Meet Your Gaming Neighbor: Angela Washko Joins University of Michigan Arts Scene

The new Stamps prof on how she connects gaming with big issues like misogyny, feminism and motherhood

Somewhere, a track coach is barking something — maybe motivational, definitely deafening — into the ear of a college freshman. If she listens carefully, she might do something amazing. She might make video art.

"I went to undergrad on a sports scholarship for track and field," explains Angela Washko, Ann Arbor's newest artist neighbor. Sports took Washko from her small Pennsylvania town to Temple University's Tyler School of Art and Architecture. Unfortunately, the university’s faculty saw Washko's "secret jock" life as a distraction rather than a source of inspiration.

"Once my professors knew that I was a competitive athlete, there was a lot of dismissal of the seriousness of my art,” Washko recalls.

Simultaneously, instructors were pushing Washko toward a career of "painter's paintings" destined for New York City galleries. To escape others' expectations, Washko headed toward the unexpected.

"I said, 'I'm going to put my friends in drag and have them perform as my track coach and yell at me.' My first video work was about that experience, and it was kind of a breakthrough."

This act of student rebellion posed a question that Washko continues to ask: Why do things — communities, technologies, roles in life — work the way they do? And can we break the rules a little, find new ways to play?

Gameplay has long been part of Washko’s life. As a teen, she enjoyed designing rooms for text-based MUD (multi-user dimension) games and eventually began playing the MMORPG World of Warcraft (WoW). Within WoW, Washko encountered the misogyny and exclusionary vitriol that would later come to characterize Gamergate.

"It was becoming harder and harder to ignore players telling me to go back in the kitchen and make them sandwiches every time I would come forward as a cisgender woman," Washko says.

Her initial impulse was to quit the game. However, reflecting on her 'offline life' — populated by community organizers, activists and performance artists — Washko wondered if there was another way to play. Specifically, she might stay in the game, ask questions of other players and even intervene in the world they were building together. Instead of dashing her blue-green avatar (named "Ookitties") off the screen, Washko began using the character to approach other players in-game and ask questions: What do you think feminism is? What comes to mind when you hear someone is a feminist? These conversations became a series of videos, as well as live performances where an audience could witness these conversations taking place along the craggy rocks of a misty, pixelated landscape.

Although Washko's current life doesn't leave much time for immersive MMORPGs (she's an artist, a partner, a mother and the newest Catherine B. Heller Collegiate Professor of Art at the University of Michigan's Stamps School of Art & Design), games remain central to her life.

"I'm so excited about tabletop role-playing. It's my favorite thing right now," she says.

Washko notes that what began in the 1970s as a niche interest (at times paranoiacally associated with mythical Satanic cults) has become somewhat mainstream. "Awesome, funny people are creating improvisational worlds together. The structure is unknown. They're sharing space together and imagining alternatives to the systems we're governed by," Washko says.

Rather than working as a solo artist or directing others to enact her designs, Washko's looking to create collaborative, performance-oriented gaming opportunities. Players might try to embody their roleplaying characters in the "real world" (even just a little). Or, maybe, the "game board" is the whole house or the whole city. Whatever the setup, Washko pursues her central questions: Why does this game work this way? Who else might be able to join and share their creativity, if we reworked the rules?

This collaborative approach is informed by Washko's successful documentary film, “Workhorse Queen,” starring Mrs. Kasha Davis. “Workhorse Queen” follows "MKD" in her day-to-day as she navigates dizzying professional success and painful relationship changes post-”RuPaul's Drag Race.” Although Washko originally envisioned “Workhorse Queen” as a solo project, she quickly realized the project would benefit from the talents and expertise of friends and collaborators. After winning awards at several film festivals, “Workhorse Queen” became available for viewing on the STARZ network, as well as major streaming platforms. 

For all its intense moments, the film produces far less anxiety than Washko's 2018 project, “The Game: The Game” ("TG:TG"). In “TG:TG,” the player is the target of pickup artists’ cheesy, creepy and menacing attempts to get laid. Washko carefully studied materials from the pickup artist scene, including books, conference recordings and social media content and developed a disturbingly realistic set of pseudo-seductive encounters. Her project eventually drew the attention of Roosh V, one of the more infamous internet pickup sages.

Dedicated to having a conversation rather than a monologue, Washko interviewed Roosh over Skype in 2015. Watching their conversation, it's painful to see Roosh's ongoing dismissal of women's thoughts — even when a woman, in this case Washko, is going out of her way to explore his ideas, person-to-person. “TG: TG,” and other works emerging from Washko's research, reveal the disturbing mechanics of sex-turned-misogynistic-game.

In recent years, Washko's attention has shifted away from the hows and whys of pickup culture toward stories like that of Mrs. Kasha Davis and an ongoing, major story in her own life: motherhood. “Mother, Player” is an "experimental narrative video game featuring pregnancy and early parenthood stories from artists during the global pandemic." Navigating internal and external worlds, the player explores a realm usually ignored by video game designers. Perhaps it's Washko's way of rephrasing familiar questions: How does motherhood work? Can it work differently? Here, the questions sound intensely personal and ever-timely.

Even if motherhood, pickup artists and the art world present intense challenges, Washko is committed to the long play and is looking forward to her new role at Stamps.

"Being in this research university context, there's structural support to work in an interdisciplinary way that's sustainable,” she says. “And I really appreciate that at Michigan, there's infrastructure to support research and culture-making collaborations with students."

Outside the university, Washko hopes to find kindred spirits around town.

With a full professorial / parental schedule, it's likely you'll see Washko zooming around town on her bike en route to a meeting or play date. In between all those responsibilities, though, you might run into her at a performance, a show opening or sitting down to roll the dice.

"I want to know where the experimental, inclusive tabletop roleplaying communities are,” she says. “I'm also interested in the performance scene and creating dialogues between the university and the broader performance community."


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