Blanket Fort Chats: Game Making With Allison Cole

[Courtesy of Allison Cole.]
[Courtesy of Allison Cole.]
Blanket Fort Chats” is a semi-regular column featuring women and nonbinary game makers talking about the craft of making games. In this week’s post, we feature Allison Cole, a New York-based game developer and scholar most recently known for her studio’s game, In Tune — a game that deals with bodies, their interactions, and giving/withholding consent.

Miss N: Can you tell us a little bit about your background?

Allison: I actually have a bit of an eclectic background! I have worked at a queer charity, a historic hostel, a secondhand store, the mLab, and Walt Disney World to name some of the most interesting. I also studied vocal performance, event management, and philosophy before finding my way to games. I think diversity of that background is one of my greatest assets. 

Miss N: Can you describe your earliest memory of playing games?

Allison: My more formative early experiences with games involved my friends and I playing together. There’s this amazing ‘imagination game’ for young girls called Tales of the Crystals. It’s essentially a LARP and we used to play it when we were around ten years old. You run around your house pretending to be the protectors of the forest and unicorns and sprites or whatever is in your mind. One of the players keeps a journal of the whole thing, and I’m sure I still have ours somewhere. 

Since then,we’ve picked it up and played a few times in our mid-late twenties. I also learnt recently that it was made by the same woman who created the original Jem and the Holograms cartoon! I didn’t realize it at the time, but I think the game has informed the spirit of what I do.

One of Allison’s earliest games, made in 1998.
One of Allison’s earliest games, made in 1998.

Miss N: How did you get into making games?

Allison: I have trouble saying when I started making games. I think, like a lot of people, I made games when I was younger. I was just lucky enough that one of my friends (Shera Starr) was pretty tech-savvy. She had a computer and this RPG maker-like program where we spent our time making digital games. She recently sent me a couple of our first, made in 1998, about the Spice Girls. She actually recently also got back into games herself and is probably one of the reasons why I made games back then.

When I went into middle school, like a lot of girls, I stopped making games. I still wrote my own murder mysteries, organized survivor-themed birthday parties, and played Tales of the Crystals, but it was years until I made digital games again. 

I consider Desert Bus The IF (made in Pippin Barr’s Curious Game Studio class) as the ‘first game’ I made upon my return. I had been part of a couple jam teams up to that point, but I didn’t feel like those games were actually mine. Desert Bus The IF is one of the only games I have ever made on my own, and certainly the one I’ve enjoyed the most. 

Desert Bus The IF by Allison Cole
Desert Bus The IF by Allison Cole

Miss N: Do you see any parallels between your previous background with your work now as a game maker?

Allison: It’s certainly evident in the subject matter of my games — consent, sexism, romance, queerness, relationships. I think I just get all these different tools to use when I think about the games.

Miss N: Did making games change the way you see or approach things?

Allison: I don’t know if it’s game-specific or more because I’ve tried to filter my life through the lens of a creator, which I hadn’t before. Now, I spend a lot of time thinking about experiences I want to share with people — how I can get them to feel or empathize with these moments. I think I’ve just become more contemplative and I listen to people’s stories more carefully. I think that’s where these experiences come from. 

Miss N: Can you tell us a little bit about your creative process?

Allison: I’ve had to change this for academic purposes. But, when I’m left to my own devices in the wild, things usually start in one or two ways. Number one: someone makes a joke that I think would make a great game.

In Tune has a bit of this process in it. There are a lot of reasons for it turning out the way it did, but in the back of the mind there was this sexist response someone made to the idea of creating games about breasts (“mine would just be grabbing tits”) and I really wanted to subvert that and make a respectful game where you could “grab tits.”

I’m also currently working on an FMV selfie twine documentary and a performance art simulator that uses Fleshlights and Diva Cups because of those sorts of jokes.

Miss N: Does your creative process change when you have other collaborators versus if you’re making a game by yourself?

Allison: To be honest, I rather dislike making games on my own. I’ve only made a handful of them. I love bouncing ideas off of other people, having someone there to stop me when I keep crashing into a wall. I love the process of having someone make a concept I had better or taking an idea someone else had and making it partially mine. I love laughing late at night as you finish voice-overs or art. I find being a solo game developer has perks, like the total control, but for me it feels a little lonely.

She Said She Said by Allison Cole, Zachary Miller and Mattias Graham
She Said She Said by Allison Cole, Zachary Miller, & Mattias Graham

Miss N: Speaking of collaborators, you’re part of Tweed Couch Games along with Jessica Marcotte and Zachary Miller. How did you all decide to work together?

Allison: Zach and I actually worked together at Global Game Jam two years ago and made She Said She Said (with contributing artist Mattias Graham). We ended up working well together as a team and then worked with Jess at Boobjam.

The team seemed to be pretty cohesive, and we had a similar vision for the sorts of messages we wanted to deal with, so we kept jamming and developing together. Now that I’m in a different city, I’m sure we will continue to make games together, but we’re discussing the option of turning Tweed Couch into some sort of artists’ collective. I think the main unifying theme of Tweed Couch Games is the issues of social justice the games deal with.

