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?