For their submission to Global Game Jam 2017 (GGJ), developers Jane Friedhoff and Ramsey Nasser had one powerful theme in mind: fighting back.
The GGJ, which took place across the world from January 20-22, is a hackathon that allows participants to compress the game development process into a 48-hour cycle while also encouraging them to engage in "narrative exploration" and "artistic expression." For Friedhoff and Nasser, the result was Handväska (Swedish for "handbag"), a 3D game that lets you launch a purse at Nazis and then watch as they fly through the air.
"We had been focusing on images of resistance," Friedhoff, who created the game Slam City Oracles, told Motherboard. "We had initially been fixated on this photo Ramsey had shared, which showed a Lebanese teenager performing an ollie over burning tires during protest that took place in 2012."
But then their attention turned to another striking (pun intended) visual: a photo by Hans Runesson, taken in 1985, that shows Swedish woman Danuta Danielsson swatting a neo-Nazi with her purse.
"Growing up in Lebanon, I played lots of first person shooters, including high-level competitive games of Counter-Strike, in LAN cafés," said Nasser, who has also recently released Dialogue 3-D, a game that explores the implications of punching Nazis. "Thanks to Runesson's image, we had the basis for our 'first purse-on' shooter, so to speak."
"We had been sending each other lots of memes of neo-Nazi leader Richard Spencer getting punched in the face," Friedhoff added. "As a queer woman, I recognize that there's something incredibly important about marginalized, underrepresented groups reclaiming actual power, fighting back, smashing things. That's what Slam City Oracles was about, bouncing and smashing around, and that's how we modeled resistance with Handväska, too."
Since Friedhoff also marched in protest against Trump's administration during the weekend GGJ took place, the game took on added significance. "Even though Jane was at the march for part of this, she did the level design and all of the logic for how the physics work," Nasser said. "I had already made a game development tool called Arcadia, and I used it to build my parts—recording and playback, because the really fun part is watching how those guys scatter."
For Friedhoff, the game offered a chance to follow the development blueprint she had laid out in her recent essay "Playing With Resistance," in which she urged readers to "reclaim the power fantasy." Members of marginalized groups "need to think about power fantasies as being a way for us to claim, viscerally experience, communicate, and practice a power we've lost — or that we never got to have in the first place."
Both Friedhoff and Nasser understand the dangers posed by apolitical big-budget games that reflect hegemonic, monolithic, and discriminatory worldviews. "People say they don't want their games to engage with politics, but growing up as an Arab Muslim, I was playing all of these shooters in which Arabs were almost always cast as the bad guys," Nasser said. "And, yes, I played them, but let's not kid ourselves: those games privilege one highly problematic view of the world over all others. They're political."
"Handväska was released on January 27—Holocaust Memorial Day, and also the day Trump signed that executive order on immigration," Friedhoff said (that order imposed a suspension of the refugee program and a ban on travel to the U.S. from citizens of seven countries, but is now in legal limbo). "For someone like me or Ramsey, and for many others, these are dark times, so I'm excited to see game developers approaching the process of making games as a form of self-care. I want to figure out ways in which me, and people in my community, or people who are in similar situations, can feel strong and powerful."
Nasser, who spent his formative years dealing with political instability in Lebanon, sees the act of creation as an act of resistance. "When I was a kid in Lebanon during the 90s, I didn't have control of what was happening in the background, major events that could impact my life," he explained. "Now, with the stances Trump has taken, it provides a chance for me to show that I'm not afraid. I'm an Arab Muslim immigrant who lives and designs amazing things in the US, and I won't let my work be affected. I know what's taking place, and I'll fight against it, but I'm not going to let it stop me from living my life."