Pattern Swatches for Pico-8

A while ago I made myself a kind of digital haberdashery for Pico-8, that allows me to sample randomly-generated patterns and colour combinations. It is very simple, and mostly just looks like this:

pattern swatches_0

This is a useful tool when making other things in Pico-8, as it lets me choose from “ready-made” fill patterns and colour combinations, rather than designing them myself from scratch or having them be randomly generated in whatever cart I’m building.

Fill patterns probably have some legit reason for existing that has to do with “dithering” and pseudo-3D shading, but I like them because they look like fabric or knitting. They’re very easy to use in Pico-8 code. Here’s an example, using one of the patterns generated in the sampler above:


Also, it turns out that when you set a colour in Pico-8, you’re actually setting two colours at once: an “on” colour and an “off” colour. In the example above I set the colour to “8”, which is really “8 and 0” (red and black). The pattern swatch generator uses the full range of possible colour combinations, and then gives you a number that translates into that pairing of colours.

The use of fill patterns and “off” colours – including how to set “off” colours directly, using a hex bitfield – is explained here:

How to get it


Postmortem: Hanging textile for Interactive Portraits by Anne Smithies

In the post about Festival of the Mind Futurecade, I mentioned this collaboration with Anne Smithies on a gorgeous, huge textile to accompany my interactive portraits. I first approached Anne about this because of a chat I had in Tokyo with Zep, the maker of the Pico-8 platform that I’ve been working with to make these small software pieces – we were chatting about how a particular graphics feature he’d introduced to the platform a few months earlier was giving works a textile-like quality to them, as you could now build landscapes out of 4×4 repeating pixel patterns. When the Crossover Labs people asked me if I could think of some way to blow up the works to something large-scale that could take up more space in the room, the first thing I thought of was textile arts like crosstitch, knitting, or patchwork. I brought this to Anne, an artist who does a lot of work with textiles, has a giant quilting machine, and does a lot of mixed-media art depicting animals – an important theme, since most of the portraits take animal form. Anne suggested applique, which allowed her to combine repeating patterns with large circle shapes, which is a pretty faithful reproduction of how I’ve coded the portraits’ appearance.

The image I gave Anne to work with is the design for the portrait of Iriya. Iriya’s portrait is the first one I made that wasn’t based on an animal – I generally try to choose an animal that matches something related to a person’s story or a name they use online, but I couldn’t find anything in my interview with Iriya or in their online persona that corresponded to any kind of animal. Then I saw the Georgia O’Keefe painting shown above in an exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, and something clicked. I was really moved by the image of this small being with a huge aura, nestled in an imposing landscape. A lot of things changed when I translated this image into the circle-and-pattern-based system I’m using for the portraits, and I still wanted Iriya to have facial expressions like everyone else, so I made the little glowing being a bit bigger. Anne took this image, and re-inserted colour in the applique process, which ended up bringing it to a good middle spot between the stark black environment of that one portrait, and the very colourful appearance of some of the others.

Photograph by Festival of the Mind

There are so many surprising little details that Anne incorporated into this piece that I won’t be able to remember them all. She took a load of old computer keycaps that I’ve been collecting and made them into buttons for the text panels, which are detachable – this way, as the interactive portraits tour spaces with different dimensions, the textile can adapt to fill the space differently. We had a whole conversation about which keys on the keyboard are a good fit for the theme, and which are too on-the-nose (we decided that the “shift” and “alt” keys were good, but “m” “t” and “f” were not). The character’s shadow is made of reflective fabric, so that when the textile is photographed with flash it seems to light up. Anne even made sure that her giant quilting machine would follow a route that resembled a circuit board, so that when seen from the back the piece still has interesting visual features that reference its digital origins. One of the most striking features is a result of Anne using vinyl printing to create a very rigid overlay with digital accuracy on the soft fabrics – I think that’s what really makes this piece look like a hybrid between pixel art and patchwork, and makes it into something that I never would have imagined.

I was attracted to the idea of a textile piece because I thought the traditional features of weaving textiles had an intrinsic similarity to the features of coding patterns in Pico-8 (a connection that was certainly inspired by Emilie Reed’s article on the historical link between weaving and coding) so to be honest, the idea of using vinyl printing made me slightly uncomfortable at first. I had this prejudice in my mind about it, like maybe printing is a bit contrived or inauthentic? But nothing Anne does is either of those things, so I trusted that she was onto something, and I am so glad I did.

One of the greatest joys in my life is letting go of my preconceived ideas, so that my eyes are open to something beautiful and fresh, that I could never have seen through my old conceptual goggles. The precision and flatness of the vinyl ended up being very important to this work, and made it into much more than a piece of textile art inspired by a piece of digital art. It’s actually something new, that clearly has a place in both mediums.

Mozilla Festival

My work is being displayed at Mozilla festival, for the Art + Data exhibition.

The Art+Data experience — part of the Mozilla Artists Open Web project — engages artists, designers, technologists, and researchers in an artistic exploration of a healthy web. With an online gallery ( and an exhibition during MozFest, Art+Data will also feature artists in residencies (on site and online) and creative, interactive sessions. Thirty-six art projects will be showcased, and all (including digital and analogue processes) will focus on data knowledge and usage. They also link to the five festival issues of privacy & security, digital inclusion, web-literacy, open innovation, and decentralisation.

They’ll be showing three of my interactive portraits of trans people in Japan – lo-fi experiences made in 8-bit fantasy console Pico-8 that represent real interviews that I carried out during a residency earlier this year. They were also displayed at Festival of the Mind recently, so to learn more you should check out my blog post about that. Also relevant to my interests is the Queering Mozfest experience, which brings together a number of pieces related to the queer internet.


You can check out all of the exhibited pieces in person at Ravensbourne University London, near the O2 arena, 26 – 28 Oct 2018. Or, check them out online, along with the gorgeous exhibition catalogue, right here:


Icon Magazine article on Videogames architecture

I wrote the cover article for this month’s issue of Icon magazine! Huge thanks to Priya Kanchandani for reaching out with this opportunity.


The article is an overview of spatial narrative, with a particular focus on titles that have been included in the V&A’s big videogames exhibition, such as Journey, Kentucky Route Zero, and The Last of Us. It’s a good time for “games as architecture” readings, with Heterotopias zine having provided an attractive home for architecturally-inclined games criticism, and architects such as my friend Claris Cyarron doing good work in the field. I felt quite gratified bringing that kind of approach to a magazine with a strong grounding in architecture, that wouldn’t normally cover videogames.

I mention Henry Jenkins “Game Design as Narrative Architecture” in this article – this is a foundation text that you always want to have on your Games Studies conference bingo card, but I still wish I was hearing more games critics talk about “narrative architecture”, and a bit less of the “ludonarrative” chatter, which often amounts to a petty game of “spot the dissonance”. I don’t know if this imbalance comes down to videogames exceptionalism (“we need our own word, for that special thing that only happens in our medium”) or whether it’s about people feeling intimidated by architecture’s status as this ancient art that goes back to the dawn of civilisation, and not wanting to be in dialogue with that institutionalised behemoth.

Another piece that I mention in this article, which I will never shut up about for as long as I live, is Samantha Allen’s article on the Borderhouse Blog back in 2013, which discussed the design of game spaces and player-characters’ movement across them in terms of gendered constraints on the spatial possibilities of bodies in society. My affection for this article is only strengthened by the fact that you can’t even google it anymore, because the Borderhouse Blog is gone – you have to find the link in the Wayback Machine. Talk about the world having no space for you – marginalised writing on games has to fight just to exist on the internet. As I indicated in a Critical Distance post, this article is enriched even further by reading it in dialogue with another piece by Henry Jenkins, entitled “Complete freedom of movement“.

Claris Cyarron’s GDC talk on architecture is also well worth checking out. Claris is one of the world’s top experts on narrative architecture in practice: she’s formally trained in architecture, and has worked with a lot of game developers over the past few years to bring this narrative design approach to their projects.


You can get this issue of Icon through the Pocketmags app here:

Or subscribe to the physical magazine here:

And please keep an eye out for it in your local bookshops or art museum shops – please send me photos if you see it somewhere!


Festival of the Mind

Last month, the first five of my interactive portraits were included in Futurecade in the Sheffield Millennium Gallery, as part of the University of Sheffield’s Festival of the Mind. These are kind of like a cross between Tamagotchi and an RPG dialogue system, and they present dialogue taken verbatim from interviews I carried out with transgender people in Japan as part of the Creator Ikusei residency. I’m going to make 13 in total, six of which are supported by Arts Council funding via the Making Ways project.

