A Fake Knife, A Real Throw: An Interview With Nadine Lessio
by Megan Patterson
I first saw Nadine Lessio’s work at Vector Game Art Festival, where she was exhibiting a collaboration with Sagan Yee: a game about breaking up with her ex-partner. A game featuring a knife-throwing controller. Players throw a knife at set points on the board, choosing exactly how they’re going to devastate that fictional boyfriend.
No players were harmed in that game, but that doesn’t mean that Nadine’s work isn’t very real. Her medium is physical interfaces: that is, games that use physical, everyday objects as the controls or as the game interface, instead of the expected controller, keyboard, or mouse.
Her first physical interface game, Squiddle, uses a custom controller made from a squish ball that has tilt sensors in it to control the game.
Since then, she’s gone on to program and built the photo booth for the Interstellar Selfie Station, which appeared at the Art Gallery of Ontario, PAX East, and GDC. She also programmed txtr, the SMS-based texting engine used to make Kara Stone’s Sext Adventure. Her work often transcends the space between physical and digital, finding meaningful opportunities for play in mundane objects. Like most of the women in game dev that I know, all of her coding skills are completely self-taught, which is a real inspiration to people like me, who are hoping to learn.
Nadine and I spoke about the politics of being a woman who codes, the power of physical interfaces in games, and why a game engine that can text your cell phone is subversive.
So, my first question is about how you learned to code. Did you go to school for it, or are you self-taught?
I went to the Ontario College of Art and Design for graphic and editorial design, but I taught myself development and programming on the side while I was there. So mostly self-taught.
Why didn’t you go to school for it?
At the time, I was more interested in designing books and magazines and playing with type. Also, “web” wasn’t a really its own program in the late ’90s and early ’00s. Schools were just starting to clue in about interactive design.
Were you more into the design element than computer science?
Yeah. I always used to draw, and I did a lot of visual art growing up. So design seemed like a good place to land. Programming just sort of followed when I noticed a lot of magazines were starting to shift to an online space.
Did you find it particularly difficult to learn it by yourself back in the late ’90s and early ‘00s? Because I don’t think there were quite as many resources out there as there are now. Or at least not super accessible resources.
Yeah. I mean most of it was book-based learning. Want to build a website? Buy a book about HTML. Some of it stuck, some of it didn’t. You learned a lot by just viewing and figuring out the source code in sites you visited.
How did you get involved in the game scene?
I was mostly just curious about games. Many years ago, I knew people running the Artsy Games Incubator, and it was a program set up to help artists who had never made a game. So I did a round of that, and thought “oh this is kind of interesting. I wonder what else I can play around with in this sphere?”
Then in classic “me” fashion, I promptly puddled about for a while with a bunch of other things, until the Difference Engine Initiative came about, and I started to go out to some events, which eventually led me to Dames Making Games and figured I would spend some time exploring that game space in terms of just experimenting or art stuff a bit more.
What was the first game you made?
The first thing I made was Racoon Park. It was this tiny game about being a racoon with a litter of pups. And you had to survive the timed level by feeding yourself, but also making sure you fed your pups. But the only way to feed them was by giving them parts of your life meter. So you had to balance keeping yourself alive and keeping them alive. I really like mechanics. And I really wanted to play with how that kind of a dependency relationship would work.
When did you start going from more traditional games to experimenting with physical interfaces, which is what you do a lot of now?
Probably about two years ago. I had been interested in physical interface stuff for a while, but like most folks you buy an Arduino and it sits on your table for like a year. So I told myself one season that I would spend some time just doing quick prototyping. So nothing finished, nothing polished. Just “I have this idea, mock it up, does it work? Yes/No.”
The thing I find interesting about your physical interface work is how they kind of demystify games a bit, if that makes sense. Like, you take a lot of objects that people are familiar with, like a stuffed toy in Squiddle, or the knife throwing interface, or even texting, and you make a game about it. And games are so often about having specialized devices (like consoles) and I think that can alienate people a bit. Do you think you’re trying to make games a little less unknowable for people?
Yeah, a bit. I mean, I think the things we use to interface with digital content can be limiting or the learning curve on them can be high. I never grew up playing Xbox or PlayStation, just old Nintendo, so the controllers were really alien to me, and I had to practice using them. It’s very much like someone saying “I know best, this is what you will use.” So taking that control back somewhat and saying “Y’know, I think this cup could make a good interface.” is kind of liberating in, maybe a weird or dorky way.
So let’s talk about txtr. What gave you the idea to make a texting engine, and to make games with it?
txtr came out of just experimenting with programs. I had set up a “code one thing a day” sort of challenge for myself to learn some more about Python, and I was making some programs that used Twilio. Things like, “OK tell me the season, and I will give you an activity to do today,” or “Random texts from aliens.” Anyways, I had made a little text adventure about being a cat, and thought, “Well, I wonder if I can mash these together.”
It’s a little subversive, because web SMS services are usually aimed at businesses. So using it for a game is not something it would generally be used for, so I just ran with that, and when I started to develop it, I got some input and help, and started building it up to be a bit stronger.
What are the challenges of building an engine like that?
Some of the challenges were just learning how to work with an API in that way. Things like “how do you build a listener?” or “Shit, we can’t set keywords before run time, how should we do this?”, “How do we put a payment layer on X?”
And I say we, because you never go alone. I had friends help me and give me suggestions. Coding has become a contributive thing. It’s not someone alone, smashing a keyboard with no input from the outside world. There are libraries, and code contributions, and all sorts of things that you figure out along the way.
Are you excited to find out what people do with txtr when you finally release it as an engine?
Yeah, I’m kind of figuring out what to do with it right now. I had thought about making an application, but writing a GUI and doing front facing support I’m not too hot on. So it might just be something along the lines of a library, or just the raw source code for devs to play with. I am excited to see what people would do with it, but also how they might mod it to do other things.
Do you think that being a woman who codes is an inherently political act? (Even if you might wish it wasn’t.)
I would say yes, because coding is the kind of knowledge that has not been historically accessible in the past.
Do you have any advice for women who want to teach themselves to code today?
Find a good workshop, and a community. I mean, there are so many more resources available now for women who want to learn to code. Even if it’s online, just having a soundboard to post your stuff, and say “Hey, what’s up with this part?” really helps. Having a community of people to bounce things off of is the best resource you can have.
Megan Patterson is a Toronto-based writer and the science and technology editor of Paper Droids, a feminist geek culture website. She is also a proud member of Gaming’s Feminist Illuminati.