Can a game bring Thoreau's Walden to life?
Tracy Fullerton is a player and maker of games. Her most recent game, “Walden”, puts you – the player – inside Thoreau’s Walden Pond experiment. Tracy runs the USC Digital Media and Games program – the top game design school in the country, according to the Princeton Review. We co-taught multi-player game design when that program was first getting started – and Tracy has gone on to train innovative designers like Jenova Chen – creator of Journey. She’s an accomplished and insightful designer and educator, and one of my all-time favorite people on the planet.
About this episode
[Amy Jo Kim] How did you get started? What did you study? What experiences changed your path along the way?
[Tracy Fullerton] This is a really funny question. Those are like 2 different questions, really. What I studied in school, and by that, I think you mean university, I studied mostly literature and film because I always thought I was going to be in media. When I was a kid, I was a maker. My family is all maker art. Basically, our garage was our studio. We made films and plays. When we got computers, we made games. Just basically making things all the time. It seemed to me when I went to school that the only programs that were doing that kind of making that I had been so interested in were the film programs, because there really wasn’t anything in games. There wasn’t what we think of now as digital media. There was early, early computer science, but it wasn’t the kind of media making that I was interested in.
I studied film. I studied, strangely, in a theater program because even film was too young at that time. I’m giving away my age here, right? Even film was too young at that time to have its own program where I went to school. I was actually in the theater department hacking together sets, and again making and really being experimental. When I got out of school, the first job I got was in the burgeoning digital media working for a project that IBM had put together. Again, it was very much just people hacking stuff together and making stuff. I was hooked on … I was able to take the programming skills I had taught myself as a kid and the media skills that I’d gone to school and learned, put them together as part of this really new form.
Always, throughout my career, I’ve been 5-10 years kind of ahead of the curve, kind of asking questions and making things that were a little too forward-thinking. One of the things I learned in my career was that timing is everything. It is actually one of the reasons I went to academia after being at a number of start-ups, because in academia, you can explore these interesting questions that are 5-10 years out, and it’s actually a benefit to you to explore them deeply and then maybe help other people bring them to market. Whereas in business, of course, you don’t want to innovate out on the very edges. There’s sort of a sweet spot of innovation but still within the imagination of the public that makes it work.
Basically, I come from a family of makers, and I kept making. Even though I studied film in school, that was probably one of the least of my influences.
That was great. It’s really interesting for me to hear that because even though I’ve known you for many years, I hadn’t really put together your film background with your gaming background. It’s actually perfect because it leads so naturally to what you’re doing right now. Before we get to that, I want to talk a little bit about your book. It’s in the third edition now. What motivated you to first write it?
The motivation was pretty simple. I started teaching very early on. About the time I started working in industry, people started coming to me and saying, “Hey, will you be my mentor on my thesis project?” I was in New York at the time. The School of Visual Arts had a bunch of people doing what today we call “Arduino,” but back then, it was just people doing extensions to Director to make toasters pop at all the same time and things like that. Because I was working in the field and had some expertise in extending what was then the core tool, which was Director, they would ask me to be their thesis advisor. I wound up being then asked to teach an actual thesis course. Out of that, they asked me to teach a game design course because that’s what I was focused on.
Way back then, there really wasn’t this concept that you could teach people to design games. In fact, I remember going to the Game Developers Conference and saying I was doing this. I was talking to Will Wright, and he’s like, “Well, I’m not sure that you can teach people to do that. Don’t they just kind of know how to do it or not?” Because I think that’s how people like Will Wright learned, right? Don’t you think people just did it themselves, right?
Where were you teaching this early course?
The earliest one was at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Basically, I was in an environment where there was a bunch of people I was working with professionally, Eric Zimmerman, Frank Lantz, and Karen Sideman, and a bunch of other folks. They were also beginning to teach classes. We kind of got together and developed our ideas. We’d play-test our ideas for teaching together and then bring them into our classes. We started developing a company rigorous methodology for teaching game design. It started working. We started having really good students. Around that time, I actually moved to California, and I moved my version of the class to USC. We sort of wound up with this New York/Los Angeles similarity, I guess you would say, to the basis of these schools of thoughts around teaching games.
