“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 Annamaria Andrea Vitali, a game designer and researcher investigating video games as means of meaningful play and aesthetic experiences.
Miss N: Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you got into making games?
I became interested in video games during the last year of my masters. I attended a one-week game design workshop where I found a connection between cognitive approach to game design and my ongoing research on gambling addiction. I defined a theoretical framework connecting design and mechanics of games chance to cognitive errors and behaviors of addictive gamblers. After that, I designed my very first prototype: a collection of short play experiences enlightening the perils of gambling games using the gameplay itself.
Thanks to this experience, I discovered the experimentation ongoing in games, especially in the independent field. I discovered a living world of experimentation, very different from the idea of video games that I had. I discovered an interactive medium that would allow me to experiment and express myself as a designer in a different way than what I did until that moment.
Miss N: What’s your earliest memory of playing games?
Andrea: The very first time I played a video game I was around five. I remember the old Amiga games I played with my sisters: Magic Rainbow, James Pond, Super Frog, and The NewZealand Story. I can still remember the sounds and the music of those games, and when I look at some gameplay video online—for example, the cream cake level of James Pond—I can still remember how much the setting and the art was so dreamy and immersive for me at that time.
Miss N: Do you see any parallels between your background in graphic design and now as a researcher/maker of games?
Andrea: Definitely. Studying communication design means to be focused on the meaning you are conveying through your project. When designing a book cover, visualizing data and information, a logo or a photograph, I’ve always looked at the potential meaning and interpretation that people would find and create.
The way I’m exploring interactive processes, mechanics, and visual style in playful media is the same approach I had when I was exploring colors, shapes, materials, and grids in a graphic design project. It’s like a continuous line characterizing my changing and growing path as designer and researcher.
Miss N: Has making games shaped your creative practice in any way?
Andrea: Certainly. Making games totally changed me: it has improved my love and interest for art, since I consider video games as an expressive practice. As art does not always use common and comfortable ways to interact/play with people, the same happens to me when I’m experimenting with games. From this perspective, the definition of “not games” by Tale of Tales is closer to what I feel in terms of my approach. Making “not games,” I’m learning to appreciate and point to the creation of an experience beyond something simply entertaining or functional.
As a consequence, mastering technology is another part of the creative process that has changed a lot, also thanks to my experience at the UCLA Game Lab. Seeing how other artists work and create in media, art, and games, I’m learning that on one side, there is “the content” of your artifact. On the other side, being aware of technological limits and possibilities is the first step in creating something that really benefits from the use of digital technology.
Miss N: Recently, you were at Different Games talking about using games as a way to explore meaningful play. Can you tell us a bit more about your work in that area?
Andrea: I started reflecting on meaningful play when I found myself taking a lot of screenshots of my favorite video games. Every time, there was a different meaning behind it: sometimes for the interesting visual style, or because the game questioned me about something, or because I was expressing something about myself through the way I was playing or even the way I explored or looked at the game world, or the choices I made in a narrative game.
I believe we can use video games as a way to explore the digital medium for authorial expression and to create digital representations of reality beyond stereotypes of play expectations. They can question the player about values and social conventions as well as ask the player to express something about themselves. In this process, through play, meanings can emerge from the way players are able to extract the story and act according to their previous personal experiences.
So, my main questions are:
Miss N: What’s fascinating about your work is its application of psychological concepts. A lot of it seems to deconstruct our usual/unconscious habits and then try (through gameplay mechanics) to reflect them back at us. What’s your process like developing these kinds of games?
Andrea: I believe in the idea that when designing a game, you’re designing a play experience—a mood you want the player to fall into while playing. Personal experiences and emotional moods have been the main sources of inspiration for me. Through making games, it helps me to overcome and process something that was particularly meaningful and significant in my life.
For example, in Magic Interaction, it was the social problem of pathological gambling in Italy. In A.WAY, it was the cognitive dissonance and the struggle in wanting to do something, but at the same time being worried of what you were going to miss by making a certain choice. Or in TWO SIDED, it was the freedom of being whatever you want even if sometimes that means being very different from what you were used to.
I think it’s not easy to describe a clear process; it is not a framework or a design approach you can model, and neither can I say that following one process instead of another will allow you to be sure of the final result. Interactive experience is something personal. I think it is a matter of embracing the expressive languages of video games (interactivity, art, visual style, sounds, storytelling) and to elaborate them in your personal style for conveying your target experience.
I believe it’s also a knowledge process for me as creator. I take a psychological or emotional state and I try to understand, first of all, what it is in a deeper sense, and then I start to think about how I can convey this through an interactive experience in terms of mechanics, visual styles, and aesthetics.
I can say that in the last four years, my approach has changed a lot. I’m embracing the medium in its whole as a form of creative expression. I don’t think it’s only a matter of translating reality in the medium and mechanics, it’s a matter of using the medium in its whole for expanding the actual experience.
Miss N: Looking back, what’s been the most challenging things you’ve encountered when making games?
