Singapore-MIT Games Innovation Lab in the News

Chris Kohler ran a story in Wired last week about new academic programs in game studies and design, in which the new Singapore-MIT GAMBIT games innovation lab figured prominently, alongside the new Serious Games masters program being launched by Carrie Heeter at Michigan State University and the new bachelor’s degree program in game art and design recently launched by the Expression College for Digital Arts in Emeryville, California. These are to be sure only a few of a much broader array of colleges and universities which currently offer degrees or research opportunities in the area of game studies and design, each with their own strengths and emphasis. Certainly I would want to acknowledge here the pioneering work in this area at the University of Southern California, Georgia Institute of Technology, and Carnegie Mellon University, to cite simply the American institutions.

Kohler bases his representation of our efforts primarily on an interview he conducted with core participants some months ago. He recently reprinted the full transcript of the exchange via his blog and I am crossposting it here with his permission in hopes that it will give my regular readers a clearer picture of what we are trying to accomplish.

Kohler was flattering in his representation of “Prof. Jenkins” (that guy again!) as the key figure behind the project but in fairness, I should stress the degree to which CMS co-director William Uricchio has been the primary player in our negotiation to create the lab and that the day to day operations of the lab are being capably overseen at this point by CMS alum Philip Tan, who has been seconded to our team from the Singapore Media Development Authority. Both Tan and Uricchio play a prominent role in the interview which follows.

We got some thorough ribbing in the fall when we announced that the Lab would be called SMIGIL (Singapore International Games Innovation Lab) and I joked at Serious Games that we were going to change our name to GOLLUM (Games — Online Learning, Large, Utterly Massive). In the end, we have settled for GAMBIT (Gamers, Aesthetics, Mechanics, Business, Innovation, and Technology). While we are still negotiating some final details of the arrangement, we remain optimistic that the lab will launch this summer with our first crop of games prototypes starting to surface in the fall. My trip to Singapore in January was partially focused on identifying collaborators at leading Singaporean institutions who would be working with us on the first round of research.

Chris Kohler: You’ve been on the front lines of research into video games for quite a long time, but if I understand correctly this is the first big push for CMS into actual work in video game design. Why get into this area of education?

Henry Jenkins: That’s a bit of a simplification. I have long been a strong advocate of innovation, creativity, and diversity of games as well as a strong supporter of the serious and independent games movements. That’s probably the part of my work which has been most visible beyond the MIT campus. But, we have been taking steady steps over the past eight or nine years through the Comparative Media Studies Program to move decisively towards games production. The Comparative Media Studies has embraced an ethos of applied humanities.

Some years ago, CMS collaborated with Bing Gordon to develop a Creative Leaders Program for Electronic Arts: our faculty and students sat down to brainstorm with key EA designers, including Will Wright, Neil Young, and Danny Bilson, about the future of the games medium. For the past seven years, we have run a week-long intensive games design workshop every January in collaboration with people in the training program at Sony Imageworks and with a range of local Boston area games companies. Our students conceptualize and pitch games in the course of the week and receive feedback from industry insiders (representing companies such as Harmonix, Mad Doc, and Turbine). We have gradually built on that foundation by having games-related courses taught on campus by games industry insiders, such as Christopher Weaver (Bethesda Softworks), Ian Lane Davis (Mad Doc), Eric Zimmerman (GameLab) and Frank Espinoza (Warner Brothers). We have a long tradition of bringing games industry professionals to MIT to mentor and advise students on their class projects. We have long brought game designers of all kinds to campus to interact with our students

and share with them front line perspectives on industry trends. We have had a steady stream of students who have sought to combine computer science and comparative media studies and have gone on to do internships and get jobs as game designers.

We have now six years of track record doing conceptual and playable prototypes for educational games — starting with the Games to Teach project which was funded by Microsoft Research and then the Education Arcade, which has hosted major events on games and learning at E3. This group has experimented with the use of game mods as a platform for developing educational games, transforming Neverwinter Nights into Revolution, a game set in Colonial Williamsburg. We recently hired Scot Osterweil (The Zoombini’s Logical Adventure) to head up a team of our students working with Maryland Public Television and Fablevision to develop Labyrinth, a multiplatform experience designed to help kids develop literacy and math skills. It will be, we hope, the first CMS developed game to find its way into distribution. Eric Klopfer, another colleague, has been a leading researcher working on Augmented Reality Games and Beth Coleman, yet another colleague, is doing important work on the use of machinema for artistic expression.


