Blanket Fort Chats: Game Making With Phoenix Perry

[Courtesy of Phoenix Perry.]
[Courtesy of Phoenix Perry.]
Blanket Fort Chats” is a weekly column featuring women and nonbinary game makers talking about the craft of making games. In this week’s post, we feature Phoenix Perry, an experienced developer, accidental public figure, and general rabble-rouser. She’s currently a lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London where she teaches physical computing and games.

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

Phoenix: I got into games from making experimental movies. From there, I had a huge desire to work on projects that created empathy and emotion in a very physical way. My first project was an emergent system/interactive story that focused on bee colonies and collective ecologies. The underpinning idea behind it could be best summed up by Spock in The Wrath of Khan: “Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

Players worked in teams to achieve their team’s goal in a system where every choice impacted the entire game ecology. Your choice to take more or less of a resource impacted all other players who could, in turn, impact you. This game was called Honey and I made it back in 2006. It also yielded a pervasive version called Picky Sticky Pollen that I showed at Come Out and Play in 2008.

Honey by Phoenix Perry
Honey by Phoenix Perry

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

Phoenix: That’s definitely Pac-Man. It was the ’80s and I was wearing a rainbow swimsuit. I remember laying on brown carpet with my joystick for hours after that. It was awesome. My other favorite games were ET and Missile Command. Beyond that, there was a game about coming to NYC as an Italian immigrant on the Apple II—I was really fond of being Italian. I wish I knew the name of it. It was a choose your own adventure-style game. I would imagine being my grandmother.

Miss N: Can you tell us a little bit about your creative process? 

Phoenix: I get my ideas from science and my own body. Nature is by far the most inspiring thing to me. Usually, I’ll be looking at some scientific principle and use play as a way to explore it in a group context. My most recent game is inspired by a book called Sync. I also read academic papers and follow a few key HCI and neuroscience journals. Science fiction also has wellspring of ideas I love exploring.

Early prototype of Nightgames (by Phoenix Perry and Adelle Lin)
Early prototype of Nightgames by Phoenix Perry & Adelle Lin

Miss N: Previously, you’ve mentioned that you’re interested in exploring “the ways we could suggest new interaction through the bodies.” What drew you to this research area?

Phoenix: Interfaces destroying my own body drew me here. Regular interfaces hurt me. Right now, answering your questions causes me pain. After 34 years with this stuff, everything hurts. I have Scoliosis, Costochondritis, Carpal Tunnel and RSI, and pretty extreme scar tissue I just deal with. My daily pain levels sometimes are so extreme I get too nauseous to do anything else. I want to live in a world where people who lack the same abilities as others can interact with technology that adapts to them, not vice versa. The human body should never need to conform to the affordances of an interface. The interface should conform to me. It should empower all, not just a privileged set of people.

Miss N: How do you think this area of research can change games? 

Phoenix: Games are great testing grounds. People are very open to trying new things out and play gives them a context that allows them to break social convention and not feel strange. It has also given me a way to get people to reflect on larger ideas. My games aren’t for the internet or online mainly, they are for sparking ideas and reflective experiences in small groups. Games with interfaces that use the whole body just have a much larger possibility space for interaction. Also, you can augment the senses, and for me, that’s really exciting. How do we hack into our own hardware?

Nightmare Kitty by Phoenix Perry and Nick Fox-Gieg
Nightmare Kitty by Phoenix Perry & Nick Fox-Gieg

Miss N: When you’re developing projects exploring this idea (such as Game Over or Yamove), what’s the process like?

Phoenix: Nightmare Kitty was my first game in this set of games and it came out first in 2011. I worked with Nick Fox-Gieg on it. It pre-dated all of the others and was my first attempt at creating emotions with physical game mechanics. It was an attempt to get children to encounter fear and overcome it in a controlled environment using their entire body. It grew out of my experiences in yoga.

