Jesse Schell: Top Of The Class
One of the industry's most progressive thinkers talks games and technology in the classroom
Though games designer Jesse Schell was well known to industry veterans before 2010, it was that year's prescient DICE / TED talk about gamification that brought him to wider attention. He started his career at Bell Labs, but since has been the lead designer of the first MMO aimed at children, Toontown, designed rollercoasters, been a juggler, comedian and mime, and written one of the best game theory books around, The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses.
Currently, he runs his own studio, Schell Games, and teaches Building Virtual Worlds and Game Design at Carnegie-Mellon University. We caught up with him at the Learning Without Frontiers conference in London, England, where we talked about cross-platform gaming, gamifying pupil's results, and how technology is bypassing the classroom.
Q: What have you seen at the conference? What's really grabbed your attention?
Jesse Schell: I guess for me often the most useful things at conferences like this are where people find a way to encapsulate a complicated idea in a simple way. For me, Jaron Lanier, he used this phrase about getting students to be an element of what they're learning about. It's not a new idea, but expressing it that concisely was of central importance to me, and I'll probably use that quite a bit.
Q: What do you think he meant by that?
Jesse Schell: He means, when you're teaching kids about molecules, you can tell them all about molecules or you can create an experience where they get to be a molecule. When you've created that experience, they think about it differently. Why not create experiences?
If you're going to learn about geometry, be the ray. If you're going to learn about physics, be the light-wave. Which is of course how Einstein would always speak about how he envisioned things - he was always riding light-waves. That notion of being the thing you're learning about isn't central in education right now. It's one of the things that simulations are very strong at.
Q: There are lots of psychological tricks to get people to play more and there's no reason not to use them in education.
Jesse Schell: Also, Ellen (MacArthur)'s notion of the circular economy; again, not a new idea, but a very nice handle and a good way to talk about that concept. She boils things down nicely and she's very direct. I'd never heard of her before, but I'm not a very sporty person.
Q: You're mainly from the games background but you also teach at Carnegie-Mellon. What do games bring to education?
Jesse Schell: There are a number of things happening at once. Simultaneously games are colonising every aspect of culture. Ten years ago, video games were males 15 to 35; now, your grandma plays Farmville and there's a game for everybody and everything. At the same time, technology is moving into the classroom in a revolutionary way, primarily because of economic reasons. The textbook publishers who formerly had this crazy business with these insanely large margins are about to see it dry up and blow away like the record industry did. They're scrabbling to figure out the future and how to avoid being killed by the digital revolution.
Q: Do you think they'll be killed?
"Technology is moving into the classroom in a revolutionary way, primarily because of economic reasons."
Jesse Schell: I think some of them will be killed, yes, but everyone recognises that there's an opportunity here. Classrooms are always slow to adopt technology. Television showed up in 1948; it started showing up in classrooms about forty years later. Are we using television in the classroom well today? I'm assuming it takes about forty years to get a technology into the classroom and a hundred years to use it right.
We've only had computers in the classroom, just barely four years, so we know that's a slow process, but there's acceleration happening for a number of reasons. The internet and the ability to self-educate is pushing that along quite a bit. But the textbook companies, they're thinking "if we're going to be replacing these books with digital anyway... maybe they should be more than books."
So we're going to end up with, they won't be competing on cost, but they'll be competing on features; integrated video, games and simulations. I think that's exciting because it's going to create a marketplace for the best educational systems in the classroom that wasn't there before.
Q: Do you think the classroom has already been substantially bypassed? When Wikipedia went down for a day, Twitter was full of students at a loss for where to find information. Already their source of information isn't the textbook; it's Wikipedia and Google.
Jesse Schell: Oh, sure, certainly. Those are mostly students doing out of class research, exploring stuff themselves. When it comes to the curriculum, we're getting into a situation where, because the tools are right there and getting simulation going is as easy as pushing a button, a market will start to appear. Until now, there really hasn't been a market for educational simulations in a meaningful way. And for that reason, the games people have a lot to bring to the table, for the next ten to twenty years.
Q: Do you think that there will be a technological separation between the haves and have-nots?
Jesse Schell: No. It's so cheap. I mean, the way everyone is going to have tablets five years from now is that, you'll go to get a cellphone and they'll say "for an extra forty..." what are you guys using now?
Q: We're still on Pound Sterling.
Jesse Schell: "For an extra forty pounds... actually, make that for an extra forty Facebook credits," you can have a tablet peripheral with this.
"Right, so the question is can anyone kill Facebook? Google Plus isn't going to do it, the feature set-up isn't right."
Q: Do you think the $100 billion valuation of Facebook is going to go straight the way that Zynga did?
Jesse Schell: The business of Facebook is a mysterious question. I have a suspicion that Facebook has a long life, because social networks are slow to move, big ones especially.
Q: And they're quite centralising, hence the death of Bebo and MySpace.
Jesse Schell: Right, so the question is can anyone kill Facebook? Google Plus isn't going to do it, the feature set-up isn't right. One of the interesting precedents here is, I remember when Ultima Online was the hot game. EverQuest came out but the guys who made Ultima said, "we don't have to worry about that, because we have guilds here. People have made guilds and they're rooted here." And they were shocked when entire guilds transferred over. And this became a thing; guilds hop from game to game to game. They send out a couple of scouts and then they set up a branch over there.
The same thing could easily happen to Facebook, but who can catch up and surpass Facebook? Google came in with "we have circles" and Facebook's like "okay, we have groups." Okay, where's the difference? I'll be surprised if Facebook isn't still strong ten years from now. I should that put that on my website. I have a website called the Crystal Ball Society, which is all about making concrete predictions about the future.
Q: Ha, you should get Ray Kurzweil on there [also talking at the LWF conference]! He's very keen to say how accurate he is, claiming an 86% success rate.
Jesse Schell: Right, unfortunately his noisiest predictions are about things that are going to happen after he's dead. Which is often the case with futurists, they get very bold about things that are going to happen when they're dead, as they can't be held accountable. I'm embarrassed to say I have a bet going with someone about the length of Ray Kurzweil's life, as he's gone on about being immortal enough.
Q: So what are you doing to integrate these technologies into your teaching?
Jesse Schell: Well, okay, so I do two things. I teach at Carnegie-Mellon and I also run a games studio of about 65 people. The majority of what we do is educational games. I was the lead designer of Toontown at Disney and we've continued to add facets to it. They sometimes come to us, adding new modules. And we also worked on Pixie Hollow, the Tinkerbell MMO. We worked on that entirely outside of Disney and integrated it later.
Q: That's such a distinct market from what people consider is viable for MMOs.
Jesse Schell: Disney decided that they were going to reinvent Tinkerbell, that she was not the only pixie in Neverland, and that there were going to be a whole society of them. As soon as I heard they were doing that, I was like "how are you not doing an MMO?" It took a couple of years of pitching, but gradually worked up. We cut a deal where we did third-party development on it.
Q: Given that there are so many interesting out-of-copyright brands, like Peter Pan, what's to stop someone producing a free-IP game to take advantage of the marketing value?
Jesse Schell: People do that, it happens all the time. Disney and companies like Disney have a trademark on the look of their characters and now that they've expanded the universe, without Peter Pan or Captain Hook, they very much have ownership. It's interesting, colonising these established worlds is an interesting business. Nobody owns Santa Claus but someone owns Rudolph.
"It's interesting, colonising these established worlds is an interesting business. Nobody owns Santa Claus but someone owns Rudolph."
Q: Yes, Turbine and Warner Bros have done something similar with The Lord of the Rings MMO, taking the IP and working into every element of it, so even though it's falling out of copyright soon, it would be very hard to pass off.
Jesse Schell: I don't think it's very soon. Well, I know US law and it's presently 95 years. It used to be 70 but it was actually Disney that went and fussed and fussed, because Mickey Mouse was about to fall out of copyright... It does get into this interesting question though of, if you invent characters, at what point should they fall into the public domain?
Q: What else is the studio working on?
Jesse Schell: We're doing a lot of unusual educational games, and in my own classroom I've been starting to use experiments as well with new ways to teach. Inspired by Lee Sheldon, I've switched over to an experience-points based method of grading, which I hadn't done for a while. One of the good things about an experience-points based system is that it allows students to explore parallel paths easily.
Normally, it's quite difficult to grade that, but if you have a simple system where the more work you do, the more experience points you get and the experience points translate directly into grades, usually in a non-linear way, that part is kind of interesting. In my game-design class, 300,000XP gets you an A-, an A is another 50,000, and an A+ is 50,000 again. So to move from an A- to an A+ is a third as much work again, which I actually think works quite well, it lines up with the motivations of the students quite well.
Q: A lot of gamifying is about behaviour-shaping, about making people do what you want them to do or work it out themselves, but making it necessary that they specialise, as our society is based on economic specialisation.
