Special topic: Intersections of craft, fabrication, and play

XXIV.1 January - February 2017
Page: 38
Digital Citation

Designing craft games

Anne Sullivan, Gillian Smith

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Computer games and traditional handcrafts are seemingly disparate domains, but they share the common property of being inherently playful. Though the playfulness associated with games is obvious, crafting promotes a different kind of play. Hobbyists and professional crafters alike refer to experimentation with color, material, and layout choices as a form of play and find the loosely structured activity both enjoyable and rewarding.

The growth of physical computing and digital fabrication creates opportunities to merge crafting activity with electronic and digital game design. Doing so allows us to explore new kinds of playable experiences, uncover new methods for interacting with fabrication technologies, and interrogate the stereotypes associated with both games and craft.

Craft is a constructive, social, and creative form of play that has become increasingly feminized. In contrast, games are traditionally masculinized and stereotyped as featuring conflict-heavy, destructive play. The demographics of game players are in fact more diverse, with men and women playing in roughly equal numbers; however, games are still widely seen as made by men for men. Integrating games and crafts therefore provides an opportunity for interrogating and disrupting gendered assumptions around craft and play. At a time when augmented and virtual reality are gaining popularity, the emerging genre of craft game, with its focus on combining the digital and physical, is an interesting addition to the games landscape.

Here we present lessons learned from designing three craft games that merge sewing and game design. Addie's Patchwork Playground is a digital game that uses a quilt as a controller; eBee is a board game built using quilted components; and Threadsteading is a game custom-designed to be played on quilting and embroidery machines.


back to top  What are Craft Games?

For this article, we are using the term craft games to describe games that deeply integrate a traditional handcraft into their mechanics, control scheme, or both. Craft games may be: a) games using crafted controllers, b) crafting machines or tools used as game interfaces, c) games that create craft patterns, or d) games in which crafting is part of the core mechanics.

Addie's Patchwork Playground (Figure 1) is a digital 2D exploratory platformer, in which the player uses a quilt as a controller to explore each level. As the player explores, they automatically create terrain-specific graphical trails behind them, decorating the level. The controller is created using conductive fabric and an Arduino performing capacitive sensing. More information is available at http://www.asdesigned.com/creative/atelier-games.

eBee (Figure 2) is an electronics-based strategy quilt game where players use quilted pieces to construct working circuits that light up LEDs. The game board is a quilt with a hexagonal grid of conductive Velcro. The pieces are quilted hexagonal patches, each decorated with conductive fabric. Players can either compete or collaborate to construct complete circuits from a central hub quilt patch that contains a battery, to the island patches with LEDs, and back again to the hub. More information about eBee is available at www.ebeeproject.net.

Threadsteading (Figure 3) is a territorial control strategy game played on a consumer-grade computerized embroidery machine, originally designed for a computerized long-arm quilting machine, with a custom-designed controller mounted on the machine. Players take on the role of rival scouting teams aiming to stake claim to as much territory as possible while needing to travel together. Players take turns instructing the machine to sew their own motifs over the map. More information about Threadsteading is available at http://disneyresearch.com/project/threadsteading.

back to top  Design Considerations

Unique design implications arise with craft games, due to the merging of materials, affordances, and constraints of games and the craft practice.

Slow play. Crafting moves at a slow, steady, and contemplative pace. A game that uses crafting as a mechanic or control scheme may have player moves that take minutes or even hours to complete, unlike traditional computer games with rapid moment-to-moment gameplay. It is therefore important to design game experiences that account for longer move time and integrate them into the game experience.

A game that uses crafting as a mechanic or control scheme may have player moves that take minutes or even hours to complete, unlike traditional computer games with rapid moment-to-moment gameplay.

Threadsteading requires a few minutes for the sewing machine to finish sewing the move chosen by the player. During the design process, we emphasized the strategic elements of the game because the downtime gives players opportunities for strategic thought. Downtime also creates a social space in which players are able to chat with each other, echoing the social nature of embroidery.

Exploratory play. Capturing the exploratory side of crafts in a craft game plays to the strength of the medium. There are two styles of exploratory play that emerge in craft games: exploring the use of the interface and exploring the space of creation.

In eBee, there is a natural playfulness to the board pieces that invites exploration of the interface. Exploring how the pieces fit together is part of the game's appeal and has been woven into the game mechanics. The winning condition is based on how and where the pieces are placed, which encourages players to explore the various ways in which they can be placed and combined.

