Douglas Wilson

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

Dr. Douglas Wilson is the man behind Johann Sebastian Joust, prototyped while Wilson toiled away on a PhD at the IT University of Copenhagen. Prior to Joust, he worked on the titles B.U.T.T.O.N. and Dark Room Sex Game with the Copenhagen Game Collective. Collectively, they are best described as party games that encourage players to look foolish in pursuit of the win.

Two weeks ago, Dan Pinchbeck said that academics are able to make games that define the bleeding edge as, in the academic world, failure is just as valuable a teacher as success. Yet Wilson made the decision to leave that world to join indie studio Die Gute Fabrik, where he continues to work on Joust and other titles such as Beacons of Hope and Mutazione (with Gute Fabrik partner Nils Deneken). In this week’s interview, Wilson explains why.

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

My father is a professor, and so partly because of his example, academia has always seemed like an attractive lifestyle to me – independence, job security (if you get tenure), smart colleagues, etc. Growing up, I just assumed that I would eventually pursue a PhD.

I entered college planning to study biology or computer science. But in 2003, I happened to take Henry Lowood ‘s class on the History of Computer Game Design. I had always been an avid videogame aficionado, but until Henry’s class it never had occurred to me that I might actually study games.

Looking back, it’s funny to think how radically that one class ended up changing the direction of my life! After the class was over, I got involved with Henry’s “How They Got Game” research group. Through that research group, I met some colleagues from IT University of Copenhagen’s (ITU) Center for Computer Games Research. Then, in 2007, I was lucky enough to get a Fulbright grant to go study there. I knew I wanted to try living abroad (I grew up in the States), and academia gave me that opportunity. I ended up staying in Copenhagen to do a full PhD, and I’ve been there for almost five years now. I just completed my dissertation a few weeks ago! [HM Note: This interview was conducted in April.]

In retrospect, game studies itself wasn’t the only thing that drove me to pursue a PhD. For me, part of the appeal of academia was that it opened up valuable opportunities to travel abroad, and gave me a safe space to explore my interests.

Euclidean Crisis

HM: Should academics be trying to sell theory through development rather than writing papers?

It depends on what your goals are. If you’re asking concrete questions about game design, then sure, it might make a lot of sense to build things. But it might not. For example, consider ethnographers who study various aspects of game culture. Many of those researchers aren’t trying to “test” existing theories. They might instead be telling a particular story about a particular community, or simply raising new questions. That kind of research is valuable too!

I’m personally very interested in design theory and new approaches to thinking about game design, but we should remember that not all games research is focused on design. I’m one of those idealists who believes that research can be an end in itself. Research can have practical applications, but we shouldn’t demand that it does. On this point, I think about some of my intellectual heroes – Hannah Arendt, Michel de Certeau, Dave Hickey. None of those writers have easy “applications,” but I still feel like reading them has made my life immeasurably richer.

HM: What connection do B.U.T.T.O.N. and J.S. Joust have with your research? Are they attempts to prove your academic ideas have merit, research into experimental techniques or neither of these?

I write about this issue in depth in my PhD dissertation and will hopefully be publishing a journal article on this topic soon. The relationship between my games and my research is complicated. Neither B.U.T.T.O.N. nor J.S. Joust were developed with research in mind. In designing those games, it didn’t even occur to me that I might write about them in my PhD dissertation – at least not initially. Both games were developed in social contexts far removed from that of my university job, and with colleagues who have little or no interest in the academic world. In both cases, it was only weeks later that it finally dawned on me that those projects might indeed be relevant to my PhD.

When we conduct design experiments, to what audiences, exactly, are we directing our results? In my own case, I do often strive to design games that will be new and experimental. But the key distinction is that I primarily hope to design games that are new to the indie games scene. I maintain that it matters who we see ourselves in conversation with, and when. As I see it, then, the “research” component of my work is comprised of the articles I write.

I view my academic research as a series of after-the-fact reflections, a kind of creator’s statement that also engages the scholarly literature. In a sense, my research often follows my game design practice, and not the other way around. I don’t mean to imply that this is somehow the “best” or the only approach, but it’s the one that’s worked well for me. As a general piece of advice, though, I do think design researchers would be wise to think seriously about the social contexts in which they do their work.


