Counterspace Games for BIWOC STEM Students

Tools

Unity, Zoom, Miro board, Slack

Methods

Focus groups, psychological distancing, critical games analysis, game design, co-design, assets-based design

Timeline

Fall 2019 – Fall 2021

Research Paper

Overview

Counterspace is an exploratory research project that explores how to create digital games that function as counterspaces for Black, Indigenous, and other Women of Color (BIWOC) studying STEM. BIWOC are underrepresented in STEM, and as such, they often feel a weaker sense of belonging and face higher rates of attrition. This project aims to help combat dominant STEM culture by playfully cultivating a sense of belonging and persistence through digital game design and playful interactions.

Problem Space

This project acknowledges the challenges faced by BIWOC in most STEM academic contexts and recognizes BIWOC are already resilient as they must face microaggressions, biases, and lack of formal support on a daily basis. Counterspace does not aim to reframe their mindset, but rather to build tools in the form of games to leverage their existing strengths and help support them. The game aims to create psychological safety, interdependence, and collective joy within BIWOC in STEM as well as strengthen their sense of identity affirmation, belonging, and resistance.

Team

The project is led by Erica Cruz, a PhD student at Carnegie Mellon University’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute. She joined the Counterspace project because equality in STEM is deeply personal to her. She saw this research as an opportunity “to intentionally support [her] own communities” by working alongside “an intentionally created [diverse] team” to design a game that brings joy to marginalized and intersectional identities. 

Research

Preliminary focus groups helped co-create storyboards about fictional BIWOC STEM students. Collaborators were asked to consider the fictional student’s perspective, describing how they think she feels and how she could respond to negative experiences.

Preliminary focus group data analysis sorted the findings into 4 promising directions for game design:

  1. Seeking solidarity and validation
  2. Self-care and small joys
  3. Distraction and escape from dominant culture
  4. Seeking justice


In the Spring 2021 semester, the team will host a remote mini game jam to co-create aspirational game designs with BIWOC in STEM centered around their lived experiences and focus group insights. The mini game jam will also give the team the chance to further explore what BIWOC participants need or want from a playful digital experience that is intended to support them.

The team plans to spend Summer 2021 prototyping a set of refined games for BIWOC in STEM. They plan to spend Fall 2021 iterating on the project.

Challenges

Because of the personal nature of the research, Erica and her team are cautious not to become too extractive in their relationship with the participants. One challenge Erica faces as a PhD student is learning how to obtain funding for both the participants and the research assistants. Fortunately, Erica expressed that she feels extremely supported under the guidance of her advisor Jessica Hammer as Jessica continuously acknowledges the importance of this work.

Impact

Counterspace recognizes that BIWOC are fighting lifelong battles to just exist in STEM. Change is needed so that women of color are seen, celebrated, and validated for their work, not tokenized and questioned. Counterspace hopes to provide an outlet for women to find joy and rest and healing to help them continue persevering in the STEM field by building a community with a sense of belonging and persistence.

Erica wants the Counterspace games to be free and accessible for any BIWOC STEM student, with the hope that Counterspace will help shape the future of STEM, “even by just helping one STEM woman of color stay resilient despite the [challenges] she faces in the field.”