Andrea: I think what’s challenging is the ability to go beyond the simple rhetorical translation of what you want to tell. It’s the capability to find uncommon and sometimes also uncomfortable ways to use interactivity for communicating something instead of relying on the “mechanical translation of meanings.”
Moreover, one of the challenges I’m facing now is to learn new tools, software, and technology. I think it’s the other side of making games. On one side, there’s a focus on content and play experiences. On the other, there’s the technical skill and the ability to use technology in a meaningful way and being aware of its limits and possibilities.
Miss N: What’s been the most fulfilling experience you’ve had when making games?
Andrea: There are two. The first one is that personal sense of satisfaction you gain when you complete one of your projects and someone else recognizes they are worth being played. In that moment, you realize that you succeeded in communicating something to people or in doing something people found meaningful.
The second one is the personal growing process that allows you to understand you are actually improving your skill, defining your own style, and topic of interests.
Miss N: Do you think there are things that games (as a medium) do better than other mediums?
Andrea: I really believe in video games as an expressive practice, and I do believe that interactivity is what makes them different from movies or books in telling a story. I don’t think it’s a matter of doing it better, I think it’s simply a different way to engage the spectator through different languages of expression.
I think that interactivity puts the player directly connected to the action: the sense of agency (even with different degrees of it) provides the player with a deeper sense of involvement in the action that is happening, and consequently, in the creation of meaning.
However, media art, but also traditional forms of art, really inspired me to reflect on perception and immersion, senses, and beauty experience. Every time I visit a museum, look at a painting or sculpture, or experience an installation, I try to understand what makes them meaningful, how they change my perception of the space, or why I like them so much that I can’t stop looking at them.
Miss N: Are there any games that you feel have really pushed the boundaries of the medium?
Andrea: This is a really hard question. There are so many interesting video games that I think are challenging the medium for different reasons. At this moment, I really like Pry and Her Story because of the use of video content “to build” the game and to provide a new form of narrative and literature experience. If we’re usually used to thinking about games as a 2D/3D digital environment, these games totally change this perspective. Both of them push the boundaries in terms of aesthetics of interaction. The tactile way you access the pieces of the story in Pry or the database search mechanic in Her Story are meaningful in the sense that they metaphorically contribute and expand the experience effect behind interactive modalities.
Plug & Play is also another one of my favorites because of its ambiguity and the fact that it’s an example of interactive storytelling in which the interestingness is not tied to the fact that there are multiple choices, but actually it’s linear (contrary to most of the game). The content is cryptic and not even explicit. I played it more than one time, but it’s always challenging to try to understand the meaning the designer is trying to transfer.
Another one is Wheels of Aurelia. As an Italian designer, I can’t not like it. The mix between racing and narrative game creates a really deep experience, but especially because it’s probably the very first genuine Italian game. The art style, the soundtrack, the dialogue between the characters—they deeply convey the mood and the atmosphere of the historical context where the game takes place. The story in Wheels of Aurelia recalls real events of Italian ’70s. This leaves the player the space for interpretation and “action,” which truly reflects the idea of games as an enabler of context and experiencing reality from different perspectives. It “forces” the player to make opinion choice about real issues and events.
Miss N: Are there any women or nonbinary game makers who you really admire?
Andrea: One of my reference woman game makers is Auriea Harvey from Tale of Tales. I consider her really inspiring, including her approach to games as “not games” and the sensibility towards the digital medium as an expressive tool aiming at beauty in its full sense. I had the chance to attend her workshop at the Headstart Summer School in Antwerp last September and got a chance to talk to her. She guided us on a cathedral tour. The way she spoke about art and the space perception in that place opened my mind and confirmed some of the things I’m working on. I could feel the love and the sensibility for art and the deep knowledge that inspires her perspective on video games. I hope to develop a similar sensibility in future years.
Also, Nina Freeman. Besides the fact that I appreciate her idea of using video games as vignettes and stories inspired by real life, I think her last game, Cibele, is something really important. I really appreciate the courage to speak about sex and women in a way that can make women feel free from stereotype prejudice. Or at least, this is what that game meant to me.
Miss N: If you could go back and give yourself advice when you were just starting out, what would it be?
Andrea: Make things, make experimentation, make games! Never stop because everything you do—good or bad—is something that fulfills your need for expression, and at the same time, improves your skill, your personal style, and especially your interpretation of the medium.
One my friends told me: “Before you make a good game, you need to do a lot of shit.” This is true. Doing things makes you more self-confident, because even if you’re not good at coding or art, the only way to improve is to do it. I think it’s the only advice I can give.
And try to make more connections as you can. Feedback from people in the community can hurt a lot, but it is a necessary step for improving yourself.
And don’t be scared to work with new people. You can learn a lot from the way other people approach their creative process.
Miss N: Thank you, Andrea!
If you’re interested in following Andrea, visit her website, play her games, or follow her on Twitter @andrycinnamon. 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.