Gillian Smith never thought she could do art. Now, she does it constantly with the help of an unlikely source: programming. With a background in computer science and currently working as a game design professor at Northeastern University, Smith has long blazed past her initial doubts as an artist. Best known for making Threadsteading, a strategy game played entirely on a sewing machine, she’s become known for creating games combining crafts with generative design.
“I wasn’t good at drawing and so I thought I would never be good at art, which is not something people should ever think,” she admits. Instead, she dove towards her analytical side studying computer science both in her undergraduate and graduate days. Serendipitously though, a third-year undergraduate computer graphics class left her with an epiphany.
“I was not a super good computer science student during my first couple of years,” she recalls. “In my third year of undergrad though, I took a computer graphics class and all of a sudden, everything kind of gelled together. I was like, ‘Oh, I can use computers to do art. That’s kind of cool!'”
That class would leave a lasting impact, becoming her first foray into making games. Admittedly, the first game she made there was terrible: “You played Godzilla and you were marching around a town trying to destroy all the buildings…there was also a tank with a monkey on it that shot bananas at you.” A bit embarrassed by that memory, she does admit that it was one of the first instances where she created something that worked and looked “cool.”
Buoyed by that experience, she wanted to keep going. Limited by her artistic skills though, she wondered instead if she could wield her programming skills to create art. “I got interested in what it means to be creative and what it means for a human artist to produce art,” she explains. “Can I have the computer try to replicate that process for me?”
That question led her to the field of non-photorealistic rendering where the goal is to have computers make stylized works mimicking those done by artists like Monet. This eventually led to her research and work in generative design along with the growing desire to figure out “how we can mimic artists in ways that make it look like computers are doing art.”
Drawn by the intersection between art and technology, her works started to explore what happens when you combine the two. One of these works is Threadsteading, a game pairing two unlikely things: a sewing machine and a strategy game.
Created alongside five other people at Disney Research (Jim McCann, April Grow, Chenxi Liu, Lea Albaugh, and Jennifer Mankoff), Smith says they wanted to take an existing technology like a sewing machine and repurpose it into a gaming platform.
“Sewing is a leisure activity. When I was growing up, I played with these craft kits or little embroidery kits,” she says, “…and so craft feels like a very playful thing and games are a very playful thing. [We thought] where can those two actually combine?”
Looking at the mechanics (and trying to reverse-engineer) one of their sewing machines, Smith and the rest of her team knew they had to tackle its inherent constraints. When dealing with such a huge machine (“ten feet wide and three feet deep”), they needed the thread to be an unbroken line. “You want to minimize the number of times you stick the needle and cut the thread because it can lead to really messy and knotty results,” she explains. “The thread can tangle if you lift the needle and move it across the sewing surface and put it down again.”
That constraint made her engineering side curious. Wracking her brain, she tried to figure out games where “you never need to lift up the ‘pen’…games where, once you start drawing, you’re drawing forever until the game is over.” Consequently, that led them to creating a turn-based strategy game where players jockey for territorial control (taking turns by choosing which direction the sewing head will go to).
Smith says she loves the game’s juxtaposition between something so crafty yet so strategic: “You have a machine that does [or is seen as doing] very feminine things like sewing and embrodiery…but then [with the game], you’re also engaging in this deep strategic thinking with this board game design, which [tends to be] cast as something very masculine in our society.”
This juxtposition along with the merging of both digital and physical seem to be the common threads in many of Smith’s work and research. As an educator, Smith says some of this interest comes from being fascinated in trying to figure out ways to get people more engaged and enabled into doing programming and making digital things. Crafting seems like a good opening.
“There’s a lot of similarities with the way you need to think when you’re doing computer science and the way you need to think when you’re doing handcrafts like knitting or embroidery,” she points out. “When you follow a knitting pattern [for example], it can directly translate into a program. It has a lot of constructs to it, loops, procedural instructions, and if-statements. There’s even a thread of execution to it (pun intended).”
Along with this commonality, the hybridity of Smith’s work tends to also draw a broader audience. As an example, she points to the eBee, another one of her quilting games. In the game, all the components are quilted with conductive fabric embedded through them. When the players put the quilted pieces down on the game board, they are not only designing a quilt but also trying to build and complete circuits to light up the LEDs.
“I think one of the most fulfilling exeriences I’ve ever had [in making games] has been seeing a bunch of people playing the game and enjoying it for different reasons,” she says. She likes seeing how some folks appreciate the quilting aspect, others are drawn to the circuit design while kids are enamoured by the bright colours (and thinking “it’s so fun to play with”). “People sitting at the same table coming from different backgrounds, playing the same game, and liking it for different reasons, I love that,” she says.
While Smith never imagined art would play such a large role in her life, programming led her to an unlikely path that now sees her creating works at the interaction of crafts and technology. She admits she’s always loved the idea of merging the old and the new. As such, with many of her works combining these two, her path seems like an obvious one all along.
“I’ve always been really interested in crafts and handicrafts. Needlepoint crafts and quilting have been around forever and computers have only been around for fifty or so years,” she says. “I love looking at what happens when you stick both of them together.”