Q&A with the University of Southern California’s Tracy Fullerton
Tracy Fullerton is a professor and chair of the University of Southern California (USC) Interactive Media & Games Division of the School of Cinematic Arts, as well as director of the interdisciplinary USC Games program, a collaboration with the Viterbi School of Engineering that has its own publishing label, and the USC Game Innovation Lab.
Q1. Would you tell us more about the USC Games Program and the university’s approach to teaching game design?
The USC Games Program is designed to be a multidisciplinary environment with degrees in both the design and production of games and in the technology and programming of games. Our approach to games is as an expressive medium, and we bring students from across the fields of design, art, animation, sound, UX, and programming together in our classrooms to work collaboratively on their games, all with a focus on creating the best player experience possible. The faculty are all experts from industry and independent games, and so their mentorship is all very current and hands-on.
The major difference, I think, between our program and others, is that we began our program inside of a cinema school, so that from the get-go, we have been surrounded by colleagues who understand the potential of the medium to move players emotionally, and that training students as thoughtful media makers is at the core of what we do. We see games as an important part of cultural expression and we see our students as the future of what will be an even more influential media form than it is today. Our goal is to train them for that future.
Q2. What is the USC Game Innovation Lab? What are some of its recent projects?
The USC Game Innovation Lab is my research center for experimental game design within USC Games. I direct this lab and work with research staff, students, and partners to develop games that go beyond our current understanding of what the form can include. Our research games include educational games, such as the Collegeology suite of college access games, as well as art games like the collaboration with Bill Viola The Night Journey and Walden, a game. The lab is one of the earliest such centers dedicated to advancing the field of games by creating games that would be difficult to produce outside of such an experimental environment.
Founded in 2004, with a grant from Electronic Arts, some of our earliest work has gone on to be extremely influential, with games like Cloud and Darfur is Dying being prime examples of how games created in a research environment can go out to influence entire genres of play. Over the years, we’ve been supported by sources such as Microsoft Research and The Gates Foundation to develop games that cross a number of domains, but that all share a kind of experimental mindset.
Q3. Would you talk more about what Walden is about and how it came to be?
Walden, a game is a translation of Henry David Thoreau’s book about living simply in nature and the importance of seeking out a balance in our lives between the grind of survival and the search for inspiration through our connections to nature. I first thought of making the game many years ago, back in 2002, when I was spending some time visiting relatives in the area. It wasn’t until 2007 that I got a team together at the Game Innovation Lab and really started digging in to prototype the earliest versions of the game. I did a lot of research into Thoreau, his life and writings, and worked with scholars to understand how we might best make this classic text into a playable experience. And we prototyped these ideas as we went, experimenting with how to create mechanics that really embodied what Thoreau was writing about.
Just about the time that we had a good vertical slice and were able to articulate the design clearly enough, the NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] changed its call for media arts grants to specifically include video games, and also the NEH [National Endowment for the Humanities] created a new program, Digital Projects for the Public that also included video games specifically, so we were able to apply to these programs and receive production funding. We were also accepted into the Sundance New Frontiers workshop. This kind of support was utterly new for games – I think we may be the only game to be funded by both NEA and NEH and supported by Sundance. It speaks to a changing sense of what games can be, and how they can address a richer spectrum of topics in a way that is both entertaining and meaningful.
Q4. Walden was named the 2017 Games for Change Awards Most Significant Impact winner and Game of the Year winner. Why do you think it made such an impression?
I think the game stakes out a fairly new territory, one that strives for both entertainment value and a more meaningful experience. It is what I would call a “slow game,” in the sense that it unfolds its story on a more organic pace than a traditional game. The narrative arc of the game is not the typical hero’s journey, but the unfolding and changing of the woods and nature over the course of a year and how that presents both an ever-changing sense of challenge, in terms of living in the woods, but also an increasing complexity in regards to the themes of the game.
