Drew Davidson

I am the director and a teaching professor here at Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center, which is a professional graduate program that has been around going on 18 years now.

Wow.

Crazy.

That's, what, old enough to vote? What is that?

I guess it can -- yeah, it can vote. It can enroll it in the armed services. [Laughs.]

It can go to college is what it can do. [Laughs.]

There we go. It's an adult. It can be tried as an adult.

Yeah, no juvie for Carnegie Mellon.

There you go. [Laughs.]

That's a weird sentence.

[Laughs.] Sure, yeah.

I went to graduate school for my doctorate at University of Texas in Austin and was really focused around computers and storytelling, working with a professor named Sandy Stone, who's amazing. Goddess of the internet. That led to -- like, those doctoral studies were really trying to explore how computers were possibly enabling new forms of storytelling. Led to me doing interviews in the industry that was growing in Austin. So, I interviewed with -- I'm gonna date myself -- Richard Garriott, because this new thing was happening called Ultima Online.

Yeah.

Chris Roberts, because he had left Origin to start his own company called Digital Anvil and they were gonna be the first game company to make a movie, the Wing Commander stuff. [Laughs.]

Yeah.

Which, prior to the movie coming out, everybody was like, "Yeah!" And then the movie came out and everybody's like, "That wasn't a great movie."

That's a cycle that has repeated many times.

[Laughs.] I know! It's so painful.

And then I also interviewed Lloyd Walker, one of the founders of a company called Human Code that was sort of like a turnkey development house that did greenlight projects also for clients. All those interviews started as, "Let me talk to you about my dissertation," and they all led to, "Oh my gosh!" job-interview-type things. I hired on at -- I was ABD, all but dissertation, and hired into the industry at Human Code as a producer. So, I worked there. God, this was in the mid- to late-'90s. Late '90s? At Human Code, they made all kinds of -- like, they did stuff in education, they did stuff in entertainment, they did stuff in business. Like, Human Code did Michael Dell's Smart Home. [Laughs.] We did stuff for businesses. We did stuff for school districts and states. Like, Disney was a client. Hasbro was a client. So, it was a lot of fun.

I was like, "Wow, I might not need to finish my dissertation. This is awesome!" [Laughs.] Just working in the industry and coming out of academics initially where you're like, "I kinda throw my code together, I hack together what I'm trying to make. Slap some art on there so at least have some UI and aesthetics." But then get into the industry and working with programmers you're like, "Okay, what you do is magic. I can talk to you but I cannot replicate how awesome you are." Artists where you wanna buy their stuff. My biggest team was probably 90 people that I was helping manage. It was really fun -- the metaphor that kept coming to my mind was orchestration. Like, this idea of orchestrating this team to be able to do something that we couldn't do on our own. So that was just a lot of fun.

And then, the industry sorta went kaput. Well, there was the dot-com bubble and all that. A lot of us got laid off. Long story short, I took my severance and time to finish my dissertation. The whole time I had been working in the industry, I kept teaching. Like, Austin Community College had a great game program. One of the earlier ones. I was teaching there.

My dissertation advisor, Sandy, actually knew Don Marinelli and Randy Pausch, the two co-founders of the ETC here. That led to an entree that got me into this area of the country and I started as adjunct faculty and moved to being the program director and a faculty member to when Randy passed away after the last lecture and then Don retired, I stepped up as the director of the center.

Yeah, I looked at your LinkedIn. I know we talked about a little bit when we met up -- were we talking about Mike Judge?

Oh God, yes.

Am I completely fabricating that? Weren't you saying your experience with the kind of office space-type of business environments was similar to what inspired him to make that movie? Did that work experience overlap with what you just mentioned or does it predate it?

It was right in the middle. There was a time where I worked at Holt, Rinehart and Winston. Which was part of Harcourt, which was a huge company. Office Space is not funny 'cause it's a documentary. [Laughs.] That was my daily commute. Yoda could beat me down the highway. I did have a manager who really liked memos.

I'm curious to contrast what some of the non-game industry world is like against the game industry, and maybe this would be a good time to talk about that. When you started working in the game industry, how did you notice it was different or functioned differently than the rest of your experience as a professional?

What was sort of both exciting and exhausting about the game industry and my experience with some of the other -- I feel like it holds true to creative endeavors in general when you start having them be professional as opposed to hobbies and collaborative where that you have to have teams. It's not just on your own you. It's that tension like we joke, the tension between creatives and suits. The people that are really trying to develop the best product within the constraints of whatever, the budget, the client, the time frame, what you've got going on the team to the reality of, like, we've got deadlines and we've got to get this done. The money's running out. That kinda stuff. On the one hand, that's the exhausting part, was you feel like everything's falling apart and ends aren't meeting and it feels like things are unraveling.

And the exciting part was when, like, man, a team clicks and the ideas click and everybody's -- and it comes in waves it feels like. To me, I was always another -- thinking about it almost like the tides. [Laughs.] Sometimes it's out but the tide's always gonna come back in sometime.

Yeah.

And part of that being a professional is just, like, really working the design process and trying to iterate your ideas and prototype and problem-solve together as a team. So, it boiled down to good collaborative, communicative skills.

I mean, is it really that different from the rest of the working world, what you know of it?

I've had some experience -- Holt, Rinehart and Winston, not that it wasn't creative, but working in the publishing industry, there was much more fixed, like, "We know how to make a textbook. We're lined up with academic standards." There were creative moments, but at least from my perspective where my role in that company -- I was much more of a senior management role. Lots of memos. Lots of meetings. It felt more like tracking that things were on schedule and on budget. There are stuff like -- I've talked to some colleagues who've worked in the banking industries and there's a lot of creativity on Wall Street, I'm sure. [Laughs.]

Well, I ask actually in part because of Wall Street. Someone I spoke with who used to work at Failbetter and also used to work in finance told me that the game industry is more secretive than Wall Street. And I don't think there's necessarily always something sinister going on behind that veil, but as a journalist it always makes me curious. It's got to be about the nerdiest thing but I'll do things now like email people I've met through this project who, like, have worked on Fallout 3 and ask them, "Email me what your day-to-day is like." I want to know about the spreadsheets they're looking at. And we've emailed a little bit about this, the abusive practices in workplaces and I'm just always curious about what it's like. I think if you're running a program for at least some people to head off in that direction, I'm curious about what you're aware of and what you make students aware of.
Before we get into that, I was going to ask about what you got your degree in but you already said that -- what were you hoping your degree would be a path towards? Did you know?

Well, you made me think about -- thinking back, I'd been involved with SIGGRAPH and ACM. I was doing a lot of work with GDC and, I don't know, I can't remember the name of the parent company. It was CMP and then it was Think Services? I don't know. I don't know what they call themselves now. You know, the people who own GDC?

UBM, now, I think.

Yeah, there you go. It was fascinating because it was this weird thing that stuck in my mind where, like, SIGGRAPH and the computer-graphics field was created by a lot of academics and research labs, so there's this weird, "We share our best practices." And SIGGRAPH's all about, "Well, check out the latest in hair or water." Or whatever.

Yeah.

Where the game industry was sort of founded out of people who dropped out of college because who needs a degree to go make games?

[Laughs.] Well.

That flavor still feels like it's kinda there in both instances of both communities.

Yeah.

'Cause SIGGRAPH sort of looks a little askance at games maybe. Yeah. I'm speaking broadly and I'm sure somebody would, like, vilify me 'cause games are like -- you know, do they do research and all that stuff? Of course they do. Games sort of look at academics like, "Really?" [Laughs.]

Of course.

But then, I think it's grown from there. Sorry, I totally did not answer your question. [Laughs.]

Insert

No, yeah. You didn't. But I feel like that's always such a hard thing -- I did everything in my power not to become a journalist. I got my degree in music business and as you probably noticed, I do not work in the music business.