The design of Addie's Patchwork Playground focused on the space of creation within the game to work with the crafted controller. The player character creates colorful stamps behind them based on whether they're running or jumping, as well as what type of block they are on. The stamps show where the player has explored and create a visual log of the actions the player used during that exploration.

Designing for emergent aesthetics. There is a strong visual and tangible aesthetic quality to craftwork. In many craft games, players interact with the game rules to perform the craft, a kind of interactive generative design that means the rules need to be crafted such that their execution leads to a valid final product.

Threadsteading's mechanics are designed around two major aesthetic properties of quilting: There should be roughly even density of quilting across the surface, and the line of thread should be unbroken. The size of the maps, the placement of goals, and movement rules are designed to encourage players to fully explore—and thus fully stitch—the space without going back over the same space multiple times.

eBee uses quilted pieces with conductive fabric pathways. The player places the pieces to create a circuit between an LED and a battery, which lights up the LED. The hexagonal shape of the pieces was chosen to mirror the traditional use of hexagonal pieces in both quilting and board games, and the fabric colors and patterns were chosen both to be significant for gameplay and to create an aesthetically pleasing quilt pattern as the result of play.

Technology constraints. Crafting tools and technology used as interfaces come with built-in constraints that need to be addressed by game design. These constraints may not be present when using more traditional input methods and can require unique solutions.

An example of this is with Threadsteading, which uses a sewing or quilting machine to create the player's move. Sewing and quilting machines are both limited to creating designs that use a single line.

Therefore, the designs created by the game, as well as how it moves through the play field, are designed around this constraint.

Another class of constraints is that crafted interfaces are currently not as technologically robust as standard game controllers. While this will improve over time, especially as more experimentation and research are done with crafted controllers, they currently require the game design to take these limitations into account.

In Addie's Patchwork Playground, the controller buttons use conductive fabric as capacitive sensors. The use of cloth and batting gives them a puffy, soft, tactile quality. While this has a novel physical experience as a game controller, the game design needed to be more forgiving than a standard platformer. The level design was modified to require less precise jumping, and to provide safety nets for most jumps so that the play was not at odds with the controller.

back to top  Future Opportunities

While there has been initial work in craft games, there are still many exciting design opportunities in this space. The rise of the maker movement and the democratization of home-brew hardware has already led to opportunities for novel game experiences with crafted game controllers. Additional hardware and software libraries continue to lower the barrier of entry to creating new types of crafted controllers. Similarly, real-time fabrication technology continues to improve and offers novel interface and game mechanic opportunities.

There are also many opportunities for integrating games and play with different craft domains. Each craft offers opportunities for game design, each with its own constraints and opportunities. Because craft practices have developed over many years, there are well-defined and refined patterns of process that can be used as the basis of novel game mechanics.

back to top  Conclusion

Here we've presented design considerations and lessons learned from the creation of three craft games. Combining games with crafts fosters entirely new styles and genres of games and reveals opportunities for new research in digital fabrication and physical computing technologies. Craft games are an emerging game genre ripe for research and design exploration. We hope others will join us in crafting new game experiences.

back to top  Acknowledgments

The authors wish to acknowledge the hard work of their collaborators on each of the games mentioned in this article. eBee was co-designed with Celia Pearce, Isabella Carlsson, and Jeanie Choi of Northeastern University, and funded by an internal grant from the College of Arts, Media, and Design. Threadsteading was produced at Disney Research Pittsburgh with Jim McCann, Lea Albaugh, Chenxi Liu, April Grow, and Jen Mankoff. Addie's Patchwork Playground was created in collaboration with Chris Totten and Alex Neuenkirk at American University, and funded by an internal grant from the College of Arts and Sciences.

back to top  Authors

Anne Sullivan is an assistant professor in the digital media department at the University of Central Florida. Her research focuses on the intersection of computation, craft, and storytelling. She is also a crafter and her quilts have been displayed in museums and international competitions. anne@ucf.edu

Gillian Smith is an assistant professor in the Department of Art+Design and College of Computer and Information Science at Northeastern University. Her work focuses on generative design for games and crafts, computational creativity, and issues surrounding feminism and social justice, especially as they intersect with technology and game design. gi.smith@northeastern.edu

back to top  Figures

F1Figure 1. Addie's Patchwork Playground.

F2Figure 2. eBee

F3Figure 3. Threadsteading.

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Copyright held by authors. Publication rights licensed to ACM.

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2017 ACM, Inc.

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