We had the opportunity to sit down with Brie Code at Silo Coffee in Friedrichshain, Berlin. Brie is a speaker, writer, and the CEO of a new game studio, Tru Luv Media. Before founding Tru Luv Media, Brie was an AI programmer–she built the AI for Company of Heroes (along with a colleague), and she was lead programmer for Child of Light and three Assassin’s Creed titles at Ubisoft in Montreal, Canada.
We highlighted some of Brie’s work in investigating reward systems in our last blog post, Approaching Feminism as a Male Data Scientist. She found that in addition to the traditional fight-or-flight response system, there was an overlooked reward system that stressful situations can evoke, called tend-and-befriend.
What put you on this path to dig into the research around gaming reward systems?
I went down that path because of music. At one point, I made a comment to my boss that I don’t like guitar solos. I was surprised that he seemed hurt by that statement, and later, he sent me a long email about why he liked guitar solos–because men don’t really get to express emotion and guitar solos are an emotional outlet for men.
So I asked myself why I didn’t like guitar solos. What was it that put me off? I realized it’s because guitar solos are very linear, with a build up and then an explosion and you’re done. It feels to me very similar to the energy in video games, which I’m surrounded by all the time and a bit bored of. I like electronic music, which is more circular. It builds and contracts, builds, contracts. We might say it has more of a feminine energy. It made me wonder how many of our conventions are designed around this linear buildup and release.
I’ve noticed that I’ve stopped watching movies for a similar reason–I prefer Netflix TV series. When I want comfort, I want to exist in a space with familiar characters, and not see the same predictable story arcs in different settings.
And I’ve rarely played games the way they are designed to be played. When I dug into this further, I found the research about tend-and-befriend as a alternate stress response, which was discovered once stress researchers looked beyond the stress response of male rats.
“[G]uitar solos are very linear, with a build up and then an explosion and you’re done… I like electronic music, which is more circular. It builds and contracts, builds, contracts.”
What was your big take-away after having discovered the tend-and-befriend response?
I suddenly understood myself so much more. Much of our world has been designed with these masculine conventions and isn’t necessarily a good fit for all of us. I think it’s also important to underscore that men and women aren’t that different. There are average differences between men and women, but the variation among men or the variation among women is bigger than the differences between us. We all have masculine and feminine traits. Many men have the tend-and-befriend response.
I personally related to tend-and-befriend as well. I also see from my friends just how different each person’s taste in games can be.
Gamergate was a few years ago, could you tell us about your experience with that from your perspective as a woman?
I’ve been in the industry for 15 years. In the beginning I never expected to see sexism. I was so naive. At my first job, I didn’t have any issues. Soon after that I did, and it was a painful surprise. It took me a long time to see it and not to blame myself. Eventually I left AAA.
At this time the conversation among women in games started get louder on the internet. I was excited that there were enough women working in games now to have a conversation. Still so trusting, I felt that once these issues were discussed in the open, we would make fast progress. I felt most people were well-intentioned and just misinformed. Instead, what I saw was that many men I worked with dug in and became more vocal with their bad opinions and bullying behaviour. Then Gamergate. Since then, I’ve seen many senior women leave their jobs in frustration. I realized there can be better environments to work in.
It was in late 2014 when it occurred to me that while being a member of an underrepresented group in this industry means being stereotyped, having to work harder, and hitting a ceiling, it also means that I have a unique perspective. There’s a customer base full of people generally ignored or condescended to by the games industry, and we have an opportunity to create games that treat all people with respect and maturity and depth. If underrepresented people seize enough power to make things, we are very well positioned to innovate.
With your own studio, how are you going to create games that are truly different. Do you have any concrete ideas that you would be comfortable sharing?
Each game we’re working on is co-designed with a person who doesn’t like video games. I started by doing a series of short game jams and was planning to release the prototypes as an art project. But the first one we started, I felt it had so much potential that we decided to focus on it and develop it further. It’s co-designed Eve Thomas, a magazine editor and artist in Montreal, and it’s called #SelfCare.
Brie was kind enough to give me a demo of the game that she’d been working on. The main screen for the game is a scene in your own bedroom, but it’s filled with mini-games that are all designed for you to take care of yourself in the real world. For example, there is a mini-game for you to practice a breathing exercise, where the visuals ebb and flow with the suggested rhythm of your breath. There is another mini-game that encourages mindfulness by arranging words in certain ways.
