Teaching to Transgress: A Black Feminist Pedagogy for Youth-Led Game Design

Mikayla Buford, Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design

Collaborator: Kelly Murdoch-Kitt, Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design; Husain Rizvi, Games for Justice; Suzie Staley, The Neutral Zone

I am developing a collaborative game design workshop series for youth of color to critically engage in socio-technical issues through digital storytelling. The game design workshop is part of my MDes thesis project which aims to develop and implement a Black feminist pedagogy for computer science education more broadly. I want to create the curriculum I always wanted as an undergraduate computer science student. I was disappointed by the inability to have nuanced conversations in my department classes about socio-technical issues or space to do interdisciplinary projects that integrated social theory and computing. I had to seek opportunities outside of my department and university to be supported in my inquiry. Things clicked for me after taking a Black feminisms course. That course equipped me with the language to identify intersectional inequalities and look at socio-technical issues, like algorithmic bias, from a more holistic standpoint. This grew my design inquiry toward putting Black feminist theory and computer science in conversation together to subvert the status quo. Now as a graduate student who has found more spaces where my work is encouraged, I am grateful for the opportunities that led me to my academic passion. I want to make a space for other youth of color to work on interdisciplinary projects at the intersection of technology, art, and social justice, and be supported through their inquiry. It is important that in this space, marginalized youth can feel valued and bring their whole selves to their work. I believe that integrative design can guide in creating that space for young creatives to explore art, tech, and social justice together. I decided that game design was the best activity for the workshop because it is inherently interdisciplinary. Game design is the best activity to engage youth because it is interdisciplinary. There are various roles to play, from game art creation, storyboarding, and programming.

Beyond teens learning about game design, I anticipate participants learning how to work collaboratively using an integrative design process, and confidently discuss and recognize issues of power and discrimination in digital spaces using frameworks from Black feminist thought. I’m partnering with the Neutral Zone (NZ) in Ann Arbor to run the workshop series with teens from Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti from late January to mid-February. I plan to recruit 7-10 teens through NZ to participate in the workshop. The series will be a set of 4-5 workshops, 2 hours each, focusing on a different phase in the design process (e.g.ideation and prototyping, storyboarding and journey maps, programming, etc.) and employing Black feminist literature to guide discussion and reflection on the politics of design. For example, I will use Patricia Hill Collins’ matrix of domination to introduce intersectional oppressions, and Moya Bailey’s writings on misogynoir to interrogate the representation of BIPOC women in popular video games. The first workshop will be focused on generating ideas as a group of value-centric games the teens would like to play and creating paper prototypes for the top 3 ideas in groups. We will also spend time playing mini online games related to specific social issues, like gentrification and environmental justice, and discussing the values embedded in them. The following workshop we will work on game storylines and journey maps using the software Twine, an open-source software for creating interactive narratives. Again we will play a couple of online games made using Twine to prime participants to think about story development and stories they want to tell for their games.

Next, we’ll introduce the students to MakeCode Arcade, an open source platform for kids to easily develop games with block programming. To jumpstart their development, we will make a bootstrapped tutorial with game play and avatars so participants can learn the software at their own pace. The last two sessions will be dedicated to supporting the teens developing their games in either Twine or MakeCode Arcade (whichever they prefer). Alternatively, we might spend another session on ideation and prototyping after the first session if the participants want to spend more time on this.

The structure of the workshop is largely based on Games for Justice, a project started in May 2020 by Husain Rizvi, and Values at Play methodology. Games for Justice engaged 7 young game designers of color in the Boston area to learn, collaborate, and create 3 game projects that reflect and provoke action on different social justice issues. My workshop series will adapt the Games for Justice program structure of bringing social justice concepts into a discussion of technology design and impacts, and supporting youth in developing team projects. Additionally, I will be applying the Values at Play (VAP) methodology to guide the game design process. VAP is an approach to embedding values to a game through game definition or mechanics, team make-up and project expectations. I will build upon this methodology by centering principles of Black feminisms, like recognizing lived experience as knowledge.

For the participant projects, I will guide youth in establishing a set of values to govern their game development process and products. I plan to hire 2-4 U-M undergraduate or graduate students from the School of Information, STAMPS, College of Engineering, LSA, and CSE to co-facilitate the workshops. I do not have expertise in game design and I want to uplift the expertise of students at the university to advise the teens in their game development. Just as I am making space for teens to broaden their skills, I want to provide an opportunity for undergraduate students to apply their skills to a community-engagement project and gain experience in facilitation and qualitative data collection.

These workshops will be facilitated by the research team over the course of 2 weeks, with sessions during 2-3 weekday afternoons in-person at the Neutral Zone. We will collect data through video recordings of workshop sessions, artifacts (worksheets, prototypes, etc.) and evaluation surveys completed by the youth participants, and pre- and post-session reflection memos written by the research team. This data will be synthesized by the research team using thematic analysis to develop themes to understand youth’s experiences in relation to the workshop materials and pedagogy. After we finish the workshop series and collect data, I will analyze the data and finalize the project documentation for my MDes thesis and public talk. In this document, I will argue the necessity of my research, how I developed and implemented the workshop, and discuss the implications of this workshop for future interventions for the youth of color that integrate design and Black feminisms.