Digital Diversity: Player Known Battlegrounds

Ever thought of becoming a tour guide? Of shepherding a horde of obstinate tourists around the great monuments and scenic vistas of your favourite places?
Do you think you could do it when you’re having a personal crisis and everything you point out reminds you of your troubles?
Well now you can!

Today on Digital Diversity we’re talking to Steven Harmon and Atsina Corrington about Player Known Battlegrounds; a unique game in every way and one I’m utterly charmed with.


Kaiju: Welcome to Digital Diversity, Steven and Atsina, please tell me a little about yourselves and a bit about what Player Known Battlegrounds is.

Steven: Atsi and I are both juniors at the University of Southern California’s interactive media and game design program. We’ve both spent parts of our childhood growing up in Colorado and love national parks. Player Known Battlegrounds is a historical edutainment game about being a recently divorced tour guide on the Gettysburg National Military Park. It teaches history about the civil war and is the most realistic tour guide simulation on the market. 

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Essentially, we wanted to create the most informative and engaging Gettysburg walkthrough out there. While there’s a 360 panoramic google maps styled Gettysburg online tour, it only has like a fact or two about each monument without much depth. We wanted to triple those numbers and add a lot of tiny details from the names on the tombstones in front of The Soldiers Monument to the many facts about the artillery of the time. Historical accuracy aside, we wanted to make it accessible as possible with the humorous and grounded story of a tour guide just trying his best to the game like nature of herding tourists around. Those mechanics actually enforce you to walk backwards and talk and continuously do a headcount unconsciously and surprisingly give a good insight on the moment to moment stresses of a tour guide job. Neither of us have been professional tour guides, so that’s not my personal lived experience, but making a game about it definitely gave me a deep sense of respect for the job. While I did personally reach out to historians and tour guides for consulting, it wasn’t until we finished the game and started showing the game at expos that we actually came into contact with Gettysburg historians.

I’m not an educator, I’m a shitposter. It all started with a shit post. I came up with the idea for Player Known Battlegrounds after a series of stupid joke high concept game pitches he posted on twitter December of 2017. Things like “Candy Crush, but without the crush” and so the game’s name was generated by means of deconstructing Player Unknown Battlegrounds, a hardcore battle royal shooter by Bluehole Studio and the PUBG Corporation; the idea was “Player Un-known Battlegrounds, except all the players and grounds are known.” Once I pitched the idea in my intro to game design class, Atsi had said it should be about Gettysburg. We didn’t want to set out to make a “fun” and commercial game, we set out to make an empathetic and educational one and I believe we succeeded in that goal.

The game is in your digital diversity collection, and while I am bi, the games I make aren’t just about queer topics. Sure there is one character in the game that can be read as LGBTQ. However, when Atsi and I were writing the dialogue for this game, we focused on trying to make these characters real people in all their quirks and problems and not just a laundry list of traits and stereotypes. I think this is the type of representation most valuable at this moment.

K: Digital Diversity isn’t just about highlighting queer themes, it’s about giving folks from the community a chance to show off something that is important to them, especially projects like this that mean something special to those who made it. A lot of amazing games have shown up in the Digital Diversity collection and Player Known Battlegrounds stands out just for being what it is. Part edutainment, part anxiety simulator, part shitpost, haha. But it’s all heart, and it’s unique, so I knew I had to give it some spotlight.

Knowing that you’ve managed to create something like this together, is it a design you’d want to revisit? As you said you’ve both grown up around national parks so there’s no doubt plenty of material you can work from, is edutainment something you’d want to pursue long term?

I know as a kid I loved edutainment games and would have spent days having something like PKBG to teach me about places and show me how to wrangle tourists.

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S: I think so. I think educational games is something I’d like to pursue further. I made a lot of educational games in high school from metaphysics to Marco Polo Simulator 2k17 so it was kind of a no brainer for me to make another. I suppose what was different was that this time we demoed the game with kids.

Atsi: In terms of this game I definitely am interested in adding more battlegrounds. We’ve both talked about it. Even like, the national park thing would be really interesting – to add national parks, y’know? Because I feel like a lot of kids, I know in my circumstances growing up, it wasn’t possible for me to always go outside all the time because I grew up in the city so it was hard to get access to national parks and traveling because my family was kinda broke, so making an experience to make these places more accessible in a digital form would be really nice.

S: I guess to add on to that, I definitely filed an internship application to Schell and Filament Games, two educational studios, didn’t get them… but at least I tried. Haha…so uh yeah, is there anything else you’d like to add on the topic of making educational games?

A: No, not really. Honestly, it didn’t really feel like we were making something educational while we were making it because it was so fun, but I do think to all the fact checking we did, and just looking up stuff all the time… I think that was the worst part of it actually for me *Steven audibly laughing* I’m not an education freak, but I would add to it because it was such a fun process working with you.

S: Thanks! Right back at ya’.

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K: I do hope you end up finding that education studio, Steven, you do seem to have the passion for it. And I really want to see more battlegrounds, it feels like there’s a lot of amazing places out there that could benefit from having interactive tours. Who knows, there might even be grants in making this sort of thing.

