Digital Alberta is featuring a Digital Creator Spotlight every month and this month we are pleased to highlight Kara Stone’s UnearthU App. We dig deep with a Q & A sit down with her to talk about the app and her thoughts on how digital tech tools can be used for healing and transformation.
1) What inspired you to build UnearthU?
I was interested in responding creatively to the common wellness apps we see today, and from a position of questioning how beneficial they really are. What do those apps think are the perfect humans? How ‘should’ we operate? I was living in the Bay Area for a few years before I made the piece, so I was really entrenched in the Silicon Valley rhetoric about apps changing the world and changing the self and improving our lives. I do think that games, apps, and art can be healing and powerful, but in a different way than those wellness apps suppose. In UnearthU, I looked at healing from a disability justice and anti-capitalist perspective, where our worth is more than our productivity and workaholism. Instead of using game-y language like quests and rewards to motivate people to make little changes in their lives, I wanted to design a space where players could reflect on their own feelings at the moment, without judgement or pressuring them to feel a different way, or do something they didn’t want to do. In the game, the player can meditate, free-write, track habits, and have deep conversations with the AI character, KARE, who guides them through the game.
2) What was the development process like? Did you collaborate with anyone?
I actually started designing the piece and writing for it during a long-form yoga and writing workshop in Santa Cruz, California. A teacher guided us through poses and meditations, then gave us prompts to free-write in response to, such as “write your obituary”. I used this to flesh out KARE as a character.
UnearthU takes place over 7 realtime days, so the player plays for about 20 minutes a day. I worked on the first 3 days of it until I had a working prototype, then asked Parul Wadhwa to co-write it with me. She is a fantastic artist who works primarily in VR and makes work about postcolonialism.
I decided to use all found footage for the aesthetics, as environmentalism is a big theme in the story. I found 3D models for KARE’s body, and used found nature documentary footage, mostly from the 70s, to use for her skin and the cinematics.
Andy DiLallo, the composer, also followed this ethos of re-use. He created all the music from the same libraries of found footage, remixing them into different songs.
You can listen to them on spotify too.
Chris Kerich and I programmed it in Unity and worked to release it on iOS, Android, Steam, and itch.io
3) What did you hope would be the impact of the app?
I wanted to give space for people to reflect on their own experiences of perfectionism, and question why we have internalized so much pressure to be a certain way. Who does it benefit? I also am eternally interested in how digital tech can be tools for healing and transformation, but I don’t often see that, at least in a way that I am aligned with. I hoped that using story and character would be a way to have people return to the game, without using addictive design techniques as we often see in apps nowadays. I also wanted to prompt discussion about technology’s role in the climate crisis, and the invisible global labour needed to create our phones and computers.
4) Who do you see benefitting from this app?
Anyone who wants to try out weird, experimental digital art! Or people who are interested in wellness culture. Or people questioning common digital design practices.
5) How long did it take to build?
It took about a year and a half. I started it just before the pandemic hit and of course that slowed the process down, but I was very glad to have a project to work on that I felt passionately about, and enjoyed making.
6) What’s next for you?
Currently I’m working on a solar-powered web server that hosts climate-conscious games, called Solar Server. The server is run from a panel on my apartment balcony. I’m building this because I want to find ways of making environmental games that go beyond just representing climate issues, and actually put into practice sustainable, low-carbon methods.
I just finished a prototype for the first game that the server will host, called “Known Mysteries” and should be released Summer 2023. It is a mystery and deduction game about a woman uncovering climate and familial mysteries set in a near-future Canada that his run by an oil-turned-tech company. You can follow its progress at solarserver.games, on twitter, or sign up for the mailing list.
7) If others are interested in getting started in this field or building an app where would they start?
There are lots of places to start! I came from doing film and video and started in games after coming across community organizations supporting marginalized people to make and play games. Low barrier game making tools like Twine, Ren’py, and Bitsy are great and have lots of online tutorials and resources. More and more schools have game design programs and media arts programs
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