Electron Dance
26Jun/12Off

Taking A Breather: Chaim Gingold

This is the eighth article in the series The Academics Are Coming.

Chaim Gingold

Die Gute Fabrik's Doug Wilson tipped me off that Chaim Gingold might be a suitable interview subject for the series. But who is Chaim Gingold?

Well, he completed an MS in Digital Media at Georgia Tech then went into the games industry. To a job at Maxis, to be precise: Gingold was the design lead for all of Spore's Creators. He went independent in 2008, doing freelance work and creating two iPhone games - MinMe and Earth Dragon. He's now working on a personal project called Geology: An Interactive Primer, one of last year's IndieCade finalists, a geological toybox that teaches through experimentation.

But that's not the important bit: Gingold is currently engaged in a PhD at UC Santa Cruz's Expressive Intelligence Studio.

Why has a successful mainstream games developer gone back to school? In the following interview, Gingold exposes a larger question about what it means to be "games studies academic".

HM: Chaim, there is still much scepticism regarding the value of academic research so... why become a game studies academic?

This gets at the heart of this existential question I have: what academic tradition am I actually working inside of? I have to admit that I actually haven't followed game studies that closely. Perhaps it's my limited exposure to it, but I haven't found much in it that I find particularly inspiring. There is certainly some work in there that I find useful—Jesper Juul, Gonzalo Frasca, Ian Bogost, and so on—but I don't see myself in that tradition. Maybe it's a matter of time, but I think it will ultimately come down to where I find the most interesting materials and questions to work with and think about. Also, who do I want to be having conversations with?

As I was doing my master’s degree at Georgia Tech the field of game studies started to come together as a specific discipline. I remember going to the first DiGRA [conference] soon after starting my full time job on Spore. So the scholarly work that I drew upon at school, then, didn't have the label of game studies even if one were to consider it that. So what was I actually reading?

At the time I was into:

  • humanists who interpret and/or build computational systems like Janet Murray, Espen Aarseth, Seymour Papert, Alan Kay, Sherry Turkle, Brenda Laurel;
  • play scholars like the folklorist and psychologist Brian Sutton-Smith;
  • the media theorist Marshall McLuhan;
  • architects like Christopher Alexander and Kevin Lynch;
  • tons of material generated from reflective game developers, like Will Wright, Chris Crawford, Doug Church.

Now I find myself reading neuroscience and evolutionary biology (Jaak Panksepp, Merlin Donald), and lots and lots of writing on the philosophy and history of leisure and play. Gary Cross, in particular, is fantastic. I was so excited to find a copy of his out of print A Social History of Leisure since 1600 in the UC Santa Cruz library—it's amazing!

So I don't see myself as operating inside of game studies but I'm not sure what academic field I'm actually in, either. And here I am taking graduate level course requirements for computer science, which is enjoyable, if a bit surreal. If one wants to do scholarly work (as opposed to the work of a theorizing and reflective game developer, which is a very different endeavour), though, you do have to find venues to publish in—in effect, a community of scholars who will evaluate, validate, and stimulate the work. I guess it's a little like having a cool software idea and trying to figure out who your market is. Is it a game? A screensaver? A toy? A tool for publishing to the web? A digital tool suite for measuring the effectiveness of theoretical baking software? The problem of where you get your inspiration and source materials from is a related, but different problem, to my mind.

The simple answer is that I really like to both think about and make things.

HM: Why have you gone back to do a PhD?

There are projects I'd like to do that only make sense in an academic context—doing scholarly research on play and design, and using that as a framework to think about computer games, among other things.

Going into the academic side of things is a chance to take a breather from focusing so much on making things, and gain some space and altitude for reflecting. You only get so much time, space, and distance while being focused on making a living as a developer to be reflective in a rigorous, comprehensive way.

It's a chance to gain some space and altitude to be more reflective and less about making things. I'm still looking for a happy balance between the two.

HM: During your stint at Georgia Tech for an MS in Digital Media, you had an internship at Maxis as part of the initial Spore team. After completing your MS, you ended up at Maxis full-time. But did you continue to engage with academia?

I intended to, and presented a poster at the first DiGRA, but ended up drifting away from that world. At that DiGRA Jesper Juul inspired me to write a paper on Wario Ware that was later published in Game Studies as a review. To me, those two projects represented what I thought game studies should be, or should have become, but as you can see they were marginalized by what game studies became. I mean marginal both in the sense that reviews and posters are sideshows to the main event, but also in that close readings of particular games didn't become the dominant mode of game studies.

