Portrait | Nicole Pacampara
Born in Manila in the Philippines, Nicole Pacampara moved to Canada when she was 9. Heavily influenced by her Mom’s creative work as an interior designer, growing up Nicole was convinced she wanted to be a graphic designer. After developing self-taught design skills throughout high school, once she got into college she realized the formal instruction just wasn’t for her. So after a year of Graphic Design at George Brown College she left. “When I finally went to college I was sitting in the classroom studying it formally and I was like, ‘Hmm, is this really what I want to do? I could learn this at home.’ So I dropped out after a year.” So she shifted her sights to something more analytical and behind-the-scenes, switching schools and moving cities to Montreal to major in psychology at McGill while continuing to do graphic design on the side. “I like observing people and I like understanding how they react and that’s not something I can learn by myself, I need more structure.” Though surprised and wary at first, her parents were supportive of her decision. Considering that switching from a creative pursuit to a more traditional field is not the expected jump for an indecisive college student, it could have been worse.
“I like observing people and I like understanding how they react and that’s not something I can learn by myself,"
The desire to pursue psychology came from a genuine curiosity to understand people better. “I was interested in how people learn. It’s very subtle, all of the processes of how people work, and I wanted to understand that. I wanted to break that down. It’s not really the creative side of things but it’s interesting to analyze people like that.” Though not an explicitly creative discipline, the act of deciphering how people interpret and engage with ideas through psychology is an inherent awareness necessary for all types of communication, graphic design included. How will you know what to design if you don’t know how people will understand it? And during her time at McGill Nicole studied just that. “I did a lot of educational technology research.” For example, in one assignment she was conducting interviews and studies to develop and optimize a software that was made to teach people Biology. It’s easy to see how this experience could also lead her into making games but it wasn’t until after she graduated that she realized that passion. ‘‘I had always wanted to make games since I was little. But you think that it’s so big and so complex and you need coding skills and all that. I was like ‘I can’t do that. I would want to but not really.’” But after seeing posters around her neighbourhood in Montreal for a workshop hosted by Pixelles, an initiative devoted to empowering more women to make games, she decided she would give it a shot. “If i had just gone into games and it was all just white, cis males I would have been like, ‘Ah, so intimidated, I don’t want to go there!’ But with Pixelles it was so supportive and it was people that I could identify with and it helped me branch out to other areas. So I think having that kind of community at the very beginning really helped me slowly get into other more diverse areas.” The workshop was a 6-week program where the Pixelles leadership offered support and guidance as the participants developed their games independently. The first two games that Nicole made were rooted in perception and mental flexibility, forcing the players to learn quickly as their environment changed during game play. More specifically, the second game Nicole made, Alfa Beta Charlie, was modelled directly after the Wisconsin Card Sorting Task, a study she learned about in university. The Wisconsin Card Sorting Test (WCST) is a neuropsychological test that challenges the participants ability to adapt to rules that would change without warning or explanation as the game evolved. And it was these first forays into game development that had her hooked.
This past summer Nicole participated in a 10 week incubator at Concordia University targeted at experimenting with different kinds of games and controllers. During this program she worked with a team to develop their biggest game yet, entitled We Are Fine, We’ll Be Fine. As a narrative-based game, We Are Fine, We’ll Be Fine is rooted in communicating stories of oppression and marginalization. “One of the themes we had for that week [in the workshop] was ‘Critical Subjects’ and we had just done an oppression workshop at the same time. We were talking as a team and we really wanted to make something that tackles these subjects, tackles these themes and when you talk about these issues it’s so complex. So how do you bring it down to one game? That’s really hard.” After a couple iterations over the 10 weeks the final team of 3 had developed an analog game that required the participants to hold hands to complete an electric circuit. Once connected a computer situated out of sight would play audio recordings into the headphones of the players recounting individuals’ stories of their experiences with marginalization and oppression. Inspired partly by the mechanics of a bus station they saw in Montreal in the winter that needed a individuals to hold hands to connect an electric current that would turn on a heater. (Despite it’s ultimately problematic oversight that required people to take off their gloves in the middle of a Montreal winter, and the depressing reality of being alone and cold when you don’t have another person to complete the close the circuit with you.) As well as the intimacy and support symbolized by the act of holding hands. “We were asking all these questions like, ‘When you’re sharing an intimate conversation with someone, or you’re sharing all your frustrations or stuff that is going through your life, what are the ways in which you feel like someone is connecting to you?’ We thought about that and we thought about that bus shelter and we were like ‘Let’s just mash it all up together.” The naming of the game was similar type of realization combining both existing ideas and their own personal experiences. Named after the viral comic by K.C. Green of a cartoon dog in a burning room who’s life is quite literally up in flames but is handling it quite well, for better or worse. Green’s dark humour resonated with Nicole and her lighthearted team, ‘It’s very dark. That was our mantra last summer because we were experiencing the same kinds of issues during the incubator. So when we were going through tough times we were like ‘This is fine, this is fine!’” The title also representative of the perseverance and determined attitude of those facing and overcoming the barriers of marginalization, we are fine, we will be fine. “Together, we can do this. No matter all of the BS stuff that we have to go through, we’ll still make it. This is my life, these are the circumstances involved, but I’m not going to let it get me down. I’m not going to let it bring me down.”
