What would happen if the societal issues affecting women put other planets at risk? Well, of course, HER, a Black female superhero, would swoop in with a plan to save the universe. HER is central to HERadventure, a science fiction-based, multimedia platform project that interweaves virtual worlds, digital  and social media to create a gaming and storytelling experience. HERadventure not only entertains but tackles social issues that permeate the daily reality of many women.

HERadventure is the brainchild of filmmaker and digital media artist Ayoka Chenzira, Ph.D., founder and director of the Digital Moving Image Salon. Spelman College was recently awarded a $100,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to implement HERadventure, developed by Chenzira.    The award is the first NEA grant for Spelman, and the College is one of nine award recipients (among a total of 79) to receive the NEA’s funding cap of $100K in the Arts in Media category. .

“I’m excited about receiving funding from NEA because it speaks to their belief in supporting projects that are experimental in nature, are doing creative things that are computer based and involve the expansion of artists’ thinking,” said Chenzira.

Spelman was one of four nonprofit organizations to receive an NEA grant for a project with gaming aspects.  NEA expanded its long-standing radio and TV grant category in 2010 to include interactive games, media available on multiple platforms, Internet content, mobile applications and satellite delivered content for movie theaters.

“We knew that people were making and consuming art in new and different ways and thought it important to support that art making as well as that art experience by the audience,” said Alyce Myatt, director of media arts for NEA.

Spelman’s HERadventure proposal stood out, added Myatt. “We have a peer review panel [that evaluates grant proposals], and the lead reviewer said Spelman’s proposal was one of the most memorable. [The panel] was impressed with how Spelman targeted their audience [women, ages 18-25] and were specifically impressed with the storyline − that there was an intention to address social issues and was international in scope.”

Chenzira noted HERadventure was inspired by her sense that “what we do on Earth impacts the universe − not just pollution destroying the ozone layer, for example, but our thoughts and how we organize gender roles and social systems also have impact.”

The backstory of HERadventure begins when HER, a warrior woman and inhabitant of Earth’s sister planet, comes to Earth to investigate why it is causing her native planet to freeze and slowly die. HER discovers that the auras of Earth’s women are diminishing. Consequently, Earth and other parts of the universe are negatively impacted. HER enlists a corps of “superheroes in training” (HERadventure users) to take meaningful action and offer solutions to issues such as negative self-esteem, discrimination, eating disorders, and depression, which are causing women’s auras to suffer. These issues are dealt with through visual metaphors in a 3-D environment. HERadventure users “teleport” through various levels of the gaming experience by using social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, with a goal of helping the superhero save her planet and ultimately serve as catalysts for positive change in the virtual and real world.

Students Have Integral Roles in Development of HERadventure

Using Chenzira’s premise for HERadventure as their guide, three Spelman seniors, Lauren Jarvis, Cyncere White and Carina-Michelle Francis, during the course of the academic year and as part of an independent women studies class, researched female superheroes, specifically the rarity of African-American female superheroes, and the groundbreaking work of African-American women cartoonists like Jackie Ormes. The students also helped Chenzira develop different facets of HERadventure including story scenarios, the 3-D design and user interaction.

“We definitely want HERadventure to be fun, but we also want the targeted age group to recognize and understand that we have to figure out how to change the social issues that hinder Black women,” said White, a comparative women’s studies major with an economics minor. “Change starts from within and each of us is our own superhero.” Following graduation, White plans to return to Oakland, Calif., and pursue a career as an independent filmmaker.

Overall, HERadventure is interdisciplinary, explained Chenzira. Students involved in the next phase of development will work with women’s studies, sociology and art scholars who will consult on the project. They will also have an opportunity to create alongside artists who use filmmaking, 3D animation and computer programming as part of their respective medium.

HERadventure is scheduled for release on International Women’s Day on March 8, 2013. However, that is only the beginning. The transmedia, interactive story of HERadventure will be made up of several interconnected projects including a film that will engage film directors from around the world.

Another DMIS Initiative Serves as a Defining Experience

Francis is also connected to another DMIS initiative, the Eighth Annual Spelman College Digital Moving Image Salon Student Documentary Film Showcase. She and co-producer Jamiere Smith, C ‘2012 premiered their documentary, “Invisible Heroes: African American Women in the Military,” along with three other documentaries produced by DMIS students at the showcase on April 26, 2012.  Making the documentary was a defining experience that helped Francis, a psychology major, determine her career path.  She now wants to continue to make films that inspire others.

“As a producer, I want positive imagery of Black women to be my focal point. There are no Black women out there who are doing what Tyler Perry is able to do. I want to be that woman,” said Francis who is considering an internship with a film company as a next step after graduation.

Learn more about the four 2012 DMIS film showcase documentaries. — Audrey Arthur is a senior communications specialist for the Office of Communications.