When you teach games, people start to find you on the internet. A lot of young people would write to me and say, “How can I take your class? I can’t go to USC. I live in Utah” or whatever. It occurred to me that I should write a book because a lot of young people were interested in this form, and they would not be able to come to find either me or the other folks I knew who were teaching games from the ground up. I wound up writing this book as a workshop you could do on your own.
Even though I use it in my classes, the notion would be that it could stand on its own as a workshop that young people could do, step-by-step. By the time they got to the end of it, they would have a lot of skills around where to start with designing a game, what they steps to prototyping and refining an idea was, and then what they should do when they wanted to get a team together and start building an idea, putting it in front of users, how to react to feedback, all of these granular steps that are often, I think, skipped in a lot of books about creativity.
A lot of times in books about creativity, the advice is “just do it,” which is good advice, by the way. There’s a lot more granularity to it, I think that is … let’s see, it’s like every shovelful of the ditch you’re digging. You just really have to talk about how it is that you get those users to come and test it, how it is that you listen to people, what it is that you’re comparing their feedback against. The book was based on the class that I was teaching from the exercises out.
What’s new in the third edition?
What’s new? I have a little bit of guilt about the book in that the very first edition, most of the designers that we interviewed were men. It was just an oversight. I went back, and I did a ton of interviews this time. If you look through the book, there’s a much larger diversity of who is being interviewed, what they’re being interviewed about, so it’s not just all “Triple A” games. There’s a look at indie games and games for an upcoming platform like the Oculus Rift, mobile games, and there’s women. There’s people who are transgender. There are folks who are start-ups. There are students. Trying to mix in what I think of as the new voices.
Sounds like the development of your book has really mirrored the development of the gaming industry.
I hope so. The core methodology is the same. I didn’t change anything in this edition about the core methodology, but there are examples that are drawn from a much wider perspective.
When you go about crafting a new project and when you teach that, in the stages where you’re crafting up the simplest possible thing to show to people and start getting feedback, how do you go about it?
The short-hand on the first part, which is how I go about it, is that I start with the goals of the project. Often, the goals of the project are around the player experience. If we’re doing a research game that has very specific goals, for example, we want to teach middle school kids the scientific method. We want to engage them as kind of proto-scientists in the scientific method. That may be a starting point. Then everything that we do sort of springs from that central pillar. There may be more than one pillar, by the way, but let’s just talk about the player experience goal as the most important one.
For me, I’ve found as I get older, it’s often easier for me to identify that pillar than it is for my students. I see that that is something that is gained with experience. With my students, I do something slightly different. That is, I will often start them with essentially design exercises that remove a lot of the complexity of the process. I may start them with an existing system, and I may give them a design goal. Then I may ask them to basically redesign the existing system in order to meet the design goal. What I’ve done there is I’ve removed the beginning components of design, and I’ve just put them in front of … It’s almost like a chess problem.
I think when you’re learning to design, one of the best things you can do is do these kind of crafted problems because they train your mind to solve design problems. Design problems, in many ways, they are like kind of chess problems. Once you’ve trained yourself to be able to meet a player experience goal, then it’s easier to now set your own goals and create your own systems.
Are those exercises in your book?
The most common one is. Then it’s easy to generate your own based on your own needs, but the most common one is basically what I just described, which is taking a simple existing system and changing a player experience goal. That’s pretty much the most famous design that I do. I use a game from Ravensburger, which is a great, great little system called Up the River. It has like all the elements of a game and nothing more. There are 4 players. They each have 3 pieces. They’re trying to make their way up a river, and so the obstacles are a sandbar and the current of the river. There’s a power-up. There’s a goal. There’s a method of movement. There’s all the things that you need and nothing more. It’s like the simplest little game.
This game, I’ve seen this redesigned thousands of times. I’ve seen it redesigned with so many different player experience goals. It’s a funny little game that works very well as almost like an empty vessel.
