“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 Julie Huynh, an artist and interaction designer specializing in play and virtual spaces. Her work aims to make playful spaces using technology to create another level of interaction for users.
Miss N: Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got into making games?
Julie: When I was seven, I made a Monopoly-like board game with a KeroKeroppi (the frog from Sanrio) theme. I grew up in Sonoma County, California and I studied Studio Art and English during my undergrad at UC Santa Barbara, originally wanting to be an artist/writer or work in advertising. However, during my final year, I experimented with projected animations on my abstract landscape paintings and I haven’t turned back from art and technology since.
While I was working and looking for a graduate program, Parsons was the only design and technology program I applied to. All the other applications were for animation schools. So, instead of waiting on the waiting list for USC’s animation program, I decided to try out Parsons—known for their art and design interdisciplinary academics. I’ve played video games through my childhood growing up with console systems, and my favorites were puzzle, fighting, and adventure games. However, it wasn’t until graduate school through great teachers such as Kyle Li, Nick Fortugno, and Robert Yang that all those years of video games could direct me into telling stories through games.
Miss N: Can you describe your earliest memory of playing games?
Julie: The original NES 1985 edition. I think later that year my dad went to Japan and came back with 100 in one games, I was so stoked. Our original NES set also came with the original Mario and Duck Hunt with the zapper. I also got my first Game Boy a few years later, and still have it.
Shooting games stuck out because I felt so immersed playing Duck Hunt, Wild Gunman, and then Time Crisis.
Miss N: At last year’s IndieCade, we saw Anamorphic Agency, a virtual reality experience described as a “personal recreation and resolution with sleep paralysis.” Can you tell us more about it?
Julie: It was my thesis project at Parsons The New School. It was a long, grueling, and satisfying process. It took almost two years, so many prototypes and lots of testing. The most helpful aspect of its evolution was through user testing. Without live user testing on different user demographics and conferences, the project wouldn’t be what it is today.
Miss N: In the game, you’re combining the use of an Oculus Rift, NeuroSky biofeedback sensor, and an inflatable suit to re-create the experience of sleep paralysis. What kind of challenges did you encounter when developing the game (especially with all these external components)?
Julie: Challenges I faced were things such as the resolution on the Oculus Rift, especially when I first developed it on the DK 1 kit that had a lower resolution than the DK 2 kit. All the wires connecting the headset and suit to the computer were another challenge, which is why I designed a customized chair for only sitting back. This avoids the motion sickness users sometime experience with VR headsets as well.
The NeuroSky biofeedback sensor used Bluetooth, so it was nice to have that component wireless, but I realized an exhibitor will need to be present to set up the users properly. For my exhibition, I built a customized chair, so the user feels as if they are laying down in a bed to make the controller more relevant to the subject.
Miss N: What was the process like working with all these components?
Julie: I began with designing the basic interaction I wanted to create, so if the user concentrates (thereby picked up by the NeuroSky biofeedback sensor), something happens. It started with if the user concentrates, the meter on the screen fills up, then a motor inflates air, then that motor inflates air into a suit, and then finally the motor inflates air into the customized chair. I learned these technologies in my graduate program at Parsons, and tested different methods, sometimes through trial and error, or added components from relevant projects.
Miss N: Given the subject, the game could potentially be triggering. How did you deal with that?
Julie: I usually explain what the experience is to users before they try it in order to screen out users who may be too young, have heart conditions, or claustrophobia. People who haven’t experienced it before tell me about friends or family who have experienced [sleep paralysis] and are excited to learn more about it. People who have experienced it may find that the simulation can be triggering, so I [reassure] them that I can stop the simulation at any point if they want to try it.
Miss N: What’s been the most challenging experience you’ve had in creating your interactive projects (including Anamorphic Agency, Food Fight!, etc.)?
Julie: The most challenging experience I’ve had was finding that the interactive VR projects I’ve created so far need a facilitator for all the equipment set-up, so they can’t be exhibited standalone, but I do enjoy exhibiting the projects.
Miss N: On the flip side, what’s been the most fulfilling?
Julie: It’s watching kids or teens play my projects and having fun. I love the crowds that form around the game where they are enjoying the experience I created.
Miss N: Do you think there are things that games (as a medium) do better than other mediums?
Julie: I think that games are powerful in telling stories by giving the user agency in the story world, so the user can project themselves into that story and experience empathy through experience.
Miss N: Are there any games that you’ve felt have really pushed the boundaries of the medium?
Julie: Kill him and you will be famous by Nick Fortugno. The mechanic of this live action game is great because it takes the idea of the scene from old martial arts movies where the kung-fu master is surrounded by opponents and each opponent fights the master one by one. It is shows great game design where the rules of the game construct the narrative of the story. It inspired me to strive to create games where all the aspects including rules and tech contribute back into the narrative.
Miss N: Are there any women or nonbinary game makers who you really admire?
Julie: Yes, Kaho Abe. She makes great interactive games that are fun and has great narrative. I love trying out her works when I visit game conferences myself. A recent one I had the privilege of testing was Hotaru, the Lightning Bug game. I was great costume design, and the narrative fit with the interaction like a glove.
Miss N: If you could go back and give advice to yourself when you were just starting out as a game maker, what would it be?
Julie: Always have confidence because designing from a different background is an advantage that makes your work better.
Miss N: Thank you, Julie!