[Laughs.] Yeah, right?

But I only have a bachelor's, and I think by the time you get a doctorate or one of those higher degrees you kind of know what direction you want to go in. Is this a path you imagined going down?

No, that was really weird! The master's had preceded my doctorate's, whereas I was like, "Okay, I really like this teaching thing and I enjoy the autonomy of academics." That led to me to go into deeper studies, you know, going for a Ph.D. So, I was thinking more traditional academic at the time.

So, more like scholarly pursuits than vocation, per se.

Yeah. I was kinda just interested in digging in and, oh God, I was in communication studies. The departments I was in at both UNC for my master's and UT for my Ph.D., we went to, like, the National Communication Association and the International -- that was for the professional group with the conference and it was very academic. [Laughs.]

I just kinda staggered into as I started doing that research on computers and storytelling and talking to people in the industry -- it was a fascinating sort of moment because at the time I was like, "God, who would've ever thought I would've been sort of administrative in terms of being a producer or manager?" I would joke -- when I was at Holt, Rinehart and Winston, which became Harcourt, and then Elsevier -- I was senior manager and I'm like, "Wow, I'm a senior middle manager in a huge international corporation. What?" [Laughs.] You know? How'd that happen? So, I definitely took a couple of left turns that I wasn't expecting. My joy of teaching -- like I said, I kept teaching classes even when I was sort of more full-time industry. When the dot-com bubble happened I kind of had this moment of, "What do I really, really like?" I felt like I lucked out here at Carnegie Mellon because they're very applied, focused university. It's got an engineering heart to it where they want people to be making things, not just talking about things.

Also, there's not gonna be a teaching bubble.

Yeah, right! Oh God, yeah, right.

I don't know how to ask this question. It's not intended as a confrontational question, more sincerely curious. For a lot of people, college seems really expensive. This is the first generation I've heard of where I hear parents' plan is to not encourage their kids to go to college at all. For the students that you run into and just in general, why go to college? Why to college for videogames?

That is a good question. Yeah, because I think we're in an interesting -- oh, I'm gonna blank on this guy's name while I talk to you. There's an economist who studies -- he's famous for looking at industries that don't scale, that don't have a way to get more efficient.

Yeah.

His classic example was the string quartet. He was like, "A string quartet, you always need four people playing." So, this interesting -- he just came up with this idea that 100 years ago you paid them less, but now with the cost of living and all that, you still just need four people to do a string quartet. So, it's one of those things that's not going to in a pure capitalistic economy or society be able to scale in ways to get more efficient with costs drop, prices drop, yadda yadda yadda. He had pegged education as one of those fields. Like, classic education, you need teachers in the classroom with students to -- and that's hard to scale unless EdTech tries to build the idea of MOOCs and all that where, like, one professor and 100,000 students could possibly be one answer to that.

But there is a value, I think -- it kind of gets at the core of what we do in general, specifically, but I think just going off to college is a life-learning lesson that can put anybody in good stead. I don't necessarily think it has to be the most expensive. I think there is definitely a bubble happening where as tuitions start hitting $50,000 a year, like, what the hell? I went to the University of North Carolina way back in the '80s and I think it was, like, $600 a semester back then. [Laughs.]

Yeah. Yeah.

Now you're like, "Ooh, $50,000 a year. That's crazy." And then on top of that, going on for grad school or something. What the heck? One of the things I tell my students is an education is something nobody can take from you after you've had it.

That's true.

I'm 47, as I said, and I just paid off my loans this year.

I was about to ask.

[Laughs.] It's like, "Wow, it took me 'til my late forties, but I feel like it was worth it." And so there's that general sort of, like, your going to college is going to expand your horizons. I think all that is true and if somebody at a young age, like, 18 or so, is able to do that without college, you might not need to go to college.

Well, you mentioned, too, when I was out there that there's a lot of international students. So, clearly, there's still an appeal.

Yeah. CMU is fortunate to be known on an international level, we have students from around 27 different countries in the program. At a general level, they’re coming for a quality education from such a recognized university, particularly from a technical standpoint. At the ETC in general, there is a lot of interest from international students in learning the collaborative creative process as someone who assumes a leadership role on a team. They all have to step up and take responsibility for their roles and for working together designing and developing playable prototypes.

I don't know how old exactly these programs are, but I remember when they started to crop up because I did a story for EGM back when it was possible to do that in a single story. I wonder about the tensions in these programs where you juggle academic and practical aspects of game design, and yet a lot of these schools don't want to call themselves vocational schools. They're teaching you --

Right.

To me, there's almost an institutional crisis of identity. How do you make peace with that tension?

Well, on the one hand for me, it's sort of opening up to the fact that there's nothing wrong with vocational education 'cause that can help you get a job, which helps you pay the bills, which is an important part of living in society.

Life?

Yeah.

Yeah, I've heard of that.

It's, you know, one of those things where -- like, I talk to students, "At the very least, you want a job because you want to be able to feed yourself and have shelter. If you get lucky, you start developing a career in a field that you really like. If you get really lucky, you've found your calling, something you can't not do 'cause it means so much to you. But sometimes you just gotta, like, wait tables and pay the bills."

I waited lots of tables while I was in school because I made good money. Bartending and waiting tables is a great way to --

I think I had two or three jobs while I was in college, and I was doing a full class load.

Yeah, so you were learning a lot just by having to go through that. But, man, that can be stressful.

So, the vocational aspect, we're trying to help you think about careers as a professional masters program. It can range from -- like, distinctions we that we like to mean and we don't mean to make this sound judgmental but some places is straight-up: "We're gonna teach you the fact that you're interested in being a 3D artist. We're gonna teach you the packages: Maya, ZBrush, whatever else you care to know. We'll get you all that so you are 'certified' in those packages so somebody can hire you and you'll know how to use this software." That's valuable in and of itself, for sure.

Yeah.

But it can range a little bit more broadly to where it's like, "Well, how do you think about being somebody who wants to understand how to just work in general?" Like, communication challenges you have working with people because people can suck: whether it's your colleagues, your boss, your client might be working for, yourself. [Laughs.]

Yeah. Sometimes you suck.

[Laughs.] Right. Sometimes digging even more deeply and going, "How do you work beyond just the day-in and day-out of, 'Can I be a successful person working in an industry?' to, 'How do I help the industry grow? How do I help push the industry to do things it's never done before?" You know, where you're really dig into -- if you're making videogames, a big part of that is it's a business and you wanna make money and you wanna pay the bills, but it's also a creative endeavor. You don't just want to keep cranking out the same thing every year.

It's difficult 'cause I think I told you I want out to Uppsala University last year. I gave a talk and it was about -- I mean, I don't know. I feel like in hindsight maybe it's not the best audience for it because when you're about to graduate college, you really don't want to hear about the types of things in an industry that you would benefit from if they changed. I think when you're just out of college you're mainly thinking you want a job, not that you want to change an industry. So, I don't know. Do you feel responsible at all for planting those seeds of keeping an open eye and open mind about advocating for change?

Yeah, that's something that I felt was implicit and we try to make it much more explicit around here. It's just sorta --

How so?

How do we inspire, encourage, challenge our students and our graduates to go out and make a difference? At a high level, is the world better because you were here?

Right.

[Laughs.] But more specifically, it's like, how do you challenge -- you're at a work environment where you think there's a little bit of misogyny happening in the culture. Do you speak up or do you leave? What do you do? You know, things like -- it's rampant. Anytime companies release their diversity numbers, it's usually hard to look at if you're not a white guy.

Right. Well, sometimes, even then.

Yeah, even then it's painful to see.

Yeah.

