Glory Story: Peter Zahradnik’s Bachelor Thesis

I had the pleasure of supervising Peter‘s bachelor’s thesis

Design of a female character that actively opposes the sexist stereotypes in League of Legends

and I am unbelievably proud of his written and practical work, which reflects the unfaltering dedication for justice in design that has shaped his path as a fledgling game designer. The analysis of sexist stereotypes and the careful consideration in designing contradiction has led to Hio, a human-bat chimera (Vastaya): grandmother, environment protection activist, and badass tattooed battle mage.

Her design is based on the knowledge gained in analysing the toxic context of player base and industry, and dissecting the stereotypes of female character in the game League of Legends. Thus, to oppose the almost identical faces of other female characters, Hio’s face is visibly wrinkled and doesn’t have childlike traits. Her hairline has receded. Her gaunt arms are long and spindly and her legs are short, unlike the disproportionately long legs of her female co-champions. The bat traits aren’t cute wings, but rather an overall batlikeness of her entire visual language wild mane, claws and tattered clothes, which are comfortable, protective and not gendered.

Protoype of a character sheet for Hio. Displayed here with permission of the author (Zahradnik 2021)

This was my first thesis supervision, and quite a ride Peter and I are both new to schools of thought like feminist theory or game culture studies. Knowing that sexualisation of female characters is often harmful, and knowing when we perceive it as misogynistic or oppressive, or having a vague feeling about the effects it might have, is one thing, but putting our finger on why and how exactly it’s harmful and then putting that into words is a different battle entirely. Further, in order to develop his characters based on analysis rather than intuition, he had to find concepts with which to dissect the character design, such as cuteness, and define visual stereotypes. Design knowledge is learned practically and developed through experience, thus, it is mostly intuitive and extremely hard to verbalise. But he pulled through, and created a coherent examination of framework and documentation of his process. I imagine the actual character design, although time-consuming, was a cakewalk after that.

The best parts for me were, of course, that I was allowed to participate in this. We spent a couple of very fun meetings image-searching stuff like “bat nose“, “issey miyake origami dress” and “tasuki” (the latter of which raised a highly insecure discussion about Japonisme and cultural appropriation). Being allowed to look at his sketches and command him to “try this” and “do that” was an incredibly exciting experience for me, and I learned a lot. Most importantly, for the first time I have consciously observed that constructive criticism is love: I had to force Peter to throw out an unbelievable amount of LoL lore he had written into his thesis, and listen to his laments of what his beloved game could be if it was better those long rants are what makes this thesis special to me, and I believe the outcome reflects how much he cares.

As I write this, I am sipping Malzkaffee because I already had three troughs of real coffee and my hands are shaky.

Research Update: Design Power and Things falling into place, Finally, it’s been an entire Year

I’m doing a lot better mentally these days. I hadn’t realised I wasn’t until the diffuse feeling of “why aren’t I happy?” I had started improving and my concentration got better. In hindsight, I could kick myself, but it’s unhealthy to dwell on the feeling of wasted time. Ok, maybe a tiny kick: I can’t believe I’ve fallen into the pressure and worry trap again – I should know better! G. agrees I should hang up a big sign on my wall saying “I never dreamed I would be here and I am the luckiest person alive”. Let’s see if that helps.

In terms of work progress, I’m doing a lot better since G. helped me realise I have to provide myself with regular meetings with Supervisor C. – now I have someone I trust to give me a sense of security in my decisions, and take the edge off showing work in progess. Feedback is so goddamn important, I remember. I should show people things a lot earlier, I remember. I feel stuck in a loop of failing at things I’m already supposed to know, then being perfectly knocked across the head with the realisation. Looking back on how often this has happened in the past year is exasperating.

Discussions with Supervisor C. helped me see the invisible weaknesses and incoherencies, and in trying to resolve them, I was thrown into directions that let me see things in a different light and, piece by piece, some things fell into place (while others remain terribly confusing but hey). On one fateful occasion, I had a small breakdown when my attemps to create a design taxonomy of social media failed: during an analysis, I realised that the affordances and aesthetics of the different platforms were converging more and more. I was lamenting this in a meeting, but Supervisor C. laughed and said: “but this just makes your argument for design power stronger, doesn’t it?”. There followed a complete reorientation of my aim in analysing the platforms – a term I had just written down without really thinking, in an attempt to describe what I meant. With Superviso C’s guidance, design power became the center of my attention and the framing and sense of the whole thing. What is design power, how does it manifest, and why does the “social” aspect of social media make a difference?

