- Role: Game Coordinator
- Company: Puzzled Pint Pittsburgh
- Location: Pittsburgh, PA, USA
QRM had a chat with E Forney, Game Coordinator!
QRM: Can you tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do in the games industry?
E: I am asexual, panromantic, and female-ish/gender-meh/non-binary/femme. I currently work full-time as staff at a university, but I was a clue master at an escape room company part time for about two years. I volunteer to facilitate puzzle hunts in Pittsburgh and online: Puzzled Pint (many cities, happens on a monthly basis), DASH (Different Area Same Hunt, 10th one happening in late September in multiple cities), Hunt for Justice (online, has happened twice so far). I run the social media for Puzzled Pint Pittsburgh and Puzzled Pint HQ (umbrella org for all cities). I'm also a contributing writer for sidequest.zone, a website where not-cis-dudes write about gaming. So far I haven't written too much, but I think a lot about video games, mobile games, escape rooms, puzzles and puzzle hunts, interactive theatre, tabletop RPGs, board games, and just all kinds of gaming/fun interactions.
QRM: How long have you been involved in the game industry, and what projects have you worked on? What are you working on currently?
E: I guess I would say I really started producing puzzle hunts for other people to play in 2009, when I joined a club in college (Carnegie Mellon University) that put together puzzle hunts for students. The basic format would be groups of students register, we give them some kind of opening skit/rules explanation, they spread out to different class rooms to get started on puzzles (either printed ones in packets or digital ones online, depending on how advanced we were that year). Sometimes teams would need to go somewhere to physically meet a character or complete some kind of interactive puzzle (a lot of them were basically 'The Floor Is Lava'). And the first team to finish would win, but everyone was allowed to play until the event ended, when we'd wrap up with an epilogue, often featuring the winning team. As I learned more about puzzle hunts (MIT Mystery Hunt, for example is a really popular one at another college), I realized that our style of hunt was actually a lot more plot-heavy than a lot of puzzle hunts, so I started to learn about the different types of events you can make.
Currently, I still run Puzzled Pint monthly. Puzzled Pint is very beginner friendly--the puzzles are not super hard, you get a code sheet with commonly used encoding systems like Morse code, semaphore, Braille, etc. Each team solves a puzzle online that tells them which bar/restaurant to go to that month. They show up and solve usually four puzzles to get key words or phrases. Then they solve a meta puzzle which uses the previous puzzles' answers to get the final answer. This event is really great because I get to introduce any kind of person to puzzling as a form of gaming. And over time, they get better--just like you would get better at video game controls or understand board game strategies over time, our players pick up on things faster--they understand keywords in the 'flavor' of the puzzles might clue a specific encoding system (i.e. 'Let's see what you can find' might be cluing Braille encoding since 'see' relates to eyesight/blindness). I usually playtest the puzzles (a term for quality control/proofreading), give free hints to teams, and coordinate the logistics and social media for the events. I have also constructed a set of puzzles.
I am also planning for DASH (Different Area Same Hunt) in Pittsburgh. It's DASH's 10th year occurring, but first year in Pittsburgh. It's like Puzzled Pint, but on a larger scale. Teams will be moving around one neighborhood in Pittsburgh, uncovering more puzzles and plot points as they solve with the help of ClueKeeper, an app where you can pre-load clues for each puzzle so that the teams can be mostly self-guided throughout the day.
QRM: What inspired you to get started in the games industry?
E: My history with code breaking, logic puzzles, etc. as a group activity got me interested in puzzle hunts and the community of this kind of gaming. In high school, my first year in math club, a teacher set up a math-based little puzzle hunt at a Mu Alpha Theta (math club) convention. We had to solve a problem to get a next location and new problem. It was kind of like a side quest--it was just something you could do if you noticed the signs around the elevators, it wasn't scheduled as part of the convention. My team was really into it, solving puzzles in our free time instead of playing card games or whatever we would normally do. When I got to college, there was a group of people who put on a puzzle hunt so I got involved with them to do that. We came up with all sorts of scenarios, a lot of which took inspiration from video games: we had one based on Myst, where teams could travel between worlds by completing books about them; another somewhat inspired by Portal where teams were being 'calibrated' by easy puzzles so we could mind-control them, but solving harder puzzles would help them escape.
QRM: In what ways do you feel your experiences as a queer person manifest in the games you work on, and influence the work you do?
E: I didn't realize I was queer until I was 23, completely graduated from college. I was coming to terms with being asexual while I was getting a Masters of Education in Higher Education Management at the University of Pittsburgh. I was focusing in student services (basically training to be something like a college career consultant, academic advisor, residence hall manager, events coordinator, there are a lot of jobs this degree can lead to). In masters programs, you usually do a lot of training that relates to counseling, understanding different cultures/religions/sexualities/gender/abilities/etc. I learned more about being an ally to any kind of student I could meet. Since I was asexual, looking back at some of my experiences--feeling left out or not understood--those helped me realize that people running things can make it easier for everyone. So, in that vein, I try to think about how to be accommodating to everyone with planning puzzle hunts.
