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Q&A with Professor Lindsay Grace


Love Games

By Jordan-Marie Smith

Professor LIndsay Grace

American University Professor Lindsay Grace, a thought leader in the persuasive play and game community, is giving two talks at the prestigious Game Developer's Conference this March, which will draw over 24,000 people. The first talk is on affection games, the second on educational games. As director of AU's Game Lab, and a professor at the School of Communication, Grace is changing the way we think about games, and about the enormous potential of play to inspire, educate and persuade. In the following Q and A, Grace gives an overview of what he'll be discussing at GDC and his hope for the future of games.

Jordan-Marie Smith: In what capacity are affection games used? Where do you see them being played?

Lindsay Grace: For the most part, they're actually being played as conventional entertainment. The first places they became popular was actually on the web as small casual games. So, people were playing them--mainly they were being offered to preteen or teenage girls. 

But now they are being distributed on a mobile base, and there are far more of these games being distributed. And what's most interesting about them is that they're kind of the antithesis of what many people think about when they think about games and digital play. A lot of times if you say "games" [people] think of board games, they think of violent play, et cetera. So, I actually talk about affection games to "a love not war" paradigm. These games are about kissing and hugging and all the sort of ways that can sort of solve the problem in a game.

Virtual Dinner Grace's game "Big Huggin" at an event at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Credit: Bruce Guthrie, 2014.

JM: Why preteen girls?

LG: Well, I think what happened was there is a population that's basically called clearinghouses for web games and the folks have been creating games that are targeted towards young women. So, they were dress-up games. They were doll games. They were games that are a cliche of what you see in the girls' section of a toy store. So, pinks and purples and that sort of stuff. And that's the early history of these games. 

What I'm noticing is that they're like any genre: diversifying. So, you're getting a wider audience playing them because the mobile space isn't as gendered. So anyone can find these games easily; I think that's kind of the difference. You know, I sometimes talk about this in my class. Harrods' toy stores experimented with a non-gendered toy store and in doing so they found that girls want to drive Jeeps, too, and maybe boys wanted to play dress-up or whatever. 

I think the stores Google Play and iTunes have done, basically, a good job of breaking down some of those gender barriers and that's really important because my view is that in studying all these games, I've recorded about five hundred different affections. And what I've found is the affection games tend to have a very strong rhetoric about the way affection is expressed, why we can express affection, et cetera. And what I'm seeing is that more of these affections games are starting to change that rhetoric. So, I released a game that was not heteronormative. 

The vast majority of games in the affection space are about opposite-sex affection, even when it's non-sexual affection. So, hugs that are just sort of asexual are still sort of strongly gendered, female-to-female. You know, there's always opportunity and this is why I think it's interesting to talk about affection games. People talk about diversity in games, they talk about other ways to play this space. And it's sort of slowly growing and really does sort of offer a lot of fodder for analysis and for critical thinking about how we solve problems in the community.

JM: When it comes to the people at AU who are creating games and the gamer community, who makes up that group? What backgrounds do those people come from? Where do you see the gender lines or the class lines or the race lines?

LG: Our particular group of graduate students is atypical, I think, of many across the nation. Right now to give you a standard stat, I just gave a talk on diversity yesterday. About 89 percent of the designers and developers in the gaming industry are male. 

Eighty-nine percent and that's specific. That is collected every year--when they do a salary survey. Now, if you  compare that to our students, we have five female and seven male. We have one person from Africa and we have one person from South America.  And then we've got folks from all over the country, which I think is an important way to view it, too. The world of gaming doesn't need to be dominated by one or two key demographics. I think in the long term it can't be, if it's going to be mainstream.

JM: What kinds of diversity do you want to see?

LG: My answer is one that almost sounds redundant, but it really is about everyone. So, I want to make sure that we have as few hurdles--as few economic hurdles as we can. And also I want to see people who don't necessarily consider themselves as  game players, joining in the conversation. Because, there's a reason they don't consider themselves gamemakers and maybe they aren't gamers, maybe because they just don't know about all the other opportunities in games and maybe they just haven't experienced it. And so I'm really about just telling everybody that 'You know, come on in. The pool is warm.' We're very welcoming and we're very much about new ideas.

JM: Can people from different educational backgrounds become game designers?

LG: Just looking at our students in the graduate program, you'll see that no one has a degree in gaming and that's a relatively new thing. Ten to 15 years ago, no one could get a degree in gaming. What we've come to learn and one of the things that's essential in the design of our curriculum is this idea that games are really kind of case studies to help us build a much broader set of problems. So how do we keep someone interested for a long period of time? How do we get their foot in the door?

JM: Is there a difference between who decides to be a player and who decides to be a developer? Are there different backgrounds that go into that?

LG: The digital creative industries suffer from some challenges in diversity and part of that is the way the jobs are structured. You know, if you're going to start an indie (independent games) studio, which is one of the easiest ways to get yourself involved, basically the same activities [happen] in creating a startup. In terms of socioeconomics one of the things you're going to need is enough money to live on or a place to live on your own. If your family is struggling to pay their bills, it's not any easier to turn to them and say "Hey, I'm going to live with you for the next year and a half."

Of course, getting past the socioeconomics, the other issue -- more true in the triple A industry and the big console games
, than it has been in the space of indie games -- is that a lot of times you need a friend to let you in the industry. Someone has to tell you about a job and then you get in. And so one of the things that has been a challenge to improve the diversity is just that-- that it's a little bit of a closed network. And so, opening up that network's really important. That's one of the reasons I champion independent game making, in particular. The analogy is independent film and the benefit there is that independent filmmakers are very excited for new voices. They're not asking questions about financial viability. They're asking questions about experience. So, what's really great is you get folks designing from totally different perspectives than the average game player [or] maker.

