FREQ: A Feminist Frequency Newsletter
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As April comes to a close, FREQ is here to bring you the latest news and updates from the Feminist Frequency team and an interview with one incredible woman in media. This month we reviewed Beauty and the Beast, questioned the damsel destiny of Zelda, and talked to Colleen Macklin, a professor and game designer making incredible games that explore culture, communication and the world around us. Enjoy!



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Photo by Joi Ito
Interview by Laura Hudson

One of the easiest ways to dismiss something is to call it a game—an easy shorthand for something childish, insubstantial, devoid of serious value. But for Colleen Macklin, games are vital tools for communicating, learning and interrogating the systems in the world around us. An associate professor of design and technology at Parsons School of Design and co-director of its game design and research lab, Macklin has created a host of games with a social justice subtext: Re:Activism, a location-based mobile game that recreates the activist history of various cities; Budgetball, a “fiscal sport” that increases awareness of the national debt; and the Red Cross initiative Games for a New Climate, which helps communities across the world prepare for environmental disasters. She talked with FREQ about playing with culture, embracing failure, and why fun is just as political as anything else.


FREQ: How did you get interested in games initially?

COLLEEN MACKLIN: I first got into games with the Atari 400. You could actually buy programming language cartridges, so I bought BASIC and taught myself how to program. This was at about age nine, and the other kids in my school who were interested in games were all boys. There was a way to record data on cassette decks, so we’d exchange games on cassette and play them and critique them. Then when I got into adolescence when boys only hung out with boys, I realized I’d better hang out with the girls, so I had to sever those video game club ties. It was really sad. Peer pressure pulled me out of games for years. I got back into games about twelve years ago, but in between, I studied art and photography and DJed a bit. I started creating visuals for raves, and figuring how to make them more interactive. I had this electronic keyboard—a musical keyboard—where people could come and play it and they’d be playing with the visuals. Then I met Eric Zimmerman and John Sharp, who I work with now at [game design collective] Local No. 12. Eric got me to think that if he could [make games], I could do it too. So, I got into games in a social way, got out of games for social reasons, and then got back into them for social reasons because I met these people who were really interesting and had lots of cool ideas.


FREQ: The games you create tend to have a very social focus as well.

MACKLIN: Yeah, they’re social in two ways. Social in that you play with others, and often social from a social justice perspective. With the games I make through PETLab, our research is about how you can take real world systems and translate them through games so that people can understand them better and figure out how to change systems in the world. Where do we have leverage? Where can we be agents and active players in what’s going on in politics? We’re really interested in the social justice and learning components.

FREQ: So you’re looking at social systems as sets of rules in the same way that games are sets of rules?

MACKLIN: Exactly. Donella Meadows is a big influence on my work and she wrote a great book called Thinking in Systems. Her idea about systems is that underlying any problem we have, you find a system that humans have designed. You can understand the world either by telling a story about it or looking at the systems underlying it and those are two very different perspectives that are complementary. With our games we’re taking a systems approach more than anything else. If we can model something, maybe we can figure it out better. With Local No. 12 and The Metagame and our new game Losswords, those games are primarily interested in culture and playing with culture. Culture is of course a system, but ultimately the end goal is entertainment and fun and being subversive and playing with culture itself.

FREQ: How did those ideas about systems influence the work you did with the Red Cross?

MACKLIN: I worked with the Red Cross for about seven years. I met a guy at the Red Cross who said that in two weeks we have this thing in Senegal, do you want to come and make a game for it? I said yes before I asked anything else. Then he described the situation: He was working at the climate center for the Red Cross, and the situation in Senegal is that because of climate change and human related factors, it’s quickly going underwater and the floods are getting worse every year. People die in them, property is destroyed, and they come in very fast. So the question was how could we help the community better prepare for when floods come?

We quickly designed a kind of an Apples to Apples style game, to create debate and discussion about what to do when the floods come. We went to Senegal and tested it between community members who deal with floods all the time, Red Cross volunteers and staff, and meteorologists. It was amazing. It started to become the core of all their later discussions. People were like, “remember in the game when we got that weird forecast that was worded really obscurely?” All of a sudden everyone saw how useful games were as a way to make a complex, scary system in the real world become a little more manageable.

