Immersive video game explores history of women at MIT

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

A new video game, “A Lab of One’s Own,” creates an immersive environment in which players discover archival materials that tell the stories of women from MIT’s history. Created by multimedia artists Mariana Roa Oliva and Maya Bjornson with collections from MIT Libraries’ [email protected] archival initiative, the project aims to create a multi-sensory, choose-your-own-adventure-style experience that challenges the idea that the past is behind us.

“Our goal was to bring these materials into conversation through an engaging virtual space,” says Bjornson. “We felt that by using new digital technologies we could make the archives accessible to a wider audience, and make research feel like play.”

Multimedia and installation artists Roa Oliva and Bjornson were named the spring 2021 [email protected] Fellows in the MIT Libraries’ Distinctive Collections department. Engaging in archival research using MIT’s rich collections, fellows create projects that contribute to greater understanding of the history of women at the Institute and in the history of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

“A Lab of One’s Own” is a fantastical virtual world in which players encounter quotes from memoirs and oral histories, newspaper clippings, audio clips, and ephemera that all speak to women’s experiences at MIT and in the STEM fields. Perspectives from a variety of individuals and time periods are juxtaposed in a kind of collage that offers new interpretations of these histories. Created using the public game engine Unity, “A Lab of One’s Own” can be downloaded from the project’s website.

In the game, players navigate through different settings – including an island, a cabin in the woods, the interior of a microscope, a lecture hall, and outer space – following a series of floating diamonds that activate quotes and excerpts of text from the MIT archives. Players can also explore their virtual surroundings: examining formulas on a chalkboard, walking through a landscape of floating photographs, or reading pages from scientists’ notebooks. Throughout the game’s world, one can find newspaper stands that offer clippings from publications such as The Tech and the Chronicle of Higher Education on issues of gender, sexuality, and race.

The six chapters of “A Lab of One’s Own” examine different aspects of a variety of women’s lives and work. The cabin contains objects and texts from trailblazers like Ellen Swallow Richards and Emily Wick, who studied the domestic sphere through the lens of science. Chapter Three makes the idea of the “rat race” literal, while texts describe the challenges of balancing career, motherhood, marriage, or a spouse’s career, and an audio track from ChoKyun Rha, the first woman of Asian descent to receive tenure at MIT, talks about her work developing synthetic milk. In the auditorium, players can explore the intersection of gender and race, as articulated in a keynote speech from Angela Davis at the 1994 Black Women in the Academy conference at MIT, and other quotes from archival sources.

“The materials from the [email protected] archival initiative tell stories of women who’ve been first in graduating from academic institutions, publishing ground-breaking papers, and getting together at first-of-its-kind conferences,” write the fellows in their introduction to the game. “They also offer glimpses into the history that happened just as much in community meetings, quiet lab hours, and the home.”

Accompanying the game is an exhibit in Hayden Library’s loft, located on the 1M level, which illustrates how Roa Oliva and Bjornson utilized Distinctive Collections to create the immersive experience of “A Lab of One’s Own.” Archival materials – including audio recordings of Margaret Hutchinson Compton, wife of MIT President Karl Compton, and MIT Sloan School of Management faculty member Lotte Bailyn; a transcription of a 1976 Women’s Luncheon; and minutes from a Women’s Independent Living Group meeting in the 1970s – are on display, paired with reflections from the fellows on their exploration and interpretation of the collections.

“The goal of the exhibit is to showcase the Distinctive Collections’ archival items Mari and Maya used alongside their reflections to illustrate the interpretive process that comes with working with archival materials,” says Alex McGee, interim head of public services for Distinctive Collections. “The many different types of items on display also demonstrates the diversity of our collections. Our hope is that the exhibit illuminates the possibilities for archival research beyond your standard paper or article, instead highlighting the limitless potential for these collections in one’s work.”

The MIT Libraries’ [email protected] archival initiative seeks to add the records of women faculty, staff, students, and alumnae to the historic record by collecting, preserving, and sharing their life and work with MIT and global audiences. These efforts are made possible thanks to the generous support of Barbara Ostrom ’78 and Shirley Sontheimer with the hope that this project will encourage more women and underrepresented people to become engaged in science, technology, and engineering. Extending from this initiative, Distinctive Collections also is committed to acquiring, preserving, and making accessible the papers of gender non-binary and non-conforming individuals at MIT to help share their stories and contributions.

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