Restorying Trans Game Studies: Playing with Memory, Fiction, and Magic as Sites for Transformative Identity Work

Join us on 20 July 2023, at 6pm BST, for an online talk and Q&A with Dr Theresa Jean Tanenbaum,  Associate Professor in the Department of Informatics at UC Irvine. Her talk is entitled: “Restorying Trans Game Studies: Playing with Memory, Fiction, and Magic as Sites for Transformative Identity Work”. The event will be chaired by Gabriel Elvery.

Dr. Theresa Jean Tanenbaum (“Tess”) is a game designer, artist, activist, and Associate Professor in the Department of Informatics at UC Irvine where she is a founding member of the Transformative Play Lab. Dr. Tanenbaum’s work is playful, provocative, and interdisciplinary, frequently straddling the line between art, design, and research. Her work seeks to create possibilities for social and individual change, using participatory narrative to highlight how the identities that we inhabit in the world are contingent and negotiated. These experiences of transformative theatrical play create possibility models that are emancipatory, allowing oppressed and marginalized people to inhabit new identities that create possibilities where there were none before and reclaim power and agency denied to them.

An experienced game designer, Tess’s work incorporates physical objects, wearable technology, and interactive tabletops to explore embodied interactions with digital games and stories. She has developed new gaming technologies that push the boundaries of personal fabrication, using 3D printers and laser cutters as platforms for hybrid digital/physical games. Her new book on Playful Wearable Technologies, co-authored with Katherine Isbister, Elena Marquez-Segura, Ella Dagan, and Oguz Burak, will be released by MIT Press in 2023.

Dr. Tanenbaum has been instrumental in helping create new, more inclusive, policies within the academic publishing world that make it possible for people to correct their names on previously published scholarship. In 2020 she co- founded the Name Change Policy Working Group to support other transgender people in advocating for inclusive identity policies within publishing and beyond. During her recent sabbatical she completed the songs for an upcoming autobiographical musical about gender transition during the COVID-19 pandemic, and is currently in the process of leaving academia to pursue a more creative and artistic career.

Talk Description:

In this talk I argue that game design – like magic and activism – is a framework for invoking and materializing seemingly impossible desires for ourselves, and our world. Within the “magic circles” of both play and witchcraft we assert truths about the world that are decoupled from the often-arbitrary rules and power structures that govern daily life. I’ll discuss J Li’s single player pervasive game “Twain”: a game whose central mechanic is to enlist a single player into believing for a moment in a past that is impossible. Twain invites players to briefly rewrite their own memories to include a fiction that can’t possibly be real, but which feels immediate and viscerally true within the experienced reality of the game. I’ll also consider the work of transgender game designer Avery Alder, who talks about this in terms of choosing to believe in the impossibilities. She argues that when the world is arranged to tell a story that robs you of any power, it is up to you to instead choose to tell yourself stories that restore that power. Much like J Li’s “Twain,” Alder’s games invite their players to inhabit alternative selves, as they move through their daily lives.

I unpack this idea of play as a site for radical, emancipatory, identity work as a foundation for an emerging transformative game studies practice. I draw a connection between a constellation of allied theories and practices including, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas and Amy Stornaiulo’s work on restorying, Jonaya Kemper’s work on emancipatory bleed, Jerome Bruner’s work on narrative as reality, Bernard Suits’ concept of a “lusory attitude”, Maya Deren’s writings about witchcraft and “successful deviants”, and my own work on design fiction, steampunk, and allohistorical fictional imaginaries. I take an explicitly autobiographical approach to these ideas, as a transgender woman, game designer, and practicing witch. In the spaces where these ideas intersect and overlap I see a seed to grow a trans game studies that doesn’t just “represent” trans people’s experiences, but instead recognizes how games, play, and story are entangled in the ways that we discover ourselves, confront and process our traumas, and defy the impossibilities imposed upon us by the oppressive normative social order.

You can book your free ticket here.

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