Erin Hoffman

Social activism, educational games, and how game designers shape the world

Erin Hoffman is a game designer and fantasy novelist – with a passion for social activism and projects with a purpose. She’s currently lead game designer at GlassLabs, a Gates-foundation initiative where she creates assessment-based learning games. Erin has deep insights into the nature of games and learning – and powerful ideas about how game design can impact the world.

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Erin’s Company: Glass Lab Games

Connect: LinkedIn @gryphoness

Episode Transcript

[Amy Jo Kim] Give us a whirlwind tour of your background. How did you get started and what were the key experiences along the way that shaped your point of view?

[Erin Hoffman] I think I’m part of the trailing edge of game developers who got into game design by accident. I don’t think that that happens as much anymore, but what happened with me was I had created a little online writing group when I was about fifteen years old on America Online and started doing some game design actually as a way of balancing the social community to make sure that people that were exchanging stories weren’t getting out of control with how powerful their characters were, which was starting to happen. I started creating rule sets which then led to a friend introducing me to this online text-based game, which led to me playing a lot of that game, which led to signing up to be a developer on it. I actually did that throughout college without realizing at all that I was building any kind of job skill.

Wow. Then what happened?

Well, then I got a scholarship to the game developers conference (GDC) because of that work, mostly I think. I was in college actually studying 3D animation. I was going to go into a PhD program in philosophy, but went to the GDC, which really felt like I had met my people there and got a job offer. I started in QA and moved into design pretty shortly after that.

Have you always had an interest in weaving together narrative with games?

For the longest time, I really felt like they were separate interests that I had, but now that I feel like I have built enough skill in each of them independently, I’m starting to braid the together. That’s changed for me over the years. I really, in game design, am drawn to systems, rules, balancing and mechanics. That had been the forefront of my interest in game design, but now I’m finding more and more ways to be a bit more fluid about those systems, which then bring in more narrative work.

That’s really interesting. I know you’ve also been a public speaker and an advocate for change in the industry. What first prompted you to speak up and start sharing that publicly?

I blame my dad for a lot of this because he is a very old school civic engagement democrat who believes that it’s necessary to be a good citizen, to think critically about the government that you live in and the world that you live in and to express yourself in a convincing way with rigorous argument. For me, people mostly know about the EA spouse thing which was this venting blog post that I wrote, it was formulated as an argument because that was how I knew to express myself if you wanted to convince people of something. I had written letters to the editor when I was in high school that resulted in notoriety and things like that. It goes back for me a long way. Mostly I feel like I will start to see something that I think is unjust or not right and, again, from that position of being a good citizen and taking ownership for the systems that we live in, feeling like I had to say something. Then, once I said something, then people say, “Well, then what should we do?” Then I wind up speaking publicly about them.

These days, what topics are you most passionate about sharing?

Oh gosh. In terms of that sort of civic engagement and looking at our own systems?

Everything. Also in terms of game design and your own work. You’re somebody who I would like people to go and listen to and follow up on after this interview, so I’m just really interested these days where your passion is, that you care about sharing in the world.

I’ve been in education for the past two and a half years and I’m still a true believer. I haven’t burned out on that yet. I really think that there is a crisis in education in the United States and it’s very complex and the system is very big so it’s really hard to know, there’s so many different perspectives. I believe that the role of games in that is actually a sacred role that games have always had, which is that without the player there is no game. I think that in the large system of education, it came to be viewed as this factory system that was producing citizens which is fine, but when the attention is on the system itself, it’s less on the individual learner and on the humanity of the person that’s moving through it.

You had these scalable teaching practices, which they now call it sage on a stage where you’ve got a teacher standing at the front of the classroom just talking at the kids. Mainly the role had become quite custodial and the value of it was how many kids can we put in that classroom in order to reach as many of them as possible, which began as a noble goal, but what it does is ultimately disempowered the learner. What a game does, it’s one-on-one, one game to one player, usually, even if it’s many players to many players, they’re still interacting through the game itself and that game is responding to them, as we say, sixty frames a second. All of the attention is put on that person themselves. I think this is a transformation for the way that learning can be done.

What I want is for game designers and people who have a game design inclination to start thinking about how the systems that they make in software are responding to the humanity of the player that they encounter. I think that they inevitably do, it’s just that we don’t really become metacognitive about this and think about what it means, but in learning it means that a game can stay one step head of a player and pull something out that’s responding to feedback that they’ve put into the system and say, “Hey, you’ve been doing this series of actions. What about this action that might be just outside of your comfort zone, but might lead you to make a leap forward.” I think that game designers have a tremendous amount of potential that is untapped to really change learning.

That’s fantastic.

I have to temper back my passion for it actually because I’ve become such a deep believer in this, and in the unexplored frontier of games that we can potentially make to address a lot of these things.