HM: How have you divided your time between these projects and your PhD progress? Are there any complications from spending your student time on projects that eventually become commercial endeavours?

Jumping back and forth between multiple social contexts – between the indie scene and the academic world – has certainly been a lot of work. Basically, it’s like I had two jobs – researcher by day, indie developer by night. I think it’s been well worth the extra effort, but I’ve also been lucky enough to have had sufficient amount of time and freedom.

As for your other question, B.U.T.T.O.N. is currently the only game I’ve worked on that’s become a commercial project. Certainly, commercial projects open up for potentially nasty conflicts of interest. As such, the onus on researchers like me is to do valuable theoretical work that transcends mere salesmanship.

In the particular case of B.U.T.T.O.N., I’ve tried to use my academic work to articulate what my team and I were thinking when we designed the game. It’s up to the readers themselves to determine if I’ve written anything worthwhile! I’d welcome any outsider perspectives on the game, of course, but I do think there is something useful to be gleamed from someone who has “been there” throughout the entire development process, and who is able to articulate those experiences post-facto within a relevant set of academic discourses.

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?

The answer is complicated. I do think academics are in a prime position to make innovative games. The world of academia encourages us to ask under-explored questions and play with new ideas. That said, I’m not convinced that the university setting is always the best place for game development. Bureaucracy and over-deliberation can slow down development to the point where the process loses its magic. As I see it, it’s important that the design process maintain a certain degree of messiness and organic madness. University labs can certainly pump out games that serve as vessels for addressing well-formed, pre-established agendas (e.g. a new machine learning algorithm, or a better treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, etc.), but it’s a very different challenge to develop games that appeal to a broader audience.

But I don’t think it’s impossible for academics to make those kinds of more widely “relevant” games. There are a number of researchers who I admire tremendously – for example, Dan Pinchbeck, Pippin Barr, Clara Fernandez – who are asking interesting questions and making rad games. Dan is an especially intriguing case in that he’s used (and continues to use) research grants to fund successful commercial titles (e.g. Dear Esther). There are a lot of challenges trying to bridge those worlds, but Dan has shown that it’s possible. I think we’ll see similar university-based studios in the future.

I would argue, however, that a big part of Dan’s success has been his ability to “fit” into the indie scene. Dear Esther wasn’t received as a research experiment, at least not primarily. Rather, it was received as an interesting experimental mod. Hell, the game was even received four nominations at the Independent Games Festival this year.

Operating within the indie scene – as a fellow indie, not as an outsider – has also worked to my advantage. As creators, we shouldn’t underestimate the impact of the social contexts in which we operate, as well as how certain communities view us. For that reason, I’m not sure whether academics should even aspire to form their own “separate” channel. In my own experience, I’ve found it rewarding and empowering to jump between multiple social and cultural worlds. I have to imagine that more game academics are going to start doing the same.

B.U.T.T.O.N. "Pose like a ninja"

HM: Will you continue to pursue research now that you’re going full-time at Die Gute Fabrik? Did you consider staying in the academic field and developing new titles on the side (a la Persuasive Games or thechineseroom)?

Last summer I reached a major choice point – do I start applying for academic jobs, or do I commit to going full-time indie? The answer quickly became clear – of course I would go full-time indie! My friend Nils Deneken had asked me to join him on his studio Gute Fabrik, to help him make his game Mutazione. When you get an opportunity to work with someone as talented as Nils, you don’t say no.

Nils and I had already worked on a number of game projects together, including our IGF-nominated party game B.U.T.T.O.N. Moreover, when I was making the decision about what career to pursue next, my game J.S. Joust was starting to generate a lot of buzz. Going full-time indie is always risky, but I figured that our small critical successes would give us a promising start. On a more personal level, I’m very curious to see what I can accomplish when I focus all my efforts on making games, rather than balancing development with a day job.