Now I’ve finally finished and sent my proposal (which took so long because I plan to re-use it as a proficiency evaluation draft), and feel like I’ve achieved something (I haven’t). But more importantly, I’ve got something to look back on and something to look forward to.

Currently sipping coffee that has gone cold hours ago, and crunching on some Arare instead of a proper breakfast because it’s almost lunchtime.

Knowledge Management: They Come In Shoals

Good news: I have found a good system of managing and archiving my knowledge. My remembrance structure has improved insanely these last couple of months. Unexpectedly, the more my flow improved, the less I took notes – these days, I directly write everything into the working file, and only open my notebook when I take meeting notes (I forget everything immediately if I don’t do that) or when I add to my Glossary. I’ve also recently taken the long-time-coming leap to declutter and reboot my Zotero for the literature and citations part of it all – I am in love with the browser extension and I can’t believe I haven’t been using it all this time.

I think everything is going great because I’ve stopped reading what’s not in my focus, and have developed a clearer aim (for now). Since the best way for me to remember is to integrate things into a work in progess, I find myself having fallen into a wave-like rhythm that works, as far as I can tell at this point:

I write, and as I write, I find myself getting stuck, I find gaps and missing knowledge, or stumble across new words in a meeting. I then go on excessive multiple-tab literature/article/discussion searching frenzies, until I get the feeling that I’ve gotten an overview and I’m just coming back to the same stuff. I then open the Download Folder Of Doom, and scan all the abstracts, and then put some in a folder called unread unused and proceed to print the others.

Then I do only reading for a while, and highlight bits and scribble notes on the side (sometimes a couple go to the unread unused after a first scan). I half-forget this enormous wave of information and let the subconscious do its work. After a day or two, I sit down and Zotero it all with my bae browser extension, and write a very rough summary of the main points/notes/commentary directly into my overleaf file, which I also copy into the respective Zotero notes. Finally, I insert all the bibtex snippets into my overleaf project.

Then, it’s back to writing – figuring out where the snippets go, polishing, splitting up, deleting. And then, back to writing freely until I get stuck once more… I find this chunking into different waves of doing only 1 thing works very well for me. I previously tried to do it all at the same time but found that interrupting one thing with another really messed up my concentration, and I’m very happy I’ve finally found something that works. I am still unable to write if I have other tasks or imminent holes in the day, but I’ll figure that one out in time, I hope.

The learnings so far:

  • Putting in prep work and creating a good strucure to work in is so insanely important and the later I do it, the more time I waste
  • I have to try my share of tips from other people to find out what works for me and what doesn’t, not every established workflow is my style
  • I need a goal/aim/outcome plan for everything I do, otherwise it’s wasted time (even if this outcome is just to summarize for future use)

As I write these lines, I enjoy a coffee with a piece of banana bread with chocolate chunks that I made yesterday but which already has gone stale due to being fridged.

Knowledge Management: Twitter notes

Right now, I’m obsessed with finding a way to better archive and manage all the stuff I learn on account of having a sieve for brains. I use Evernote at the moment, where my thoughts are gathered in a wild flurry of digital notes (interspersed with links, sketches, and so on) not too different from their physical pendant (I’m thinking of switching to Bear for beauty reasons (because you absolutely should make things beautiful) and maybe also because I secretly want a fresh start). Then there’s this blog for chronicles and meta-thoughts, my horribly disorganized Zotero for references, and finally, the polished write-up temple Overleaf. So much about the structural set-up.

The notes themselves are a caliber of their own. I’m still figuring out how best to take them. It’s getting better, but I still find myself making the same old useless notes mistakes that effected the creation of this blog in the first place. There are two types of notes: purposeful notes and general notes. For me, the latter are the great challenge.

The only notes I’m really happy with are my glossary, and those that are loosely snippeted into Overleaf projects I’m working on write now = being written up purposefully. Project-based teaching, I scream!

Summarising + synthesising is not enough for me, it takes purposeful output to remember it, and for it to be in a form that is useful later on. I’m happy with the way I read and the notes on the side of the paper, but if I don’t immediately incorporate them in something I’m writing at the moment, the transferred version in a notebook is, to a certain extent, doomed.

Enter Sabine Harrer‘s introductory Twitter notes on whiteness in games. I found them after listening to a talk on the topic, and I thought the idea of “telling a friend” in an easy accessible manner is a brilliant way of non-contextual notekeeping, especially for one-off content. I have since processed some Phd-unrelated content I’ve absorbed on the side in the format of slide-based mini-presentations as if intended for social media sharing, and become a believer: the little bit of extra effort that goes into sorting it out, making it as short as possible, and creating a message for an imaginary public makes me not just better at understanding what’s relevant and interesting, but (in contrast to my usual processing practice of verbally telling long-suffering friends and family all the details) also leaves me with a handy little presentation for the future, complete with links and references. Feynman would be proud of me.

