Mysticism, meditation and… videogames? Indie game developer Kara Stone reimagines gaming



BY: MICHAEL LYONS

I was marginally involved with Toronto-based feminist game making initiative, Dames Making Games, when a tweet from Kara Stone graced my feed in late May. “WHO WANTS TO PLAY DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS WITH ME? IT’S FOR RESEARCH I PROMISE.” I had been to a few DMG events and panels, but knew members more by their games and Twitter handles then their IRL selves.

As a D&D player of a few years now who has even tried my hand as a “Dungeon Master” — for the uninitiated, the person who creates and facilitates a campaign for players — I responded that I’d be willing to DM for an informal DMG group. I took to affectionately calling this my “feminist D&D group.”

That first session, seven of us, with a few first time players, met at Bento Miso, the west-end Toronto collaborative workspace that DMG does much of their work out of. Stone made Terragon Sunray, a half-elf healer-cleric who is also a moon-loving yogi. The group live-tweeted our session, which delighted me to read through after, and this including a tweet from Stone that said: “Terragon Sunray heals people by suggesting they try a paleo diet.”

2_ Indie game developerNot to make too much of it, but in a lot of ways Terragon is an extension of Stone into the world of D&D, a kind of wispy, nerdy, hippy, mystical badass. She started at an arts high school and ended up doing a BFA in film production, however… “I always played video games, but I never thought I could make them,” she says. “It never even crossed my mind, other than… ‘Maybe I’d be a writer for Blizzard.’”

She ended up hearing one of DMG’s co-founders speaking at Vector Game Art Festival a couple of years ago, and she got involved in the organization’s game making incubator, Junicorn, in 2013. “I made the skeleton for Medication Meditation, which was my first video game.”

Medication Meditation is a series of interactive screens where the game takes the role of therapist, mindfulness partner and techno-mental health worker. Stone went on to develop it into a mobile game currently available on Google Play and the App Store. She basically hasn’t stopped making games since then.

“A lot of them are explorations of things about myself that I don’t really understand, or that I want to communicate,” Stone explains. “Video games are so good for that. You get to play with it.”

Stone incorporates personal explorations into the games she makes in really playful ways. She created a simple interactive story, Boss Up, Daughter, when she was reflecting on the theme for GAMERella’s “Boss Up” game jam for women game developers, in Montréal early this November. It depicts a conversation she had with her mother about what it means to be bossy, more specifically a bossy woman.

Another, Super Uplifting Friendship Simulator, is exactly what it sounds like; Stone created it for a friend who she doesn’t get to see as often as she’d like, and it plays like a supportive friend who gives you a shoulder to cry on after you’ve had a bad day.

Aside from gaming, Stone also developed a love for magic and the occult when she was young. “I was super into witches,” she says. “Of course there was a time when I was 14 and, like every young person, got a little into Wicca, you know? As I got older and a little more closed off I brushed it aside and didn’t really pay attention to it. But now that I’m 25! … I guess I was 24, I was like, ‘I’m an adult! I’m going to go back to being 14!’”

Indie game developerShe picked up a tarot deck at a flea market in New York, and the idea grew from there. Stone eventually created a pixel-art counterpart for all 78 traditional tarot cards, and she created a mailing list that sends users a unique tarot reading every few days.

Techno Tarot expands on themes she explored in Medication Meditation, which include ideas of therapy, healing and some spiritual exploration.

“I got into astrology because I’m such a perfectionist of a person — I think a lot of people can relate,” she says. “If I feel really sad I’m like, ‘Why am I sad? What’s happening? What triggered this? Let’s get to the bottom of this feeling and let’s solve it!’ It’s the same thing, like if I’m really happy I’m like, ‘Why am I happy? Should I be happy right now or should I be sad?’ I like astrology because I’m like, ‘Oh, it’s because of the moon.’ I don’t need to interrogate any further; it’s just an easy way to radically accept any emotions that makes enough sense without having to investigate. It’s very comforting.”

“Also to provide comfort, but also to maybe provide a different way of looking at something if you’re like me and I get very stuck in my own head. Also,” she adds, “it’s fun, to have fun conversations with your friends and be able to open up a really deep and personal conversation with people.”

Working with programmer and DMG co-founder Cecily Carver, who is polishing up the programming, Stone will be presenting Techno Tarot at Bento Miso’s “zine-fair-meets-arcade,” Bit Bazaar in December.

“Bit Bazaar is so awesome!” Stone says. “It’s, like, my favorite event ever because I really love crafting, and I love video games, and this provides the perfect combination where there’s so many game makers, and zinesters, and comic book artists that sell their goods, but they also sell crafts and collectibles that are associated with it.”

GlitchWitch (3 of 4)For Bit Bazaar, Stone has created a physical Techno Tarot deck that people can buy, along with prints of the different tarot cards, and a “Tarot Bot,” part mascot, part adorable crafting project. Tarot readings will also be available, on request. “It’s a cool combination of a craft fair and a video game show.”

Trying out D&D, which I can say as a DM that she’s a natural at, was part of research for another upcoming mobile game, Moon Witch, which Stone says is still months away from completion. Our feminist D&D group had the added benefit of giving me the chance to get to know Stone, who I only knew as a DMG maker — and Twitter handle. On why she loves to bring witches, and tarot, and hippy moon-lovers like Terragon Sunray into gaming, Stone explains:

“Tarot is, by definition, a very human thing. It needs humans to read it, and people think that’s what makes it magical, is the affective quality. What would happen if that was transferred into technology? Some people believe that technology can tell the future, or is the future. There’s a sort of mysticism in technology.”

Check out Techno Tarot at the Bit Bazaar Winter Market 2014, Saturday, December 6 from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., at 862 Richmond Street West, bentomiso.com.

And check out Kara Stone’s work at karastonesite.com.