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The Difference That Women Make: In Conversation With Hannah Epstein

Written by Raven Poplar

If you’ve been listening to our podcasts, you may have heard me talking about something called the Difference Engine Initiative. If you have not been tuned in to our podcasts, let me give you a little primer.

The Difference Engine Initiative is a game-making workshop and support jam for women in this male-dominated industry. There have been two such programs, running six weeks each, with various tutorials on game-making tools and a friendly framework that supports cooperation among it’s participants. This is not a game-making competition, nor is it a formal classroom setting. The DEI attempts to direct their focus on getting women the skills they need to be successful in the industry, while also working towards a product that they will be able to show off at the end of the program.

I have recently had the opportunity to speak with Hannah Epstein about her experience with the DEI, as well as many other things besides. Our interview was conducted via email as I am a lazy bum with strange hours, but let’s get right into it.

Raven: You’ve written a game called The Immoral Ms. Conduct. Tell me about it.

The Lovely Hannah Epstein

Hannah: Sure, so the game is essentially a choose your own adventure style of game only it is presented on the youtube platform which means I had to manipulate videos to act as the setting for each level then by utilizing youtube’s built in annotation function I have linked in the web of a narrative you can navigate through by clicking various options.

The theme of the game is “women in prison” so as a user you find yourself playing the part of a woman in jail who must make decisions in the various prison themed situations you find yourself in. The tone of the main character, Ms. Conduct, veers toward the rebellious and self-empowered, which in jail often mean you wind up having your ass beat.

What made you choose that particular theme?

I chose this theme for a few reasons. My first foray into the digital design space was with a project I did with two others, John Watson and Monica Law, as a resident at the CFC Media Lab. The project, known as Cats Breaking Antiques, was a psychedelic, schizophrenic exploratory space full of metaphor and critical perspectives, of which my group had many. The end result was something that we as artists were happy with but I couldn’t help but feel that a cross-border critique of Western cultural practices lacked for the impact of targeting with specificity. Not that we didn’t think of that, we did, we just kept coming back to interconnectedness of all our problems and therefore made a touch-screen game that reflected that.

So, when offered a space in DEI2, I decided to experiment with limiting myself to one issue, one location, one direction. What better to represent the artificially imposed limitations I was giving myself than with prison? It presented itself quite conveniently as an environment that already had a lot of cultural assumptions built in to it and I quickly felt inspired to run with them.

Have you read any of the old Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books? Which were your favourites?

I remember reading them as a little kid when my parents would take me to visit the library. I can’t recall any specific titles but I remember the feeling of encountering a new way of playing with a long established form and it was a combination of surprise (I’ve never seen this! You mean you’re allowed to do this!?) and a profound sort of realization, that now that I come to think of it, has likely coloured a lot of my doings in life, anyway, a realization that our imaginations were the limit of the function, the form was not the end story. That probably explains why I always end up fascinated by books like “House of Leaves” and “Only Revolutions” by Mark Z. Danielewski who is, in his own way, still working on pushing those limits of the novel.

That’s a pretty ingenious way to deliver a story. Why did you go with this presentation method?

I went with a youtube platform for several reasons. 1) It is free and largely accessible as a platform, no controller to learn besides how to use a mouse and inexpensive. 2) Because youtube is internet connected with a large built in community of video aficionados, I thought it would be easy to find my audience and 3) because many people on youtube are content creators themselves I was hoping to create a story in conjunction with the user, so if you find a level disturbing or inadequate you could easily make you own alternative option video and send it in and I can link it directly to the game.

Which tools did you use in the creation of Ms. Conduct?

I used a lot of adobe illustrator, photoshop and video editing programs.

Did you have experience in all the tools you used when you began this project?

I did have some experience with them, primarily the editing tools (I have been making weirdo shorts for the past six years, www.youtube.com/hanskigold). The programs available for editing are quickly evolving for mainstream use and I am always excited to see the new features iMovie comes up with, and I feel that a lot of editors will scoff at that, but it’s a fantastically user friendly way of bringing filmmaking and storytelling power to a larger group of narrators. Anyway, and yes, youtube I was familiar with as a result of my other channel (see above) and had developed a sense of comfort in posting there.

What was your inspiration for the game and for Ms. Conduct herself?

Hannah Epstein, At Work

Hannah Esptein, At Work

I have always loved b-movie genre films and Ms. Conduct herself is a small shout-out to Russ Meyer’s film catalogue (see The Immoral Mr. Teas).

I envision Ms. Conduct as a strong and rebellious female character who even in the face of a lock-down turns to bite the hand that is keeping her down, in this case that hand belongs to prison guards, instruments of a system that believes punishment can “fix” society’s “problems”.

You’re encapsulating some words there in quotes. Is this game a personal statement on the current state of the prison system? If so, how?