Speaking of which, this is also food for thought on another level: My eternal annoyance with online misinformation, especially harmful health advice from self-proclaimed gurus, ties into this loosely: I have to be careful to make sure I provide evidence, I state my own limitations and context, and invite criticism.

As I write these lines, I find myself eating shitty soft bread with rancid peanut butter and some half-priced sour cherry jam from the institute fridge.

Frustrations: Transdisciplinary Literacy

As I skim the more than 250 student feedback submissions about a mini-design-assignment they did, I find many, many answers along the lines of “I’m not good at drawing” “I’m not very creative” “I was so happy we were allowed to do something free and imaginary, even though it was scary” – alongside answers like “I had no idea of how design actually works” and “this has really opened my eyes”.

While I neither expect first-year informatics students (except for those with prior experience or interest) to know anything about …. design in the broader sense (and here I am again wishing there were BETTER WORDS FOR THINGS), I have already given (and heard) many a rant on the for some reason established standard of parents, teachers and peers shaming the bulk of children into insecurity about creative output like drawing or singing. Even while I knew this, and therefore explicitly remarked in the assignment prompts that skill was not of import, I must have still assumed there also just wasn’t that much interest, so I was genuinely surprised at the high interest most students seemed to show in speculative design and critical and visual creative work.

But there might be another reason for that – anecdotally, people in the different areas of design tend to develop a sort of arrogance about the own field, and disdain towards other perspectives and non-experts, when really every single engineer who dabbles in graphic design and every artist who starts coding should be commended for the enthusiasm, even if it’s misplaced, misinformed or poorly executed. It shouldn’t be ridiculed or stopped. Obviously, we shouldn’t pretend to do what we’re not qualified to, but insights into other fields are essential for cooperation and better understanding of context of the own field. Sounds like a given, but in (educational) practice, it’s often not.

Reading the feedback, I thought back on my time at the University of Applied arts, and how trapped I felt in the art bubble, unable to cooperate with students from say, the university of natural resources and life sciences, or, well, the TU department of informatics. Yes, it was necessary to learn how to reach out to experts and so on, but that’s something else. There was no time or way to, in a full schedule with assignments and deadlines suffocating us, cooperate with other students. There should be so much more institutional facilitation of transdisciplinary courses and exchanges. Why isn’t there? P—- tells me over lunch, “we tried, but the one time it actually took place, TU students realized mid-semester that for [a ridiculous reason], they wouldn’t be able to get credits for it. you can imagine the rest”.

Research Update: Swimming in Literature

Most of the research seems to focus on facebook (while twitter is the preferred social media for text analysis), which brings with it a tunnel view that doesn’t really incorporate the affordances and features of other, especially anonymous or more ephemeral social media platforms. I had surprising difficulties finding papers about the exact design features/elements and their impact.
Beside trying to find research on features, I focused on mental health in young people, although I am at the moment re-thinking whether that is still a direction worth pursuing.

Danah Boyd’s It’s complicated – the social lives of networked teens paints a comprehensive picture of how young people make sense of social media, and especially (what with being written, as I understood it, in an effort to make teachers, parents, policymakers and other people who hold power over adolescents understand their motivations) debunks common myths that adults and persons that don’t use social media may believe, while pointing out the real dangers and issues.

Calvo and Peters’ foundational Positive Computing is a great guide not just to aforementioned science of wellbeing and its connection to technology, but also offers methods and practical guidance.

The Needs-Affordances-Features Model is an amazing summary of the affordances (if not specific feature design) of different social media platforms and what psychological needs (specifically autonomy, relatedness, competence, having a place, and self-identity) they fulfill. Not that much about specific design elements, though.

Addictive Features of Social Media/Messenger Platforms and Freemium Games against the Background of Psychological and Economic Theories is a short and really helpful just-what-I-was-looking-for and took-me-a-while-to-find-so-thank-fuck-for-that summary of why apps are made addictive (data/attention economy), and how exactly this works in terms of features (endless scrolling + flow, endowment/mere exposure effect, social pressure, custom content, social comparison + reward, Zeigarnik/Ovsiankina-Effect). AKA: All the knowledge companies keep to themselves and perfect through methods like FB’s notorious A/B experiments. Mental note here to look up more by C. Montag.

I found a cool paper about addiction to social media and attachment style, which explains why certain unhealthy attachment styles make people more prone to become addicted to social media. Any issues you have socially and in relationships, obviously, blow up and become scaled or different issues in mediated interactions and relationships.

