MIT Highlights Distinctive Collections Through “A Lab of One’s Own” Video Game

There are many ways to showcase special collections: social media, newsletters, and blog posts; online and in-person exhibits; and both physical and digital catalogues and books. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Libraries’ Distinctive Collections has upped the creativity factor with an immersive video game, “A Lab of One’s Own,” that allows players to discover archival materials telling the stories of women from MIT’s history.

colorful frame from video game with abstract images, floating pieces of text
In "A Lab of One’s Own," players can explore the scientific discoveries of women at MIT through pages from their notebooks in the archives and microscopic imagery

There are many ways to showcase special collections: social media, newsletters, and blog posts; online and in-person exhibits; and both physical and digital catalogues and books. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Libraries’ Distinctive Collections has upped the creativity factor with an immersive video game, “A Lab of One’s Own,” that allows players to discover archival materials telling the stories of women from MIT’s history.

The game was created by multimedia artists Mariana Roa Oliva and Maya Bjornson through the spring 2021 fellowship at MIT Libraries’ Distinctive Collections Department as part of the Women@MIT archival initiative. The fellowship was designed to create projects, through archival research in MIT’s collections, that contribute to greater understanding of the history of women at MIT and in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).

“A Lab of One’s Own” is a sandbox-type video game, where players explore various levels and interact with material rather than collect points or lives. Players move through six levels that include an island, a cabin in the woods, the interior of a microscope, a lecture hall, and outer space, activating quotes and excerpts of text from memoirs and oral histories, newspaper clippings, audio clips, and ephemera from the archives. They can investigate virtual surroundings such as formulas on a chalkboard, a landscape of photographs, or pages from scientists’ notebooks. Newspaper stands holding clippings on gender, sexuality, and race from The Tech and the Chronicle of Higher Education are scattered throughout the game’s world.

The game’s launch was accompanied by an exhibit in the Hayden Library’s loft describing Roa Oliva and Bjornson’s process, and how they used the Distinctive Collections to create the game.

 

GAMING AS INSTALLATION

In summer 2020, Distinctive Collections Interim Head of Public Services Alex McGee was looking to spend money originally earmarked for a temporary employee to help process some large archival projects that were sidelined with the COVID shutdown. “I was feeling antsy—I was only a year in my position at MIT, and I wanted to keep things moving forward,” she told LJ.

She proposed a research fellowship specifically targeting the Women@MIT collection to her department head and associate director, both of whom were supportive. McGee envisioned a creative, off-the-beaten track output, and the response was enthusiastic; the call for proposals issued in September 2020 garnered close to 50 applications, with ideas that ranged from podcasts to a musical to a cross-stitch project.

Distinctive Collections holds a variety of unique and rare materials that include tangible and digital archives, manuscripts, ephemera, artists’ books, and more. Women@MIT, with support from donors Barbara Ostrom (MIT ’78) and Shirley Sontheimer, collects and preserves records from both large and small contributions to the field, with aim of widening engagement with STEM fields.

McGee—previously the collection’s project archivist—and her committee found Roa Oliva and Bjornson’s proposal to be the most exciting and unusual. “It opens up the archival collection to a very different audience than I think would normally be engaging with these materials,” she said. It was “just a very different way to share these stories.”

The two artists met at Brown University, where Roa Oliva was in the graduate program for literary arts and Bjornson was pursuing a dual degree program with the Rhode Island School of Design, where she majored in sculpture. Neither had much experience playing video games, but Bjornson was introduced to the Unity game engine for another project and began using it as a kind of virtual installation space.

“There’s a lot going on in the experimental game world, with people opening up to games without traditional objective purpose,” Bjornson told LJ. “There are really cool queer games that are just trying to explore narrative. That’s what I’m most excited about in terms of interacting with the gaming community.” She was also inspired, she said, by the early puzzle video game Myst, which her father used to play, and the contemporary multimedia artist Jacolby Satterwhite.

“The Department of Distinctive Collections...were feeling what we were feeling—what kind of work can you make that will be exciting and approachable right now?” said Roa Oliva. “How do you get a younger crowd interested in exploring the archives? How do you get them interested in the history of women and gender minorities in the sciences?”

 

FROM MICROSCOPY TO MAYONNAISE

interior of rustic wooden room, table laid out with various implements, old scientific equipment surrounding it
In "A Lab of One’s Own," the interior of a cabin contains objects and texts relating to MIT trailblazers such as Ellen Swallow Richards and Emily Wick.

Bjornson and Roa Oliva began work on the project in January 2021. McGee would meet with them on Zoom several times a week, walking them through the archives, identifying interesting elements, and pulling out items they asked to see. McGee and her team then digitized anything the two wanted to use for the game. MIT helped procure software and licenses for some of the material and music used, as well as providing fact-checking and citations.

They spent the winter developing the game’s story, text, audio clips, and music. Themes they pulled out included the history of microscopy, women claiming laboratory space for themselves, and early flavor science—”pages and pages of someone trying to figure out the exact compound that was wrong with mayonnaise, why it was tasting weird,” said Bjornson.

Early in the process they decided against a structure that requires players to gather points to move to new levels. “You don’t have to win the game,” noted Roa Oliva. “You can explore, walk around, and exploring is its own reward.”

“They wanted it to be a more free-floating kind of discovery, choose-your-own-adventure pathway, where you’re choosing what you want to engage in in the game,” said McGee. “One of the levels is you’re in an auditorium, and it’s a lecture—there was a conference here at MIT with Angela Davis, the 1994 Black Women in the Academy Conference. So if you’re interested in just going back and rewatching that keynote speech, you can—you don’t have to do the other stuff in the game.”

One of their biggest challenges, both agreed, was trying to distill the volume of interesting material in the Women@MIT archives. “The biggest hurdle in the beginning was, how do we narrow this down? How do we decide central themes and figures to be pulling together so that it doesn’t just overwhelm people?” said Bjornson. “I do think that the digital video game virtual installation format really lent itself to making a semi-consistent world with a cohesive aesthetic voice that I think did a lot of work in bringing together what can sometimes feel like a disparate collection of information.”

A soft launch of the game was held at the end of summer 2021, and several groups within the library tested it. It went live with MIT’s January announcement to widespread enthusiasm. There has been an increase in questions to the libraries about the collection, and additional requests for materials from faculty—as well as a few questions about the technicalities of the game itself. Some users have written in with suggestions for future projects or thoughts on developing the collections.

“We’ve gotten a lot of different kinds of interest in it from a lot of different angles,” said McGee. “People who wouldn’t normally be looking at our collection are looking at this game, and now asking questions, so that’s really cool.” She, Roa Oliva, and Bjornson hope the game draws high school students. “Maybe it’s a creative way to get them to learn the history of women in STEM,” posed McGee. “If we’re preparing them at a young age, getting them to engage in these materials and understand that history early on, maybe they’ll feel more confident to pursue that for themselves if that’s what they’re interested in academically.”

MIT and Distinctive Collections plan to do another round of the fellowship in the future later this year under the incoming Women@MIT project archivist.

“It’s very different and unique, how they engaged the materials in this way,” McGee told LJ. “I’m honestly delighted with the product. I think it’s very approachable for anyone interested in the history of women in STEM.”

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is Senior News Editor for Library Journal.

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