Welcome to a new series of Interviews at LadiesGamers, Inclusive Gaming. Since Paula and I are now ambassadors for Women in Games (WIGJ). Most of the games we play nowadays have a choice in gender, the days of games with just one choice: to play as a male, are mostly over. Some games bring that little extra to the table so, we thought of doing some interview’s based games that have an emphasis on inclusivity.
This interview is with Benoit Fries at Luanagames, the studio 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 issues; for example, the skill tree is a little bit lacking in explanations for how to get and use all of it, but WoMen in Science is still in early access. The bones that this game has built though 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 guy from Belgium who emigrated to Canada 20 years ago. I’m new to game development, before that, I have been a software engineer, a full stack developer and a science writer. I’m LuanaGames’ only full-time employee, but I had help from Irene Chan who composed the music and Daniel Thomas who made most of the graphics and animations.
You started the studio four years ago, and you were a science writer before that. What prompted you to take up game development?
It was always a dream of mine to create a game. Before this, I worked on a physical card game about female scientists who did not get the recognition they deserved, and since I already knew how to program, I quickly made a WebGL version to show how it’s played.
The game was a big success in schools and science museums all over the world, but international shipping was extremely expensive and very unreliable. With low-profit margins, having to re-send many decks of cards because they were lost in the mail can quickly become unsustainable. We also had a lot of requests for free decks of cards from schools and nonprofit organizations that wanted to raise money, but our margins rarely permitted to fulfil them.
So I figured that a video game would fix these two issues. Delivery is easy and free, giving free keys for charity costs nothing. A card game would have to be multiplayer and that was a challenge because you need a player base to start with, 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 with that demographic was the farm-sim. It’s also perfect to tell longer, more detailed stories.
WoMen in Science
WoMen in Science has a Stardew Valley to it, a game that helped make farming simulation popular. Was Stardew your 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, so there are quite a lot of sources of inspiration – both conscious and unconscious. Harvest Moon, Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley have defined the farm-sim 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 dialogues and easter eggs.
We love how the game gives everything a scientific twist, making it stand out from other farming sims. This is your former profession shining through?
Yes, science has always been important to me. Before studying computer science, I studied biotechnology and agronomics to become a farmer. In fact, the game’s 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’m still using, and I hope it brings some authenticity. After a day working on WoMen in Science, I would go out and feed my animals and attend to plants in the greenhouses or the hydroponics in my garage. I still don’t have a robot dog, though!
Your 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 for making your game so inclusive?
At first, it was only about female scientists. Of course, when trying to correct an injustice, it makes sense not to repeat it by excluding other groups of people. But if I’m honest, it’s only when I published the Steam page that I realized how important inclusivity is.
As soon as the page was online, with only a title and a few pictures of the early stages of the project, an army of trolls came to lash at it. Just because there was “Women” in the title. They assumed I was female, called me names, told me I hated men, threatened to buy the game just to leave a negative review and then ask for a refund (a few of them did).
For someone who always lived with white male privilege, that was quite eye-opening. I don’t want to live in that kind of society, and I certainly don’t want my daughter to experience that either. So I doubled down and made inclusivity central to the game.
How important is it to you that the gaming industry is an inclusive industry, being a good representation of society?
It is quite telling that it took years for AI researchers to realize that computer vision didn’t work well with people of colour and that in 2022, most phones still struggle with taking portraits of darker skin tones. Diversity makes everything better and prevents tunnel vision that leads to these situations.
In nature, playing is learning. Kittens chase one another to learn to catch their prey. We are much more complex, but games are still our first way to learn and build a common culture and world representation. But if our learning is biased, if minorities are hidden, then we can only build a biased society. That is why inclusivity is so important both in games 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 all games teach us that the best problem-solving method is having bigger guns, what kind of society are we building exactly? We need all sorts of games, just like we need all sorts of people.
There are 20 different characters in WoMen in Science based on real female scientists. What made you choose those specific women?
That was not easy, and the selection is certainly not perfect, but it had to be done. At one point I had a list of more than 300 female scientists. Some were eliminated simply because I could not find enough information about them in French, English or Spanish. That is often the case with African and Asian scientists, it’s very difficult to learn about them. Thankfully, the works of Dr. Marta Macho Stadler and Dale DeBakcsy were there to help.
I tried to have as much diversity as possible in every category: scientific fields, origins, gender and neurodiversity, while also trying to fill 3 personality orientations that fit in the game: those who prioritize community and empathy, those who prioritize the environment, and those who prioritize industry and pragmatism. I believe 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 female scientist is your favourite?
It’s really hard to choose because I spent a lot of time working on the 50+ women presented in both games, but I think it would be Temple Grandin. Her story is amazing. I strongly 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 little more about that project?
Yes, it all started when my daughter – she was 7 or 8 at the time – and asked me if it was okay for a girl to like math. The consensus at her school was that math was for boys, and she wasn’t sure she liked math anymore. I had been a science writer for more than 10 years, but I struggled to name 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 were able to print 3000 decks that were distributed everywhere. We also provided a print & play (PDF) version that is available for free on LuanaGames.com in English, French and Spanish.
Women in the STEM Field
What advice do you have for young women hoping to get into a STEM field (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) like the scientists in WoMen in Science?
I think that the most important tool is a growth mindset. It’s ok to have hard times, it’s ok to fail, it’s all part of the learning experience. But when you are a minority, it’s tempting to conclude that you’re not where you are supposed to be. But the truth is, 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 female professionals in STEM fields?
Currently, the game doesn’t make enough sales to be sustainable, so I need to prioritize putting food on the table. But I’m always open to giving free or very cheap game keys to financing crowdfunding campaigns and raffles that benefit gender equality.
One thing I would love is to be a part of a humble bundle that would benefit the cause.
Are there any other video games with female leads you admire?
I must admit I haven’t played that many. Tomb Raider comes to mind because in 1996 it was quite unique. I loved the female protagonists in Dishonored, Wolfenstein: Youngblood and The Witcher. But if I’m honest, I believe that the industry can do even better. In other words, the best is yet to come.