We were talking about the process you go when you’re crafting a new project. For yourself, really homing in on the purpose and the pillars of the design. I think part of that is understanding the constraints, right?
You know, I think it’s Orson Welles who said the enemy of art is a lack of constraints. I really firmly believe that. If you give people a completely blank slate and you say, “Okay design the greatest interactive experience ever,” then people just sit there. The most creative people in the world will just sit there with a blank look on their face, right? If you give them, oh, I don’t know, a thumbtack and a pin cushion, and a dollar bill, and you say, “Okay, let’s make a game. You have 15 minutes.” I’ll bet you anything that they can actually come up with something clever using those materials and those constraints.
Often, the other thing that I’ll do, especially recently because we’ve been working a lot in my lab with real world problems around education, we will go and interview the stakeholders, so we’ll spend time with teachers, with students, with parents in the environment seeing what kind of equipment they have available, how often they have it available, who gets to use it and when. A lot of people don’t know their own constraints around technology. You have to sort of watch them like an ethnographer and see, “Oh, I see, there actually aren’t enough computers for all students to get 1.” They’re teaming up. Nobody said anything about the students in this class teaming up. They just assume it because that’s what they do.
When we ask them, they never said, “Oh, we team up.” There’s a lot of things that people do that you can find out if you follow them. You go to their place where they’ll be using the technology. Those are not so much part of the experience goal because obviously, if you’re making a product, you wish that everyone could have perfect access to it, but they are a different kind of constraint you have to keep in mind sometimes.
You’ve had the rare experience of watching many, many, many, many teams creating and testing early design. Some of those teams have gone on and done great things. What are the common mistakes you see people make when they’re creating and testing their early designs, that if you could wave a magic wand and say, “I would like you to do better,” you could get rid of?
The most common mistake is thinking they’ve got it. You bring in your first or second or even third design, and you think you’ve got it. Once *you* love something, that is not the time to stop listening to the users, the players, the testers. Unfortunately, a lot of times, we fall in love with our own designs. We might not fall in love with the first one, but maybe by the fifth or the sixth, we’re starting to fall in love with it. Then we stop seeing the body language, the facial expressions when people are testing. We explain those away. The most successful designers that I’ve seen are the ones that continue to … It’s not that they’re not in love with their … because they really love what they’re doing … but they continue to be open to the problems and keep hacking away at those problems and keep perfecting, keep making their solutions more elegant.
There’s an advertisement for this new movie, Whiplash. They’re playing the drums. It’s about, I don’t exactly know, but it’s definitely about creative drive. At the end, somebody says the enemy of greatness is … The two words that are the enemy of greatness, it’s “good job.” That just really hit me because I say that all the time, just by the way. I say that to my students all the time, but maybe I’ll stop because the designers that I see that really have done great things are the ones that never tell themselves they’ve done a good job. They ask themselves, “Okay, that’s good. That’s good. What’s next?”
Ownership in teams is a funny thing. We all need to feel it because that’s what keeps us invested, but co-ownership is even more important. There’s this weird tension between “I am investing my energy, my creative spirit into something, and so I feel deeply. I feel that I own it.” That’s a good feeling. I try to teach my students to use the word “we” a lot when they talk about their projects because it’s important to acknowledge that everyone owns it. Everyone needs to feel that sense of honorship and ownership. It’s not something we teach, I’ve noticed. It’s not something we teach in school. We teach you not to copy. We teach you not to actually … in groups, everyone, I guess, tends to have a role. We don’t really grade you as a team. Yet, here, when we get to something like industrial design or software design or any of these more advanced kinds of environments, it’s very important that we all get “graded” as a team.
In your position, given what you know, if you’re giving tips to first-time entrepreneurs who really want to be smart about prototyping and iterating their early designs, what would you tell them? It’s like, here’s 2 or 3 good tips to get you started.
