A Game of Life with Crooked Rules

Concordia Students and Faculty Create Video Game on the Lives of Sex Workers

Graphic Jennifer Aedy

There has been much ado about sex work since Canada’s prostitution laws were struck down in December 2013 in the historic Bedford v. Canada decision.

But the media discussion surrounding the decision and the ensuing Bill C-36 may have been missing the point.

“It’s a two-sided debate,” Sandra Gabriele, chair of Communications Studies at Concordia, said of how the issue is often covered, in an interview with The Link.

“We end up back in the same position: to defend the work, which is often portrayed as by its very nature degrading to women,” Gabriele continued.

The discourse gets stuck in questions of the work’s morality, victimizing and marginalizing sex workers, she said.

Gabriele and journalism professor Lisa Lynch have responded by creating a newsgame—a video game engaged with the principles of journalism—with the help of a roster of Concordia students, including Amanda Feder, Martin Desrosiers, Esther Splett, Natalie Zina Walschots and Ben Spencer. The online game, called The Oldest Game, goes beyond the public discourse by addressing the intersections and issues of the sex trade, where new laws punishing clients may soon come into play.

It deals with the “kinds of choices sex workers face every day, every time they take on a new client.”

The player moonlights as sex worker Andrea, picking what type of work she does. You start off in one of three Canadian cities—Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver—and once you’ve accumulated enough money, you can move.

In the game you’re confronted with a number of situations similar to those Canadian sex workers face. Gabriele gave the example of hiring a driver to bring you to meet with your clients.

“Are you going to keep your driver with you [while you’re with your client]? That’ll cost you money,” she says. “Oh, actually, your driver just quit because under the new law, he could be arrested for working with a sex worker.”

In another scenario, Andrea has to navigate legal waters and counsel a colleague of hers who is an illegal immigrant.

Other obstacles in the game may feel closer to home, like incurring debt. The game also attempts to help the player understand how one might enter the sex trade.

But Gabriele says the team behind the game was careful not to create scenarios that would create a fixed narrative about the sex trade in players’ minds, nor create a hierarchy of positions within the sex trade.

The team, mostly funded by the university, hired sex worker Marilyne Hudon as a consultant to make the game as realistic as possible.

Lynch, of the journalism department, said they had already made a series of changes within the game following Hudon’s suggestions. For one, she helped make it less explicit, she said.

The group’s stance is clear in the fact that the game recognizes sex work as work, Gabriele says, as does the Supreme Court of Canada following the Bedford challenge.

“We don’t even engage with that question,” she said, adding that it would be “foolish” to treat sex work as a normal line of work, but that that’s also why sex workers’ rights are crucial. “There are risks attached.”

She says she believes the new laws would force sex workers into dangerous situations by isolating them from their support systems.

The game isn’t only a response to the current events and conversations surrounding sex work in Canada.

It’s also a result of Gabriele and Lynch’s fascination with newsgames—_The Oldest Game_ is partly inspired by Budget Hero, which is also a game “in which players learn the parameters of a complex system, and from role-playing games that provoke empathy and identification,” according to the game’s website.

The game is mainly being developed by students in Computation Arts right now, but Lynch and Gabriele say they hope the venture will lead to the creation of an ongoing project that communications and journalism students can learn skills from and participate in.

“It’s also about us as a group, learning how to take on something which is journalism represented in a really kind of problematic way—sex work and games—and figure out how you do that,” Lynch said.

The game was a learning process, a way for the teachers to cut their teeth. And, sex work was the perfect subject to tackle because “it’s just work that’s not going to go away,” Gabriele said.

“It’s not like trying to write a game about a conflict and then all of a sudden the conflict ends,” Lynch said during her own interview with The Link.

The game’s trailer was recently released on its website and Lynch and Gabriele say they’re almost ready to have the prototype tested.

Once it’s out there, they plan on having it tested by gamers and sex workers alike.

There’s one main kink to iron out, according to Gabriele.

“Vancouver’s missing a mechanic, where you can’t move from it,” she said. “We don’t want people to get stuck in a city […] even though lots of people get stuck in cities.”