Critical Making and Design: Cultural Ambassadors

adventures in gaming, critical making, research

This week, I made a game called Cultural Ambassadors by attempting to defamiliarize Space Invaders and the act of shooting.

Given that I had just a week (and that I am trying to limit the number of hours I spend on this one class), I started with someone else’s Space Invader clone made using Construct 2. In playing it, it quickly became clear that this wasn’t quite a perfect clone of the original game, but close enough for the base on which I would build this new game.


Taking a common way that I’ve seen defamiliarization explained (“What if an alien encountered this cultural object – how would they understand it?”) to its natural conclusion, I made a game where aliens are enamoured with our television commercials and think that places like Starbucks and McDonalds are really kind of awesome — and isn’t it a shame that not everyone has access to the rolled back prices of Walmart? So, helpfully, the Golbos on Globes team (they were very impressed by Holmes on Holmes and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition) has decided to make over your planet…starting with your town. And by you, I mean a tiny robot carrying a book with the ability to beam cultural objects up to these aliens to counteract all that they have learned from cable commercials.


As errant hammers fly, there’s the chance that they’ll miss the building that they are converting and accidentally hit you instead. Meanwhile, you send them books, movies, games, music and other cultural objects to take a look at. Those who are affected by them have minor epiphanic moments (“oh I see”, “I understand!”, “now I get it”) and leave Earth’s skies.

Here is the list of items that the game chooses from for you to throw:
“Throwing Cultural Object: ” & choose(“Octavia Butler’s Kindred”,”Will Shakespeare’s Plays”,”Gone Home by Fullbright”,”Jesus Christ Superstar”,”Amadeus (1984)”,”Tanya Tagaq’s Throatsinging”, “Thomas King’s Green Grass Running Water”, “Schindler’s List (1993)”, “Europa Europa (1990)”, “Carl Sagan’s Cosmos”, “Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent”, “Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis”, “Kurt Vonnegut’s Welcome to the Monkey House”, “Squinky’s Coffee: A Misunderstanding”, “Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale”, “Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird”, “S. E. Hinton’s Rumble Fish”, “Jean Paul Riopelle’s La Roue/Cold Dog – Indian Summer”, “The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete (2013)”, “Idiocracy (2006)”, “Journey by Thatgamecompany”, “Anna Anthropy’s dys4ia”, “Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man”, “Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things”, “Bryce Courtenay’s The Power of One”, “Paul Coelho’s The Alchemist”, “Richard Adams’ Watership Down”, “Papo y Yo by Minority”, “Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence”)

Given that the game was made in under a week, I mostly went with what occurred to me to chuck at aliens if I wanted them to understand my culture beyond McDonald’s commercials – which feels fine for a prototype. However, also, given that the list is short, each entry matters more… I had to decide if my loving a cultural object and thinking that it was interesting was enough for it to go on the list – and I tried to mostly stay away from “canon important cultural objects”, which are mostly the work of dead white dudes, and instead include a bit more variety. Then again, I happen to love Shakespeare and chose to include his work — and I guess that it’s okay to appreciate and love an object even understanding that it might contribute to a problem or be problematic, something that I occasionally wrestle with. I tried to balance it out with work by creators that I feel might be underexposed or would be excluded from the canon.




Something that you might be interested to know is that I have never made a game that involved the act of shooting before. That’s a conscious decision and that might actually be why I chose shooting as something to defamiliarize. However, because I started from Space Invaders, there’s some meaning embedded in the rules already, and the act still feels oppositional. There’s a lot of history in the act of shooting, I guess, and shooting hammers or wifi beams doesn’t erase that, especially in as familiar an object as Space Invaders. Trying to get shooting to feel like something other than shooting is difficult. What I think does work is this idea of accidental or unintended harm on the part of the aliens and their colonizer attitude. What doesn’t work, is, as I’ve mentioned, this sense of opposition — that we should shoot at the other, or assume that they mean us harm.

One of the things that I am quickly realizing about my approach to design work, having done three projects in three weeks, is that I enjoy making things that revolve around some element of humour, but that I want my audience to be in on the joke – or I want it to be possible for them to be in on the joke without too many obstacles.

