Journey to Xotera

    It has been quite a journey to build Journey. It was easy to identify a topic, but challenging to find my critical entrance into the topic. I began with a focus I deeply care about: play. Growing older has allowed me to find a new depth to myself. I'm hyper-aware of my inner-thoughts; they cloud my consciousness. But playing is my sanctuary; it's where I find peace; it's where I can let go of my racing thoughts. From the beginning, this project felt like an opportunity to tap into this relationship with play. I wanted the final output to encourage play and, possibly, redefine what it means to play as you grow old.

It became clear that I needed to condense my topic beyond just "play." I needed a critical perspective— something to latch onto. I dove into researching the theory of play and its role in early childhood development. My initial research took me to Huizinga's Homo Ludens, outlining the essential quality of play in all beings, Piaget's writings, which explore play as a vital tool for cognitive development in children, and the work of other theorists who explore the psychology of play. Although I built a rich foundation with this research, I wish I settled on a more specific focus earlier on in the process. I spent a couple more days than I needed researching play theory. In retrospect, those days could have been more productively spent brainstorming, experimenting, and researching other artists' and designers' work. That would have given me a specific design goal to work toward. Regardless, with my research foundation, I began brainstorming possibilities for what I wanted my final output to communicate.

I could take my project in countless directions, but from my research, I became fascinated by commodified play and the anti-capitalist perspective on marketing toys. This Piaget quote also piqued my interest: "If you want to be creative, stay in part a child, with the creativity and invention that characterizes children before they are deformed by adult society." There is a sadness, a hollowness to adults. It feels like, at some point, everyone crosses a threshold where they reach a point of no return, or rather, embrace a different version of their child selves. After this point, adults cannot ultimately recapture the creativity from their childhood, in part because they lose their playful selves. Adults can only see glimpses through "disguising" the play. Adults use young children as a vehicle to engage in boundless play but avoid this play themselves. Adults can act or perform as long as it's structured or if it's for someone. Adults indulge in partying and drinking. Adults play through collecting. These two interests—commodified play and adult play— informed my daily practice: one, take part in a primitive act of play, and two, research marketing case studies of toys.

My daily practice was critical for settling on a focus for the project. The toy case studies did not inform my final product. I could have left this out. But spending six days playing with blocks, stuffed animals, Legos, and attending a playground reassured me, tangibly, that a childlike form of play, one that is boundless and inventive, persists within me. And, I imagine, within everyone. Though I encountered an adult barrier to immersion for the first three to five minutes, by the end of each play session, there were clear glimpses of imaginative play that reminded me of how I once played as a child. Things mattered in the fabricated worlds I created for myself. Playing with Lego, I searched for a particular piece that achieved a specific functionality to my creation. I experimented with various blocks to make sure I had the right design. Any other piece wouldn't do. At the playground, the jungle gym structure became a sailboat navigating choppy waters. This is the relationship I wanted to explore: adults' capacity to revert to their primal form of play.

Artists like Mike Kelley shaped my vision for this project in both a positive and negative way. I was intrigued by his work that examined the perversion of play. He stripped the innocence away from toys and commented on his corrupted self. My own janky prototypes attempted to mimic his angst. My prototypes put me off course. They went from point A to point B too quickly. They depicted blatant abjection, wallowing too deep in the profane to the point where play lost grace. I wanted to go from A to C, with some zig-zagging that would leave room for audience interpretation. I lost direction for this project. These prototypes missed the mark, but refocused my attention to what I wanted to accomplish: to remind adults how fun it is to tap into their childlike spirits, encourage new ways of adult play outside of the "disguises," inspire a sense of immersion.

In pursuit of this goal, I investigated Alan Kaprow's Happenings— he fostered a space for free play while also providing a set of clear instructions that encouraged the guests to be self-reflective of their play. I imagined creating my own physical Happening in my backyard. This wasn't practical. It also felt less inspiring to me. I wanted to respond to contemporary circumstances. I pivoted to an emerging medium: a storytelling Zoom experience.

