"Cyclothymia" and "Ritual of the Moon" on view at Babycastles (Photo: Kara Stone)

“Cyclothymia” and “Ritual of the Moon” on view at Babycastles (Photo: Kara Stone)

The term “gamer” usually conjures up a torrent of awful connotations– an exclusively white-male circle jerk where the only manifestation of “diversity” is between the Cheetos-stained 4chan nerds with a sunlight problem and fedora-wearing MRM creeps who fancy themselves activists. You can catch all of them gushing over first-person shooters and probably trading furry porn at a LAN party, a place where anybody else wouldn’t be caught dead.

Of course organizations like Babycastles are trying to change all that, not by simply making another LAN party and inviting everyone and anyone, but by opening up a DIY video game gallery where people of all different backgrounds are encouraged to engage with this hugely important medium, and where artists and designers can be recognized for the innovative work they’re already doing. With her ongoing exhibition The Mystical Digital, Toronto-based artist Kara Stone demonstrates what can happen when talented and creative people, who are otherwise discouraged from making and playing video games, gain access to the medium.

The show features a handful of games preoccupied with the “mystical, old, hippie, and witchy”– themes that feel more at home at Catland than at an arcade. But that’s kind of the point. Tarot cards, mysticism, crystals, and astrology are generally thought of as stemming from ancient wisdom and inherently feminine, so it’s unusual to see them translated into a cold, calculating computer-based existence– stereotypically considered the realm of men. But in the same way that most people are starting to come to terms with the fact that gender binarism is a silly, smothering social construct that reinforces patriarchal power, Stone sees no reason why these two worlds should be separate.

Given that she only recently discovered her love for gaming and video game design, it might seem like Stone is simply free of the dogmatic tendencies of the gaming world. But it was that same rigidity that made video games feel so inaccessible for so long. “I’ve always been in the arts, but I started making video games a couple of years ago,” she explained. “I was doing digital media and interactive video and just made the jump to video games, because I’d always liked them, but it was never presented as a possibility– either because I was in the arts, or because I’m a woman, it just seemed, like, far away.”

(Still from "Techno Tarot," Kara Stone)

(Still from “Techno Tarot,” Kara Stone)

It wasn’t until she attended a panel discussion about gender and gaming that she got into game design, by way of a Toronto-based organization called Dames Making Games. “They’re getting more women, both trans and cis, and gender non-binary people to make and play video games in a safer space, and trying to create that space,” Stone said.

Shortly after, she enrolled in a workshop designed for game-design newbs and created her first game: Medication Meditation, an exploration of mental illness and the virtual therapist phenomenon. One of the levels, which are better described as therapy tasks, asks players to “breathe”– something that’s all-too-familiar to anyone who’s ever been treated for anxiety or depression. But in this case, players are instructed to click a pair of lungs, causing them to inhale and exhale, and monitor the clock to ensure they’re taking medication at the precise moment.

Stone was immediately hooked– unlike video installation or other kinds of digital artwork, video games offered her an opportunity to interact with the people viewing her art work, in a way. “It’s nice to have something where the player is really engaged and the story is allowed to unfold, rather than just shoving it down their throat,” she explained.

"The Mystical Digital" on view at Babycastles (Photo: Kara Stone)

“The Mystical Digital” on view at Babycastles (Photo: Kara Stone)

It was a natural transition to video game design, what Stone was already interested in as an artist– a witchy sort of spirituality– wasn’t so different from the techy nature of video games. “That’s a big theme in my work, those two things that seem so opposing, and really they’re not,” she explained. “If you look at the history of games, and even technology as a whole, women have had such a role in it.” She pointed out that the person often considered to be the first computer programmer, Ada Lovelace, was a woman, but that many of the women who are active in technology today remain invisible. “Most technology currently is being made by women across the world, who are working in factories, cutting and gluing and really crafting all of our digital media that we’re using every day,” she said. “But we never think about that, we still code technology as hyper-masculine.”