Yoga is something I ended up doing for around 15 years now because my body was so fractured. It allowed me to see physicality in an entirely new way. I wanted to use a game to give that experience to a broader audience. In certain positions, I would find myself upset or scared, and in others, I found myself relieved. I built a game on those poses to re-create those emotions in a game context. Much of the science that came out that justified my own experiences started popping up between 2011 to 2012. That gave me a nice, theoretical way to justify both [Nightmare Kitty] and Game Over. In hindsight, I’d love to go back to the core of Nightmare Kitty and re-create it to work with children who deal with depression. 

Katherine Isbister and Syed Salahuddin made Yamove after I made Nightmare Kitty and while I was making Game Over. Since I joined her lab in 2012, there was some obvious cross-pollination, and I’ve been friends with Syed for years. She and I have largely similar aims.

When their game, Yamove, got ripped to shreds by Eric Zimmerman at an Eyebeam playtest for lacking any visual appeal and having a bad user experience, I offered to come in and help them clean it up. It was a great idea, but they had a whole pack of grad students working on it part-time, none with the professional design background I had. I jumped onboard really at the ninth hour to help clean it up and give it a more professional polish.

It took three weeks of nearly no sleep right before No Quarter, but I did all the art direction. In fact, it’s pretty safe to say it had no design before. It was all largely clip art. Susan Kirkpatrick did the user experience and the grad students on the project had largely ignored her thinking during their development, which up until then was largely focused on game mechanics and functionality. I went in and tried to re-integrate her ideas. I based the entire feel of 1970’s disco and Delight’s Groove Is In The Heart. That said, it was a game with aims I really support. It was a nice way to contribute to a group effort in a contained way.

Miss N: Were there any challenges you encountered or things that took longer to figure out when you’re making these types of projects? 

Phoenix: It’s always the hardware with me. I build/hack/write all of my stuff and, given my interests, I’m often working with materials that have undocumented SDKs or are not supposed to do what I am asking them to do at all.

In the case of Nightmare Kitty, I ended up writing the documentation for how to use the machine learning platform I worked with to pull off that game as early as we did. We were the only group at Maker Faire that year with a working, stable game using the Kinect. The reason for that was I just didn’t touch any of the techniques everyone else was so hot for and went straight to machine learning, which is the only real way to deeply control a sensor like that with gestures. I am now smiling as, five years on, everyone else finally has started to realize this. 

Nightgames by Phoenix Perry & Adelle Lin
Nightgames by Phoenix Perry & Adelle Lin

Nightgames has been my most recent project and it’s with Adelle Lin. She and I have so much tech in that project. I actually panic when I stop to think about re-building it. There are five separate micro controllers all from different companies with different SDKs and around 30 sensors.

Miss N: How do you get through these challenges?

Phoenix: Frankly, I just will not take no from my computer or my materials. That’s how I get through it. Hours of Google, research, coding, testing, laser cutting, Slack chatting with other devs, 3D printing prototypes, and cursing while blaring banging techno and slamming club matte at like 2 AM when I’d much rather sleep. I’m still not making things as stable or as smooth as I’d like. Stability is my goal for 2016. 

Miss N: What’s been the most challenging thing you’ve encountered in making games? 

Phoenix: Staying focused. Continuing when your projects take so long to make and sometimes don’t work out. Sometimes I get it really right. Sometimes I fail and get it wrong and spectacularly fail.

Last year at A MAZE., I got it wrong. We didn’t test the sensors outside and it turned out the density of the humidity caused them to not work; they were based on capacitive paint and we failed to think about how humidity would impact them. We also horribly underestimated our build time and tried to do something way too ambitious for a festival. It was really crushing and like a crucible for us. We learned so much and got our egos spanked in a really public way.

Then I had to come back to my studio and think—okay, what worked? How do we fix it? How do we make it not like that next time? That’s the hard part. Sometimes you walk with awards. Sometimes you walk away crushed. That’s just how it goes. It’s how you get up the next day and keep working that defines you.

