Welcome to a new series of Interviews on LadiesGamers, Inclusive Gaming. Since Paula and I are now ambassadors of Women in Games (WIGJ). Most of the games we play today have a gender option, the days of games with only one option – playing as a man – are mostly over. Some games bring that little bit extra to the table, so we thought we’d make some interview-based games that emphasize inclusivity.
This interview is with Benoit Fries in Luanagames, the study behind WoMen in Science. Mina reviewed the Early Access version of the game and had this to say in her conclusion: “WoMen in Science lets you play the game you want to play. And I’m a big fan. The game has its problems; for example, the skill tree lacks a bit of explanation on how to get and use it all, but WoMen in Science is still in early access. However, the bones this game has built are fantastic, and I can’t wait to see more.”
First of all, can you tell us about yourself and your studio?
Well, I’m a 45-year-old Belgian guy who immigrated to Canada 20 years ago. I’m new to game development, before that I was a Software Engineer, Full Game Developer and Science Writer. I’m the only full-time employee at LuanaGames, but I had help from Irene Chan, who composed the music, and Daniel Thomas, who did most of the graphics and animation.
You started the study four years ago and before that you were a science writer. What prompted you to dedicate yourself to game development?
It was always a dream of mine to create a game. Before this, I worked on a physical card game about women scientists who didn’t get the recognition they deserved, and since I already knew how to code, I quickly made a WebGL version to show how to play.
The game was a huge success in schools and science museums around the world, but international shipping was extremely expensive and unreliable. With low profit margins, having to reship many decks of cards because they got lost in the mail can quickly become untenable. We also received many requests for free decks of cards from schools and non-profit organizations that wanted to raise money, but our margins rarely allowed us to fulfill them.
So I thought that a video game would solve both of these problems. Delivery is easy and free, giving free keys to charity costs nothing. A card game would have to be multiplayer and that was a challenge because you need a player base to start, if there is no one playing with you it doesn’t work. Also, I wanted the game to be popular with women and girls, and the most popular genre among that demographic was the farm sim. It’s also perfect for telling longer, more detailed stories.
women in science
WoMen in Science has a Stardew Valley, a game that helped popularize farming simulation. Was Stardew his inspiration to go for a farming game, or was there another source?
I’ve been a gamer since the Spectrum ZX81 in the early 1980s and must have played thousands of games since then, so there are plenty of sources of inspiration, both conscious and unconscious. Harvest Moon, Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley have defined the farming simulator genre and are obviously the main influences. But I also borrowed elements from Baldur’s Gate II’s dialogue system, Fallout’s hacking minigame, Scratch, Wordle, and probably many more. And naturally, I put dozens of references to my favorite games in the dialogue and Easter eggs.
We love how the game puts a scientific spin on everything, making it stand out from other farming sims. Is this your old profession shining?
Yes, science has always been important to me. Before studying computer science, I studied biotechnology and agronomy to become a farmer. In fact, the game university is a replica of Gembloux Agro-Bio-Tech, where I studied for a short time. Many of the techniques presented in the game are things I used in real life, some of them I still use, and I hope it brings some authenticity. After a day working on Women in Science, I would go out and feed my animals and take care of the plants in the greenhouses or hydroponics in my garage. I don’t have a robot dog yet though!
Its website states that WoMen in Science was inspired by wanting to show “not only ethnic diversity, but also neurodiversity and non-binary gender, in a positive and family-friendly way.” What was your inspiration to make your game so inclusive?
At first, it was just about women scientists. Of course, when it comes to correcting an injustice, it makes sense not to repeat it to the exclusion of other groups of people. But if I’m honest, it was only when I published the Steam page that I realized how important inclusion is.
As soon as the page was online, with just a title and a few images from the early stages of the project, an army of trolls came at it. Just because there was “Women” in the title. They assumed I was a woman, they called me names, they told me I hated men, they threatened to buy the game just to leave a bad review and then ask for a refund (some of them did).
