Blanket Fort Chats: Game Making With Lea Albaugh

Image courtesy of Lea Albaugh
Image courtesy of Lea Albaugh

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 Lea Albaugh, a research associate at Disney Research and most recently known for Threadsteading and Secret Agent Party. She designs and implements (“makes”) human interactions with the created environment (“things”) in a variety of virtual and physical media.

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

Lea: I was a movies and special effects nerd as a kid, a theatre technician in high school (with particular emphasis on props and sets), and an architecture major in college. Alongside those conceptual interests in placemaking and design fictions, I’ve practiced a variety of physical making skills: notably sewing, but also woodworking, small metalwork, moldmaking, etc.

I played some interactive fiction (IF) in high school and college because turn-based games are just about my speed, and I loved the spatial exploration and environmental storytelling of genre parser IF. It turns out that the Internet IF community is full of folks who are at least as excited about writing new IF as playing existing games, so I spent a lonely Thanksgiving break learning Inform 6. Then, full of enthusiasm for the medium, I put together this thing that spring and learned Inform 7 in order to put together an IFComp game that fall.

Around that time, I was also learning Processing/Arduino for various school projects, and I learned a couple of other little systems (Flixel and Ren’Py) in the context of game jamming with my more computer science-y friends. And eventually “games” became a form that I was reasonably confident about working in, just like dresses or chairs or whatever.

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

Lea: My father worked in the arcade game industry, so I have fond memories of playing Gauntlet and Klax at a young enough age where I needed to stand on a chair to reach the joystick. I particularly liked Rampart because my comparative finesse at the wall-building stage meant that it was one of the few where I could hold my own against my older brother even though his cannon aim was better than mine.

Clothing for Moderns by Lea Albaugh
Clothing for Moderns by Lea Albaugh

Miss N: You work with a lot of different mediums. Has your background shaped your work as a game maker?

Lea: Sometimes I say that all of my work is essentially architecture—it’s just that some of it is very small (the clothing) and some of it is virtual and/or abstract (the games). That’s kind of flippant, but it’s true that a lot of my interests come down to how you shape an experience with artifacts.

Clothes are very much about how they affect your experience of the world; how does the fabric feel on your body, how does the design mediate your physical and social environment? The kinds of games I make tend to be about similar things.

Miss N: Has game making changed your creative process or the way you approach your other works?

Lea: In many of the other media I work in and think about, there’s a lot of fetishistic perfectionism: form following function, ideas of platonic purity, and pristine engineering. Being around indie games culture has helped me get more comfortable with hacks and glitch. I’ve gotten back into glass flameworking lately for similar reasons. With glass, unless you’re very skilled, you have only somewhat abstract control over the final form.

Game-making was also a major motivator to get better at writing code, which has had effects all over the rest of my life.

Threadsteading by Gillian Smith, April Grow, Chenxi Liu, Lea Albaugh, Jennifer Mankoff, and Jim McCann
Threadsteading by Gillian Smith, April Grow, Chenxi Liu, Lea Albaugh, Jennifer Mankoff, & Jim McCann

Miss N: What’s your creative process like?

Lea: Every project is different, of course. Like many people, I find it easier to build under constraints, so I try to build some in to give me focus. Also like many people, I find having a deadline to be a particularly compelling constraint, especially if the deadline is a chance to show off the project. That tends to skew my games work toward production for a known event, venue, or jam.

Another frequent constraint for me is that I don’t consider myself a particularly strong writer, so my hooks are generally more mechanics-based and I like to make things where much of the content is emergent or supplied by the player[s]. I do keep around some text files with simple, undeveloped ideas for possible projects, not all of which deserve to actually be implemented and most of which won’t be implemented any time soon.  

Here’s a sample from a thing I did make that turned out to be only minimally compelling as an interactive experience (but great as a coding exercise!):

“Hamlet game: you are one of infinite monkeys. Anything you type that matches part of Hamlet will be rewarded with treats.”

Miss N: We saw your game, Secret Agent Party, at last year’s Princess of Arcade. It was by far one of the most engaging games of the night. We had one friend who was so into it that it was the only game they played all night. Can you tell us a bit about the game?

Lea: Thanks for the kind words! This one is actually pretty well-documented because I started working on it while I was at Recurse Center (called Hacker School at the time) and I kept a daily blog. To summarize: I was in New York for three months and wanted to make a birthday present for my partner who was back in Pittsburgh. I decided to make a birthday party game that our friends could play, and since I was focusing on code skills for those three months, I figured it should be made out of code.