Underrepresented youth, on a positive note, while they unsurprisingly see social media as not designed for them (is anything designed for them, really?), use it among other things to bypass mainstream news, connect with their cultures and find community.

The same came up in a chapter in Kishonna L. Gray’s Intersectional Tech – Black Users in Digital Gaming (which I devoured on an unrelated literary pilgrimage to critical game studies). She describes how queer black women created safe spaces in Xbox live, within and yet apart from the hostile overall environment of online gaming (and real life).

The relationship between facebook use and well-being depends on communication type and tie strength establishes the connection between stronger ties and greater wellbeing impact, as well as highlighting the differences between smaller interactions and more time-consuming and content-heavy interactions, both of which can impact wellbeing in different ways and intensities.

I also found a great analysis of the way users perceive ephemeral social interaction on snapchat as a low-pressure, high-attention intimate messaging platform.

Teaching Reflections: Three assignments

The semester is over, and I haven’t updated my research blog this entire time – because I haven’t done any research. I didn’t understand that being a Teaching Assistant in a lecture with ~600 students is a full-time job, and I couldn’t do much else during the winter semester. I tried to follow the words of the great Ron Swanson, “Never half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing.”

Now the semester is over, and after taking off a much-needed weekend to go into the mountains (where I belong), I’m back on track, with a huge amount of data from the assignments I made. So far, in an act of shameless Selbstbeweihräucherung (one of the greatest words the German language has come up with), I’ve read only the feedback and overall, they were perceived as valuable learnings and experiences. This is of course very soothing – at least if nothing else, the students had fun.

Instead of making one assignment to rule them all, I created three assignments according to the three focal themes of my research. Here’s the translations of the prompts (without the exact task lists or additional material) – and that’s it for my first post-semster-post!


The prevalence of mental health issues in students has increased since the turn of the century, and in recent years, the results of statistics and surveys in European countries have provided worrying results. The main issue cited is depression.
The reasons for this are manifold and diffuse: On the one hand, financial and performance pressure is cited, on the other, many students complain about social isolation and existential anxiety. In our increasingly complex world, it will probably take a while until the issue is fully understood and can be systemically addressed.
But on a personal level, we can critically engage with this subject, which concerns us all in one way or another – especially given the current lockdown and other COVID-19-related measures transforming our everyday life right now.
In this assignment, you will analyse the mental health services offered at the TU Wien: you will critically examine how realistic and accessible they are, and explore how they could be – possibly digitally – improved.


Social media are a recent phenomenon that defines the interpersonal relationships and social behaviour of an entire generation. Is it good or bad? Opinions are strong and differ – after all, it’s not easy to judge something of such impact and proportion.
On the one hand, the biggest social media platforms are financed by advertising, which ultimately leads to users being manipulated. But on the other hand, there are also positive effects: for instance, social media allows marginalised groups to create and find communities.
They foster political polarisation, but also give people who were previously unheard a voice.
We know they have a hold over us and influence us, but we still use them for various reasons.
Whatever anyone’s personal opinion may be, there is one deciding fact to keep in mind: social media were never conceived with a human-centered, pro-user approach, but as products to generate profit for a company.
But what if that weren’t so?
In this challenge, you will explore what “good” and “bad” mean as technology-related values, and how technologies could be improved to be more positive. You will interview or survey 3 of your colleagues about their social media use and opinion. The focus of this assignment is user research.


This year’s first semester students will experience a very unusual introduction to student life, a state of constant disruption as our lives are re-configured in navigating a pandemic.
You start this new chapter of your life in interesting times – many of the experiences that would be considered normal as a newly enrolled student will be missed out on – and it doesn’t matter if it’s your first or second time studying.
In virtual Zooms and on online learning platforms, studying can quickly turn into a checklist of tasks without inspiration or joy, and more importantly, without a feeling of community and social interaction – or at least, not in person.
Connecting with peers is not only one of the most valuable experiences University has to offer, but also plays an important role in well-being, mental health and, of course, academic success.
In this design assignment, you will analyse the social aspects of your day-to-day life in distance learning, and creatively engage your personal challenges in communication and socialising by designing a fictional solution to enhance closeness to other persons from afar.

Research Update: What’s the question?

I ambushed poor Supervisor C. on his way to the printer to put forward my plans for an assignment I wanted to create for first-year students in our course. He thought it was a great idea even apart from data-gathering, since it would provide first semester students with an immediate awareness of mental health issues – all the more relevant for what we can assume is a very different first-year student experience in a pandemic.