In a sense, contributing to the Game Developer's Conference (GDC) was what that research activity became. GDC represents a kind of shadow inverse of academic research. Both are methods for sharing knowledge gained from reflection, research, and/or building things, but they operate from a different set of constraints and advantages. Actual game production as a form of inquiry has different advantages and liabilities depending on whether you are an academic, indie, startup, or operating inside of an established studio. The GDC talks I gave on the Spore editors and advanced prototyping (with Chris Hecker) resulted from my carefully collecting lots of notes from my day job, reflecting on it, contextualizing it, and sharing the output.

HM: What would you say games studies has become versus your original idea of "deconstructing existing works"?

Well, again, I have to admit that I haven't followed game studies that closely. I think what was surprising for me was to find the great diversity of methods people used to think about games. I must have been expecting something like an academic version of the work of the reflective game designers. What developed was far more diverse than that. Social scientists, and people doing player ethnography, for example, or folks who videotape lots of play sessions and interpret that data—makes perfect sense in retrospect but was kind of a surprise when I first saw it. Games are part of the fabric of human culture, and there are an infinitude of ways to interpret the activity and objects of human beings.

As a designer, though, I think that I'm biased towards wanting a certain type of interpretation. I want to understand how historical forces—social, technological, political, philosophical, economic—have shaped our culture, from the folk games we play to the food we eat. I want to know why and how what I experience makes me feel and behave in particular ways: what are the secret design hooks that are being engaged? I want to understand how the great works of design, art, and culture tick because it reveals a lot about the world, and about us, but also so I can steal and reuse those mechanisms. Ultimately, that is the kind of study and interpretation of games that excites me the most.

HM: Should we consider academics to be a sort of "third channel" of game development? Mainstream churns out the crowdpleasers, indie garage bands do their thing - and now the academic experimenters are on the scene? Is it possible for academic developers to distinguish themselves from indie experimentation?

It's clear to me that academic programs are a substantive outlet of development. Look at the playable output of USC (Flow and Cloud, for example, whose creators graduated and formed ThatGameCompany), MIT GAMBIT, and UC Santa Cruz—to name a few—you have a lot of games that are in many ways indistinguishable from or in the process of becoming indie. Prom Week from the EIS lab at UCSC is a great example of a game that I don't think an indie studio (not to mention an established publisher) would choose or be able to make because of its heavy experimental AI component. Façade was a collaboration between a researcher (Michael Mateas) and an indie game developer (Andrew Stern). I don't think anyone would have thought of it that way at the time because the indie scene wasn't established yet, but in retrospect, I think that's exactly what it was.

HM: Are you working on any games as part of your PhD research?

It's hard for me to start a new game while Geology is in the final stretch. But it would be nice to play around with making some stuff, too. Kate Compton, who also went to Georgia Tech, worked on Spore and is also at UCSC, is talking about doing a workshop next quarter focused on building things that bridge the physical and computational—that sounds like a lot of fun! Who knows what will come out of that?

HM: Finally, what will you do after completing your PhD?

I'll probably be eager to return to development as my main focus. I already feel like I'm suppressing this itch somewhat. I can't wait to finish the interactive geology book and get cracking on the next thing!

HM: Thanks for taking the time out to talk to Electron Dance, Chaim.

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  1. Fantastic interview – I look forward to seeing Geology in action. Thanks also to Chaim for his shout-outs to resources useful to both academics and developers – the Cross book, “A Social History of Leisure,” is especially great. This series continues be be enlightening and fun to read.

  2. Seconding Steerpike’s remarks, and adding that pointing at a third category between “mainstream” and “indie” for academic games developers is worth pulling out a bit more. I am not too familiar with the world of academic games or the exciting fringes of indie games – so what else might others suggest would fit what Gingold has vaguely defined here?

  3. Out of all this, I’m really just interested in the geology ‘game.’ I know one nephew I’d love to have play with me. He has no attention span at all; if he listens to me read, it’s because he’s been forced. And yet, I feel like he’d enjoy that.

