Monday, April 18, 2016

Women with Initiative: Kathryn Hymes

Hello all! Today we're featuring Kathryn Hymes, our Woman with Initiative for April!

Kathryn is one half of the indie design studio, Thorny Games. In the past year, the studio's silent live action game Sign received an Honorable Mention from the Golden Cobra Challenge. Sign is a game following the journey of deaf children in 1970s Nicaragua. It's received great reception at multiple events, including Metatopia and Dreamation, and will be featured at the upcoming Living Games conference. It's always exciting to see designers approaching difficult topics and examining agency and experiences through the lens of gaming.

Kathryn's current project is Dialect, which in her own words is
"...a game about language and how it dies. It's a world-building game that follows the story of a community in isolation as seen through their language. We've run very successful playtests at Metatopia and Dreamation as well as with many local groups throughout the SF area.  My design partner and I have put a lot of time and heart into this game. Looking forward to Kickstarting in the late summer!"

She is also working on Xenolanguage, which is an introspective game based on one of her favorite sci-fi stories by Ted Chiang. In Xenolanguage, Kathryn explains
"'s five minutes in the future and we've just made first contact. You are a linguist tasked with deciphering an alien language. As you gain fluency, you begin to see the world differently."
This in particular made me think of Magicians, a language learning RPG that teaches Korean. Using RPGs to help people learn and understand unfamiliar languages and cultural language coding is fascinating!

I had the opportunity to ask Kathryn some questions about her work and process. Check them out!

Why did you choose language as a focus for your current games?

Oh, man -- language is so my jam. I read grammar books for fun as a kid (I was a fun kid). I studied math and language in school. It was a natural muse for game design. Language is a powerful and relatively-uncharted topic in gaming that is fundamental to so much --- identity, culture and just being human.

Given it’s a passion, the ideas around it come very naturally. Dialect, a project I’m co-designing with Hakan Seyalioglu, started off as an idea about telling a story through building a language. In the past I’ve struggled with finishing projects just for the sake of it. Feeling compelled to make something because I really care about it gets me through the design slumps.

Language won’t be the focus forever, but for now I’m happy dancing in the space between a game-designer- linguist.

Could you talk a little about Sign and the research you did for the game?

Yes! Sign is a game about being understood. It's a silent larp for 4-6 players in under 2 hours. It centers on deafness, play, and an emergent language that came from the hands of children. In Sign, players follow a small piece of the true story behind Nicaraguan Sign Language, which started life as an emergent language of deaf school children, and later became the official sign language of an entire country. In the game, players share the frustration and loneliness of not having a language and develop the tools to overcome it. Over the course of the game, they build their own form of communication through structure and freeform play. As a linguist, I’ve been moved by this story for a long time. I hope this game will help it spread!

My design partner and I have taken great care to make the game accessible, respectful, and fun to play. We’ve solicited and incorporated feedback from both the Deaf community and linguists specializing in sign language. This has meaningfully shaped the game. We believe Sign is an experience in empathy: It gives players a brief glimpse at how life changes when barriers to communication are raised, and what that means for people emotionally. The hope is that in addition to being a game, it can see a second life as an educational tool, spreading the word of what is one of the most remarkable linguistic phenomena of modern times.

How do you make games about language more engaging when they include elements like being unable to speak or having different languages without the game seeming forced?

Our brains are hard-wired for language - it’s something that makes us fundamentally human. This help it be naturally engaging. For example, what’s most unique about playing Sign is the arc of understanding. Players’ interactions during the first stages of the game are stilted and full of compromise. They don't have language: they can’t be understood and it stings. Throughout the game, players define the words they need to communicate during recess and class time, and by the end, it's incredible how much they can get across. We've also seen players hold onto their in-game language long after the game ends and use it with others to recall play. Words are just so sticky.

Thank you so much to Kathryn for answering questions and giving her time for this feature! You can reach Kathryn via the links and social media below if you're interested in talking more about Sign, Dialect, or Xenolanguage, or whatever else caught your eye during the interview. Thanks for reading, and please remember to check out my Patreon if you're interested in helping support more blog posts, interviews, and features on Thoughty blog!

Kathryn Hymes Contact

Thorny Games Website

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