Golan Levin: Our sec­ond pre­sen­ter is Nathalie Lawhead, who is a net artist and award-winning game design­er that has been cre­at­ing exper­i­men­tal dig­i­tal art since the late 1990s. Their work includes titles such as the IGF-winning Tetrageddon games, Everything is Going to be OK, and the Electric Zine Maker. Folks, please wel­come Nathalie Lawhead.

Nathalie Lawhead: Hey every­one! My name is Nathalie Lawhead, and I go by alien­mel­on online and in my work. I make weird soft­ware, tools, net art, and exper­i­men­tal games. You can find more of my work in this slide. I’ve been mak­ing stuff like this since the late 90s and very much love every­thing about weird art on computers.

I’m here to talk a bit about my tool the Electric Zine Maker and how I think the inter­sec­tion between games and tools is real­ly excit­ing. There are so many tools out there built by small devel­op­ers, many of them free. It’s an amaz­ing space that just keeps grow­ing. I’m con­stant­ly watch­ing devs post tools to itch​.io, and it always sur­pris­es me. Tool” is a pret­ty flex­i­ble con­cept here. Each one is dif­fer­ent. Many of them explore their own restric­tions or sim­plic­i­ty in inter­est­ing ways. Many of them treat the con­cept of tool” more as a game.

I think if you do any­thing gen­er­a­tive on com­put­ers and don’t know what to do with what­ev­er you just made, turn­ing that into a lit­tle tool that peo­ple can use to do stuff like tweak val­ues, play around with some visu­als, and just export what­ev­er they make goes a long way. Coming from more of a game design angle, it’s easy to over­think inter­ac­tiv­i­ty and want to build on the sys­tems in ways that get real­ly com­pli­cat­ed. If you look at tool design, often the oppo­site mind­set is the most reward­ing. Just let­ting peo­ple play, with­out a set goal or agen­da, allows for a real­ly mean­ing­ful rela­tion­ship to devel­op between the com­put­er and per­son using it. Small indie tools are ways to explore art fan­tasies. It’s kind of how I start­ed view­ing all of this after build­ing the Electric Zine Maker.

So for a lit­tle con­text I’ll show you some of the Electric Zine Maker.

[this demo video plays, unsyn­chro­nized, from ~2:266:28 of the pre­sen­ta­tion recording]

The Electric Zine Maker is some­thing of a dig­i­tal print shop and art toy. It’s built so you can eas­i­ly make print-ready zines. I made it because I need­ed a way of eas­i­ly mak­ing zines with­out mess­ing around with tem­plates in com­pli­cat­ed art tools. I asked on Twitter if peo­ple would be inter­est­ed in a tiny zine art pro­gram that lets you draw in black and white and throw stuff in the eight-page fold tem­plate. People were excit­ed about it. I asked main­ly because I want­ed to make sure that nobody else made some­thing like this and that I was­n’t encroach­ing on some­one else’s turf.

The Electric Zine Maker grew real­ly fast because of all the inter­est. I orig­i­nal­ly thought that only my close cir­cle of friends would care about it because it’s so weird and dif­fer­ent, but peo­ple all over the world got into it. There was an artist that made a peace zine to protest war and American impe­ri­al­ism in the Middle East, with facts and infor­ma­tion, as legit­i­mate lit­er­a­ture to give to peo­ple for aware­ness. Other artists made some real­ly beau­ti­ful Black Lives Matter lit­er­a­ture in it. Many oth­ers shared auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal work that they cre­at­ed with it. There’s a lot of art that was real­ly touch­ing. I had no idea peo­ple would use it to make such a vari­ety of stuff. 

The Electric Zine Maker is real­ly exper­i­men­tal. You have your basic tools like draw­ing, import­ing images, and text. Then you have all these oth­er weird and sil­ly tools.

Like there’s a brush called the bacon brush” which lets you paint streaks of lines, or an egg brush” that leaves uncon­trol­lable splat­ters as you draw. Tools like the egg brush let you tweak their val­ues so you can even glitch them and draw with those glitches.

You select a zine tem­plate that you want to make. There are a num­ber of these like book­lets, or the clas­sic eight-page fold. And then there’s a menu with a bunch of pan­els. These are the zine’s pages. You fill out each page with your art. Once you’re done, you just print it. The art is auto­mat­i­cal­ly put into a tem­plate for you so you don’t have to mess with place­ment and pro­por­tions and all that. It makes oth­er­wise com­pli­cat­ed zine for­mats easy for peo­ple to get into. I view it as a good start­ing point into zine-making because it helps peo­ple wrap their head around place­ment and folding.