All of this is the focus on the work we are doing through the Comparative Media studies Program. But what’s great about this initiative is that within MIT, we are partnering with some key faculty in the Computer Science Program who has been doing groundbreaking work in computer graphics, artificial intelligence, and voice recognition.

And beyond that, we will be working with leading researchers from a range of Singaporean institutions with a broad range of production, animation, and programming skills.

Chris: How did the collaboration with the Singapore government come about? Had you

worked together on any other initiatives prior to this?

Philip Tan: Late last year, Singapore announced that the country was embarking on a major effort to grow R&D spending to 3% of its GDP. This is a crucial direction for preparing the Singapore economy for the next couple of decades. They’ve been focusing on biotech for a good few years and they’ve had compelling domestic reasons to build up their environmental and water technologies. However, the government also announced a big commitment to Interactive and Digital Media as a research space that is simply too important to ignore.

[Added later: I mixed up some statistics in the paragraph quoted (above). The National Research Foundation of Singapore announced that they would allocate S$500 million over the next five years for a strategic research program to increase the value-added contribution from the interactive & digital media (IDM) sector from S$3.8 billion in 2003 to S$10 billion, and to create about 10,000 new jobs by 2015.

The Media21 blueprint of MDA, which was announced in 2003, aims to double the GDP contribution of the entire media industry to 3%, and to increase the number of media industry jobs.

Thanks for the opportunity to clarify this detail.]

Given Singapore’s technological base, excellent education system, cosmopolitan influences, and constraints in population and geographical size, the country has already been investing heavily in its digital media industries. This announcement is important as it encourages a bigger push towards addressing the concerns of the Singapore industry through R&D, which necessitates an attitude of risk-taking and creativity. They’re building on that strong IT base that they’ve developed over the past 25 years, but they also recognize that digital media has significant creative challenges in addition to technological complexity. This effort invites exploration into new business models, cultural explorations, and aesthetics, which now becomes an integral part of the R&D effort for Interactive and Digital Media.

For the past 8 years, MIT and Singapore have had an ongoing collaboration called the “Singapore-MIT Alliance.” The trust and understanding between MIT and Singapore institutes of higher learning has grown during that time, which has made it easier for researchers and educators to build collaborations. Within this context, CMS has been looking for an opportunity to work with Singapore in various media-related initiatives, and CMS is still examining other potential collaborations, particularly in education. However, just as the rapid growth of the Singapore industry is beginning to uncover challenges and opportunities for research, CMS has been gradually expanding its game curriculum offerings and research endeavors, so the International Game Lab is just the right project at the right time for all the collaborators.

Chris: What exactly is the involvement with Singapore — will they be sending a certain number of students to MIT every year? Undergrad or graduate or both? How will you be involving working game industry professionals in the Lab? Have you signed up any specific individuals who you could name?

Philip Tan: Singapore and MIT faculty, post-doc, and graduate students will be collaborating on research across a range of different game-related topics. We want to make sure that this is completely collaborative; the research thrusts need to make sense both all the researchers, drawing on strengths and interests of both Singapore and MIT collaborators. Without that complementary benefit, we would end up compromising the full effectiveness of the initiative. There will naturally be a lot of communication, researcher exchanges, and joint presentations, and we should expect to see simultaneous increases in research activity in MIT and in Singapore institutions.

Undergraduate and polytechnic students in Singapore already have access to pretty strong technical and creative curricula to prepare them for game careers, so we want to bring 30 to 40 a year to MIT and challenge them to take the results of the ongoing research efforts and translate those ideas and applications into playable games. We’ll also help build up further opportunities for more industry-bound students to grapple with the research while they are in Singapore. Not only does this expose students to game technologies, practices, and concepts that are a little different from the standard development pipelines, it allows the initiative to assess the relevance of the research. If we can’t even figure out how to apply our own research to our own games, then some reevaluation is in order.

