My son, Rui, on a play date in Zoom (2020)

Artist and educator, Kay Liang, talks about squashing “Zoom Gloom” with dog bands, friendly robbers, and disco breaks

It was April 6th and my six-year-old son, Rui, had his first Zoom meeting. He was both anxious and annoyed that he had to do something he neither fully understood nor signed up for. These were the early days of lockdown and as a parent, I was pretty desperate for ways he could stay engaged with his friends and teachers (and also give me time to answer emails, eat a sandwich, and cry in the shower all at the same time). One of his teachers, Kay Liang, a recent RISD grad in printmaking and computation, decided she would venture at staging a remote version of Gem Land, her after-school art class. Rather than transpose the same play pattern and collective crafting activities onto Zoom, she created an entirely new, multi-player experience using a simple story arc, a lot of PNGs, and a locally-hosted web page. The premise was both dramatic and relatable: the children of Tiny Town had suddenly woken up to the news that they were not allowed to leave their house. They didn’t know why or for how long, and there were no grownups around to provide answers. Sound familiar?

What emerged is a weekly co-design experiment, where kids role-play characters of their own creation to explore, interrogate, abscond, dance, learn, invent, steal, cook, conspire, barter, and do all the things kids want to do together in person. (Think: co-designed, live-action comic book on a one-hour Zoom call.) Kay invited her artist friends and family members to also populate Tiny Town with books, bands, and other visual assets for kids to discover, as well as to live-act characters with hand-drawn Zoom square profile pics. During the weekly sessions and on their own time, kids create drawings, videos, and other visual artifacts to send to Kay that magically appear in their Tiny Town homes by the next session. Kay is like a benevolent D&D Dungeon Master — the only person with the power to move characters and unlock gated experiences, guided by the ideation and persistence of the players. As the pandemic has endured from a hot-flash scramble to a streaming continuum of quotidian challenges, Kay continues to develop this alternate world for kids to experience a shared sense of agency, whimsy, and togetherness. What follows is a conversation with Kay on Tiny Town’s origins and her insights from everyday life in this alternative urban plan.

Adriana Valdez Young: Tell me about yourself.

Kay Liang: I’m Kay and I’m 23. I’m a glorified adolescent. I love many things. Something I really care about is building worlds. My two main projects are Tiny Town and Gem Land. I built those worlds by first throwing all the things I know and like into a Marie Kondo giant pile. I like making things with trash, in a big cauldron, and then figuring out how it can be strung into a journey or a question. I learn something new about it all together. There’s always discovery!

Overview of the urban plan for Tiny Town across the border into the city, including Mega Mall, a mega retailer inspired by Amazon.

AVY: What is Tiny Town?

KL: I treat it like a weekly manga. It’s also like a performance and immersive theater. The kids explore and contribute to a shared world.

AVY: What do you need to play?

KL: A character! At the start of the 9-week session, each kid draws their own character and their own house. I ask them to think about things they already own that will tell us about them and how they live their life. Some add family members, some don’t. I put all their houses in Tiny Town. The basic outline of the experience is that they eventually have to leave the town and discover the city. That’s it. All the rest is improvised.

Initially, I thought it had to be turn based like a board game. But the kids have good chemistry. They didn’t talk over each other so I could leave everyone unmuted. During the game, I play the Tutor Pod —it’s like the Microsoft Word paperclip. It’s the tutorial game master that gently nudges them to do things, to answer questions, and enable rules. She’s inspired by the movie Her, where consciousness can be clipped onto every character.

Disco break in Tiny Town: Kay and co-designer and educator, Maria Gerdyman, create ways to for kids to move around to fight screen fatigue.

AVY: What’s the origin story for Tiny Town?

KL: Tiny Town is a project that Zinky, the founder of Tiny Town, embarked on after she retired at age 50 after founding Mega Mall. “Zinky” is based on my actual Chinese name — I created this alter ego and she is Tiny Town’s villain. She wanted to live out her childhood dream of creating a perfect village, having drawn inspiration from playing a “Roller Coaster Tycoon” type game as a child.

