Growing up as one of five children, Lishan AZ never had a shortage of people to play games with.
Years later, games remain a central part of AZ’s life — though she is no longer just playing charades with her siblings. She was chosen this year to become the Maryland Institute College of Art’s inaugural game designer-in-residence.
“I’m excited about making new projects in Baltimore,” said AZ, 27. “It’s a really unique position, being able to teach and create games at an institution like MICA.”
AZ, who grew up in Silver Spring, is still determining what kind of game she plans to create during her residency. She’s spending time exploring her new city, looking for specific places where the community could benefit from a shared gaming experience. One idea revolves around connecting passengers on Baltimore public transit through an interactive experience.
Along with launching the residency position, MICA began offering a degree in game design for the first time this fall. Students in the program learn game design skills like programming and can concentrate in areas such as 3D animation, sound design and illustration.
As part of her residency, AZ will teach two courses per semester and complete a play or game-based project. She works out of the college’s newly constructed “Game Lab,” which is equipped with 3D printers to create game pieces, a soldering station for students to build prototypes of game consoles, and an arcade game machine for students to study.
There’s even a “library” of board games, where students can check out Monopoly, Yahtzee, Settlers of Catan or dozens of other games to study their methodology.
“We are the nerd art department,” said Jason Corace, chair of the game design program. “We’re programming and being creative at the same time. There’s math and logic in everything that we do.”
While AZ has worked on more traditional board games and video games in the past, most of her work is interactive and experiential. Think escape room, she said, referring to the increasingly popular physical adventure games in which players have to solve puzzles and use clues and strategy to complete certain tasks.
Gaming is traditionally viewed as a mostly white and male-dominated industry, though some in the industry are working to change that.
The International Game Developers Association, the world’s largest organization serving people who create games, conducts an annual satisfaction survey of gaming industry workers. The association found that just 23 percent of respondents identified as female in 2016. The overwhelming majority of respondents identified as white, Caucasian or European.
“The best way to make games that are accessible and fun to everyone is to have an industry that’s representative of that entire audience,” said Jen MacLean, the association’s executive director.
She said more colleges and universities are creating design programs like the one at MICA.
Ash Turner, a MICA senior majoring in interactive arts, said she hopes to take one of AZ's classes next semester. Turner said she sees more female programmers than male ones when she is in the Game Lab.
"I hope that the comfort I have here and the ability to have these different voices will continue on into the tech industries I end up going into," she said.
AZ, who is African-American, said she didn’t get into game design to break barriers. But being a black woman has created challenges.
“Any time you’re the only person of your identity in a room, it effects the way people interact with you,” she said. “It means the subject matter I explore is not fully understood by my peers.”
Her experiences seem to bleed into the games she has been a part of making — and she tries to work with teams of women and people of color.
She recently led a team in creating an educational alternative reality game called “Tracking Ida,” which was inspired by Ida B. Wells, a journalist and pioneer of the civil rights movement. Players use the strategies that Wells employed in her fight against lynching to investigate modern-day police killings. They do so by solving puzzles, decoding messages, role-playing as journalists and interviewing community activists.
The project was based in California, but AZ said she hopes to bring a version of it to Baltimore before the end of her residency.
Another game AZ has helped bring to life is called “The Commute.” The game “highlights the destructive nature of street harassment while inviting players to choose how to ‘deal with it,’” according to AZ’s website.
A player must dodge catcallers and fight back when things escalate. The catcalls in the game are based on true stories.
“I’ve tried to stay true to my experiences in the art that I make,” AZ said. “Most of what I make could not be made by a white man.”
MacLean said games are being acknowledged as more of an art form in recent years. With technological advancements like virtual reality, there are more exciting changes coming, she said.
Some companies use games to help train employees. NASA offers games on its website to educate people about its missions. Other games help promote healing among children with cancer, and can allow them to visualize shooting their cancer cells.
MacLean said games like those created by AZ, can teach empathy and understanding of different communities.
“It’s fascinating how much games have changed in the last 25 years,” she said. “We’ve helped push the boundaries around computer processing and engineering.”
There are about 30 MICA students in the game design degree program, though Corace hopes it eventually will grow to 80 students. Students and their professors explore the way games work as a “force of culture,” he said, and how they are used to entertain, educate and catalyze social change.
That’s part of AZ’s philosophy as well.
“I don’t believe that entertainment and education are separate,” she said. “Playing is a natural part of life and every game has a message. Being able to decide what those messages are going to be means you’re impacting one part of culture.”