JM: What are you looking forward to the most at GDC?

LG: GDC is a great forum for combining industry observations, real world experience with some theories some fresh ideas. Everybody goes to GDC every year and it's both an intellectually and experientially inspiring conference. New technologies, some new solutions. What's really great about the community is that we do something called post-mortem where people talk about their experience making a game after the game has been published or released - sharing the things you learned from it. The standard is three things you did well, three things you didn't do well. So people are willing to share their failures. They think it's very much part of gaming. We're usually okay failing in games and so that culture permeates to GDC. People are happy to talk about what they did poorly, which is atypical for a lot of industry conferences. And, I'm honestly looking forward to talking. It's my first talk at GDC and it's the creme de la creme of game conferences.

JM: Where does the gaming community meet up, other than conferences, to share ideas?

LG: Basically we have two spaces here. We have game consumers and we have gamemakers, which are basically designers and developers. So, the designers are the people that creatively check out the game and the developers are the folks who make it. Within that we have artists, all variety of programmers and for analog games we still have a variety of graphics, art, et cetera. Part of the answer to that question is about what portion of game making they're most excited about or most engaged in socially. So on the game making side we have lots of people who have, basically, meet-up communities. I run a meet-up of about 150 people, 150 members. And they're all interested in the gaming arts and design. Then we have something called the IGDA which is an international organization. It's the International Game Developer's Association. And that's a community of people in the industry and people looking to get into the industry who are really checking out their, they're just talking about everything from employment standards and how do we make money in this space and how do we negotiate contracts to things like offering unemployed folks in the industry insurance. So, we have an IGDA chapter here in D.C., probably about 300 members or so. There's probably a conference, an academic conference, once a month. Of course there's the Game Developer's Conference, GDC. Which is the ultimate, I think, meeting of the minds. Basically it's more than 20 years-old and  everyone from everywhere around the world comes to  participate in the event. So, there are guest speakers and there are events. The expo floor, as it will, is where a lot of major companies premiere new software. So, the comparable in the general space is comparable to something like the computer electronics show. It's a combination of  a big show, a bunch of academic talks and then a variety  of other activities including my talk.

JM: What are the least understood parts of games and game design?

LG: The way that I describe games in a way that might help most people understand the power and potential of games is to think of them as a set of design experiences. So, what I do as a game designer is I create problems for you to solve in games and I tell you how you're going to solve those problems and by doing so I am making what we consider a rhetorical decision and that rhetorical decision is if you have this problem this is how you solve it. If there's someone in your way, you shoot them. If you're amin a maze, you must adhere to the maze's rules these are what we call procedural rhetoric. I'm not the only person to describe this. But, the real power in games is that we are asking people to practice that procedural rhetoric that solution finding over and over and over again and by doing so it's a kind of practice instruction and the framing we provide in games, et cetera, that's the power of affection games-- that we can get more people to employ that, to help understand that really--when we're doing that--what we're doing is training people, then we can help solve some really complicated problems. The other thing that's misunderstood about games is that they're being open-ended by nature or by design. More people solving problems that they wouldn't normally solve outside the game. When people adopt a playful mindset one of the things they do is they're willing to take risks. They're interested in experimentation. They use their own heuristics, or lessons learned and then they apply them. So what's great about that is if we get people in a playful mentality, they sort of adopt that playful mindset, then they solve problems they wouldn't be able to solve outside of the game.

JM: How can games solve those problems?

LG: They do this in two ways. One is the crowdsource approach. So, what we do is we have people solve a problem and lots of people have had the same problem, so we know we have millions of players with successful games. What if we had millions of people trying to contribute to the Human Genome Project, millions of people trying to solve the best possible design for new urban plants? So, what we do is wrap that problem in something playful in a game and that helps them train the problem and be engaged in finding a solution.

JM: What news organizations or other organizations have you seen achieve that goal?

LG: There's a couple of solutions, one that's always studied in this space, is sort of the ultimate example is a game called Foldit which was founded by Professor David Baker of the University of Washington, who I've cited several times in some of my own published work, and basically they've made a game around understanding how proteins are folded. 

So, people are playing a game that is about protein folding but really what they're doing is they're contributing to this database of possible solutions and then the sort of ultimate solutions are then analyzed [through] visual data and they've been able to kind of derive medicinal Solutions, medicines, from this data. Other examples: a lot of times people don't realize a lot of the data we use on a daily basis is Big Data stuff so things like using Pandora, which has about 20 different factors on each song so that it can match to our own likes. What they've essentially done is they've made games around tagging music or tagging images. And so doing that they've created much more data, much more reliable data, much more rich data that we can use for applications like Pandora.

An example that's really sort of common and it's not much of a game, but it is, technically, sort game a game is Google licensed from Stanford the rights to use the image tagger and--the way that images in Google, when you use Google Image Search it shows you whatever you've looked for--what it really is is human work. So, people have sat down and said this image is a "blah" and they continue to tag it. So they wrap that in the competition of people going back and forth and in going back and forth they're basically competing with each other to tag images.

It helps us with tedious things. I don't necessarily want to stand in front of a computer for hours tagging images, but if you make it a game--wow, right? And we've known that since everybody who's ever played with a five year-old knows  that one way to get them to clean up is to turn it into a game. There's a lot of that kind of activity.