Jesse Schell: I just do that for my game-design class. For some of my other classes it makes less sense, as we need them to be on the same path. Randy Pausch, who I used to work with, used to say "you can give students written and oral feedback all you want, but nothing says C- like a C-."
Q: What sort of educational titles is Schell Games working on?
Jesse Schell: We've been doing interactive toys, the Mechatars, a bit like a more advanced version of Skylanders. We've got these interactive remote-control robots that can battle each other, here in the living room, and then they remember their battle records. You plug them into the USB port, they upload their records, online there's a videogame where you can play and level up. When you earn things there, you can download them back into the robot, and now it has new powers and sound effects and things to use in the living room.
One of the biggest things, changing sound effects, earning new sounds, new types of attacks, because a lot of the attacks happen in a virtual way with a hit points system, like Pokemon style battling. They have physical motions that kind of parallel the sounds.
Q: What else are you working on?
"Social's not growing, mobile's not growing, console's not growing."
Jesse Schell: So there's a game we're working on with Yale University, all about reducing the incidence of HIV in inner cities and we've been working with San Diego Seaworld on a project on the life cycle of the Sea Turtle, which was a tremendously fun game to work on.
Also, we're doing a new thing now, it's not really educational this, but it's called Puzzle Clubhouse. It's a club for people who would like to create games but don't want to do the hard work. So people can vote on what kind of game we're going to make next, and then we go to the community and they submit artwork for it and then we ask them to vote on the art, dialogue, sound effects, and they figure out what's best, and we put it all together and put the game out. We did it as a kick-starter project to get it launched and it got funded a couple of weeks ago, and we're going to get it launched this spring.
Q: Did the same people who invested time into the project invest money too?
Jesse Schell: That's what we're seeing. People seem very passionate about this notion; game development's hot but it's hard to do. You want to make a movie, you point a camera around. It's hard to do well, but it's not that hard to do. Doing games at all, learning how to program C#, it can take you months and months of stress and strain to get it going. To kind of have an open doorway, where it's something anybody could do, is something people are really looking for.
We're finding at Schell Games it's very useful, because an independent studio you go where the growth is. We've some experience doing the educational stuff, as well as the entertainment stuff, and when you look at where's the growth in games right now, it's hard to find growth. Social's not growing, mobile's not growing, console's not growing. Tablets are growing a bit; educational is growing and people haven't realised it yet.
So we're finding it's been very useful as the entertainment game company that knows how to do education. What happens in educational games is that there's a real stink on them, because there's been so many bad ones. People in the space of educational games don't know how to make them entertaining.
Q: The actual phrase "serious games" seems really badly phrased.
Jesse Schell: Right. Could I make a funny serious game? Is that allowed? It doesn't seem you can. The phrase I use is transformational games, because in every case the games are designed to transform people in some way - whether to make them smarter or healthier or more enlightened. I like to use it, partly because it's clearer, but also because it's the first question you should always ask: how do I want people to be different at the end of this experience?
Q: Channel 4's Sweatshop was another great example of that.
Jesse Schell: There was a great movie about the whole sweatshop, from the 1970s, about a guy trying to run a clothing shop in New York City. And it's just going badly. And he could treat his people worse, but he can't bring himself to. So finally he resorts to burning one of his own buildings down for the insurance. And he goes through all this bother trying to get a consultant - there are people who consult in such matters, experts - and the expert is like "you've already let this thing go so badly, if this thing burns down you're going to be held liable." It's one of the most depressing movies.
Q: You can't even burn your own building down. There was that film The Corporation, which posited that major businesses drive towards amorality, indeed sociopathy, because of the necessary concomitants of being a legal entity with no moral duties.
Jesse Schell: Yes, a business can go to court and have a bank account, but it won't go to heaven.
Q: So how do you treat your employees?
Jesse Schell: Our mission statement is to create things we're proud of with people we like and if we find we're not doing those two things, we're off track. It implies lots of things. You have to treat each other respectfully, otherwise you won't like each other. For the games industry, you can't have high personnel turnover, because so much institutional memory is in the people. You can't [teach] the lessons you've learned and encode them in anything but the culture, and if the people turnover too much you don't have a consistent culture. If they're leaving, it's a culture of dissatisfaction.
"For the games industry, you can't have high personnel turnover, because so much institutional memory is in the people."
Q: Which is one of those things not taken into account when a big company buys a successful developer. It ends up hollowed out.
