We are thrilled to announce that the search for a postdoctoral researcher through MIT has resulted in our welcoming Johanna Brewer to the AnyKey team! We’ve been fascinated to learn more about Johanna’s diverse background in design, development, ethnography, and tech entrepreneurship, and decided to do this interview with them as a way to share their unique story with our AnyKey community.
Follow Johanna on social media and then settle in for a good read! This interview speaks to the multitude of ways in which Johanna is going to be an exceptionally qualified advocate for AnyKey’s mission and initiatives.
Hi Johanna! We are so excited to have you joining the AnyKey team as a Research Associate at MIT! We want to give our AnyKey community the chance to get to know more about you, and to help highlight how your unique background has set you up to be such an awesome addition to our team.
Morgan: First things first: tell us a bit about your personal gaming history, and include your Top 10 Favorite Games!
My origin story as a gamer starts with my early exposure to computers. Both my parents have experience in tech and when my dad started a PC business in the 80s, our house became a nerd kid’s paradise. At the tender age of 5 I learned to set up machines like the Commodore 64 and TRS-80, and got my start programming in BASIC. I had already been playing with my computers for about a year before I found out that they were capable of running games. After a taste of Adventure and Oregon Trail I was hooked, and I turned my focus to designing little games of my own.
Just as my passion for gaming was blossoming, the Nintendo launched in North America and naturally I begged my parents for one. My best friend had a R.O.B. and I wanted my own soooo badly. Though that part of the dream didn’t come true until a few years ago (when I acquired a Robotic Operating Buddy in Amiibo form), I was lucky enough to get a tricked out NES, complete with zapper and power pad, shortly after it debuted.
From there, Nintendo quickly became, and remains to be, my console of choice. My brother and I spent countless hours plowing through our growing collection of titles. Working our way through the best of NES, Game Boy, SNES and N64 together is something we talk about on the regular. In fact, our recent reminiscing put me on the hook to list my top 10 games here, but before I get to that…
It’s important to say that while Nintendo will always have my heart, my enthusiasm for PC games is just as strong. For me, gaming has always been an extension of my infatuation with computers. Whenever I play games, I find myself automatically trying to inhabit the developer’s mind, problem solving from a meta-level of abstraction. I stand by my assertion that early immersion in gaming taught me to think like a programmer and paved the way for me to become a person who codes in 30+ languages.
But, there was a time when gaming did jeopardize that future. Towards the end of high school I became increasingly involved in the emerging LAN gaming scene, and by the late 90s, my group was among the first to organize remote sessions for games like Grand Theft Auto. When I started college at Boston University in 1998 and transitioned from dial-up to dedicated high-speed internet access, my involvement in online gaming exploded.
During my freshman year I started playing Worms 2 competitively as a roper, and quickly found myself spending 10+ hours a day trying to maintain my status as a top 10 player on Case’s Ladder (shoutouts to anyone who knows anything about this scene). That much game time started to eat into my studies as a double major in Computer Science & Philosophy. I realized that my addictive personality would never let me dial back my obsession with staying on top of the leaderboard, so one day I just snapped my Worms 2 CD-ROM in half and quit gaming cold turkey.
After a 9 month break, I came back as a casual PC gamer for most of college and then switched back to Nintendo during grad school when the Wii dropped. Currently, my electronics cabinet contains a Wii U, a Switch, a PS4, a hacked NES Classic, a Mac, a Raspberry Pi and a mess of (custom) wireless controllers. I have a completely reasonable amount of computers necessary to replay any and all of the games in my top 10, which, with no further ado, are (in chronological order):
• Metroid (NES, 1986)
• Super Mario World (SNES, 1990)
• King’s Quest VI (PC, 1992)
• Star Control II (PC, 1992)
• 7th Guest (PC, 1993)
• Worms 2 (PC, 1997)
• EverQuest (PC, 1999)
• Perfect Dark (N64, 2000)
• Xenoblade Chronicles X (Wii U, 2015)
• Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Switch, 2017)
Morgan: We both got our graduate degrees from UC Irvine! Go Eaters! Tell us a little bit about how your doctoral studies shaped your research interests and your perspective on design practice.