Absolutely! I would say my politics colour everything I do. I grew up in an outspoken left leaning household which lived an unconventional existence and supported reason and intellectual debate of authority, and I am very much the product of my upbringing. It doesn’t hurt that I have five lawyers in my immediate family so discussions about the law and it’s role in society have always been common fare. My own personal conclusions on the matter tend to circle around central beliefs I have about a system that is racist and classist, one that models itself, in practice- not so much in preach, on a belief that punishment is the just deserves of the convicted. Aye, thinking about the deep hypocrisy involved in our treatment of those who we so high and mightily declare criminals is appalling and it infuses me with such a deep anger that I have to find some avenue to express it. Does the prison system work? I will repeat. DOES THE PRISON SYSTEM WORK? No. It does not! In most cases people are not choosing a life of high risk and crime because they want to, they do so because they have little other choice. It is arrogant and completely lacking in compassion for a society to believe that punishing the people who have already been punished the most is going to fix anything. It might make the problems less visible to those who find them distasteful, but I still believe our humanity craves more than blindness, I think it craves connection and forgiveness so I advocate for reconciliatory actions be taken for the good of victim and criminal. Especially since we are equally capable of being both.

This then ties back into the game because in prison you are made to adopt your role as guard or prisoner or warden or preacher etc, and the identification with those roles allows one to view the other as inhuman, as impossibly unlike you as there could ever be, the actions people take once this belief is absorbed are famously documented, the Nazis, need I say more?

You make a good argument. If we can, I’d like to talk about the future of Ms. Conduct. Are there plans to expand the game, or is a sequel in the works?

At this point I feel that game expansion is in the hands of the audience. If people start to feel inspired to make their own version, level, storyline, what have you, then I would take that as an encouraging sign and would make any new levels in response to what has been contributed.

User-created content is becoming a fairly big thing among more mainstream, console games, though that facet has been around for quite some time on the PC. How do you think UCC will affect The Immoral Ms. Conduct?

I don’t want to presume how T.I.M.C. might effect the user driven to create their own content. If it’s nasty and people want it to become a space where they anonymously spew their opinions about the subject then that’s fine, but I think the possibility here is that UCC can connect and respond to UCC and eventually as it branches, T.I.M.C will have just been the opening question in a conversation- the nature of which can go anywhere! It depends on what people feel inspired to talk about.

Are you willing to take TIMC in a completely new direction based on player-made levels?

Absolutely! I think being unattached to your initial plans is important if you are trying to grow something so new and unpredictable.

How do you think user-created content will affect the direction of games in the future?

I think that UCC, if it’s going to be good, and it will have to be good, because the novelty of seeing your name on screen will just wear off quickly, puts pressure on the user to make something interesting. To make something that is not a narcissistic time bomb, but something that takes an audience into consideration, also their real and deeper selves in to consideration. I think UCC will eventually (long day in the future) undergo a revolution where it realizes IT has the responsibility to create meaningful content because, y’know what, the content we’re fed is just shit, and we should be upset anyone has tried to wrap it in advertisements and sell it to us as culture.

Have you had any level submissions yet?

Haha. Only like two that I solicited from youtube poop content makers. Early days. But I have started a new youtube channel (www.youtube.com/theclicknplay) where I hope to document all new games emerging in this youtube game genre. Thinking more big picture now.

What are you working on now?

At the moment I have actually been out of a game head space though still a narrative focused one and have been making my first feature.

Can you tell me about this feature, or is it a secret?

Hannah Epstein, Flower Girl

Hannah Epstein, Flower Girl

Sure, I can tell you. It’s an exploration of male-female relationships but it is incredibly intimate because I shot it with a friend of mine, Darcy McMann, just as we were getting to know each other and starting to date, so much of the footage is documentation of our relationship and then scenes we orchestrated as we planned to develop a narrative. We have been editing for the past month and I have to say that I am incredibly happy that filming is finished. It was impossible to tell by the end which scenes were real and which were fake. Were we having conversations we couldn’t normally have because we had the guise of acting to hide behind? Or was it all make believe? It has been a huge undertaking and many of our first are on film, waiting to be shared, which in a way is sad because it feels like we no longer have the opportunity to genuinely have those moments. As it stands now- we are watching the start and end of our relationship during a period of time over and over again as we edit. Scenes that were at first difficult to look at are now funny or invoke nostalgia. It has been a unique experience that we are still excitedly waiting to see if it will pay off by way of movie- other pay offs will take more time for consideration.

What are you plans for the future?

I really love the gaming world for it’s audience and it’s designers the same way I love the film world so the more I can work on finding combinations of the two mediums the better, I’m not certain what formthat will take yet but y’know, that’s’ pretty typical of the future.

You mention the game and film worlds as separate but similar. What parallels can you draw between the two?