Each tem­plate comes with fold instruc­tions and a video. It’s built to be as print-ready as pos­si­ble. The Electric Zine Maker is a very glitch art-centric tool, too. There’s lots of glitch capa­bil­i­ties in it that allow you to kind of break your art in a more or less con­trolled way. Attaining glitch art itself, and just the con­cept of glitch­ing things, is pret­ty uncon­trol­lable. I want­ed to make some­thing that makes glitch­ing stuff as acces­si­ble as pos­si­ble, and even let you incor­po­rate that as if it was a medi­um that you could paint with.

Many of the tools here I made because I was inspired by projects like BECOMEGREAT ARTIST IN JUST 10 SECONDS. If you haven’t already you def­i­nite­ly should check that one out. I used to talk a lot about how I think it’s iron­ic that so many com­mer­cial art tools on com­put­ers try to mim­ic phys­i­cal media like water­col­ors, pen­cils, and so on when com­put­ers have their own unique visu­al lan­guage that just does­n’t seem to get made acces­si­ble enough, or get tapped into enough. You kind of have to jump through hoops to get stuff like good glitch art to work. Making glitch art usu­al­ly requires some kind of com­put­er lit­er­a­cy. I real­ly appre­ci­ate it when tools try to find ways of mak­ing glitch­ing more attain­able to peo­ple with­out that know-how.

So when you see these small­er, exper­i­men­tal tools that focus on com­put­er styles like pix­el art or glitch art, I think that’s real­ly beau­ti­ful. These tools kind of open up poten­tial for explor­ing oth­er art styles. They let you cre­ate your own unique visu­al lan­guage that’s native to com­put­ers. These are styles and aes­thet­ics that would­n’t exist if it was­n’t for our com­put­er cul­ture. So the Electric Zine Maker explores a lot of that. You have ASCII art, image glitch­ing, inten­tion­al­ly break­ing things, paint­ing with Perlin noise or gra­di­ent rain­bows. The stuff peo­ple make in it ends up always sur­pris­ing me. Just how peo­ple come up with inter­est­ing ways to com­bine all these tools is beau­ti­ful to see.

You would think that if a tool is too dif­fer­ent, then peo­ple would­n’t know how to apply it. You would assume that it’s use­less for how unusu­al it is. I’ve learned that this is absolute­ly not the case. If you give peo­ple real­ly weird tools and allow some prac­ti­cal appli­ca­tion like mak­ing it print-ready in a tem­plate for a zine, peo­ple real­ly get into dis­cov­er­ing ways to apply those tools. They become impor­tant to people.

All of that cre­ative phi­los­o­phy is why I think move­ments like the fan­ta­sy con­sole move­ment are so excit­ing. Each one of these tools, these tiny weird or arbi­trary plat­forms, opens up these real­ly unique art styles that are spe­cif­ic to that space. Bitsy games look unique­ly Bitsy. People explore what it means to express them­selves in these restric­tions that end up not real­ly being restric­tions at all. They are the rea­son why cre­at­ing for that par­tic­u­lar plat­form is so unique. I would almost say that there is a cer­tain ther­a­peu­tic aspect to build­ing for tools like Bitsy, PICO8, Twine, and so on because the restric­tions kind of con­trol the scope. You’re dis­cour­aged from going over­board. When that hap­pens, you’re placed in this head­space of just play­ing around. There’s so much need for that, espe­cial­ly with the cre­ative burnout peo­ple often expe­ri­ence when using larg­er tools.

I think an inter­est­ing point could be made about Bitsy because the art style in it is so restrict­ed and there­fore unmis­tak­ably Bitsy, that it real­ly does­n’t mat­ter how pro­fes­sion­al of a game design­er or artist you are. Or how ama­teur you are. Games made in Bitsy will pret­ty much all be of the same cal­iber. By nature, Bitsy is unavoid­ably egalitarian.

The restric­tions of these tools are what makes work made in them so rec­og­niz­able, too. PICO8 games are unmis­tak­ably PICO8. Then peo­ple try so hard to push the bound­aries of cre­at­ing for it and get stuff like Doom port­ed to PICO8, and you have this won­der­ful­ly weird visu­al echo of Doom on some­thing that prob­a­bly nev­er was intend­ed for a game like that. The art we enjoy from these spaces is almost like a fin­ger­print, it’s so unique. Each of these tools lets us explore a new type of cre­ative expres­sion, and that’s why I think tools from small­er devs are so valuable.

