Three Questions with Ousley Scholar Ashlyn Sparrow
Ousley Scholar Ashlyn Sparrow is a game-designer and educator who teaches students how to design their own games while uncovering the sociopolitical implications of their designs. We sat down with her and talked about her work and what she’s excited about at Beloit.
How did you get to the Weston Game Lab, and what are you working on there?
I’ve been working at UChicago for about ten years, and in my previous role I was the learning technology instructor of the Game Changer Chicago Design Lab there. I worked on a bunch of public health games for students in Chicago, primarily Black and Brown teenagers in the South and West Side.
The professors that run that lab that I worked with decided to open up another game lab that wasn’t focused on just public health. I wanted to expand on the different types of games I was working on — don’t get me wrong, I love an educational game and I love public health — but I am so obsessed with games that I was like, “You can make a game about anything.” I ran a game lab before, managed undergraduates and grad students, managed teams with game developers and have already worked with faculty, so it was a really nice fit.
I’m continuing to work with faculty in the Forecast Lab, making these interactive theatre games, and we’re really thinking about the pandemic and how theatre companies shut their doors: What are ways in which the game industry could be helpful to theatre as an industry? Or, working with UChicago medicine, how might we use some elements of games to help with medical needs?
We’re using contextual dialogue (when a game recognizes changes that are happening within an environment and is able to speak about them) to create a chatbot to recognize what patients did whenever they interact with an app to encourage them to manage their blood pressure. We’re trying to get people to think about the crazy, new, fun experiences you can create with games in general, and think about how they can use games in crazier, stranger ways.
Where do you find inspiration while working on games?
When I was younger, but even still today, playing games and seeing how people are creating these experiences are helpful to think about new interactions and new stories. As a game designer at a university for a while, I have the privilege of interacting with people who have studied a thing for a very long time and are very passionate about it. I, as a person who really only understands games, I get to talk to people who are interested in the aesthetic of glitches or the metaphysics of being or quantum physics or geoscience and history and ask questions, then be like, “Oh, I bet there’s a game you can create about this.”
The game industry is insular, so we all consume the same stuff. We’re all into Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Lord of the Rings. There’s a reason why some new games that are super innovative still feel very similar to one another. I think games can be even more interesting, even more strange, and not even the normative idea of fun, but other human emotions. I think they can be really interesting if we can consume other things and experiences.
What are you looking forward to talking about with Beloit students?
I remember talking with faculty about misinformation, disinformation campaigns, surveillance. The one thing that I’m really interested in is thinking about how games can be used to understand these concepts in ways that are a little more engaging than sitting in a lecture or writing a paper. I’m hoping students can come away with this thinking that games are a really interesting way to explore and experiment with their own interests and own research. How can you use interactivity to think about solving problems, or creating new problems?
Every time I interact with students, I always learn something new, whether it’s their interests and passions or what they hope for in the world. I don’t ever know what to expect, but I know it’s going to be excellent. It’s going to be an entire vibe.