Whenever I am watching a film I become completely embroiled in the character. It is the specific thing set up in my life where I can clearly channel emotions and project myself into various roles, this seems to me to be exactly what gaming does as well. In film you are the viewer seeing yourself do these things, in games you are the user feeling yourself do these things, when at the end of the day, you’re just sort of numbly staring at a bunch of light. I think both really require an active engagement on the part of the participant if the film or game is to be fully experienced and enjoyed. I also find games to be cinematic in the sense that they are playing with a combination of sound and visuals to illicit a response the way films do. And come on, how many animation interludes does a game need!? Well, a lot, because they are enjoyable, they move the story along and they sometimes feel like a reward for the gaming work you have been doing along the way. This is not as articulate as I would hope, so I am going to just add that at the end of the day they are both mechanisms of storytelling. I suspect gaming and storytelling will overlap in broader strokes more and more.

Tell me about your experience at the Difference Engine Initiative.

I love the difference engine. I really do. I was accepted into their second round of the program and had no idea what to expect, except that there would be girls and chips every Wednesday. It turns out that those girls were the coolest girls I have met in the city and that the chips also came with salsa.

We all had very different and strong ideas about where we each wanted to do and nobody was stepping on anybody else’s toes so we had a lot of room to grow and were excited to give suggestions every week when we would meet up and review our progress.

So there were suggestions given by participants to other participants? Sounds like the community there was fairly tight knit.

It was incredible and it still is. Dames making games has been an avenue of continuing our get-togethers and many strong personal friendships have developed.

What was your best experience out of the 6-week program?

It would have to be when I realized that these girls weren’t judging me, that they were like me and I didn’t have to worry about sugar coating anything for the sake of remaining in good social graces with anyone, we were all just relaxed and interesting and engaged women getting together at an important juncture in the gaming industry’s development. I think that was week 2 or 3.

What was the most important thing you learned at the Difference Engine?

That gaming was a welcoming place for the most bizarre digital experiments. Have you ever played “Where’s an egg?” SO GOOD!

How did you get involved with DEI?

I was pointed in the direction of the Hand Eye Society by Emma Westecott who I met while doing a residency at the Canadian Film Centre’s Media Lab program. I had played a lot of Nintendo 64 while growing up but never saw myself in the game world or as a “gamer” but during Emma’s time with us at the CFC she casually mentioned that I was the most “gamer” of the bunch. This small comment sort of stuck a seed in my head about a possible venue to explore which I had never previously considered.

So your initial intention when you started down this twisted path was to get into film?

No, the media lab covers all sorts of new media, I was trying to get an overview of what was available to me.

There has been some crossover between film and games. A lot of newer games are going with big budget-style cinematography and story-telling while there has been quite a few story-light movies based on video games. The lines seem to be blurring and you are straddling that divide. How do you think this will affect your work in the future?

Haha, hopefully this means there will be work in my future!

What obstacles do you see standing in the way of women in the gaming industry?

I actually don’t really see the obstacles in the industry for women, especially as a newcomer, it looks more like a wide open gate with a sign that screams GIRLS NEEDED. I feel that gaming is a rapidly expanding industry with an equally broadening audience, the kind of audience that 20-something male geeks just won’t be able to please and probably aren’t interested in pleasing anyway. I think the call for more women in the industry is also just a call for more diversity, which is exciting because the result of that sort of thing is the emergence of a lot of new sub-genres.

So instead of being roadblocked, you see the need for women in gaming as a vacuum that really can’t be filled quickly enough. Do you think this might lead to women getting onto game production teams based on their sex, and not solely on their skills?

Perhaps, but it might mean more interest based teams. I’m not really wanting to be on a team with girls making a Barbie game. The skills aspect feels like a small speed bump. DEI was great at driving that home. You can get skills, they are not as mysterious and intimidating to acquire as you might think, so get to it!

When you say diversity, do you mean socially or diversity of games being produced?

Both, I mean (fill in the blank with an underrepresented group/issue) making games. I think that includes everything but games involving body counts.

Do you see the games that women make as different from the games that men make?

Hannah Epstein

I like that question. I think that “women” make all sorts of games and are as varied from each other as they are from the games men make. I don’t know if gender is inherently part of what makes up that difference but it must play a role at some point, gender identity seeps through most everything we do so of course our creative works will be equally effected.

I think there is a perception of games that girls want (casual, playful, nothing that will reek of geek) that is different from the perception of the games guys want (shoot to kill, headcount) but most of that feels reducible to stereotyping, especially when I hear DEI ladies talking about the kind of shit they talk on Xbox live. It’s kind of too bad that a lot of hyper conscious gendered advertising seems to spew out of the game industry. I think the contemporary approach should be more sensitive that the generation coming up feels that the world is more gender neutral and it is archaic in a sense to focus on girls v. boys. But what do I know? It’s those marketers making money, not me.

