A Brief Introduction to the Transformative Play Lab

A Brief Introduction to the Transformative Play Lab

When two self proclaimed nerds and steampunk enthusiasts come to campus for a lecture, it’s bound to be an entertaining time. On Jan. 25, an installation of the Kathryn Green Lectures took place in Holt lobby, which featured Johnston alumni from the class of 2002, Josh and Karen Tanenbaum. They met as freshman in 1998, and together made a significant impact on campus. They set up the campus’ first internet connection in Holt, and later helped implement a campus-wide internet server. Karen graduated with a degree in Philosophy and Celtic Studies, emphasizing a focus on language and history. Josh graduated with a degree in Mythology and Music. After graduating from Redlands, both Josh and Karen moved to Canada to attend Simon Fraser University’s School of Interactive Arts and Technology, where they both earned their Ph.D’s. Currently, both Josh and Karen work for the department of informatics at UC Irvine where they co-direct the Transformative Play Lab.

The Transformative Play Lab’s main goal is to explore how games intersect and have an impact on, narratives, learning and social justice. Josh and Karen believe that games are a crucial platform for conveying messages and starting dialogues about a variety of topics. The Transformative Play Lab has already developed and produced several new ways of implementing narratives into games and has generated questions about the role that video games play in our society. Karen and Josh shared a few of their projects, which included experimenting with the ideas of object based storytelling, phylactery and costumed play. These projects/experiments were designed to see how, and if, the player’s identity would undergo a transformation of some kind when playing games through different technological mediums; how their perception of, and role within, the narrative would affect their overall experience.  

The first project they highlighted was a mystery game in which the player would wear a tangible glove on their own hand and assume the role of a spy behind enemy lines who needed to find a way to get to safety. Through interacting with objects using the glove, the player would discover missing pieces of the story and clues that would help them advance further into the game. The glove is equipped with a RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) reader, and each object was given a unique tag which the glove could read to then produce a corresponding audio clip. This forces the player to have to physically touch the objects in the game in order to advance in the story. They found that when people took on the role of the character in the game, and played in a physical space, they tended to reference the character they were playing with different pronouns. Those who played in a physical space, and interacted with physical objects, referred to the main character of the story as if it were themselves. They switched pronouns, and starting using ‘I’ statements to describe the story. The Tanenbuams reported similar results from several of the other projects that they had tested.

Another part of identity is looking at how people exist within communities and how those communities either hinder, or encourage, similar behavior. Josh and Karen were both graduates of the Johnston Center, which fosters a very close community and practices tolerance. Their goal was to create an inclusive space, especially within the world of gaming and technology, where women are often scrutinized and discriminated against. The Transformative Play Lab allows children and families to be present at the workplace, so that employees don’t need to limit their personal lives in order to achieve progress within their field. Karen talked to me about how important allowing family into the workplace is, especially after she went through what Josh jokingly hailed as, “a nine month bioprinting experiment.” Having the freedom to bring their child to work allowed both Josh and Karen to continue working on projects that were important to their research and passion, while also being able to spend time with their daughter.

The Transformative Play lab is attempting to redefine the tech industry work experience by cultivating an inclusive and supportive environment. Through their work, which focuses on how the individual is affected by the way they interact with technology, they are collecting new data and forming new theories about what it means to be a human in the age of technology. Karen and Josh strive to discover how big of an impact games have on individuals, and if gaming is a viable, or useful, tool when it comes to forming one’s own identity.