In a sim­i­lar vein to explor­ing visu­al styles that is dis­tinct to cer­tain plat­forms or eras of com­put­er his­to­ry, the Electric Zine Maker is present­ly built as an AIR project because it was my under­tak­ing to pre­serve a lot of these old effects that peo­ple made in Flash. Each of these plat­forms has a visu­al style that’s unique to them. In Flash’s case it rep­re­sents a cre­ative era on the Web. It’s kind of in a pro­to­type stage where I’m try­ing to save as much of that his­toric foot­print as I can so that it can live on in the zines peo­ple make. So peo­ple use the Electric Zine Maker and get to enjoy what I saved, or re-created, from that era. To me, the Electric Zine Maker is as much of a weird, arbi­trary code preser­va­tion project as it is an art tool. I want­ed to save a snap­shot from that era and pay homage to it by let­ting peo­ple still expe­ri­ence it. It’s also inter­est­ing to hear how much peo­ple pick up on that. They often describe it as very Web 1.0.

Every tool or plat­form lets you speak a cre­ative lan­guage unique to it. It some­times becomes unmis­tak­able and almost some­thing impos­si­ble to re-create any­where else because it’s such a unique type of foot­print of that plat­form. The aes­thet­ic is kind of an expres­sion of a tool’s his­to­ry. Flash grew from a lot of dif­fer­ent needs, demands, direc­tions, use cas­es. So the type of visu­al style that came out of that is unmis­tak­able to that cer­tain era of Internet his­to­ry. This is a big rea­son that I think all tech­nol­o­gy (lan­guages, IDEs, cre­ative envi­ron­ments) is beau­ti­ful. All of it offers some­thing spe­cial. So to me, it was impor­tant to pre­serve this spe­cif­ic mode of expres­sion in a tool like the Electric Zine Maker.

To me, the inter­sec­tion between tool design and game design is a real­ly inter­est­ing area. Tools don’t real­ly have to be just tools, they can be a cre­ative type of expres­sion in them­selves. For exam­ple, the fan­ta­sy con­sole is described as soft­ware that sim­u­lates vir­tu­al hard­ware with lim­it­ed func­tion­al­i­ty. The lim­i­ta­tions are inten­tion­al and pret­ty much what make them so appeal­ing. They encour­age cre­at­ing and shar­ing tiny retro-like games or pro­grams built in any of these fan­ta­sy lan­guages or tools. In all of this, the arbi­trary lim­i­ta­tion part is key. It’s so weird to say that, but the fact that any of these tools have such strict lim­i­ta­tions is, like I keep say­ing, what makes them so cre­ative­ly lib­er­at­ing. It’s not because peo­ple need to be chal­lenged. I think they need the dis­arm­ing aspect that comes from some­thing that just hon­est­ly exists for the sake of play. These tools ask you not to take what you are doing in them too seri­ous­ly. They’re invit­ing because they them­selves speak to ama­teurism for how they present them­selves and are. You can’t even say that some­thing like Bitsy or PICO8 are like Unity. They’re not pro­fes­sion­al com­mer­cial soft­ware made by a cor­po­ra­tion. They are in no way scary for that reason.

For exam­ple, I’ve got­ten a lot of feed­back from peo­ple using the Electric Zine Maker telling me how it helped them through a cre­ative rut, or how it helped them get their love of writ­ing back. This slide has a cou­ple of links to these arti­cles. It was so fun to see that, too. Two arti­cles by two dif­fer­ent jour­nal­ists that were pub­lished on The Observer and The Guardian, very close togeth­er, reflect­ed exact­ly that expe­ri­ence. Both of them talked about how the tool helped them. 

I find that almost humor­ous because many aspects of the Electric Zine Maker are not that well imple­ment­ed. Placing an image is hard­er than it needs to be. You kind of have to fight with it to get it just right. By all accounts, this tool is bad if you’re going to com­pare how fea­tures are imple­ment­ed to com­mer­cial soft­ware stan­dards. That is why, though, it is ther­a­peu­tic to peo­ple. It does­n’t let you get too pro­fes­sion­al. Things like this remind you that cre­ativ­i­ty is play, and that’s why we all fell in love with that to begin with. I think that’s some­thing that gets lost in pro­fes­sion­al com­mer­cial soft­ware sometimes.

Here are a bunch of inter­est­ing ones to exam­ine. There’s a play­ful aspect to many of these tools that make them more like games than just tools. Like the Electric Zine Maker, there are many exam­ples of tools that car­ry with them some kind of fic­tion­al, game-like, or play­ful ele­ment to what they allow you to do.