@_@ What kind of shit are they talking about in the DEI that they would also say on XBL?

HA! Sworn to secrecy.

Awww.. I agree that gender identity gets into all of our creative projects, since it’s generally such a big part of our personal identities. The stereotype persists, though, that women want casual games with colourful graphics that pop, whereas men suffer that games need to follow the bloody formula of Call of Duty and StarCraft. How much do you see that mould broken? Is the gaming gender gap really as wide as the marketers would have us believe?

I think I see this mould not broken so much as played with- appropriate to the gaming genre- those assumptions are becoming the material which can be reshaped and put re-imagined by designers who see themselves pigeon holed and want to flip this notions on their head and play with all of the industry expectations. For example, I love the game LadyQuest by DEI2 participant Mikayla Carson who used those colourful graphics expected of her gender and made them syringes, pills, cakes and explosions. There is an element of the bad girl acting innocent here where she is taking a cute aesthetic and injecting full of horror that somehow tastes like candy. Indie games coming from men also contain a subversive factor and I think it’s all well and good to not just break the mould but point out that the mould is there is there to begin with and shame it into a redundant joke.

Are there any other groups that you see being under-represented in the industry?

I can’t comment for certain but I will say that when I see ads for games everything looks white washed. White, white, white. The number of groups not represented by that are countless!

Doesn’t that speak to advertising on the whole, though?

Of course, I just think that the game industry has no reason to restrict itself to an embarrassing status quo.

Everywhere there are gender-specific advertisements featuring Causcasian people. I happen to know that some huge cultural groups in Toronto and all over the world are just as, or more involved, in gaming as their Caucasian counterparts.

Oh yes, of course the population in reality is going to be mixed but the population as represented by advertising is not always as inclusive as it could be is all.

What do you think of this apparent rift between ideal vs. reality?

Oh yes, of course the population in reality is going to be mixed but the population as represented by advertising is not always as inclusive as it could be is all. And I don’t think I would call the advertising world an ideal, I just think that there is a marketing belief somewhere that believes white middle class families are the ones with disposable income so we might as well target them with images they can immediately identify with and take their money.

OK, now let’s talk about Hannah Epstein: Gamer. Which was your first video game?

Super Mario Bros and Duck Hunt. I didn’t have a video game console in the house until I was fifteen so it was only twice a year during Hanukah and Passover that I could sneak downstairs at my cousin’s house to play with their Nintendo system while upstairs the adults were boring the hell out of each other.

Those sound like great memories. I’ve got a bunch of happy places like that about my brothers coming to stay with my family. We would suck back Pixie Stix and stay up until we couldn’t stand that damned laughing dog anymore and rage-quitted. Ah, good times.

Nice.

It’s surprising how many from our generation either didn’t know or have forgotten that Duck Hunt is multiplayer. Did you ever play as the ducks?

No! I actually only just found out you could do that the other day, mostly through a few youtube themed videos on the matter, one with ducks playing multi-player duck unt. Meta, no?

What are you playing now?

How embarrassing. I am currently stuck on the Wii revisiting my favorite game world of Hyrule with Zelda, Twilight Princess. The reason for this is nostalgia. It’s a long cold winter and Link has become quite the attractive young man.

Well, let’s leave that up to the reader’s imagination then.. And the million dollar question: Which is your favourite game of all time?

Connected to your last question: Ocarina of Time! Love that Zelda. I think because I grew up watching so much television, I learned to experience emotions directly tied to some very cliche visual cues and could often predict what was coming next, so formulaic at the time. Then, playing Zelda, Ocarina of Time, I am standing outside of the Spirit Temple and I remember feeling fear, genuine fear and even though it was not capable of actually hurting me I wanted to turn and run. I am still surprised that the game was able to illicit this kind of emotional response from me, it was unexpected and I had no idea what would happen next as there existed still no pattern for these experiences in my memory. It was a moment where I felt I had encountered the virtual world the same way one encounters the real world, there is no telling what surprises await. I think that is a great triumph of a creator, to remain the invisible reason for the existence of a space in which still the uncontrollable and chaotic can happen. What an illusion of coding!

And there you have it. Toronto’s own wild and witty Hannah Epstein makes bold strokes with her words, her games, and her films.

To play The Immoral Ms. Conduct, get yourself over to her YouTube page. WARNING: EXPLICIT CONTENT! Language, mature themes, and dope tracks.

If you’d like to learn more about the Difference Engine Initiative and the rest of the participants, visit the Toronto International Film Festival website.

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About the author

Raven Poplar

Early Childhood Educator and video game journalist. First console game: California Games for Atari 2600. First PC game: Commander Keen on my IBM 286. I suppose I'm old!

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