Nicole He isn’t a game designer.
That doesn’t mean she can’t, or doesn’t, or won’t ever make games; it means that the games she does make aren’t what you’d expect. They might be intentionally broken, or they might play with nontraditional elements.
“I’m really interested in technology as it exists today, and then also our ideas about what technology should be and what it should do,” says He. “And then the gap between those two things is something that I think I like to play with in my work.”
He is a creative technologist with Google, a programmer, an artist, and a graduate of NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program at the Tisch School of the Arts, which she describes as “Hogwarts with computers.” ‘Of the Arts’ is important, here: each of He’s projects are artistic in nature, pushing at the boundaries of tradition, expectation, and medium.
Her work often explores the intersections of humanity and technology, with games sometimes being part of that bubble. The recently released ENHANCE.COMPUTER, a voice-controlled browser game that puts the player in control of a sort of busted but nonetheless exciting computer system like one you’d find in CSI is exactly this. Zoom. Enhance. Cuss a little when the voice recognition software keeps hearing the code YRCG as “why are see” before cutting out entirely. It doesn’t work like it does on TV, but that’s the point.
ENHANCE.COMPUTER‘s release attracted a fair bit of attention, including that of Let’s Players and Twitch streamers. He is careful to point out that her goals with ENHANCE.COMPUTER are different than those of commercial games, or even video games as a whole. Because though ENHANCE.COMPUTER is a game—as He points out, you can win or lose it, and you do play it in a traditional sense—it’s at odds with a lot of what we expect from video games.
“There is the fact that the voice technology, well, it’s a little frustrating to play. It’s kind of broken, and that is important to the project, actually, as an exploration of how voice technology works today and also about like science fiction and our expectations,” He says. “But I think as a video game, that is less cool if something is a little functionally broken or frustrating, in terms of how it actually works. And so for me, that’s why that project is an art project and not a video game.”
It’s not about being pedantic or pretentious, two ideas that are often read into discussions of what is or isn’t a video game. It’s a distinction that helps us better understand He’s work, which often ventures into strange places—Soylent Dick has players, or more accurately participants, typing compliments about notorious Silicon Valley food replacement Soylent into a computer, which then causes a phallus to spurt Soylent into a cup.
If we understand that ENHANCE.COMPUTER is fundamentally different from a typical video game in that is not necessarily interested in being functional, we’re better prepared to appreciate what it’s actually doing—asking us to think about technology, about function and expectation, about how we speak to computers. It’s a game you can play and win, but it is not a video game, in part because it doesn’t purely exist for enjoyment or mass consumption.
“I’m just like making shit up,” He says. “It’s kind of bullshit, but to me it’s a game. It’s a thing you can play. You can win it, you can lose it. It’s a game. It’s not a video game. Because a video game is something to me that exists in a different kind of cultural framework, an industry framework, and has different expectations.”
As a graduate of ITP, He thinks about these things. Whether or not her work consists of games or video games or interactive media shaped like a game is a question worth asking; often, engaging with things like Mystery Animal or The True Love Tinder Robot isn’t about winning, losing, or finding true love. These projects raise questions through fun, something He excels at channeling in her work.
She previously worked at Kickstarter, where her advice for campaign runners stuck with her. “My old job used to be advising people on how to run Kickstarter projects,” He says. “A lot of it is really basic stuff, just telling people if you’re making a project, you should be able to describe what it is in one sentence and people should be able to understand—really basic stuff like that. But I think I actually internalized a lot of that advice eventually, so making projects that are funny to me personally means it’s usually something that also makes a message more understandable.”
Despite dealing with complex themes, He’s work is approachable because it’s so infused with humor and play. Her thesis project at ITP was a computer that generated “the best art” for any given moment in time, which He turned into a series of real art pieces that are often absurd. It’s that absurdity, that keen sense of play and humor, that makes He’s work so fascinating. You’ve likely seen Soylent Dick or True Love Tinder Robot or even one of The Best Art‘s projects without realizing it, but they stick with you like a good joke, the kind that makes you think to hear it.
Much of He’s work isn’t quite in the games space—”I consider myself to be like games adjacent,” she says, laughing—but it is of great interest to people who enjoy games. The melding of technology, play, and humor pushes us to confront questions traditional games often don’t. It’s why we need artists and experimental work in the games scene; work like He’s, even if it’s not technically video games, broadens our thinking for what games and technology can be.