Something I definitely want to know: What are your favourite tourist attractions and why? Is there somewhere you return to over and over that has never lost its appeal?

A: I really enjoy taking photos and hiking so I always return to Rocky Mountain National Park because I can do both of those things heavily there, haha.

S: While I also love Rocky Mountain National Park and have fond memories there, I think Casa Bonita is quite the destination if you’re ever in Colorado. The food is not great, it’s quite old, and the arcade pales in comparison to any modern arcade. However, there’s indoor cliff diving shows that have some of the worst acting, a guy in a gorilla suit who scares small children, and great atmosphere. Honestly, the more I think about it, the more I miss it. I think my favorite destination in the whole world that I’d love to visit again is North Berwick beach in Scotland. Obviously Scotland is quite far, and my opportunity to travel there with a touring show for the Fringe festival was once in a lifetime, but I’d like to return when I’m financially able to do so. Fun fact for ya! Neither of us actually have ever visited Gettysburg. After making the game and shopping it around at various expos for a year, I really want to visit Pennsylvania now. While I have two jobs at school, once I get a “grown up” job that pays well I’ll buy tickets for Atsi, her boyfriend Kobe, and I to finally see the real thing. We may even give our own tour, haha. I still have like half the facts memorized for some odd reason.

K: So one hiking simulator in the Rocky Mountains and a virtual tour of Casa Bonita are future possibilities? I’ll have to look out for them in a few years, haha.

Let’s jump back to Player Known Battlegrounds for a bit. There’s a lot going on in this experience: there’s the purely historical aspect, the emotional strain the guide (that the player controls) is going through that bleeds into the narrative they tell in their descriptions, and the tour group itself which was a great source of stress for me when I was playing it, are there elements that you found more challenging to create or lessons you had to learn to get the game to the point it is at? As you’ve said there hasn’t been anything like this before, only very basic online tours, so it must have been a pretty steep learning curve.

A: It was VERY difficult to find the facts that we were looking for, and making sure that the battleground was as accurate as we could make it giving the tools that we had. I would say that the narrative part was the easiest, and it was a stress reliever for me too as I was writing the facts. All that research took hours and was exhausting, but I found it fun (as weird as it sounds) to go back to writing about this tour guides divorce. The things I had to learn to make this game were basic game design stuff, since it was my first time making a complete game in Unity. Stevie had to show me a bunch of stuff all the time- small stuff like what functions do what and where I can find them.

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S: Just because there may not be any other tour guide simulators out there doesn’t mean we didn’t have a wealth of online material to pull from for reference. I would watch hours of YouTube videos of Gettysburg tours as visual references. The game development itself didn’t feel challenging, and that’s due to having such a great dependable partner to work with. While I’ve made more ambitious and polished projects since PKBG, it still remains one of my personal favorite projects because of how stress free the process of creating it was.

K: Getting your facts right definitely seems like the most important part of making a game like PKBG. As someone who hasn’t even stepped foot on America media like this is a great resource for teaching me things I’ve never encountered before and I really enjoyed the tour group vibe from the point of view of the one giving the tour.

Have you two discussed your dream project yet? The BIG THING you could make if you had the time and money?

S: I don’t really believe in “dream projects” because I love working in limitation. Though, if I were ever in a creative director or lead game designer position at a large studio with tons of resources I’d really like to work on an immersive sim game. I love the idea of pointless interactivity that can flesh out character and world. I want to make games that make other designers question if that really cool thing that just happened was a scripted event or emergent systematic behavior. I don’t want to make a vast empty open world, but a mile deep and inch wide beautiful corner to explore with bustling life and absurd choices. I suppose a fun project to work on that comprises my background in theater and my love of the immersive sim genre would be a game about being a stagehand for a theater production. So much can go wrong if you don’t hit your mark and watching that play out with the actors adapting to it in real time could offer some really great player driven comedy. Not the type of press X to trigger Rupe Goldberg type comedy I often see in games, but something more natural.  

A: That’s kind of a loaded question, but I want to make a AAA wonder.

K: “Pointless interactivity” like including a trash can you can talk about in PKBG? That was a beautiful moment of randomness.  I need to get back in there and see how many other random objects I didn’t get to point out.

From aspirations to reality, I’m curious about your other games, both past and present. Are there any other projects you’ve worked on that you’re particularly proud of? What are you working on now?

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S: Well, fun fact, if you click on that trash can a few times, you’ll get to know quite a lot about the tour guide. Just clicking objects once means you only get like a eighth of the writing. I’m proud of all my children in some form or another. Right now I’m working on a 35 minute long VR film about the time I was stuck inside in an elevator, it’s also a very mundane human narrative but I think there’s something special about it. I think if anything that’s the thoroughline of my proudest work.

K: A stuck-in-an-elevator simulator? As someone who has been trapped in a few over the years I’m as intrigued as I am scared.

