Gregorio Amaro | Projects

“Digital Amoxtli ”: Interaction Design Can Be More than Just Fun and Games

Xolo Game Trailer.

Through designer Gregorio Amaro’s new project, which addresses death from a MesoAmerican perspective, we see how interaction design has the potential to create positive outcomes by addressing difficult subjects in new ways.

Four years ago, when I was searching for a grad school thesis topic, I thought about all the times my children inquired about death. “Why do we die? Where do we go?” they asked. These questions always took me by surprise. They usually came right after a news report, the unexpected death of a pet, or learning that a close friend or family member had passed away. I tried desperately to come up with a thoughtful answer, but I could find none That’s where design came in. And while video games and their negative effects have gotten a fair amount of press lately (some of which has been debunked), this is one way in which interaction design has the potential to create positive outcomes by providing a tool to address difficult subjects in a new way.

As a graphic designer of Mexican-American descent, I set out to use my skills and heritage to create an interactive book that could bring children closer to understanding death from a Mesoamerican perspective. I called it a “digital amoxtli.” Digital, because of its mode of delivery, and amoxtli for the origins of its content. “The word used to express such action is amoxohtoca, composed of toca “to follow,” oh- “road,” and amox-(tli), “book”; that is, “to follow the road in the book,” said Miguel León-Porilla in Fifteen Poets of the Aztec World. The book guides readers through a mystical landscape filled with ancient symbols, ambient sounds, iconography, and poetry. The actual books of fate, or tonalamatls in Nahuatl, were written before Europeans arrived in Latin America, and used to record history, births, weddings, and, most importantly, to predict the future. Elizabeth Hill Boone, a renowned ethnohistorian, defines them as “history books, which record actions and actors of an earlier time and describe how things were, the divinatory books concern themselves with the way things are in a present that continues into the future; they yield potentials, for they are windows into the future.”

Stills from Gregorio Amaro’s new project.

As I began to delve into native Mesoamerican spirituality, philosophy, and history, possibilities emerged. Mesoamerican poets were artists who painted beautiful pictures with words and made metaphors into graphic symbols. Their philosophy was based on duality—a basic understanding that in order to have life, there must be death. One of the greatest orators of this philosophy was the Aztec poet king Nezahualcóyotl, or Hungry Coyote, who questioned man’s purpose in life and beyond when he wrote (as excerpted from Firefly in the Night: A Study of Ancient Mexican Poetry and Symbolism by Irene Nicholson):

Is life really lived in the form world?
We are not always on earth—
only a little while here.
Though it be jade, it is shattered.
Though it be gold, it is broken.
Quetzal feather is torn.
We are not always on earth—
only a little while here.

Excerpt from Cantares Mexicanos #20

To Mesoamericans, death was not to be feared, but it was important for them to question their existence in order to understand their role in life and prepare for their journey after death. “Before and after death, man’s work produced harvests, helped the sun, propitiated and brought rain and, in general, contributed to a perpetuation of the cosmic order. The living and the dead labored on different sides of the same fields, some visible, others invisible,” wrote Alfredo López Austin in his book The Human Body and Ideology: Concepts of the Ancient Nahuas.

My digital amoxtli aims to be less game-like—with winners, losers, scores, and other outcomes—and function more as a mirror for personal introspection. It utilizes the same imagery and mythical time framework that connects man to nature and the cosmos. From the beginning, there is a sense that you, the user, are standing just inside the mouth of a portal. Your transformation begins the moment you take your first steps into the unknown. Haunting sounds carrying the voices of ancestral spirits fill the air. By following the lead of butterflies along a dark path you become “olin” —motion-change, and when you transform into Xólotl the dog, you become an animal spirit. Your destiny unfolds before you against a backdrop of visual patterns, musical rhythms, and poetry. It is a landscape for learning that is both familiar and mysterious.

Digital games, unlike other forms of media, allow users to learn abstract concepts intuitively, apply what they’ve learned instantly on screen, and then receive feedback. “Because video games so nicely exemplify the nature of meaning as situated and embodied, they are also capable of capturing—and allowing players to practice—a process that is the hallmark of ‘reflective practice’ in areas like law, medicine, teaching, art, or any other area where they are expert practitioners,” wrote James Paul Gee in What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy. This digital amoxtli is a cross between an interactive book and a role playing game (RPG). According to Katie Salen Tekinbas and Eric Zimmerman, who wrote The Game Design Reader: A Rules of Play Anthology, “In an RPG, a player literally assumes the identity of a game character in a narrative world, and performs as that character throughout the game.” Some RPG games like “Little Big Planet,” allow you to personalize your character by building your own costume. This amoxtli invites children to stare into a mirror that reflects back an image of Xólotl, the dog-god of lightning and death.

The Nahuatl language system, a rich mixture of symbols, metaphors, and speech patterns, provide structure and meaning to the reader’s journey. Designers Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern clarify this: “When a participant is immersed in an experience,” they write, “they are willing to accept the internal logic of the experience, even though this logic deviates from the logic of the real world.” In my view, this point of immersion that Mateas and Stern described is where the reader can access the so-called “language of the hidden.” It could become the stimulus that motivates children to explore further and deeper.

It is up to you, the reader, to discover your true identity by following the well-worn path of your ancestors and making the same connections they might have made. Co-read by children and their parents, it functions as an inter-generational experience that can spark a conversation. Hopefully, through such an experience it will bring you, the reader, closer to understanding death—and at every level will provide readers with the knowledge and confidence they need to delve deeper into their experience to see who they are inrelation to the natural world here and beyond.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Media

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