I immediately saw the value in it. I recently watched a TED talk by Adam Alter on why are screens make us less happy, and it’s good to see some people trying to change that paradigm. This game was an example of that.
Back to the interview…
What’s your ideal studio setup in terms of coworkers, size, number of projects?
As I settle in Berlin I’ll be changing our plans based on what opportunities we find here. But as of right now, our plan is to build a kind of artist retreat for indie devs. We’ll have 3 month cycles, and each game will continue to be co-designed with someone from outside the world of games. Artists, refugee girls, Instagram stars. Part of my motivation for this is that I’ve met all these super talented millennials who aren’t working at big companies because they value their freedom, flexibility, and creative expression. It would be wonderful to work with some of them.
As a game developer/producer, how important is music?
It really depends on the platform. On mobile I hardly even play with sound. If it’s a game that’s designed to be picked up for short periods of time, I don’t want it to interrupt my own music that I’m probably also listening to. I very rarely sit down to play PC/console games anymore, but I find music very important in that more immersive setting. I still listen to the music from Morrowind sometimes when I’m feeling wistful.
How do you think music will affect those experiences? Do you think that music will play a bigger role in games that have alternative reward paradigms?
If a game is about characters and connection and feeling, than music is important. That’s why there’s music in film. And if the game is systemic and adaptive, adaptive music could help manage the pacing.
What are you thoughts on Virtual Reality? How do you see that having an impact on inclusiveness in gaming?
When I look at games as products, I think about what problem in someone’s life a game solves. I play mobile games because I’m bored in the elevator or while waiting for water to boil on the stove. From this point of view, I find VR great for the gym, on an airplane, or at the dentist–any place where I don’t want to be in the environment I am forced to be in. But I won’t put a headset on when I’m in my house, because I like my house. I decorated it. It’s full of things I love and people I love. I don’t want to be removed from it. I think mixed reality, though, is going to change the world more than the internet has. I think eventually we’ll live with an AR/VR solution where the realities switch smoothly from one to the other.
That said, I’m not interested in immersive video games in VR, because when I’m playing video games I’m usually watching TV as well. I never do one thing at a time. For the average gamer who likes to be immersed, VR is probably great for them.
In terms of art and other applications I’m very interested in VR. There’s an artist in Copenhagen, Mariam Zakarian, who is making installations in VR. In one of her pieces I felt an emotion that I hadn’t felt before. She made this beautiful porcelain island on a red sea, and the island is kind of rocking on the waves, and at a certain point a wave just washed right over me and over the island, but didn’t knock me over. It felt cleansing in a way I can’t explain. This is a great example of using VR to do something you can’t do in any other medium.
How do you think Artificial Intelligence is going to impact games? Is it different for VR?
Game AI for characters is very different from classic AI. Game AI generally has nothing to do with AI, it’s a lot of state machines, logic, etc. or maybe sometimes goal-oriented planning. This is because the purpose of Game AI is to be fun and to give the game designers control over the player’s experience, not to be smart.
Moving forward I think we’ll see more applications of classic AI within games. Spirit AI is doing very beautiful things with AI and characters and story in games. And we see classic AI used not necessarily only for characters. I’m seeing people around me playing with AI for generative environments or generative level design for example.
Do you have any concluding remarks?
The video game industry can feel like a pretty dark place sometimes. Why are so any games dark and gritty? Life is hard and technology can be scary. Because of global technology and the internet we are looking at a future with a massive wealth divide, global warming, and the automation of jobs. In the video game industry I learned that in every setback there is an opportunity. It’s not just that being outnumbered gives me a unique perspective. Any unexpected setback in life means that the game has changed and that new opportunities may lurk in the changes.
In some ways, the internet is creating these massive, seemingly insurmountable problems. But if we leverage it correctly with AR/VR/video games and AI, think about what world we could live in. Maybe education is taught more and more through play and is more accessible for everyone. Maybe our environment is more beautiful and expressive because it’s augmented. Maybe work is automated except for art, sports, entertainment and taking care of each other. Maybe we’re living in AR games that teach us languages, refine our cooking skills, whatever. Maybe at a certain point we’ll be able to customize our whole lives, focus on the things that make us human, and maximize our fulfillment. I see a future where technology enables us to do that and I see video games as an important part of that future. (We’re not that far. I’m currently learning German through MemRise, for example.)
*Title image used with permission from Mariam Zakarian