I do hope to keep one foot in the academic world. I’d like to turn my dissertation into a book, if I can find the time and energy. I could certainly imagine returning to academic some day in the future, if the right opportunity ever presented itself. But for now, the world of game development seems so much sexier to me.

First, the academic job market is very bleak these days. I know talented young researchers who are having trouble finding good jobs. Second, there is so much energy and passion in the world of game development, and especially in the indie scene. Over the past year, I’ve met so many genuinely wonderful game developers, both in person and online. Indies in particular seem eager to try each other’s games and to give smart, constructive feedback. It’s been such a gratifying experience to participate in that scene over the last several years.

By contrast, in academia I have sometimes struggled to find colleagues who have the time and interest to seriously engage my work. On one hand, that’s not entirely surprising since academic articles are often long and taxing to read – especially my articles! On the other hand, it seems to me that many of my academic colleagues are just too busy with their own work. It’s a shame – there are a lot of friendly, wonderful people in game studies, but personally I haven’t been able to find the right tight-knit community of scholars. Who knows, perhaps I’m just not a very good scholar! What I do know, though, is that indie game development has given me that “scene” I had been searching for. So, that’s where I’m headed – for the time being.

But one final thought – I do recognize that “academia vs indie” doesn’t have to be such a binary. Recently, I’ve enjoyed discussing some of my more theoretical work with several fellow developers and artists. For instance, Proteus developers David Kanaga and Ed Key, as well as my good friend and artist Matt Broach, gave me invaluable feedback on my PhD dissertation. Perhaps traditional academic work, even theory, can indeed find an indie audience.

For instance, my theoretical research has shaped the talks I give to broader audiences (like this GDC Europe one). The trick, then, is learning how to make your work more accessible when you need it to be – to shift between different communities. I can’t say I’ve got it all figured out, but I’ve certainly learned a lot over the last few years!

HM: Thank you for your time, Doug.

Further Reading

Joust played in Death Valley

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16 thoughts on “A Complicated Relationship: Doug Wilson

  1. I just noticed that, after reading the entire academics series, I’m not really sure what game academics really are. I mean, what are these people actually researching? And what is the content of their dissertations? Doug Wilson discussed possible applications, but they would be applications of what exactly? How can a research objectively reflect in game design? I’m curious.

  2. Hi Nicolau!

    Well, as it should be clear now, there isn’t a single, monolithic “academic discipline” and game studies has branched out in various directions.

    Clara’s research is exploring the viability of procedurally-generated point and click adventures. Dan Pinchbeck’s thesis analysed a decade of FPS games to identify what elements were responsible for attaching narrative features to a game and Dear Esther was a response to these findings (have a look at Robert Yang’s summary discussing “ludodiegesis”).

    There’s plenty of material available on the web for review if you’re interested in learning more. Some of it is a little impenetrable – you need to know the terminology to understand the detail.

    I could characterise a few different research realms that come to mind:

    • algorithmic – how to solve game design problems, look at Clara’s work on procedural generation or even the Facade project which tried to create AI the player could engage in conversation
    • narrative – how interactive narrative works, I can point at Dan Pinchbeck’s work here
    • psychological – how players respond to games, what games can do for and against people; there’s an analysis of gamification strategies in a recent thesis by Electron Dance reader Christos Iosifidis
    • ergonomic – controller design, new types of interface
    • ludological – things we can say about the rules that underpin the game, have a look at this one from Giovanni Viglietta that I picked up via Raph Koster on theorems that assert mathematical complexity necessary for a game to be fun; it applies this to test cases including Boulder Dash and Doom
    • philosophical – more theoretical stuff that has no immediate obvious practical impact; consider how we should interpret games (such as Bogost’s proceduralism, or Miguel Scart’s recent paper ‘Against Procedurality’)

    No one has divided up the space like this, I’ve just invented this categorisation to give you an idea about the types of stuff game academics have been up to. I doubt is an exhaustive division of the field.

    In this series, I was less interested in what the academics were researching, but how they were building reputation in the face of skeptical industry and what this meant to them individually. That’s why there’s not much meat in the interviews about the actual research.