Tweed Couch Games (Zachary Miller, Jessica Marcotte, & Allison Cole)
Tweed Couch Games (Zachary Miller, Jessica Marcotte, & Allison Cole)

Miss N: We talked a bit with Jessica about your studio’s game, In Tune. She mentioned that the game has “carefully-crafted rules and tips at the beginning of the game that can’t be skipped.” What was the process like in constructing these rules?

Allison: We took that part of the game very seriously because we knew that the words and language that contextualized the game had a lot of power over the rhetoric of the game. We went to a consent workshop, had lengthy discussions about the simplest word changes, and had friends who have a lot of knowledge and experience in social justice issues read through everything to point out possible problems. We were trying our best to never have to trial and error test because it was important that we got the idea of consent right from the get go.

Miss N: You were already entrenched in the game making scene in Montreal when you left this Fall to pursue your Masters at NYU. What prompted you to pursue a Masters in Game Design?

Allison: I’m not really sure why I made this decision myself! I think it was a chain of happy coincidences. I applied as a bit of a lark just to see if I could get in. I never thought I could actually afford to go, I just wanted to prove to myself that I could if I wanted to. Then I got a decent scholarship offer and thought, “Why the heck not?”

That’s one thing I do a lot. Pick up and make drastic life changes with less consideration than I should. It’s what has led to my rather varied history.

Miss N: What’s the experience been like?

Allison: It has been exhausting! I’ll always love and admire parts of the game community in Montreal, so a lot of the work has been in trying to build a similar community and support system here. It’s been pointing out when the spaces are not necessarily friendly or welcoming to marginalized folk. The Game Center seems to really want to have these discussions, but occasionally oblivious to how they should happen or where they are needed, so it’s a bit tiring.

It’s also making A LOT of games. I will have made about a dozen games in my first four months here. I’ve also worked with so many interesting and different game makers.

Same Time Next Week, one of the many games Allison worked on at The Game Center
Same Time Next Week, one of the many games Allison worked on at The Game Center

Miss N: Were there things you wish you had known before diving into a more formal way of learning and making games? 

Allison: I think one thing I wish I had known was more about the U.S. education system more than anything else. It can be very focused on industry and getting jobs and making games to sell.

I don’t always make things that neatly fit into the category of ‘game,’ and certainly aren’t something you would sell. My program supports these endeavours, which is nice, but I feel my viewpoint is almost always on the fringe or margins of discussion. One of my professors calls me the one who makes quirky things.

Also, I wish I had know just how much teamwork was involved! 

Miss N: Are there any differences you’ve found between learning and experimenting on your own versus doing so in an academic setting?

Allison: I think the main differences are the constraints that are put upon you in either theme or format. Of the dozen of games I have made, only one has been a game that I was able to do whatever I wanted. The others had very strict guidelines as to what they were supposed to be teaching me. I think it’s a really interesting way to learn and I’ve gained a lot from the process. But, if what you want to do is the ‘quirky’ stuff, the lessons you get from these restrictions are less likely to apply to you. 

The most amazing resource we have here though is the large pool of talented designers who are constantly present and willing to play your game and give you feedback.

Miss N: What’s been the most challenging experience you’ve had in making games?

Allison: I spend a lot of time questioning if games are what I want to do, if the space they are made in is for me. Since I’ve started making games, I’ve been tired a lot — in this deep-rooted emotional way that I don’t remember being before I started making games. 

It’s been taking its toll on me more here (in New York) where I’m also isolated from anyone I’ve known for more than a few months. As a woman, I am trying very hard to take up space in ways I wouldn’t have to if I weren’t. 

Miss N: What’s been the most fulfilling experience you’ve had in making games?

Allison: There are so so so many moments that make me happy and proud to be making games such as looking at this year’s GAMERella turnout, or seeing the Pixelles showcases. I think a lot of the fulfilling moments come not from the games themselves, but the community that has encouraged me to make these games.

One moment that did come directly from my work, though, was one of the times that In Tune was mentioned on a podcast. The hosts spent a few minutes talking about how our game made them feel human again after days at E3, and how impactful the interaction and intimacy was. I think making people feel human again is what I always hope my games would do.

Miss N: Do you think there are things that games (as a medium) do better than other mediums?

Allison: This might sound a little dry, but the way games work as systems has always amazed me.

Miss N: Are there any women or nonbinary game makers that you really admire?

Allison: I’m going to try to not double up on people who have already been listed by your other interviewees, but I agree with their recommendations. There are so many others! For a start: Mattie Brice, Hanako Games (Georgina Bensley), Naomi Clark, and Mitu Khandaker-Kokoris.

Interruption Junction by Dietrich “Squinky” Squinkifer
Interruption Junction by Dietrich “Squinky” Squinkifer

Also, you can check out Princess of Arcade, which has a list of the games that were featured. All but one were made by women or nonbinary folk. And the one that wasn’t was about race and police brutality, so you should check it out, too.

I think these games are interesting to me because they are by women or nonbinary folk, but also because they are often games made by small teams. They tend to have the opportunity to be more adventurous and alternative in their format and content.

Miss N: If you could go back and give yourself advice when you were just starting out as a game maker, what would it be?

Allison: Get used to calling yourself a new media artist on grant applications.

Miss N: Thank you, Allison!


If you’re interested in following Allison, follow her on Twitter @AllisonKCole. As always, if you know of any women or nonbinary game makers that you’d love for us to feature, drop us a comment or contact me.

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