Blanket Fort Chats: Jasmine Idun Isdrake
“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 Jasmine Idun Isdrake, a game and experience designer, curator and chief innovation officer operating at the intersection of disciplines and sectors in society.
(Cross-posted on FemHype)
Can you tell us a little bit about your background?
My work is both as an artist and a curator. I run a game gallery, Epic Unidragon, and a game/innovation/maker lab called Collaboratory. Game history and game design are also fields I work with through my company, both as game designer and lecturer at universities and conferences. My background is very diverse and so are my games.
How did you get into making games?
In a broad sense it feels like games were always part of my life. I always preferred making games more than playing them. I made up games as a child, created my own toys, like board games, and wild, sometimes violent, outdoor running games that pissed off the teachers at school. :)
Can you describe your earliest memory of playing games?
I had a handheld game where you played a little ghost. I carried it with me everywhere, and when I was sad I could press down all buttons simultaneously and it would play a chiptune version of Beethoven’s Für Elise. I love that melody still, and heard the digital version before the original.
When computers became available, Tetris was an earlier experience. Then Nintendo came which brought my favorite games: Bubble Bobble and a shooting game with cowboys in a house. Street Fighter was a favorite too, and Sonic with the awesome blue hair.
Now, all the old games look very different and the controllers are more complicated. I realized when I bought Bloodborne and Tomb Raider a while ago that there are too many buttons and long cut scenes for my impatient mind. I find the features of the controller more interesting — wondering if this beautifully designed blinking, vibrating, sounding little thing can be hacked somehow? The games I like to play are often very different from the games I like to make.
Can you tell us a bit about your creative process?
It is different from project to project, I see a problem and try to fix it and/or turn it into a game mechanic.
I really suck at sketching so during the first stage I use words and very ugly sketches, I often take photos, audio or video, edit and transform them into something else.
It is important for me that the work is original and diverse, there are images and sounds in my works that you could never guess what they were in their previous lives. I often get or process ideas in the shower or when I try to sleep, and try to write things down fast. Often I tend to complicate things for myself, and often the technology I would need does not exist, often the team I would need does not exist in my city or it all costs too much.
If it is a commercial game I do for a client it is different of course. Then I often try to put myself in the players position and design from that perspective in harmony with the goals and deadlines of the client.
I always try to push further and open up minds, specially my own, and to try to not waste opportunities. I have no fear of taking risk, I do not even think about it, I just do it. Now, as a grown up, I am very well aware that I am not what people consider normal. I do not care, I love getting older because it gives self confidence, not taking shit from anyone, and becoming quite stubborn. Anyhow, we are gifted with one life and I intend to live mine to the max and give back to the world and people that are awesome. For me, game design is a big part of that.
Last year, you showed your game Gregor at IndieCade. Previously you’ve mentioned that Gregor was created initially as a project about “helplessness, alienation and segregation.” Can you tell us the origins of the project?
There was a collaboration between art universities in San Francisco and Gothenburg for an art project in a suburb in Sweden where a culture house was closed down due to some poison. The discussions about a new house and the budget for it were a hot topic in this segregated area with many immigrants and refugees.
We had discussions about segregation, helplessness and culture. The artists had a few events with the people living there and for our final exhibition I created the sculpture Gregor, after Kafka’s book Metamorphosis. It was a big bug lying on the back, unable to turn around and walk away, neon green due to the poison in the culture house, and with an Idun-gasmask inspired face. I placed it on the floor with a red yarn trace from the closed culture house to the room beside where the exhibition was. It was interesting to see people’s reaction to it, adults in deep reflection, kids either cuddling or kicking it.
Kafkas stories were among my favorite works when growing up, recognizing the feeling of being a misfit in a slow, bureaucratic society based on outdated categories and coercion. The sculpture was then sitting in a rocking chair in my apartment for some years, sometimes I had it in an art event, and when I opened my lab I put it there and decided to make it more interactive.
How did it develop into a game?
At a game jam I hosted in the lab, I saw a person doing interesting 8-bit games. There was an underlying darkness there that matched with my style somehow. I asked about collaboration and Bitslap was on board so we gave Gregor a digital self in a tablet placed on the heart. After being at a few events and in Epic Unidragon, I got the newsletter from IndieCade and thought that would be a great place for Gregor to transform again.
I was tired of the current neon green design and carrying around this big old thing, this festival would give it a respectful retirement in a sunny city so we were all happy when we were selected. After figuring out how to get the sculpture to LA and with the tablet, and the back-up tablet, not working the day of the event…. 9 hours time difference between me in LA and Bitslap in Norway, we fixed it and all went well, and it was awesome to see people playing.
Was also cool to see how our change from a yarn covered Xbox-controller to touch screen turned it into a multiplayer game with many people hitting the hell out of that new tablet I got, it did not bug even once. Interesting too how people react to all the blood and the destruction of Gregor while playing. They get hesitant until they learn that the only way to survive is to almost die first.