Looking back, it’s obvious that pursuing an untraditional double major at BU put me on a path towards earning my PhD in Information & Computer Science at UCI. After my undergrad, I stayed on at BU for my Master’s, conducting research in computer vision and sensor networks. My interest in working at the intersection of the highly technical and the deeply social drew me into Human-Computer Interaction research, and after a stint helping create a new interface for a molecular simulator running on the Swiss National Supercomputer, Paul Dourish convinced me to join his group to design a bespoke technology for the administrators of a high tech institute on UCI’s campus.
And so my PhD studies began with a multi-year ethnographic participatory design process that resulted in the creation of the world’s first hybrid tangible interface and ambient display, called Nimio. Taking the form of interactive office toys, Nimio was a set of translucent silicone objects that were wirelessly networked to act as input-output devices for a collective visualization of distributed activity. With embedded sensors and internal LEDs, action around one Nimio caused the others to glow in distinctive patterns and colors that became uniquely identifiable by the group using them.
Working on Nimio was my first opportunity to complete multiple cycles of observation, design, development, and deployment for a single interactive platform. Even with such a seemingly benign technological intervention, I was surprised at the unintended effects, both positive and negative, that our system had on the group. Captivated by the power of this holistic and longitudinal approach to the study and creation of new platforms, I developed both the desire, and the feeling of obligation, to be in dialogue with the humans who will use the technology I design, in all phases of that process.
For my dissertation research, I set out to replicate that cycle on a grander scale. My aim was to contribute to the evolution of ubiquitous computing (which was primarily focused on technology being used by large groups in workplace settings) towards urban computing (which was beginning to consider systems used en masse in public spaces). My PhD thesis demonstrated a novel approach towards mobility that emphasized the aesthetic aspects of urban movement.
By conducting a series of ethnographic studies on public transportation in Orange County, Portland, London & Paris, I developed both new ethnographic techniques, like object shadowing, as well as a set of design principles for urban mobility. Funded by Intel, this research led to the creation of undersound, a conceptual mobile music sharing system integrated into the London Underground, and SeeShell, a prototype RFID ticket card holder with a permanent ink display that emerged over time based on a rider’s journeys.
After defending my dissertation in 2009, I set down the path of entrepreneurship to implement one of the prototypes I had designed on yet an even broader scale still, the emerging mobile web we’re all so familiar with today. But I’m sure you’ll ask me more about that later on…
T.L.: It was fantastic to learn about some of the research you’ve been doing around inclusive streaming communities. Can you tell everyone a bit more about what got you interested in the subject and some of the things you’ve discovered over the last year or so?
In 2017 I had the chance to lead an extensive ethnographic study to learn more about the diversity of the audience of WBUR, Boston’s public radio station. Together with more than thirty members from the newsroom and management, we developed a rich understanding of the identities, opinions and values of the audience members thanks to thousands of listeners participating in the research.
Though the findings from that work were fascinating, I grew frustrated that the results were neither widely shared nor quickly acted upon within the organization. Disillusioned to find that this public media outlet seemed to function like any other big corporation, prioritizing the opinions of the few over the will of the many, I found myself venting my frustrations by playing video games (thank you for being there, Zelda).
While trying to escape in the virtual world, I was, of course, reminded of all the invisible electric fences of exclusion that people like me (a non-binary/twospirit/native/vegetarian with non-24) encounter in those spaces as well. And because I was feeling hypocritical for being let down by my foray into public media when there was plenty of noxious behavior to be sad about in my “home turf” of gaming, I decided I ought to do something constructive.
I wanted to know if there was an equal force of good in online games pushing back against the trolls, one committed to positivity over toxicity. I decided that the best place to start my search would be at the nexus of internet and gaming culture. And so at the end of 2017, I began an ethnographic study of Twitch to seek out diversity and inclusivity on the platform.
Over the course of nine months I tuned into hundreds of channels. The most striking observation that emerged from this initial survey was the fact that LGBTQ+ folks, women, people of color and disabled streamers seemed to be creating inclusive subcommunities outside the “mainstream” categories of current popular esports games like Call of Duty, Dota, Fortnite, etc. Instead, I noticed many of these streamers were focused on a very specific subcategory of play: speedrunning Nintendo and retro games.
Members of this community tend to stress the importance of being “chill,” maintaining a “positive mental attitude,” and helping one another achieve what they call “PBs” (personal bests). Many speedrunners, try to cultivate a family-friendly “PG” atmosphere in their chats but others swear frequently or “get lewd.” Nonetheless, all these streamers seem to agree that hate speech and harassment are not permissible, and many explicitly ban racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. from their chats.
The former community manager, Jared Rae, once said that, “What speedrunning on Twitch does, and what watching these types of events live does, is it humanizes inhuman abilities.” Inspired by this insight, I began to hypothesize that the speedrunning community might be predisposed towards inclusivity because, on the one hand, its members were accustomed to bonding over their uncommon capacity to cultivate a seemingly superhuman ability, and on the other, the act of performing a marginalized identity and gaining acceptance from one’s peers is not unlike the act of humanizing a skill that laypeople might previously have misunderstood or maligned.
After all my observation, I was eager to see if this hunch would be confirmed as I entered the next phase of the study and began reaching out to these streamers. I assumed that after interviewing my first recruits, they would recommend I speak to other speedrunners, but instead I found myself chasing down leads in the corners of Twitch I’d never seen before. I ended up observing casual gamers and variety casters (who play all sorts of current generation games from the latest Sims to Red Dead Redemption), and a host of creative streamers like cosplayers, artists, crafters and musicians.
It became clear that the growth of inclusivity on Twitch is a completely decentralized movement that seems to be driven primarily by a patchwork of grassroots groups that are anchored by streamers and supported by their viewers. Of course, just because a social movement is decentralized, that doesn’t mean it lacks a shared set of principles to guide it. By interviewing inclusive streamers and their allies, I’ve been discovering what seems to catalyze the formation of inclusive communities, what values they share, and how they are transforming the platform.
Morgan: We originally crafted this research position as a postdoctoral role, but you’ve been technically post doctoral for several years now! Tell us more about what you’ve been working on since you finished your PhD.
I finished my PhD in 2009 just as smartphones and startups like Facebook and Twitter were going mainstream. A decade prior, it felt like academia was the best place to design new interactive technology, but as I was graduating, I found myself, to my own surprise, being drawn towards the idea of launching my own startup in order to put my research into practice.
So rather than continuing my climb up the ivory tower, I made the uncommon move of leaping off of it. Fortunately, I was given encouragement, advice and a seed investment from Joi Ito to help me make that jump, and I founded a live music discovery service called frestyl, with the goal of making a good local music show as easy to find as a tasty restaurant. Over the course of five years I recruited and steered a team which engaged an eclectic community of concert goers, performers and producers to develop a platform that directly connected event organizers with fans to increase attendance at shows.
We launched frestyl in Rome in 2010 and soon thereafter became the most comprehensive web service for concert discovery in Italy. After relocating to Berlin in 2012, we launched a new mobile application that was featured by Apple as Best New App in Germany thanks to a custom recommendation algorithm providing weekly personalized concert suggestions, as well as a unique built-in music player that allowed users to stream playlists for upcoming gigs nearby. Instead of monetizing frestyl’s geolocalized music consumption data through advertisements, we endeavored to show that it was possible to build a location-aware platform that benefited both our users and our business.
As our company grew so too did the unreasonable demands from follow-on institutional investors. Add a dash of success-fueled co-founder absenteeism to that mix and you’ve got a recipe for textbook startup drama. Sparing you all the details, we’ll just say that none of my employees were harmed as frestyl went supernova, and the explosion eventually landed me back in Boston where I started my next venture.
Wanting to step away from the intense spotlight of big media platforms, I returned to my interest of intimate, hardware-based systems like Nimio. And in 2014, I began work on Rhomby, a presence-awareness toolkit for home automation systems that tracks the indoor location of mobile devices. Unlike other smart home technology, Rhomby was designed following anti-surveillance principles that prioritize user privacy above all else. By storing all data locally in the user’s home, and never transmitting that information to a central server, Rhomby demonstrates the feasibility of an alternative reality of IoT devices that don’t require you to divulge private information to massive corporations.
