting the idealism of the zoned Radiant City, and of the neo-liberalism and vapid gentrification of the New Urbanism. It is something that cannot currently be found in city simulations, whether as games or software for town planners. Consistently, the city’s other is displaced by a normative profile of its ideal citizen, a rubric so broad – so general – as to embody both everybody and nobody (the citizen as sim).

Owen Vince (2015) “The Death and Life of Simulated Cities” in Memory Insufficient

Zoya is a historian and journalist of games and playful art. He is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Memory Insufficient, and a consultant at Silverstring Media.

In this podcast episode, I chat with fellow Japanologist Jordan Marshak (@j_marshak) about Passionate Friendship, a book by Deborah Shamoon that analyses the 20th-century history of girls’ culture in Japan. Our discussion explores the fragile boundaries between homosocial affection, homoerotic attraction and homosexual identity, and social constructions of heterosexuality and homosexuality — covering the gamut from medieval knights in Europe to the recent controversy over the treatment of same-sex attraction in Fire Emblem: Fates.


Deborah SHAMOON (2012) Passionate Friendship

“One of the most salient and misunderstood forms of prewar girls’ culture is the prevalence of homosociality and particularly S kankei (S relationships), a close but temporary bond between two girls. Although S relationships have a homoerotic element, they should not be read as lesbian in the twenty-first-century sense of a fixed sexual identity. S relationships were tolerated, even encouraged by educators and other authority figures, as a way to channel girls’ desires away from heterosexual activity. Representations of S relationships in fiction were always coded as pure, innocent and asexual. As a result, the love between two girls, because it was understood as chaste, becomes the ideal expression of spiritual love.” – p.11

“Honorable men these days do not treat each other with the proper degree of care and respect. In the days of the flower of chivalry, a knight would greet his brother after a long absence with a kiss to the mouth and tears of joy, as befitting such a happy reunion of brothers!”

Fire Emblem: Fates dialogue translations:

Intro and outtro music: “Lady Oscar” theme to Rose of Versailles (1979)