How do we encourage them and inspire them to expect, demand, help try to make a difference on that level as well? 'Cause it's -- for me, it's the difference, being accepting of the fact that different people, different strokes, all that stuff. But it's also, like, making a difference. Pushing so that you see something better happening out of it.

It's something we try to instill in our students just through the curriculum and the types of projects we try to encourage them to tackle, through what we call "transformational experiences," where we're hoping whatever you're designing or developing, there's this goal of something that can have some sort of positive social impact on people's lives, whether that's educational or medical health or an engagement.

Insert

When you have prospective students -- I don't know, for masters, how involved the parents usually are. But, I mean, what do they typically ask of you and the program? Who's doing the most talking? Who seems the most skeptical? What antiquated notions are you still hearing?

Let's see, I think sometimes parents worry 'cause one of the things they struggle with, at least currently -- I think this will change in the next 10 or 20 years -- is for a lot of the people a generation above us a career could be 30 years at one company. Or, at least, a career within a field where you weren't hopping jobs every two years, if more. Where, like, the creative industries, particularly the game industry, a lot of people job hop. You either get laid off or that's a great way to get promoted, get a raise --

Projects end.

Yeah. When I was in Austin, I was able to triple my salary across two years by hopping jobs and getting promoted and things like that. That was -- why wouldn't you do that? [Laughs.] When it's available. Things were booming in Austin at the time.

So, that's one of the uncertainties they still ask about. You could see that they have this hope of, like, "Can you guarantee my kid'll be successful? or will get a job?" That's hard to make promises.

ROI.

Yeah. One of the fallacies of thinking about schools is it's not just a job factory. Like, when you were talking about vocational. Ideally there's some value in just the higher level thinking and critical collaborative skills they develop that hopefully will serve them lifelong. Like, everybody here's required to take improv, as you and I were talking before.

Yeah.

On the one hand, that's a great collaborative creative skillset you can develop. We're not trying to train actors or stand-up comedians. We're really trying to think about them sharing ideas. The professor who teaches it really is -- these are great creative lifelong skills. And she's like, "I think they're just good skills to have to live life.”

I think that's a valuable thing you can get out of college and that type of exposure that's less directly about a job and more about somebody who's very comfortable with the unknown, comfortable doing something they've never done before because they feel confident that they'll be able to figure it out and problem solve their way with their team or with the company. That's going to be the rest of their lives. Like, who knew five-plus years ago VR was coming back? But it's here.

I've found having taught in undergrad and graduate-level programs -- I found often that students hadn't necessarily thought about why this is a path they wanted to go down. Usually -- I mean, that's something having also taught improv myself, trying to get people to think about their choices and just get them talking and reacting and going with it.
What I found was a prevalent attitude among students is just they were there because "videogames are awesome.” I'm paraphrasing.

They like games!

[Laughs.] I don't really know what the question here is -- I don't know. Do you have a reaction to that? Do you find that that's often still the case?

No, yeah. Yeah. There's something very sexy and seductive about, "Can I do something that feels like it's fun for my job?”

Like, playing games or making movies -- creative industries and their output feels like such an engaging part of our pop cultural life.

A "cool job."

Yeah. They're like, "Oh my God, that'd be better than being a banker!" Nothing against banking.

[Laughs.]

For all the bankers in your podcast listeners out there.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Most of my audience is bankers.

[Laughs.] There you go, right.

If that isn't clear when you meet me?

[Laughs.]

Bankers love me.

[Laughs.] But, getting back -- one of the things that I really try to push on, too, is -- it kinda lines up with what we talk about with improv, that will probably resonate with you: There's a difference between being fun to play with, having fun playing.

Yes.

So, if you just want to have fun playing, why don't you just go do it? If you want to try to work on being fun to play with, be someone to work with? That's a skill you can develop. I feel like it's -- this is how, at least, I try to square the cube or whatever, the fad metaphor: I feel like it's a win if I can convince someone not to come here.

Yeah, I understand what you mean.

'Cause sort of like, "We're expensive, you get a lot of out of the education, but if I can talk to you and suss out that it might be best you go do something else, then why waste the tuition or the money?”

I was gonna say, yeah, on top of everything else with student loans, there's probably nothing worse with student loans than it also representing regret.

Right. It's like, "God, I wish I'd never done that." [Laughs.]

Yeah. I wanna make it clear -- not like you're celebrating crushing dreams, but with any field and especially creative fields, even improv, when you demystify the process for people it always will -- when I was teaching improv, there would always be people week one like, "Will you teach me how to get on SNL?"

Oh, right.

It's more like, "Maybe indirectly." There's no non-pompous way of saying this, but it's more about, "Do you respect the craft? Do you enjoy the process?”

Right. And then building on your SNL idea, too, it's like, you can respect the craft and all that and if you're not in the right place at the right time with the right people that might never happen.

Yes. Absolutely.

That's a small percentage of people to get on SNL compared to all the people who aspire to be funny.

I feel like that's even similarly dating myself. I feel like there was a stretch of time where it's like, "Will you teach me to be on The Daily Show?"

[Laughs.]

I don't know that people necessarily aspire to that now. I think it's like, "Will you teach me how to have a successful YouTube channel?"
But that's something that's been interesting for me with this project, going from having written a story about all these programs to being chummy with the heads of so many of these programs now. Something that a bunch of other schools have told me is that they're envious of your approach, that I think we kind of talked about, around the edges. Which is, you mentioned to me the first time we spoke your cross-discipline approach to the program. So, for people who maybe aren't familiar with videogames and videogame academia, can you talk a little bit about the origin of that and why that is so unique?

Oh yeah. I think we're really lucky in how Carnegie-Mellon and the two founders, Randy Pausch of Last Lecture fame and Don Marinelli, Randy came out of the Carnegie-Mellon's computer-science school and Don came out of the college of fine arts and the drama school. Their intention was this true interdisciplinary program inspired in a big part by imagineering. You know, this idea of throwing a lot of people from different disciplines together to make stuff.

Right.

And so there was this initial impetus to: Can we start a program that's co-founded out of these two schools but reporting directly up to neither? So that we are independent of both, so that we didn't skew and become just tech or just art. That enables us to have an appeal to people from all over. We really do work hard to try to balance our incoming class in terms of recruiting to have a nice interdisciplinary mix. And it's truly interdisciplinary. It's not like we expect somebody to come in here and, "I'm a programmer and you're gonna teach me a little art and a little of music and I'll become a little bit of a Renaissance person." Which, some programs, that's their goal and that's totally legit.

Yeah.

But we're more interdisciplinary in that, "No, we're gonna have programmers working with artists working with designers working with musicians and creative writers and people who are interested in production." So, that mix is one of our biggest strengths and enables us to put together collaborative teams that work on these semester-long projects. Again, this discipline diversity enables them to have these sparks. Because they're coming from different backgrounds, they're not gonna see everything exactly the same. Those differences add up to, I think, a lot of innovative and creative both challenges and opportunities.

The sum is greater than its parts or whatever.

Yeah!

It's interesting because I grew up being in bands, performing here and there, but it's interesting because I wonder -- I feel like it's a stereotype, the reasons that people explain how videogames got to a place where it is so monochromatic in terms of where people were coming from and what disciplines they're interested in, immersed in, experienced in. I mean, do you feel like this is still an unusual thing? Why is it still unusual for videogames?

It's less that it's unusual -- because, well, back in the day when it was much smaller --

Like, '80s and stuff?

Yeah. I remember talking to colleagues. I wasn't directly involved. I was playing the games back then. I wasn't in the industry. It was like, if you were in Atari -- oh God, what'd they call you? I can't remember the title. It wasn't designer, it was, like, director. 'Cause you designed, you did the programming, you did the art. You did everything.

Right.

So, the games were small enough in scope and the technology -- you were fighting over bits in chips, in terms of what your design constraints were.

