Discovering identity through play

Published May 18, 2022

Dungeons and Dragons, Shadowrun and Blades in the Dark are all well-know table-top role-playing-games (TTRPGs). These games require players to role play and describe their character’s actions through speech, often in a fictional world, as they navigate through different levels to complete the game. Playing in this way allows individuals to connect with others and it can often help people to become more confident and creative, particularly amongst adolescents. Wellington UniVentures’ Senior Commercialisation Manager, Lisa McLennan, has been working with some inspiring individuals who are developing TTRPGs focused on better understanding personal identity.

Connecting with your culture

Eli Kingi moved to Wellington in 2019 to start their degree in Design Innovation at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington. Throughout their studies, Eli has been encouraged to put personal experiences into their work and this is what formed the basis of their TTRPG and Masters degree research. Eli has both Māori and pakeha parents, but as Eli was estranged from their father growing up, they were disconnected from their whakapapa (Māori ancestry). It wasn’t until Eli was 19 that they explored this aspect of their identity and was in contact with their father and father’s whānau. This was a very challenging time for Eli and they spent many years navigating how they could better connect with their culture. Eli decided to use this experience to form the narrative of their research.

“What I’ve found through my research, is that many people who identify as Māori feel that they don’t have the right to say that this is their culture,” says Eli. “The idea behind my game is to give people the confidence to connect or reconnect with their background. My research has shown that people feel to be Māori means to have whakapapa. I hope this game can help people to strengthen their cultural identity and that it provides them with the opportunity to explore who they are in a safe space.”

Eli would like to see the game played amongst rangatahi Māori (Māori youth). Eli understands that strong cultural identity is correlated with improved wellbeing and mental health outcomes. There is significant need for improvement in this area, and as Eli continues to develop the game for real-life application, they hope that rangatahi Māori can benefit from cultural exploration through their game.

Connecting with your queerness

Emily Morris also designed her game to provide people with a safe space for exploring their identity.

Emily’s TTRPG is intended to celebrate, include and provide entertainment for queer or questioning (relating to sexual orientation, gender identity and/or gender expression) individuals, with a focus on helping them to explore their identity in relation to their queerness. The idea is to embrace inclusivity, accessibility and safety for queer or questioning players.

Emily is studying a Masters in Design Innovation at Te Herenga Waka. Just like Eli, Emily was encouraged to use lived experiences to develop her game. As someone who has grappled with their own queer identity, Emily’s research engages with those in the LGBTQIA+ community to see if a TTRPG design can be used to support identity exploration through the lens of a queer game.

The premise of the game is to allow players to reconnect with themselves through experiences in a fictional world. “I want people to play the game and not only weave a narrative together for their character, but use this as an opportunity to come together with other players and weave together their own identity in the real world,” explained Emily. 

The LGBTQIA+ community still faces significant challenges both in New Zealand and globally. Emily would like to see this game being played amongst young people as they take the time to explore different facets of their identity in relation to their queerness.

Senior Commercialisation Manager, Lisa McLennan, has been working closely with Eli and Emily as they develop their ideas. “Both TTRPGs have huge potential and Eli and Emily have previously commented on how much these games would have helped them in their youth. It’s great to work with early career researchers who really want to make a difference in their communities,” says Lisa.

Over the last year, we have welcomed new expertise to the team at Wellington UniVentures, which has allowed us to connect with even more innovators across different schools and faculties at Te Herenga Waka. We have worked closely with those across arts and humanities subjects including, design, psychology, social sciences and education. We aim to actively grow beyond sectors that are traditionally associated with commercialisation and look forward to shaping and developing more initiatives that are socially driven.