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Northeastern computer scientist receives prestigious early-career award for game design research

Assistant professor of computer science Alexandra To has received an NSF CAREER Award for research that bridges game design with critical race theory.

Headshot of Alexandra To.
Assistant professor of computer science Alexandra To. Courtesy photo.

Alexandra To has been around games for most of her life. “I grew up in a nerd household, which I’m very proud and happy to say,” she says.

Now, To — an assistant professor in the Khoury College of Computer Sciences and co-appointed in the College of Arts, Media and Design — has received a prestigious National Science Foundation CAREER Award for her academic scholarship bridging game design and critical race theory.

The CAREER Award “Supports early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization,” according to the NSF’s website.

To is primarily interested in asking how game designers approach race in the design process and what tools she can build to support them on a practical level.

“Very often, we’ll see … stories of final products, or games going to market, and then audiences being really upset with things like racial representation or gender representation,” To says.

“I want to find out, why does that happen? If we’re teaching folks to do this sort of iterative playtesting and design, why is this feedback not coming up sooner?”

To will interview designers, asking questions like, “When, if ever, do you talk about race when you’re designing games? What does that look like if you’re an indie game designer and you’re a one-person team, versus someone who’s working at a really big studio?” 

In the case of a big studio, “game design decisions have to get run past a multidisciplinary team of producers, other designers, developers, maybe funders, maybe people who are doing sound design.”

Part of the complexity of the research arises simply from the complexity of the teams involved.

The CAREER Award will support To as she conducts interviews to learn about designers’ processes and their resources — or lack thereof — builds educational resources and discussion guides for the classroom, designs activities for professional designers and constructs “a larger theoretical framework.”

“I really want [the project] to be shaped by conversations with, again, working game designers,” To says. “I intend to talk to students eventually too, but I want to start with folks who have left the classroom and are out making things.”

To, who has taught game design courses since she joined Northeastern University in 2020, wants to know exactly how students who have gone through game design programs utilize what they’ve learned.

“How are they applying the theories and the methods that we teach them in the classroom when they’re out working?” she asks. “And then, using that information, that’s really going to inform what the shape of my work looks like.”

To specializes in a subfield of computer science called human-computer interaction (HCI). “We are inherently multidisciplinary,” she says, with “roots in computer science, design and cognitive science” and many other fields.

In her classes on both HCI and game design, To encourages her students to approach their projects iteratively: “we make a prototype, [then] we put it in front of actual potential end-users.” Researchers and designers then collect that feedback to refine the end product.

“I very often tell the students, ‘You should feel ready and comfortable completely throwing out the prototype you started with, completely starting over from scratch,’” she says. “And rather than seeing that as a failure, viewing it as a productive part of the design process.”

“At least the way I teach game design, it’s built on the same philosophy of iterative design. In games, we would call that playtesting.”

To is adopting this mentality for her NSF CAREER research as well. “No matter what, in the process of experimenting,” she says, “I’m going to learn something really interesting, and we’ll hopefully come to other theories and engagement with race that will work better for that context.”

“That might require some pivoting on my part, but I’m excited about it,” she continues. “No matter what, I think I’m going to find out something interesting.”

It’s also important, to To, to acknowledge how “critical race theory is really embedded in the context of the U.S.” she says. “However, games are an international industry, right? There are people all over the world, millions and millions of people who play games, and the American concept of race, I am very aware, does not translate easily to other contexts. So that’s something that I’m mindful of.”

To thanked several faculty and staff coworkers for their guidance and mentorship in navigating the grant writing process: Jonathan Bell, Jane Kokernak and Andrea Stith in the Khoury College of Computer Sciences and Liz Allen, who conducted the CAMD Summer Grant Writing fellowship, along “with peer mentorship from many other faculty,” To says.

“This is my first ever external grant,” she continues. “Khoury and CAMD both have meaningful resources for mentorship around this [grant], I don’t think I could have done this without” them.