Right.

To now, blossoming teams of multiple hundreds and stuff. So, I think it's evolved in that way as the technology's there and the vision was there, as people just sort of -- the capabilities, like, "Oh, we could do more than one person's capable of. That means we have to pull two people in." When you have two people, there's going to be the potential for disagreement and conflict. [Laughs.] They're not always gonna see eye-to-eye.

And then, heaven forbid -- part of what gets to the monochromatic-ness of it is, I think, bureaucracy. The minute you get a lot of people together, the bureaucracy comes in and there's something innately stultifying about bureaucracy. It doesn't have to do with the people involved. It's just as an organizational structure, it does help corral thousands of people together into something but it also seems to suck out -- lowest common denominator becomes a factor in bureaucracies in some ways.

Well, it's hard to quantify for hunches.

Yeah. Exactly. And then you're big and you're trying to not be the company that's always laying people off, so you're taking safer bet because a sequel's more likely than some new IP to possibly launch, so it's like -- our pop culture is really weird. God, where? It was on music? Speaking of music. They're reaching the point where we're getting nostalgic about things that happened 10 years ago. We've kinda burned through the '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, and now we're on the 2000's?

I look at -- remember the Spider-Man movie series? That accelerated into how quickly it rebooted itself, and I think it's the period we live in now.

Yeah.

There's this interesting vibe, because I think tech in general is weird about this. What do you notice about the way tech treats, talks, and thinks about art?

[Sighs.] That is fascinating as well. Well, one of the things that I struggle with when I talk to technologists, particularly people who come out of engineering backgrounds is their inherent either, "An algorithm's gonna solve it," or, "A big data's gonna solve it.” So, they're looking for, like, technical solutions and sometimes it's less about tech and more about soft solutions. I don't mean to disparage that, but like you said, it's hard to quantify a hunch. It becomes that thing: If algorithms are your hammer, everything looks like a nail. There's a great -- are you familiar with the webcomic Xkcd?

Of course, yeah.

He did one, I think, within the last couple weeks about this directly, where some programmer sweeps in to some sociologist going, "I'll solve your hard problem with algorithms!" And six months later: "You're right! This is a hard problem!”

[Laughs.]

I just talked to some of my colleagues -- oh, God, within the last year or so, The New York Times Sunday magazine did this thing on, like, the latest in management practices. They were referencing how Google's using big data to crunch and solve how teams can work together, how to best manage teams. I was talking to some sociologists -- and the field of sociology has been studying teamwork for over a hundred years and Google's just replicating findings from years ago, but they're crowing like they discovered the newest thing ever because big data's helped them find it. This is a company that once upon a time fired all their managers because engineers don't need to be managed.

Well, once upon a time, they had a slogan, too: "Don't be evil."

I know.

Apparently there's something with that they quibbled with and got rid of.

I'm not trying to slam on Google, but -- when technology comes in, it becomes this, "Well, let's fix it with more tech or create a solution to a problem you didn't even know you had." That's where, I think, what's fascinating to me is it's equally as important when you talk to people about what's valuable in terms of what kids can get out of their education -- I'm talking even lower than, like, college. I'm thinking about, like, K-12. I think nobody disparages the idea that it would be good if they had a sense of creativity and art. Maybe I'm wrong when I say "nobody," but that's the first thing that gets cut often. It's like, "Oh, well, art classes: Cut that, because that's not helping anybody out." That helps a lot of people see the world in new and different ways.

I think both art and science and technology and what-have-you are going after similar pursuits: Going after meaning, going after solutions to what's going on and why it matters and things like that. Just 'cause their answers are different doesn't mean they're devalued one way or the other. It's an interesting balancing act that I think people need to strike.

It's interesting, too, because the higher you go up at tech companies, the more they think of themselves as artists.

Right.

I wonder -- do you feel like there's something disingenuous about the way the people in tech think of themselves as artists?

A little bit 'cause sometimes I think they conflate art with, "I'm pursuing my passions and that's art."

Right.

I think intention kind of matters. Like, there's that great little web series -- who runs it? I think TechCrunch runs it. It's "Judah vs. the Machines". It's Judah Friedlander, the comedian, doing --

For some reason I assumed it would be him. There's not a lot of Judah's in the world.

I know. A recent one was him challenging a machine that had been trained to draw in the style of any artist. And so, he went head-to-head with the machine to draw a sketch of a nude model. Then they brought in an art professor evaluate both of them. It was just funny because Judah won. Even though his sketch looked more sketchy, it was just like, "There's a sensuality, there's this, there's that." His comment about the machine's drawing was really fascinating. It was something like, "There's a lack of connection to reality to this drawing." I think that gets at sometimes what -- particularly Silicon Valley, there's a lack of connection to reality. [Laughs.]

Right. I think it's -- you think about the creative process and the first stroke is so important. But, I guess, tech side steps that and they show you what the line is going to be. I think there's almost a desire to skip something. I don't know what. I guess it's not unusual that you see it a lot in games because I think you see it a lot everywhere in our entertainment.

We have our students -- all of our students go through creativity workshops. Really focused around -- like, one of the activities is, "We're giving you two pieces of paper and a pencil." They get randomly assigned two words, like, "Happy sad." With abstraction -- because some of our students are artists, so they could easily draw somebody smiling and somebody looking sad. But, just, "With more abstract shapes and shading, try to draw us a drawing that you think, 'this is sad and this is happy.'"

Then, what's fascinating is if you step back and you put your drawings up in front of the room and the class goes -- they vote and go, "Okay, half the class thinks this is sad and half the class thinks this." So, then you get this wonderful moment of frisson around, I think, the internal struggle for communication. Where you're like, "Obviously this is my sad drawing." Like, "You can say it's your sad drawing, but over half the class misidentified it as your happy drawing. So, that says something about what you're trying. Somehow you didn't quite capture what you were trying to express." The programmers struggle 'cause they're like, "Well, this is all subjective.”

You know. I was like, "When you start talking about people's interpretations of meaning in whatever language, art, it's inevitable and it doesn't mean there's a right or wrong and it's gotten completely relative." But there is that wonderful challenge of just trying to be artistic where you're just trying to express yourself. So, you're putting yourself out there and you might fall flat on your face. That can be embarrassing. You know this out of improv, it's like, one of the best ways to get at greater truths of our struggles together is when you're vulnerable. You're putting yourself out there in a way that might not work. That's when you're doing creative work. If you know exactly what you're doing and why, you're not doing anything creative.

Insert

When I was out there, you had told me a little bit about the emphasis for personal accountability for students on teams.

Right.

We had talked about this frequent transparent feedback process to push to make sure people are good people and that other people want to work with them and they want to be around them. Was that approach a reaction to something or where the wisdom for implementing that coming from?

I think it came -- when they initially set up the program, Don and Randy, they went around in the industry just talking to people. A big -- I think I told you this -- they went and they visited Electronic Arts, they visited Disney, they visited Pixar, Microsoft. A variety of companies. [President of Pixar] Ed Catmull was the one who encouraged them to have everybody take improv. Ed Catmull from Pixar, back in the day. I don't know, now he's head of Disney Studios? Blah, blah, blah. He and [John Lasseter, chief creative officer of Pixar]. His reasoning was because it gets everybody on the same playing field together, as opposed to feeling like, "Well, I'm the smartest person in the room," or, "My algorithms or my art or my brilliance means I'm the most important person on the team." It's more about checking your ego at the door and realizing that -- it's visceral when you're onstage together in improv, if things aren't working well.

Yeah.

And, can be as visceral when you're on a team just trying to make something separately and we hope that translates. It came from that, this idea of, like, "This is only gonna work if we're working well together." And then we tried to build on that a little bit. You know, because improv can sometimes be daunting to students. They thought it was fun because they were stressed, but it was fun. Or they just thought it was scary. Like, we work really hard to give it some remediation around that to help try to hammer home some of the storytelling components that are really useful anytime you're trying to think of an experience, but also just the idea, the creative and collaborative components of that.