We had an interesting situation in one community where we had a game that used dice. Someone came up to us afterwards and said, you know, that game didn’t go over too well because dice are considered a symbol of gambling and vice. We quickly realized that we either needed to become infinitely culturally sensitive to every single place we went, or—better solution—let’s co-design with these communities. So we devised a set of workshops for the Red Cross to do this, and now they’re using them all over the world and making games about disaster preparedness. It doesn’t mean it’s the only way to design, but when you’re trying to reach a particular audience it’s good to check your own bias, to go hang out with that audience and design a little of the game with them. Then they’re teaching you, which is an exciting way to think about design.




FREQ: Did I hear that you’re working on a book about creativity and failure?

MACKLIN: Well, John Sharp and I published a book that’s out now called Games, Design and Play, which is all about the process of designing games. It’s kind of a toolbox: How do you go about making a game, what are the steps, how do you understand the iterative process in a very detailed way. We kind of codenamed it “The Social Justice Warrior’s Guide to Game Design,” because we really made an effort to include all kinds of games by all kinds of people, and get many different perspectives on process.

The new book we’re working on now is Iterate: 10 Lessons in Design and Failure, which is about wanting to really figure out why everyone does this iterative thing. And the reason is that we need failure to drive our process. For example, if I make something and put it out there and everybody loves it, then I don’t have to do anything else. But that’s never the case. Typically you put something out there and it fails, and you have to get over it and move on. Failure is such an important part of the creative process that I feel like we give lip service to, but don’t fully examine. We’re conducting interviews with creators from all kinds of fields: Miranda July, who’s a filmmaker and artist; Wylie Dufresne, who’s a molecular gastronomist and chef; Amelia Broadka who’s a pro skateboarder, and Baratunde Thurston, the standup comedian and writer. We were just in Napa interviewing an amazing winemaker. We don’t just want to know how you make wine, but how do you fail? What have you learned to do to make failure less painful? So it’s ten different case studies of these fascinating people who have all failed in ways big and small in their career, and we want to document it. We want people to be inspired by it.

FREQ: It sounds like it’s also about destigmatizing failure too. Failure terrifies so many people, and yet you talk about it as something crucial to creative progress.

MACKLIN: It’s really hard to deal with failure, especially early in your career. You don’t have as thick a skin. Now I want to see the failure. To me failure is like a flashlight; it shines a light on what’s wrong. Without that, I wouldn’t know what to fix. I think we learn to embrace it. Throughout life, all of us are trying in our own ways to figure out how to deal with different kinds of failures, because without them I don’t think we evolve and grow.

FREQ: Given the disturbing things happening both nationally and internationally, I’ve heard some creators struggling with the idea of whether or not what they’re doing is meaningful enough. As someone who has spent a lot of time creating games for both entertainment and social good, what’s your perspective on making games and art while the world feels like it’s on fire?

MACKLIN: Right after the election, I went into my classroom and my students were despondent. They’d been working on thesis projects, and they said everything they were working on seemed so small and unimportant now—“I don’t know why I’m doing this.” It took us two class sessions to really work through it. And I myself was working through my own feelings. In the end, I think everybody realized that if anything, it’s more urgent to do what you’re good at, what you love to do —to do it more and do it harder. These skills, they’re not irrelevant. They’re important and you can use them in different contexts. Bernie De Kovin said that “all play in public is political,” and I totally agree. We shouldn’t belittle play. It’s one of the most important human things we can do. We need to remember that, and that what we’re doing is trying to bring things into the world that help people communicate and understand and have fun. Having fun is just as political as anything else.

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What's New

  • Eight eventful years and 21 videos later, Feminist Frequency bids a fond farewell to our Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series with our look at The Lady Sidekick.
  • Ashley reviewed the new live-action Beauty and the Beast film, an easily enjoyable delight that still “traffics in restrictive notions of femininity.”
  • 30 years after the release of Aliens, Ebony reexamined the badass, complex character of Private First Class Jenette “El Riesgo Siempre Vive” Vasquez.

  • Guest writer Jeremy Winslow wrote about why destiny doesn’t make Zelda into a damsel over and over again—Nintendo does.

  • Anita visited Toca Boca, a game development studio in Sweden that designs app for children that celebrate the value of play.

  • Check out Feminist Frequency’s favorite games from the Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco!

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May is FemFreq’s anniversary – eight years of advocating for more inclusive representations in media!

Monday kicks off a month of celebrating and raising funds to keep our work going for another eight. We rely on donations from folks like you, and we can’t thank you enough for all your support over the years.

Join us in May -- help us continue our work.


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