Watching this project progress incrementally from a janky prototype into a working-yet-still-janky prototype has been inspiring. I went through four prototype phases and asked for helpful feedback during each. I built upon my experience in each prototype phase to build the subsequent phase:

  1. I began with a performative experience where I led Zoom guests on a journey through space, encouraging them to reimagine everyday items as spacecraft and life forms. I presented this during the janky prototype presentations in Critical Experiences. The feedback for this was encouraging— people connected with the story and the exercises.
    1. I learned that I needed a structured script and less improvisation.
    2. I needed to balance how much instruction I give and how much users fill the gaps with their imaginations. The best experiences happened when people had the agency to use their imagination. But at the same time, the narrative had to be structured.
  2. Then I created a more polished script, along with a basic prototype of my web application that would be incorporated into the Zoom experience. The point of the application was to add a touch of physicality to the experience. I presented this during a Feedback Collective.
    1. I needed to provide more explicit directions for the interactive portions of the script. The activities still were not structured.
    2. One important solution is that I would provide more examples and models for the activities.
    3. Guests wanted more control over their characters. They wanted to be immersed in a role-playing experience. I realized I could create a pre-mission email that would build out the astrobiologists' role in the story.
  3. I formally combined my project with what I was doing for Connections Lab. Based on the prototype developed in phase 2, I built a "Mission Companion" and a "Control Center" application for my guests. I added the pre-mission email. And I treated the Zoom experience more formally with the two members in my Feedback Group.
    1. Finding a way to create synergy between my story and the application was not easy. I wanted my application to add to the immersion, not take away from it. At times, I felt the technical details were distracting and even hindering the immersion.
    2. I improved my script but now had an opposite problem: information overload.
  4. I took this iteration a step further. I sent cold pre-mission emails to members of my family (9 people) detailing their launch date. I added audio, video, and two app interactions (an asteroid game and a data search game) to incorporate the app into the story experience better. My family joined the Zoom with costumes and even printed out arbitrary rocket equations that I told them to memorize in the email.
    1. I still do not think I have created synergy between the app and the story.
      1. The asteroid game needs a clearer goal.
      2. Buttons become a problem because the sounds are disruptive.
      3. The drawing aspect needs to be smoother--users really like drawing but find the drawing experience frustrating.
    2. Defining what is expected for my audience to complete prior to the mission vs. what I think are unrealistic expectations. I realized people are willing to go all-in on these kinds of experiences entirely.
    3. I improved information overload according to the script, but I needed more practice. It turns out that leading the Zoom experience is performative in a way that requires serious rehearsal and repetition.

In general, I tend to shy away from research because it's never as helpful as experimentation. I have problems defining my research goals and applying them to my design. Yiru's project, for example, though I don't remember what her topic was, felt like her research funneled into her experimentation. The output seemed like it came from well-defined research questions that target a specific design idea. I should've focused more on a particular research question/ topic. It could have been the ways artists/designers have created play experiences for adults. Maybe community activities and theatre for adults? More on larping? Investing more time and effort into the systems making may help with this.

The bottom line is I created an imaginative world that encourages play. I witnessed glimmers of adults playing during my experiences, specifically during the interspace travel portions and the sharing of your lifeform experience. That's what I set out to do. I isolated play outside of the "disguises" for which adults deem it only appropriate to play. I hope my experience encouraged guests to sit with what it means to play; to reflect on new ways they can play. I'm not sure I achieved this, which may have to do with shying away from a research approach.

I feel strongly that my interest is in building themed attractions. And this project is on the right path towards that. I was building something I cared about. What strangely is inspiring is how frustrating this project has become. Every day I sit with it imagining how much better it could be, struggling with my technical barriers. I think It's a testament to my passion and dedication. There's also something to be said for these projects, never getting to that fleshed-out idea. It's’sIt’s's frustrating when it doesn't get there. But in reality, maybe it will never get there.

Cargo Collective 2017 — Frogtown, Los Angeles