Theresa Tanenbaum

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Dr. Theresa Jean Tanenbaum (“Tess”) is a game designer, artist, maker, and assistant professor in the Department of Informatics at the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of California-Irvine where she is a founding member of the Transformative Play Lab. She received her PhD from the School of Interactive Arts + Technology at Simon Fraser University.


Dr. Tanenbaum is a transgender woman, whose work is engaged with issues of gender, identity, and narrative. Dr. Tanenbaum’s work is playful, provocative, and interdisciplinary, frequently straddling the line between art, design, and research. Her doctoral research examined identity transformation and empathy in digital narratives and games, drawing on theories and methodologies from the performing arts and human-computer-interaction.  Her research draws on insights from digital interactive narrative, digital games, social justice, design fiction, futures studies, and extended reality theater. Her ongoing work on “Transformative Play” draws on techniques from theater practice to create and explore playful experiences that communicate different perspectives on the world, encouraging players to viscerally inhabit new identities and experiences. Her first book, edited in collaboration with Magy Seif El-Nasr and Michael Nixon, entitled Nonverbal Communication in Virtual Worlds: Understanding and Designing Expressive Characters was released in early 2014 by Carnegie Mellon Universities ETC Press. She also served as a consulting researcher at the Nokia Chief Technology Office’s Advanced Engineering group where she advised on matters of storytelling and wearable technology for the Internet of Things. 


An experienced game designer, Tess’s work incorporates physical objects, wearable technology, and interactive tabletops to explore embodied interactions with digital games and stories. She has developed new gaming technologies that push the boundaries of personal fabrication, using 3D printers and laser cutters as platforms for hybrid digital/physical games.  Her recent game, Magia Transformo: The Dance of Transformation, was an official selection of IndieCade: the largest festival of independent games in the world. It uses costumes and movement to help players adopt the personas of witches and warlocks to uncover the secret magical history of the world. Tess is also a “Steampunk” artist, and maker, whose work on DiY culture appears in the book Vintage Tomorrows and the documentary film of the same name.

Her recent design work explores the intersection of live performance and MR/AR/VR technologies.  Collaborating with Tim Kashani of Apples and Oranges Arts, she has mentored students in experimental designs for VR theater experiences, including a student team that took second place in the 2018 Butterworth Product development competition.  She is currently developing Virtual Reality systems that transform how we think about creative practice in the performing arts. These includeShadowCast, a VR networked theatrical performance platform (created in collaboration with Tim Kashani), and VirDAW, a VR digital audio workstation (created in collaboration with UCI Drama Professor Vincent Olivieri). She is the recipient of an Epic MegaGrant along with collaborator’s Tawny Schlieski of Shovels + WhiskeyJuliette Levy of UC Riverside,  and Thomas Winsor and Pip Brignal of Reality Check Productions to develop a new location based interactive storytelling platform called alt: inspired by the idea of exploring the material record of alternate realities.

Works by this author:

Work title Publication Type Year
The Reading Glove Exhibited at gallery or event 2010
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Theresa Tanenbaum
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Jill Walker Rettberg