Rolling Without Limits

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Programmer With Disabilities Teaches the Art of Video Games
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Programmer With Disabilities Teaches the Art of Video Games

Theresa Devine spent her entire time in college as an artist, but shortly after receiving her MFA in painting in 1994, Devine found a new medium for her art: video games. "I thought it would get through to people and carry a message better than painting would,” Devine said. “Video games can be downloaded right into your living room.” She’s been coding since 1995 and has even spent part of her career coding for a corporate company.

Now, more than two decades later, Devine teaches the humanities side of gaming rather than the technical side. “What you do with the medium is more important than how to make it,” she said. Devine decided she was on a path to be a college professor, but knew, at the time, there was no market in the education sphere for her craft. “I wanted to teach games as art, but when I started down this path there was no place hiring to teach games at all.”

Early in Devine’s career, she received some life-changing news. In 1998, she was diagnosed with a rare immune system disease called scleroderma, which affects connective tissue. “When I was diagnosed 20 years ago, they told me there was no cure; there was no treatment. They said, 'Someday you’re going to get sick, it’s going to progress, and you’re going to die.’” The scleroderma started kicking in around 2008, right around the same time as the economic crash. Devine lost her programming job in Chicago and, like millions of Americans, was out of work.

Her pre-existing condition forced her to wait three years for treatment. The scleroderma progressed and, in 2011, she needed a wheelchair. Between the time of her diagnosis and 2011, new treatments for scleroderma were developed. Devine is currently benefiting from a new treatment that prevents her scleroderma from progressing but knows things could have been different. “If the system was different or if the economy hadn’t crashed, it is possible that I would still be walking around,” she said.

These tough times amplified Devine’s desired message of understanding she had wanted to portray since entering into the gaming world. Living with a disability leads to a deeper understanding of discrimination. “Before, the discrimination I experienced was the discrimination every woman faces, that I have to be five times better at my job to be considered half as good,” Devine said. “Multiply that be about a hundred and that’s the experience of discrimination with a person as a disability."

Devine was making another transition—she parted ways with her fiancé, and her 23-year-old daughter was ready to move out. “I didn’t want to hold her back,” Devine said. “I was figuring things out as I go and I didn’t [want to] have to lean on anybody.” Devine admitted these were dark times and went through a grieving period, but sticking to her goal of becoming a college professor helped her battle through. “I had this goal that I kept working toward. It gave me something else to focus on. As I worked through the acceptance of what was happening to my body, the grief lifted and the joy came back.”

Devine got rid of all the furniture in her house as she prepared to move out. She partook in a nationwide search for a college professor job and landed one at Arizona State University. Along with teaching, Devine is still creating art through games. She said as much as she loves teaching about games, she is always learning from them as well.

During her creative process, she is always learning new things about life, as well as about games. One of Devine’s games is titled “Unseen.” It features a protagonist who is invisible and trying to get a crowd of butterflies moving on stage. “It’s about trying to control something you can’t see,” she said. While Devine was programming the character’s movement, she made her own discovery. “I programmed two things: velocity and direction. If you have velocity and no direction, you just spin. If you have direction and no velocity, you’re just standing and not pointing anywhere,” Devine said. “I see that as a metaphor for life. You need to have your speed and your direction so you can actually go somewhere.”

Image credit: Photo by Author

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