Women@MIT Spring Fellows Announced

Mariana Roa Oliva and Maya Bjornson will create an immersive video game to explore archival material

Mariana Roa Oliva and Maya Bjornson have been named Women@MIT fellows for spring 2021 in the Department of Distinctive Collections (DDC). They will engage in archival research, using DDC’s rich collections, to create an experimental video game featuring the narratives and discoveries of women, gender non-binary, and gender non-conforming trailblazers from MIT’s rich history.

The Women@MIT Spring Fellowship invited scholars, activists, artists, musicians, writers, and others engaged in the expansion and expression of knowledge to propose a project that would contribute to greater understanding of the history of women at the Institute and in the history of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Visualization of the video game A Lab of One' Own

A visualization of the researcher’s house in the proposed video game “A Lab of One’s Own.”

Roa Oliva and Bjornson’s project, “A Lab of One’s Own: An Immersive Virtual Installation,” is a video game in which participants play an unnamed researcher living on a small island scattered with several observation stations. As players interact with the environment, including laboratory equipment, paper ephemera, and other objects, they will activate a pop-up user interface through which different characters tell stories about their life and discoveries.

Originally from Mexico City, Mariana Roa Oliva creates fiction, performance, and installation works and holds an MFA in Literary Arts from Brown University. Maya Bjornson is a multimedia artist and a graduate of the Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) Dual Degree program. The two will bring their experience in virtual installation and writing for performance to the project, creating an immersive environment:

“Using the public game engine Unity, we will build a simulacrum world where engagement with the environment—opening books, touching water, etc.—triggers textual, audio, and visual stimuli that brings the participant directly in conversation with archival content. Through choose-your-own-adventure-style guided dialogue, microscopic portals, and goal oriented investigation, we will help users gently and joyfully accrue a knowledge and feel for the materials collected and preserved by the Women@MIT archival initiative.”

Roa Oliva and Bjornson will collaborate remotely with Alex McGee, Women@MIT project archivist, and other staff in DDC to conduct research in the archives in order to design the game, write the dialogue, and produce a soundscape. They will also create a plan to disseminate this online educational experience, which is expected to be completed in late spring.

“We aim to challenge the notion that the past is behind us,” said Roa Oliva and Bjornson. “By specifically targeting science, history, and writing classes in our outreach effort, we hope to introduce a wide audience of young scholars to the empowering stories of lesser known individuals, as well as inspire them to consider new ways of interacting with historical information and approaching cross-disciplinary investigation.”

The Women@MIT archival initiative seeks to add the records of women faculty, staff, students, and alumnae to the historic record by collecting, preserving, and sharing their life and work with MIT and global audiences.These efforts are made possible thanks to the generous support of Barbara Ostrom ‘78 and Shirley Sontheimer with the hope that this project will encourage more women and underrepresented people to become engaged in science, technology, and engineering. Extending from this initiative, DDC also is committed to acquiring, preserving, and making accessible the papers of gender non-binary and non-conforming individuals at MIT to help share their stories and contributions.