Down a Rabbit Hole

A peek inside UCLA’s Game Lab

October 15, 2021

Sitting at the intersection of the art, architecture, and media arts departments in one of California’s leading public research universities, the UCLA Game Lab champions “conceptual risk-taking and the development of new modes of expression and form through gaming.” 

When artist Eddo Stern began to explore the creation of the Lab over a decade ago, he was adamant about preserving the experimental nature of the Lab. “When you build some framework or institution, there’s always people looking to justify what you’re doing on other terms in order to fund you. With the Lab, we have the luxury of not having to do that. We don’t have to sell products, get technical research grants, or just make games that are good for society. We can have everything side-by-side, cross-filter, and experiment with poetry, theater, writing, music, live games, the body, VR,” Eddo says.

With classes centered around games and experimentation, workshops that bring the brightest interactive thinkers and creators to campus, and game jams—UCLA undergraduates and graduates can pursue fellowships, residencies, and more with the Lab. “We’re pretty much a Luddite lab and a technologies lab at the same time,” Eddo, who is now the Game Lab’s Director, says. 

Most of the students that come here because they see our work or alumni work and they like it and they want to work with us” There’s always a hope that students do something new and special for this moment in time,” Eddo says. “The work coming out of the Lab is experiments. Some work out, some don’t, and that’s cool too. We don’t have a model of success that we impose on students. We preserve experimentation, and allow ourselves to go down some rabbit hole—that’s part of the joy of the Lab.” 

Below, you’ll find some of the artists attached to the Game Lab, and a bit about their exhilarating latest projects.

The UCLA Game Lab champions conceptual risk-taking in immersive media and the interactive arts.

Jenna Caravello

Artist, Associate Director of the Game Lab, Assistant Professor of Design Media Arts at UCLA

With a background animation and presence in Chicago’s DIY music community, Jenna began using Unity at the beginning of her MFA at CalArts, and thought to herself, ‘this is who I am.’ With an exciting body of work that stretches the interactive medium into the worlds of classical animation and music videos, Jenna supplements her practice with teaching courses that revolve around digital bodies and avatars, among other fascinating topics. 

A digital self-portrait by Jenna.

How has the UCLA Game Lab shaped the way you think about games and interactive practice?

Students in the Game Lab are deeply motivated artists and researchers who experiment with games to express themselves—and not just video games, but board games, role playing games, card games—you name it. It has been so inspiring to work with these students because they embrace different game modalities to make projects that are art, foremost, regardless if there is a precedent or obvious platform for their work. Most of the time, Game Lab students create projects that defy conventions in ways I have never seen. This year, a student named Ivy Lovett made a multiplayer chat game where you can sit on a piece of trash with your friend and roleplay as houseflies. Another student, Sam Malabre, made an immense set of guidelines for a game, nestled in a laboriously crafted web of research, facts, and almost-truths about Call of Duty.

How would you describe your current game practice? What are your primary concerns, conceptually and technically?

On one hand, I value storytelling and worldbuilding in games as a means express my feelings and explore my fascinations—dystopian futures, mortality, transhumanism, Jewish symbolism, etc. But I’m also an easter-egg-scamming, see-what-I-can-do-with-this-lead-pipe-equipped, main-storyline-avoiding, NPC-following kind of gamer. I spend a good part of my time in any game trying to clip out of bounds. So, although I am concerned with craft, narrative, and bearing my heart, I like to say that the most important reason to make games are the qualities that set them apart from single-channel films, specifically—things like player agency, thoughtful mechanics and physical controllers for input, exploring, collecting, choosing to do nothing, cheating, and the weird poetic beauty of clipping your playable avatar’s head through a basket of oranges—all within a greater narrative framework. I want to make games that are part wink-wink dialogue between player and designer, part therapy, part immersive fantasy.

Two stills from "Amber Row."

Tell us about your project, Amber Row. 

Amber Row is an experimental third-person VR game that I began working on in 2017. The project explores how I felt after my mother passed away almost a decade ago—particularly my fear of forgetting little details about her as I grow older. In the narrative of the game, “Amber Row” is a virtual street located in what was once a massive multiplayer online platform. The player can collect memories in the form of carefully painted objects and return them to the shadows of previous players to learn about their lives. For me, there is an easy parallel between spending too much time alone in a virtual world and grieving. Dwelling on old feelings can be like treading water—tiresome and unproductive. Amber Row was supported by the Princess Grace Foundation and Stephen Hillenburg family (of SpongeBob fame!). I am forever grateful that these folks were interested in my experimental game project.

What was the biggest learning experience from Row?

Working on Amber Row has become a kind of endurance performance in its own right. It can be emotionally exhausting to return to the same project about loss year in and year out, so I allow myself the joy of making changes to Amber Row as I go. This way of working keeps me engaged, but it has prevented me from feeling like the project is ever truly finished. It’s ironic that I hold on so tightly to a game about letting things go. The biggest lesson I have learned while working on Amber Row is that there needs to be a better balance between the scope of a project and its relevance to my life; my ability to stay emotionally engaged versus the number of years the game will take to complete.

What are you currently working on?