What it looks like to publish an inclusive game in #VAPOR, a thread. 🧵
— LuanaGames – WoMen in Science wishlist on Steam! (@LuanaGame) June 11, 2022
For someone who’s always lived with white male privilege, that was pretty eye-opening. I don’t want to live in that kind of society, and I certainly don’t want my daughter to experience that. So I doubled down and made inclusivity a core element of the game.
How important is it for you that the gaming industry be an inclusive industry, being a good representation of society?
It’s quite telling that it took years for AI researchers to figure out that computer vision didn’t work well with people of color and that in 2022, most phones still have trouble taking portraits of darker skin tones. Diversity makes everything better and prevents the tunnel vision that leads to these situations.
In nature, playing is learning. The kittens chase each other to learn how to catch their prey. We are much more complex, but games are still our first way of learning and building a common culture and representation of the world. But if our learning is biased, if minorities are hidden, then we can only build a biased society. This is why inclusivity is so important in both gaming and entertainment in general.
And I think it’s the same with violence in games. It’s okay to have violent games, that can be fun. But if every game teaches us that the best method of solving problems is to have bigger guns, what kind of society exactly are we building? We need all kinds of games, just like we need all kinds of people.
There are 20 different characters in WoMen in Science based on real female scientists. What made you choose those specific women?
That wasn’t easy, and the selection certainly isn’t perfect, but it had to be done. At one point I had a list of over 300 women scientists. Some were removed simply because I couldn’t find enough information about them in French, English or Spanish. That is usually the case with African and Asian scientists, it is very difficult to learn about them. Fortunately, the works of Dr. Marta Macho Stadler Y Dale DeBakcsy they were there to help.
I tried to have as much diversity as possible in each category: scientific fields, backgrounds, gender, and neurodiversity, while also trying to fill in 3 personality orientations that fit the game: those who prioritize community and empathy, those who prioritize environment, and those who prioritize industry and pragmatism. I think these 3 orientations are all valid and positive, and I wanted them to be equally balanced.
Women have made many contributions to science over the centuries; Which little-known scientist is your favorite?
It’s really hard to choose because I spent a lot of time working on the 50+ women featured in both games, but I think it would be Temple Grandin. Her story is amazing. I highly recommend the HBO movie about her life and her talks about life with autism. Being on the spectrum myself, her story was especially inspiring to me.
Luana Games also made a free Women in Science card game. Can you tell us a bit more about that project?
Yes, it all started when my daughter – she was 7 or 8 at the time – asked me if it was okay for a girl to like math. Her consensus at her school was that math was for boys, and she wasn’t sure she liked math anymore. She had been a science writer for over 10 years, but she had a hard time naming a few female mathematicians.
So, with Anouk Charles and Francis Collie, we decided to create a deck of cards to popularize remarkable female scientists. We financed the game with a crowdfunding campaign and we were able to print 3000 decks that were distributed everywhere. We also provide a print and play version (PDF) which is available for free at LuanaGames.com in English, French and Spanish.
Women in the STEM field
What advice do you have for young women hoping to enter a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) field like the scientists on WoMen in Science?
I think the most important tool is a growth mindset. It’s okay to have hard times, it’s okay to fail, it’s all part of the learning experience. But when you’re in the minority, it’s tempting to conclude that you’re not where you’re supposed to be. But the truth is that everyone has hard times and everyone fails sometimes. Be kind to yourself, if you continue to work, you will succeed.
Do you have any plans for future projects to promote more young professional women in STEM fields?
Currently, the game doesn’t generate enough sales to be sustainable, so I have to prioritize putting food on the table. But I am always open to giving free or very cheap game keys to finance crowdfunding campaigns and giveaways that benefit gender equality.
One thing I would love is to be part of a humble group that would benefit the cause.
Are there other video games with female protagonists that you admire?
I must admit I haven’t played that many. Tomb Raider comes to mind because in 1996 it was pretty unique. I loved the female leads in Dishonored, Wolfenstein: Youngblood, and The Witcher. But if I’m honest, I think the industry can do even better. In other words, the best is yet to come.