Do you remember those teenage years — all of the confusion, the expectations, and the social awkwardness?
That’s one of the reasons why Miriam Verburg helped to create the LongStory Game, a dating sim, choose-your-own-adventure type game that helps pre-teens and teenagers learn the ins-and-outs of dating. Users get to pick a character —boy, girl, or trans — and must solve a mystery while navigating social scenarios. Some examples include, bullying, backstabbing friends, alienation and immigration, and experimentation with their own sexuality.
“I made it as a response to other dating sims, which follow boring storylines – you buy enough nice clothing and people will like you,” Verburg said. “LongStory is less appearance based and more ‘if I was 13 playing a game about relationships, what would I want to practice doing’.”
Verburg is modest to a fault. She is a self-affirmed feminist who wants to be a force of change and social good, but would rather work behind the scenes than in front of a camera. She considers some aspects of business like advertising and monetization a challenge, as she wants her work to retain it’s authenticity and accessibility — something many other businesses can’t claim.
Verburg became interested in technology at a young age. Her father worked for the Bloorview Macmillan Centre in Toronto as a researcher, developing rehabilitation programs for kids. He often brought home weird-looking laptops and would let the kids play with them. Verburg caught the creative bug, and studied art in school, primarily print-making and digitization.
After graduating, she worked at Studio XX, an “explicitly feminist art studio” in Montreal, where self-taught women in technology could teach others. After a while, her interests changed to web development. She completed her Master’s in Communications and Media Studies at Concordia and got a job teaching kids digital literacy at a library in Montreal, something that inspired her to continue to work with kids and technology.
While doing all of this, Verburg started her own website development company with some friends called 3scoDesign, which focused on helping non-profits design and integrate their digital footprints. Verburg has maintained that entrepreneurial spirit and is now the founder and CEO of Bloom Digital Media, a “boutique gaming company” that specializes in user experience and project management.
LongStory launched two years ago through Bloom Digital Media and it’s quite the success. Verburg’s target audience at the beginning was young girls; she wanted to create a game that taught consent and allowed girls to experiment with their desires.
“It was 2012 — Rehtaeh Parsons and Amanda Todd — I found those stories sad and surprising,” she said. “It seemed to me, as a teenager, I was pretty convinced that the dating world was not constructed in a way girls can experience themselves fully with power and freedom.”
LongStory has since grown into a phenomenon that transcends gender, a game that appeals to young people across the board. Users can choose a character that accurately represents how they choose to be identified — “he”, “she”, or “they” — and can try things they may be embarrassed to try in public. The challenge, Verburg says, is to keep the game authentic and available, so that teenagers are comfortable using it and parents don’t mind them doing so.
“There has been lots of pressure to make this educational and put it in schools, which is something I’ve resisted,” she said. Teenagers see devices as a place where they can be free to be themselves, and if you introduce it into classrooms, that whole idea changes.
Her team is also made up of an equal number of men and women — something Verburg says should be the norm no matter the company.
“The team is fairly evenly split and we also try to have a lot of LGBTQ members to represent that idea authentically,” she says. “People say it’s hard to have diversity in a company, but it’s not.”
One of the things Verburg hopes will change is the perception issue regarding male-dominated industries like hers. People say that more women should be involved in gaming or web development, but they don’t actually speak with women to find out what kind of games they would be interested in. That’s something Verburg has actively been trying to change.
“We spoke with a lot of girls during market research,” she said. “I want to explore how to create a community around that idea of gaming – how to help [girls] find better games and enjoy the experience more. There is such a strong community around building games and it makes me sad to see that if you ask girls if they want to get involved, they say ‘it’s still not meant for me’.”
Verburg was also involved with Dames Making Games, a not-for-profit feminist organization that runs events and programs for “women, non-binary, gender nonconforming, trans and queer folks interested in games.” When she isn’t working or involved in the gaming community, Verburg enjoys doing circuit training, going for a walk outdoors, or playing a board game — anything that doesn’t involve analytical thinking.
Season two of LongStory was released a few months ago, and Verburg is excited to see where it will lead. “It’s like an Archie comic,” she said. “It can only go on.”