Heather Kelley: Designing Experimental Games

A former designer on Thief: Deadly Shadows and Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory wants to incorporate new senses into gaming and bend the rules of social interactivity.

Photo by: Keita TakahashiPhoto by: Keita TakahashiPlaying online or through a console in your living room is one way to game, but Heather Kelley, founder of the game development company Perfect Plum and co-founder of the experimental game collective Kokoromi, wants you to think bigger. Much bigger.

Kelley has designed avant garde games ranging from a connect-the-dots experience wherein players find invisible points located throughout the room by following sound and visual clues while holding a squeezable wireless orb device to Sugar, a game created for the MuseumsQuartier in Vienna, Austria, where players perform synchronized routines as horses and receive scents of leather, grass, and horse excrement in the process.

You can’t only think of a game as something that you play on your TV in your living room,” Kelley says. “It’s only a phase really. Games before that were not a thing that you played on your living room television. I’m very interested in what will happen when games are not quite as obsessed with happening on a screen.”

For Kelley, that means exploring how games can use senses like smell, human-to-human touch, and social rules to create new experiences. Currently in residency with the artist collective Blast Theory in Brighton, England, Kelley is examining the role that smell plays in gaming and working on a “smell-based playful sculpture” with the help of a grant.

Get In Media: Perfect Plum’s mission is to focus on “under-explored aesthetic experiences and sensory interactions.” Where specifically are you seeing that happen in games?

Heather Kelley: The under-explored is getting smaller and smaller all the time. The senses that I guess I’m focusing on most right now might be to some degree touch, although of course touch screens are quite popular, there’s certainly other kinds of touch like skin-to-skin contact or things like that. Also proprioception, which is a complicated way of saying the feeling that you feel inside your body when you are moving so that you can tell if you’re holding your arm up in the air, you feel that inside in your joints and your muscles. It’s how you know you’re doing that without looking at it, and then smell and taste. This year I’m especially focusing on smell.

GIM: What’s coming up next for you?

HK: There are a lot of people that are working these days with smell as an art form or as an expressive form or as a science. I’m interested in all of that, but I think the thing I haven’t seen and that I really want to explore is the interactive capabilities. It’s not only about “Oh, I take a really tight corner in this racing game and I smell the burning rubber.” The example I like to use is what if there was a game where you played a bloodhound and it was a mystery and you actually had to follow a scent trail or you had to identify something based on the smell of someone’s perfume and then when you smelled it again, you would know that they were there? How can we use smell for the emotionally affective possibility, but also its ability to conjure memory and therefore from the memory conjure emotions? How can we put a scent into an interaction at the beginning and then later on use the emotional resonance from the first time you smelled it to recall it without having to show the same visuals? There are things like that where I want to know how can we use the possibilities of smell that have not been explored in the interactive medium.

GIM: What is the technology for incorporating smell [into a game]? How do you physically do it?

HK: There are a lot of different ways you can do it, but it’s not a very convenient medium to work with, which is why not too many people have worked with it before. It really is about a physical-chemical substance that has to physically interface with receptor cells inside your nose. How can you create and generate these chemical particles so reliably? It’s messy and, I wouldn’t say dangerous, but you’re using different chemicals, so maybe it’s going to spill and it’s going to be a problem. It’ll certainly be annoying and some people even really have strong negative reactions to smells or they’re allergic to them or any number of things like that, so the physical manifestation of it is a huge challenge, but I also want to explore the possibilities there.

GIM: How close are we to having a console or something at home that incorporates smell or taste or touch in a way that’s not a touch screen?

HK: There are a number of technologies that are being created right now, but it’s not the first time that’s happened. In fact, there was a big wave of smell technology around 1999 and this current wave doesn’t seem to have gotten much beyond that point. I think for me, we have to stop thinking about gaming as only a living room, console-based experience. Yes that will be there, but that isn’t the only place we need to think about how these technologies and sensory elements can be used. Games are becoming much more integrated into everyday, outside of the home experiences or events or promotions or concerts or just different things like that. Folk games, games in science museums, games in art exhibits, other kinds of physical entertainment spaces. The living room delivery thing is only one of the ways it’s going to happen. I think the other things are probably coming sooner because they’re easier to accomplish. We can take what we learn from those more embodied and location-based experiences and apply that to when eventually there are technologies for delivering sense in the home.

GIM: What technologies are you using for incorporating different senses into games?

HK: I can maybe talk a bit about things I have done, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention some projects that I know about that I’m not personally working on, because there are games that are using things like haptics [which incorporate the sense of touch through things like motion, vibrations, electronic pulses, surface textures, and other tactile techniques into gameplay] or wearables, like wearable technology that have sensors in it that you can play a game with. There’s a game called Propinquity that you could look up that uses haptics or that uses accelerometers.

For instance, my collective, Kokoromi, is working on a game for the Sifteo platform, which you may know of. I think they’re comparing it between a smartphone and a Lego because it’s small pieces that can detect one another. You can put them together and they can form a chain if you are sitting putting them next to each other. They have motion sensors in them so they know if anything gets shaken. They have a pressure sensor; they know if something is pushed on the screen. It can do any number of things. We were interested when we found out about this platform to see how far we could push this.

We’re working on this game. It’s called A Series of Tubes and it’s trying to use all of these capabilities of the Sifteo device. Our game is meant to be played without any table whatsoever with the pieces held in mid-air. We’re using the accelerometer. We’re using the proximity sensing. We’re using all the different capabilities. We’re just not default relying on the way things have been done before.

Editor’s Note: Between the time of this interview and publication, Kokoromi’s Sifteo project was canceled. Currently, Kelley is unveiling a game based around the theme “reclaimed” she developed along with a team of multimedia creatives for the PlayARK festival in Cardiff, Wales. 

GIM: In your TED Talk, you also talked about how games can change the way we socially interact with people. I’m thinking specifically about the hopscotch game you co-created that requires players to give each other compliments in order to move forward. Would you mind talking about how you feel like gaming is or can push our social bounds?

HK: This is really important because certainly there’s plenty of single-player games where it’s you interacting with the content in the game, but games have always been and continue to be profoundly able to shape human interaction with one another. In fact, that’s kind of what they’re about. The rules are defining this magic circle in which everyone is agreeing to this alternate reality, if you will, that consists of the way the game works and the game’s rules. They always have that capability and it’s interesting to find ways to use that capability to create different relationships or different behaviors of people toward one another. I think that’s one of game’s incredible strengths, but also one of the dangers, I think, because when you get into something like gameification, you’re talking about using those powers of shaping human behavior to do things that may be against the person’s best interest.

GIM: For students who want to follow in your career footsteps, what do you recommend they do?

HK: I think, and this is not my original advice, but I certainly found myself nodding vigorously when I heard it, that game designers can’t only come from games. You can’t feed yourself a steady diet of nothing but games and take the medium forward from that basis. You have to have an interest and experience in what’s going on with games, but then also have experience in other media like film and music and things like that, but also just life in general. I don’t know, gardening or tall ship sailing or horse riding. If you wanted to follow in my virtual dream footsteps, you’d study tall ship sailing and horse riding and gardening of carnivorous plants, and then you’d become a game designer.

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