Portfolio for Transition Design Application

Greetings Committee Members and welcome to a selected and annotated portfolio of my design-related work. As I wrote in my Statement of Research Motivation, the work I’m building off for the program is care and culture work I’ve maintained in games industry and activist circles since 2011 that is difficult or impossible to represent in a portfolio. However there are some notable works that crystallized points of the journey I’ve had with design so far that I would like to share with you.

Mainichi (2012) – digital game

(Minutes 00:15-5:10)

Mainichi is considered a key work in the DIY game-making movement that has since changed the landscape of independent game-making (here is a short Vox documentary about it: Queer Games: The Secret Avant Garde of Videogames). There are personal and critical intentions of this piece:

Personal: I am a queer woman of color with a long-term close friendship with a white cis woman. While we had conversations about issues surrounding trans femininity and how it affects mental health, it was difficult to fully illustrate something systemic and long-term in just words. Like a note or a conversation piece, I translated my experiences into a game environment for her to interact with so the more embodied interaction would help communicate things I struggled to before. I released it publicly so other trans people could share it with their friends as well.

Critical: There are many conventions this piece challenged about games, mainly through centering the design around my experience instead of usual themes of conquest and advancement. Typical attitudes towards goals, agency, and choice were troubled by using genre conventions to subvert expectations, especially the standard assumption of a ‘good’ ending, which players typically achieve by mastering the game. The game isn’t supposed to be ‘fun,’ rather draw on a larger range of emotions to communicate its themes. Creating it was activist in nature, to show not only can someone who doesn’t code can make a compelling game, but also that the industry’s homogeneity was stifling the different possibilities games could have. It means to draw on previous activist DIY movements and isn’t supposed to be advanced, rather challenge the assumptions we have about game-making in order to invite new modes of creation.

Berlin Bienale – Berlin, Germany (06/2018)
Charis – Atlanta, Georgia (10/2016)
Gaymer.es – Bilbao, Spain (04/2016)
GX2 – San Francisco, California (06/2014)
Camden People’s Theatre – London, UK (11/2013)
IndieCade – Culver City, California (10/2013)
College of the Atlantic – Bar Harbor, Maine (10/2013)
Museum of Design Atlanta – Atlanta, Georgia (07 – 09/2013)

empathy machine (2016) – mixed media, physical computing, performance, game

After Mainichi and similar games picked up visibility, critical circles and the larger press identified work like mine as ’empathy games.’ Concurrently was the rising prevalence of VR and film makers in particular describing the technology as ’empathy machines.’ I was a part of activist push-back against a trend of trying to sell empathy through technology, where the privileged consume ‘accessible’ versions of the marginalized’s experience. Mainichi was used this way frequently in games discourse, so I made a follow-up work which is the game remade into a performance and installation piece. Mainichi was projected on a wall and my body was wired to be the controller interface through physical computing. I performed scenes of my life that were represented in the digital game, and participated in dialogue with players about the benefits and limits of empathy-through-media. The critique is specifically pointed at the non-profit industry of social impact games, visible through organizations such as Games for Change, and is among a collection of protest pieces that might be called ‘notgames’ or ‘anti-games.’

Mission (2013) – alternate reality game

In 2013 gentrification as a US national topic was only just starting to really pick up steam, and I made this game to help people local to a gentrifying San Francisco neighborhood, the Mission, to understand its effects on the ground. It was made along the traditions of San Francisco’s Situationist-influenced street game scene, using the form of a pub crawl in order to visualize gentrification. The game is a series of daily instructions where players patron different restaurants over a week to observe how new restaurant establishments are pricing out food affordable to the original latinx working class residents. The path of the game traveled along the then-unreported private bus lanes that Silicon Valley tech companies like Facebook and Google used to transport workers from San Francisco to their corporate campuses, which mapped directly to where gentrification was the most intense.