An estimated 10,000 people attended Futurecade over the course of a week (I’ll get final attendance figures soon), and it was really a thrill to see so many people encounter this work. It’s a difficult time for the public conversation about trans rights in the UK, so it seems more important than ever to put trans people’s stories into public spaces. One person remarked, “this is incredible! There are so many people I want to show this to … emotive and enjoyable and thought provoking.”

The installation looked more striking than anything I’ve done so far, and that’s because I got talented people to help me with it. Brendan Vance improved the UI, and overhauled the code for me so that the pieces wouldn’t crash in unpleasant or boring ways (mysterious glitches I can live with quite happily, and we left plenty of those in there). Jack Lyus built the plinths for me, out of e-waste sourced from local social enterprise Bitfixit, who also gave me three out of the five computers running the pieces. Making use of computers that would otherwise go into landfill is increasingly important to me lately, and Bitfixit were incredibly generous with the machines they’ve gradually accrued over the years that they haven’t been able to find new homes for. Jack is incredibly practical and creative, and did a great job giving the plinths a sculptural quality with a gallery-ready finish.

That incredible hanging piece you can see in the photos is a quilt made by Anne Smithies. I commissioned Anne to make a giant version of one of the characters, in part inspired by a conversation I’d had in Tokyo earlier this year with Zep, who makes Pico-8, the platform on which the interactive portraits are built. We were talking about how as it reaches its final release, Pico-8 is taking on almost textile-like qualities, because of the way it handles patterns. I’ve been playing up those qualities a lot in my design of the portraits, so I wanted to emphasise that even more by having the banner be a textile piece, rather than just a big digital print. Anne took that idea and ran with it in ways I couldn’t have imagined, and she ended up blending pixel art and traditional quiltmaking into something new that I’ve never seen before. Also, the character is made of reflective material, so if you photograph it with flash it lights up!

There are still many more portraits to finish, and more things that I want to finesse as they find new places to tour and be exhibited. Although I’ve set them up to use NES controllers, the simplest game controllers you can get hold of, these still require some knowledge of basic videogame design conventions to be used properly – people who have never played a videogame before are inclined to press the “start” button to start playing, and press the “select” button to select options on screen, both of which bring up a console menu that I don’t want them playing with. Having volunteers minding the exhibition helped, because the volunteers were trained in how to instruct people to use the pieces – and also, incidentally, in how to calm the pieces down when they start glitching out in ways that are expected behaviour, but still not ideal for usability. I like that aspect of the pieces needing minders, but it’s not always going to be realistic when in every situation they might be installed in.

There also weirder things that I want to do with this – in particular, building on the design style Anne has established with this quilt, and working together on more textile elements of the installation. I’m hoping to get funding to do something cuddly, that also solves the game controller issue, and provides an alternative to the big plinths and old desktop computers, which I won’t be able to transport very far!


Freelands Artist Programme


In an amazing piece of good news, I’ve been selected for a new programme supporting artists in the UK! It’s a two-year residency that includes some financial support as well as mentoring, access to archive collections, and exhibition space in London as well as at the Site Gallery in Sheffield.

The other artists selected in Sheffield this year are Alison J Carr, Yuen Fong Ling, Sian Williams and Lucy Vann. We’re already starting to feel like a bit of a cohort, and I’m looking forward to us finding ways to work together and make weird stuff. In total, there will be 20 artists supported by this programme in Sheffield over the next five years, and another 20 in three other cities: Cardiff, Belfast, and Edinburgh.


Rainbow Arcade Kickstarter

This winter, some of my work is going to be shown in the Schwules Museum in Berlin, the oldest and largest LGBTQ-related museum in the world! The show is really important, as it not only puts videogames in the context of queer history, but also is (if I have this right) the first time that Adrienne Shaw’s LGBTQ games archive will manifest in a public, physical space.

Today they launched a crowdfunding campaign for the exhibition catalogue, which would include essays by the contemporary queer games creators included in the exhibition, so that’s me, and some of my favourite games folks: Squinky, Robert Yang, and Naomi Clark.

There are lots of great reasons to support this Kickstarter, and I think the reward tiers are fantastic – the €70 tier comes with tickets to not one, but two museums in Berlin as well as a copy of the catalogue, the €100 tier comes with a custom avatar made by me using some of the art tools I’ve built in Pico-8, and the particularly remarkable €300 tier comes with a copy of Naomi Clark’s Consentacle, a lushly-illustrated game about negotiating sex with a giant tentacled alien, which you can’t buy anywhere!