I am working on some interactive installations that I am really excited about—a three-channel piece with custom keyboards called CANTO IX and a single-channel motion capture installation tentatively named Go Slow. These smaller interactive pieces are so liberating to work on! Installations like these allow me to engage with ideas about games and game mechanics technically and conceptually, but they are scalable for a public gallery setting. CANTO IX and Go Slow both entice this kind of gamer impulse to test the limits of NPC programming. I’m really interested in framing an interaction between player and game as a performance in a public setting, and both projects offer opportunities to role play—or to be a bit sadistic and break the game.

A still from "Amber Row."

Esther Abosch

Artist, Historian, Former Game Lab Resident, and UCLA Design Media Arts (BFA ‘19)

Interested in pre-technological society and  interested in nature and handicrafts, but also computer games, Esther is a deep thinker. For the Game Lab fellowship, she made a project called Idyll— a Walden-esque utopia that centers on returning to nature. This project challenges that idea and says, “It was never alone with nature and it’s about community and people with nature. Esther is preparing for a year-long English teaching gig in Japan, and has been contributing to the creation of a commercial project at Serious Games. 

How does the UCLA Game Lab factor into your overall trajectory as an artist? 

The Game Lab was probably the most valuable resource I had during my time at UCLA. Up until the point I joined I was working with building blocks from a handful of Unity tutorials and not thinking outside of the game genre essentials. I really started thinking of myself as a Game Designer and artist after I was allowed the opportunity to collaborate on the creation of a game for the Game Lab Fellowship.

How has the UCLA Game Lab shaped the way you think about games and interactive practice?

The Game Lab was where I first started thinking of mechanics and styles of interaction as narrative and instructional tools. Since then I’ve been striving to use games as a means of teaching through immersive fiction and intuitive semiotic cues, as opposed to rote memorization. 

Still from "Idyll."

How would you describe your current game practice? What are your primary concerns, conceptually and technically?

My recent professional work has been in Serious Games and my chief focus has been in intuitive User Experience Design, which often falls to the wayside in the realm of simulation, training, and educational games. I think accessibility is an important facet to consider, though, and helps to make an end product with a longer lifespan.

Tell us about your project, Idyll.

I made Idyll with Wenrui Zhang in my Senior year for the Game Lab Fellowship. The concept was a kind of management sim/farming game where developing and maintaining relationships with characters directly corresponded to the health of your crops. All of the characters were from famous American tall tales. One of my interests that has persisted is the teaching of historical empathy through game mechanics, and this was a small attempt at something like that.

What was the biggest learning experience from the project you just spoke about?

Idyll and the Game Lab Fellowship were my first foray into project management. Although my team was just me and Wenrui, I found myself learning about version control, project roadmaps, milestones, and scope management on the fly. I’d say I definitely bit off more than I could chew for that project, but I’m still proud of how it developed.

Still from "Idyll."

Zheng Fang

Artist, Current Game Lab Resident, and UCLA Design Media Arts (MFA ‘21)

With a background in traditional painting and sculpture, Zheng Fang’s games are conceptual artworks manifested as virtual worlds. For the recent MFA grad’s game, Corona Time, Zheng scanned his own very small living space, as well as himself. You can control Zheng as he walks around his living space. The scanned artifacts in this simulation are viscerally, texturally dark, gritty, beautiful. For the project, Zheng asked friends of his around the world to also scan their small living quarters. There are some things one can trigger inside of his own room that will work as a portal to bring you to these other spaces that are scanned in their own right. A meditation on Chinese internet culture and politics, the game’s hand-sculpted objects that is then photogrammetry and then brought into Unity. Corona Time is a project about both being stuck in place with your stuff and not moving and then also this longing to connect to other people. 

How does the UCLA Game Lab factor into your overall trajectory as an artist?

One of the biggest reasons I went to UCLA was the Game Lab. I’ve always been interested in games, but my previous educational background and environment made it difficult for me to systematically engage with digital media, especially games. And through the support of UCLA Game Lab, I made 3 games when I studied here. I still do not consider myself a game developer—I would say I use games as a major medium to make art.

Stills from "Corona Time."
Still from "Corona Time."

Tell us about your project, Corona Time.

I’d been quarantined in my Los Angeles apartment for three months in 2020. The whole spring quarter had become completely online, and every single flight back to China had been canceled. After that, I realized I hadn’t visited my friends in a long time. I missed my friends so much. I missed the places I have visited and the places I want to visit. Therefore, I began to learn how to make computer games and asked my friends to take photos for photogrammetry 3D reconstruction. I could then roam around in the game.

What was the biggest learning experience from Corona Time?

Corona Time is the first game I have ever made. In the class Game Design taught by Eddo Stern and Nick Crockett, my professors provided invaluable help with game making. Because of COVID-19 and not being a TA at that time, the whole spring quarter I was basically only working on this project every single day. As opposed to learning something in advance then trying to apply them to your works, having the desire to make something and then try to learn something would be more useful when referring to learning.

What are you currently working on?

I’m traveling, teaching, and making work. There is a game project I’m now working on which includes different scientists, theorists, phycologists, and artists from all over the world. However, I’m unable to talk about it in detail too much at the moment, but it should be a very interesting piece.