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New at CAMD: Associate Professor Celia Pearce

Celia Pearce

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This fall, we welcome Associate Professor Celia Pearce to the Game Design program, where she will be teaching the foundations of game design. We recently met with Pearce to discuss the history and future of gaming as a social tool, new lines of thinking in the industry, and how inclusiveness is shaping both game programs like Northeastern’s–and an entire industry.

What are “social entertainment experiences” and how did you get involved with them?

I think we are just now catching up to ourselves in that we are returning to the origins of what games are all about, which are inherently social. Historically speaking, the term “social games” is kind of redundant. For millennia all games were, by definition, social, in that they involved multiple people playing together. In fact, games have provided an important canvas for people to play out social interactions of different kinds in all cultures and all epochs throughout history. When we are young, we play games to learn to interact at the most basic level, then to learn about concepts such as “rules” and “fairness,” and even to simulate grown-up experiences. For adults, games have been associated with status and skill. The ancient Chinese game of “Go” for instance was considered one of the “four accomplishments” alongside musicianship and writing. Games have also been used for military training and strategy, to plan out life or death scenarios. The idea of single-player games is a recent aberration that came about in the last quarter of the 20th century with the growth of computers, and really only exists because our technology was so limited. Even so, the earliest computer games, such as SpaceWar! (1962) and MUD (1979–the earliest online multiplayer game), were multiplayer.

Using a parachute, Pearce and some former students play "New Games."

Using a parachute, Pearce and some former students play “New Games.”

I kind of fell into this world by accident, starting in 1983 when I joined the staff at ESI Design in New York. I was originally hired ostensibly as a writer, but my role quickly evolved as we were inventing the process as we went along. One of the main projects I worked on there was a proposed night club that was full of multiplayer games (kind of a cross between a theme park and a video game arcade). Our project was being developed at a time when bowling and billiards were becoming very popular in New York, but at the same time, video games were being outlawed. We designed and prototyped a number of games that included computers, laserdiscs, and electro-mechanical components, like punching bags and lasers. My role over seven years there evolved from writer to game logician to director of game testing and eventually to senior game designer and project manager. During that period I also worked on a wide variety of other projects, including some museums, a zoo, an interactive building directory, and a themed mall project. Early on, I started describing what I did as “experience design.”

“It’s amazing the explosion of creativity that’s happening in games and virtual spaces.”

In the 1990s, I moved back to LA (where I was originally from) and started working in the theme park and the nascent “entertainment real estate” industry. One of the skills I developed was what I call “architectural storytelling” or “narrative environments,” which is to say, physical spaces that convey some kind of storyline. I also worked on some high-end virtual reality projects, such as Virtual Adventures: The Loch Ness Expedition, which was developed by Iwerks Entertainment and Evans & Sutherland in 1993. This was a 24-player underwater fantasy game in which four teams of six players tried to rescue the Loch Ness Monster’s eggs from bounty hunters (actually other players). That game was novel at the time because most VR games of that period, such as BattleTech, isolated players in discrete pods, in that case, 16 players each of which in his or her own enclosed unit. Here you had six people together in a shared space, working collaboratively in real time while competing against other teams of six. It was a pretty ambitious project that won about eight different awards, but ultimately was a bit too advanced technically for the average theme park operator to handle.

With that background, you can imagine how excited I was when online games and virtual worlds appeared on the scene in the mid-1990s. That has been my primary research and design focus in the past two decades. What I’m really fascinated by is the new kinds of social and creative interactions that can take place through mediation. People express themselves in different ways and learn new things about themselves and each other through play, as well as developing new forms of creative expression. Look at all the mods that have been made in the game Minecraft. It’s amazing the explosion of creativity that’s happening in games and virtual spaces. So this has been my focus as a researcher and also as a game designer.

Do you envision new types of interactive media like multiplayer or social gaming becoming even more pervasive or has the medium plateaued?

If you look at things in the long-term, and see the single player computer game is kind of historical blip, we are now returning to the natural order of things. So I would not say this is a plateau. I think in fact we finally have our technology and our skills to the level where we can work or way back to what games were meant to be all along.

In my role as co-founder and Festival Chair of IndieCade, the independent game festival, I get to see really exciting trends right at the cutting edge of what game developers are doing, and indie devs are really at the forefront of innovation right now. Although we are still getting a lot of single-player games (which are great–don’t get me wrong), the trend is a rise in multiplayer games in three areas. First, we are seeing a growth in multiplayer single-screen games with people in the same room once again playing together. This includes some really innovative uses of mobile devices, including shared single screen games (like those found on iPad), as well as using smartphones and tablets together in interesting ways. Second, we are seeing this in board games, with game designers sometimes moving back and forth between board and digital games. So what we’re seeing there is an evolution of a new generation of analog games that are in some way informed or inspired by this ongoing dialog with digital games.

The third big trend can be found in pervasive games, ARG (alternative reality games), big games, transmedia, and live action roleplaying. These are all game genres that are played out in the real world, which blur the boundary between play and reality in some way and engage people in physical space. Sometimes these are facilitated by digital media, but not always. This is probably the hardest type of game to design but judging by the growth of festivals in this area, such as New York’s Come Out & Play, I see this on the rise.

