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Empowering Marginalized STEM Students Through Digital Game Design

Posted on Tuesday, June 14, 2022

As a Pilipina-American, ARCS Scholar Erica Principe Cruz knows the joy of celebrating traditional Pilipino culture—and the oppression, microaggressions, slurs, and other forms of cruelty for being “different”—a label dictated by the community around her.

As a teenager, she found happiness in learning traditional Pilipino folk dance. Whenever she was marginalized because of her identity, Cruz said she found rest, strength, and a “safe space” in playing video games. A “source of joy” she still uses while earning her PhD.

“Playing games has always been a source of restoration integral to my persistence to pursue STEM studies. It offered joy, inspiration, and healing that I could not always find in STEM,” Cruz explains.

Playing video games as a safe space away from cultural oppression became the focus of her research as a third-year PhD student at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). She works in the Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) Institute studying how digital games can be designed to combat oppression.

Cruz’s studies specialize in counterspaces, or “safe spaces,” that center on mutual emotional support and resource sharing among marginalized individuals while strengthening a sense of belonging and shared identity.

“Part of my main research is evaluating existing games that might have counterspace elements in their design, but are not counterspaces games themselves,” Cruz explains.

An ARCS Scholar award recipient from 2019-2021, Cruz collaborates with underrepresented and marginalized students to shape what the field of HCI, and game design can look like now and in the future—and develop more inclusive games for the diverse players. Her research focuses on STEM students who are Black, Indigenous, and Women of Color (BIWOC).

“BIWOC face daily microaggressions, biases, lack of support, and various attacks on their experience, expertise, and existence in STEM spaces. It affects their sense of belonging, quality of experiences, and persistence in their fields,” she states.

Cruz is also studying countercultures and how to create and sustain communities that provide support and safe spaces within academia, plus investigating how to design virtual reality (VR) environments to encourage ethical and inclusive professional collaboration. She also researches how people have used augmented reality (AR) for social good and activism, and how AR experiences can be designed to strengthen bonds between people, their friends, and even their pets.

An extensive amount of research that would not have been possible without ARCS support, she says.

“The ARCS Scholar Award made it possible for me to focus on doing excellent, impactful research without financial worry and stress, especially during the pandemic,” Cruz states. “ARCS has been vital to my success as a PhD student. I have been able to pursue my Counterspace Games for BIWOC STEM Students research and feel like my work is recognized, valued, and supported.”

Currently, Cruz and her research teams have analyzed more than 150 video games and run an intimate co-design focus group with 6 BIWOC in STEM participants.

Her research shows using inductive coding and gameplay analysis that counterspace games can and should be designed to foster the joy, rest, and healing of BIWOC in STEM as a way to support their belonging and persistence.   

“My research is just one piece of a much larger movement supporting BIWOC in STEM,” she states. “There is the potential to shape a more inclusive STEM community in which BIWOC are empowered to create more equitable and inclusive technologies for our society.”

Erica Cruz ARCS Scholar