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September 19, 2013

GAME ON: Q&A with Jesse Schell

Jesse SchellJesse Schell is a video game designer, an acclaimed author, CEO of Schell Games and a distinguished professor of the Practice of Entertainment Technology at Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center, a joint master's degree program between the College of Fine Arts and the School of Computer Science.

The Piper caught up with him at Schell Games on Pittsburgh’s South Side to discuss the benefits of playing video games and where gaming is headed today.

Q: How do you respond to people who say kids spend too much time playing video games?

A: Well, you shouldn’t eat too much candy either. Or carrots. And you shouldn’t listen to too much rock ‘n’ roll. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t good things about them. As a parent, you should really be playing the video games with your kid. First of all, that’s time you’re spending together. And it opens the door to having that conversation about how much is too much.

Q: What can video games teach kids?

A: You have to do a lot of problem solving to win games. You have to try new things. You don’t win by just sitting there. And games help kids understand about persistence and patience. You have to keep trying. A lot of games involve working with others as a team in order to succeed, and there is real value in that as well.

Q: How did you get started in this field?

A: I’ve always been interested in anything that seems magical — games especially. I mean, you have nothing; you have like a sheet of cardboard and few little slips of paper, and the next thing you know people are having these heated, emotional arguments about invisible kingdoms, and it’s like, how did this happen? Technology can also seem magical. So I was very fascinated when technology and gameplay started coming together, as it did in the 1980s when computers started coming into the home.

Q: Why do you think CMU is ranked No. 2 on Animation Career Review's list of Top 50 Schools in the U.S. for Game Design and Development?

A: It’s very unusual that a school is equally strong in both art and computer science. And, in terms of the Entertainment Technology Center specifically, part of the reason I think we’ve got such a good reputation is that we’ve been very focused on what it takes to be a leader in entertainment technology. The key to it is being able to work with people outside of your discipline. We focus a great deal on how to work with people who are good at something that you’re not good at, so that as a team you can make something that none of you could have done alone.

I started hiring students from the ETC when I was working at Disney Virtual Reality Studio. We never had students like that before, who could hit the ground running, join a team and be so useful so fast.

Q: What was your reaction to receiving the Game Changer award from Games for Change, which aims to leverage entertainment and engagement for social good?

A: It was certainly quite an honor. Traditionally they’ve given awards to certain games. This is the first time they’ve given the award to an individual. Games that make the world a better place are very important to me. I’ve been very vocal about that. And it’s something I try to instill into the teaching that I do at Carnegie Mellon.

Q: How can games enact positive social change?

A: Well, there are a lot of ways. In terms of games that are working at the societal level, one of the most famous ones is “FoldIt” in which Carnegie Mellon had some involvement. There is a difficult problem in the way proteins fold. If you can understand how proteins fold, it can help you design new drugs and solve all kinds of medical problems. They’ve used supercomputers to try to do it, and there are experts who have tried to figure it out.

Then someone said, what if we had an experience where thousands of people could fool around and experiment with it? Maybe somebody would solve some of these problems. So they made a video game. Here you go, try and fold some of these proteins. There have been problems that people have worked on for 10 years and been unable to solve that the community, in a number of weeks, came up with a solution.

Then there are games designed to change you as an individual. One we worked on here at Schell Games was a game called “Play Forward.” We teamed up with Yale Medical. It’s a game designed to reduce the risk of HIV in young teenagers. There is a multi-year study going on with kids who’ve played this game to see whether it’s made a difference in their lives. The phrase I like to use is “transformational” games. For a while, people were saying “serious” games, which I think is a problematic phrase, because it implies that the games shouldn’t be fun.

Q: What are you most excited about in gaming right now?

A: One of the big things we’re doing at Schell Games is the Game Sprout project. Our idea is to invite people who are interested in trying to make games to bring their ideas forward. Lots of people have an idea, or they like to do art or coding, and they don’t know how to get it going. We want to help people get their games done.

Q: Where is gaming headed?

A: We’re starting to see deeper, immersive gaming. We’ve got head-mounted displays that are going to be in the home very soon. But at the same time we’re starting to see more and more ways that people can do light, casual gaming on their phones.

There’s a big explosion of gaming into the educational space right now because we’re about to see the end of textbooks. They’re going to be replaced by tablets because it’s going to save so much money. Once you’re doing that, everyone’s kind of saying, well, why would you just stick a book on there? Why wouldn’t we use the power of the medium? There are big opportunities there. And that’s a lot of what Schell Games is focused on.

Jesse Schell, pictured above, is one of the kings of game design.

— by Kelly Solman,