Nina Freeman

"I realized you could make games about anything- kind of like with poetry."
Interview by Asher Penn
Portrait by Emmett Butler

Despite her young age, Nina Freeman is already an exemplary voice in independent video games, both as an advocate for female programmers and experimentation within the field. With a background in poetry, Freeman's tiny, personal games range from the text based Mangia to the memory inspired My House My Rules, bringing the player to experience the intensity of the everyday. With a desire to educate and inspire, Freeman is also  a co-founder of the Code Liberation Foundation, an educational outreach for anyone who identifies as a women to learn programming from women- an experiment that has already yielded exciting results.

How did you get into poetry?
I came to New York to study theater for my undergrad but wasn’t totally jazzed on the crowd. Then I came into the company of a poet in residence at Pace University named Charles North, who’s a second generation New York school poet. I ended up taking a bunch of poetry classes with him as well as getting involved with the St Marks Poetry Project.
Oh, that’s the spot.
Yeah, there was a big history there which really interested me.
What kind of poetry were you into?
I love tiny poems about little things. Like writing about ordinary stuff like a trip to the grocery store or socks or something. Vignettes, really, which is funnily enough what I’m interested in doing in games.

How Do You Do It, 2013

Were you into video games when you were a kid?
I played tons of games. I was super addicted to this online game Final Fantasy for five years. I ended up playing that through high school and then into college. It’s funny because when I first moved to New York most of my friends were people I met in the game. Even before I got into Final Fantasy online, I was tons of games. Lots of JRPGs and old Sega games.
Why didn’t you study programming?
I had considered going to school for computer science. I had been making my own websites since I was really little. I'd also considered game design, because two of my best friends went to school for game design. My mom was a model though, and she really encouraged me to go in the performance direction, because I'd really done a lot of theatre in high school. But, I think web design was really my first hobby, and I made my first website when I was like 13 on Homestead.
What was your first site?
It was a fan site for a series of books by Brian Jacques called Redwall. I was obsessed with the books when I was a kid, so I made like little fan sites for stuff like that and Pokemon and like all these different anime shows. I was always doing tech stuff when I was growing up on my own, in my room, not really telling anyone.

Ladylike, 2014

Kinda the opposite of theater.
Yeah. While I was at college I was also working in the computer science department, sort of like filling the void of studying programming. It was just a student job, but, once I’d been there for a couple years, they were like sending me to Finland to do projects and participating in design challenges. I ended up actually participating in a lot of computer science when I was working there.
Did the poetry begin to crossover with the computer stuff?
My whole thesis was about sci-fi poetry, I was really interested in how technology wasn’t looked at as much in the literature and poetry I was studying in school. I also started to write papers about videogames. At the same time, I found myself becoming really involved with the chiptune scene in Brooklyn- people making music using old videogame consoles like the Super Nintendo. There were these game developers that would go to these shows, Emmett Butler and Diego Garcia, and I became friends with them and they showed me all these indie games that I had never heard of.
What kind of games?
There’s this game called Dys4ia, which is a small game that only takes a couple minutes to play by Anna Anthropy. She’s a trans woman, and it’s about her hormone therapy that she had. So, it’s this seriously intense personal game. When I played it, I was totally blown away at how emotionally invested I became in this small game.

Deutches Haus, 2013

It sounds fairly adult and personal.
I’d never really realized that games could be like that. It was all pixel art, very simple, down to earth. I was used to sort of like the mainstream games like minecraft. When I realized that people were making games like Dys4ia I realized you could make games about anything- kind of like with poetry. So I taught myself how to program.
What was your first game?
I think my first game was a python text adventure that you would play it in the terminal of your computer. It was sort of like this game called Zork, which is a really old text adventure game where you explore this world and story in text. I started doing lots of game jams, and became more and more involved with the indies in New York.
How far back does like independent game culture go?
That’s actually something we talk a lot about right now in the games community. Right now indie is the big thing everyone is talking about, but games like Doom and Myst were indie games. Doom was just five guys working in their basement- they were really young. They actually distributed it as shareware, so those first players didn't even need to go to the store to buy it. They just downloaded it online using FTP or other file sharing methods. There’s a pretty rich history of people making games on tiny teams without budgets or big publishers, and a lot of those people become the ones making the games that are AAA now.

