Blanket Fort Chats: Game Making With Hannah Epstein

Hannah Epstein
[Courtesy of Hannah Epstein.]

[Trigger warning: brief mention of suicide.]

Blanket Fort Chats” is a semi-regular column featuring women and nonbinary game makers talking about the craft of making games. In this week’s post, we feature Hannah Epstein, a folk media artist working in the cross-section of games, video, and textiles.

Miss N: Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got into making games?

Hannah: Sure! In 2011, I was a participant in the Canadian Film Centre’s  (Telus Interactive)  New Media Lab. It was a kind of think tank/experimental prototyping program where we worked in small groups to develop tech or content specifically geared towards entertainment. This was where, during a session with Dr. Emma Westecott—a professor of Game Studies and Game Design at OCADU—I was introduced to the possibility of using games as a medium.

She set up our work space with five different gaming systems so that we could actually play some less mainstream games. I think it was while playing LIMBO that I had my “aha” moment. My small group (John Watson, Monica Law, and myself) went on to make our first game, Cats Breaking Antiques, designed for the Blackberry Playbook. It was shown at the Bata Shoe Museum as part of Nuit Blanche, but unfortunately was never released.

Miss N: What’s your earliest memory of playing games? 

Hannah: This is kind of funny. My first memory of playing games is one from very young. I think I was around six or seven and I was playing in the backyard with a neighbor boy. I had a crush on him and was interested in trying to kiss him, but was sure that if I asked him he would be grossed out, so I invented a game. I said, “Let’s play a game, it’s called ‘Graveyard.’ The rules are that you lie down and pretend to be dead and I’ll have to kiss you to wake you up.” He agreed and I got to kiss him. My grandmother saw us from the window and came out and yelled at us. That might be the first game I ever designed.

As for video games, we didn’t have a gaming system in the house until the N64, so my very first memories were playing Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt in the basement of my cousin’s house when, after dinner, the kids would sneak away from the adults to play. Playing video games in the basement felt like such a stark contrast to upstairs where, from my perspective as a child, it was all boring conversation. I found the atmosphere that playing video games created was a casual one and I enjoyed that—plus, there was a fridge in the basement with delicious snacks that we would dip into.

Snacking and playing isn’t that far from how I play games now.

Miss N: We read that you studied Philosophy and Folklore before. Did this background influence your creative practice as a game maker?

Hannah: Oh, absolutely. I like to think of games as the space for experimentation, for reproducing the status quo. They are the “magic circle” where people are free to use their creative capabilities without fear of social repercussion. New discoveries can be made in gameplay, which can then be brought back to the real world. Developing this kind of belief about games is a direct result of studying philosophy and the history of Western culture.

When you step back and look at human behavior and belief systems over time, you begin to see the creation and evolution of rule sets managing the development of society, and you can suddenly conceptualize the world as a game itself. Philosophy shows you what the game used to look like, and Folklore shows you the counter-narrative to the main gameplay and tells you there are more games afoot than written in history books.

Shark N’ Hoop by Hannah Epstein
Shark N’ Hoop by Hannah Epstein

Miss N: Did being a game maker change the way you work in other creative mediums?

Hannah: Yes, definitely. Thinking about games has infected every other part of my creative process, and I am always trying to find ways to blend my material and digital practices with gameplay.

At this point, I can see most of my work as either a game or documentation of play itself. The tactile characters that I make with rug hooking or other materials feel like they could be the inhabitants of a game world. For the installations I make, I will place the viewer inside of a physical game—the most recent iteration of this being Shark N’ Hoop—where I took over an old chapel and had large hoops floating in the air and three large, remote controlled, helium-filled sharks that people could use to swim around the space and fly through hoops.

Where’s Hannah? by Hannah Epstein
Where’s Hannah? by Hannah Epstein

Recently, I had my first performance (which was also a game) called Where’s Hannah? With three large cardboard boxes on stage, I had the audience close their eyes and count to ten. When they opened them, I was nowhere to be seen and everyone started yelling, trying to choose which box I was hiding in. In reality, I wasn’t hiding in any of the boxes, and had snuck out of the space entirely. In that moment, I am playing with the game itself—a game within a game within a game.

Miss N: We’ve seen you describe your work as being “satirical, remixing pop culture icons and imagery, creating bottom-up storytelling techniques to re-shape popular discourse.” Can you tell us how you ended up focusing on these themes?

Hannah: I have friend who went to a clowning school in Paris. Talking with him one day, he told me the story of the “bouffant.” The bouffant is someone who is cast out of society for not being “normal” (whatever that is). The bouffant lives outside the city walls, looking in, feeding off the scraps that are tossed his way. However, one day a year, the city opens up its gates and invites the bouffant to perform in exchange for a nice meal. The bouffant does this—he entertains, he makes the city people laugh, eats his meal, and leaves. It is only later, when everyone is home alone and reflecting on the evening festivities that they realize they had been laughing at themselves, and in that moment of realization, commit suicide.