When you first begin the game, you are picking berries and living in the sunny simplicity of summer. As the seasons turn, it gets harder to survive, but you are also presented with more complex choices and storylines that give you more context about Thoreau, his experiment, the growing tensions of the society around him pre-Civil War, and the ways in which your actions as you play his character might affect the encroachment of industrial technologies and development into the woods, and the empowerment (or not) that an individual might have in such a time of uncertainty. To me, it was a very topical set of themes, and an important story to tell, and I think that the resonance with our own times has been clear to players.
Q5. What has been the reaction of the literary and philosophy communities to Walden?
As part of our support from the NEH, we have been able to make the game available free to educators, as well as providing a curriculum for them to use the game in their classrooms. The response to this has been fantastic! We have received requests from educators who are teaching at a range of levels – from middle school to high school to university – [and] also in a range of subjects, from literature to history, from science to philosophy, and even classes studying English as a second language have used the game. I think it has been an amazing partnership. As we say on our website for educators, the game was not created to be primarily educational, we were very interested in making something that was entertaining in and of itself. However, it does work well as an educational experience, and I think that is because it is not a didactic tool, but rather a piece of entertainment first and foremost. It is meant to engage the player, and through that engagement, we hope to lead them to consider the themes and ideas around the environment, society, technology, spirituality, and more that Thoreau was writing about.
Q6. Would you talk about your experience developing and publishing games in academia? What are some of the challenges?
USC Games started its publishing a couple of years ago and Walden is part of the initial slate of games to be launched from within the university. There were a lot of challenges setting up the label to begin with, since it isn’t a typical position for a university to be in. Just getting all the contracts done was the biggest hurdle within the system. But now that the label has launched, it has been great. Our position as an academic publisher is really to publish games that we think are important to advancement of the form, so our bottom line is quite different than most other publishers.
Our first set of games has included a student game, Chambara, that won the BAFTA Ones to Watch Award; Walden, a game, which launched in May; and now The Night Journey with Bill Viola, which launched on PlayStation 4 in June. We will also be launching Peter Brinson’s Cat and the Coup, a political game, on PS4 later this year. I think the biggest challenge is just that the faculty and staff are all doing all of this work to publish the games on top of our other work – teaching and running the program. It is a labor of love right now, but it is a lot of labor, lol! We could use some help if anyone wants to pitch in!
Q7. Academia has an obvious role teaching the next generation of game makers, but what do you believe its role is when it comes to making games?
I think it is an important opportunity that we have in academia to publish games that might not be getting a voice elsewhere. We have always felt strongly about creating an inclusive community for our students and faculty so that they can make games that go beyond the traditional definitions. This opportunity to now publish those games, through a label that embodies those values, is what we’re focused on now. It’s one thing to say that students can just self-publish, which of course they can, it’s another thing to curate a label of important work that we can present and amplify as part of the research that we do here. I look forward to expanding the offerings of USC Games as we move forward, and as we have more resources to put behind the label.
I also hope to see other universities taking on that role of amplifying important work through publishing as well. Providing access for new, alternative voices and for experimental work to reach a wider public is part of what I see as the value of academic game development, and that, over time, will be part of a richer, more mature games industry.
Q8. Do you have any parting advice for other video game design programs and academics developing and hoping to publish their games?
My main advice to anyone interested in advancing the form in or out of academia is to find and support a diverse community of making games. As we all know, developing games is a collaborative effort, and so community is one of the most important things you need to really make new and innovative experiences. At USC, we set out to develop our community first, and our program second. That’s remained important to us as the years have gone on, and we just celebrated our 15th year of the program, actually. I believe that the key to how strong our program has become over those 15 years is really the people in our community and the way they work together. The respect and inclusivity of that community drives the outcome of the program. We’ve seen our students go on to great things after they leave us, but one of the things I’m most proud of is the way they continually come back to our community and continue to give back to the current students who are there. That’s how we’re able to do things like creating the USC Games publishing label and also to set up some of the key initiatives we have, such as the newest one we have with Zynga, where we are working with them to develop diverse leadership for games. These kinds of initiatives are all part of a positive feedback cycle, that then feeds back into industry, into independent work, and into future innovations that will drive the next iteration of the industry. My advice, in a nutshell, is to approach the change you want to see as an outcome of community building. Be people-centered and human-focused and the change you inspire will be both meaningful and impactful.
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