Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Five or So Questions with Jessica Hammer

DO YOU WANT TO LEARN FROM THE HAMMER? Well, I did, so here's an interview.

Tell me about your current projects. What's got you excited?

As a professor of game design, I wear a lot of hats. I'm a game designer, a game scholar, a game researcher, and a game educator. So I'll tell you about the project I'm most excited about in each of those areas. Of course, they also overlap and relate.

As a game designer, I'm most excited about the space horror larp I'm writing with my long-term creative (and life!) partner, Chris Hall. We're exploring how constraining communication can produce both intimacy and conflict between players. Specifically, we're looking at creating rules around when people are allowed to speak, and how they can speak differently in different situations. Outer space is the perfect narrative backdrop - in space no one can hear you scream! Plus, designing a space story integrates one of our other goals, which is innovating with technology in larp. Since I'm in a computer science department, I've got access to some really interesting technical resources that will help us achieve our creative goals. We're still in the early design phase, but it's already looking super interesting!

As a game scholar, I'm most excited about a book chapter I'm writing on technologically-mediated role-playing games. Playing online makes some things harder, and some things easier - and different technologies create different opportunities and challenges. I'm covering everything from old-school MUDs to Hangout play; I'm hoping this will be the definitive reference on the state of online role-playing, and a challenge to game researchers to take this subfield more seriously.

As a game researcher, I'm excited about collecting data on how larpers are already using technology. I'm looking at how players, larp writers, and game organizers use digital tools to be more successful in their various roles. Right now I'm just collecting a broad swath of data to get a sense of what practices are out there, but in the long run I think this information can tell us something about, for example, what kinds of creative and pragmatic problems larpers are trying to solve.

Finally, as a game educator, I'm very excited about a series of workshops I'm developing on playtesting. Playtesting is an important skill for any game designer, but there aren't a lot of great ways to learn it. I've broken playtesting down into a series of core skills, and I'm creating exercises that designers can use to practice each skill individually. I'm also working with new game designers to see what kinds of materials and supports help them playtest most effectively. Right now the workshops are just for my students at CMU, but eventually I'll be sharing them with a larger audience - hopefully as soon as this fall. I think they'll be helpful to a lot of people in the game design community.

Playtesting is a really big deal! What suggestions do you have for people new to playtesting?

The number one thing I tell my students is "Step back and shut up." It's incredibly hard to watch people play your game without intervening. As a designer, you know the kind of fun that you want them to have! You can show them exactly what to do! But you don't come in the game box, so your job is to act like you're not there. Unfortunately, if players know you're there, they'll often ask for your input or otherwise tempt you to get involved. One thing you can do is practice a canned response to players trying to interact with you. I like phrases like, "That's a great question. I'll make a note of it." It lets them know you've heard their concern, but it encourages them to focus on the game rather than on you.

The other important lesson for people new to playtesting is to be careful about your data. Your own observations are only moderately trustworthy; it's easy to see what you're looking for instead of what's there. If you can videotape the session and watch it a couple of days later, that will often help you get some critical distance. You can also make a checklist or other worksheet for yourself. If you have to write it down, you're less likely to fool yourself! As for player feedback, asking people for their opinion is surprisingly tricky. Many people will tell you what they think you want to hear. Others will try to solve the game's problems without being able to articulate those problems effectively. You want to develop the skill of deep listening. Deep listening lets you understand what prompted the player to say what they did. That way you can respond to their in-game experience without letting yourself be overly influenced by specific design suggestions (which are often not that helpful).

Of course, in a few months my suggestions will be "Learn about playtesting from my workshops and materials!"

What do you think technology can do for us in tabletop and LARP that it isn't already doing?

That's a great question, but it's one I'm quite deliberately not going to answer. I don't think we understand what technology is already doing for tabletop and larp particularly well, so I don't think we can effectively see the possibilities. That's part of why I'm gathering the data I'm gathering.

That said, I'm especially interested in ways technology can make it easier for people to learn new games. Reading game rules is an ineffective way to learn for most people. For example, what if your phone prompted you with relevant portions of the rules as they came up during play? Making games more learnable is going to be a huge part of broadening the audience for role-playing games, so I think this is both an interesting and important question.

As a professor, do you think that the game design industry is growing and developing? For either yes or no, why?

In my first two months on the job, I've already had the chance to work with some brilliant, visionary students whose ideas could reshape the face of games. The question is whether they'll get the community and institutional support they'll need to have a larger impact. I hope they do - and I'm providing it where I can.

What is your biggest goal right now for games?

I want to democratize game-making, especially for people who don't think of themselves as "gamers" per se. I think there are lots of voices and perspectives that don't get respected in the game world. The more people we include, the richer the language of games becomes - and that's something I very much want to see.

What's up next for you after these exciting projects?

Right now I'm working on putting together my research agenda for the next five years. It looks like I'll be examining how games can change the relationships between players, both in terms of strengthening close ties and giving people access to different social networks. Figuring out some interesting questions in that space is really fun - I love playing with ideas! I'll be teaching a game design class in the fall, which I'm very much looking forward to. And I'm hoping to start working with my first graduate students in September, which I expect to be both inspiring and fun. I have a lot to look forward to!

Thanks Jessica! For those interested, Jessica also has a Patreon for her book reviews, which are top-notch!

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