Picky Sticky Pollen by Phoenix Perry & Marie Evelyn
Picky Sticky Pollen by Phoenix Perry & Marie Evelyn

Miss N: On the flip side, what’s been the most fulfilling?

Phoenix: There are two. After Picky Sticky Pollen was over and had done really well at Come Out and Play in 2008, a little girl grabbed my hand. She told me she just turned eight and her mom read all the game descriptions to her and she’d chosen mine. She said playing it was amazing and this was the best birthday she’d ever had.

Experience two happened at Maker Faire when I showed Nightmare Kitty to a few thousand children. It was popular, and after two days of non-stop lines out the door, I was at my end. I had spent two whole days on my knees explaining the game to children. So much so, I’d rubbed the leather off the toes of my Mary Janes and you could see the material. I had lost my voice and I was sitting there exhausted. Then the Maker team walked over and handed us two blue ribbons. I was bowled over. It felt like winning at adult science fair. It was really gratifying.

Miss N: In addition to being a game maker, you’re also one of the founders of Code Liberation. Can you tell us a little bit of how it got started and what drew you to it? 

Phoenix: Code Liberation came out of my desire to change the gender ratio in games after going to the GDC and seeing just how unbalanced the games space was. I’d always assumed the reason I wasn’t more important in games was because I made weird art games. After the GDC, I realized it might also have something to do with the fact I was a woman.

I came up with the idea on International Women’s Day and, in classic designer fashion, immediately designed the logo and blogged it. From there, I asked Luke Dubois and Frank Lanz to help out and support the idea with space and resources. When they agreed, I then invited Nina Freeman, Jane Friedhoff, Gavin Chan, and Catt Small to my house to discuss if they’d like to work with me on it. Really, at that table over pizza, the CLF as it exists today was born.

Miss N: Do you think there are things that are inherently unique to games (as a medium) compared to other creative mediums?

Phoenix: Yes—I think what makes games different is that they involve far more aspects of human experience than other genres. They can encompass a huge range of technical and creative spaces that other medium struggle with. Also, they can take hundreds of hours to experience and can generatively change with each new interaction. They regularly involve thousands of strangers you’ve never met from all over the world. This is just not the general case with art, movies, or music. That said, games can also be art or music or narrative stories. They are like the Katamari Damacy of creativity where they can absorb whatever is evolving in the culture at the time. Also, they are living interactive systems in a way a flat work of art is not.

Crystallon by Dozen Eyes (Phoenix Perry & Ben Johnson)
Crystallon by Dozen Eyes (Phoenix Perry & Ben Johnson)

Miss N: Are there any games that you’ve felt have pushed the boundaries of the medium?

Phoenix: I have been doing this with nearly every physical game I’ve ever made. I’ve also made more conventional stuff like Crystallon and the work I do with my game studio, Dozen Eyes, is less on the experimental side and more formalist.

When I work with or make sensors, I feel like I’m pushing the space outward. Picky Sticky Pollen, Nightmare Kitty, Game Over, Emotional Growth, and Nightgames have all pushed at the edges of what you can do in a game context in their own way. Right now, Nightgames is turning into an interactive, distributed, reactive sonic forest that takes over a city. I’m really excited to keep working on it.

Nightgames by Phoenix Perry & Adelle Lin
Nightgames by Phoenix Perry & Adelle Lin

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

Phoenix: Yes! I love so many women in games it’s hard to know where to start. I love the work of Heather Kelley. She sees play as possible in an expanded context and I love her for that. Also, I really love Sophie Holden. She makes really fun mechanical games and has a deeply experimental expressive approach. Also, her publication rate is staggering. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Auriea Harvey. Her worlds are so hauntingly beautiful, I dream about them. Finally, Liz Ryerson has such insightful things to say about play and games. I love just reading her musing from time to time. Also, her music rocks.

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

Phoenix: Publish more and fret less.

Miss N: Thank you, Phoenix!

If you’re interested in following Phoenix, visit her website or follow her on Twitter @phoenixperry. 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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