  4. I have poor internet connectivity right now so my responses can only be brief… and sporadic this week.

    @steerpike: as always, much thanks

    @shaun: the idea of a “third channel” is a difficult sell. I hope to say more on it when the series concludes. But there’s plenty of examples coming out as highlighted by this series – chaim this week drew out facade and prom week as big examples. There’s also dozens of student projects, some which are no doubt forgettables, others which draw attention such as the snowfield, and others which hit some sort of bigtime like continuity, narbacular drop or tag.

    @mwm: no firm dates on when geology will be released. Incidentally, I don’t think chaim really thinks of it as a game either.

  5. Yeah, I don’t think of the geology book as a game, but I do think of it as a form of computer play. Part of the design concept for me is trying to tease apart play from game in a way that lets me cultivate playful activities and design mechanisms that can be put to use by players (messing around, breaking it, seeing what glaciers and sand dunes feel like, learning, etc…), and myself (having fun making wacky simulation things and sharing the pleasures I find and mechanisms I build, exploring geology and simulation building, teaching/sharing these things with the player, pushing on the edges of genre definitions and trying to make up new ones, etc…).

    The role of reading is interesting to me, too. I am trying to make sure each page stands on its own as doing something intriguing without forcing you to read (or think, or push on the UI), but if you want, reading the text deepens your experience. Almost like a picture book in another language, reading Moebius in French (for me), or The Sounds of Colors (which as far as I know is only in Japanese)—the texture of the thing should be interesting without reading the text. At the same time, I want the text to be meaningful and push you into playing. I try to make the first sentence of each page ask you to do something, look for something—basically be some kind of call to action, which might just be to keep reading. Writing this response makes me realize that what I’m after is that players can engage with this thing in any number of ways, and they are all ok. It could be a series of screensavers or meditative finger toys for one person, and geology or reading turn on for another, and Chaim’s guided tour of Earth for someone else—or maybe it’s all these things at the same time. I’m after a diversity of play and engagement, and the research question for me is what kinds of mechanisms do that.

  6. Chaim, thanks for taking the time to discuss your work with Harbour Master, and also to pop in on the site and respond to some comments.

    In addition to my work in the games industry I do a lot of corporate e-Learning development. The need for entertaining, fresh, “games-based” content in this arena cannot be overstated. Surely you’ve seen most corporate e-Learning: made with rapid tools like Articulate and Lectora; lots of bullets; canned interactivity; that sort of thing. It doesn’t work well, but it’s cheap and easy to produce.

    While “Geology” is obviously more a STEM/K-12 piece of interactivity, the same approach could be applied in the business world. For me, the challenges are twofold: 1) convincing dreary business people that games and interactivity are the best way to learn; and 2) convincing them that the (often significant) added cost to develop such content is still worth it when compared to the rapid development tools that essentially depend on Powerpoint.

    I’d be interested to hear any thoughts you have on how, or if, you think concepts like your “Geology” project can be brought into the business world: how to sell them, how to make them affordably, and how to produce the work in some volume.

    Thanks again for being part of HM’s series. I really look forward to seeing more of your work. :)

  7. If we put aside the play and games part of this, I really see this project as an attempt to define a possible vision for “interactive books.” iBooks, for example, are just warmed over multimedia CD-ROMs from the mid 90′s. Computation has more to offer for books (or whatever we might now be talking about) than a new delivery mechanism, video/animation, and interactive quizzes. In that sense the design conventions and ideas in Geology might be helpful for thinking your question through. For me the question is less whether games or words or interactivity or whatever are the best way to learn, but what the specific opportunities are with certain subjects in particular mediums/modes are. I happen to think that geology, simulation, and play go together in a promising ways, and am trying to invent/find/establish some design conventions that others will find useful. :^)

  8. Okay so I read this a while back but wanted to watch the video before commenting and kept forgetting. Simply put: Geology looks delightful and fascinating, and I can’t wait to have a play with it, not least because I was always pretty crap at geography. Biology is something else that I think could be explored effectively using these interactive simulation vignettes. In fact, most of the sciences lend themselves to this sort of exploration. Look at SpaceChem, it’s a lot ‘gamier’ but the periodic table has never been so much fun. It’s so nice to see interactivity being used to enhance the way information is relayed rather than simply being window dressing around it. Thanks Chaim and another great interview HM!

  9. Thanks Gregg, but also: thank you for bloody reminding me of another game I bought ON DAY ONE, downloaded and remains unplayed. (SpaceChem)


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