I get frustrated when people call Facebook games “social games.” They are “social media” games but most of them are minimally, if at all, “social.” Unless you think sending your friend a flower to plant in his or her Farmville farm is social. And if so, you’re really missing out. Interestingly, Facebook games are on the decline overall in the indie scene, because I think we’ve kind of exhausted their potential for innovation. Where we are seeing social media being used in games is either as promotion for games, or, more interestingly, integrated into these pervasive transmedia games, where the social network is one component in a larger, more integrated content deployment strategy across a variety of different media.

You focus not simply on playable experiences but on the relationship between games and gender, which is arguably a hot button issue. How do you think the industry has succeeded in its approach to gender politics and do you think it will get where it needs to be?

There is a long way to go in terms of gender equity in games, although I’ve been seeing some things in the past couple of years that are making me a tad more optimistic. We have some new communities, such as Different Games and GaymerX, that represent different voices in games, so I have been involved in some of that and it’s really energizing. I was honored to give a keynote at the first Different Games conference in 2013, where I gave a talk entitled “Kickstarting a Revolution, One Tweet at a Time.” In that talk, I pointed out that Gamasutra, arguably the arbiter of the status quo in the game industry, declared inclusiveness as one of the five defining trends of 2012. This was also the year that Anita Sarkeesian’s infamous Kickstarter launched, to a hailstorm of harassment, and an even larger influx of funds. She ultimately raised 2,648% above her original ask for her series Video Game Tropes vs. Women, which I refer to as “karma.” This past March, the Game Developers Conference gave her its Ambassador Award (more karma). I also worked on the International Game Developers Association’s first demographic survey in several years, which was just released a couple of weeks ago, and which suggests that female participation has grown from about 11% in 2005 (the last time this information was collected) to around 22% in 2014.

“I kind of think of myself as a suffragette for the game industry.”

If you look at academic programs (including ours at Northeastern) women are dominating both in terms of faculty, as well as students. In the IGDA survey, 30% of people identifying as students were women. At IndieCade we’ve been very focused on embracing diverse developers and genres, such as serious games and art games, which tend to appeal to diverse creators. At the same time, the indie summit at GDC had almost no women, with the exception of a rant panel. So this issue is by no means resolved–the battle is far from won. That is why we still need things like XYZ, the exhibition I co-curated last summer in Atlanta, which celebrated the contributions of women to game development.

I kind of think of myself as a suffragette for the game industry. My goal is to make the game industry a better place for my students. No young woman seeking a career in video games should ever have to hear the words “Well, girls don’t play games so girls shouldn’t design games,” as I have heard dozens of times. This is just provably blatant nonsense and I intend to continue to be a squeaky wheel about this issue until my dying breath (maybe even after!).

What does the future hold for video games in popular culture? Do you expect more revolutions like online and social gaming and the rise of indie development or smaller evolutions of what we already see?

The rise of indie games is here. That is just a fact. One of the most striking outcomes of the IGDA survey was the fact that 48% of respondents said they worked at an independent studio; while only 27% work at first party developers. That is astonishing.

Add to that the fact that Sony is IndieCade’s biggest sponsor, and is publishing former IndieCade finalists, so I think it’s pretty clear that our evil plan to take over the world is working.

“Game schools like Northeastern’s are changing everything, in the same way film schools changed the movie industry.”

What’s more, a lot of people don’t realize that many many PlayStation Network indie games were actually master’s thesis projects. Ibb & Obb, Unfinished Swan, and And Yet It Moves, which were all in the first IndieCade, were all thesis projects made by game students. Journey, the top-selling PSN game to-date, was made by a small third party team, which originated as a student team at USC studying under Tracy Fullerton.

Pearce playtesting Colton Spross' Master's thesis project "Babel Build"

Pearce playtesting Colton Spross’ Master’s thesis project “Babel Build”

So if you ask me about trends, this is it: game schools. Game schools like Northeastern’s are changing everything, in the same way film schools changed the movie industry. They are raising the bar, they are creating more innovation, they are increasing diversity, and they are feeding the pipeline of independent developers. Like I said, our evil plan to take over the world is working.

Does any of this thinking factor into what you’ll be teaching this year?

I’m really excited that the first class I’ve been asked to teach at Northeastern is Foundations of Game Design. All too often, game design programs focus on everything but game design: programming, graphics, 3D modeling, and whatnot. Game design is its own unique craft. Game development (which is the actual building of a game) is a very interdisciplinary process that integrates programming, visual art, and technical skills, but at its heart is game design, which involves crafting the player experience. It’s kind of like being a film director in a way, but a film director that collaborates with her audience to create a variable outcome based on player interaction. Part of what’s wrong with today’s mainstream game industry is that they don’t design games anymore: they just keep making the same games over and over again, with incremental technical innovations, more polygons, faster networking, but zero innovation in terms of game design. Game design is an art form in and of itself. And hopefully, through our program and those of our colleagues in the field, we will continue to bring this art form to new heights.