I mean, it all -- improv, as I told you before and we talked about, it began as a series of therapeutic exercises, especially to help socialize younger people.

Boy, do we need it. No. [Laughs.]

[Laughs.] You and I? Yeah, why not.
But, I don't know. I feel like we've been exploring a lot of abstractions from this stuff as it pertains to videogames, not that needs to be the only thing we talk about, but how do you find these different approaches and having interdisciplinary teams and exposing them to stuff like improv -- how do you find that helps benefit the medium?

Yeah, one of the things I think helps in terms of the medium and the field -- like, Jesse Schell, one of our faculty here, one of our professors who's a game designer and actually has a studio, Schell Games, likes to say that one of the best ways to make better games is to have interests that aren't games.

'Cause if all you know are games, you're just gonna keep making games that are already out there.

It's funny and true. There's a great book about improv by Mick Napier who runs the Annoyance --

Ah!

-- which is a place that a lot of people who are famous today also went through. In that book, he writes about how -- 'cause I think that same tunnel vision happen, and there's just this passage in this book. It's a very thin book, it's maybe 80 pages. Near the end, it's like: "To be a good improviser, you should also go outside and do stuff that isn't improv."

So, that's a weird way -- that's weird because I think one of our strongest things is getting students to believe that that's important, so they have a life and live a life and have interests that they can pull into games as opposed to just love games. You know, because games are fun and it's like, "I like games. I like playing Madden! I wanna make Madden!" I'm like, "All right. They'll hire you." [Laughs.] You know?

Yeah. [Pause.] So, I don't know. Neil Druckmann went through your program.

Yes. He was one of our alums.

Do you -- I'm not asking so much for gossip about Neil, but I guess I'm curious what do new graduates tell you they wish they knew about before they got in the industry? Are there specific things they report back that they were blindsided by or unprepared for?

Couple things that are hard for us, 'cause we're a two-year project. Projects run for a semester and we're full-semester, so 15 weeks with a week of finals. So, sometimes our students are in that 16th week finishing. [Laughs.] Couple things that come up is working on super-large projects, you know, like our biggest projects are maybe a dozen-student teams. So, sometimes they'll end up at a company like an EA or one of Activision's studios and be like, "Wow, I'm working on a codebase that hundreds of people are touching. It took me three months just to get up to speed." That type of level of complexity in terms of how many people and the scope, it's hard for us to replicate. And then a weird thing that comes out is because the speed of that, like, our problems get really great at problem solving and they're good at prototyping, but it's hard to get at -- when I was in the industry, I can't remember the aphorism. I'll mangle yet another thing. But, you know, 90 percent is polish? It's like, you've done it, and just keep working on it. Keep plussing it up. It's something that's hard to replicate in a 15-week semester. You know? [Laughs.] Particularly if they have a client -- and sometimes the challenges, to a degree, is it took them five weeks to get on the same page with the client so they really are working on something that they've been bashing on for 10 weeks, not 15. Yeah.

So, it's great in that regard but we always struggle with, like, "How do we help them understand that?" Because then we come back and they're like -- there's some students, they get so hooked on the rapid prototyping they're like, "Man, I'm still working on the same game and I've been out for three years."

Yeah.

That's unusual. And I was like, "Ooh, welcome to the world." You know?

I mean, is Neil an aspirational figure for incoming students?

A lot of people have heard of Neil.

'Cause he similarly climbed over there, too. I don't remember where he entered at, but I know it wasn't where is he now.

No, he's been very successful. Building on the natural talent he had. Man, he's great. As an alum, he speaks highly of his time here. And not the only alum. As somebody who knows improv, that's one of the major things our alums talk about as having been so important to their careers in the game industry and the creative industries, the things they learn through improv.

They've put out more games than Uncharted, and I think it's clear -- I mean, I talked to him last year and we did talk a little bit about how -- basically I talked to him about how even though it's clear that that series tries to broaden what games like that are able to do, it's still another game where you're running around and shooting and jumping and killing people. I guess I just wonder: Is it quixotic to even suggest that games on that scale are even able to change?

That's, like, getting back to our other question, when you're working on games of that scale, it's like, the business side of the equation is like, "Let's make as safe of a bet as we can."

I'm not knocking him or them at all, it's just interesting. He sort of had a rationalization that these are exciting games. But for a medium to be as young as it is, I feel like there's often a mentality that -- one of my interviewees said in the past that we're just trying to solve genres rather than branch out.

Yeah, 'cause that gets back to what we were just talking about: If what you really, really like about games is just games, solving genres is one strategy. It's like, "Man, how do I make the perfect first-person shooter? Or the over-the-shoulder adventure open-world experience?" 'Cause League of Legends isn't gonna be the end-all, be-all of MOBAs. Something's gonna come along eventually that's gonna eclipse it.

So, there's that type of expertise and passion into that. But I find it more fascinating -- and this is where the whole enabling of digital distribution at least gives me hope that the work that they do at, say, Double Fine that push a little more weirdly at boundaries. If you can get something out there that really tickles an itch that people more entrenched in the game industry don't realize consumers may have, that I think is where it's going to expand. A lot of people talk about it in verbs: "We just need more verbs in our game." Those verbs are gonna come by having -- to me, I passionately believe it's gonna come by having more diversity in the teams and the designers and the people who did it. If it's a whole bunch of white guys who have only ever made first-person shooters, you're gonna get a lot more first-person shooters.

[Laughs.] Yeah. I think about -- I don't know if Chris Crawford coined that "verbs" thing, but I think about it at least once or twice a week. I mean, I still hear something that dates back that long to when Chris was talking about Chris, which is videogames are obsessed with movies. I'm sure you remember the time where it felt like "interactive movies" or "convergence" or all these '90s buzzwords were the future. It's interesting that I guess relatively speaking it hasn't taken that long for cross-interdisciplinary mentalities to come to bear.
But, I mean, are there other disciplines that you think have really low-hanging fruits that videogames can digest nutrients of?

I think the one -- we talk about it a lot, just because of the background we have in improv. Which, initially, was just about creativity at a high level and collaboration more functionally. But, I feel like games has more resonance with performance than it does with cinema. Just the live aspect of performance, I think not just improv but the idea of thinking about when you're trying to script, post, have some sort of evening live. It ranges from some of the experiments they have where the audience is more engaged. But there was always that sort of feeling of ephemerality around performance where whether it's onstage or it's a music concert where you had to be there. You had to be a part of it and that's where you really got the juice and the specialness of that experience. I think there's something there about thinking about -- you know, because that predates cinema.

Yeah.

So, I think there's this wealth of experience around performance and theater that I think games could benefit from. You're seeing it a lot. Like, a lot's happening in New York City, a lot's happening in some of the bigger cities that have both the game industry and strong theater industry where, you know, theatrical games are happening. Some of the work Nicholas Fortugno is doing and Eric Zimmerman. Like, Heather Kelley, who we have here is very interested in that as well.

I think there's something to that. I don't know if you've played the game Rust. I haven't. But in the last week, I interviewed Jason Rohrer and I interviewed -- well, he comes more from a D&D background and basically doesn't play games anymore. Except for, well, both of these people lauded the game Rust, which has a strong performance aspect to it. So, I think there's something to it. Do you think there's a case to be made that games might be better served not imitating other mediums, just sort of being their own thing?

Well, yeah, totally. Like, I listened to what you did with Frank and I think he makes some really good points and I've seen other people make it much more eloquently than I will with you. [Laughs.]

That's fine.