I couldn’t agree more. We should talk about that more another time.

Your background in neuroscience, right? Which also is beginning to fuse together with this world.

Absolutely. At ShuffleBrain we’ve done a lot of work with educational gaming over the last few years and I could not agree more and the time is now. Thank you for your rant, it was awesome! You’ve also, Erin, been at quite a few companies. You said originally as a QA person, but then as a designer, in particular a system designer and overall game designer. What are some common mistakes that you see first time creators, students or new people that come into companies you work at, what are some mistakes you see these first time creators make in the early stages, when they’re designing and testing their game ideas?

The most common is to do too much work before you put something in front of a player, by far. What I often see, especially from younger designers, basically as a young designer, if you’re creating the game design document that is longer than five pages you’re probably already on the wrong track. That’s what I would say to people who are just starting out, is don’t do too much forward thinking or forward development, even if you’re working in software, to get too attached to the assets that you’re putting in the game before you’re seeing the basic interactions of how players are relating to your game. You have to get it in front of players as soon as you absolutely can. You have to know that it’s going to be terrifying and horrible, and then you have to know how to look at their interactions with this very nascent piece of software and understand where the promising interactions are and what needs to be changed about it.

Awesome. When you have a new project and you’ve been in that situation quite often, how do you approach early testing and iteration on a project yourself? How do you decide which ideas to pursue and which to filter out? Talk us through your process.

Oh gosh. I can tell you from an education standpoint, I can tell you separately myself personally as an artist, which one do you prefer?

Let’s do both, because I think the difference will be very illuminating.

Okay. From an educational perspective, at GlassLab we actually have a really rigorous process by which we decide what kind of game to make and that has to do with what is not present in the market, which actually is huge. To be frank, there’s just not very many really good educational games out there so we have a lot of possibility. We say, “Okay, what is something that is not already covered by a great game?” For instance, we’re not going to do fractions because Slice Fractions is great. We’re going to stay out of the path of stuff that we think really works. Then, we’re going to talk to teachers and ask them what they’re struggling to teach in classrooms. That usually helps us triangulate towards a competency that is very dynamic.

For instance, we recently made a game about ratios. The complicated thing about ratios is that it has to do with change over time. When you have something that has to do with change over time, it’s hard to capture conceptually in a fixed medium, like paper, and a lot easier if you have something that you can actually see an animated system that’s going to evolve over time. You want it put in front of the player multiple systems that evolve over time and say, “Look at these two completely different things, but this is what they have in common is this idea of a ratio that is fixed between them.” Then we want to contextualize what a ratio is.

We also want to say we’re only going to pick something to work on that we think, if a kid understands this, is going to change their life. We really believed in that with regard to argumentation, with Mars Generation One. If you know how to argue, it’s a way of projecting your power into the world in a way that convinces people that you’re someone worth listening to. It enhances your relationships, it enhances your ability to think critically.

We also are just thinking about, from ourselves and from our hearts, I guess this is more artistic, what do we want to see in the world? How do we want it to change? What tool do we want to hand kids and say, if we could give this to every single kid, the world would be a better place? It starts from that super idealistic place, which then requires a lot of intense introspection, a lot of rigorous thinking and internal argument within ourselves. Then we have to break it down and say, “Okay, why are people bad at this? Where is the pain point? What do we see happening that we know is not good? What, when we talk to teachers, what do they say, ‘Here’s what kids do and what they shouldn’t do and I just can’t get them to do it.'”

With argumentation that was kids never use evidence. They don’t really have the concept. They have lots of opinions, but they don’t ever back them up with evidence and they don’t really understand what evidence is. We made that the whole center of our game and our immersive experience. Then we took it from a kids standpoint and said, “Why is argumentation frustrating and really hard to learn?” It’s because it’s subjective and because it’s really hard to take a piece of language and say for sure this is a good argument and this isn’t because argumentation is so complex. Let’s systematize it and give them a masterable form that’s familiar and fun. Let’s take that feeling of muddiness and subjectivity and lack of understanding and complexion and confusion and turn it into something like what turned out to be Pokemon, which is masterable and fun and you feel great and you feel powerful. How do we contrast those emotions and create something that’s really transformative?

I went on for a while.

That was great. That’s perfect actually for the next question, which is, you mentioned early prototyping as absolutely critical for bringing a game to life. That’s a common mistake that people make is they don’t prototype early enough. Let’s say now you’ve done this, which is the how do you decide which ideas to pursue and which to filter out, you eloquently described that. Now that you’ve got an idea that’s worth pursuing, you’ve maybe tested the idea with some teachers, find out more about what’s hard, et cetera. Great process. Now it’s time to do early prototyping. How do you approach early testing iteration and prototyping on a project once you’ve decided it’s worth pursuing?