This wouldn’t be Digital Diversity without asking my guests about advocacy. PKBG isn’t strictly about queer themes but no doubt you’ve got feelings about diversity within the games industry. I’m curious how you both think that things can be improved for marginalised creators and players with the tools we currently have. Are there games you think you need to be made or public statements need saying to help those who don’t feel they have a voice?

S: Yes, I’m quite passionate about diversity and inclusion within the games industry. I think there’s been an incredible amount of progress in just the past few years alone, but there’s still a long way to go to making games more inclusive and less toxic. I used to spend all my time in online shooters, but I think sometime in my junior year of high school I just got turned off from it and became fed up with having to educate others or just flat out mute entire lobbies. People saying “that’s so gay” or worse as derogatory comments in chat, then backtracking saying “it’s just a joke” not realizing the impact of their words. While stating “I’m bi, and I appreciate it if you’d stop using that language” or asking open ended questions was usually enough to nip some of that toxicity in the bud, having that conversation over and over isn’t really the relaxing experience a match of CS:GO should be, therefore I stopped playing all-together and now gravitated to the more inclusive single player and mobile market in terms of where I spend my money and time as a player.

What can be done? Well for starters, I think representation in games is incredibly important. However, that representation doesn’t even have to be entirely focused on a queer narrative. Literally just putting a character who happens to be LGBT among other things in a game is great. While making games that are explicitly queer for queer audiences is great, games for everyone that normalize this representation is, in my opinion, even better. Diversity isn’t just great for social justice, it’s good for business too. Look at the numbers. People show up to the box office when they seem themselves represented the way they want to be seen. Here’s my spiel: Representation is affirmation. It is the culture at large letting you know that you were considered in the making of this thing and that you are valid. Being able to see yourself represented with positive role models can allow people to feel comfortable in their skin and live their life to its full potential. Life imitates art just as much as art imitates life, so it’s incredibly important what message is being broadcasted, intentionally or unintentionally, in the media we consume. While the best option is to hire more marginalized folx to work in games and give them positions of power where they won’t fold in their values and bring a sense of authenticity to the representation, even games writers consulting with and organizing playtests with people within the community can go a long way. 

So if you’re an ally, but are hesitant to write queer characters because that’s not your life experience – I personally give you permission to fuck up and ask for feedback. Just don’t make Yaoi or weridly fetishize queerness in your work… because that’s like half of all the LGBT games on itch.io and it’s incredibly disappointing.

With the all the free game development off the shelf tools and learning resources, all you need to become a game developer is a computer, an internet connection, time, a bit of self masochism, and an incredible lot of patience. I’m currently writing a free guide book to help lower some of the barriers and demystify the whole process, so here’s the rough draft if you’d like to read. There’s really no excuse not to get started. Be the change you want to see in games, don’t wait for it to be handed to you by some older exec suit who doesn’t give a shit about you until proven that you can be exploited and profitable. And ultimately if you just want queer games but don’t want to make them, then vote for a voice with your wallet. Support queer creators and curators already in the space, be it through financially backing them or giving them a retweet and spreading the word.

I think game development is becoming incredibly democratized and soon will sooner join the ranks of photography in how accessible it is and the people will tell and share their stories unconstrained.

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K: These are some fantastic points, Steven, and plenty that I have strong familiarity with. The toxicity in online gaming is what has kept me away from it most of my gaming life, and getting more casual representation of queer characters in games that aren’t explicitly queer, are both big areas that could really do with improvement. Personally I think AAA studios need to be taking the lead on these since their games are the most readily seen and played by the wider community. And thanks for that great guidebook, I hope that lots of folks will give it a read and use it to tell their own stories.

With all those points in mind I wonder if you have any particular games that have really done the community good? Or even just characters that did representation right that have stuck in your memory?

S: I actually compiled a list a while back for my queer game a day spotlight and honestly think Borderlands 2 is one of the best in regards to AAA representation, not to mention it’s a great shoot n’ loot comedy to play with friends.

K: I definitely recognise a few of the games on that list, even had some of them on Digital Diversity before. It’s great to see folks putting together collections of games with the sort of representation that really helps the community. Borderlands is a great franchise for rep too, I was so excited to see them include a non-binary character this year even.

Well it’s about time we wrapped up this interview. It’s been an utter pleasure having you both on Digital Diversity, Steven and Atsi, and I can’t wait to see more of your work in the future. Player Known Battlegrounds is a great experience that has left me wanting so much more, even if it hasn’t made me want to take on the stress of being a tour guide. Haha

Before we go are there any last things you’d like to say or shout-outs to make?

S: Steven: I want to thank you for this wonderful interview, it’s been a pleasure chatting with you and I’d like to give a shout out to GaymerX, Katie and team for all the great work they do to carve out a safe space within games for the community and support LGBTQ+ developers make it in the industry. Soon we’ll be opening up our GDC scholarship for this year.

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Player Known Battlegrounds is available on Itch.io
You can find Steven on Twitter and his website
Atsi can be found on Twitter and their website

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