The Independent Games Movement (Part Six): An Interview with Eric Zimmerman (Part Two)

Yesterday, I ran the first of a two part interview with Eric Zimmerman, game theorist, designer, and teacher, during which he spoke at length about his vision for the Independent Games movement and the ways that his company, Game Lab, has developed distinctive and original content. Today, I shift the focus onto some of the public service aspects of Zimmerman’s work, especially in his efforts to promote games literacy.

Across the term, I have been sharing with you some news about the MacArthur Foundation’s 50 million dollar commitment to exploring youth and digital learning. Our own Project NML is part of this effort as was the white paper I published on the social skills and cultural competencies young people need to participate meaningfully in the new media landscape. Another dimension of this effort is the Game Designer Project, which Zimmerman is developing in collaboration with Katie Salens and James Paul Gee. I got a chance to see some early prototypes of this project at the Serious Game Summit in Washington DC earlier this term and was blown away by the wit and imagination, not to mention the pedagogical sophistication, which is informing its design. As Zimmerman discusses below, this is an attempt to use the game platform as a vehicle to teach students about the design process. The goal is not to turn young people into game designers but rather to use the design process to help them to think critically about games as a mode of experience.

In a recent interview on this blog, Greg Costikyan commented, “Consider Eric Zimmerman. He’s found a viable niche doing casual games, and his company, Gamelab, does some excellent ones. But Eric is a -gamer- at heart, and while I imagine he’s happy enough developing games for an audience (middle-aged women) that prizes games of types very different from those he himself loves, I’m sure he’d much prefer to be developing games of greater cultural significance and intellectual merit. In other words, if he could make as much money doing a game that appeals to people who have a passion for games, rather than for those who view them as light entertainment, I’m sure he’d be happy to. But he also has a payroll to make, and there’s demonstrable money in casual games, and indie games are pretty much unproven as a market.” Do you agree or disagree with that description of the context within which you work?

God bless Greg Costikyan (and I mean that in the secular, idiomatic sense).

Greg is half right. While Gamelab strives to have every game we make be in some way innovative, I believe we are just scratching the surface of the tip of the iceberg in terms of the kinds of games that could be made. So of course I would love to be doing more radically experimental and unusual work, in terms of gameplay and interaction, narrative and cultural content, contexts for play, audio and visual aesthetics, etc. In this sense, yes Greg, I’d like to be doing more than I am. But when I look around at all of the game companies out there, I’m very happy with what we are doing at Gamelab and I don’t think there is another place I’d rather be.

But I certainly wouldn’t frame these issues as Greg does. For example, I wouldn’t describe the work I want to do as my own personal desire to make games that I want to play. As a designer, I like solving design problems, which doesn’t merely mean making games that are fun for me. And even if it did, the intrinsically collaborative nature of game development means that a game is the product of many people’s desires, not just those of a single author.

Greg is also certainly over-generalizing the online game audience. Online games include far more than the “middle aged woman” stereotype he invokes. I’d much rather be making games for the Internet, as the players there are vastly more diverse than for consoles and PC retail games. I can say with confidence that the two games I described in my response to the last question, Arcadia Remix and Out of Your Mind, are not designed just for middle-aged women.

Lastly, I would hesitate to set up an opposition between running a business and “creativity,” something implied in Greg’s quote. Part of what we are doing at Gamelab is not just engaging with design questions, but engaging with questions of funding and producing and distributing our work as well. And Greg’s company Manifesto Games is certainly doing this too. The fact that there are still so many unanswered questions about games – in terms of design, culture, business, etc – is what makes it so exciting to be working in the game industry right now.

Tell us something about the Game Designer project. You hope to help young people develop an understanding of the game design process. Why? What do you see as the benefit of everyday people understanding games on this level?

Game Designer is a project funded by a MacArthur Foundation grant in partnership with Jim Gee’s research group at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Game Designer will let junior high and high school students learn about game design by creating and modifying simple games. However, the point of the project is not to train future game designers. It is to engender media literacy.

Our position is that there is an emerging form of media literacy that we sometimes call “Gaming Literacy.” Gaming Literacy has to do with information management, understanding complex systems, social networks, a critical design process, and creativity with digital technology. Increasingly, this new form of literacy will be crucial in the workplace and in our social and civic lives. The process of game design, which combines mathematics and logic, storytelling and aesthetics, writing and communication, systems and analytic thinking, among other elements, is one of the best ways of engaging with this form of literacy.

Katie Salen here at Gamelab is leading the Game Designer project design and working directly with our academic partners, who are focusing on research, pedagogy, testing, and assessment. Game Designer is not an open-ended prototyping tool like GameMaker – it is a guided, scaffolded experience that teaches game design concepts. So it is important that the instructional components of the project are really well-tuned. Right now there is nothing like Game Designer out there – and from kids’ reaction to our prototype testing, it may be a very popular application.

One obvious analogy might be to Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, which translates the theory of comics into a graphic novel format. What do you gain by exploring the mechanics of game design through a game as opposed to a book

like, say, Rules of Play?

I hadn’t thought of that analogy, but I like it! Thanks for the generous comparison.

Game Designer in some ways is an extension of Rules of Play, in which Katie Salen and I tried to establish a set of concepts for the practice and theory of game design. But that textbook is really designed for a university classroom – a very different audience and a very different instructional context than Game Designer!

One of the reasons why Game Designer needs to be embodied as a game creation application, rather than just as a book, is because one of our emphases in the project is on the process of game design. Interacting with Game Designer won’t be just about making games in and of themselves, but will involve sharing them online, having friends playtest your games, as well as writing critical reviews of your games and of others’ games. We want to borrow some elements from the practice of game design, because this process also embodies the kind of literacy we want to teach.

You announced at the Serious Games Summit the launch of a new nonprofit entity. Explain how this group will be related to Gamelab and what its goals will be?

We’re still in the process of forming the nonprofit, so I can’t say too much just yet. But the organization, called The Gamelab Institute of Play, is dedicated to the idea that playing, understanding, and creating games is an important learning experience. Rather than focusing on “serious games,” the Institute of Play consists of programs and experiences that turn players into designers, letting them learn about and create games both on and off the computer. A close relationship between the new organization and the commercial game studio Gamelab, will also allow for new kinds of collaborations across the for-profit and not-for-profit divide. We’re pretty excited about the Institute of Play! Expect to hear more about it this Spring.

There has been a lot of debate this summer about the value of games criticism and whether the field needs strong and recognized critics who might cultivate the audience for more innovative games. What do you, as a game designer, see as the role of the game critic?

Sorry to hear I missed that debate! Where and when did it happen?

I certainly agree that there is a role for game criticism, as one piece in the puzzle of growing what games are and what they might be. Education and the scholarly study of games is another piece. As are many of the design and business issues I have mentioned here. In many ways, the role of the critic binds all of these diverse elements together. The critic needs to have some kind of scholarly background, although she isn’t necessarily writing for an academic audience. The critic has an educational function, although he isn’t a formal instructor. And the critic needs to understand the design and business of games, even though the critic isn’t selling or creating them.

Critics serve many roles for those of us working in the industry. We’re usually too busy to be reading everything out there, so critics are important sources of information about what is happening. Critics also reflect audience opinion, giving us a sense of what our fans might be thinking. They also of course help generate audience opinion, giving us a way to reach our players. At their best, critics can raise issues and concerns about what, how, and why we are making games that we in the myopic industry might not ourselves see.

Props to the critics.