I lean heavily on existing mechanical structures. It depends on what you’re trying to make. Most of the time we’re making a game, we are stepping forward something else that we’re already familiar with. The early prototype can begin with creating the simplest version of that thing that you’re going to step forward from. In our case if it’s Pokemon, we’re going to have to isolate what part of that we want to prototype as our core loop. We also design deliberately a series of actions the players are going to perform, that’s no more than three that will be the core loop, the verbs that they’ll perform inside the game. Then we create the simplest version of that that we can and we put it right in front of players. A lot of it has to do with not letting your eyes get to be too big for your stomach because that’s another really common problem is just underestimating how complex these games are.

There’s an exercise for that that I’ve heard John Romero give to programmers over and over which is to remake Pac-Man from start to finish and every single feature. Usually when you think it’s done, it’s not done because you haven’t done the scoring, because you haven’t done the leaderboard, every single detail. That experience will lead you to appreciate the core loop design process of the game because you’ll realize if you really want to execute something well, it has to be really narrow and deep if you’re ever going to get to polish it. You can design that three loop process, which can be based on another game, you can design a core loop that’s based on Tetris, or a core loop that’s based on Pokemon, or a core loop that’s based on even Call of Duty. Isolate what you think the core of that game is and then build a prototype experience that performs that and tries to give you the same feeling that that larger experience does.

For those who aren’t as familiar with game design, talk a little about what you mean by core loop. It’s also a term that game designers use in different ways.

That’s right.

I use that term a lot. It’s one of the fundamental techniques that I teach people is to build and focus on a core loop. I learned that from game design. What do you mean by a core loop? What’s in a core loop?

What I think of as a core loop is a set of usually three, sometimes four, but no more than four, actions that the player will perform as a fundamental interaction in the game. Where this gets tricky and theoretical is what you call an interaction. I’ll say that one of the mistakes that we made with Mars Generation One was not digging deep enough on what granularity of verb we were describing as our core loop. In fact our core loop implied a massive game and we didn’t see that until we were pretty deep in. For instance, we would call the core loop in Mars Generation One that you first collect evidence and then you equip a robot, and then you take that robot into battle. Then, once you’ve done that, you do that over and over again and that’s the core of the game.

The tricky part about that is that collecting evidence implies an explorable world with evidence that is fun to collect, so there are verbs inside of collect evidence and there are verbs inside of equipping robot, even if they’re just drag and drop and select. You can describe all of your actions in terms of pure verbs. Then figure out how many verbs you’re talking about. We go from a core loop, which would be that collect evidence, equip robot, battle, over and over again. Then we say, what are the sub-verbs inside of that and expand that loop into a kind of machine.

Awesome. What are your top tips and best practices? For somebody listening who really wants to do faster, smarter prototyping and iteration. They’re building a game or they’re building a game-like product and they really want to be a good prototyper. What are some of the tips you’ve learned that you wish you knew earlier?

If I could do it all over again, I think I would look at the major sub-genres of games and basically do a map of the different types of games, create your own taxonomy for video games as a whole and say, there’s RTS (Real-Time Strategy) games and there are storytelling base games, like tell tale games, there’s World of Warcraft. There’s all these different games. Put them into categories and make a prototype of one of each category. Give yourself an assignment, say I’m going to make an RTS, what is the core of RTS? What are the variations in RTSs that are out there and what makes them really different? Taking an existing game, identifying its core loop, building a new prototype based on that, eventually taking two core loops and sort of smashing them together and saying if I was going to take an RTS and a storytelling game and break the loops and put back together a loop of three or four actions into a new thing that’s a hybrid of both, what would that look like? What would the most important verb in that be? That’s what I would say.

That is great. Have you had much experience with remote or in-person collaboration as you’re working on these games? I assume you have.

Oh, yeah. That’s funny. I actually am talking to a Conference about speaking about this specifically because at GlassLab we’ve worked somewhat with remote staff and my company Sense of Wonder is 100% remote. We actually don’t have anybody whose sitting next to each other.

It’s a really interesting topic for many of the folks that I work with and it’s very, very important if you’re working with a team and you’re “getting to alpha”, which is you’re going from idea to prototype and beyond. What are some of the practices and tools for remote team collaboration that you’ve tried that worked really well? Also, what are some things perhaps you’ve tried that you went, “Boy, I’d like to avoid that again. Don’t want to make that mistake again.” What works and what doesn’t for you? Both, specific tools and also just overall practices and rituals that you’ve learned about.

