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The art of humanity in a digital world

Posted 3 Nov

MOD. at UniSA
Samantha Schaffer

Words by Walter Marsh.

By day, software developer Samantha Schaffer helps provide practical solutions to digital challenges. By night, they’re making ‘micro-art’ games that raise big questions about our relationship with technology.

“I work at a company called Cogent,” Samantha says. “They’re based in Melbourne and we basically do software consulting — we’re asked by clients to evaluate their problems, or offer insight into how they could do things better, and make stuff for them. It’s a lot of programming, but also a lot of talking.

While studying computer science at the University of Adelaide, Samantha was unsure of how its theory-driven coursework could translate to a rewarding career until they completed an internship with Google. “After a solid year of studying I couldn’t picture what working in software looked like,” they say. “So it was really great to have the opportunity to actually see software developers developing software, and the kind of problems that they tackle.”

Outside of work hours however, Samantha enjoys immersing themselves in the world of online gaming, and the grassroots community of independent makers and players that have embraced an online game engine called Bitsy.

“I’ve always liked games, though I never really aspired to be a game developer,” they explain. “All of my games are made using a platform called Bitsy, which lets you make a game without requiring you to know any programming or anything like that — which people are often surprised to hear, that I’m a professional software developer making games using a platform where I don’t have to code. But, after a long day of coding, I don’t really want to do more of it.”

Unlike the more commercially-oriented end of the video game market, which often prizes sophisticated graphics and ‘realistic’ experiences, Samantha enjoys making and playing games that are more experiential and artistic.

“When I say I like the idea of games as art, it’s more games that are made with the intention of being art. Which means they’ve been made in such a way that the purpose of them isn’t strictly entertainment or education.

“The kind of games you might be embarrassed to tell people you like,” they laugh. “When people think of games they think of very mechanic-heavy experiences. [Whereas] the kind of games I really like are often disparagingly called ‘walking simulator’ games because all you do is just walk around and look at stuff.”

On Bitsy, makers like Samantha can create and share their own tiny, digital world. “People think the natural progression of games is more and more realistic but I think it will take the opposite approach, where it will get so easy to make things look realistic that everyone will be so bored of it that no games will look realistic. And I’m very excited for that to happen!”

By lowering the barriers to entry, accessible game-building allows a much broader range of people to express themselves through the medium. “One of the things that frustrates me about video game development generally, is that because it often requires programming skills, skills that skew towards straight cis white men”

“Platforms like Bitsy are great because it makes video game development accessible to a lot of people who wouldn’t necessarily be able to make games otherwise.”

Treating technology in artistic terms, as something that both shapes and is shaped by human labour, knowledge and experience, is also important for thinking critically in a technology-driven world.

“Technology has made things much more accessible — that’s great,” they say. “But it does have a kind of insidious effect of appearing value-neutral, which is to say, I’m interfacing with your webcam, [but] cameras aren’t eyes, so they show the world differently than if I was in person looking at you, that might affect how I perceive you.

“Or algorithms that serve specific content to you based on how it thinks you’re feeling. Those algorithms are built by people with certain biases and it’s easy for the platform to feel value neutral, that it’s just a normal space. But it’s made by people and it has a lot of flaws — and it’s important to recognise that. It’s not just a window, I guess.”

 

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