Creating Characters to Inhabit Treescapes

Dylan Yamada-Rice
10 min readMar 20, 2024

This is the second blog post about producing a videogame with children to allow them to play and tell stories about future landscapes with trees.

The work that I will be reflecting on here is part of the Digital Voices of the Future project led by Dr Simon Carr (University of Cumbria) where the project team (see full list of members below) are exploring how children can be involved in the co-design and production of a videogame about treescapes.

In order bring children into the design and production process, myself and Eleanor Dare devised workshops to be undertaken with late primary and early secondary school children to explore key elements involved in game development. Last time I wrote about my reflection on the worldbuilding workshops. This blog post is about the methods we created to bring children into the character design and gaming narratives processes and my reflections on those.

Character Design Workshop

Kress (2010) writes about how different modes of communication make it possible to gain or lose the ability to express information. For example, what can be conveyed in sound is not the same as in image, nor is it identical to what can be disseminated in writing. This is because English writing is a linear process that moves from left to right and is based on symbols that represent phonetics. Whereas gaming narratives are non-linear because they predominately utilise affordances of the visual mode that uses spatial conventions. Further, gaming narratives are often embodied by the player and are interactive meaning movement is also a core convention. Thus, when designing a methodology to work with children in game design it is important to utilise the modes of communication most in tune with this so they can think through the related materials and be able to fully articulate their ideas.

Drawing on communication theory, such as briefly mentioned above, in the past I have asked Masters students working on videogame designs to embody their character ideas before making them digitally. Even extending to ask postgraduate students to consider “living” as their character for 24-hours to see how they would embody everyday scenarios so that they can add additional depth and ideas to how their character designs might respond in the digital world they create later.

Living as a game character (Yamada-Rice, 2020)

The children’s TV show writer and creator, Andrew Davenport, also provided a strong influence on the development of my ideas in this area. While working with him on his show ‘Moon and Me’, I mentioned that it was rare that so much research and time went into the development of fictional TV characters for very young children. He responded with a poignant story about a child who had been neglected and died alone holding a toy version of one of the characters he had made. Character design for children, he told me, should be of upmost importance because you never know how that character is going to come into a child’s life or how significant the relationship they have with your character might be. It is a devastating story but an important reminder that we must design well with and for children.

In addition, there are artists who have also inspired my interest in embodying characters such as the beautiful work of Charles Freger and mask designers, Damselfrau.

Artwork and images by Charles Greger

I thought this idea could be used with the children in our project on a smaller scale. As a result, we decided to set children the prompt of making a mask and embodying their character in the school playground.

Design prompt for the character design and gaming mechanics workshops (Yamada-Rice, 2024)

As time with the children was limited, we took a selection of base masks for them to use as a starting point. As with the previous workshop, children were also presented with a wide range of craft and natural materials to work with. This drew on the idea that:

“Thinking with and through materials, their signification, their origins and life cycles, can animate one’s relationship to the living and non-living world. As a little push back against alienation it can also enliven one’s sense of responsibility towards that world.”

(Dittel & Edwards, 2022, p.5)

Thus, by providing a selection of natural materials with other selected elements like stickers of eyes from anime and manga, we hoped to provide material links to children’s interest in popular culture which is often connected to gaming and at the same time provide direct links between that and trees and the natural environment.

Character design workshop

Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Climate Crisis of the Oppressed.

Watching and talking to children as they made masks, I was aware that it felt chaotic compared to their regular school classes. Having done a PhD and MA in Childhood Education I am often critical of formal UK schooling and its lack of opportunities for children to engage with the arts, music and making as forms of knowledge enquiry and making equally as important as STEM subjects.

I feel depressed when I think that UK school children are forced to rote learn much of their education, not even having free access to basic human rights such as going to toilet when they want.

I began thinking about the correlation between educational oppression and the climate crisis. For Crary (202), like others, there is a direct relationship between neoliberal structures that include constant extraction from the Earth and the climate crisis. Formal educational curricula are of course intrinsically neoliberal, and hence it could be argued are also entangled with the climate crisis.

Crary is radical in his approach and writes that climate recovery cannot come about until the end of capitalism, much of which he writes is driven by the advancement of technologies and digital forms of communication, and that to maintain natural ecology we must move to embrace more hybrid analogue and digital ways of living:

“If we’re fortunate, a short-lived digital age will have been overtaken by a hybrid material culture based on both old and new ways of living and subsisting cooperatively. Now, amid intensifying social and environmental breakdown, there is a growing realization that daily life overshadowed on every level by the internet complex has crossed a threshold of irreparability and toxicity.”

(Crary, 2022, p.1)

This also acts to reinforce the importance of designing videogames with hybrid digital and analogue materials some of which directly derive from treescapes.

The project team includes a philosopher, Johan Siebers (Middlesex University), who brings various lenses to the project, one of which is the notion of hope. We chatted in the evening before these set of workshops began about schools and their philosophical connection to prisons. Then on the way home, I took his advice and read Freire’s (1967) ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ which fuelled my thoughts on the connection between educational oppression and the climate crisis further.

