The G-Rant: Please Stop Being Evil and Incompetent

Are colleges doing research the right way?

By Jesse Schell (Carnegie Mellon)

This is a transcript of a presentation by Jesse on March 6, 2012 at the Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco. It was part of a panel entitled Game Educators Rant.

Hi everybody. I have a special kind of rant today.

It is directed to a certain segment of the audience. I realize a number of you are here by mistake. There’s a certain percentage of the audience who wandered in here mistakenly reading the session title as “Game Educator Grants.” So this I dedicate to you. We’ll call it my G-Rant.

So let’s start by talking about grant money.

Where does it come from?

I’ve got this to represent grant money – it’s a 50 dollar bill.

{Jesse holds up a $50 bill.}

And who’s on the 50 dollar bill?

Grant! Right, of course.

Right now you can tell who is an academic in the audience because they’re salivating.

So where does it come from?

You’ve got some poor program director who writes with a government agency or a foundation, who’s in charge of a bunch of money they are supposed to use to make the world a better place, or solve some difficult problem.

Now this person, like an ant in the rain forest, inhales some kind of spore. This poor sucker reads Jane McGonagall’s book {Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World} and they say, “A game! Yes, we should use this money to make a game. That’s going to be a solution to our problem.”

I have nothing against Jane’s book, it’s a great book. But not everyone is ready for that book. I mean seriously, academia, “Reality is Broken”? How the hell would you know?

Anyway, this poor guy gets in his head that a game is the thing to do. “Where am I gonna go? I know! I heard that Respected University is doing work in games.”

So he goes to Respected University and says, “Hi Respected University. We want to make a game to solve all our problems. Will you please help us?”

And the university administrator is hypnotized by the money, and says, “Yes, yes. We can help you. Yes, yes, certainly. No problem. What do we need to do?”

“You need to make a game that helps us solve our hard problem.”

“We can do that.”

“Well here’s the money.”

“Ok, great.”

Now the administrator is thinking, “What am I going to do? Well, I’ve got that crazy chick in the English department and I’ve got that crabby guy in computer science. I’m going to get them together and ask, ‘Hey guys, can you make a game?'”

“Sure we can make a game,” they say.

“Okay, here you go, go make a game.”

{Jesse lights the $50 bill on fire}

And they say, “Oh, okay, no problem.”

 (to audience) Don’t act all shocked; you people do this every day.

{the bill continues to burn}

And the administrator’s like, “Are you sure that’s how you make a game?”

“Yeah, yeah, that’s totally how you make a game.”

{Jesse drops the end of the burning bill into a glass bowl}

Well, a year later the grantor comes back and he’s all excited, “Hey,I know you guys have been working on it and I’m ready. Can I have the game?”

And the administrator says, “Who are you?”

“Remember me, the grantor?”

“Oh, right. Yeah, yeah, here it is. I’ve got it right here for you; here’s your game.”

{Jesse holds up the empty bowl and pokes at the ashes of the $50 bill.}

“Wait – you said you’d make a game that would stop obesity and cure cancer and… and… find a viable Republican candidate. This doesn’t do… this is a bowl of ashes!”

And the administrator says, “We are not a trade school! If you can’t appreciate our research, I don’t know what to tell you.”

At this point what is the grantor going to do?

The grantor at this point, like anybody who has been conned, just slinks away because they are ashamed of what’s happened.

And I’ll tell you, when I first came to Carnegie Mellon I was nervous coming from industry into academia. And the first thing they said was, “There is this grantor that wants to come and talk to you who is thinking of helping us with this project.” And this grantor comes slinking into the room all ashamed. So we asked, what do you need us to do?

And they said, “Well, we had this million dollar grant to show the future of educational games. So we went to this famous university (we won’t name the university) and we gave them a million dollars and said, ‘Can you make ten awesome educational game prototypes to show us the future?’”

“And they said yes. So we gave them the million dollars and came back a year later and when we asked for the game they handed us a 35-page document. And there were ten science fiction descriptions of games we couldn’t possibly build in this century. And we said ‘what is this?’ And they said, ‘These are your ten prototypes.’ We replied, ‘These aren’t prototypes. A prototype is like a running game.’ And they said, ‘Well these are conceptual prototypes.’”

And how much for this document that two pot smoking graduate students could have created in a weekend?

They had spent $900,000 at this point. So the grantor had $100,000 left and instead of kicking up a fuss or suing the university, he came to us and said, “I’m going to lose my job if I can’t come up with at least one game. Can you help me make one game?”

How does this happen? Why does this keep happening and whose fault is it? I think the fault lies on both sides.

First the schools. Schools, stop being evil.

You need to appreciate money for what it is. Money is the representation of somebody’s hard work. Somebody worked hard to get that grant money, put it together and put it to good use.

And when you take government grant money and spend it on some game that actually isn’t a game, or doesn’t run or doesn’t actually do anything to change the world, you are stealing from the American people. And when you take foundation money in order to do the same thing and you squander it you are stealing from the poor. You are stealing from the hungry. You are stealing from the underprivileged. And you need to cut that out.

Secondly, a lot of times it doesn’t come from being evil, it comes from being incompetent. That’s the other side of it. If you’re going to produce games in the school, you need to face the realities of the production of games. If you’re not ready to do this leave it to somebody who can do it. Find partners who can help you do it and do it for real. If you’re just coming to game development as a way to get funding for yourself, cut it out. Go back to Literary Criticism or Media Arts or McLuhan Masturbation or whatever filthy little hole you crawled out of, and leave the game development to the grown-ups.

Now grantors – my God! – manage your projects. They’re your projects; act like a grown-up and take care of them. Come up with reasonable milestones and check in. If you’re not sure how to do that find an expert that can help you manage the universities. Manage these projects like a grown-up publisher would.

And you know what else? Stop asking for the impossible. Don’t show up with $75,000 and ask, “Can you make us a Portal 2 to teach us geometry?” Don’t do that. Because when you do that, first it tags you as gullible, because clearly you believe ridiculous things are possible.

And secondly, it makes it not only possible to lie to you, it become necessary to lie to you because otherwise you’re going to shut down the project.

And the most important thing grantors can do is hold the schools responsible. Don’t slink away in shame, don’t create situations where when the school screws it up they can fail quietly and invisibly, and you can slip out the back like nothing happened.

From the start of the project make a big noise like, “Yes! There is going to be this awesome thing we’re making and the world is going to see it. And we’re going to show it publicly, and we’re going to show it in front of the world, we’re going to show it in front of the university president and all the other grantors and everyone is going to see it.”

Because schools react to reputation. That is going to snap them into action and they are going to try and deliver something.

Even if what they have doesn’t work out, because sure, it’s research and some things don’t work out – even if it does go up in smoke, if you put on a lot of public pressure out of fear they will build, to go with the smoke, a lot of mirrors. And at least you’ll have a sexy demo, right? And that could be worth something. It’s better than having absolutely nothing.

So, to summarize:

Schools, stop wasting grant money.

Grantors, stop letting us do it.

Thank you.

Jesse Schell has taught game design for ten years at Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center, founded by Dr. Randy Pausch and Dr. Donald Marinelli. He is a former chairman of the International Game Developer’s Association, and was the lead designer of Disney’s Toontown Online. He is the CEO of Schell Games, the largest game studio in Pennsylvania.


Author: Brooke Allen

Founder – Viral Virtue, Inc.

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