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Making Connections 2023

The project was inspired by conversations with researcher Dr.Jess Williams and her involvement in the Digital Youth research group we had during FOSAC 2022, and the underrepresented groups identified by the UKSFN in their funding aims - one of these groups being LGBTQIA+ People. We recognised the opportunity to work with Jess and connect her to the local LGBT+ Youth group - Outburst who meet weekly at Base 51. 

The overall aim of the project was connecting and exposing the young people in the group to Jess’s research focusing on LGBTQIA+ Young peoples mental health, giving them the opportunity to ask questions directly and understand how the research is being developed and used in real world applications to offer interventions for mental health, how this could affect them and how they could be involved. 

The project ran over 8 sessions from September to November. The first three sessions introduced the group to Jess’s research and her work related to different methods of co-design. These sessions provided valuable time to build a relationship with the group and understand their interests, allowing us to structure the project around them.

In these initial sessions we looked at the Purrbles Robot - an interactive friend / responsive robot intervention for emotional regulation that is designed to help with mental health and anxiety, and the way that this was developed using co-design. The group worked on redesigning Purrble to fit their needs as an older age group than it was initially designed for. We then moved on to looking at the SPARX Game - an online virtual world where avatars overcome anxiety and depression by completing tasks and overcoming challenges. The group designed and sculpted their own avatars using collaborative drawing and clay modeling. They responded really well to this activity, and the practical nature of the activity encouraged conversation while completing a creative task. We noticed them gaining confidence and opening up discussions of their own representation through avatar creation. Focusing on avatars enabled the young people to connect with the research on a personal level as they had interests and experience of gaming - both digital and table top, that helped them understand the concepts of character design and world building. 

Following these discussions with the young people we focused more on avatar design, world building and gaming. We worked with Jess to decide how to move the sessions forward to further explore the ideas in relation to her research. Jess shared with us some research papers that were relevant to this topic and helped to connect avatars, gaming and world building directly to this group of LGBTQIA+ Young people, this helped us to recognise the importance and effectiveness of pursuing this idea with this group. 

We decided to invite a 3D Model maker and RPG writer to come and help us take the project further. In the fourth session Alex Huntley from Warp Miniatures - Makers of ‘Heroic 28mm' scale fantasy miniatures for tabletop games, and Liam Mills who is the writer and editor specialising in sci-fi and genre fiction behind Sealight Studios, joined the project.

Alex and Liam came to work with the group for the rest of the project. They began by introducing themselves, their background and their personal stories of how they came to do what they do (both having successfully made careers in the gaming industry) and their own relationships to gaming. They then worked with the group to design a multiversal game that meant the players could traverse different genres, times and locations and allowed them to adapt their characters and consider their own representation at each turn. The group decided to focus on three Genres; sci-fi, fantasy and horror - they discussed their favorite characters, books and games as influences. We discussed some research that Jess had shared previously, looking at the importance of games and world building for young queer people to explore and express their identities openly and how this can build confidence in the real world. We discussed the importance of customisation and gender identification of these characters and kept these as principles throughout. 

In the following three sessions Alex worked with the group to co-design three characters, one for each genre. The group co-designed with Alex and collaborated to make decisions on the characters attributes, strengths, identities and ways of inhabiting each world/genre. Together they co-designed a sci fi character who subverted the narrative of AI ‘taking over’ and instead was a robot ‘left behind at the end of the world after the humans had become extinct’ the robot character is made up of scrap materials left behind by human civilisation. A fantasy character - a faceless shape shifting wizard who could transform at will and leap between universes, the wizard carried one of their favorite TV characters in a backpack as a kind of ‘spirit guide’. A Horror character who subverted the stereotypical ‘dumb blonde’ character type and instead became a ‘well prepared gender neutral blonde’ who can see dead people using echolocation and has a bat as their ‘familiar’. 

For the next session Alex digitally sculpted and 3d printed the characters as miniatures - used in tabletop gaming - each participant now had their own set of miniatures. Seeing their characters come to life in this way was really exciting for the participants and celebrated their ideas and collective efforts in the project. 

Alex taught them how to paint and customize their miniatures and we had discussions - referencing research shared by Jess - about the importance of being able to adapt and customize avatars to suit personal identities, interests and allow young people to experiment with adapting to different environments and situations. 

In the following sessions participants completed their models adding customized designs and discussing how they would interact within a game. Before the final session at Base 51, we organised an external workshop in an attempt to reach more young people with the project. This took place at Gasleak Mountain - an art gallery and event space who primarily host and support queers events, exhibitions and artist opportuntiies in the city centre. Pad and Charlie, two of the directors of Gasleak Mountain and an artistic performance duo, designed and hosted the workshop. The workshop focused on character making, storytelling, worldbuilding and mapping using a large collaborative drawing on the floor of the space. Only a small number of participants attended the workshop but the ones who did were very engaged and developed an elaborate story that followed on from previous sessions that they had been doing with Alex at Outburst, this also gave them the opportunity to meet Pad and Charlie and learn more about Gasleak mountain as a queer freindly space in the city. 

For the final session Liam returned to lead a Role Playing Game with the group using their character sets. The group were really excited to tell Liam about the characters they had made and discuss their ideas for different games and worlds that they could inhabit. From discussions in their first session, reading research shared by Jess and feedback from Alex from previous sessions Liam had constructed a RPG game for the group to play that incorporated their interests and each of their characters. 

The whole group including new participants joined in the final session to play the RPG together, It was fantastic to see the group being so enthusiastic and expressive in this session, throughout the game they each took turns to describe their character and had to deal with different intrusions and situations to overcome challenges and find a portal to the next dimension. 

The confidence and engagement in the group had grown massively from our first sessions and their feedback shows that they are all ‘much more’ or ‘a bit more’ confident in taking part in science or research and ‘much more’ or ‘a bit more’ interested in science and research compared with the beginning of the project. This project has been able to be shaped around the young people and their interests, it has taken unexpected turns and the results have been really surprising and overwhelmingly positive. We have built a relationship with the group and many of them commented that they did not want the project to end. Chloe - the Outburst group Coordinator commented that ‘ the group have so many people come to work with them and I have rarely seen them this engaged before, they look forward to you coming in each week and are actually excited to work with you’ ‘ you have got to know them in a short space of time and they trust you enough to open up now’. We have seen the confidence of the participants grow and have shared in-depth conversations with them around science research and mental health, to continue the positive impacts of the project we recognise the need for this project to be continued, extended over a longer period of time and to work with more groups of young people who could benefit from working in the way.


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