Lovely Composer is a music cre­ation tool that’s rem­i­nis­cent to things like Mario Paint. The UI is adorable and game-like. The space it places you in for cre­at­ing music is very play­ful, in the spir­it of a game con­sole music editor.

sok-stories is a sil­ly game and sto­ry cre­ation tool that lets you assem­ble ele­ments, and share what you make. The way it presents itself is in this adorable and sil­ly way that’s ridicu­lous­ly disarming.

KateLabs is a small game-maker that places you in a 3D space, and you assem­ble lit­tle scenes (sto­ries), and have some inter­ac­tiv­i­ty that you can apply to things. I think this one is inter­est­ing because the devel­op­er basi­cal­ly gave you access to all of the assets for her games, and gave you a cre­ative space to use them in.

There are exam­ples like ART SQOOL which incor­po­rate art cre­ation into the game. You can save what you cre­ate in it. The point of it is to cre­ate art, and I think it’s real­ly inter­est­ing how the the them­ing sur­round­ing that is basi­cal­ly an art tool with a sto­ry applied to it. It encour­ages you to make real­ly sil­ly things inspired by the con­text it places you in.

Then, com­plete­ly on the oth­er side of the spec­trum, you have clas­sics like Okami, pub­lished for the PlayStation 2, where draw­ing or paint­ing is incor­po­rat­ed as part of the game. It’s often remem­bered as being a beau­ti­ful and ther­a­peu­tic expe­ri­ence. I think the draw­ing aspect of the game helps it be that.

So all these, in vary­ing degrees, are play­ful, game-like, or use cre­at­ing art as part of the game. This is a real­ly inter­est­ing inter­sec­tion to look at for how tools actu­al­ly can be like, and how cre­at­ing things can be a game in itself. Creating art is very per­son­al. When you place peo­ple in a unique space for mak­ing that art, it’s kind of like giv­ing them a cer­tain head­space. The fram­ing sur­round­ing your tool encour­ages peo­ple to be cre­ative in cer­tain ways.

The final exam­ple in all this, that I feel real­ly dri­ves the point across, is Library of Babble. This one is kind of like a mean­der­ing writ­ing exer­cise. You’re placed in this beau­ti­ful abstract land­scape that you wan­der through. You dis­cov­er writ­ing left behind by peo­ple, and you can leave behind writ­ing. The way it allows you to be cre­ative, and the space it cre­ates for you to be cre­ative in, strong­ly informs the type of writ­ing peo­ple make in it. It’s moody, intro­spec­tive, very meditative.

So, things like this get real­ly inter­est­ing because they all show how tools encour­age cer­tain types of cre­ativ­i­ty. The Electric Zine Maker kind of has this fic­tion­al uni­verse that you dis­cov­er if you explore the tool. There’s this ARG you can find, mack​erel​me​di​afish​.com, which is a fic­tion­al tech­nol­o­gy that the Zine Maker is sup­pos­ed­ly built in. When peo­ple find this, it kind of rein­forces the idea that this tool is some­thing of a fan­ta­sy tool. It’s a fic­tion­al rel­ic. Using the tool is like being part of that fan­ta­sy world.

If you look at the push and pull between the per­son­al­iza­tion of vir­tu­al spaces like the desk­top, and the cor­po­ra­ti­za­tion of that, you see how mean­ing­ful it keeps being for peo­ple to be able to cus­tomize, per­son­al­ize, basi­cal­ly break that cor­po­rate tone that always hov­ers over our dig­i­tal spaces. Things like desk­top pets remain rel­e­vant because they kind of human­ize that cold, indif­fer­ent, pro­fes­sion­al envi­ron­ment that the desk­top is. There’s this desire for peo­ple to make this more of a home than it is a sys­tem that we are just work­ing on. I think it’s inter­est­ing how we came from hav­ing this real­ly strong Windows 2000 and Windows XP them­ing com­mu­ni­ty where peo­ple would change things all the way from alert sounds, the start­up screen, com­plete­ly wreck the default look, to our cur­rent Windows ver­sion that seems so cold­ly cor­po­rate with actu­al ban­ner ads con­stant­ly inter­rupt­ing your experience.

So pro­fes­sion­al soft­ware, like any­thing com­ing from Adobe’s Creative Cloud, real­ly feels the same to peo­ple. It’s cor­po­rate and intim­i­dat­ing in many ways. This is why nos­tal­gia for things like Kid Pix or Kai’s Power Goo is so strong. There will always be a need for soft­ware that runs com­plete­ly counter to the cor­po­rate and cap­i­tal­ist stuff we view as nor­mal. Photoshop is all about max­i­miz­ing out­put, stream­lin­ing, pro­duc­tiv­i­ty ori­ent­ed. It’s per­fect at out­putting pro­fes­sion­al stuff. Constantly being placed in a dig­i­tal envi­ron­ment like that can also wear artists down. Corporate pro­fes­sion­al­ism, when it’s the default, has this aspect to it that can cause cre­ative burnout. This is why I think so many peo­ple have said that the Electric Zine Maker helped them redis­cov­er love for cre­at­ing, or got them out of a cre­ative rut. It reminds peo­ple that cre­at­ing isn’t all about productivity.