More importantly though, he made me realize I had no question, which was fun. Because I really felt like I did. How could I not realize I’d never formulated my goal? I used to teach this – draw the Minoan labyrinth on the blackboard and tell the story of the original red thread!

But no: all this time, I hadn’t been really working towards anything properly framed, but just sort of dancing around within guiding parameters. Which is generally not uncommon and undoubtedly has its place in the process, but definitely was not what I thought I was doing. So there you have it again, me: Do what you hate doing: show concepts that are unfinished and unclear ideas and just talk to people. There are things you just don’t see yourself.

So for want of a better introduction, here’s my guiding questions (for now).

  • What would a social network for well-being require?
  • What does “good” and “bad” mean in terms of technology design?
  • Which functions and features would it have, design-wise?

While I still feel like they are far too… big-picture, I feel better for having formulated them anyway. I mean, what do I even want, it’s only my second month.

There’s much to find out – what’s the working definition of Mental Health I’ll use? Where do I situate myself, which perspectives and theories do I use, and why? What do I need in order to answer these questions? Should I attempt a literary review of social networks and an analysis of the mechanisms and features (and resulting behaviours) that are detrimental to well-being?

Supervisor C. also reminded me to keep my strengths and knowledge in mind as I delve into literature, since he knows I’m prone to wanting to know things beyond my field and trying to stick my nose into disciplines that I’m not really equipped to. “Don’t forget you’re a design researcher, and that’s your strength, your difference in generating knowledge and approaching these things. What are your advantages? What insights can you gain, what data can you gather that others can’t?” Leave the behavioural analyses to the behavioural analysts.

Sounds obvious and on-hand, but after the research question debacle, I thought it safer to write it down.

Frustrations: The “science” of Well-being

I completed half the course in a day in an onset of curiosity and impatience (my worst but most fruitful personality traits) – it’s a great overview, providing what it should: a gateway, guidance and a thorough overview of the field. I did recommend it to many of my friends, as a solid crash course on well-being, but I do have some issues with it.

For one thing, not acknowledging the US-based cultural approach, which I feel is obligatory in an international course. As an example, random acts of kindness are presented are a good way to hone compassion, or chatting with a stranger as a way to feel any social connection. For my cultural enviroment, and yes this is just anecdotal but it is my lived experience, this is untrue – we are fulfilled by solid and healthy in-depth close relationships with friends and the like, while superficial connection makes us feel more isolated. Plus, many young people (target group of the course) these days suffer from social anxiety, which makes both recommendations impossibly stressful. Purposeful help in the immediate community is also important, while random acts of kindness may be seen as ultimately self-serving. Both are known cultural divergence between Europe and the US. But no Studies or Research about this are presented (maybe I will look some up and add them if I find the time).

How much can we really control and gamify? I was frustrated with the book “Reality is Broken” when I read it ages ago for the same reasons (the message was “enable social connection by babying people with gamified frameworks” rather than “empower people to develop better social skills”) because in my experience – and this may also be a cultural difference – a real emotional connection cannot be gamified, and to some extent shouldn’t. I’m not sure that chatting up strangers on a subway or doing random acts of kindness, especially if not heartfelt, is the right way to go.

I am stricken by how many aspects of “good practice” such as gratitude, meditation, taking breaks etc. are a core part of many religions – an interesting side note, yes, but speaking of religion: I disagree with the approach of science-is-an-absolute dogmas in the course – or in any case, the way certain things are presented as absolutes, such as cosmetic surgery or weight loss as having no impact on overall happiness, which from personal experience I can say does hugely on many counts, and am again sure there would be research to prove it.

Bottom line is, if you’re going to make a course for *everyone*, especially about well-being and personal health concerns, you absolutely have to acknowledge not only cultural, but also personal differences and needs. Just presenting things critically would have been enough – even though the rest of the lectures later address these topics (hedonic adaptation, miswanting, poor self-assestment, resilience), I would still have liked short “keep in mind though…”s.

Research Update: Remember, Remember

I’m after a call with G. and found out not only what her area of expertise is, but also that I knew it once and had forgotten. The whole episode prompts my inner Hannibal Lecter to consider keeping files on co-workers, friends, family – everyone?

This perfectly coincided with yesterday’s moment of realising my so-called “notes” on a couple of HCI/Mental Health papers F. had given me as starting points turned out to be the ramblings of a madman: I’ve forgotten absolutely everything I read last month even though I thought I was taking notes. It turns out there’s the right and the wrong kind of notes.

In addition to a very supportive chat and an assortment of material, G. gave me the advice to start documenting my process. So here we are: A research blog is begun. Let’s see if I can keep it up.