Games By Day, Ska By Night: An Interview with Generoso Fierro (Part One)

During a visit back to MIT in August, I had a chance to pay a visit to my old friends at the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab and get a sense of the progress of this summer's workshop. Each summer, the group brings about 50 Singaporean students to MIT to work with Cambridge-based students in an intensive process to develop, test, and post games which are designed to stretch the limits of our current understanding of that medium. The Lab has enjoyed remarkable success both as a training program for future game designers, with many of its alums helping to fuel the growth of the Singapore games industry, and as an incubator for new game titles, many of which are becoming competitive in independent games competitions around the world, and some of which have been springboards for professional game development. The project has assembled a great group of highly dedicated researchers who embrace the interesting challenges of training the students, doing core games research, and inspiring creative development. You can sample this summer's games on the GAMBIT website. This was the first summer I had not been able to participate in the design process -- at least on the level of helping critique the student work -- and I was very pleased to see the growing sophistication of the games in terms of the visual design (which looks and feels unlike anything you are apt to see from current commercial games), the sound design (which is always expressive and innovative in its own right), and the play patterns and game mechanics (which often embrace alternative interfaces or explore functions of the medium which fall outside the mandates of most game companies.)

One of the things that pleased me the most was the way the Lab was opening up its design process by sharing webcasts of key research presentations -- part of the larger mandate the Comparative Media Studies Program had accepted to help expand access to its core research and public outreach activities. I learned that Generoso Fierro, a key member of the GAMBIT team, had launched an ambitious project to document the design process behind one of this year's more provocative titles, elude, which is intended to be a game which explores issues of clinical depression and hoped to be a resource for patients and their families. The series is now running in installments through the GAMBIT website and is worth checking out, especially for those who are involved or would like to be involved in the game design process.

If Fierro spends 9-5 focusing on how to document and publicize the work of the GAMBIT lab (not to mention helping to stage key events that emerge from the lab's process), he has on his own time been an important Cambridge-area DJ and documentary producer (who is gaining growing visibility on the film festival circuit) for his fascinating work on the Jamacian music scene. Fierro's films manage to capture the process by which these musicians work, mixing together rehearsals and behind the scenes moments with the finished works in concerts, but they also have deep insights to offer into the cultural and historical contexts within which these artists work.

Fierro is, as this interview suggests, deeply protective of the integrity of his finished films -- especially of their soundtracks -- so it is a real privilege to be able to share some short clips from these productions here on this blog. In the first segment of this interview, I am focusing on his games-related work (his day job) and in the second part, his music-related documentaries (his night work).

The MIT-Singapore GAMBIT games lab has been producing a steady stream of interesting podcasts and webvideos. What has been the driving goal behind these projects?

Whenever it's brought up that I work for the game research lab at MIT, people usually follow that up with "So, does that mean you play games all day?" And although their assumption isn't totally incorrect, it lead me to believe that the general public and even some of those who are involved in the games industry are still a bit unclear as to the nature of game research.

In the fall of 2009, the bulk of GAMBIT's outreach initiatives were in the form of blog posts and events that mostly highlighted the final research, achievements and games of the lab but I felt that there needed to be more focus on the day to day creation of these efforts. In December of 2009 I began filming the weekly research meeting which is organized by our post-doctoral researcher, Clara Fernandez-Vara. These weekly meetings are a chance for the staff of GAMBIT to get feedback on current papers and research initiatives. Individual meetings were condensed on video resulting in the monthly GAMBIT Research Video Podcast Series. So far the subjects have ranged from a discussion of a paper by our Audio Director, Abe Stein (Episode 3) based on the flawed adaption of the game Dante's Inferno (Episode 3) to the original research initiative that became the summer 2010 GAMBIT game, elude (Episode 5). The creation of that game, from its initial research, through the day to day creation of the final prototype over nine weeks during this past summer's program became the ten part weekly series I produced entitled "Making A GAMBIT Game" .