Hokuto no Huchen (Fist of the North Karp), 2013

What were some of your other early games?
One of the first games that I made was called Hokuto no Huchen (Fist of the North Karp). It was a game about me as a little girl on a fishing trip I took with my dad. He caught the fish and was like, “Nina, here, take it off the line.” Then he swung it to me, and it hit me in the face. That was always like a really hilarious memory to me. I was little and horrified because the fish felt gross. So I made a game about that. You play a little girl and she’s trying to get as many fish off the line before she gets fish slapped. This was one of my first times experimenting with a game that was just about one of my childhood memories.
Your game Mangia is also autobiographical, too.
I had got diagnosed with this condition last year called gastroparesis, which basically means your stomach functions slower than normal. It was this awful year of doctors trying to figure out what was wrong with me which was a pretty terrible experience. The game is about my misdiagnosis before I actually got the correct one. I wanted to sort of explore that experience of not knowing what was happening inside my own body and how I was trying and failing to dealing with that mentally.

Mangia, 2013

Why did you decide to do that game in text?
I wanted to express very specific things that would take a much larger game to do if it was with illustrated charactes. I wanted it to be more personal and minimal. I am a writer at heart, so I knew I could get across a lot of these complex emotions in text. My hope was by giving someone this game that they could play through it to understand what it’s like to go through something like that.
Could you talk a little bit about the Code Liberation Foundation?
I met this woman Phoenix Perry at the Game Developers Conference last year. She started in advertising but made her way into games- she’s a really good programmer. We were talking about how at the AI Summit talks there were only one or two women speakers and barely any women in attendance. A couple weeks later, she emailed me to get together with her and a couple ladies for pizza to talk about a project. I went over there and it was all programmers who had made games. Phoenix was like, “So, you’re a bunch of women who are doing games programming successfully. But there’s so few of us, we should start taking our skills and offering them to those women who are interested in learning programming to make indie games.”
And just for women.
Yeah, our classes are free and offered exclusively to anyone who identifies as a woman. We were lucky because NYU gave us some space for free to use that summer. 80 people attended the class over the course of the summer.

My House My Rules, 2013

What did you teach?
It was an Introduction to C++ and Object-Oriented Programming.We were just trying to teach the fundamentals so that the students could go off and learn more about these games libraries with some kind of context. We went over stuff like what are variables, what are functions, what are classes- very basic things that you need to know for like most popular programming languages.
What advantages does a female-exclusive environment allow?
There’s obviously women out there who are comfortable going to take programming classes,but we’re specifically interested in helping women who maybe feel or have experienced stereotyping or abuse in technical environments or just in the games world in general. Those women aren’t gonna just go and take a regular programming class because of fear or intimidation. We’re trying to help women who are really more comfortable learning in an environment where they feel safe.

Code Liberation Foundation

Computer games aren’t exactly marketed towards women either, right?
Yeah, it’s totally focused on male gendered objects and images. There is a really long history of games and technology advertising being like targeted at men which creates an atmosphere where women don’t feel like they belong there.We have this interesting PowerPoint full of advertising images from the ‘90s when like a lot of the women who are taking these classes grew up in.There’s a lot of really weird Game Boy ads of like girls that are weirdly hypersexualized. Like theres this one where a girl is tied down to a bed. It’s a weird joke about needing some time with your Game Boy, so you’ve got to get away from your girlfriend.
Well, Game Boy is pretty gender specific in it's name. 
Ultimately, I can't say what the exact problem is that's causing the lack of women in games and programming. However, it's clear that the problem runs deep, so we should do everything we can to fix that. I think I got sick of just talking about how few women there are in games. I really wanted to go out there myself to find those women who were interested, but maybe felt scared, or didn't realize they had the potential. It's going well so far, and I'm meeting lots of great women. I know they're going to make really important games, and I can't wait to see what they do.

From Sex Magazine #8 Summer 2014
Labelled Video Games