Sibel’s Journey: An Inclusive video game for children and youth

This interview appeared in Turkish in Velvele on August 27, 2021. It was translated into English by Öykü İnal.

Serenad Yılmaz came to Humboldt University’s Gender Studies department as a visiting student while she was doing her PhD in Communication Sciences at İstanbul University 10 years ago. She returned neither to Istanbul nor to her PhD. She worked as a designer in a game studio in Berlin and did freelance work in between. A year and a half ago she founded her own game studio Food for Thought Media.

Serenad, who is interested in video games and gender, and who also works academically in this field, realised her idea of a game that she had dreamed of years ago in the middle of the pandemic with the contributions of experts and activists in the field. Sibel’s Journey aims to teach children about gender, sexuality and inclusion in a fun way.

We talked to Serenad about Sibel’s Journey, which is available for gamers.

How did the idea for Sibel’s Journey come about? What was the process after you decided to build the game? How did you set up the team? How did you decide who would be on the team? Tell us a bit about it.

Some of our team had built an educational game for children before we started our process. This game, which aims to teach younger children some social skills and empathy, won the German Computer Games Award (DCP) –Germany’s most important award in this sector– in 2019 in the children’s games category. I have been interested in gender, gender identities and computer games for a long time.

At first, as five women in the game industry, we decided to combine our expertise in different fields and make a game like this. Because we always thought that there was a lack of education on these issues in digital media. You and I have been talking about it for years, you’ll remember.

Later on, our team welcomed activists who were working on these issues, academics, who studied this topic, and many other people who loved the project, as consultants or writers. The team actually developed and took shape in a somewhat organic way. And it turned out well.

Financing the game was probably the most challenging part. I remember you starting a fundraising campaign. How did this work out?

We used the technological infrastructure of the game I mentioned above and got some funding from Medienboard Berlin Brandenburg (a funding organisation based in Berlin and Brandenburg which financially supports film and visual projects and if your project is financially successful, you pay back the funding received).

However, since Sibel’s Journey is much more extensive in terms of both content and game design, this budget and technology was not enough. We also decided that a game like this needed to be voice acted, which required a huge additional budget. So we launched a crowdfunding campaign. Our campaign helped us make these additions and changes.

In the meantime, a foundation working in the field of sexual and reproductive health in Turkey learned about our project and supported us to localize the game and translate it into Turkish.

You just said that you met with activists and some of them joined the team. Why was the contribution of activists important for you and the game at a time when anti-activism is on the rise? 

We received consultancy and support from many people and groups throughout the entire creation and production process. They supported us in producing educational content, in the creative process, and in the publicity of our campaign. We worked on organising workshops especially with LGBTQI+ organisations and groups working on inclusive education. It is possible to see Sibel’s Journey as just a game and play it; it is also possible to play it by organising workshops on sexuality, gender and diversity in classrooms. We have worked and we are still working with groups and individuals who have the skills and enthusiasm to run these workshops with us. Activists are also included in these groups because we care about the words and actions of people who have been working for many years on issues such as equality, justice and inclusion. The people in the main cast of this team also come from different struggles. This game would be incomplete without the activists’ input. So we are grateful to each and every one of them for their contributions and we see ourselves as part of the ongoing struggles and we are proud of that.

So let’s dive into the game together. Let’s start with Sibel, the main character of the game. What is she like? Why did you choose Sibel?

For us, it was clear that the main character would be a young girl even before we spoke to each other. When we first talked about it, everyone said they had thought about the same thing (laughs).

Although there have been more female protagonists in video games in recent years, they are still far outnumbered by male protagonists. There are also very few or no protagonists from non-binary and other gender identities. Considering that we live in Berlin and the Turkish population here, we honestly thought that having the German daughter of a Turkish immigrant family as the main character would be remarkable in many ways, and it would raise awareness. Considering the Xenophobia in Germany, we find it valuable for a character like Sibel to ask questions about intersectionality, immigration, guest labor, being Muslim and queer, and to analyse and understand the answers she receives more accurately than many adult Germans.

