Interview: Violet Hargrave

Today we’re joined by Violet Hargrave. I believe Violet is a first for Asexual Artists: she’s a phenomenal game designer. She designs board games and also writes RPG books. I learned so much while going over this interview and I’m sure you will as well. Violet is incredibly dedicated and meticulous when it comes to the games she designs. This is an artist with an admirable amount of passion. My thanks to her for taking the time to participate in this interview.

WORK

Please, tell us about your art.

I’m a game designer, which I’ve always found to be a profession most people don’t think of as working in a creative medium, if they’re even able to wrap their head around it being a profession. And of course if you really try to explain it, it sounds like the most painfully nerdy thing in the world- I tell stories and convey emotions by making people do math and assess probabilities. But it’s something that really speaks to people on an instinctual level.

For the most basic example, let’s say we have a horror game, and part of it is centered around some snarling sharp-clawed ghoul. People have the language to talk about how it’s portrayed visually, whether it’s an illustration in a book or a 3D model, taking in the detail of the claws and the drool and the predatory stance. If there’s background music setting the mood, or a GM building up the scene with really descriptive language, people can easily isolate those elements too. Ultimately though, if players can just casually walk up and shoot it before they do anything, or casually walk circles around it, or those big nasty looking claws do so little damage it takes 100 slashes from them to bring someone down, it’s going to feel harmless, not scary. At the other extreme, if it’s so deadly that it will usually kill players before they can react, that’s just going to become boring.

As a game designer, my contribution here is to plug in the numbers for how close players get before the ghoul notices them, how quickly it charges over, how much those slashing claws hurt, how hard it is to put down or sneak past without engaging it, whether it has any weaknesses to exploit and how these numbers change to reward taking advantage of them, how limited the players are in their options for handling it, and of course the actual rules all these numbers plug into, and how much chance and skill factor into them. If I’m successful, the players’ desire to push through to the end of the game in one piece instills the math here with enough emotional weight to make these ghouls really frightening even if the only visual representation of them is a lower case G on a screen, or few pennies on a chess board.

What inspires you?

Pop culture, more often than not. A lot of game designers have an approach where there’s a story they want to tell, and game design just happens to be the medium they’re most comfortable working in, so they start with a core narrative and fill in the details to give people something to do while they make their way through it. What I tend to do is find a stories that really resonate with people in a certain way, pick them apart, and try to recreate the same feelings and sensibilities in another medium.

What got you interested in your field?  Have you always wanted to be an artist?

I suppose it really comes down to having a very lonely childhood. I was always kind of a sickly latch-key kid without many friends, and for whatever reason, family members would buy me toys and games constantly. Video games were few and far between back then, so you had no choice but to play the ones you had over and over committing every detail to memory, and board games needed other people to play them with as written, so to get any enjoyment from them I had to write my own rules to make solitaire versions.

Do you have any kind of special or unique signature, symbol, or feature you include in your work that you’d be willing to reveal?

Not any sort of consistent personal symbol no, but I like to hide little jokes and morals in games by how certain strategies are rewarded. Like if a certain genre of story is famous for characters doing something which is objectively a terrible thing to do in a given situation, I’ll make it hugely rewarding in some abstract fashion if I base a game around that genre, in what looks like an unintended quirk of how two rules interact.

What advice would you give young aspiring artists?

There’s two things I’d stress, which might seem contradictory: First, when you create something, you should always do it for yourself, not a hypothetical audience. Second, you should always take the effort to make things accessible to as many people as you can.

Let’s say for instance I’m working on a new roleplaying game. There’s a certain pressure to imitate what’s popular. Depending on what circles I’m spending time in, people are either totally committed to the mechanics of the d20 system D&D and Pathfinder use, or people who are madly in love with Apocalypse World and the games its’ inspired, and if I look at what’s popular in pop culture lately, I see superheroes and Steven Universe everywhere. So I might think what I should do is some sort of Superhero/Steven Universe mash up that’s d20 compatible but borrows liberally from Apocalypse World’s sensibilities where possible. That would generate a lot of buzz, but I’d be combining elements that just don’t work together, and the fact that I hate basically everything about superheroes means I couldn’t capture the spirit of them in a way that’s going to resonate. And even if I weren’t using the blender approach, a d20 Steven Universe game would be fundamentally awful because those mechanics are all about growing measurably, numerically more powerful by piling up bodies, and Steven Universe is all about subverting violence and personal limitations with a huge focus on empathy and overcoming trauma.