  3. Douglas is not only a well-respected colleague, but also a dear friend, whose work I deeply admire and appreciate.
    Imo, he is perhaps the best case for combining design research and game development, precisely because he managed to frame each around different audiences; I have seen countless cases of game researchers that are struggle by not understanding that critical step (either by trying to address the industry/development community by writing papers, or by trying to develop games as means of reinforcing theory).

    Another excellent interview by HM, who brought up the interesting questions.

    P.S. Douglas’ work has been much focused very much on the relationship between player and designer, analyzed often from a dialogical perspective. I would personally challenge him to write about the relationship between developers, also from a dialogical perspective, as co-authors/creators; especially now that he is part of a “scene”.

  4. I’m an academic and my area of research is “digital actors”. Basically I’m interested in techniques for making characters as affecting as Disney’s but in real-time and interactive. So more meaningful game characters and (perhaps as importantly) trying to understand what part of the characters performance deeply impacts the player. So essentially my work is quite practical in that I develop techniques for game character AI, but theoretical in that I try and understand via experiments the nature of the player->character interaction and also the authorship issues that creating truly believable characters requires.

    I’ve also been involved with projects that look at player psychology, aspects of game metrics, how we can physically evaluate player engagement and mood and a whole raft of other things.

    There are plenty of areas of academic research that games could really benefit from.

    The ones I tend to shy away from are the more ethnographic and media-studies like areas where you simply look at players and player culture. I find those areas are far too subjective and ultimately I want everyone to make better games!

    I’ll be doing a talk about some of this in London on monday btw.

    Hope that helps.

  5. Hi Nicolau,

    I am a games researcher that studies historical video games (Brother’s in Arms, Civilization, Assassin’ Creed etc). My hope is that work like mine is part of a growing discourse that enables us to think about the ways in which games might already be affecting popular interpretations of the past, how they are doing so and what this might mean for popular history in the future. I think games are a cultural form worthy of investigation by as many people from as many fields as possible and we obviously cannot expect every scholar to be a games developer nor every developer to be a psychologist, historian, sociologist, media or culture theorist etc etc (each of which can potentially add new perspectives which help us understand games).

    Whilst it would be nice if these discourses influenced developers that want to engage more fully with this aspect (and in work like mine who don’t mind engaging with both historical theory and game studies to do so), I also think that there is also something to be said merely for the presence of a critical academia, at least some of, which is seperate from involvement in games development itself. After all it is not always appropriate for a critic to have a stake in the practices which they (respectfully:) criticise. For me it is interesting and worthwhile to look at what games are already doing in the many diverse fields they touch upon as well as looking to the future with a more design-centric focus at how they can be improved.

    I hope I have helped rather than confuse the issue but it has been an extremely long day : )


  6. Hey Adam,

    I agree there’s nothing wrong with looking at games from a cultural perspective. But there is a big risk of people who simply do not respect games being part of this discourse. To give you an example I once was at a games AI research event and one of the attendees asked “do I need to play games in order to suggest ways of improving them?”. Luckily most there said “of course”, but it underlies the wider problem. Imagine someone seeking to critique or “improve” on literature asking “do I have to read to be able to critique writing?” it would seem incredulous, yet we have plenty of examples of people in academia who simply do not play or understand games, who still offer their usually biased opinion of them.

    I’ve heard so many times in academia “I don’t play or like games, but I think….” that it sometimes makes me very angry.

    So there’s a very fine line and I am glad you noted the “respectfully” thing. I do feel we need academics who aren’t simply looking at games and gamers as some sort of laboratory for their own agenda. This article shows that it is possible to combine love for creating and experiencing games, with the academic curiosity about the fundamental nature of them. I know I still love making and playing games and I still have more questions to answer for myself about that, both from a technical point of view and a psychological/design/creator perspective.

  7. Hi Phil,

    I agree completely. It always surprises me to meet a game studies scholar who does not really play games and this has happened more than i would like! It is my passion as a gamer that lead me to study them in the first place and the countless hours of gaming really do bear some productive research fruits. I also think it is important to look beyond the bounds of digital gaming for the same reason. Recently board games have let me reflect on digital games anew fairly regularly.