Sibel, on the other hand, is a very open-minded but a bit naive character who easily engages others thanks to her sincere and sociable character. She is very curious and is always looking for something new to find out. This curiosity is the most decisive element of her journey and we want to encourage this curiosity in those who play the game. We hope that those who play the game will love her as much as we do.

In addition to Sibel, the city of Berlin is actually one of the main characters of the game. Can you tell us a little bit about the function of the city in the game? Because I think it’s not just about living in Berlin.

 A dialog from the game:

– Is everyone here for the Pride Festival?

– Yes, they are. The Queer Capital. Berlin is like a fairyland for queers.

– Really? Everyone in Berlin is queer?

– No, don’t be ridiculous! But there are a lot of queer spaces and events in Berlin and they are not looked down upon or considered strange by other people in the city. But there is still a lot of discrimination in Berlin too.

– I always thought Berlin was so perfect.

By writing this, we didn’t want to leave the impression that there are only queer spaces and events in Berlin. Our aim is to make sure that this game is played in as many countries as possible and that the children who play the game there don’t feel lonely thinking that these people, these spaces are only in Berlin. For example we didn’t want them to feel like people in the game don’t exist around them, so we added a new character; the cousin Kerem, which you wrote. Sibel’s conversation with this character will change according to the country where the game is played and she will talk about queer spaces, foundations and organisations in that country.

Apart from that, yes, Berlin plays a big role in the game, from the subway, to the park, the cafe, the ice cream shop, these are real places and Sibel, while wandering around looking for her best friend Sarah, stops by these places where we spend time in the city and she actually gives a small city tour to players. Of course, the biggest reason for choosing Berlin as a location is that we live in this city and know these places.

What is your Berlin like? Is it similar to the one in the game or do you have a different experience than Sibel with the city as an immigrant woman from Turkey?

I have developed a love-hate relationship with Berlin over the years, just like Istanbul. Sometimes I love it very much for some reasons, I feel very good, happy and safe.

Other times, just like in Istanbul, I am constantly on guard, panicking that something can happen to me at any moment. Xenophobia, the recent increase in hate attacks and bad experiences make these feelings worse. Sometimes I wonder if I should go somewhere else, other times I wonder how I will ever be able to leave Berlin. There have been things here that I take for granted very easily, and things that I couldn’t get used to even after years. Everyone’s relationship with Berlin is different. I think I still need a few years to understand exactly how I feel and to define my relationship.

Besides Sibel and Berlin, there are many side characters in the game. I said side characters, but each of them makes important contributions to Sibel’s transformation into an inclusive and open-minded person, and in fact, they try to give those who will play the game an inclusive perspective through Sibel. What would you like to say about this?

From the very beginning, we fictionalised the game in such a way that a child/young person is looking for someone or something and in the process of this search, they meet many new people and listen to their stories. Since our mission is to develop games with educational value for children and young people with characters that have a wide range of genders and sexualities, as well as different ethnic identities, different bodies, skills and needs, this trajectory seemed like a good solution to us.

Just like you said, these characters are meant to give Sibel an inclusive perspective, and through Sibel’s story, to those who will play the game. Of course, none of the characters are there just for Sibel to come and ask them questions, they all have a role in the story. As the script of the game was being written, these characters gained depth.

Even though our team is a seriously diverse (inclusive) team and our studio was nominated for the Most Inclusive Studio of the Year Award, it’s not as diverse as our game. Since we don’t prefer to speak for anyone, for some of the characters, as I mentioned before, we consulted outside the team and the subjects of those identities and experiences wrote the stories of those characters.

Can we say that Sibel’s Journey is a first in its field? If yes, why do you think no one has thought of it until today, or if they have, why haven’t they realised it?