Critical Making and Design: Defamiliarization Posters

critical making, research

So far, what I am learning about myself as a designer is that I have a hard time leaving humour out of the equation. For example, last week, I suggested that we dump baking soda in the ocean to help the pH and strap aquarium filters to dolphins to protect them from the folly of man. This week is no different.

My task for this week was to design two posters that advertised defamiliarized objects (and, as a consequence, to engage in the defamiliarization of two objects). The easiest way to explain what that means is to direct you to this video:

(Any blog post where I get to put in a video of The Little Mermaid is good by me!)

Defamiliarization takes an object and reimagine a use for it, or imagines what an alien consciousness would think it was used for, if they didn’t have anyone to explain it to them.

This assignment was way harder than I expected it to be. I guess that this means that I have trouble separating some objects, especially the really familiar ones, from their uses. I think that if I had chosen more complex or uncommon objects, it would have been easier to defamiliarize them, but then they would have meant less because they were less recognizable to start with. Some objects were harder to separate from their uses than others – for example, I could not seem to dissociate chairs from sitting.

Here are the results, installed in the “wilds” of the TAG Research Lab:


Since I had two posters to design, I chose to approach each object with a separate way of attempting to defamiliarize them.


The first object, the “infuser,” was designed using a language-based approach. I thought about the words “infuser”, “diffusion,” and other related terms. I worked at defamiliarizing the language associated with what infusers do, and thought of words that had multiple meanings, such as “medium.” What I ended up with is partially a visual gag and partially a verbal gag — many mediums are present on the page: water – and paint representing water, print, paper, writing, and the internet (represented by the hashtag). Then, for good measure, the phrase references Marshall McLuhan and that tired, oft-misunderstood old chestnut, “the medium is the message.” Of the two posters, I think this one is the least successful.

(FUN FACT: The painting in the bottom third of the poster is something that I painted when I was 15 years old.)


The second object, the “bubble,” was not what I had originally decided on making. Initially, and yeah, this one might also have come to me in a dream, much like the DELFINOX, I wanted to design a clock that would teach you to dance based on the different gradations. As you got better at learning dance steps, you would use shorter and shorter intervals to learn. So, you could use the different intervals on the clock – seconds, minutes, 5-minute chunks, 15-minute intervals, half-hours, whole hours. It quickly became clear that this would be impossible to communicate in an ad or on a poster.

The bubble, instead, is based on something that tall people know all about: accidentally hitting people or being hit with an umbrella. Or, in the case of this object, not so accidentally. This object imagines leveraging this accidental quality of the umbrella with intent – to take back one’s space. About some of the visuals in the poster: the trees at the bottom with the empty space in between are meant to recall large crowds which have been parted to leave elusive personal space in-between! The formula, f=ma, is meant to suggest the motion of the umbrella, coupled with the directional arrow. The curly bracket is also vaguely shaped like the top of an umbrella, which is why I also included it in the “logo.”

So far, the posters have been up for about five hours, and already a few people have commented to me that they love the idea of taking back their personal space. I was very stealthy when I put them up, and surely no one knows their source.

Critical Making and Design: Thinking about DELFINOX

critical making, research

This September, I’ve officially started my PhD, and with it, a pretty amazing directed reading course with my supervisor, Dr. Rilla Khaled, entitled “Critical Making and Design”. Since we’re keeners, we started a little earlier than the class start date, and I’ve already had the chance to do a bit of design work and am learning a lot. With that in mind, I’ve decided to start this series of blog posts talking about the design process and the objects themselves.

The first object is called the DELFINOX and it is a filter system for dolphins to help them in their “double-bind” between ocean acidification and pollution and air pollution. Here is a PDF document that is meant to accompany the object.

Delfinox Picture small

This is the object itself. It’s made of mostly recyclable, reusable or reused materials, with the exception of some duct tape and a few materials that I’m unsure about. The blue plastic is PLA, or polylactic acid plastic. The green tubing is recyclable plastic, possibly originally intended for aquarium use. The black rubber hose is borrowed from a small stash of extra scuba diving equipment that my household has around. There’s also crafting foam used to approximate neoprene and part of a household sponge for the filtration system.

