CHICAGO — Gracie Straznickas began playing video games as
soon as she could hold a controller.
“I have distinct memories of playing ‘Tetris’ with my mom,”
the DePaul University senior said. “I also remember playing ‘Pokémon Red,’ even
though I was probably about 3 at the time and had no idea what I was doing.
Let’s just say I never made it very far.”
She then started playing games with her older sister — games
like “Donkey Kong 64,” “Mario 64,” “Diddy Kong Racing,” “Pokémon Stadium” and
many others that Straznickas can rattle off as fast as a child saying the ABCs.
For Straznickas, video games were a welcome distraction from
chronic musculoskeletal pain that’s been a daily struggle since childhood. Now
almost 18 years since first picking up a controller, she is a game designer who
creates worlds that build empathy and awareness.
This June, Straznickas is set to graduate summa cum laude with
a Bachelor of Science in computer game development and a minor in animation
from DePaul’s College of Computing and Digital Media. She will begin a doctoral
program in human-centered design at DePaul this fall, where she will dive even
further into her research of games about the human condition, often referred to
as deep games.
Growing through pain
In her teenage years, Straznickas began to play more games
on her own, feeling especially drawn to complex, story-oriented games like “Mass
Effect,” a science fiction action role-playing video game series that follows a
soldier in her efforts to save the galaxy.
“’Mass Effect’ really spoke to me in ways games never had
before,” said Straznickas. “It was so deep I was lying awake at night thinking
about it. I still think about it and I have not played it in a while. It hit me
deep in a way that I don’t necessarily think it was trying to do.”
Deep games create a certain feeling or use a metaphorical
setup to represent an idea through gameplay and storytelling, explained
As a child, playing video games helped take her mind off the
muscle cramps and cracking joints that she endured on a daily basis. Things
like kickball, gym class and running caused immense pain, while swimming was a
Once called “growing pains” by a childhood doctor, seven
years of searching brought an answer of Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, a connective
tissue disorder. One of the symptoms is “chronic, early onset, debilitating
musculoskeletal pain,” according to The Ehlers-Danlos Society. An intensive
program at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, formerly The Rehabilitation Institute
of Chicago, helped Straznickas with pain management.
“Games are really what helped me through the worst of my
pain,” said Straznickas. “They were more involved than cinema for me, as games
allowed me to walk around and enjoy life, which was something I wasn’t able to
do during my pain crisis.”
Life at DePaul
Growing up in suburban Wilmette, Illinois, about 15 miles
north of DePaul’s Loop Campus, Straznickas was drawn to the university’s game
design program. She was interested in the plans and motives that went into
building a game, and she already knew the potential for games to have the same
effect on a player as a really good movie or book.
“My medical experiences in high school made me reflect on
what I wanted to do in life,” she said. “I started to think about how I’ve
always loved video games and wondered if there was something that I could do
with them. It really excited me that there was a university putting effort into
game design. The design element really brought me to DePaul.”
During her time on campus, Straznickas has worked closely
with Doris Rusch, an associate professor of game design and leader in
developing video games that boost empathy, understanding and self-awareness of
diseases and mental illnesses. Rusch is the creative director of the Deep Games
Lab at DePaul, where students use discussion, theory and paper models to sketch
out the concepts of their games.
“Gracie has a knack for finding symbols and metaphors within
an inner issue that gives rise to game play that’s insightful, and she has a
level of maturity and intellectual curiosity that’s rare,” said Rusch.
The first game in which Straznickas assisted Rusch was
“Quilko’s Song,” a single-player mobile game intended to raise awareness about
the characteristics and benefits of a growth mindset — the concept that success
and talent can be cultivated. Straznickas helped with the early concept art for
the game, wrote and edited much of the story and conversations, and served as
the project’s producer.
“Many people, especially teens, get the idea in their head
that if they’re not immediately good at something, they’ll never be good at it,”
Straznickas said. “The game sets out to help players become willing to try new
things and develop their skills.”
For Straznickas, working with Rusch has confirmed that game
design was the right choice for her.
“Working with Doris has felt very real. It took me out of
the school mindset and into a mindset where I focused on what I wanted to do in
life, which I think is really special,” said Straznickas. “For the first time,
it wasn’t about getting a good grade. The classes really spoke to me.”
The human-centered design doctoral program explores how
technology and design can be used to make people’s lives better, says Rusch,
who will continue to serve as Straznickas’ advisor. Straznickas hopes to one
day become a professor herself.
“Once I started at DePaul I felt I was really ready for
whatever life had to throw at me, and so far that feeling hasn’t changed,” said
Straznickas. “While chronic pain may appear as simply a burden, I’ve learned to
work with it to better myself and my own career. I try to learn what I can from
my own struggles and incorporate that in my work.”
Straznickas plans to create a video game that will tell her
story of dealing with chronic pain, with the hope that it can help people
understand what a loved one with chronic pain might be experiencing. She also
wants to help people with chronic pain understand that they aren’t alone.
“Games have a magic to them that we haven’t fully grasped
and definitely haven’t fully explored, said Straznickas. “What better way to
dive in than to make games that create a positive change in someone’s life.”