I like to think of it as a metaphorical suicide—that upon being shown the truth, they can no longer continue as they were. I often use this story as an allegory for my own work. Having grown up in Canada watching and absorbing a lot of American culture, which I consider to be “the city,” I feel that I have an outsider perspective that allows me to see the horror and plain idiocy of what goes on with the American mass media machine. My work aims to take these pop culture images or messages of compliance and play with them—all in an effort to burst the cycle of exploitation inherent to the values they represent.

Miss N: Can you expand a bit on what it means to have a “bottom-up storytelling technique?”

Hannah: I first encountered the idea of “bottom-up” while studying Folklore. The idea was that studying the stories of people who were just people (without any fancy accreditation) and valuing their experience and worldview (the way you would an “authority”) meant that your own experience or that of your friends or neighbors was just as important as any other story to be told.

Related to pop culture imagery, when top-down storytelling occurs, usually via large production companies running campaigns for a new entertainment product, those stories become digested by everyone that encounters them. No story ever stays the same, so being interested in bottom-up storytelling means that I want to know how people are re-telling narratives to suit their own lives, or remixing the imagery to signal their own culture. I want to look at how people are creative with the materials they are fed.

Miss N: Looking back at your game making journey, what’s been the most challenging thing you’ve encountered? 

Hannah: I don’t make games in one particular medium. To date, I’ve used the Playbook, YouTube, Rapt Media, VHS tapes, Screen Perfect, a van, a tent, clothing, paper, helium-filled sharks, cardboard boxes, flickgame, and probably more. Because I like to keep growing my practice, I find it challenging to keep coming up with new ways to make games. But, once I find a mechanism or medium for the game, I’m usually okay until the time it actually takes to make the game begins to take its toll.

Specifically for any FMV game, the time and energy it takes to sit down and edit and construct a story is always astounding. I feel my body suffering in that process. I’d say the only way I get through it is coffee, arrogant determination, and conviction that the result will absolutely rule.

Shark N’ Hoop by Hannah Epstein
Shark N’ Hoop by Hannah Epstein

Miss N: What’s been your most fulfilling experience? 

Hannah: I have to say, I’m really happy with how Shark N’ Hoop turned out. It currently signals a big shift in my work away from chaotic, high energy games (loaded with critiques and messages) to a more calming game (one that is purely about the fun and enjoyment of an experience in itself). There is no pressure of competition, no singular goal, but a communal experience of something that is more relaxation than agitation. I spoke with an advisor about Shank N’ Hoop before I installed it and he asked me:

“What is the content?”

“Fun,” I told him.

“Fun!? The world is falling apart at your feet and you want to have fun?”

“Yes. It’s not escapist fun, it’s a momentary manifestation of a possible world. People need to encounter real examples of peaceful worlds to know that they are possible elsewhere, too.”

I feel so good about Shark N’ Hoop because I really think it did that.

Miss N: Having worked with a lot of different mediums, do you think there are things that games (as a medium) do better than other mediums?

Hannah: I’m really interested in the avatar experience. I’m interested in the way the mind changes and adapts to new environments, behaviors, and feelings when given a new body to experience things through.

The ability of games to really experientially place a person in an entirely new perspective is one of the greatest strengths of the medium. The viewer doesn’t have to be held at arm’s length as a person on the outside looking in. They can inhabit a new persona and choose how to experience the game space. This is the same kind of freedom that comes with role playing or wearing masks and games make it okay to do that.

Miss N: Are there any games that you feel have really pushed the boundaries of the medium? 

Hannah: I think there’s a lot of really exciting innovation going on in games all the time, but I am always most excited about ones that have a sense of humor, like Jazzpunk or Viscera Cleanup Detailgames that in a way are about games themselves.

But I admit, I am on the Oculus bandwagon and am completely blown away by VR and the possibilities. One game I played, connected to a Kinect, lets you flap your arms to fly around the game world. That was spectacular and I can’t wait to see what people do next in the VR space.

Punk Prism Power by Mahou Shoujammers
Punk Prism Power by Mahou Shoujammers

Miss N: Are there any women or nonbinary game makers that you really admire? 

Hannah: I have to give a massive shout out to the Punk Prism Power team: Nadine Lessio, Sagan Yee, Alicia Contestabile, Lindy Wilkins, Jenn Woodall, and Maggie McLean! They have made the most incredible fighting game with the most badass controller that looks like a chainsaw from a riot grrrl future where all the teeth are shaped like hearts.

Miss N: If you could go back and give yourself advice when you were first starting out as a game maker, what would it be?

Hannah: To relax, to not cater to anybody’s expectation, and to have as much fun as possible.

Miss N: Thank you, Hannah! 

If you’re interested in following Hannah, visit her website or follow her on Twitter @haaanski. As always, if you know of any women or nonbinary game makers that you’d love for us to feature, drop us a comment or contact me.


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