We’ll also have Singapore and US industry professionals attached and visiting the work occurring in Singapore and MIT to make sure that the research stays relevant and accessible to the industry. We’re still interviewing and discussing possible means of collaboration, so we can’t name names at this stage. In Singapore, the local IGDA chapter makes it a priority to collect input and speak for the concerns of the industry, so we will frequently be consulting with them to identify areas of research that might be beneficial for the industry but might potentially be too risky for the industry to undertake.

Chris: More generally, how will this affect MIT’s student body? Say I’m an undergraduate at MIT with a strong interest in game design or game research — how could I get involved in this program?

William Uricchio: The Lab provides us with an opportunity to redouble our efforts in the classroom, research lab, and outreach programs. Each of these venues offers our students ways of sharing in the benefits of the program. In the classroom, the presence of the Lab will not only allow us to increase our game-related course offerings, but should facilitate greater interaction among CMS students and those from other parts of the Institute such as Course 6

(Electrical Engineering and Computer Science) and Sloan. There will be plenty of games-related research opportunities throughout the year in direct support of the Lab. MIT has a strong tradition of involving undergraduates as active participants in applied research through its many labs — a program called the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program or UROP. And our already active engagement of key figures in the games field, whether from the industry, or the journalistic or academic worlds, will intensify. The MIT community can look forward to more opportunities to interact with these ‘key figures’ through our weekly colloquia and occasional conferences, and even through our visiting scholars program. It goes without saying that we very much look forward to drawing upon the experiences and cultural perspectives of visiting Singapore students, using this as an opportunity to challenge some of our assumptions

about game play and the cultural specificities of the medium.

Chris: You talked about earlier and the press release mentions the “development of publicly distributable games”. I’m especially interested in the idea that game publishers might be able to work with you to actually get the rights to the prototypes produced by the lab and work them into full games. Can you talk more about this?

Philip Tan: The game industry isn’t particularly fond of reading research papers from academia, for a variety of reasons. They’re dry, they’re overly general, they don’t necessarily consider market pressures, and they either discuss concepts that require technology that’s still five or ten years from mass-market adoption or obsess over game play and ideas that are considered to be already dated and thoroughly explored by the industry.

Even if the International Game Lab puts out relevant, useful research, or reexamines old ideas to address new audiences, it needs to be communicated to the industry in a way that emphasizes its relevance and applicability. Naturally, the industry pays attention to games. A small, obscure game with a good idea can easily get noticed, highlighted in forums and industry press, played, and critiqued. That kind of close attention expands further if the game is available for online download, and we can then get direct feedback about how good the game and the idea really is. As a side effect, we’ll also have to keep in mind the kinds of issues that game developers face every day: platform limitations, tight deadlines, player demographics, and bug patches.

We’re challenging ourselves to actually make games that will be designed around the core ideas of the research from the initiative. And by taking them to publishers, we want to raise the bar of how game projects from academia will be judged. Some of them won’t get picked up, so we’ll just make them publicly downloadable as experiments. But if we can get them into retail channels, we now have a real metric to assess how successful the idea is, and we will have real pressure to work on ideas that actually make better games. For a student, being part of the Game Lab means you has an additional opportunity to graduate with a commercial product in your portfolio.

We’re not under the illusion that we’re going to be able to compete against triple-A, commercial off-the-shelf games. However, in the online digital distribution space, there appears to be a real market for the small, niche title with a good idea. We also want to be producing a lot of games, somewhere between 5 and 10 games each year. You can’t really guarantee a hit in this industry; certainly not with our budgets. You can have all the production values and ideas, but the market can just choose to look the other way sometimes.

Chris: What do you feel needs fixing about the video game design process in general? In other words, what will the Lab do that the video game industry is currently failing to? I feel like truly innovative and groundbreaking great game ideas get squashed often because the powers that be are just looking for things that are marketable — am I on the right track, or missing the point?

Henry Jenkins: The games industry emerged from the entrepreneurial energies of garage-based designers who were driven by their passions and who created, in a relatively short time, a powerfully expressive medium. We have now seen that initial entrepreneurial stage give way to a much more standardized, studio-based mode of production, based on bottom line calculations and reliable returns of investments, and pushed more and more towards franchise-based entertainment. Studio-based production, across all media, has had two effects: insuring a relatively high standard of production and capping opportunities for innovation and individual expression. As the costs of games get pushed higher and higher, many wonder where fresh new ideas will come from. Some have said that the games industry has become so risk adverse that only a Miyamoto or a Wright can break through the formulas and generate truly original approaches to game design. Many observers have said we need to step outside of that system and provide some place where interesting new game prototypes can be incubated.