Just, the medium needs to find itself first and foremost, because it's such a unique -- Frank would go so far as to say, you know, one thing to think about is it's not a medium. It's something different.

Yeah, I think there's a dissonance around thinking about it and the cultural aspects of this stuff as well, because you look at the surface and it's so rooted in technology and it's so visually impressive now that it almost doesn't compute for people that it's relatively young.

[Laughs.] Yeah.

Insert

Like you said, your program is old enough now to go off to college. Like, this stuff is not as old as we think it is and yet -- I don't know. People will ask, "Okay, well, this is all it can be." Like, when I talk to -- I've interviewed a couple of teenagers. I don't know how many genres of games you feel there are, but some 12 and 13-year-olds I talked to, they told me, "Oh, there's only three genres of games."

Okay. Wow, yeah. Well, it's so funny, just coming from an academic background. [Laughs.] And man, do they love to get things all termified. To really parse what a game is, or not, which can go on, and then even more specifically, to dig into how to label types and genres of games and how they overlap and intersect and possibly merit being called a new genre from all the mixing.

Yeah, writers and critics. Labels. People want to stake their claim and that's their contribution. But it's like, well, this is still soft tissue here. It's still figuring itself out. But something I don't think I've really heard people talk about is: Has the obsession with the movie industry impacted academia's approach to this stuff?

I think it could. because there's this idea, there's a strong cinematic bent to a lot of programs, just because building on that sort of history of how academia handled cinema, in terms of your classic programs of UCLA, USC, their history is, "Man, George Lucas went through there. Steven Spielberg went through there. Spike Lee went through NYU." You know?

Yeah.

And so they have that very focused as a training ground. Again, this gets at an earlier question of -- the idea of how do you square the circle of being just a vocational program. Like, what is your theoretical conceptual belief in what makes for good cinema or makes for good games and how does that underscore or highlighted through your curriculum so that you're helping teach and train a group of people to think about games in ways that you hope will go out and make new and different ones. I'm a huge fan of Tracy Fullerton both personally and in the work that she's done at USC and I sort of compliment her on a lot of the games that come out of there from both her and her students. I feel like they have a lot of soul. That's something she really dives into, this empathic ability of encouraging her students to explore on that deep level through mechanics and experience.

I feel like a lot of the higher profile games, even if you were to explain Walden to somebody who doesn't care about games -- I mean, they might scoff a little, but I bet they would be intrigued.
Yeah. You know, like, "That's it? Well, I guess I'll try it."
But, I don't know. What do you notice about the students who pass through your program? I know you have "non-games" people also make games.

Right.

What have you observed about the way they make games versus "games" people?

Yeah, one of the things -- like we were talking about before, not only is a strength of ours that interdisciplinary approach, it's also the breadth of what we try to explore. So, I bet it's half of our students who are really passionate about games and the other half fall across a variety of fields. Some are straight-up tech, they wanna work on Microsoft, Google, or Apple. Or some of them are more Hollywood, they wanna work at Pixar or animation digital-effect houses. Some are going themed, they want to work at Disney Imagineering or Universal Parks. That range really helps them get at some essential characteristics of design that Jesse really underscores well, I think, in his classes about how in the end it's the experience you want; you're designing for a person to have.

Whether they're playing a game or riding a ride or doing something with a kiosk. You know, as a user, a guest, or a player, you're designing an experience you hope they have. Through design, if you're doing it well, they'll have some sort of experience within the realm of what you were trying to communicate.

I think that resonates so that it becomes: Well, how do you bring spatial elements that you have to deal with if you're in a room or onstage into life experiences in different, new ways? 'Cause you've thought about space in different ways than somebody who's just like -- like, one of the things that just fascinates me is when you look at, and I've seen some really good studies on just exploring game levels in terms of how they're designed but also how they tried to situate them aesthetically in terms of world-building. 'Cause sometimes you're like, "Man, I'm running down another hall." Chris Crawford, we were talking about him.

Yeah.

I still love that talk he gave years ago. It wasn't his dragons talk, but it was around that time where he was just talking about: Man, games take out all the most exciting stuff and make them cutscenes and the boring shit is walking around trying to find your way out of a building. [Laughs.] Which, in normal life, you don't struggle to try to find your way out of a building. [Laughs.]

No, yeah. It's funny because I think of that often. I was just playing Quantum Break, I think, for Xbox One? Something to know about me is I'm perpetually three or four years behind whatever is out.

[Laughs.] Right?

So, I was playing through it and I was like, "Why is this the part they're letting me play and why is that the part I watch?"

Right? Exactly.

It's weird how much that still pops up.
I don't know. I mean, I guess I'm curious to ask: How do you hope videogames change or branch out, personally? Like, what would you like to see games try to tackle or do?

Couple things. One, I am a believer of the transformational aspects. Like, they can have some sort of positive social impact on our daily lives. Seeing them do that more both strategically where it's like, okay, if you're somebody who wants to quit smoking, this game is gonna help you quit smoking. Or you're trying to improve your academic abilities in math. These are just some simple examples. Strategically, they've been designed well enough both in terms of their intrinsic and implicit values but then they transfer out so that it doesn't just get locked in. You know, there's been a lot of studies around these brain training games where it's like, "Wow, yeah, brain training games are great for helping you improve on playing brain training games!” You know? [Laughs.] I'm not sure they do much else.

[Laughs.]

But I think there's a sophistication to what you can do with gameplay mechanics, again, getting at the idea of verbs to where there is some transfer-ability out into our worlds and lives. And then, this other thing -- these are kind of related, but getting at that expressively in a Paolo Pedercini sense of how can games express things in new and exciting ways that allow us from a simulation perspective of that sense of, "Oh, I feel like I've experienced somebody else's shoes or some other perspective as a player," to a more abstract but emotive, expressive sense of, "It allowed me to understand issues. It allowed me to understand the world and opened my eyes in ways just because I had to engage. The agency I had in the experience allowed me to understand something that wouldn't work as well in a book or a documentary."

Insert

Yeah. Well, I mean, people talk a lot about VR as -- I think, honestly, they talk about it as sort of a Band-Aid approach to accomplishing some of that. I would maintain it's more the human intent behind it rather than the hardware output. But I guess just to shift gears and we've talked about a lot of different aspects, but I'd be curious to talk about the media side of things. I don't know how often you go to "the sites," the enthusiast game sites or what you notice about mainstream coverage of the games industry and culture. What do you notice the media never digs in that you wish they would? Like, what's stuff you'd like to read more about if you could?

I think a couple things. I'm not just trying to compliment you, but digging things like a more sophisticated understanding of the history and its relation to our culture. You know, how it's situated in there is something I think you're starting to see with work like what you're doing and some other -- like, I think Tom Bissell did some good stuff. There's a new book out called Bit by Bit that kind of tries to do something similar, but I've just started reading so I can't speak to it in detail.

Yeah, I haven't even heard of it.

I heard about it recently and wanted to check it out and now that the semester's over I'm like, "Whew, I can do some other stuff." [Laughs.] And then -- so, that, I think has only been scratched at and I think there's a lot there. Like, what we try to do with Well Played is this idea of side-stepping. Even now, games are a good buggaboo of saying, "Games are evil. They're causing kids to be more violent, more antisocial, yadda yadda yadda." And sort of just saying, "Well, games are valuable: Now, why?" Like, let's accept that they are valuable. As an experience. As a medium. You know, just the act of playing them can be valuable and then really trying to dig into that is something that I think could be done even more.

And similarly, who said it? I think it was John Oliver, years ago, when he was talking about something. He was like, "The best way to be successful at evil is to be boring."

Yeah. That was FCC and net neutrality.