DAFRA Pairing Ceremony (2017) – game, speculative design, culinary experience

This piece was made during my masters thesis in conjunction with proposing a speculative game design methodology. The game is a set of instructions that guide two people through defining their relationship, utilizing ritual and food to establish a play experience. It constructs an alternate present where a fictional law, the Diverse And Fair Relationships Act (DAFRA), gets passed which requires all citizens to register their relationships with the government so they can be monitored for equity. The main feature is the Pairing Contract, a design game where the relationship is discussed in terms of formalizing a contract, where the players are using their own relationship as material for play. Throughout the process they are smelling spices and cooking prepared ingredients inspired by their DAFRA applications, and in the end consuming the meal to finalize the ceremony.

DAFRA Pairing Ceremony was created as an attempt to bridge cultural practices built up through play with activist issues, particularly care work, consent in relationships, and gendered emotional labor. It deliberately blurs reality and fiction to shift perspectives on what it means to have a relationship. This was a deliberate attempt at making a more interactive speculative design in order to critique the usual gallery model those designers tend to use.

Feastings (2018) – social practice, games, performance

(due to the sensitive nature of this work, there is no audio/visual documentation)

Wanting to extend my creative work into more long-term, sustained action, I took to techniques of social practice art and created a series of performances/events that used games as community-building exercises while addressing issues around emotional labor and surviving politically tumultuous times. Feastings served as an experiment in locating design practice in domestic spaces concerning topics and political action that tends to happening private rather than in public. The events consisted of three main elements: design games, emotional labor trading, and ritualized potluck. Different games were used for transitioning the social space into a more intimate tone where people could talk about serious issues, many inspired by Augusto Boal’s Games for Actors and Non-Actors. The results of the games are used for discussion and led into a group sharing of labor, where each participant takes a turn both offering a service and requesting one. This has generated community accountability and care work exchanges like cooking meals for those who have support others, accompanying people to stressful appointments, demos about basic electrical repairs, and practicing emotional vulnerability. All of the above is celebrated through meals made from ingredients participants brought to the event.

Parsons Design & Technology Major Studio 2 (2019) – studio class syllabus

This is an example of an interaction design studio where I used play and speculation as pedagogical strategies to help students prepare for their masters thesis course the following semester. It is the 2nd course in a 4-semester core studio curricula that I helped design. Here are a few of the exercises I made for this course:

2×2: While design students have technical skills and critical abilities, they typically keep them separate instead of using them in tandem for their design work. 2×2 is a self-assessment exercise that has students inventory their skills, interests, and frameworks and cross-pollinate them into design research questions.

Design Fiction Scenarios: Students played world-building exercises from the storygame Shock!! Social Science Fiction in order to generate design fictions they would interact with throughout their creative process. Each student decided on the intersection of two factors to base their scenario on, a technology issue and a social one, and in groups created worlds and actors dealing with these issues. They then created personas of these characters’ ancestors who are living in our present as a basis to find people to design for/with.

Ritual Design: Focusing on interacting with objects, students were tasked with translating an experience storyboard of their prototype to a ritual that lent performative aesthetics their design values. Following a framework of understanding rituals, students created rituals to act out once a day while journaling how closely it evoked the experience they wanted. They then used those findings as prompts for prototyping.

Speculative Play (2018) – masters thesis

Wanting to find alternatives to the commercially-oriented solutions for social change in the games industry, I focused my masters thesis drawing on participatory and speculative design to create a new methodology for my game design practice. I found that there was very little communication between game studies and design research, and ultimately no such field of ‘game design research.’ While a lot of social impact games are focused on awareness-building and education, there was an absence when it came to cultural practices and play aimed at generating new ones. Two major findings concerned how speculative design, especially design fiction, changes when in the form of play, and how the ethical conundrums of power in participatory design shifts when the designer designs for their own context. I can provide my thesis document on request, but in case you don’t want to read a 60 page paper, here is a link to a keynote address I gave that sums up its findings: