One NYU designer is embracing vulnerability and tackling taboo topics like eating disorders with an aesthetic she calls "cute but dark."
Growing up, Jenny Jiao Hsia just wasn’t that into video games. She was artistic—loved cartoons and comics, especially anime and manga, and thought she might become a fashion designer one day—but definitely wasn’t one of those kids who was always glued to a console. In fact, the idea that you had to be a whiz with the controller in order to fully experience and enjoy a game—a technological hurdle that didn’t exist for other media—is part of what turned her off.
When Jenny arrived at NYU, a career in the arts (let alone games) wasn’t something she even considered. She focused on the path to becoming a doctor, but it wasn’t long before she had to admit her heart wasn’t really in it.
“I did really poorly in some of my prerequisites,” she recalls, “and so that no longer felt like it was an option.” She took a semester off, unsure of what to do next. Then, on a whim, she enrolled in Games 101, an introductory course at NYU’s Game Center that aims to foster “games literacy”—a shared understanding of games as cultural and aesthetic objects.” This approach, which reminded Jenny of an art history class, piqued her interest in games as a form of expression. And as soon as she got a taste of developing her own games—at a Game Jam hosted by the non-profit Code Liberation, which offers classes and workshops to encourage women and girls to learn to code—she was hooked.
A recent graduate of Game Center’s BFA program in game design (she'll T.A. for a course this spring), Jenny has already attracted industry press with her distinct sensibility—she describes her style as “cute but dark”—and games that bring humor and vulnerability to a medium that hasn’t always been known for emotional subtlety. Her capstone project, Consume Me, draws on her own teenage experiences with an eating disorder. Games such as her Morning Makeup Madness, an absurd YouTube beauty tutorial-inspired time challenge where you have to slap makeup on a cartoon face in just 10 seconds, or the hilarious Wobble Yoga, where each of nine keyboard keys controls a different joint on a noodle-limbed Wobble Man trying to hit a series of ever-more elaborate poses, are disarmingly easy to learn but difficult to play well.
“I like things to be simple, where you can easily grasp the concept,” Jenny says. “But then when you’re actually executing it, it can become more challenging—and silly when you mess up. You kind of feel that tension when you're playing.”
The tension is arresting in part because of the unexpected way Jenny’s colorful aesthetic—influenced by independent female creators like comics artist Jane Mai and illustrator Punimelt—upends our expectations of sleek digital anonymity by bringing the intensely personal, handcrafted qualities of zines, stickers, and buttons into the electronic realm.
Describing Beglitched, a 2016 Independent Games Festival award-winning hacking game that Jenny created with AP Thomson, who started the project as part of his MFA thesis at the Game Center, one critic wrote that the game “encompasses all things cute and fun (rather than dark and gloomy) about computers—less cyberpunk and more cybertwee.” With a female protagonist, the Glitch Witch, it also bucks some stereotypes about masculine hacker culture. The pair’s previous collaboration, Stellar Smooch, features AP’s concept, music, and melancholy poetry and Jenny’s adorable anthropomorphized spaceships and planets, all rendered in a minimalist 5-color palate. The object of the game is to maneuver the wayward probes to “kiss” in space.
These games might spark fleeting moments of self-consciousness and anxiety, but Consume Me puts those powerful feelings front and center—with a discomfiting undercurrent of laughter. “I’m drawn to things with a dark sense of humor,” Jenny explains. “And I think that when you’re more playful with something it can resonate better with people than if you were to be very direct and serious and say, ‘this is a person with an eating disorder and you should feel bad for her.’”
While the tasks in the game are fairly straightforward—the player has to fit pieces of food, Tetris-style, onto a plate to hit a target calorie count, or put a floppy avatar through a fat-burning workout—animated interludes showing the protagonist’s distress as she tries on a crop top or gingerly steps onto a scale raise some uncomfortable questions. Is it okay to “play”—or have fun—with someone else’s suffering? In what ways are we competing in similar “games” in our own lives?
“The discourse about women’s bodies I don’t think is very nuanced,” Jenny says. “It’s either ‘oh, you should feel positive and happy about your body and losing weight—it’s empowering,’ or it’s the opposite—some starving girl in a black-and-white photograph that’s meant to make you feel very sad. There’s no in-between.” Consume Me, which is still evolving, is an attempt to acknowledge that most of us live somewhere in the middle, neither totally satisfied with our bodies nor pathologically obsessed with staying thin. “It’s this awkward, strange thing we all grapple with—sometimes it’s empowering to lose weight, and sometimes it’s horrible. I think we can grasp that and enter into a conversation with more nuance and honesty,” she says.
The intimate, confessional mood of a game like Consume Me is obviously a far cry from anything you’d find in, say, a traditional first-person shooter—and Jenny believes that, with increased diversity among independent game designers, we’ll continue to see more variety on screens.
“Video games were traditionally made by one group of people—basically college-educated straight white men,” she reflects. “Technology becoming more accessible inevitably allows for more voices. So it totally makes sense that there would be more games that embrace vulnerability as we’re beginning to see more female developers. These are people who’ve probably had a different set of experiences.”
She counts as inspiration autobiographical games by designers like Nina Freeman, who based Cibele on her own story of falling in love and having sex with a man she met playing a role-playing game online, and Anna Anthropy, who made Dys4ia, a series of mini-games about her experience beginning hormone therapy as a trans woman. “I saw those and thought, ‘Oh why can't there be more games like this?’”
At a time when some developers are experimenting with virtual reality headsets and other special equipment to create a more immersive playing experience, Jenny is in the camp that’s looking to the smartphone as the readymade portable platform that could make a gamer out of every commuter.
“The games I spend the most time on are the ones I carry around with me,” she says, noting that “being able to take something out of your pocket and show anyone is kind of the best way of letting someone understand why games are cool.” Her immediate goals for after graduation are to release a finished version of the Morning Makeup Madness game for smartphones and to complete Consume Me, possibly breaking it down into a series of “mini” dieting games also for phones. In her spare time, she’s been playing a lot of Animal Crossing—its repetitive activities remind her of knitting, she says—and experimenting with a handful of recently purchased Tamagotchi, the ’90s-era hand-held digital pets that were reborn in 2013 with a new app.
It’s clear that Jenny is intrigued by what she describes as the hint “bizarre darkness” at the heart of such apparently sweet or banal games—and interested in engendering feelings beyond exhilaration and pride.
“Games are systems that we can use to make ourselves feel certain things, and traditional games have this way of making us feel empowered,” she says. “But it’s cool to see that now we can totally do the opposite with the same system and subvert it. There’s a lot to explore in that realm.”