You know, one of the first ones is kind of obvious, but it’s design for a problem, not design for an idea. Now we’re not talking about just being creative. Now we’re actually talking about building a successful business. This is something that I know I have not done as well as I could have in my career because I just tend to be more of a creative person, but if you design for a problem and your design, by its nature, is going to have some market value. If you’re designing because you’ve come up with a cool idea and so you’re more designing for creativity, your design may or may not have market value. I’m speaking as someone who’s run to the academy because I want to research deep, long-term issues rather than having to deal with the market all the time, but I think that being an entrepreneur, being out there on the front lines, is critically important.
Being successful almost always has to be … it has to do with addressing a problem that people have right now and being just slightly more innovative than the other solutions that they could find. Not too innovative because then you sort of drive them way. For me, I think it’s start your design process by identifying what the problem is and how your solution can advance people’s experience of that problem.
The next thing I would say is in terms of iteration is get a core, get access to a group of your core audience. Make that one of your first tasks, is to find easy access so you can test with new people but who are in your market very quickly. Maybe once a week you should be testing new iterations of your idea. The iterations don’t have to be very deep. They can be storyboards. They can be paper prototypes. These don’t have to be things that you spend a lot of money on. In fact, you can do a much broader exploration if you take 5 paper prototypes into a group and then wind up throwing 3 of them away and taking the next 2 and taking some good stuff from each of those into the next iteration.
To me, cheap, fast iteration, especially in the beginning, is a much more powerful tool than really getting something articulate and waiting and then taking it in because you’re going to run into that problem I discussed where you’re in love with your own idea if you spend too much time articulating it. Just by nature, you’re not going to want to change all of it. Just doing that really quickly and finding access to your core audience, which can be very difficult by the way. Just an example in my own work, we’ve been doing, as I mentioned, a lot of educational games, and so we just basically have put together a group of middle school and high school teachers who like what we’re doing. We’ve done nice things for them.
We’ve invited their classes in, and we’ve done workshops for them. Because we’ve done that, we now have a relationship with them. When we need to test a card game that we’ve been working on for just two days that we have an idea about, we say, “You know, we haven’t worked very hard on this. It might not work, but we really need 10 of your kids to come in and play a card game.” Then they’ll send us 10 kids. It’s a fair exchange. Making sure you have a kind of revolving door of the kind of users that you need to test your designs can be really important. Nobody ever talks about, but it’s actually kind of time-consuming to find those people.
The other thing, this is kind of silly, but a lot of, I think, entrepreneurs are shy about telling their ideas because they think people are going to steal them. The more you pitch it, the more you’ll hone it. You’ll get to the point where you’ll actually be able to say in one sentence what your problem is, what your solution is, and why it’s better than everything else out there in basically a sentence or maybe two sentences. My advice would be to keep pitching, keep pitching, until you have honed the kernel of what the problem is, what your solution is, and why it’s better down to a sentence or two.
What’s your superpower as a designer?
This is going to sound so weird. I think maybe the people that work with me would have different answers, but for me, I guess, the answer is empathy. For whatever reason, I think I’m actually really good at putting myself in the place of the player, also of my team members. Because I’m a team lead, my job often isn’t the person to have the ideas. My job, although obviously, I have a lot of ideas, but my job sometimes is to get other people to generate ideas. To do that, you have to sort of have empathy with where they’re at and what environment they need to really work well. In terms of the players, that’s where I think I do really well.
A lot of times, designers, as I mentioned, fall in love with their designs. I’m really good, I think, at playing a prototype and putting myself in the place of someone who isn’t connected to it, playing it cold but playing it with the sense of, “Oh, what I would be feeling if I was this person or that person.” That’s about empathy. It’s just something that I feel like is a really powerful tool.
In terms of the projects I like to work on and sort of, I guess, the sweet spot of design, right now and for the last about 10 years, I’ve been working on games that attempt to express and to elicit deeper emotions than the traditional games. I really love to work on projects that are heart-felt, that have real soul in them. I’ll tell you, those aren’t the projects that pay the bills. In order to keep my team, I also have to go out and get money for projects that people want to pay for. It’s tough because you have to switch your hats back and forth. I’ve mentioned several times that we’ve been working on these educational games. I love working on them. They’re great. Those are the games that pay the bills because that’s what people are interested in paying us to design. That’s great that I should get the chance to also innovate while I’m funding my research lab.
