To Game Deliberately
Tracy Fullerton wants to change how you play.
We’re in a small clearing in a Massachusetts forest amid drifts of wildflowers. The air is full of birdsong, variable and sweet, and the buzzing of insects. Dry grasses crunch under our feet as we approach a half-built cabin. In a stone pit a fire burns, and by standing near it, I learn from the instructions on the screen, we can rest until we are notified that our energy is fully restored.
This is an experimental video game called Walden, and its creator, Tracy Fullerton, the bespectacled director of the University of Southern California’s Game Innovation Lab, is leading me through a demo with team members Lucas Peterson, the lead artist, and Todd Furmanski, the lead programmer: a handsome duo in standard-issue jeans and T-shirts.
Walden is set in the mid-19th-century landscape of Henry David Thoreau’s “experiment in living,” but in the real world the four of us are seated before a big monitor in a spare, drably functional workspace at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. Fullerton is a lively woman with a laser-keen gaze and a child-like air; she’s entirely focused on the lush forest onscreen, eight years in the making. “We can pick berries and go fishing in summer and fall, and ice-skate in winter,” she explains as Peterson, controlling the mouse, flicks us along winding paths to the lake’s edge, where we find a fishing pole.
In Walden, Fullerton and her team are creating an environment starkly different from the fantasy worlds we ordinarily associate with games. I have to recalibrate my expectations even to take in this demo: There’s no opening disaster, no adrenaline rush, no emergencies, and no explosions. You can’t annihilate your enemies, because there aren’t any.
“Can you die in this game?” I ask Furmanski.
“Mmm,” he considers. “You can faint.”
My first thought is: Is this boring? But bit by bit, I’m drawn in to the strange new pace and setting of the game. The soundtrack by Michael Sweet is filled with music as well as nature sounds, many recorded near the real Walden Pond. They change beguilingly, according to the landscape, and to the seasons: Water flows and splashes; inside, wooden doors ease and glasses clink; outside, rain lands on your clothes as you walk, and boots make the pillowy sounds of tramping through snow; there’s crackling fire, wind — and silence.
“I’m trying to make a system that allows us to question how we should live,” Fullerton tells me. We approach a tidy New England town, very much man-made, and even in the game the contrast is jarring. “The alternative to self-reliance in the woods is to walk to town, to your parents’ house,” Fullerton says. “It’s warm, and your mother has made some pie. Let’s go ahead and eat that pie!”
“One might think that’s a cheat,” she adds with a toothy grin, “but famously, Thoreau’s mother did his laundry.”
Fullerton, who was born in 1965 and grew up in the Los Angeles suburb of Mar Vista, says she’s always been a maker. “My siblings and I … we had a whole troop of kids in the neighborhood called the Summer Company of Amateur Stars, and we would make Super 8 films and put on plays, and all these things.” She built her first computer game on a Commodore 64: a version of tic-tac-toe in which the loser would explode in a mushroom cloud. She studied experimental film at USC and graduated into the wild new realm of “multimedia.” “Because I’d done programming on early computers and had a degree in film,” she says, “I fit right into that moment.” She spent 15 years as a pioneering game developer — notably as president and co-founder of Spiderdance, one of the earliest producers of multiplayer online games — before returning to USC.
Fullerton is also a noted champion of diversity in the game world. On her watch, the Game Innovation Lab’s student body has come to include over 50 percent women. She told the Los Angeles Times: “Where are Hispanic game developers? Where are African American game developers? As a woman walking into a room of white dudes — geeks — there’s always a sense of, ‘Oh, do I belong here? Will I be able to get anything done? Or am I wasting my time?’ Everyone who is not in the majority feels that way.”
She credits her program’s freedom to innovate to the fact that it is part of a film school, and, therefore, “an atmosphere where exploration is valued. … It’s a professional school,” she says, “but one that trains media artists, visual artists, storytellers.” Video games are also an exploding business, set to top $100 billion in 2017, according to the market research firm Newzoo; in revenues, the game industry is now comparable with the global film industry. But while some students still come to USC to learn to develop triple-A games — games made by corporations employing teams of hundreds, like the Grand Theft Auto or Sims series — Fullerton is looking beyond the commercial: “We’re trying to train people to ask the question, What is the next step for these technologies?” Fullerton’s vision is to enable the development of vivid alternatives to games about war, killing, and acquisition, and to open up the possibility that players might seek something other than the thrill of a new high score.
“Human beings are perception machines,” Fullerton says, speaking of the compulsion loops that can make games so fiendishly appealing. “I push a button, it lights up; I say hello to you, you say hello to me; there’s a feedback loop. I expect it, I’m gratified by it, I get a little shot of endorphins.” But she admits that these loops can have negative consequences — as with slot machines, which can exploit a player’s addictive tendencies dangerously.
“We have to ask ourselves as designers: Does that matter?” Fullerton says. “For me, it does … we’re trying to build an alternate feedback system” — starting with the quiet pleasures of Walden. “Very subtly, we enforce the notion that enough is enough,” she concludes. “Just enough to live is enough.”