Clip from GAMBIT Research Video Podcast Episode Five

Your most recent series focuses on the development of elude, a game about depression. What drew you to focus on this particular game? What did you discover about the game design process through following this title from conception through completion?

GAMBIT has handled some challenging research ideas over the last four years but the thought of a game which would aid the families and friends of people who suffer from depression was too intriguing for me not to document. My earliest thoughts centered around the team itself who are charged with making the final prototype and the myriad of issues they would encounter along the way. Our games are created every summer by teams made up of Singaporean interns, US interns from Berklee College of Music and Rhode Island School of Design and interns from M.I.T. Every GAMBIT team usually has to overcome the brevity of their time together, the usual cultural and subtle language issues and working within the particular game development system here.

With the elude project I immediately wondered how the team would deal with the challenge of making a game that had some fairly rigid goals for it to be successful. Specifically, a game that had to maintain a level of gameplay that would be interesting for a ten year old who plays games regularly to an adult who may have never played a game but are hoping to gain deeper insight into a loved ones depression. I was first stunned at the turnaround time of the team and their strong grasp of the task before them by their output of three early prototypes after only 8 days in the lab (two of them fairly involved digital prototypes, one paper). Early on I was impressed with the ease of the interns communication with the product owner Doris Rusch, the game's director, Rik Eberhardt and the research consultant for the project, T. Atilla Ceranoglu, M.D from Mass General Hospital, who were on site to assist and comment on the game's progression. The interns took direction extremely well but were not shy about offering their own opinions on the project. In fact the level of interpretation that the students had on the final prototype was more than I would've ever imagined.

"Making a GAMBIT Game" Episode Five Clip

This is a bit of a cliche as a question, but I am interested in this particular case. How do you think the presence of the camera impacted the design and training process these films depict?

To start off, I must say that the interns were extremely welcoming whenever I came into the lab and the game director and product owner were also key in letting me know when a meeting or milestone was about to happen that was outside of my normal shooting schedule. I found that early on I may have stifled some discussion within the team's meetings where the product owner/game director were not in attendance as they did tense up a bit when I was in the room. For the record, I would always assure them that A) If something was said that you did not want to be included in the final video, I would not include it and B) These videos were to be released long after the team had disbanded so they wouldn't have the episodes airing as a distraction from the creative process.

That said, I was never asked to remove something that was said by the interns during the entire shoot which leads us to episode five (week four of the US lab experience) A very frank discussion where the interns begin to have some serious issues with the progress of the games development. During that particular discussion I wholeheartedly felt as though my presence was not felt in the room and the freedom of what was said completely candid. There was at times a small amount of direct talking to the camera but mostly I felt outside of the games development process.

There are relatively few films to date which document the process of making a game. What do you think game design students might learn from following this series?

Most of the interns had never worked on a game start to finish prior to coming to GAMBIT. I think the series really benefits those who are considering an education in games. Unlike the game industry there is a unique challenge at GAMBIT where the client is also your supervisor and the concerns that arise from that situation. The elude project is a success, but still there are many moments in which the team had issues not understanding certain facets of the game and the supervisors failed in communicating the resolutions back to them in a way team could understand. This is not uncommon in this type of setting and seeing this might help a student who feels the same level of frustration while in a team like this at their game program.

Generoso Fierro is the Outreach Coordinator for the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab, where he organizes press initatives, creates video content for the website such as the recently produced ten part series,Making a GAMBIT Game which chronicles the step by step construction of the GAMBIT 2010 summer game elude. Currently, Generoso is at WMBR radio, 88.1FM in Cambridge, where he is the longtime DJ of a program Generoso's Bovine Ska and Rocksteady. The show concentrates on the music of Jamaica prior to reggae (mento, ska and rocksteady) and has been on the air since 1997. A film maker and avid film fan, "Gene" has directed and produced two feature documentaries, Lynn Taitt: Rocksteady about the Trinidadian born guitarist who invented the rocksteady rhythm and Derrick Morgan: I Am The Rule, featuring the titled legendary "King of Ska" from Jamaica.