Yeah. It stuck with me 'cause I was like -- it was right around the time Gamergate was so hot and I was talking to a lot of colleagues who were going, "Man, the game industry is the worst industry in the world." I was like, "Really? 'Cause Gamergate, don't get me wrong. It had all kinds of ugliness all around it and there's misogyny and there's the shit that went down. Some of it was criminal for sure."

Right.

"But are they really -- they were so loud and so noisy. What's the quiet, boring part of this?"

Yeah.

The diversity numbers are part of that. It's like, "Wow, we're still sort of struggling. There's not many women in the industry." And then if you're like, "What about Hispanics and African-Americans in the industry feeling like they've got a role and a place?" 'Cause I saw this recent post on Wired about this woman kind of going, "Hey, man, don't hire women if you can't retain them. If you're not willing -- if all you're willing to do is try to recruit women but then you're not willing to try to adapt your culture to actually be a place where they feel like they belong then you're wasting everybody's time."

I mean, I don't know necessarily that media is "the solution" to these types of things. That happens to be my chosen tool. I think I talked a little about it, because I tell everyone about how it seems to be impossible to get traction writing about some of these evils because I think the way it typically falls down is it's too focused about human beings for some of the more enthusiast sites and a lot more mainstream places assume the enthusiast sites are doing the digging --

Right, I see what you're saying. Yeah.

Yeah, I can go on and on and on with my saga and travails of trying to get traction on this, but what do you feel are the "boring evils" of the game industry?

A little bit around diversity, a little bit about how it's entrenched in a larger culture that has all kinds of issues around sexism, racism. Oh yeah. They're like, "Games is the worst industry," and I'm like, "Have you looked at Wall Street's numbers? Have you looked at Hollywood's numbers? Have you looked at VC numbers? I think 99 percent of all VC funding goes to white guys." You know, so it's like, "Woah, it's endemic and it's systemic." That's so hard to get people to grasp because it feels unfair.

Yeah, I mean, I find it interesting because there's constant stories these last few months about, you know, Uber and whoever else was taking their turn with the exposés last year. For some reason, just, videogames are not allowed at this sort of table.

Oh, right. Yeah.

Like I told you about how I was up for that journalism fellowship in Ann Arbor and they felt like mainstream coverage of videogames -- first off, the interview started with the committee telling me they know nothing about videogames, but they were still dubious about my position that there isn't suitable, sufficient coverage. They felt like, "Well, Gamergate was covered and so was gamification." They saw stories on them sometimes so they felt the media was doing a good job. But it sounds like --

Yeah, that gets at -- to me, it conjoins with the question you're asking about what parents worry about. It's sort of like that weird devaluing. The way we sort of describe it a lot of times is we're a mutt. And if you're somebody who believes in purebred dogs and how they're superior 'cause you can blah blah buh blah, you're gonna look down on mutts. And that kinda comes at us in terms of -- I think videogames are a mutt. It's a conglomeration of different fields coming together to make something -- programming, engineering, with art and design and music. I'm not even getting them all together. So, there's definitely a mongrel-ness about videogames that helps people devalue it.

Yeah.

Regardless, you know, 'cause I love it because if you get into the science of mutts, there's -- health for your dogs and I was like, "Okay, I'm gonna really push this metaphor."

[Laughs.] Go for it.

So I think there's some vigor for that type of mongrel-ness of the videogame industry. Like, people are learning and doing new and exciting things that I think -- that's where I think the media can help explore that better. But it's easy to devaluate and just go, "Eh, games aren't important."

Well, they're a leisure activity and yet movie box office numbers are reported on as news.

Right.

You know, on, like, broadcast TV. But it's totally true. You mentioned Tom Bissell. We had drinks last year and he told me working -- you know, he's working on Gears of War games and other games. He said, basically, working on those major, major games, you take all the problems of making software and you multiply them by all the problems of making movies. You know, I think even if it's from a muckraking perspective, I would just think there's so much more to write about that more mainstream places are already writing about in peripheral industries.

Right.

I mean, I'm not saying it's the most important thing in the world. Especially now with everything else going on in the world. It's just -- you know, I wonder if that's really going to be the catalyst for change. I kind of doubt it.

Yeah, I don't know if it's going to be the catalyst but at least, maybe, there's at least the hope of some really good digging that gets beyond your Variety-style coverage of Hollywood to some things. But -- like, it's not the end-all, be-all. On the one hand it's like -- not to buy into the frivolity, but on the one hand you're just making games, but on the other hand I was talking to a colleague who comes out of the theater. He had this interesting perspective where he feels like entertainment is one of the higher order things of being civilized. You know, in a civilization where you think about ways that people want to spend their "free time," these are ways to lift people up or encourage and inspire people to do more or at the very least make them laugh when things are hard. There's a positive way to look at it. The negative way is, like, "Well, you're distracting people from their real problems." [Laughs.]

[Laughs.] My entire career, that's what people have told me. The upside of what I'm doing. I'm like, "Yeah, but I'm not curing cancer exactly."

[Laughs.] Yeah, right?

I don't know that I've saved a life. A lot of people tell me, they read this project and they get PTSD.

[Laughs.] There you go.

[Laughs.] So I don't know if that's helping or not.

Yeah, sure, totally.

You mentioned John Oliver and -- I don't know. We mentioned Neil Druckmann and I guess Naughty Dog ran into stuff like this but you wrote in your email to me that there's a lot of potentially unfair pressure put on people who make games from media and fans. I mean, it's probably really difficult to prep students for what to do in those situations. But you also made the point that most game developers have no training or practice in public relations. So, I mean, does this sort of stuff get talked about? Because it feels like if you go off what's written about -- it seems like videogames are the most fulfilling and toxic endeavor.

[Laughs.]

[Laughs.]
It's like there's nothing in between. I mean, do you talk about this with students? Do you tell them how to damage control? Is that even academia's role?

We don't talk about -- that's really interesting. When we were talking about things that we might not necessarily address, when we talk about scope and stuff.

Yeah.

But we talk a little bit about marketing from a communications perspective. We don't dig into, "Oh my God: You're being attacked, how do you handle it? What's your PR solution?" We do talk a bit about social-media etiquette, just in terms of trying to help them understand as they start trying to develop as creative professionals ways to make the most of that. Because social media can really be a boon for you as somebody who's a small indie developer. Like, I think you just naturally have the aptitude for it, but another group of our alums -- we called them the Kyles, Kyle Gabler and Kyle Gray -- while they were here, pitched a project that was called the Experimental Gameplay Project at the time. It was just gonna be this little, "Well, we're gonna try to put rapid prototyping into a mechanic a week. Go!" One of the mechanics was this weird physics thing that became Tower of Goo which became World of Goo. But those guys play and they loved having fun with the media. They used that positively to their advantage. Like, the media just -- I think they had such a good attitude and not snarky but just playful, but they had this knack for getting interviews and getting attention. And so, like, we talk about ways to try to leverage social media and connections in a positive way. It is sort of a harder -- we haven't had as much attention given towards that because social media makes people, you know, as fans, "Oh, I'm linked to Neil Druckmann," for instance. Or whoever. Or Beyoncé. "I'm following her, so she knows! She replied to my tweet! Oh my God!" You know, "Me and Beyoncé are besties!"

[Laughs.] Yeah. Yeah.

So there is that weird sort of feeling that social media allows. There was a great article, I think it was on Kotaku, about the weird thing happening with streamers between YouTube and Twitch because their fans feel so close to them 'cause they're looking at them and watching them. They start feeling like they like them. [Laughs.]

Yeah.