Of course, there are games that deal with discrimination, racism, sexuality, gender issues, or have queer characters, or are in the “LGBT category.” But I don’t know of any other game (for educational purposes) that follows such a comprehensive and intersectional approach. Of course, others must have thought of it, but there are many challenges to overcome in a game of this kind, which may have intimidated them.

First of all, the subject matter is multi-layered and controversial (I mean both politically attacked, targeted, demonised, and there are still concepts that have not been agreed upon within the community, etc.). Even among our writers, there were discussions about how we should handle certain issues.

Secondly, it is educational, it requires pedagogical expertise. At the same time, it is a game, it should not be very didactic, it should be fun. You need to convince the player that it’s educational but also fun.

For those who make games for profit, it is not attractive to be both educational and aimed at children. It’s mostly adults who buy games.

For non-profit teams like us, who want to distribute it free of charge to schools and youth organisations as an educational tool, dealing with parental permissions, instructors, school administrations and bureaucracy is a deterrent.

All this makes it even harder to stand out among millions of games.

Maybe we can also talk about why this gap needs to be filled. Why do you think kids need video games that are inclusive, not antagonistic, misogynistic, or racist?

These topics are sensitive and new for young people at that age. In early adolescence, especially sexuality can be scary, overwhelming and often embarrassing. The computer game, which is already a part of children’s and young people’s lives, is a very useful and interesting medium because the content is communicated in a fun way throughout the game. In addition, the fact that computer games are played alone leaves enough space to evaluate one’s own thoughts and feelings.

Although in recent years (but only in recent years) many game studios (both in game design and in the workplace) have renounced overt racism, misogyny and homophobia, Sibel’s Journey is not limited by these issues. It also includes matters such as existing in society as fat, disabled, or immigrant; discrimination and struggles against it; and consent and healthy relationships, which are still ignored.

If I circle back to your question, I can simply say that children should not feel ashamed, afraid or alone for what they are and what they feel, love,  and want to be. Games like Sibel’s Journey give them the message that they are neither wrong nor alone, which for many children can be life-saving.

In which languages will the game be available and what is the game’s minimum age?

The game is for children and young people over the age of 11 and it will be available in German, English and Turkish. We are planning to add languages such as Spanish, French and Arabic. We want it to be played in as many languages as possible. We will be working towards that goal.

Let’s talk a little bit about the game world in Berlin. Why did you find yourself in this industry? What kind of motivation did you have?

I was already interested in computer games academically. My first master’s thesis was about technological culture and human-technology relations through computer games. Later on, I wrote on topics such as gender and computer games, representation of queer characters in computer games, and the unfinished PhD thesis was also about these subjects. I was already doing graphic and UI (User Interface) design in Istanbul, and when I came to Berlin, I started designing for games, unless you count the flash mini games we were working on 20 years ago.

It’s hard to make comparisons because I have only worked in Berlin. Although there are a lot of game companies and a lot of money in Germany, it hasn’t achieved much international success. In the last two years, the industry has received a lot of support from the government. There might be changes in the future.

As a female programmer, what are your experiences and views on the game industry?

I can say that a lot has changed in the last 10 years. It is a fact that it is still male dominated but the toxic environment is gone.

Is the number of women or queer people in the industry increasing day by day or is it all quiet on the Western front? What can you say?

If you look at Germany, yes, it is increasing, but it was such a cis-hetero male-dominated world that, 10 years ago, there were exotic female dancers at game convention parties. In the studios, women’s restrooms were used as storerooms and stuff like that. Well, not anymore. I am grateful (laughs).

But for example, when I visited game studios in Indonesia, half of the employees were women. I don’t know if they were working cheaper or just in one department, but that was the case there. There was a masjid at one corner of the studio and a bar at the other corner. Who is more inclusive? I didn’t check it statistically, but these are just my observations. 

You can find more information about Sibel’s Journey and the platforms you can download the game from the link.

Photo credit: Nil Yurtan

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  • Bawer

    Kurdish, queer, and immigrant. Founding editor-in-chief of Velvele, journalist, writer, and translator. Lives in Barcelona.