Tiny Town is 20 years old, but everything is a first draft. Zinky invited people she deemed “creative” to live in this artist residency. They don’t have to use the same currency as they do in the city. Instead, they sustain themselves by submitting ideas. The initial residents were adults and then they had kids. Zinky’s autocratic vision is like Marie Kondo for urban planning, where only visually-pleasing objects and subjects are spared.

A lot of Tiny Town’s architecture was created by kids, such as Market Rainbows, created by Lumen (6 years old). Market Rainbows is a free-for-all shop, where you can add things and buy things as needed. For example, Lumen wanted two lettuce heads and an egg. As it coincided with the start of the pandemic, all the other kids wanted toilet paper. The kids are always influencing each other about what is possible. Later, Alara decided to build new markets. The play pattern is like a white board or canvas. There’s a map of Tiny Town with all the roads and it connects to the city. I knew where Mega Mall was going to be and the Baker’s District. I knew there was going to be a circus, but Rui had already jumped on that idea himself and added one. And I’m a player as much as they are. If I want something, I can add it too.

Clip from when the kids first visited the musical festival in Tiny Town. Kay invited her friends and family to create different bands that she added to the festival roster. Kids chose bands to perform and also create their own live and recorded performances.

AVY: How does each kid experience Tiny Town differently?

KL: The younger group of kids (4–6 years old) like adding designs, kind of like when you play Minecraft on “Creative Mode.” They want to make things that make sense. I just didn’t have time to make everything in the town. So I asked them to draw things and they became my fellow game designers.

The older kids play more like the “survivor mode” of the game. They want to accomplish things and advance their characters to a better place. They’re focused on finding the girl that went missing. (The younger kids don’t know there’s a missing girl.)

All players see the same things in Tiny Town: the same homes and artifacts created and left by each other. There’s a fast food chain called “Yummy Buns” that is ruining business for the bakers who have been there for 50 years. The pandemic is definitely subconsciously influencing the narrative. The fact that kids can’t leave their house was the starting point for the first episode.

Detail of an encounter between a cohort of the kids’ characters, Mr. Happy, Jim the Robber, and Tim the ubiquitous teenager.

AVY: How have kids evolved?

KL: The older kids started out kind of polite like “this is me and this is my stuff.” Over time, they started to push the boundaries and really embody their characters. I encouraged them to start talking in the first person — speaking in voices and accents that reflect their characters.

There are two players who are friends outside Tiny Town and they are more comfortable breaking the rules together. For example, I knew Lilah wanted to leave the house to go to the beach. So I left a flyer of the beach that would provoke her. Lilah left a doll in her bed to give the appearance that she was still home. It could have been anyone, but she was the first one to jump on that “easter egg.” She rallied the rest of the kids by writing a letter to all of them. The older kids are more conscious that they’re not supposed to be out. For example, when encountering some officers, they lied by saying they were 18 and from the city, drew a teacher’s license to function as a “fake ID.”

Flora is someone who plays so differently from all the players. She’s almost 8, so she’s a couple years younger than her peers. She drew 20 family members and 10 pets. She goes along with the crew, but she also surprises us all the time. She’s concerned about her family and not just her own character. One time, she announced to the group: “I want to tell you something, Auntie Red is pregnant and is going to have a baby.” This is an example of how some of the interactions don’t have anything to do with the game and I don’t need to impose any rules on how they play.

AVY: What has surprised you the most?

KL: How this is all one big collaborative drawing with so many people! I think the young kids really surprised me how much they took ownership of the town and created it. Alara created a robber character that stole books from the library and another kid’s bed, so then eventually, I had to code a mechanism where things that were stolen could disappear from Tiny Town altogether. They force me to improvise, you know like “Yes, and…” They help me co-write the story and make it more fun.

I also have friends who draw and make things and live act. My uncle created a book about a worm. My mom, dad, and brother draw too. My side mission is to help all people feel like they are creative. I make people who say “I can’t draw” believe they can. If I were really Zinky, I’d design it all alone. But you can’t design utopia on your own.

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Learn more about Kay’s collaborative world building in Tiny Town
here :)

Urbanist, mixed methods researcher, mother, faculty at SVA and Parsons School of Design