The thread through that article was one guy had a fan show up. He's based in the states here and he had some fan from Japan, like, fly here and just knock on his door in the middle of the night. We're like, "Woah!" So, that negative backfiring of people start feeling too close or they're all up in your business day-in and day-out, you do have to start either, one, developing some armor so when somebody tells you you're awful -- and it can skew as far as Gamergate, where they're doxxing you and just telling you the worst things in the world on social media -- to what happened with No Man's Sky. Yeah, No Man's Sky ended up having such amazing hype and intention to a small little company. And the game didn't quite live up to the hype initially and they kinda went into silence mode and that just caused the fan base to go bananas. I think everybody felt self-righteously justified to tell them off because they didn't quite deliver what they felt like they had been promised. You know, how do you handle that? Woof!

It's weird because, yeah, I feel like this stuff has changed. Like we mentioned, there seems to be: "It's the most important use of your time. It's the most important medium." It's tons of drama. Somehow it's eclipsed what it originally was.

Yeah.

Which was play.

It's play. It's frivolous. It's sort of nonsense.

Yeah, I mean. I don't know. There's a lot of self-seriousness and staking claim and territory. Something you had mentioned that you wish the industry -- you think it can do better discussing the range of games that come out and connect with people. Like, you mentioned casual mobile, which is ironic because in all the press releases I get, the industry certainly claims revenue generated from those games as part of the industry and yet -- I don't know. I remember one of the first interviews I did for this, I talked to Laralyn McWilliams and she talked about how GDC when Myst came out, everyone was scoffing at how, like, "It isn't a game. No one will want it." And yet, it had just sold crazy-good.

Right.

Why do you think this is a pattern that keeps repeating itself even for something so young as games are.

I'm gonna go broad. [Laughs.]

Sure, that’s fine.

There's this entire thing that I always like to jokingly call "the arrogance." There's something about us humans that like to find somebody that we can look down on. [Laughs.] And it can range from, like, an academic setting. It's like, "MIT is better than CMU. CMU is better than MIT. Stanford says they're better than both of us. The Ivies say they're better than us." I think it can get inverted, like, 'cause you'd say, "Well, the Ivies, that's the top of the crop." But some community colleges look down on the Ivies 'cause community colleges are affordable and people get jobs and they actually get a good education and don't go into debt and blah blah buh blah blah. All -- so it's just weird. And Brenda Romero just gave this great talk about how her whole career she's always felt like she wasn't legit 'cause she's like, "I'm not making it, whatever it is. And it might be AAA or it might be VR or whatever." She's like, "You feel like people are looking down on you because you're not making 'real games,' you're just doing this little hobby mobile thing." Or -- like her tabletop game. This is what she was talking about. Then she's like, "But then, when I talk to some people, they feel like they've sold out and they're just making AAA games." They're not as legit as her, who's a true designer doing exactly what she wants by making tabletop games on her own. The point of her talk is, like: Why do we do this to each other? Why do keep doing this where we're always looking down on each other and besmirching each other? I think part of it just gets down to human nature and how we like to clique and all that. But what's great about human nature is we can actually rise above. [Laughs.] You know, we're just a little considerate and a little thoughtful. And so, I don't think it's ever gonna go away go away. Because you see it in happening in movies. You know, is it a legit movie or is it just a flick or is it a waste of your money? You know, is that serious TV or is that a guilty pleasure?

Happens in journalism, too.

Right!

I had asked Frank this question, so you might have seen it. I was asking about early filmmakers when they started making films, they were coming at their work with ideas out of the newspaper, theater, and their lives. As film got more established, film-school degrees started to become available. I know we talked a lot about CMU and cross-pollination of mediums and disciplines. How do you feel the availability of filmmakers getting those degrees changed film? Is that something you're trying to emulate? Or any of the other disciplines you're involved in?

Yeah, like, I'm gonna get back to what you were saying earlier. On the one hand, yes, I think there's some emulation going on and some sort of resonance. It's similar. Like, it's creative endeavor, it's an industry. At the same time, it needs to start standing on its own two feet as whatever it is, medium, field. And what I think academics enable to have happen is two, maybe three-fold. Like, I had a really great talk with Celia Pearce. I think she's at Northeastern currently --

Yeah.

-- and been a part of IndieCade for forever.

She called me "the Clay Shirky of videogames."

There you go. Not too bad there.

[Laughs.]

So, what she was getting at was this idea of how much academics has helped support indie and some of their biggest experiments. A lot of indie developers tend to have academic jobs or side jobs that enable them to have more freedom. I think that gets at this overarching, like, academics ideally have more time to explore ideas that might not be successful. So, yeah. So that freedom enables them to push at boundaries in ways that industry is never going to be able to do well.

Right. I mean, at the bigger studios there's almost, like, an odometer that turns over as soon as a project is done. They have to start working on the next thing. There's very little -- like, Greg Zeschuk, formerly of BioWare told me he remembers working on games in the '90s and they used to go on vacation when a project was done. [Laughs.] That doesn't happen anymore.

Yeah, I know. And so, there's that. I think in the same way we some of the best ways to make new, unique, interesting games/gameplay is, like, pulling new perspectives in. Academics can be a new perspective. I think there's fruitful conversation to be had across those disciplines. And again, there's the trick of getting people to move past the arrogance where, you know, it's easy to look down on academics because we're in the ivory tower and we tend to verbify too many things. [Laughs.] And vice versa, academics going, like, "Let me come in and solve your problem with algorithms." Or, you know, a research study that proves how to make things.

[Laughs.] Well, this'll be my last question.

Promises, promises. [Laughs.]

Well, no. Yeah. Maybe. Last on the record. [Pause.] What do you think videogames have accomplished?

At a high, like, overall?

Yeah, however you want to interpret it. It's intentionally broad and vague and wherever you wanna go with it.

Okay. I think videogames have helped accomplish either re-legitimization or a growing legitimization of the value of play in our lives.

Yeah.

'Cause for a while there, particularly with the industrialization of our cultures, play was frivolous and you're gonna get to work, you're gonna work, and work's very much like being on a -- you know, you're on the line.

Yeah. Yeah, much like videogames, the concept of teenagers and childhood is a relatively modern or new thing.

Yeah. So, I think there's something there. So, it's getting people to really seriously address, look at -- or more seriously look at how we shouldn't lose that sort of creative, open playfulness in our culture and our society. It's enabling adults, because it used to be - I mean, I'm in my forties and once upon a time that'd been like, "You're in your forties and you're playing games? What the hell, man! Grow up!"

Yeah.

I've heard many people say this: Any day somebody dies who's never played games, somebody is born who's always gonna play games. Yeah, exactly. So, you're starting to see people -- they don't look down on the fact that they're continuing playing games and that's part of their life. My game-playing has changed. You know, I used to be able to put in hours and I would happily do that. Now it's just a little busier and I squeeze it in more across the day as opposed to dedicated 10-hour session. You know, I think that's a broadening of what's out there in terms of what we can play. There's some great games that are minute-type, bite-size experiences and there are great games that are like a five-course meal.

Yeah.

And so I think that that's something I think games have done really really well because both in terms of just in and of itself it's fun to play a game, but what they've helped I think as well and kind of building on that idea of play is getting at how creative -- I think creativity and curiosity are a big part of what's satisfying about being alive. Being able to explore things you don't understand or a problem. Games allow you to inherently explore things.

And, so, like, that's actually something I think transfers into life. Like, game players are more open problem solvers 'cause they're like, "Well, I'll try it again. I'll try this. I'll try that. I'll try this." And, like, Constance Steinkuehler had this great -- years ago, just talking about -- she did a lot of work in World of Warcraft just going, "A lot of time, guild players inherently enact the scientific method as they try to explore strategies for how to play the game better.” I was like, "Damn, that's right!" I hadn't envisioned it in that way. But that type of -- I think something that's really powerful about games is the agency you get in there. You feel like your decisions matter. Like, what you're doing matters and I think that's something that a lot of people strive for and hope for in their lives. Like, are we doing something that matters? [Laughs.] That's something that games give people to think about just by playing them.

Don't Die logo