For example, the coordinators of Puzzled Pint Pittsburgh try not to go to restaurants where there are no accessible entrances, which are along public transit routes, etc. Those who can drive there and walk upstairs aren't inconvenienced, but those without cars or who walk with canes can still get there. In planning DASH, I'm making sure there is always a wheelchair/stroller option for moving from place to place. And with creating puzzles, I try to make it diverse when I can. For example, if I need a set of names that starts with ABCDEF (so that players can order them and get a new piece of information), instead of just picking something familiar like Adam, Bob, Charlie, Dave, Edward, Frank, I could pick Adam, Briana, Coco, Daisuke, Eduardo, Felicia. This accomplishes the same thing. It's not unlike designing SAT questions, to make a comparison to another industry--you want all sorts of people to exist in the world you create, even if that world is hypothetical for the purpose of conveying information and not an imagined world, like a video game environment or the lord of a board game.
QRM: Do you have a favourite queer character—in games or media more generally? If so, what is it about them that makes them your favourite?
Question asked by @kamienw.
E: Some of my favorite characters in general: Midna, Link, and Koroks (The Legend of Zelda franchise), Wirt (Over the Garden Wall), Dipper and Mabel Pines (Gravity Falls), Bilbo Baggins (The Hobbit), Mae Borowski (Night in the Woods), Haruhi (Ouran High School Host Club), Luna Lovegood and Remus Lupin (Harry Potter), Todd Chavez (BoJack Horseman), Tubbs (Neko Atsume), Double King (Double King by Felix Cosgrove), Peridot and everyone else tbh (Steven Universe).
Todd Chavez is one of my favorite examples of how to write an asexual character. BoJack Horseman did a really good job with explicitly making him asexual, having him come to terms with it, having people around him react in a realistic but supportive way, etc. Haruhi is canonically(?) non-binary or agender or something. (I'm a little unsure since I'm not familiar with anime, Japanese culture, and the translation--maybe she's just a cis girl who doesn't mind being mistaken for a guy). Either way, I definitely related to her.
Mae Borowski is cleverly hinted at being bi/pan/queer sexually and not caring much about gender. She even has 'queer hair' with the little dyed tuft of cat fur on top of her head.
Bilbo gets old and never has a live-in companion (while many hobbits get married), so people describe him as ace/aro sometimes. Peridot being hesitant or unsure about fusing can be read as an allegory for asexuality. Basically, if there is a character that even maybe seems plausibly asexual, I like to read them that way. And I definitely gravitate toward characters like me--asexual and gender-something.
QRM: Have you ever encountered roadblocks in trying to include queer characters in games? What do you think is preventing greater diversity within games?
Question asked by @dustinalex91.
E: Designing puzzles is actually a really interesting look into a collective psyche. A lot of puzzle design relies on common knowledge and different schema that people already have about the world. For example, if you're presenting a puzzle flavor text as 'X person was exploring a database and found these notes!' a lot of time X will be a man with a European/American name, because to a lot of people, that feels expected, so they won't pay attention to that detail like the puzzle designer wants--the person doing the action isn't the part of the flavor they need to pay attention to. As a real world example, I've seen a puzzle about identifying celebrity couples based on riddles, and every couple was heterosexual. I gave the feedback to include some same-sex celebrities (Ellen/Portia for example). In that case, my suggestion was accepted, but sometimes with puzzles, changing something like that makes the mechanics really difficult to work around, so those kinds of suggestions aren't always accepted. The roadblock I see more of is puzzle designers thinking about being inclusive /before/ they structure a puzzle around some white American guy.
QRM: Why do you think it is important that queer audiences are able to see themselves represented in the games they play, and in the developers who make the games they see? What can we do to improve the industry for queer audiences and devs?
E: I think everyone should be able to see themselves represented in games, and since queer audiences don't see much of themselves in various media, they should be included more intentionally and with a higher frequency. Having queer folx develop games is an easy but effective way to get that representation into games, but also sets an example that the workforce in this sector isn't just for cisgender, heterosexual people. I don't have any big answers for how to improve things aside from being mindful of others, listening, and being open to new ideas.
QRM: Have you ever mentored somebody in your role in games, or been mentored? If so, what made these experiences worthwhile for you?
Question asked by @pepelanova.
E: Usually when I've come to run a puzzle hunt, I've been joining a pre-existing team. I have learned from people who are already there, tried things with creating puzzles and been met with openness to new things and constructive criticism. Most of the people I've worked with have been good examples of patience and openness, so I try to be that kind of example as well. I ask about pronouns to our solvers as events, check in with teams that bring babies along to avoid getting childcare, etc. and I hope the other GC and solvers follow my lead.
QRM: In what ways can non-queer folk increase and support queer diversity present within games, as well as in the industry more broadly? How can we all work to support intersectional approaches to diversity, and why is this important?
E: Accepting that there are all kinds of people and normalizing the process of accounting for any kind of person. Stating your pronouns and asking others for theirs even when even when it seems obvious what they are. Giving people control over setting game pronouns and character appearance in a way that isn't binary.
QRM: Is there a message that you would like to share with the queer game players, game studies researchers, and other interested folks who comprise the Queerly Represent Me community?
E: There's power in reading a character how you want. Even if you need to ignore part of the canon to see what you want to see in a character, that's okay. It's better of course if you can have your views confirmed in canon though. And that's why it's exciting to see more and more diverse creators working in gaming media, because they will create characters like themselves who can inspire others.