Emma Westecott works in games, in the kind of jobs you always think would be really cool but never know how to go about getting (or even quite what they involve). Last year, she hosted the Women in Games conference; she forms part of the video games panel at the Birds Eye View film festival; and she’s currently Games Research Fellow at the University of Wales, Newport. It’s fair to say she knows her stuff. (And if all that weren’t enough, she worked on Starship Titanic with Douglas Adams.) We grabbed her for a quick e-mail chat about life, the universe, and everything…
DoG: How did you come to be involved with the Women in Games conference? (And indeed the video games panel at the Birds Eye View festival!)
Emma: I became aware of Women in Games in 2004 whilst I was running a games research lab in Sweden but couldn’t participate until my return to the UK in 2005. I had always been particularly impressed by the event’s mix of women from industry and the academy. I gave a paper on independent game development practice for the event in Teeside in 2006 and then had the honour of being accepted as a host in 2007. I came across Birds Eye View through the Women in Games conference.
DoG: You’re also part of the Synergy research group – do you think there’s a problem with the way computer games are generally perceived? (Presumably things like the Manhunt 2 controversy don’t help?)
Emma: I think the general perception of computer games is changing, with the advent of consoles like the Wii being marketed at the whole family the ‘geek gamer’ stereotype is rapidly being dispelled and the notion of digital games as entertainment for the whole family is returning. Popular media are now seeing the positive potential of this new form over and above entertainment and with a few notable exceptions games are beginning to attract a more positive press.
DoG: Those projects all seem to share an aim to bring games and gaming to a wider audience – what are the challenges inherent in that? How do you overcome them?
Emma: Play is such a huge part of our lives, it is core to how we learn and develop throughout our lives, yet is often regarded as something we do in our free time. There are periods of life where we simply have no time to play. Games are obviously objects of play and offer a possible space for inter-generational understanding and trans-cultural creativity. The challenges of bringing gaming to a wider audience are bound up in the work/play divide and the cultural stereotyping of the gaming geek. I would hope that we could overcome these challenges by publicly celebrating games as the art form they are.
DoG: What do you make of things like Future Publishing’s Girl Gamer magazine, or Ubisoft’s “Imagine” series of games for girls (which includes “Imagine Babyz”, “Imagine Master Chef” and “Imagine Figure Skater”)? Are they actually helpful?
Emma: My problem with these titles is the gender stereotypes that they perpetuate; as a girl I may love to feed and exercise my virtual pet but I probably also love to beat my friends on a virtual car track or lead a campaign in an online quest. Magazines have the responsibility to cover and celebrate all types of play. Parents should ensure that different types of games are bought for their children to celebrate individual difference. Games companies need to evolve beyond gender stereotypes in their offerings.
DoG: What got you into gaming in the first place? What’s your favourite game? (And what are you playing right now?)
Emma: My mum, we played Pong together when I was a child. My current favourite is LocoRoco, an immaculate PSP title that I have played with my daughter, right now I am waiting for my copy of Assassin’s Creed to turn up.
DoG: You worked with Douglas Adams on Starship Titanic – what was that like? How was he to work with?
Emma: Working for Douglas was a real privilege, The Digital Village (his 90s new media company) brought together an amazing group of people and I look back at this period as one of the most creative in my career. Working as Douglas’s producer was a real challenge and often felt like haggling in a Moroccan bazaar, when cutting down on things I had to be really carefully not to end up with more work than I had originally started with. One of my favourite moments was when we first realised we were going to be late he calmed us by repeating his famous quote, “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” He was one of a kind. In the end we were only 6 months late.
DoG: You’re also involved with the online Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy project – can you tell us a bit about that? It must be kind of intimidating, working with such well-regarded cult material?
Emma: Yes I was launch editor for h2g2.com. For launch we introduced some new alien field researchers (surprisingly still online), the idea was that they provided sample content and guidance for new researchers and were aliens or non-humans reporting on Earth for the Guide. h2g2 provides a platform for everyone to become a field researcher and as such the initial challenge was trying to encourage people to not try to be funny but to be factual and to write well, anyone can submit an article to the editors (some employed and some from the community) who then elect to take an article through submission process to be part of this text-based guide.
The hardest thing was always trying to visualise Marvin, I don’t think anyone has managed to capture the look of that robot.
DoG: Your website mentions that your next project is Dreamer, “a new genre of computer game”. Could you elaborate? (Is that still happening, or not? Sounds interesting anyway…)
Emma: What site is that, shenerd.com? I really need to get round to updating that site… Dreamer is a collaboration with the very-talented Alex Mayhew (I would say that, he is the father of my child), the full concept sadly didn’t get funding but a version of the property is still in development as a television/ARG title with some Canadian partners so we still live in hope that a version of the game makes it into existence one day.
The Birds Eye View film festival runs from the 6th to 14th March in London this year.