This is a brief interview from May 19, 2010 with Professor Eddo Stern, conducted by Vanessa Goh, a UCLA student. Eddo Stern is a professor of Design | Media Arts at UCLA who specializes in gaming and is the director of the UCLA Game Lab.
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What first inspired you to go into game design? When did you decide to make it your career?
I decided to go into this field when I realized I should do in life what I love doing most. In the beginning gaming and art were separated in my mind. I tried combining my hobbies with work. On a day to day account I probably enjoy games more than I enjoy art. I treat game design as another artistic medium, and I enjoy exploring the possibilities as a creative form.
Besides teaching game design here at UCLA, do you have a secondary job that involves games? Do you work for any companies? What is your specific job? Are you freelance?
I work more on art pieces and independent cinema and I’d also consider myself an indie game designer (though I could be more prolific…). I got my start in the industry at a VR company called Interface Technologies. I worked as a programmer for a few years in the 90s. After that I realized I might as well be making my own games rather than creating Virtual Reality software. It turned me off to the industry. I didn’t like the 9-5 job much. Good games were created by very small teams, not huge companies. Big companies predetermine and constrain many of the creative aspects of game design. In independent design you have more freedom. In the industry you have to work with different constraints. Game design is much like film direction, script writing, or theater direction – you are in control of many variables.
What is unique about what you do? What do you contribute to the field?
I make art that involves unpredictable physical interfaces. I make games about difficult topics such as torture, political assassination, nostalgia for war, and religion. I believe that you can make games about serious issues, but they don’t have to be dry, educational objects. Instead they can be compelling and emotional but still deal with something real – and they don’t necessarily have to be a war game to do this. Society allows us to deal with issues in film that you can’t in gaming. It’s usually inappropriate to make a game about a certain topic such as 9/11 or Columbine. I never wanted the projects to be controversial; it just comes with the work. When you point to something by exaggeration it opens it up to misunderstanding. I made a game based on a film I’ve made called Vietnam Romance. It engulfs you in the romance of the war and makes it a beautiful romantic experience – the game is simultaneously a critique and an exaggeration.
What kind of formal education or technical knowledge do you need? Any other skills that come in handy?
An independent game developer has to have a variety of skills: a visual sensibility, technical proficiency, experience with modes of play, and a good ability to focus.
An industry game designer is more of a dramaturge or person who adapts a text or some form into another form, much like a creative translator.
The process of game design involves having an idea and designing a functioning system around it that other people can exist within. It usually involves reverse engineering another system. You have to utilize a lot of aspects such as visual sensibility, psychological analysis, formal logic, probability, A.I., literature, art, design, and communications. You must also be an expert on systems. Engineers can be really good game designers if they are creative.
What do you like least about your field?
Distribution models imposed by the consoles, setting a high monetary bar, controlling content, centralized control and effectively excluding a lot of creative and risk-taking creators.
Does this field financially sustain you?
It may if I was doing it without teaching.
I didn’t study game design in school. I studied math, philosophy, and art.
Who has helped/inspired you the most?
My inspiration comes from gaming and other fields such as art, film, and literature.
What have you had to sacrifice for your career?
What do you think the future holds for this profession?
Gaming is becoming more popular and also a more sophisticated and nuanced form. It’s certainly headed in the right direction. Someday people will be studying game design as widely as they study film, and just as richly.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to go into your field? Best course of action?
Make your own games rather than to try and go to work for a company. People will pay attention to your individual projects. Create the opportunity to work on your own games. In school classes are good, but keep a pet project going that you put a good year into to really show ‘em what you can do. Keep focused on your project. This will be your big creation. Also, if you can, take a different range of classes such as psychology, statistics, logistics, probability, engineering, and writing (for script writing).
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See Eddo Stern’s work here.