Healing Hearts Game Jam – An Interview with Michelle Chen

Did you know that tomorrow is National Video Game Day? Video games mean a lot to us at Shadow’s Edge – video games allow us to experience someone else’s story, make mistakes without judgment, and grow from what we have learned about ourselves while playing. Games that push us to think outside the box about who we are and what we believe in are becoming more frequent. The “games for change” revolution is only growing stronger as more people are seeing the potential that video games have to offer aside from entertainment-only purposes.

We made our game Shadow’s Edge to help teens and young adults learn to build emotional resilience during times of challenge, and we were so excited to involve up-and-coming creatives by hosting our own game jam earlier this year. If you have never heard of it before, a game jam is a contest where creators try to make a video game from scratch in a narrow amount of time. Game jams are popular in colleges and universities that offer video game degrees and can run anywhere from 24 hours to several days, depending on the contest criteria. It gives emerging game artists a chance to put their skills to the test and many fresh ideas for the gaming industry have come from competitions like these.

Back in March and April, we hosted our very own game jam so we could involve new talent in the future of Shadow’s Edge. The COVID-19 crisis was just beginning and we were seeing how the pandemic was turning teens’ lives upside down – so we asked our community of players to help us brainstorm ways to continue to engage our players and reach others who had been recently affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and experiencing isolation. The winner of our Healing Hearts Jam wowed the judges and blew us away with her creative vision for the potential future extensions of the Shadow’s Edge game. I had the opportunity to interview Michelle Chen about her recent win and to ask her questions about who she was, where her passion for games came from, and some of her other work in games:

Hi Michelle. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us about your recent game jam win – congratulations by the way! Before we get into the questions about the Game Jam and your other work, can you tell us about yourself? Tell us things like your age, hobbies, professional background, and if you have any pets that are helping you get through these particularly crazy times (just for fun!), etc…

Hi, I’m Michelle. I am a game developer for the past 10 years. I’m 32 years old (although I can fool people into thinking that I’m still in uni). I grew up in the Philippines where I studied Computer Science at university and later got my first job in video game development as a programmer. I’m a bit nomadic and later on I moved to Taiwan, UK, and now Australia. I love traveling and living in different countries, because it gives me a different perspective on things, even game development. Being based in Melbourne, my hobbies include having brunch and coffee, then after that just strolling around the city and visiting museums and attending immersive theater shows. Sadly, during these times, I can only resort to food deliveries and visiting the exhibits virtually.

Looking at your website, it is very clear how passionate you are about creating games. Do you remember how old you were when you first realized that this was what you wanted to do? Is there a certain game you played that sparked this interest?

I was a big fan of Barbie growing up, and actually some of the first video games I played were Barbie ones. In the kismet way life can be, I actually ended up working at Mattel, where I did work on some Barbie games (childhood-me was so impressed).

But to answer the question, I got into game development because after graduating from Computer Science, I wanted to do something creative, and game development being multidisciplinary (where you get to work closely with artists, designers and programmers) seemed perfect. After making games professionally and as a hobby for the past years, I really feel like this is the right path for me. It allowed me to be technical and creative at the same time, and as a hobby, I was also able to experiment with art and game design.

What is your absolute favorite part of what you do? And what is your least favorite?

My favorite part is coming up with game ideas, especially during game jams, and seeing the process of how one idea is further developed into a game. Game jams are a great opportunity to go through the whole cycle in a short amount of time. My least favorite part is bug fixing, which is very important, but sometimes quite nasty, when you can’t find what’s causing the problem. But I think stepping away for a moment and then looking at the bug from a different point of view, sometimes helps.

I couldn’t help but notice that a lot of the games that you have created in the past and other jams you have participated in have somehow revolved around the topic of mental health and mental health challenges. Do you have a reason that you are driven to this topic when creating games?

For my Masters by Practice project, I decided that it was a good opportunity for me to make something personal (without worrying if people will like it or if it will make money), so I made a game called “Depression Simulator”, which was a point-and-click puzzle game that simulates the life of someone living with depression. Even though that project was personal, I wanted to also include other people’s thoughts about depression. So, I collected other people’s stories about how depression felt like to them and I incorporated them into the game. This project became my form of self-expression and it helped me, because knowing other people are also going through the same things, made me feel less alone.  