But after a few years recuperating from my frestyl whiplash in the comforting embrace of a multi-layered programming stack, I started to miss the human side of technology. So in 2016 I emerged from my code cave and founded my latest company, a research & design studio called Neta Snook. Rather than focusing on a single product, our mandate is to create new media and technologies that promote a diverse society. To that end, we conduct independent research projects and lead design initiatives, while also consulting for clients ranging from small tech startups to large media organizations.
T.L.: One of the things that is so exciting about your work is that you’ve been thinking about inclusivity issues across a range of different sites and spaces, including with an eye toward design practices. What are a couple big picture insights from that experience that you think can be leveraged over into what AnyKey tackles?
It’s probably clear at this point that ethnographic research is a key ingredient in my design practice. And so the most important insights I can bring to the challenges that AnyKey is tackling come directly from my work with inclusive streamers on Twitch. Uncovering a set of shared values or standards for behavior is probably my favorite part of an ethnographic study. I find the basic set of operating rules for any group to be an exceedingly rich source of information and inspiration. The values that define inclusive communities on Twitch are a useful lens through which we might approach creating new initiatives for AnyKey. Though they resonate with the Keystone Code, these imperatives provide a complementary, actionable take on a common set of standards:
1. Be Genuine and Honest
Inclusive communities stress the importance of being true to yourself, expressing who you are, and representing your marginalized identity by being visible. For AnyKey, that might prompt us to work towards creating more transparency on the reach and impact of our initiatives.
2. Lead By Example
Streamers focused on inclusivity believe that actions speak much louder than words. Not only are they aware that they set the tone for their streams by how they behave, but they also tap self-starting community members, who pick up the mantle and do the right thing on their own, to become their chat moderators. In order to increase diversity in esports, AnyKey might begin to think about creating new inclusive gaming spaces by leveraging the power of community volunteers.
3. Collaborate Instead of Competing
Speedrunners tend to place strong emphasis on community accomplishment over individual achievements. Even though they are constantly trying to improve their times, speedrunners aren’t trying to beat one another, they are attempting to advance the state of the game. AnyKey has built a strong affiliate program, and so it might be time to set our sights on achieving some more lofty goals by organizing a large-scale collaboration.
4. Create & Share Knowledge
Inclusive streamers emphasize how they both learn from, and seek to teach, their viewers. I’ve been fascinated by the extent to which Twitch has become a space of cultural exchange and communal education. I’m excited to think about ways in which AnyKey can create an Inclusion 101 curriculum through a process of participatory design that captures the knowledge and experience from the inclusive Twitch community in a way that can benefit the broader world of esports.
5. Pass the Privilege
Helping out smaller streamers through raids, subs or donations is a big part of inclusive Twitch culture. AnyKey does great work supporting competitive gamers already, and while of course being able to provide resources for even more players would be great, we might also think about ways to generate a wider network of grassroots support among the community itself.
Morgan: Through AnyKey we’re exploring several different strategies for how to improve diversity and inclusion in gaming communities, from amplifying the work of our Affiliates to providing guidance for folks wanting to make their gaming spaces more inclusive. Which initiatives are you most excited to engage with?
Am I allowed to say all of them? I’m psyched to work directly with players, to learn about their challenges and ambitions in order to really inhabit their daily realities. Similarly, I’m pumped to get to pick the brains of the affiliates working to increase inclusivity through their organizations. I want to bring all these folks into conversation with one another so we can determine how to make more rapid progress and positive change together. And then of course, I’m looking forward to setting those transformations into motion by spreading the knowledge we develop to universities, high schools, leagues, teams, companies, and anyone else who will listen. I’m guessing it’s obvious now that putting research into practice totally revs me up :]
T.L.: AnyKey definitely likes to make sure to get out to various conventions and conferences! Which event are you most looking forward to getting to “table” with us this year?
Whether you call it tabling, demoing, or exhibiting, it’s definitely my preferred mode of attending any expo or convention. While I thoroughly enjoyed attending my first TwitchCon last year to conduct field research, I can’t wait to feel like a more legitimate participant (and skip the 5 hour line). I’m also really excited about going to PAX because *gasp* I’ve never actually been! It’s fun to be an observer, but I probably would say I prefer being actively involved in conferences. So generally speaking, if I have a clear role (tabler/speaker/moderator) to play at any sort of (game/tech/media) con, then I am definitely excited to be there. I’m also hoping I can convince you both to come check out a GDQ with me!