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.
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.
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.
- Doug was also part of a student team that developed the tablet-based RTS Euclidean Crisis, a winner in the IGF 2007 Student Showcase.
- Doug wrote for Electron Dance last year on gladiatorial-style exhibition games.
- His thesis is not available yet, but I can tell you it’s called “Designing for the Pleasures of Disputation -or- How to make friends by trying to kick them!”
- The Pretentious Gamer looks at the heart-pounding “Beacons of Hope” which I will now dub Joust: the Amnesia edition.
- An earlier paper Doug wrote about “self-effacing games and unachievements” that discusses B.U.T.T.O.N. in length. He stresses that “the game should not be viewed as an ‘experiment’ or a research prototype”.
- Joystiq has a great video of a recent experiment called “Dog the Wag” that Doug put together for GDC. Watch in awe. David Kanaga is in there somewhere.