Meguey Baker is a game designer, sex ed teacher, and textile conservation specialist. She runs Night Sky Games with her husband Vincent Baker, contributes to Gaming As Women, and is an active and encouraging presence in the G+ gaming community. Meg was kind enough to answer a few of my questions.
The little bit is being harder than I expected! These days who I am is wrapped up in two major non-game things, those being helping my oldest son with college applications and planning the next stage of the exhibit at the museum where I work. Vincent and I have three sons, two of them teenagers. Every week we host a group of their friends to play games for an evening. This is part of what informs my games — the future and the past. I want to make games that focus on stories not so frequently heard, on underrepresented voices that have things to say. All my games have pieces about storytelling, how we connect through stories, and what makes a story a rich and vibrant thing.
Are there any themes you find yourself returning to? Do your outside interests show through in your games?
I think they do. In yet another slice of my life, I’m a sex ed teacher, so as well as questions about storytelling, I find questions about sex and gender and how we talk about sexuality being common in my games. I want to play people that have agency, and a chance to shape their world, so I make games where the characters can discover that strength and can raise their own voices. Themes of cleverness, resourcefulness, and discovery show up again and again, alongside mechanics that encourage and support harmony and beauty as good options for conflict resolution. I don’t want to write a game where violence is the only option. Eventually all my interests show up in games; in one we’re working on right now I have a whole section on fabric and clothing because I have an interest in archaeology and historic textiles. I haven’t yet written a game about iris flowers, quilting, or illuminated manuscripts, but it’s probably just a matter of time. Storytelling will be present in all of them, I’m sure.
You seem to do a lot with education. Can you talk about your work there, particularly in how gaming and education can work together?
Storytelling and playing pretend are intrinsic to the human experience. There’s no culture that I know of that does not have storytellers. And it’s through stories that we first learn about the bigger concepts in life — mortality, right and wrong, what shapes us, what makes us human, what forms our culture and our family. So it’s natural to use storytelling and games to convey important things. Not that all games are Important Things, but that by playing games you can access different areas of learning that you may not reach with textbooks or worksheets. I’m seeing more and more use of role-playing games in classrooms, for everything from the Pilgrim Simulation my 3rd grader is going through right now on up to the teaching exercises Vincent sees at the hospital for doctors and nurses to learn new skills.
For my work in particular, the closest link to education is with my work with the Nike Foundation for The Girl Effect, designing games for social change among teenage girls in Ethiopia. We had very concrete tasks and objectives surrounding providing a way for these girls to imagine a different future for themselves. The caveat is that the games had to be FUN first. They had to be engaging and interesting and not too blunt. Any messages we wanted to convey had to be secondary to the game play. Nobody wants to learn or play a game that feels like work.
The key is keeping that paradox in mind, balancing the educational things you wish to convey with the excitement of playing a game. One place I could point to is in my game 1001 Nights: A Game of Enticing Stories, in which I had an educational goal of getting players to focus more on the storytelling than on the numbers. So I made the dice signify elements of the story instead of just be number generators. In order to show something new or different, and teach people how to use it, it had to be fun and interesting as well. Games are teaching tools. I’d almost leave it at that, but it’s also fair to say most games are at some level tools for teaching something. When we play tic-tac-toe as a child, it’s a mysterious and complex thing, and we have to learn the long-range planning, seeing several moves ahead in order to know how to beat the game. Once we have solved the game, and can force a draw in any game of standard tic-tac-toe, we understand some things about logic and spatial relationships and planning and possibly even psychology that we didn’t know before. It doesn’t stop being a game if it no longer holds our interest; we just move on to other games that still have things to teach us. With role-playing games, we have a huge potential to learn everything from optimizing numbers to practicing responding to a situation to developing a story. I think playing a game is a great way to learn and to teach.
Tell me about I Will Not Abandon You. What prompted this concept?
I Will Not Abandon You (IWNAY) is a description of a certain style of play in which the emotional well-being and connection between the players is recognized as a key component of the play experience. If you are hurt by something I say in the game, you might disengage with the subject matter, the game, or me, thus withdrawing your creative participation and making it less rich for everyone. IWNAY describes a commitment on the part of players to stick with each other, valuing their friendship and clear communication over what may make an interesting bit of fiction. So, if you do something that hurts my heart, we both have options: we can ditch out of the consequences or we can stick by each other and get to the other side. We each make that choice, to abandon the other player or not.
It’s not a choice in the sense of choosing from a menu, sitting down at the start of a game and saying “How shall we play? To the Pain (push hard, even if you might hurt someone)? Nobody Hurt (be always aware of other’s emotional needs and don’t push)? I Will Not Abandon You (stick it out)?” It’s not like that. It’s descriptive, not prescriptive. You can maybe set out to play that way, but you won’t know if you actually have until you can look at it after the fact, from a bit of distance. It was a response to the conversations going on at the time about how to handle complex subjects, triggery subjects, things that could be upsetting, and how to deal with problematic behavior at the gaming table. I thought about the phrase “the consequences of our actions” a lot, and how we choose or choose not to be held accountable for what we say and do in a role-playing game. Then I worked out a way to talk about what it would look like if someone was being accountable for their actions in that space, what it would look like if people didn’t excuse their hurtful behavior as “what my character would do” or “what’s accurate to the setting,” or their disengaged behavior as “no really, I’m still playing even though I’m also playing a game on my phone.”
What’s it like to be married to another game designer?
