Eric Zimmerman: Play as Research

June 07th, 2004 | Category: Interviews

Eric ZimmermanSteven Johnson calls him “the Lou Reed of the new gaming culture.” Eric Zimmerman hops through the realms of game design, academe, writing, game advocacy, and entrepreneurship as if he’s playing a game of hopscotch. And, in many ways, he is. He’s spent the last decade designing award-winning games, teaching at places like MIT, New York University, School of Visual Arts, and Parsons School of Design at the New School University, as well as writing continuously about gaming — much of which can be seen in four recent books: RE: Play (Peter Lang, 2003), Rules of Play (MIT Press, 2003), First Person (MIT Press, 2004), and Brenda Laurel‘s Design Research (MIT Press, 2003). In 2000, he and Peter Lee founded the game development company gameLab, which develops games for the computer and beyond. Zimmerman’s work is based largely on a concept of “play as research” — sort of a playful adaptation of Paul Feyerabend’s anarchist epistemology — and he’s a strong advocate for this concept in academic research, in game design, and in the workplace.


Roy Christopher:
At gameLab, you’ve fostered a “play as research” plan. For the uninitiated, can you briefly lay out your tenets for a creative design research environment?

Eric Zimmerman: In a game, the game designer makes the rules. But the game designer doesn’t directly create the player’s experience. The way that the rules play out — once people enter into the system and start playing around — is usually uncertain and surprising, especially if you’ve got a good game on your hands.

In creating a company culture, gameLab co-founder Peter Lee and I have carried this idea outward into thinking about how games are not just played, but made. In other words, for us gameLab is a structure that is designed to create unexpected and surprising staff experiences and resulting design artifacts.

On a practical level, that means a number of things: from a design process that emphasizes prototyping and iterative playtesting, to an office environment where each staff member has a monthly allowance to buy something — anything — for the company research library. Play should sometimes be undirected, and staff members are expected to spend about 10 percent of their time (half a day a week) playing videogames, surfing the web, horsing around with toys, and otherwise just playing.

RC: Having worked in design for companies in various states of corporate control and clientele, I am completely sold on your ideas about the creative environment, but I’m also aware of the resistance or apathy to these ideas evident in these environments. How should designers go about convincing their employers of the import of a creative and stimulating design culture?

EZ: That’s a really tough one. In my experience, if the company culture isn’t already healthy when you enter, very little is going to change it. I’d consider voting with my feet and finding another company that supports the kind of work experience you’re looking for.

But I realize that’s not always possible. So what to do? The key to creating a culture of design research is fostering relationships between the inside and the outside of the company — to find opportunities that let culture seep into the company and vice versa. If lobbying the higher-ups doesn’t work, then just start doing. Try to organize a reading group, or a board-game night, or a movie field trip — even if your boss isn’t officially sponsoring or condoning the event. (Remember, don’t do these things gratuitously, but be strategic and make sure they’re relevant to your work.) If you’re lucky, the positive effects on your company’s work and the office environment will be noticed.

RC: In your essay in First Person you gallantly attempt to define specific terms about gaming and move forward in a sort of Wittgensteinian language game. Do you see these debates as an infinite regress, or is there a foundation in there somewhere?

EZ: No and no. For a designer, the value of a concept or definition is not its scientific accuracy, but instead its ability to solve problems. So for me, attempts at definition don’t aim to ultimately once and for all define a “game” or “play,” or whatever complex term you like. Instead, it may be useful in part of a design process to be able to tell the difference between “game” and “play.” Or not. Every designer has his or her own way of working and opinion about just what a “useful” concept is.

On a different level, I think that definitions are important for education, for critical debate, for scholars, for journalists, for cross-disciplinary research, etc. There’s no doubt that in other design fields, such as architecture, there has been all kinds of exchange between “theory” and “practice.” What I’d like to see in games isn’t a single set of definitions, but whole ecosystems of competing ideas, concepts, and ways of understanding. That can’t but help make better games.

RC: We talk about gaming a lot in academia (i.e., “gaming” different scholarly situations). I’ve adapted my own ideas about it from James P. Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games (Free Press, 1986). Do you find gaming metaphors spilling over into other areas of your life as well?

EZ: In my scholarly work, I really do try to look at games as games, and not as something else. But games to me are so fascinating and complex it’s hard not to apply them elsewhere. For example, a game for me is a model of a good friendship, relationship, or collaboration. The commonly accepted rules of games establish an agreed-upon “frame” for the playful, productive conflict of the game to occur. Without that frame, you’ve got raw conflict. With that frame, the spontaneous, creative, and ecstatic struggle of the game can take place. Of course, not everyone thinks that a good relationship is a context for productive conflict. But that’s just the game designer in me, I suppose.

RC: Is there anything you’re working on that you’d like to mention here?

EZ: Yes! Big things are afoot at gameLab. This fall, we’ll be unveiling a brand new direction for the company. Sorry to be cryptic, but I can’t yet tell you exactly what it is. However, I will say this: the work we do transverting rules into play doesn’t just happen within a game, or as part of the company environment, but hopefully within larger social spheres as well. The idea is not just to play with a game, but create games that play with culture at large. When more games are doing this, then I won’t have to be the loyal opposition to the gaming world — I can just be loyal. Stay tuned.

And keep on playin’.

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