"We were talking as a team and we really wanted to make something that tackles these subjects, tackles these themes"
"Maybe it was an innocent question just looking for an angle but it feels like your identity as a game maker is always tied to being a woman or a person of colour."
Since last summer the team has presented We are fine, We’ll be fine at various conferences with mixed feedback. “When we presented at more ‘gamey’ event, [the reaction] is mixed cause they don’t really know what it’s about. They don’t expect that type of game. Some of them were like ‘How do you win this?’” But at conferences like Different Games in New York, they have been met with more open minds. “You can see their emotional progress throughout and then at the end they would remove it and just be quiet and then as a gamemaker you don’t know. Does that mean they don’t like? But you just have to give them space. Then they would talk to me for like 15-20 minutes about their own experiences.” This exchange of knowledge and support is what Nicole finds the most fulfilling aspect of her game-making experience, “That’s what I love about making games. I’m more interested, even in my writing, in listening to other people talk about themselves and listening to their stories. It’s fun to just figure out ways you can tell it in a new interactive way.” Her desire for storytelling and interviewing was further realized when she started writing a column called Blanket Fort Chats for FemHype, a website that highlights women and non-binary individuals that working in the tech industry. Nicole recounts how the relationship was catalyzed during a gaming conference in LA where her team shared a tent with FemHype:
“One of my friends was presenting her game and there was a journalist who came a spoke to her and her asked ‘How does your race and how does your gender influence your games?’ And I think when she heard that she was really frustrated and kind of tired because you hear that a lot when you are presenting your game. Maybe it was an innocent question just looking for an angle but it feels like your identity as a game maker is always tied to being a woman or a person of colour. You want to be taken seriously in other ways to talk about your process and all of that stuff … If you don’t ask that for men why are you asking it to me? When she was telling me that and I had met FemHype at that festival I’m like ‘Well, I don’t see it in mainstream media talking about that. So why don’t I be the one to ask people more about their process, more about what they do. So that’s when I started Blanket Fort Chats.”
The weekly column has been going since November 2015 and has provided what Nicole finds to be a mutually beneficial relationship. “It’s really inspiring to see women and non-binary folks doing really amazing projects. And it’s inspiring for me because I’m seeing all this cool stuff that I want to do cool stuff too. I don’t want to just be writing! I think one of the reasons why I started it was because I’m just new at this too. I’ve only been making games for a year and a half, so it was also this way to ask them, ‘So, how do you do that?’ And it helps me, it’s like a school is some ways.” Moving forward, Nicole is interested in exploring her storytelling abilities in a more formal setting, looking to potentially be exploring a Masters Degree in Oral Histories. But, naturally, when asked to clarify her broader direction she is still a little unsure, “It’s hard to put a label on what you want to do when it encompasses so much stuff. Pretty much, I’m a storyteller. But Oral Histories is what I ‘do’."
To learn more about Nicole check out her website.
Nicole Pacampara is one of three panelists in our upcoming discussion, Making Space. Exploring the ways in which we can use the internet to better society. Come check it out Sunday, May 22nd at Markham House in Toronto. RSVP here