However, Stone’s work breaks down that hyper-masculine understanding of video games. In Cyborg Goddess, one of the games on view at The Mystical Digital, players find themselves in the midst of a cosmically set choose-your-own-adventure game where they have the opportunity to choose between outcomes that code either “cyborg” or “goddess.” The narrator positively affirms the player, as opposed to breaking them down.

“It’s really about that dichotomy of very-natural versus cyborg– you see that in sci-fi, fantasy, and video games, the archetypes available for women are mother, nurturing, Gaia, hippie, or a cyborg, part-robot, very cold,” she explained. But rather than isolating the two, the game explores “the benefits of being either of those, and maybe the possibility of becoming both of those.”

At first, Techno Tarot seems like a pretty straightforward adaptation of the trendy tarot aesthetic by a video game, but the game’s multifaceted and actually holds a wealth of information about each card. “There’s a robot reading your tarot cards, so there’s this cyber spin on everything,” Stone said. “But all of the cards are in there, and all of them have real meanings that are associated with the cards.” Stone gave each card a pixelated, web 1.0 makeover complete with animation and a setup that harkens back to the RPG-style of the original 1970s Oregon Trail.

Techno Tarot at "The Mystical Digital" (Photo: Kara Stone)

Techno Tarot at “The Mystical Digital” (Photo: Kara Stone)

Stone manages to tackle some pretty complex social issues in her games too. In Cyclothymia, she explores an alternative interpretation of astrology, one that’s  inspired by psychology and her tendency to question the validity of her emotions and wonder what sort of role external forces, including the moon cycle and the planets, have on her inner experience. Stone discovered that this was a useful way to pick apart the issue of mental health and the inadequacy of Western medicine in actually healing people afflicted with disorders such as depression. As she explains on the game’s website, “I’ve found that looking at my own emotional phases through the lens of astrology has been really healing.”

It’s a narrative journey backed by an ethereal soundtrack, which offers a way to “rethink the rhetoric surrounding mental health and see if there are ways of looking at it that aren’t so biomedical or [that result in] horrible stigma,” according to Stone.

Also on view is a demo version of another narrative game, Ritual of the Moon, which is set to be released in the next few months. “It’s about a witch who has been exiled to the moon to live out her life,” she explained. “And you play the game over 28 days– you meditate at an altar and then you make a decision whether to kill the earth or heal it for the rest of your existence.” Dang– talk about darkness.

(Still from "Ritual of the Moon," Kara Stone)

(Still from “Ritual of the Moon,” Kara Stone)

The game features glowing crystals and a black-and-white, crafty aesthetic, which defies what we’re used to seeing in video games. A closer look reveals that it’s aesthetically informed much more by painting, printmaking, and even embroidery than video game precedent. In fact, the script that appears on screen was painstakingly hand-embroidered with the help of a handful of artists, and then scanned into digital existence.

Ritual of the Moon might be Stone’s most out-there game yet, the culmination of her artistry that takes a chainsaw to what has come to be a supremely predictable, and ridiculously boring mainstream video game aesthetic that’s proof of the industry’s deep-seated conformity. It’s kinda funny depressing that, even though the gaming industry is positioned at the forefront of technological advancement, the digital animation, writing, character development, plot, and even music found in most games can be so yawn-worthy. Even the way that Stone’s games proceed is quite unusual (Kill Screen called her first game, Medication Meditation “an unwinnable compilation of activities”), and often they move in ways where there’s no “wrong” way to access the end point.

I asked Stone if there was anything about video games that, as an artist, has allowed her to realize things that she can’t do with other mediums. She sighed. “There’s no real difference between interactive video that filmmakers are doing and video games. It’s just the culture, the culture is pretty–not pretty– it’s, like, really terrible. And I really admire the people who are working really hard to change that culture and change what video games could be.” Her own work, Stone said, “is more about possibility– what things could be like.”

The Mystical Digital is on view until Friday, June 17 at Babycastles. The closing party (with live music and DJs) is happening tomorrow night at 7 pm. Check out more of Kara Stone’s games on her website, many of them are available for download on iOS.