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Breaking Boundaries, Creating New Gaming Worlds

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Anne Sullivan

AU postdoc Anne Sullivan is breaking boundaries in the traditionally male-dominated world of gaming. Eschewing the shoot-em-up video games that dominate the industry, Sullivan is developing games that focus on human relationships, the arts, crafts, and storytelling.

“Right now, most games are targeted to a specific audience of men,” she says. “They are not representative of all new game players. I am interested in exploring new areas in game play to provide new games for new audiences.”

Sullivan herself is part of the demographic change sweeping through the game world. A recent survey by the International Game Developers Association found that the percentage of women in the gaming workforce has doubled in recent years—from 11.5 percent in 2009 to 22 percent in 2014.

Cross-Cultural Competence

Sullivan is working with Computer Science Assistant Professors Joshua McCoy and Michael Treanor on a video game for Educational Testing Services (ETS), which will be used to test cross-cultural competence—the skill set that helps people adapt to, and even thrive in, intercultural or unfamiliar environments. “Players are space explorers who crash on another planet, and they must trade, bargain, persuade, and build rapport to survive,” Sullivan says.

This is play with a purpose. What makes the game unique is its artificial intelligence system, which will personalize the game’s characters and give each one different human traits and corresponding behaviors. Greedy characters, for example, will act differently from open and friendly characters. “In this game, interactions with people matter,” says Sullivan, who is helping develop the artificial intelligence system, design the game, and create tools for dialogue.

Computational Craft

Sullivan, who holds a PhD in computer science from the University of California–Santa Cruz, is an artist, designer, quilter, programmer, and engineer. She says she is most excited by projects that combine these passions. In particular, she works on computational craft projects that merge technology and crafting. She developed Loominary, an artificial intelligence-assisted weaving game that creates personalized scarves based on a player’s choices in the game. She also co-founded Play Crafts, Inc., a company that creates online design tools for crafters.

For Sullivan, the best part of crafting and game development is telling a story. “In crafting, there is a lot of storytelling happening in a visual way, and games can be the same,” she says. In the future, Sullivan wants to continue developing games with a strong narrative component. “I’m most interested in creating games with stories that make players smile as they play.”