Sure. It’s a great question in part because I think a lot of it is not solved. As I’ve said, we have really a quite virtual team now at GlassLab, and my own team is fully remote as a business owner and someone who’s a leader in my company, I think a lot about these problems. I mostly right now see the problems and not the solutions. I think you have to work ten times as hard to have a sense of company culture and it’s really important to think about what company culture means and how people connect to each other. What you’re really missing from remote is that flow state that you can get in when you really know people well. Little things like having your team getting to know each other and sharing things about themselves and being vulnerable is extra hard when you’re not face-to-face and you’re missing all of those cues.

I think video conferencing is incredibly important and it’s hard because, especially programmers, don’t want to interact over video a lot of the time. People who are going to tend to want to be remote workers often will resist the idea of video because they actually are more private people. You have to push your team to say, “No actually it’s really important for us to interact face to face so we can get a sense of who everybody is in all that massive channel of information that we get from facial expression and body language.” I think there’s a lot of making up that you have to do and then just knowing what everybody’s doing on a day to day basis is way easier when you can just look over at their desk and say, “Hey, what are you doing?”, you know? Or if somebody’s having trouble with something you can actually see it in their body language just by looking at them, whereas when they’re remote you don’t know that as well.

That’s what I would say is it amplifies the challenge of project management and amplifies, especially, maybe more reveals, because I do think that these remote teams are in large part part of the way of the future because it allows people so much more flexibility and so much more quality of life in many ways. It emphasizes that need to see to your team’s human needs and needs for connection which they may or may not even articulate.

Are there any particular communication tools that you’ve settled on? Are you still trying out different ones?

We’re pretty settled on Slack. We haven’t gotten it as beefed up as we would like. Actually I’d really like to do more with the bots on Slack and to be playful about things. Then we use all the Google tools, Google Documents, which interfaces pretty well with Slack also. Google Hangout, I wish there was a better video conferencing option because it can be kind of spotty, but that we use everyday also.

Great. What is your particular super power as a designer, your sweet spot? Another way to ask this is, what kind of projects really light you up the most?

Sure. I think I’m beginning to unify my personal message in that I just have this inescapable impulse to try to right wrongs in the world. I suspect that it will always be a thread in my work in the future that there’s an activist component to it, that there is a work that interacts with the world directly and is not about escaping from it necessarily. I think escapism is fine, but it’s not the direction that my career is going into. It’s products that actually provoke people to think about their world, and their own lives, and their humanity, and their own well-being and actualization and all those fancy hippy words.

I think that what I’ve become is something of a synthesizer, which is to take the engagement and the stuff that’s really magical about games and to bring it together with that sense of actualization. If you can play an RPG (Role-Playing Game) that makes you change the way you think about your relationships with other people, that to me is like the super powerful experience that unlocks the power of RPGs because I think games, because they are so reflective of the player, and so respectful of the player, games love us because we are the reason why they exist, the relationship between the game and the player. The player gives the game meaning. The weakness of that is that it can put you in this bubble, where the game is all that matters and you are all that matters to the game. We have this weird co-dependent relationship that’s sealed off from the rest of the world.

I think by bridging games into the real world and saying, “No, actually game, I’m going to be like a reflection of the world around me and I’m going to maybe have some social critique.” Grand Theft Auto does this. If you think about the world around you and how you might change your behavior based on the patterns that we are reflecting to you as the game, then all of a sudden the game itself becomes healthier and more powerful and we become healthier and more powerful. I think that’s my path and ultimately it also comes down to respecting and appreciating games as this very unique, very new way of doing that reflection on systems because they’re dynamic and they’re moving every second. Their systems, in and of themselves, models that represent our sort of ontology of the way the world works.

What is your focus these days? That was beautiful by the way. What’s your focus these days? What’s on the horizon? What’s coming up for you? Are there any URLs that you can share for folks who’d like to learn more?

They should definitely go check out Glasslabgames.org. The work that I’m doing continues with that. My Twitter handle is @Gryphoness. I’m usually posting about stuff on G-R-Y-P-H-O-N-E-S-S. The work that we’re doing with Sense of Wonder is still pretty in an incubation stage. I will say that my focus, so Sense of Wonder, we picked that term because it was this 1970s science fiction term for what it is that science fiction makes you feel, which is this sense of wonder, a sense of impossible. That is the idea that unifies our company. We’re all kind of science fiction geeks and science geeks so we would like to be building games that convey that sense of the magical that exists in the real world, largely through science in simulations and systems based games that are highly emotional.

We’re very interested in conservation and ecological simulations and, again, in those games that take pressing issues and reflect them back through simulations to make players think about how they might interact with the world. If they continue interacting with the world the way they have been, what happens? If they were to change how they interact with the world, what would change? That’s what we’re very interested in.

Great. Well, thank you so much Erin for sharing your perspective and wisdom and stories with us today.

Sure. Thanks very much for having me, listening to me ramble.

It’s been a pleasure.

Thanks.