People were very kind to Gregor, except for kids, they just beat the hell out of it and laugh. Part of the game was also to contribute to the new body by knitting and crocheting parts for the new sculpture I will make for Gregor’s next phase, in space.
What’s been the most challenging thing you’ve encountered when making games?
Misunderstanding of game culture and attitudes towards art games or innovative games and new tech. The general industry only gets AAA and art funds/institutions in Sweden are far behind when it comes to digital culture, so we get stuck in between, not accepted or understood on either side. That means it is impossible to live from the work unless you happen to pull off a Minecraft thing.
There also seems to exist a weird hierarchy and fan culture that I do not really get, in the indie scene, and the bigger industry too. I was recently very surprised when sitting outside a conference room hearing some men in suits, most who never made a game in their life, talk about young entrepreneurs like cattle, and at the same time bragging about having the phone number to the Minecraft dev.
On top of that, their attitudes towards women in the industry was shocking. A bunch of men were in this room discussing why there are few women in the industry and game courses, and no one even bothered to ask the only woman in the room. It was like I was invisible; this was a very new experience for me as I rarely work in big companies or traditional incubators for more than a few hours or days when consulting. Same thing in a new local incubator, the manager of the place said he does not care about those things (gender diversity), the only thing he cares about is successful companies bringing in revenue to the incubator. No wonder there are problems when people like that make decisions and manage this market.
That is the biggest challenge — that money goes to the hands of the wrong people who get the power to overrun the ones in a weaker position, like the world in general I guess.
On the flip side, what’s been the most fulfilling experience you’ve had?
When people totally change their view of game culture after experiencing my work. When an old lady sees a knitted yarn game, a craft that she is familiar with in combination with something new to her, saying that she really needs to go home and think about this, about games. Similar with Axion, another game that made a festival jury speechless, and they invented a new prize for the competition in only a few hours. When creating those border crossing experiences, when showing people what is possible, we change the attitudes of stakeholders.
Are there any games that you feel have really pushed the boundaries of the medium?
The first game that came to mind is called Nicki Homaj. It was made in 2014 during the GAMERella game jam in Montreal and later exhibited in my festival, Electrodome, in Sweden. The player wears a pink wig with embedded sensors and high heels on a mat with sensors.
I loved it. It was awesome to see my friends, some who never tried high heels before, play this game, and everyone looks so cute in that pink hair. The design and tech is new thinking, and the game can bring some awareness to what it is like to be an object like ‘woman’ and the shit you often hear from some ‘men’.
In terms of social innovation I think of fold.it and Beta, those contribute to society by helping medical research and teaching kids how to code. The Unfinished Swan is also a game I find amazing; you start in a white space and throw black paint around to discover the game world, beautiful simplicity.
Do you think there are there things that games (as a medium) do better than other mediums?
Everything is about good design, no matter the format. The non-linearity is something I like, the options and sense of freedom of how you choose to interact and experience a story. Games can give a safe space to try things, to create avatars, scenarios and share stories. They can create empathy and awareness on a more tactile and personal level. They can be relaxing, make a boring ride on the bus better and faster, and you can have fun with other people if you feel like being social. It can also be loud — no one will tell you to sit still and be quiet like in a movie theatre.
Are there any women or nonbinary game makers who you really admire?
Professor Lynn Hughes at Concordia University in Montreal, co-founder of TAG/Hexagram, a thought leading artist and curator who also creates platforms for others to make games and grow as persons. It was through Hughes, her work, and generosity that I got to know about GAMERella (that I brought to Sweden in 2015), and also fell in love with Montreal.
I feel more at home in places like Montreal, New York and Los Angeles than in Europe, there is another kind of openness, kindness, acceptance and driving force to experiment.
If you could go back and give advice to yourself when you were first starting out as a game maker, what would it be?
Wish I had continued with coding and put some more effort into it when taking courses in 3D-modeling and animation, but I find it so boring and have no patience. Editing film, images and sound is enough, I am too slow at 3D-modeling. But I wish I could code, I will learn when I get old and can not run around anymore. :)
I also wish I had the confidence to go straight into studying game art. There were not so many options when I was a kid — medicine or law was what I was told to study. A problem is also that I never stayed in one place, the diversity in my academic backpack has been a problem, I can not even get one official paper that explains my education, and there is never a fitting box to tick in forms, etc. Often people can not believe that girls with a bunch of colors in their skin and hair, and weird clothes, looking young, can possibly have achieved half of what they actually have.
Large parts of our world are run by outdated systems and individuals, however most of the thought leaders I have met are misfits. Freedom comes with a high cost, but it is worth it and the day I die I will be happy knowing I did the right things and made awesome games with awesome people.
So the advice to myself, and anyone else: imagine if ………., now just do it.