January 19, 2014 7:30 PM | Staff
In the first episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Captain Picard is asked to prove to a transcendent, superior life form that humanity is worthy of existence. That premise exemplifies the entire Star Trek world -- all of the Starship Enterprise's forays into space are also forays into our nature as a species, and all of the crew's struggles seek humanity's moral center in a universe of infinite others.
There is a wonderful innocence, a utopic view of human nature on view in vintage space fiction. These imagined futures, where prejudices and civil conflicts are presented as historical curiosity, let us examine and dismantle ideas about race and class and feel better about ourselves in the process.
"Star Trek was very formative for me in thinking about utopian ideals at a young age," says Mitu Khandaker (@MituK) of The Tiniest Shark. "I guess as a cynical adult, I've taken that concept and perverted it."
Khandaker has developed Redshirt -- a social simulation that views the space-faring age through the lens of modern social media. It's received critical acclaim, and earned honorable mentions at this year's Independent Games Festival. And while it may be a loving send-up of the concept of using social media to get ahead, it's given the developer an opportunity to demonstrate her commitment to making sure every player in her audience has a chance to be heard.
As the eponymous low-ranking shipmate, the player faces not a paradise of Carl Sagan-esque cooperative discovery, but a mercenary interface where the primary goals are racking up social capital, rubbing elbows with the right people, and observing a sort of ruthless tolerance toward the behavior of colleagues.
"I'm dimly aware that Redshirt can be read as tech panic about social networks -- and I suppose to an extent that might be true, but only on a superficial level," says Khandaker. "It's more anxiety about human nature, and human social structures. Star Trek shows us a post-scarcity utopia for humans, but Redshirt represents being trapped in what is still essentially a capitalist system."
Before developing Redshirt, Khandaker's prior work on a social media startup brought her too close for comfort to the unpleasant underbelly such services can have. "Yes, you can use Facebook earnestly, and I like to think that most people do, but it can also be this very cynical activity, where you're treating your friends almost as commodities," she says. "Look at how many sleazy guides there are on increasing your follower count, or building a 'personal brand.'"
Khandaker's cynical world intentionally models, starkly, many of the ways people interact online. As the player uses Redshirt's "Spacebook" to gain status and please the right groups of friends, they encounter characters who'll get needy about interaction, biased about certain kinds of communication -- or other species in the game -- or passive-aggressive, some more than others.
"It was in part informed by looking at some of the commonly acknowledged types of 'characters' on social media, but it also comes from my own experience of categorizing the more contentious ways in which people behave," Khandaker explains. "From there, it was a process of trial-and-error in defining behaviors that would yield personality types distinct enough for the game to be intuitive."
Some games of Redshirt yield more interesting characters than others, she suggests: "To an extent, that's just the nature of emergent gameplay."
And some games yield more hostile characters than others. Khandaker wanted to show the harmful side of the "sexy green alien" trope so common in science fiction -- the trope is a character often sketched as more advanced and intellectual than humans, but also profoundly "othered" and objectified.
In Redshirt, players can be a member of the green-skinned Asrion species for a chance to explore what the experience of the "green-skinned space babe" might be like within a believable infrastructure -- playing as an Asrion can bring more unsolicited, demeaning romantic attention than playing as other species on the ship.
The behavior of characters in the Redshirt world depends on sliders that players can edit if they choose, including a "bigotry" slider. Male characters with high bigotry are likely to persistently harass Asrion women, sometimes with sexual undertones, even if the player selected to play a character who is only interested in other women.
Late last year, this element upset a player who wrote that she felt triggered by the unwelcome attention of characters in the Redshirt universe, and especially by the fact she'd lose points for refusing to interact with them, and had no option to "block" them as she could on real Facebook. The player posted about her negative experience, and Khandaker quickly replied.
She apologized for the player's troubling experience, and explained her design decisions -- not in self-defense, but to explain how the player and others in her circumstance could switch off the "bigotry" sliders in order to ensure the game characters wouldn't perform the harassing behavior.
But the response to Khandaker's consideration was unexpected, she says. There was grumbling across Twitter about a supposed excess of sensitivity (the game is based on the "real world," so expect "real world" problems!). There was media coverage that seemed aimed at placing Khandaker at the center of a firestorm, rather than at explicating a problem presented by someone and an apology and a solution offered by someone else.
Even a friend with whom I generally agree about nearly everything pinged me to see if I thought Khandaker had compromised her vision, even though she changed nothing about the game itself (I didn't). "I definitely thought some of the reaction to my addressing that concern and changing the game was strange," she reflects.
"After all, it was simply someone pointing out something to me which I hadn't previously considered. Someone who has been subject to that kind of unwanted attention and harassment and, crucially, wasn't prepared for encountering it in a game, would find the experience distressing," she says.
"For some reason, even though I agreed wholeheartedly with the concerns that were addressed by the player who had been triggered, some people saw the whole situation as my having capitulated to some kind of unreasonable demand -- which is completely ridiculous," Khandaker continues. "Yes, the existence of that particular dynamic in the game was intended to make a statement about sexism (and racial fetishization), but art should never be at the expense of those it is defending."
Rather than a compromise of her message, Khandaker's approach to the issue seems like a commitment to it -- Redshirt may be a bitter-tinged comedic take on the inspiring futurist vision of total collaboration and cooperation, but outside the game, she can still act with the intention to treat each person in her audience with the same respect.
Being the sole designer and programmer on the project has given her the freedom to live her values and focus on making the game as inclusive as possible, in her view.
"I have a feeling that, in general, the more people who are on a project, the more likely that the end product will reflect status quo attitudes, and I think this is one of the complicated problems facing triple-A development," she says. "Obviously, specific thought needs to go into countering these attitudes, and I suppose this really requires developers who are more socially aware, and who listen to their players."
"I have no qualms with being called out for my failure to see beyond my own privilege," she says. "It is only this way that we may all move towards dealing more compassionately with one another."
"I suppose this is of the kind of developer I want to be."
[Leigh Alexander wrote this article for sister site Gamasutra]