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Deepening Social Bonds Through Gaming: Kaho Abe’s Journey from Designing Fashionable Tech to Innovative Games

Kaho Abe ● Game Designer ● NYU Game Innovation Lab

Kaho Abe ● Game Designer ● NYU Game Innovation Lab

When you picture a gamer, you’d be forgiven for imagining some of the least flattering stereotypes that abound in pop culture, like the basement-dwelling troll screaming obscenities into a headset. But that’s not the audience Kaho Abe thinks of.

“The whole ‘boys play video games’ stereotype is so weird to me. A lot of women I know, including women who are older than me, play games — my grandmother played games with each child and grandchild in the family, and I used to play video games all night with some of my aunts.”

For Kaho, playing games ran in the family.

“Growing up, my parents were really into playing games; they were so enthusiastic about taking us to arcades or pachinko parlors. As foreigners (from Japan), they didn’t have a big community in the US, so for our family games were an important outlet for leisure time. And that social aspect of games is super important to me.”

As a child, Kaho was also interested in technology, modifying electronics and learning how to code in elementary school with the educational programming language, Logo. Later, she studied fashion design in college, and continued to take programming classes. In graduate school, she pursued an MFA in Design and Technology at Parsons School of Design. There, she focused on user-centered design and interaction design, learning about circuits and how to build interfaces and utilize sensors. At one point, she took a game design class.

“That was the most amazing experience of my two years there. Game design satisfies my brain in so many ways.”

She saw parallels between what had drawn her to fashion design and what was increasingly attracting her to game design.

“Fashion design is creative, about understanding proportions and colors but also about observing people: what are they excited about? How do they dress? People use fashion to communicate with each other. There’s that social aspect of fashion. I saw parallels between that and the different identities people get when they play games: like [in the context of a game] suddenly the person who you think is shy and reserved is so aggressive. It was this thing that was creative, intuitive, but also logical and structured. I loved that combination.”

In 2005, Kaho finished her degree program, focusing on wearable technology. But ultimately, she knew that she wanted to move away from fashion and towards game design. The expertise in wearable technology that she had developed to apply to fashion design became useful as she explored designing custom controllers for games. Although many people are used to playing games with a mouse, gamepad, or maybe a joystick, game controllers can run the gamut from steering wheels to guitars. Kaho started designing wearable controllers.

“Custom controllers lead to novel experiences. Wearable stuff is interesting because it allows you to play the game through the body. You become the character, your movements move the avatar, and you can feel a more immediate connection.”

In her 2016 game, Hotaru, cooperating players wearing a gauntlet use gestures to accumulate lightning to fight an invisible enemy. Her 2011 game, “Hit Me!” invites two hard hat-wearing players to bop buttons on the top of the other player’s head. When you successfully hit the button, a photograph is taken on the wireless camera perched on each hat. Then, the photographs are evaluated by judges and extra points are assigned for photo quality. The game’s overview video shows people playing the game, all flailing arms and million-watt smiles. That joy and social connection is what Kaho looks for in gameplay.

“I usually show my games at public events; people know they’re going to be playing with other people. I make so many multiplayer games because it’s the relationship between the players that I think is most fun. A lot of times the people who play already know each other, and a shift in their relationship comes out when they play a game together, in how they feel about each other. The game lets their relationship exist in a different space. That’s what is so beautiful about games: they create that opportunity for people to bond with each other in different ways.”

She points to Katherine Isbister’s work on the emotional side of human-computer interaction (HCI). Isbister took photos before and after people played a cooperative game involving hand-holding. In the after photos, you see people’s arms around each other.

Warm and fuzzy feelings and deepened social bonds are optimal outcomes, but they’re not the only ones possible. Kaho is interested in the behavior she can’t always predict or design. Game designers use the term “emergent behavior” to describe all the behaviors — from harmless side conversations to toxic trash talking — that exist on top of the game, behaviors that designers maybe don’t intend. Thinking deeply about emergent behavior makes Kaho realistic about the limits of what can be planned through technology, and what requires other forms of intervention.

“Technology is not the only way I design gameplay. There’s also when I say something like ‘you can’t hurt each other’ before people start playing. That’s not something that’s embedded programmatically, but that link between analog and digital elements is key.”

It makes sense that someone who started her career designing physical objects for the real world in the fashion industry would pay careful attention to analog elements. Indeed, Kaho credits her unusual path to game design with many of the ideas she’s been able to make use of today.

“A lot of people follow the beaten path. It’s important find a stable career of course, but I always think that if people looked at what I studied it would look as though I dabbled, when in reality it makes a tremendous amount of sense to me. I’ve used everything I’ve studied.”

Kaho’s advice to anyone thinking about what they want to do is to do some introspection on what projects and industries light your creative and intellectual spark.

“The state of your brain, the happiness of your brain, is super important. Games stimulated all the sides of my brain. Find the path that stimulates your brain the most. Whatever that means: trying things out, challenging yourself in ways you wouldn’t have in the past — deliberately seek that out.”