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How did you get started creating interactive art? I grew up along with the web. When I saw that you could make something like a website, and you could make digital art, I instantly fell in love.

In high school, I started making this experimental interactive animated poetry website. The first version went up when I was just sixteen. It really took off and had a cult following! It was hilarious because I would get people sending me their resumes and asking for a job since, apparently, the work was impressive enough to look like it came from a studio. Nobody knew it was just some teen making net art. I kept building on this project well into my late twenties. My work kept growing with me.

I specifically wanted to learn more about web design and web technology, but at the time, people weren’t teaching this stuff in college. I remember trying to find a program, but I couldn’t find anything. And the funny thing was that a lot of professors for the programs that did exist were including my work in their curricula. I also kept being told that the internet is a niche that will blow over, so I decided to just go out on my own and pursue it anyway.

Which games have had a lasting impact on you? Games like Doom, Rise of the Triad and Quake. I find Doom to be a particularly fascinating example because it still has a strong modding community surrounding it, building things for it. These early first-person experiences stuck with me because the dissonance between simulating reality, and not being able to attain that, created these surreal, beautiful worlds that are unique to computers and these pixelated, low-fi looks that are unique to machines.

It’s these aspects that we lose in our progress to realism that I view as the most visually interesting, or a “virtual echo,” which is my way of describing the visual history of digital distortion, and intentionally embracing aspects of aesthetics that we didn't like at some point. They would be things like intense color palettes, glitching imagery, low-poly 3-D, horrible resolutions and error art—the flaws of a platform that end up defining its visual style.

So, the output from artists who embrace that “virtual echo” is also fascinating. There’s so much beautiful work from contemporary indie developers, like Strawberry Cubes by Loren Schmidt, Problem Attic by Liz Ryerson, and Become a Great Artist in Just 10 Seconds by Andi McClure and Michael Brough. All these games embrace that dissonance, and create unique experiences for it. It’s a fascinating subset of games.

You recently created the Electric Zine Maker, a tool that enables users to paint, write and edit zines. How have zines enhanced your work or style? The Electric Zine Maker is a response to how “serious” a lot of professional art software is. People can have trouble in software environments that are completely based on efficiency. It can scare away people those who are interested in casual creation.

The Electric Zine Maker is the opposite of “serious” art software, and zines are a perfect medium for that. Zines are about casual, noncommittal, noncommercial creation. They are about making mistakes and embracing the unprofessionalism of a medium. This is valuable because even the best Photoshop professional needs to let loose sometimes, without judgment. It helps loosen creative blocks when you are allowed to have a space where you are not expected to do a good job. Zines have helped me because they keep me grounded in the values of amateurism. It’s OK not to be good at something and still strive to make a thing.

It’s OK not to be good at something and still strive to make a thing.”

How did you choose which art to use in Everything is going to be OK? A strong visual theme in zines is the copy/paste collage art style: to appropriate things from magazines or other sources and rearrange them to make something new. Everything is going to be OK was made using that same mentality. I sourced a lot of old video footage from Archive. I made my own shaders to distort old video clips, making something completely new out of them. I used glitch art to make landscapes that vaguely resemble real landscapes, but also look completely different. Everything is abstract. Using the visual approaches that are unique to zines makes for fascinating visual exploration. Glitch art is a lot like errors you get in printing. Embracing that “brokenness” can make your work more emotional, especially when the theme of your work is about how broken things are.

What surprised you—or didn’t surprise you—about the response to Everything is Going to be OK? Everything is going to be OK is my #MeToo story. It’s about some incredibly heavy topics that range from suicidal thinking to just coming to terms with how bad things can be. It’s about being OK with things not being OK. These issues seemed way too serious for a video game. I didn’t think anyone would “get it,” let alone like it.

But the reaction to it has been tremendous. Many people said that it spoke to them, changed their lives, got them off a ledge or helped them through a hard time. It’s rare to hear that your work saved someone’s life. I think it speaks to how important discussions of mental health are. People really need them. It’s a hard topic to approach because I feel like we’re afraid of “going there,” but now, more than ever, we need to normalize talking about it. Being brave and discussing issues like trauma and depression helps to destigmatize them. It helps people.

What challenges must the game industry solve in order to stay relevant? This is a very important question. The game industry has a lot of trouble with abuse, especially with the way its workforce is treated. It’s normal to hear that people work so hard they get hospitalized. It’s normal to hear that people get fired if they don’t work hard enough. It’s normal to hear that people are not paid even after working so hard. We don’t have unions, and we desperately need them.

There are a lot of issues with abuse toward the women here too. We haven’t exactly had our #MeToo-level breakthrough. The amount of stuff you hear in whisper networks and as warnings can get heartbreaking. Right now, it’s on us to fight for better.

It’s easy to take things for granted if you don’t have it as hard as everyone else. But abuse will deteriorate an industry. Our inability to confront abuse, as well as lack of accountability, can hold us back. It hurts a lot of people. I feel like as long as we’re fighting, advocating and working to improve these conditions, games can continue to grow in relevance.

What are the challenges and opportunities of working in the indie game space as opposed to the mainstream game space? The indie game space can be incredibly supportive. It has its own problems, but at the end of the day, the change is happening here. We realize that we are all that we have, and we really have to step up to support each other. Most of the meaningful discussions surrounding diversity, spotlighting work from marginalized people and pushing to end abuse are happening in the indie game space. It’s change that works its way up.

The mainstream game space, known as AAA, is much more high stakes. This makes it harder for people who work in the space to speak up. So many people want to “be in games” and “break in” that it makes them expendable. Much of the hope to change this falls on the indie game space. Many of us are here because we want better, or have no other choice but to work for better.

What emerging technologies and innovations will have the biggest impact on how you design in the next few years? The accessibility and approachability of the game space is going to be the most relevant growth moving forward. A massive amount of amazing exploration, work and innovations are happening in the indie game space. Game engines or tools that tout complete accessibility are only going to become more important. I hear a lot of discussion about tools like Bitsy, Construct 2, GameMaker and Twine that are approachable to people new to games. To stay relevant, technology has to be accessible to small creators.

Another critical discussion is about video game preservation. We need an archive of small, experimental work. We lose a lot of our history to the pace of technology, and without a history, we keep reinventing the wheel. Many games become unplayable within five years, and that’s a big loss. Ongoing efforts like the Internet Archive, BlueMaxima’s Flashpoint and Phil Salvador on obscuritory.com expand the scope of preservation and are going to have a profound impact on the work we make.

What’s one thing you wish you knew when you started your career? There are a lot of ways to “break into” an industry. You don’t have to put yourself through an abusive work environment, thinking that it is the only chance you’ll ever get. Going indie can be just as legitimate, and save you from burning out entirely. You can go at it alone and make it that way too. And many people are willing to help. It’s good to reach out to them too.

Net artist and award-winning game designer Nathalie Lawhead has been creating experimental digital art since the late ’90s. Past works include BlueSuburbia and the Independent Games Festival–winning Tetrageddon Games. Their work is heavily invested in exploring the emotional power of interactivity and interactive digital art. Their work has won numerous awards, received Game of the Year nominations from IGN, and has been covered in publications like Forbes, PC Gamer and WIRED.

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