There’s a long writeup of the first iteration of “the spy game” here. The second iteration had a major rules overhaul that I developed with the help of both my partner (who’d played the first version) and my friend Rebecca (who hosted the second game as part of a larger event). Details of the overhaul are here. The second iteration is what I ran—with some minor interface changes—at Different Games 2015, and it’s what you all played at Princess of Arcade.

In both versions, the primary motivation for the development of the mechanics was the venue: how many people would be playing? Would they be friends or strangers? What kinds of technology can I expect them to have? And most importantly, what kinds of interactions do I want to support?

I’m interested in games that can be overlaid onto medium-sized group settings to encourage conversation and good times, but without resorting to the embarrassing, intrusive, or otherwise nonconsensual encounters that so many “icebreaker games” rely on. This game is designed for players to participate as much or as little as they’d like; they can ham it up, talk to strangers, and try to get their own word noticed as much as possible, or they can surreptitiously report others’ uses of code words, they can ignore it altogether, or anywhere in between.

The specific form of the game involving SMS messages was partially an excuse to work on my own coding skills and also part of my ongoing interest in how computer technologies can mediate and support physical-world interactions. In this case, the text message interface allows players to interact with the game without much interruption to what they were doing, and the computational back end allows the game to scale without human effort.

Secret Agent Party by Lea Albaugh
Secret Agent Party by Lea Albaugh

Miss N: What was the process like developing it?

Lea: The technical side was almost entirely unlike anything I’d done before, so there were a lot of little implementation pieces that I had to learn about: working with the APIs in general and the Twilio API in particular, running code on Heroku, “ephemeral” systems and therefore storing stuff in databases, etc. I also did it all in Python because I happened to start the project on a Friday and Fridays were my personal Python days at the time. And the whole first version of the project was made in just about a week. There would be no better environment than Recurse Center for me to pull it off, though. It gave me exactly the focus and friendly assistance that I needed to complete the project on such a short timeline.

One big technical challenge with Secret Agent Party is that it’s basically impossible to betatest. Or perhaps more accurately, the events themselves are the betatests. The code has changed at least a little for every event. For example, I added French language support for Princess of Arcade (because Montréal) and of course I didn’t realize until about twenty minutes into the game that trying to send accented text was causing Twilio to fail with an error message I wasn’t catching.

There has also been a learning period for figuring out what kinds of events work for Secret Agent Party. When I ran the game at Different Games, it went so badly that I didn’t even blog about it. Different Games is a fantastic conference, but everybody was too busy with everything else going on—even the lunch break was only like ten minutes long—to really even have conversations, much less spy conversations. I think there were a grand total of two points awarded to anybody over a two-day event. Princess of Arcade, by contrast, had fifty players and a high score of 277. So, you know, when you design an experience for a particular venue, it might not work in a different one.

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

Lea: Same as with any project: finding the time, energy, and focus.

Miss N: What’s been the most fulfilling?

Lea: Having other people play them. If I want to make better ones, the only way forward is to have actual people who are not me experience them and tell me how they are.

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

Lea: I hope you don’t mind if I take a slightly different perspective on the question and answer with some non-“game” things that push their own media’s boundary toward games:

  • Subscription mystery box services, such as The Mysterious Package Company, where you receive a package of physical props that form a story or puzzles. Disney recently offered a Haunted Mansion-themed puzzle box subscription, so I think the chances are good that this kind of thing will come into its own as a genre. 
  • Relatedly, Lee Meredith’s Adventure Knitalongs combine “mystery knitalongs” (a knitting blogger phenomenon) with more pronounced narrative and gameplay elements.
  • Immersive and interactive theatre. Here in Pittsburgh, I’ve gotten the chance to see several wonderful productions, notably Quantum Theatre’s production of Tamara, which is an immersive drama with branching opportunities to see various character interactions, and Bricolage Theatre’s Strata, which was a legitimately interactive emotional dreamscape.
Her Long Black Hair by Janet Cardiff
Her Long Black Hair by Janet Cardiff
  • Geocaching, which combines scavenger hunt and hiking elements and often involves puzzle-solving. Geocaching is a mature form with jargon and established genre conventions, and the size of the geocaching community makes it kind of feel like a grassroots nature ARG. A related idea is audio tours such as Janet Cardiff’s Her Long Black Hair.
  • Installation artworks with elements of play, which seem to especially be a feature of children’s museums. The Tactile Dome at the Exploratorium in San Francisco is a 3D maze you navigate in the dark by feeling your way around. The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh (where I used to work) has some great 3D maze/play structures as well, and various easily gamified widgets for interacting with music, water, lights, and images. Robin Baumgarten’s Line Wobbler makes me think of these, although that does position itself in the “games” world.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the things I listed have some sort of physical-world component. It’s partially my own bias—I’m way better at navigating physical space than virtual space—and partially that the purely software equivalents of these things are already called games. Also, I do believe that physical-world gameplay is a wide open frontier.

