eBee was a project born out of Dr. Gillian Smith and Dr. Celia Pearce’s shared interest in quilting and game design. Quilting is a traditional craft that has a long history that bridges gender, age, and ethnicity. The “quilting bee” is a form of folk culture in which intergenerational groups within a community, usually women, get together and collaborate on a large quilt; quilting bees have been popular in the US as well as African countries. More recently, quilting bees have been adapted for online communities, with quilters meeting each other online, collaborating on quilts long-distance, and sharing quilt blocks through the mail.
For many years, we had both noticed independently the resemblance of the quilting bee to the popular inter-generational activity of the board game. With the rise of eTextiles and electronic maker culture, which merges technology and craft, we thought it would be interesting to merge these two cultural forms to create an experience that helps address the gender and ethnic deficits in STEM (science technology engineering and math). Our hope is that by introducing electronics through this intergenerational, multi-ethnic, female-centric activity, we can help create an onramp to STEM through folk arts.
eBee in a more formal sense originally arose out of the work of Ludica, a women’s game collective founded by Dr. Pearce with Tracy Fullerton, Jacquelyn Ford Morie and Janine Fron. In 2005, in collaboration with Katherine Moriwaki, Ludica created the first eTextile activity in the SIGGRAPH Studio. We loved the idea of men and women working side by side with soldering irons and sewing machines. We also found that people emergently taught each other these skills, which though associated with highly different cultures, are actually very similar in many respects. We actually wrote a proposal for funding for an earlier iteration of eBee, which was rejected and sat in a drawer for many years.
Independently, and a few years later, Dr. Smith began work in computational craft. This work was born from her participation in two disparate communities: the male-dominated field of computer science, where she earned her PhD with a focus on AI on generative game design, and the female-dominated field of quilting, where she spent her leisure time. Her work began looking at how computation can enable new craft experiences and vice versa. In 2012, with Anne Sullivan and Jane Pinckard, she co-founded Play Crafts as a company devoted to building computational design tools for the quilting community. She has since created a piece of software for procedurally generating quilt designs. This work resulted in a physical quit which was exhibited at the 2014 Quiltcon Show. She has also created over 300 quilt designs as part of the quilt design-a-day online community. eBee is the first of many games she is developing that explore the bridge between computation and hand crafts.
When Dr. Pearce joined the faculty of Northeastern, she was thrilled to discover that Dr. Smith was an accomplished quilter. The two immediately resonated on the quilt project idea and set about getting an internal seed grant from the College of Art Media Design to move it forward. Ten years after the original idea was germinated, the context for eBee had finally arrived with the rapid growth of eTextiles and introduction of the Arduino Lilypad, as well as a wide array of other electronic materials such as conductive fabric and thread. The new iteration of the project has also been highly influenced by the work of Dr. Nettrice Gaskins, a former Ph.D. student of Pearce and director of the Boston Arts Academy STEAM Lab. Dr. Gaskins’ work is focused on culturally-situated arts-based learning as a mechanism for engaging underserved populations with technology. Dr. Gaskins has done extensive work around the geometry of quilts, which has been a major inspiration for this project.
Dr. Pearce and Dr. Smith were joined by Northeastern students Jeanie Choi, an MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts, and Isabella Carlsson, a first year undergraduate, to conceptualize, design, and create the game.