Freire writes of formal education being used to oppress and I believe many of his ideas have stood the test of time. Perhaps one key point of divergence is that Freire writing in the 60’s states that students were not aware that pedagogy was oppressing them. Whereas I think children are strongly aware that schools are oppressing them (especially since school closures during COVID). Indeed, several children asked me directly why they don’t usually get to have classes like the workshop I was delivering, or not to leave as they did not want to return to lessons, or even to get them out of the school. A literal cry for help!

Simultaneously we also know that children are much more likely than adults (of my generation and above) to suffer from climate anxiety. Yet the UK National Curricula across primary and secondary education has a patchy, possibly neglectful approach to teaching issues connected to the climate crisis. This was evidenced in the “State of the Nation” research conducted by Dubit and the Children’s Media Foundation.

As a result, designing a videogame about treescapes while working with natural scientists and the Mersey Forest, as well as, educationalists and schools suggests that we cannot ignore the messy politics that lie behind both formal education and the climate crisis and their entanglement with one another and thus the need to urgently care for trees.

Despite my pessimism, both Johan and the Mersey Forest regularly bring ideas of hope to the project. For example, Su and Dave from the Mersey Forest talked about planting trees without really knowing how future generations would use them- hopeful spaces. Then, in the evening between the workshops in schools many of the project team went to a bowling, Karaoke and gaming complex, which Johan pointed out was called Free-dom. The kingdom of freedom was an arcade for playing- how apt! Could it be said that hope comes from things that cannot be measured or completely accounted for (freedom)? If so, perhaps the best direction for our videogame is to create a sandbox space for free play?

Children’s Character Designs

Children, but especially primary school aged children produced an enormous variety of detailed masks. Some of which are shown below:

Character design masks made by primary-school children

On the way to a work event in London, I began analysing some of the data from the character design workshop that included the masks above, but also video recordings, and field notes. Although I have still only scrapped the surface of analysing these, it seemed there was a thread emerging that the children hoped the gaming narrative would portray non-human life powerfully rising up against us. If humans can’t curb themselves to maintain the planet then the rest of life will curb us. (Their) Hope.

For example, one child made the following mask:

Radioactive cat mask made by a primary school child

Intrigued by the radioactive symbol she had drawn and attached to the mask, I asked her what she had made. She asked if I knew what the symbol meant and I said I did, did she? She said it referred to wastewater the Japanese government had recently decided to release into the ocean after the collapse of part of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant following the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, which she believed is still radioactive. The water, she said will create radioactive super animals, like the cat she had made to rise up and fight these humans who are putting the wastewater in the ocean. Whether you agree with this child or not, it is a very powerful political statement for a primary school aged child to make.

These powerful narratives of nature conquering human life reminded me of the small moments of disruption that the insects which escaped from the natural materials in the last set of workshops (as written about in a previous blog post) brought to the classroom.

By chance the same day as I began analysing the materials from the character design workshops, I went to see Shuvinai Ashoona’s exhibition “When I draw”. I was faced with the beautiful collection of drawings while the children’s ideas were still in my head. The Inuk artist in living so closely to other forms of life draws human-animal/fish form combinations. It’s a simplistic thing to take from the work but it moved me to think abouthow her close connection to nature removed the distinction often made between humans and other life forms.

Finally, videogames are so important to children that many of those that took part in the workshops could not slow their speech down enough so that I could grasp all they wanted me to know about their ideas. Yet, somehow this show helped further my thoughts about the children’s expressions of treescapes, that included real and mythical animals, as well as hybrid human-animals just like in Ashoona’s amazing drawings.

More than ever, I think it will be the wrong path to make an educational videogame that presents a literal representation of treescapes or simply tell children to plant trees. Children’s ideas are messier and more complex than this, but so are the politics behind the climate crisis and indeed their formal education structures as I have tried to begin articulating here. I think we should trust children to be capable of making connections to the wider topic about the importance of future treescapes even if we do not say this explicitly within the videogame.

References

Crary, J. (2022) Scorched earth. Beyond the Digital Age to a Post-Capialist world. London/New York: Verso

Dittel, K. & Edwards, C. (eds) (2022)Material beyond extraction and kinship beyond the nuclear family. Onomatopee 208.

Freire, P. (1967/2017) Pedagogy of the Oppressed.Penguin Modern Classics.

Kress, G. (2010) Multimodality: A Social Semiotic Approach to Contemporary Communication. Routledge.

Full Project Team

Dr Simon Carr and Dr Ian Davenport (Cumbria University), Dr Khawla Badwan and Dr Su Corcoran (Manchester Metropolitan University), Prof. Johan Siebers (Middlesex University), Dr Susannah Gill & Dr Dave Armson (Mersey Forest) and myself and Dr Eleanor Dare (X||dinary Stories).

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