The ones I want to work on are more art projects. Here in America, we do not fund that. We do not fund the arts. It’s tough because my sweet spot is not one that is something you can actually get money for. A long time ago, I worked for a guy named Bob Greenberg, and Bob Greenberg used to say to me, in his funny Bob Greenberg way, “See Tracy, there are projects we do for the bank, and there are projects we do for the reel. You want to do the ones for the reel, and I got to do the ones for the bank.” I think that problem comes about in everybody’s career in different ways.
Tell us about Walden, your project of the heart.
I thought about, I came up with the idea in 2002, which is when I closed my start-up company and I went on journey across the country and went to visit some relatives near Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. I was re-reading Walden by Henry David Thoreau, and I had this notion. I was sitting on the shore of the pond one day, and I just had this notion reading his discussion of the experiment that he set for himself that it would be this wonderful game because it’s about how does one balance one’s life between the things we need to do to survive and maintain ourselves and sort of the things that we do to inspire ourselves.
I thought it would make a great game, but I had no idea how to do it. I sort of wrote about it in my journal, and I left it there. In 2007, I was just completing the main design work on a game that I made with an artist named Bill Viola, and I’d been through the design of games like Cloud and flOw and then the Night Journey with Bill Viola. I had a deeper sense of how to, I think, approach a difficult problem. I decided to take on this idea that had been hanging around in my head for 5 years.
In 2007, I went out and bought my team copies of the book, and we started reading. We basically started with a reading group and talking about the heart of the book and the heart of the experiment and what the system was that was at the heart of that experiment. Really defining how that system might be playable. We’ve been working on it ever since, mostly with a team of volunteers. A couple of years ago, I guess 2012, we got a small NEA grant, and then we got an even smaller grant from USC. These were really small grants, but they were enough to sort of give us the credibility to push forward and to keep a lot of the team focused on it. Just this past year, we were accepted into the Sundance Story Lab, which is a mentoring opportunity run by Sundance where they bring independent projects in. We had the opportunity to do that.
What’s interesting is as I’ve gone along … I’ve been working on this project for 7 years … As we’ve gone along, a lot of people have come to do what I call “painting the fence.” I think of it as sort of the Tom Sawyer method of producing the game where you just make it look so cool to paint that fence that everybody wants to come and help you paint the fence. We’ve gotten not only the Sundance people, but a lot of the graduate students who’ve gone through the lab have worked on the game. We’ve had people who subsequently went on to work at EA or Pixar. The sound designer, Michael Sweet is an old, old friend of mine. During the time we were working on the game, this is so weird, by happenstance, he moved to Concord to right near Walden Pond and is now recording a fully-procedural soundscape for the game on-site.
Crazy coincidences like that. The game has got these layers of what I’ve just called people coming in and taking authorship in it and adding their own special sauce to it. It’s been a really special and interesting experiment to run such a long-term project with so little funding. For the first 2 years, we were all on paper. Then we built 2D prototypes in Flash and then later in Torque. Then we built 3D prototypes in Gamebryo. Then went to Unity … Once we really decided what we needed, we went to Unity.
This makes me want to play it.
Well, we just showed a version of it, a demo of the first season … It goes through 8 seasons. Thoreau thought there should be 8 seasons in a year. We showed a demo of the first season at IndieCade.
Can you please tell us how you went from the book group, and I know there’s probably a lot you’re going to leave out, but the brief story … How did you go from a book group talking about what is the essence of Walden to extracting a system that captured that essence?
Sure. This is actually not as hard as it sounds. One of the reasons I had wanted to I think work on the book as a game is that Thoreau himself was a kind of a cross between … On one side, he was a naturalist, a biologist, an amateur scientist, and on the other side, he was a poet. His book begins with … The first two chapters are all about his experiment. The first chapter’s called Economy. A book that begins with a discussion of economy you know is going to have system in it. The second one is basically all about he built his cabin in the woods and why.