We see university-based game labs as one model for how we can foster greater innovation. Much as university-based film production programs have been the place where fresh new filmmakers acquire their skills and do work that stretches the medium(helping to fuel the independent film movement), university-based games programs can be the place where the next generation of game designers stretch the medium (helping to fuel the emerging independent games movement). We see the lab as a space where we can move swiftly from pure research into compelling applications and then partner with the games industry to bring the best ideas to emerge to market.

Chris: What would be an example of a typical research project that the Lab might work on?

Philip Tan: We have six research categories and we expect many projects would

straddle multiple categories: technology, business, genres, culture, aesthetics, and mechanics. For instance, a culture project may examine several demographics and identify an underserved, potential audience, but reaching that audience may involve the creation of a new game genre, a drastically different aesthetic from current offerings, or altering game play mechanics to keep them engaging and accessible. You also need to figure out how to get that game into the hands of that audience, and possibly alter your pipeline to bring the cost of development under the projected returns from that audience. Finally, we build that game, scaled within our capabilities, and we test it all out for real.

Chris: Is the intent here mostly to work with established MIT researchers to produce papers and game designs, or are you hoping to get students involved at the undergrad or graduate levels who want to go into the game industry? If the latter is a part of the effort, how would you compare the Lab to other game design programs?

William Uricchio: The short answer is yes! yes! We certainly want to make the most of the established research talent that we have in house, and to intensify our research and creative collaborations with leading figures in the field. But doing so also implies that we continue to do what we do best: drawing on our extremely able student body in a collaborative research process. Their game experience is formidable, their ability to think outside the box well proven, and I can’t think of a better educational strategy than working together to develop the future of the medium. We have had a steady stream of graduate and undergraduate students leave MIT and succeed in the industry, and see no reason to stop now! But we also hope that this initiative leads to innovations that, while game-centric, offer students opportunities to work with the medium in unexpected ways, ways that go beyond today’s established industry.

Chris: Continuing that thread, what do you think is wrong with the current state of game design education? There is no shortage of colleges and universities that offer bachelor’s or even master’s degrees in game design, but… are they on the right track to continue innovation in the medium, or are they just churning out worker bees?

Henry Jenkins: I am not sure I think anything is wrong with the current state of game design education. We aren’t doing this because other university programs are failing. Each of the existing programs fills a specific niche: some emphasize technical innovation, others character design and world building; some move fairly swiftly into games industry positions while others emphasize the development of an independent games aesthetic or are more closely aligned

with the serious games movement. We hope to add several things to the mix:

first, we want to get our students working in an international production context, fostering greater collaboration between the American and Asian games industries. More and more games are a global medium with many new countries developing games industry. As they are doing so, we are seeing more and more culturally distinctive games enter the marketplace. At one time, games seemed to have a global style, which sought to erase local cultural differences. Now, we are seeing different cultures explore different game genres, themes, and

styles. We think the next generation of game designers will need to be able to communicate in a global context and be able to appreciate and value the cultural diversity that characterizes current game production.

Second, we see real value in pushing forward games as a medium through a combination of cutting-edge research and imaginative applications. In that regard, strength of our program is that we teach students to think across media — sometimes becoming more aware of commonalities and relationships between multiple media traditions, sometimes drilling down to what is distinctive about a particular medium. We are a program in Comparative Media Studies and not one that specializes exclusively in Games Studies or Game Design per se. This perspective has sometimes been misunderstood as the field gets bogged down in pointless debates about narratologists vs. ludologists. We see narratives and game play both as traditions that cut across multiple media channels and seek to help students develop a more integrated approach to thinking about the social and cultural potentials of each medium. With this project, we are bringing together researchers who understand games from a social and cultural perspective with those who are doing groundbreaking research on new media technologies. We see games as an important medium of expression for the 21st century: we are not just preparing young people to enter the games industry; we are challenging the games industry to think about their medium in new ways; we are daring people to imagine games that do things they have never thought of before.