Jesse Schell: Which is why we've stayed an independent studio for ten years.
Q: What do you want to be doing in the future, given that you don't seem to like repeating yourself?
Jesse Schell: We do everything from interactive theme park attractions to interactive toys. We like doing things that are new and different and make a difference to people. We've done a lot of stuff with kids and family, partly because we're good at that. There's something special about it too; I don't know, I feel like they appreciate it more. One of the things I like working on most is things that bring kids and parents together. Technology is often like an axe that chops families into pieces; everyone gets their own screen and customised programming, and pretty soon no-one's interacting.
Q: Games don't do Pixar well.
Jesse Schell: It's one thing to talk about games gathered around in the living room, but when dad's on his Blackberry, mum's on Facebook, the teenage boys are on Xbox Live - they have very different interaction patterns. Why can't you have experiences that span those platforms? Allow each of us to be in the interaction pattern that's most convenient and comfortable for us, but allow us to connect nonetheless. It's especially powerful for family groups.
Q: So a dad working late at the office, seeing on his phone that his child is playing a game at home, and being able to click and help?
Jesse Schell: I think there are tremendous opportunities there and we have a few initiatives where we're trying to get that going. It's tricky because studios tend to be good at one thing; Facebook or mobile or Android. But in order to do, what we call connective multi-platform, you do have to be able to span these various experiences and get the economics to work out, get past the issues of proprietary networks. And once you've got past all that, I think that'll be a big trend in the coming decade, as these platforms start to settle down.
Q: In terms of the major platform holders and how close they are to connective multi-platform, Nintendo doesn't do social or mobile well yet, but Microsoft and Sony could get there.
Jesse Schell: Microsoft, unfortunately, has a bad time co-ordinating internally, is my impression. The most successful network console is the Xbox. They've nailed that. Xbox Live is awesome. If only they had an operating system for laptops that they could integrate games onto! But, what a shame, they can't make that work. It's down to internal, political elements.
Q: So you don't think they're merely trying to avoid the legal obstacles they had with bundling Internet Explorer with Windows? The way they had the browser choice imposed on them by, say, the EU.
Jesse Schell: I'm very skeptical that's the case. I don't think they're saying, "Well, there could be legal hassles. Let's not even go there. Let's let someone else take all the money." I think they are thinking about it, I think that the way that company is structured is not conducive to cross-departmental co-operation. You know the word 'co-operatition' was created by Bill Gates.
"The things that big companies seem to do, and this is a traditional Microsoft strategy, is that they'll come out with a press release about what they're going to do that's a total fiction, And it's designed to make you seem futuristic and to mislead your competition. "
Q: What does that even mean?
Jesse Schell: The notion is that, within your company, you want to do this as well as possible. This department, you do it, this department, you do it too. Whichever of you does it better keeps getting budget next year; whichever doesn't, gets the chop. Internal markets. So the departments are supposedly competing with each other, but it doesn't work. You do get them battling, with one rising to the top, but it also embitters them and prevents them sharing information.
I saw the same thing with Michael Eisner at the Disney company, and you had these situations where Disney Interactive and Disney Online wouldn't communicate. If that's the case, how on the earth do you co-ordinate across your divisions in a way that's meaningful?
Q: Of course, Sony still has that problem with its hardware side, Microsoft has it with the software side, and Nintendo won't push beyond its comfort zone. What do you think Nintendo will attempt if the Wii U fails? A mobile phone? A tablet?
Jesse Schell: If they're working on a tablet or phone, oof, they're late. Maybe they have, but so far the evidence is that their network is... disappointing. Remember when the Game Boy Advance was going to be a phone? This is one of the things I love about companies. The things that big companies seem to do, and this is a traditional Microsoft strategy, is that they'll come out with a press release about what they're going to do that's a total fiction, And it's designed to make you seem futuristic and to mislead your competition.
The Game Boy Advance press release was "it will be a phone" and everyone else started running off saying, "oh, my god, we've got to compete, we have to make handheld consoles." I believe the N-Gage was totally a result of that press release. It seems Nintendo had no goal of making that phone.
Q: I know of one publisher-developer that regularly comes up with a game concept, does a tiny bit of iteration, and then announces it. If the reaction is bad, they just kill it immediately. And us journalists forget.
Jesse Schell: Because people forget, we have the memory of goldfish.
Q: What do you think you'll be doing in ten years time?
Jesse Schell: Well, I like making games. I've been making them for coming up on thirty years now. I'll probably still be making games.