    This said, for me at least, it did take a while to slip out of the defensive manner that being a gamer in societies that (until recently) did not take games seriously causes and to stop making excuses and just point out when games are not suitable or when they fall down for particular purposes. Henry Jenkins has written about the potential and perils of being, what he terms, an aca-fan at some length in some interesting pieces.

    Also, in the interests of being open minded, perhaps there is something to be offered by researchers who can bring totally outside perspectives (I.e. who are not part of gamer culture)? Obviously this has born fruit in some disciplines such as anthropology before.

    Still, my instinct as a gamer and academic (gamademic?:) is that an interest in, passion for and a shed load of experience playing, games is the way to approach their study. Works for me anyway : )


  8. Thanks for the prompt answers everyone! Yes, that covers my questions. I guess, just like in any other field, game academics vary immensely, almost to the point that two different researchers don’t seem to be studying the same thing (or group of phenomena). What I started to wonder now is how a game academic research on something that’s related to another field of study would differ from a research on that field… I mean, how would a game academic research about psychological reactions to digital actors would differ from a psychological research on the same matter… or what would be a historian’s take on the theme mentioned by Adam Chapman.

  9. I agree with you Adam that there are people outside of gaming and game culture who could certainly offer something. Game designers regularly refer to architecture and patterns from other areas for instance. My only real quibble is with people who disdain and disrespect games out of ignorance and then profess that somehow that ignorance is academically valid.

    We wouldn’t take someone who never reads seriously as a contributor to literature, so I think there’s an ethical issue for people who don’t at least try and understand games trying to contribute to the discussion.

    I’ve been in the situation where I’ve had to defend games against some people with prejudicial preconceptions before and I’m kind of tired of that ignorance. Of course game developers often don’t help (with some pretty psychopathic games out there), but I think academia has a lot to offer games as a medium if we can just get both sides to grow up a bit.

  10. Nicolau,

    You pose a good question there. I’m definitely NOT a psychologist and yet I’m interested in the psychology of players for my specific questions. In this case, I’m generally standing on the shoulders of others who have learnt more about studying the psychology of games (from people like Lennart Nacke) and even then I’m never going to suggest that my experiments are without flaws.

    The point is that as a researcher you generally use the expertise of others and then subvert their work for your own ends. I’m sure that a purist in any specific area could pick flaws in any game-specific study much as I don’t doubt a game player could pick holes in any attempt for a sociologist to enumerate aspects of game design.

    The fun part of academic work, is realizing that there is a huge amount of variation in the quality of research and the depth of thinking applied to it. Not all research is as valid or as valuable and it is part of the academic role to figure out for themselves how to see the wood from the trees.

  11. Phil, I didn’t try to imply that a psychologist’s view on the psychology of a game would be more valid than a game academic’s view. I just wonder how much they would differ. Like you said, there’s a huge amount of variation, and that’s the beauty of it.

    I’m curious about what you meant by “psychopathic games”, or what kind of games do you think help strengthening people’s ignorance on games?

  12. Nicolau,

    I think if you look at the footage from E3 and the game press surrounding it (PC Gamer, RPS and others) you’ll see that even the press guys felt that E3 has become an entity obsessed with explosions and warfare as its principle component. Which distorts the reality of what games are (i.e. completely ignores non-violent games, indie games etc). The fact is that E3 represents what will be mentioned in the non specialist press as “mainstream” games. So people reading that press will have a very skewed view of what games are in comparison to the reality.

    Not all games are about spec-ops soldiers walking away from nuclear explosions after just slaughtering half a city for fun.

  13. Wow! Thanks for the kind words Christos, means a lot coming from you!

    Yes, you’re right, I’d love to write about that dev-dev relationship. Have talked about it briefly (at IndieCade 2010) but not in an academic context. Actually, I’m reading some relevant (and excellent) art theory right now about collaborative art practices (Grant Kester’s new book). Will try to do a blog post about it some day, at least.

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