The system that we built is very much based on his words. He talks about what it takes to live. What are the basic needs of life? He says, in this climate. He basically lays out that they are food, fuel, shelter, and clothing, that that’s all a person needs. Because I’ve played a lot of games, these things poke out to me immediately as resources. We started building systems around this notion of, “Okay, if these are the four basic resources that a person needs to survive, then what wears them down? What sort of uses those things up, and how do we build them back up again?” Then, on the other hand, if our lives are not just about surviving, what else are they about?
He uses the rest of the book to discuss what these things are. He talks about reading and the great ideas that one would get through reading and the sounds of the forest and the solitude, the visitors that he’d got in the forest of animal and human, and the bean field that he worked in. There are all these other things that are not just about base-level survival. What we did is, once we had the basic survival simulation, which is based on those four needs, then we started layering in the ways that one might lead a more inspired life.
It’s a survival simulation, based on resource management. You have to have enough fuel. You have to have enough food. You have to make sure your clothes are mended. You have to have a shelter, but if that’s all that you have, then your life is very mean. Your life is very poor. Then there are these layers of things that can also inspire you. Beyond survival, what as humans do we need for our spirits to survive? If people play the game, and they just focus on the survival simulation, they will live, and they will have a nice house, and they will survive, and that will be all well and good, but they will not wind up finding all of the pieces of inspiration that help them to write the book of Walden.
Then you layer on self-actualization things?
Exactly, but hopefully a very light touch, so they are the sounds that he writes about, the visitors, the animals and ideas. The books that he read can be found throughout the forest. There are all of these pieces that go beyond just surviving.
How do people discover those? Through exploration?
Exactly. We don’t actually try to criticize that. It’s just that they will never find all of the sort of more wonderful things that are out there in the woods to be discovered if they don’t go out and explore and they don’t search for that inspiration. There are other things that will be prompting you, like there are letters from Emerson and other characters who prompt you to go out and explore beyond just your little corner of the woods.
One of the mechanics is a collecting mechanic. There are these arrowheads throughout the woods that, if you collect them, you actually wind up filling your journal. You have a game journal. You wind up filling your journal with pieces of the book, pieces of Walden. As you collect them, you actually wind up “writing” your own procedural version of the book.
Oh, that’s an interesting idea.
Yeah, we have this stretch goal. We haven’t done it, but one of our stretch goals is that at the end, people could be able to send away and get their own hard-cover version of their version of Walden. It’s so easy to print books on demand. Wouldn’t that be neat is if as people filled their journal, they could send away and it would come back, and it would look all nice … hard-cover and really nice, but it would be their version of their experience at Walden.
What role does narrative play in this for you?
Well, it’s a really great question because that’s what we’re working on right now. The core of it is a system, this playable survival system as defined by Thoreau’s philosophy. Then there is the world, so there’s a dynamic world around you that’s changing based on the seasons. That makes that playable system harder or more challenging as the seasons progress. Now what we’re doing is we’re actually layering in what I would call “the pressures of the world.” Thoreau speaks a lot about how we must decide to live our own lives and not someone else’s life. For me, you have to show on the outskirts of this philosophy-based system that we’ve built, you have to show what has pushed him there.
What we’re doing now is we’re layering in all of the relationships. We’re layering in the things like his parents’ pressures on him, the fact that … While he was actually at Walden, he was grieving for his brother who’d recently died. We’re layering in the pressure that Emerson had on him. He had a really contentious mentorship because Emerson was constantly pressuring him to write and be more prolific, to be more like him. Thoreau was constantly disappointing him. I find that very fascinating. The people in town, for example, kind of laughed at him. He was known as that fool who burned down the woods. Even though he loved the woods, he’s known mostly for loving the woods, he had a camping accident where he burned down a huge section of Walden Woods. Now what we’re doing is basically layering in all of those things that would push him to make a decision to go out and try this experience.