The instructions for this object were fairly free-form – in a nutshell, they were to make a thing and see what happens. Dolphins were not my first thought.

At first, I discussed what I had to do at length with just about everyone who I happened to be spending time with – friends, family, other researchers. I was excited – this was my first official PhD assignment after all – and my first formal design object.

So far, the critical design examples (and I’m using that term very broadly, thinking of design as a spectrum where designs can be critical or affirmative of existing norms and practices to varying degrees) that I’ve been reading about are, at their core, about anxieties or fears. Many deal with the fear of death in some form, whether it be Dunne and Raby’s huggable plush mushroom clouds (from Designs For Fragile Personalities in Anxious Times, 2004/05), or the Prayer Companion (an object that I find a bit questionable, both in terms of taste and the tone in which the project is framed).

At first, in searching for my design inspiration, I thought a lot about waiting. I thought about what I do when I’m waiting, how waiting alters my perception of time, how maybe waiting could be a good thing – which led me to the converse. What happens when waiting is a really bad thing? What happens when we wait too long?

I’ve been a scuba diver for eight years now, and a human being on the planet earth for, oh, just a little bit longer than that. I think about water a lot – and that means I think about climate change and their impact on the water, too. It is something that makes me anxious, because it often feels like I have very little direct control over it. And, although I am hopeful, so far, we have been surprisingly short-sighted and stubborn as a species when it comes to our approaches for dealing with climate change.

Now, I know this is a bit silly, but after thinking about the project for a few days, the idea for DELFINOX came to me in my sleep. In the morning, I joked with Tom (my husband) about it a bit, as I imagined this object: “What are we going to do, fit aquarium filters onto all the dolphins? Well…maybe.”

Despite knowing that the object would not in fact have to work, and would probably never be within 100 kilometres of a dolphin, it was nevertheless important to me that my approach was possible, if improbable. I studied dolphin physiology – specifically, how dolphins breathe and how blowholes work, and I thought about how my scuba diving equipment operates. I wanted to design something that, in theory, wouldn’t need an air tank (even rebreathers need a small cylinder). However, most dolphins surface fairly often for air (about every 15 minutes or so), so it wasn’t necessary that there be a whole lot of air in the system, just that it could filter through the system sufficiently to be scrubbed before the dolphin needed it, or enough for there to be an emergency supply. So, I added a longish tube that would rest against the dolphin’s body.

In terms of powering the device, dolphins swim fast and can expel air fairly strongly through their blowholes. It made sense to me to use the motion of the dolphin to power the device, sort of like the way that the motion of the water is used in hydroelectricity, or, that classic comic idea of a hamster running in a wheel.

My choices when it came to crafting the physical object were based on three goals: trying to reuse objects that I already had on-hand (such as previously printed items from my 3D-printing recycling box, or the borrowed scuba hose), trying to remind the viewer of an aquarium filter, and trying to make choices that would be comfortable, unlikely to be torn off, and practical long-term for a dolphin.

In a way, this object, although the notion of fitting each and every dolphin with one may seem impossible, is about taking back control over something that seems so far beyond my control. Feeling a personal responsibility for climate change as one of billions of people is an uncomfortable feeling. This object imagines a future or even a present where human beings do feel responsible for each and every dolphin, for example, and take personal responsibility for them. It is too easy to lament about climate change and say that there is nothing to be done. Collective actions start with individual ones, I guess.

A SMALL SIDEBAR: Because this came up when I was talking about the project a few times, I thought I’d share this somewhat gruesome story that I had in mind while working on this project. Dolphins have a particular history here in Montreal: for Expo ’67, the city acquired dolphins, which were hosted in the Montreal Aquarium (also known as the Alcan Aquarium, a company my father used to work for). After Expo, people sort of forgot about the aquarium, and in 1980, there was a blue-collar workers’ strike. The six workers who were responsible for feeding the dolphins refused to do so, and three of the six dolphins starved over a course of months. Their trainers tried to save them at the end, but they waited too long.

You can watch footage of their arrival to Montreal here.

Here are two newspaper article detailing the event at the time:
The Evening Independent

Spokane Daily Chronicle