People often talk about the effect that video games have on families.
Often the talk is very negative. The cliche is of teenagers locked away in their bedrooms – anti-social, uncommunicative – separated from the family unit. But sometimes it isn’t like that; sometimes video games are the method of communication that can bring families closer together. It is something I have found as a keen gamer and father, and it is doubly true when the parents are game makers themselves.
Increasingly, as developers grow older and have kids, they’re passing on skills and working together with their children on formative projects. This can be as much about parenting and love as it is about making something fun to play. Earlier this year Sam Smith, the 12-year-old son of Jonathan Smith, a producer on the Lego series of action adventure games, released his first game Space Pants, a project he worked on with his dad for several months. Jonathan has spoken movingly about how Sam found the school environment unbearable; so the decision was made to educate him at home. And to Jonathan this meant teaching him how to make games. Sam is a great game designer.
A family business
Based in Noosa, Australia, game developers Jason and Nicole Stark have gradually indoctrinated their daughters into the design process. Right now, the team is working on the slick sci-fi platformer Ninja Pizza Girl. Currently in the final stages of a Kickstarter funding campaign (which has just past its target), the game follows a young delivery girl, Gemma, who must fight her way through a distopian metropolis. The duo were clearly influenced by games like Mirror’s Edge and Sonic the Hedgehog, but the lead character is from closer to home.
“At the beginning we envisioned the game as a cute funny platformer based on our eldest daughter’s experiences as a pizza delivery girl,” says Nicole. “ She was learning kung fu at the time, and my husband jokingly called her our ninja pizza girl.”
But the game took on darker tones when the couple started talking to their daughters about the experience of being teenagers – especially their second child, Raven. “She has Aspergers, although she wasn’t diagnosed until she was fourteen,” says Nicole. “She’s a great kid, and a very talented artist with a great work ethic. In fact she’s responsible for all the 2D art in our games. She’s also kinda naive, fairly oblivious to social cues, and just a little bit... different. When she was younger, she had trouble controlling her temper, and the kids soon learned that if they poked her for long enough, she’d overreact and be the one to get into trouble. It became a kind of sport for them.”
Raven learned to control her reactions, but the situation came to a cruelly ironic head on her school’s official No Bullying day. “A few girls cornered her in a locker room and beat her up,” says Nicole. “The school suspended her, because it was their policy to punish everyone involved in violence. That was kind of a last straw for me. Especially considering it happened on a supposed day of action and awareness about bullying in schools.”
From robots to teenagers
So the tone of the game changed. Nicole and Jason, who have both been in the industry for years working for companies like Warner Bros and Microsoft, started bringing in their daughters’ experiences. “Jason originally wanted the enemies to be robots,” explains Nicole. “He thought it would be cute. The player could ‘kill’ them without it being gory or disturbing. Raven was dead set against that. She kept vetoing his suggestions, and eventually he asked her – who is a teenage girl most scared of? ‘Other teenagers,’ she said. It all grew from there.”
In Ninja Pizza Girl, then, the lead character races through the city landscape, avoiding enemies who call her names, attempt to trip her, then take photos and videos when she’s been abused. The game has become a study of bullying and intimidation - and yet vitally, it’s still a fast-paced and involving platformer, in which stylish, well-timed moves are rewarded.
Ninja Pizza Girl meets Lara Croft
The game is already picking up industry attention. Rhianna Pratchett, the lead writer on the recent Tomb Raider reboot and an experienced video game narrative designer, heard about the title and emailed the family, offering her assistance.
“I was immediately attracted to the game and the themes it’s conveying,” she explains. “You rarely see issues of self-awareness, bullying and self-esteem covered in games, outside of the serious/educational games space. It was also doing it in an innovative and fun way that I felt was really appealing.
“I loved the fact that there was a mum, dad and daughter team at the heart of it, who created the game as a reaction to their daughters’ experiences with both bullying and pizza delivery. I found it really inspiring. And as someone who was also bullied as a kid, it basically made my heart go all squishy and I reached out to see if I could be any help.”
Pratchett has since guided the team in their presentation of the story, writing pages of notes for them. “Rhianna has been so amazingly lovely,” says Nicole. “I’m a huge fan of her work and I’m absolutely blown away by her support.”
Alongside Kickstarter, Ninja Pizza Girl has now entered the Steam Greenlight process, which means the PC version will appear on the massively successful games distribution service if it accrues enough votes. The family is already planning iOS and Xbox One versions too.
Games, bullies and families
I hope it is a success, not just for them, but for what their story says about games and families. “If we hadn’t been making this game I’m not sure we would have understood the depth that bullying had affected our eldest daughters,” says Nicole. “We’ve learned to listen to our children, and to ask the right questions.”
I don’t have daughters, but my eight-year-old son is autistic. He finds school difficult – he seems to be doing okay, but he’s a long way behind his classmates in terms of language and, I suppose, maturity. Like Raven, he is kind of naive – and what she discovered about school is something I fear: that the scariest thing in his life will be other kids, the ones who are supposed to be his peers, his friends. I won’t be there to protect him at school, or help him understand why people are cruel.
“I was quite nervous about putting Ninja Pizza Girl ‘out there’,” says Nicole. “I think the only way to succeed as an indie developer is to open and honest and genuine. But that puts you in a very vulnerable place and the internet can be very hostile. I thought that I should be prepared for nasty comments and general horribleness.
“What I wasn’t prepared for was the love and support we received. So many people have written to us, to share their experiences with bullying and to thank us for starting a conversation about something that was so important to them. I hope that’s what we’ve done. This is an industry that desperately needs to have a conversation about bullying and inclusiveness, and judging by the support we’ve received, there’s a lot of people ready to have it.”
So yes, keep an eye on this anti-bullying game. I hope projects like this help families to talk, and maybe even inspire them to share and create in the same way. I have a plan to buy my own son a laptop and fill it with beginner programming languages like Scratch, as well as basic creative packages like Game Maker. Maybe we can make games together. Maybe that will be a way we can talk about what’s happening to him at school.
As our children grow up, the strands of shared experience start to loosen and thin. But everything can be turned around; you’ve just got to stay together. Whatever you think about games – they can be a way back in.
- Ninja Pizza Girl by Disparity Games is due out on PC, iOS, Wii U and Xbox One. A playable PC demo is available at Indie DB.
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