Interview by Kolby Harvey

What is your lab called and where is it?

Digital Future Lab (DFL), University of Washington Bothell (Bothell, Washington).

What sorts of projects and activities form the core of your work? Is there a specific temporal or technological focus for your lab?

DFL is an interactive media production studio developing narrative experiences and non-violent video games, and offering internships in coding, narrative design, game mechanic/systems/level design, project management, art & animation, marketing, and other disciplines. The focus of the lab, however, is on student professional development and modelling the power of what we refer to as “transformational diversity” to make teams and products more innovative and inclusive. We use game development as our sandbox because it brings together such a wide range of disciplines and allows students from all university majors and programs to deeply participate in R&D without requiring extensive domain expertise.

Research has shown the many benefits of diverse teams, but that research isn’t necessarily translating into business practice. DFL recruits to maximize diversity across the widest possible spectrum (including typical markers such as race and gender, and adding neurodiversity, educational background, and many other forms of difference).

DFL has perhaps one of the most diverse teams in the technology industry, and we apply theoretical content drawn from queer & feminist sources to our culture and team development. Students are expected to actively interrogate issues of race, class, gender, and ability as those concepts relate to the work they produce in the lab. DFL models intersectional approaches to equity and inclusion and has seen exceptional results (e.g., DFL was only the second university studio to meet the quality bar for Microsoft’s Independent Developers Program).

Who uses the lab? Is it a space for students, for researchers, for artists, for seminars?

DFL is primarily used by undergraduate and graduate student interns.

What sorts of knowledge does the lab produce (writing, demonstrations, patents etc.) and how is it circulated (e.g. conference papers, pamphlets, books, videos, social media)?

DFL produces both original commercial IP (we recently launched our first game Ghostlight Manor on the Steam distribution platform and will soon release an updated multiplayer version as a Microsoft Windows 10 app store release). Proceeds from the sale of the game are split between the program (funding paid student positions, purchasing equipment) and the students who contributed to the project (we use a points-based system  to determine student profit sharing that includes length of service and type of contribution).

Most of our projects originate as research prototypes designed to teach introductory programming concepts to high school and university students. This work has been published in journals such as the IEEE journal Computer and featured at conferences such as SIGCSE and FDG.

We’ve also begun operationalizing our approach to diversity and creating workshop content to help academic colleagues and industry leaders integrate transformational principles into their daily cultures and hiring practices.

Tell us about your infrastructure. Do you have a designated space and how does that work?

It’s important that our highly diverse teams are able to work together in the same physical space to develop the exceptional interpersonal skills required to execute high-level tasks while they’re also building domain competence. DFL is located in a secure 1000 sq. ft. studio in a central location on campus and can be accessed by interns 24×7. There are currently about 50 student interns working in the lab and our space can hold a max of 25 at a time (we’ve capped student participation at 50 due to space and staffing constraints).

What sorts of support does the lab receive? (e.g. government grants, institutional grants, private donors)

The lab has historically been funded by institutional grants, although we’re working to move to a self-sustaining model via external grants and donors.

What are your major theoretical touchstones?

The development work in the lab draws from a broad theoretical base that includes fields ranging from human-centered design to digital poetics, but all work is conducted under the umbrella of intersectional feminism.

Going off of that, your lab seems deeply committed to social justice, equity, and inclusivity. Can you speak to this? How has this affected how your lab functions and the kinds of work your lab produces?

This could be a very long answer. Because intersectional feminism guides the culture of the lab and informs the work we do, we’re a very unique place; the lab values relationships over transactions, and we envision a very different work life that prioritizes kindness, compassion, and collaboration over competition, profit, and shareholder value. The fact that we’re delivering commercial products in an industry that actively rewards toxic competition and devalues kindness and compassion means we also need to ensure our interns are fully prepared for the reality they’re going to face when they start their careers, but also that they feel empowered to fight for change. As for the work we produce: as one example, our art team is designing a female-identified character for a new science-fiction themed game who’s the captain of a space ship and happens to also be a hijab-wearing Muslim woman; the student character design lead identifies as a black woman and she’s working with our Muslim Student Union to ensure the character’s representation is both authentic and respectful. We’re making the world we want to live in.

Work in the lab is hard and things move very quickly (we always have looming production deadlines, we’re constantly demoing work at conferences, speaking on industry panels, etc.), but our attrition rate is almost unbelievably low (we have some interns who have stayed with the lab for their entire undergraduate careers).

What would you say is the lab’s most significant accomplishment to date?

Our game Ghostlight Manor has been in production for over 3 years and over 100 students have contributed to its development; Ghostlight Manor has been used in interaction design research projects, it’s being used to teach programming, it’s currently available as a commercial title, etc.). While the game’s success is a significant accomplishment, student outcomes speak more directly to the lab’s mission: our alumni are highly recruited and working in a wide range of industries (including design consultancies, journalism, and throughout the technology industry) and many are actively involved in bringing the principles of transformational diversity to their companies. I believe the work the lab is doing to advance equity and inclusion in the technology industry will have a tangible impact on our region.

Could you briefly describe your plans for the lab over the next 3-5 years?

Our 3-5 year plan is focused on long-term funding that allows us to become more self-sustaining, expanding access (we can only accommodate a fraction of the students who are interested in participating), and diversifying the types of experiences we create (we’ve recently begun exploring other kinds of interactive narratives and there’s a desire to do more experimental creative work).

What makes your lab a lab?

The work of the lab advances human knowledge in a number of areas, including the human-computer interaction research we conduct (particularly relating to accessibility), the techniques we’re developing to increase cultural competence on production teams, and the work we do to validate the benefits of intersectional approaches to diversity as they apply to innovation efforts.