So, my clos­ing thoughts.

There's no such thing as a useless tool! There's someone out there that will need it.

So, all these tools that are just hor­ri­bly user unfriend­ly, weird, quirky, dif­fer­ent, cute, adorably play­ful, are a way to encour­age peo­ple to ground them­selves in how cre­ativ­i­ty is play. Building games and cre­at­ing art in ama­teur tools reminds peo­ple of that. I think it’s won­der­ful that you could build a game entire­ly out of these quirky free tools that are avail­able on itch​.io. The val­ue of these tools is not in the pro­fes­sion­al­ism they offer but the way they make some weird, tiny niche thing accessible.

People often talk about how it used to be eas­i­er to just get into game-making because of tools like Flash that made these oth­er­wise tech­ni­cal­ly com­pli­cat­ed things acces­si­ble to any kid. Game-making has got­ten a lot more com­pli­cat­ed now, and the bar for entry is much high­er. All of these tools that you could eas­i­ly dis­miss as ama­teur­ish or sil­ly, kind of allow for the same. The sim­plic­i­ty and approach­a­bil­i­ty may be a rea­son that some­one dis­cov­ers a love for mak­ing games or com­pos­ing music. This is why we make these tools. It might be sim­ple and dumb to us, but it may be a cre­ative­ly heal­ing expe­ri­ence or break­through to some­one else suf­fer­ing from burnout. It might also be a rea­son that some­one starts mak­ing games. Your tiny tool may end up being a gate­way to big­ger things for someone.

So, all that said, there is no such thing as a too-small or too-amateur tool. All tools bring some­thing very mean­ing­ful to the table just by exist­ing. It always sur­pris­es me how some sil­ly dumb tool I made, that I put out there, becomes so impor­tant to someone.
This is why tool-making is spe­cial. Thank you.

Golan Levin: Thank you so much Nathalie. That was won­der­ful. I real­ly appre­ci­ate just the empha­sis on per­son­al per­spec­tive in both mak­ing art and mak­ing tools for art. I’m just look­ing in the the var­i­ous chats to see if there’s ques­tions. And I guess there’s some chat­ter about the extent to which you think…like how min­i­mal can it be before you no longer have have ideas. I mean it’s a com­mon trope, right, that the con­straints are the thing that actu­al­ly cause the cre­ation, right. But what we’ve seen tonight with your list of tiny tools, your own tiny tools, and the list of tiny tools that Everest was show­ing as well, is about how we know these tiny tools, through their con­straints, give us the inspi­ra­tion. Now, have you seen the lim­it of how tiny these things can go and how con­strained they can be?

Nathalie Lawhead: I feel like that would prob­a­bly be a real­ly great game jam idea: try to make some­thing so restrained that it’s not fun any­more. But like, from my expe­ri­ence just play­ing around with what­ev­er I find on Itch or what­ev­er peo­ple share, it seems like it’s almost not pos­si­ble to make a tool that just sucks because you always catch your­self doo­dling some­thing in it or doing some­thing goofy in it, just by nature. Because I think peo­ple real­ly just like doo­dling. And it just comes nat­ur­al and you just lose your­self in it. So yeah, I don’t think there is a lim­it to restriction. 

Levin: I got anoth­er ques­tion here from the YouTube chat. How do you man­age per­fec­tion­ism while mak­ing a tool that is anti-perfectionist?

Lawhead: [laughs] Oh that’s real­ly hard for me cause I do catch myself con­stant­ly try­ing to put things in a pixel-perfect posi­tion, or…what’s a good idea for an input? Like right now with the Electric Zine Maker a lot of the inputs are number-based and not slider-based. And that was kind of an inten­tion­al deci­sion because putting num­bers in is a lit­tle bit more…I don’t know, seri­ous than a slid­er but also I don’t think it was a good deci­sion because slid­ers are eas­i­er for peo­ple to man­age. So yeah, I’m con­stant­ly catch­ing myself going back and forth and second-guessing deci­sions in all this. I think when you’re mak­ing the tool, you are super picky. But the end results can dis­cour­age that. I don’t know if that answers the ques­tion. I’m not good at man­ag­ing how picky I get.