It also inspired me to pursue a PhD, so I am currently working on my PhD, where my topic is about developing video games about mental health. As part of my research, I joined different game jams and developed games around the topic of mental health and mental health challenges.

How did you find out about our Healing Hearts Game Jam? Do you feel like you have something to take away from the experience of participating in it?

I found out about the Healing Hearts Game Jam from the Discord channel GamesAid’s Mental Health Jam, another game jam I joined previously. For the Healing Hearts Game Jam, since it’s brief was to come up with possible extensions for Shadow’s Edge, I thought that it would be interesting to come up with something that is still based on the same principles of the game- building resilience and improving wellbeing though journaling and art therapy.

What are you the proudest of from the Healing Hearts Jam? What was your favorite thing to make/develop?

I enjoyed making the different visual elements for this game jam. It was a good opportunity for me to practice my UI skills (I am not an artist), to try to imitate the art style and UI of Shadow’s Edge as much as possible.

Looking back on what you created, is there anything you would have done differently, whether it be something in the game demo itself or something about the way you approached the project?

I wanted to incorporate animojis (the 3D model mirrors the players real life facial emotions, and syncs animation while talking) and voice changing into the vlog aspect, to add more interactivity and make it even more anonymous.

For the demo video you created for the Healing Hearts Game Jam of your ideas for extensions to Shadow’s Edge, I loved the idea you had for adding a vlog feature to Shadow’s Edge. What made you think of this idea?

I came up with the idea about adding a vlog feature, because I think I’ve been watching too many YouTube videos during these times. Also, a lot of the videos that I was watching were vlogs about people sharing what they were going through and coping with these times. It is also building on the journaling aspect of Shadow’s Edge. Although for the demo I made, I incorporated the use of a 3D avatar in the vlogs, on one hard it provides a degree of anonymity, and it also allows them to project their thoughts and feelings onto a fictional character.

I read on your blog that you played Shadow’s Edge before participating in the Game Jam. What is your favorite feature in the game so far and what do you like to do the most in the Shadow’s Edge world?

While I am not an artist, I really enjoyed the prompts for the graffiti. It made me think about some of the things that I’m going through and think about how to translate those thoughts into a graffiti. I do rely on the stencils and stickers a lot though, also the graffiti font makes everything looks cool.

For others who are looking into joining the world of game development revolving around health-related challenges, do you have any advice or wisdoms to share?

I think it’s important to take care of yourself. Making games about health-related challenges, especially personal ones, it’s important to find a balance of how much you are willing to share. Because once you release a game, it’s out there.

When you began studying psychology, was there any new information that really stood out to you that you now take into extra consideration when you are creating games?

Yes, while my research is not about making games for therapeutic purposes, I personally found that working on personal games that tackle mental health, was a good opportunity for me to express my emotions, and that itself helped me a lot. I think of game development is a good tool for self-expression and for promoting empathy, because it allows players to step into the shoes of the character.

Do you feel like you yourself have changed or grown since you began the process of starting your PhD in your topic of expertise?

I think since starting my PhD and going back to school really helped me a lot because it gives me room to experiment in the safety of an institution (and I don’t need to worry about making games that has to make money). I also think about the process that I take during ideation more seriously (at least I start writing them down now), and it’s a really good way for me to record down my tacit knowledge, and it will also help inform my future projects.

What is next for you? Do you have another Game Jam planned for the near future? And what is the first thing you are going to do at the end of quarantine?

I have a Confirmation of Candidature coming up for my PhD and lately I’ve been really focused on that. The first thing that I would do at the end of quarantine is go out and have brunch at a restaurant, then visit a museum.

And here is a final fun one – out of the three Guardians, who do you identify with the most (Tyler, Maize, or Pax)?

My favorite guardian is Tyler, because I always feel like I always have a perfect smiling mask on, and I’m quite hesitant to let people in. I think that’s why I like game development, it’s my way of expressing how I feel inside.

It was wonderful to work with Michelle for this interview, and we at Shadow’s Edge were honored to have her as part of the Healing Hearts Jam. If you would like to see her other work or read her blog, you can visit her website by clicking HERE.