If you start with subject matter you really love though, and build up the mechanics from scratch without a focus on anything but what seems like it’ll be fun and feels right, you should end up with a more niche game, but everything about it should click right for the people who do play it, and evoke the things you want it to.

While I’m working on that self-indulgent game inspired by obscure source material though, it’s important not to just be arbitrarily exclusive. If a game involves keeping track of things based on color, there’s really no reason not to take the extra effort to use a palette of colors that don’t all look the same if someone is colorblind. If it’s a game where I’m detailing a world for people to create their own little stories in, I should take the time to make sure I’m not limiting the scope with arbitrary restrictions, like “only adult women in their prime can serve in the High Order of the Emerald Hand. The old, the young, and all men stay in the tunnels, gathering fungus and archnite to sustain them.” Why tell people who want to play old veterans they can’t tell that story with a game that otherwise works for it? It’s also worth the time to ask questions about who’s left out or offended. Did I forget to account for gay people and lay out a society where it’s clear they clearly don’t exist? Did I get lazy detailing factions or races and start handing out stereotypical qualities based in racism, or make elves who are blatantly just Tibetans with pointy ears? If it’s a videogame, did I put in subtitles? Language options? Difficulty settings that let everyone see everything in the game even if they can’t master the mechanics?

ASEXUALITY

Where on the spectrum do you identify?

I’m completely asexual and aromantic. I have never experienced any sort of sexual urge or attraction.

Have you encountered any kind of ace prejudice or ignorance in your field?  If so, how do you handle it?

There are a lot of stereotypes and assumptions when it comes to people who are really enthusiastic about games, and sexual activity. There’s the image of the sad lonely virgin turning to escapism because he’s too awkward to find a date, the violently misogynist wargaming crowd setting up big ‘No Girls Allowed’ signs, the fabled devious men who play women in online games to scam would be suitors out of gifts. And of course games themselves have a really unfortunate habit of portraying women in frankly pornographic fashion.

Being a woman and being trans on top of being asexual interacts with those in some terrible ways. Technically, I am a sad lonely virgin whose social life revolves around games, because I enjoy them, and they’re one of the few social activities society doesn’t paint as a thing to do on a date. There are tons of gaming groups who see playing a woman in an RPG as an open invitation for objectification, humiliation, and constant sex. There’s cringeworthy innuendo and pandering in so many games it’s impossible to take them seriously as serving any other purpose.

Generally, I handle this by simply avoiding those people and those games.

What’s the most common misconception about asexuality that you’ve encountered?

Denial that asexuality exists. So many people see that I’m not interested in sex and see that as a problem that they need to help me overcome. If I’m clearly not attracted to someone that I “should be” I must just be too shy and need a push, or I must be gay, and they’ll fall over themselves to apologize and offer to take me to a gay bar. If I manage to convey I’m really not interested in anyone, clearly there must be an exception rooted in some scandalous fetish. It can be exhausting and causes people to violate all sorts of boundaries they otherwise never would.

And of course behind that, there’s people who assume being asexual means being totally emotionless, or asocial. If I’m not attracted to anyone, I must not like people or want to be around them, or I’m uncomfortable with others discussing their romantic lives. That gets pretty isolating.

What advice would you give to any asexual individuals out there who might be struggling with their orientation?

I don’t know if asexuality is really something to be struggled with. There’s no shame in not wanting to do something, and while there’s sometimes a weird social pressure if someone picks up on your asexuality, it’s totally within your right to change the subject. I’ve also always found this to be a very gendered sort of issue. Men who see me as another man really care about me “getting laid” and can really push the issue. Women who mistake me for a man though often express relief that I don’t look at them in a sexual way, and when I’m not misgendered, it’s exceptionally rare for other women to worry about whether I’ll ever “find the right person.”

But I don’t know if “just avoid socializing with men” is really practical advice for anyone.

Finally, where can people find out more about your work?

I throw games and game design talk up on my blog now and then, secretgamergirl.tumblr.com but most of my existing body of work is under my old name and I don’t need the stalkers that would come with plugging it. Recently though, I’ve also started contributing to Pathfinder, and hopefully I’ll have a board game adaptation of Missile Command on the shelves of game and hobby shops in not too long.

Thank you, Violet, for participating in this interview and this project. It’s very much appreciated.

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