Hybrid physical/digital gameplay interfaces are just getting started, too. People love Alt.Ctrl.GDC, and there’s so much more possible where that comes from. We have access to a huge variety of inexpensive sensors and actuators like never before. alone has sensors for light, color, sound, flex, position, humidity/moisture, temperature, GPS, distance, touch, myoelectric muscle signals, fingerprints, liquid flow, wind speed, pressure, barcodes, gestures, and radiation. And that’s Adafruit, so it’s all packaged and documented for non-expert use.

Miss N: Do you think there are things that games (as a medium) do better than other mediums?

Lea: Compelling people to do things. Gameplay is roleplay, even when “your character” is some abstract pixels on a screen. The various identities involved in a player’s experience (Graham Nelson lists a trinity for interactive fiction: player / protagonist / narrator) can slide around, as anyone who has exclaimed about a virtual enemy chasing “me” can attest, and that makes players complicit in their avatar’s actions. This is used in a pretty literal way in a fair number of interactive fiction stories—emotional brinkmanship—but it’s present in many games. Secret Agent Party uses a story about being spies to get folks to talk to strangers, for example.

There’s also a more textbook, arguably less sinister-sounding answer: games are great at communicating systems. Most people learn by doing, so an interactive model is generally more effective at conveying information than a static one. And narrative can get a player emotionally invested and help motivate that interaction.

Threadsteading by Gillian Smith, April Grow, Chenxi Liu, Lea Albaugh, Jennifer Mankoff, and Jim McCann
Threadsteading by Gillian Smith, April Grow, Chenxi Liu, Lea Albaugh, Jennifer Mankoff, & Jim McCann

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

Lea: So many! If I had to list just one, it would be Emily Short. Her own work sets a consistently high bar for both experimentation and polish, her enormous oeuvre of critical writing has been shaping the expectations of games criticism for years, and she’s a persistent advocate for an ever-better, richer, more inclusive community in interactive fiction and throughout computational narrative and games in general. She manages to do all this while somehow remaining kind and approachable. It feels like a magic trick, but I know it’s really “just” a lot of hard work.

Since I actually can list more than one, though, this still only skims the surface:

  • Porpentine: Porpentine’s inventiveness and strong authorial voice are arguably what launched widespread interest in Twine, and I think we all know how awesome that’s been.
  • Squinky: Squinky has a really solid grasp on social weirdness, and their games are a fantastic mix of genres and aesthetics.
  • Chris Martens: Chris is a games academic who is generous in communicating her research to the broader games community. She particularly excels at research on the tools level, and is thus shaping the future as we speak.
  • Gillian Smith: Gillian is a rigorously interdisciplinary researcher with a focus on computational craft and what we can learn from pre-computer methods of procedural generation; I probably don’t need to explain why these things are awesome. Also, I had the opportunity to work with her on a game jam last July. Our team’s game, Threadsteading, was at ALT.CTRL.GDC this year, and she was a consistent source of good ideas and a joy to collaborate with.
  • Holly Gramazio and Sophie Sampson: Their firm Matheson Marcault works in site-specific and installation games, which is the games medium that intrigues me the most. There’s a lot of stuff that can go wrong when you’re working with real strangers in public spaces, and they seem to be pulling it off with panache.
  • Auriea Harvey: Tale of Tales is one of those studios that has been around for long enough that it seems like we take their groundbreaking work for granted. I had the opportunity to see Auriea lecture recently and was especially impressed by how her process combines painstaking research with the kind of intuitive leaps and playfulness that are pure Art.

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?

Lea: Tricky question. I’m not actually sure when would count as “just starting out.” I don’t think I ever really had a time when I thought, “making games is a thing I’m doing now.” It’s been more of an imperceptible slide. Arguably, my first publicly released game was my submission to the 2009 IFComp, but that went really well. I got good feedback, and actually overall the reception was more positive than I expected; I even won an XYZZY award for that game. So past-me did just fine. Or maybe that just means that *now* is the time when I’m just starting out as a game maker, and future-me will be the one with the advice.

Miss N: Thank you, Lea!

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