What do Aristotelian poetics have to do with human-computer interaction? Quite a bit, if you think about it like Brenda Laurel does. From an early interest in interactive theatre and interactive fiction, through falling in love with computer graphics and learning to code, and a long career designing computer games, Brenda has kept the cultural aspects of HCI at the forefront of her work. In this interview she talks about her work designing games for girls, and about working with others who inspired her (including Timothy Leary).
I was pretty fed up by that point by seeing how the gaming world was very gendered. I had some pretty deep research on how girls play. I wasn't going to accept the street wisdom that girls just didn't play computer games period, end of story. That was not something that made any sense to me since I was a game player. We did a lot of work with thousands of kids and tried to understand the kinds of play that attracted girls; not just computer play, but play period. I think if we'd asked what kind of computer games girls would like, we wouldn't have gotten an interesting answer. So we asked deeper questions, like how does play differ according to gender in the age group we were looking at.
I bring with me a couple of observations about what it means to be a good designer that have almost nothing to do with skill. One is that design is activism. Our engagement is with popular culture, it's with global culture. We're not so much about sitting around understanding ourselves or extruding our interior experience like a fine artist might be, but rather we're about engaging and shaping the world. Design does that, and is incredibly powerful in that regard. Since we have that kind of power we need to understand what the tools are to engage that way, and we need to frame ourselves in relation to the world, as an agent, as an activist, as a source of power and change.
Brenda Laurel is chair of the graduate program in design at California College of the Arts. Her career in human computer interaction spans over 25 years, and she was a pioneer in designing games for girls. She is the author of Computers as Theatre and Utopian Entrepreneur, and the editor of The Art of Human-Computer Interface Design and Design Research: Methods and Perspectives.
Photo of Brenda by Hilary Hulteen