The best thing about being married to another creative person is that we both understand when our minds are full, when we are distracted and working on something, and we’re going to forget to come to bed, or we’re going to need to bounce ideas around over washing dishes. We’ve been together for 25 years, so we know each other’s creative rhythms fairly well. In each project, there’s going to be times when one of us is going to want to take things in a different direction and the other one will resist. That’s why it’s so great to have our own projects as well as joint work — although really, we are each other’s very first playtester and editor, and there’re traces of each of us even in things that don’t have both our names on them. We also get to vent to each other when things are not going well with a design, and get on with the work instead of stewing in it. We both can have a very strong sense of loyalty to a design concept, and if it’s not working, we rely on the other to say so, to help us get to the bottom of whatever’s not running smoothly. One thing I do love is being on panels or at conventions with Vincent. We make a great team, and we split the work and amplify each other’s strengths.
Did having kids change how you work? What do they think of what you do?
Of course it did! I had whole new insights into how games worked, and what was fun, and why. Playdough is really fun! Rocks are AMAZING fun! Playing pretend with my kids is the best fun ever. I don’t get to do it nearly enough. As they have gotten older, they have wanted more sophisticated rules and such long before I’m ready. Don’t you want to just pretend to be a mammoth and tramp around the yard for a while more? But that leads to the second part of this question: they have always known we make games, and they have always loved it. We’ve made games just for them, sometimes really elaborate ones with lots of art and rules and everything, that works for one kid for one year and then never gets played again. All three of them create games or play games, and they all have great insight into what makes a good game. We listen to them.
On a practical level, having kids means scheduling gaming sessions around kid needs and grabbing moments to write whenever wherever I can; 1001 Nights was mostly written on walks with my youngest in a stroller, stopping now and then to jot down an idea. There were a few years there when we’d game after the kids went to bed — the oldest would come down and shush us if we got too loud. Now they mostly want to play with their friends, and there’s enough of an age difference that we rarely all game together these days. I’m a little sad about that, but we do play LOTS of board games and word games, so that’s good.
Are you working on a game now? If so, what’s it about?
There are a couple games baking. My game Gone is in early playtesting, about what happens right before a place becomes abandoned. I love abandoned houses and time capsules and places that seem like people just walked away, and I want to find a way to play those stories. Vincent and I are working on The Dark Age (a fantasy version of Apocalypse World), which just went through a major external playtest and is now in the second round of sorting out what we want to do next. There’s a card game Vincent made that’s getting excellent local playtest reviews. There’s an adventure game we’re working on that’s promising. Lots of things at various stages!
How do you start when you’re making a new game?
Usually I get the itch to play a certain type of story, and I can’t find quite the right system of mechanics or rules set to support what I want to do. With the amnesia in PsiRun, I knew I wanted players to have a way to have masses of agency in how they get their questions answered and how their stories unfold, so I knew I wanted to use our dice mechanic that has you roll some dice and then assign which number goes where, so up to the very last second you are still shaping what it is about this particular scene that does or does not trigger a memory. Other game ideas come from books I’ve read or places I’ve been. I have been turning a short game based on O.Henry’s stories about irony and the human condition around in my head for about 10 years. I went to an exhibit of the treasures of Tutankhamen and spent an hour astonished by everything; now I have this tiny notion of a game about dynastic families and archaeology. Most of my ideas will never come to fruition, but some will, so I keep jotting down notes!
The next step is to talk to my local folks about the idea, see if there’s any interest. We have an excellent local group that can be counted on to say “yeah, that’s crap” or “ooo, that’s really neat!” which helps. Then it’s just a matter of working on it, seeing where it goes, seeing if all the pieces come together smoothly, and if they don’t, can I adjust them to make them fit. In brass tacks, this usually means a notebook and a pencil and lots of crossing out and underlining. I test mechanics when I think of them, then tuck them away for possible future use. I prefer to transcribe my notes straight into InDesign, re-using the page design from one of our existing games to get a sense of how it will write up, how big it will be in scope. I usually underestimate by at least half, and I always forget about art and endnotes and such, so there’s always this place where I go “holy crap, the game’s all written and it’s only 15 pages long! That’s not a thing!” Then I playtest it and go “oh right, character creation needs more explanation. And a secondary conflict resolution mechanic would be good here. And I really need a half dozen of so lists or tables. And I had notes on magic somewhere, didn’t I?” So then it’s just more writing. And editing. And rewriting.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to make their own game?
Hack what you like to make what you want. There are some common stumbling blocks in beginning game design, and perhaps the biggest is thinking that everything must be an amazing, brand new, fresh idea. That is very rarely how game design works, especially at the beginning. Most of the time, it happens when you have an idea of something you want, how a game might go, and you mentally try on different parts of games that already exist — does it use cards and maybe it uses a variant of Blackjack as the resolution mechanic? Are there colored tokens and you need to collect a full set? Is it d20 based, but different in a couple key ways? Does the Apocalypse Engine work perfectly if you bend it a little? Do that. Start there. As you continue to design, you will grab the parts from different games that might work for your game if you turn them sideways or inside out. Iterate like mad. Just because you played it that way last time, there’s no reason not to try something different this time — just keep notes on what you changed! Eventually, you will have a stack of parts that are your ideas and your mechanics that you can swap out and change around. Until then, don’t be afraid to use what’s at hand to make a game you want to play.
You can find Meguey Baker’s games at Night Sky Games, or sometimes catch her running a session of PsiRun on G+. She is on Twitter as @NightSkyGames, where she talks about games, her kids, quilts, and posts the occasional cat photo.
Full Disclosure: Meg contributed an article to a zine I co-create. She was not compensated for the work.