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ALT.CTRL.GDC Showcase: Hug Machine

The 2020 Game Developers Conference will feature an exhibition called Alt.Ctrl.GDC dedicated to games that use alternative control schemes and interactions. Gamasutra will be talking to the developers of each of the games that have been selected for the showcase.

Hug Machine takes players to a distant future where humanity is learning how to hug again, using a convenient person-shaped machine to practice their hugging techniques.

Stephanie Andrews, one of the co-creators of Hug Machine, sat down with Gamasutra to chat about exploring intimacy and connection with art and play, as well as the nuances of picking out hugs and turning a dress form into an input device.

My name is Stephanie Andrews, and I’m one of the co-creators of Hug Machine with my group, the Gel Pen Collective. I was involved with all aspects of the project, from the conceptual and interaction design though to fabrication and development.

I’m a multimedia artist and instructor at Gray Area Foundation for the Arts.  I tend to make art games and playful site-specific interactive installations that respond to contemporary issues with levity and sentimentality  (Here’s a writeup with more about my personal art practice).

Hug Machine is a torso with arcade buttons attached. It detects and evaluates how and when you hug it.

We used P5.js to build this experience. P5.js is an open-source JavaScript library for creative code that we often use for our installations. The machine itself is fabricated fairly minimally using a dress form, a set of arcade buttons, a computer, and a monitor.

Hug Machine is representative of the type of work I like doing most — exploring serious themes in a simple, sentimental, and conceptually accessible way.  For example, one of my previous projects, Missed Messages (2018), was a two-part installation about emotional labor and the roles of machines facilitating the transmission of care across space and time — and about creating physical and precious spaces for shared experiences. 

This installation held space for a stuffed bear wearing a hand-sewn “hug-detecting vest” fabricated with custom pressure sensors and a small microcontroller. Visitors were encouraged to hug this bear to store their own hugs for later retrieval by others. There was a machine with robotic hugging arms elsewhere that enabled people to retrieve hugs previously stored and transmitted. Though my body of work has evolved since Missed Messages, I am still always excited to explore new ways to foster empathy and human connection through art and play.

My collaborator, Jimmy, and I had fun thinking of all the different types of hugs we could capture with just seven buttons, and the kinds of emotions, intentions, and circumstances they could convey. We captured some more traditional hugs like “The Full Circle,” but the placement of buttons also invited funnier ones like “the Pillsbury” to exist.  We also added “The No Thank You” hug, because I (and other people) might not always like being hugged.

It was surprisingly challenging to secure arcade buttons onto the dress form.  That’s one aspect we’re continuing to make increasingly more robust, especially given the anticipated additional wear and tear during the showcase.

I really enjoy other games that encourage physical connection and intimacy.  One of my favorite games is Fingle, an iPad game that playfully creates situations for player touch. Having a controller that physically lets you practice hugging just felt like one of the most direct paths to explore the idea of hugs and connection (and consent) in a game, while conceptually positing a narrative world in which such a device has become necessary.

Feelings of joy, laughter, determination, empowerment, courage, skillfulness, and increasing degrees of competency.