Reboot time; see you in Copenhagen?

Hello all. Loyal readers will note that my site has been rebooted; it’s likely to be in a state of transition until I can finish tidying up. Many changes are afoot, which I hope to net out on more blog posts here in the future, but as we know complex systems are by nature mysterious.

However, I will be teaching a game workshop in Copenhagen this July with the radiant Christina, which you can check out here. It runs July 27-31 at CIID. Hope to see you there!

Simulation immersion and learning

Frequently lately I’ve said to myself, “self, we are going to blog more”, and then I go and do approximately eight thousand other things instead. But Jo Wright posted this intriguing thought to twitter, which the superb Christina copied me in on:

And I said my response was too long for twitter, and she said her thought was too long for twitter, and so here we are in a blog post. (I hope I still remember how to do this.)

Naturally such a statement is provocative to me because of my year-and-change working on learning games. Jo’s thought is especially interesting because of where it sits in the intersection of cognitive stimulation and learning.

I think it’s more accurate to say that immersion is a satisfying level of fascination, though that makes me wonder if it’s possible to be too fascinated (probably yes; witness Candy Crush Saga). I think “a realistic level of confusion” probably does create a kind of immersion state, but that’s really just “sufficient verisimilitude” — you could maybe just stop at “realistic”. The confusion part makes it interesting because it kind of wraps in multiple ideas: sensory stimulation, cognitive stimulation, and a kind of chaos.

There is definitely a degree to which chaos in a game is desirable and intriguing. And because games often fail because they are too simple — too easily solved, or founded on challenges that are just not fun (like poor UI/UX) — it’s appealing to think that just adding more unpredictability or complexity will make them better. Sometimes this is even true, insofar as randomness can be more accurate to real life.

But what we’ve seen over and over at least in kids is that confusion is a very uncomfortable state, and so in learning I think it’s important to sharply distinguish between confusion and intrigue. There is a thing, which is “not knowing” or “not understanding”, which is part of being intrigued, but the difference between “not understanding” and confusion is that confusion is usually “I thought it was X but it looks like Y”, rather than “I don’t know why it is X”. One of them is more cognitively dissonant. And actual confusion will bounce a kid out of a learning state pretty quickly. Kids will tolerate a certain amount of confusion, but its breakpoint shelf moment is actually a pretty low threshold.

So I might even go so far as to say that what learning games try to achieve is actually the utter elimination of confusion where possible, or at least the very careful management of it (misconception for instance can be a very important part of learning). Fascination is totally different. Fascination actually requires confusion to be very low and “not understanding” to be very high. It’s a very tricky balance. It sounds sycophantic, but really SimCity does come to mind: despite everything that is going on in the simuation, it never seems confusing or chaotic. SimCity actually works very hard to give you the sensation that everything happening in the game is tightly under control. This means that even if it’s very hard, the player rarely blames the game for failure — there is constantly a feeling that if you just tried a little harder, you could understand its systems and win it.

This tractability is incredibly important, and runs opposite to what we often encounter in life, especially when we’re young and/or undereducated; often the world feels overwhelming, confusing, intractable. The best games feel incredibly complicated but tractable — fascinating but not confusing. Playing SimCity is like looking into a kaleidoscope: you might not understand what’s going on, or be able to predict what it’s going to do next, but you have a fundamental trust that what it’s doing is logical on some level, and winnable. (Which is, sadly, often not very much like real life.)

(Note, too, that this feeling generated by SimCity has extremely little to do with its accuracy! That’s where the art is: the emotion of fascination not reliant on the realism.)

The moment games create genuine confusion, especially confusion approaching what we often encounter in the real world, is usually the moment that we put them down.

Dear my young friends: get ready to fight

It is women’s history month, and the zeitgeist eye is turned this year toward women in tech. The past year has been amazing for this movement, and deeply satisfying for me as a video game developer who has been waiting for this kind of awakening for a very long time. That’s what it feels like: the world waking up to the vast untapped potential in half of our species. And yet, as I listen, I find myself wishing it could all be a little less polite.

The efforts to make environments welcoming and inclusive and to create safe spaces are wonderful and needed. They are acts of peace and beauty. But they are one half of the equation, and somehow the half that gets all the attention, because it is nice, because it is well behaved, because it conforms to our pleasant ideas of how good girls should act. It tells us that we can keep our ideas of polite and neatly dressed ladies and still pursue the dream of women engineers, women game designers, women programmers. And maybe in an ideal world that would be true. I want it to be true, and I believe that someday it will be. But I also believe we are doing our young people a disservice if we tell them that the world has to be welcoming in order for them to succeed.

Even if the office environment welcomes women, the technology will not, because technology isn’t welcoming. It might appear so to consumers, but that is because it has been hammered into shape, coaxed into decent behavior, had as many edges sanded off as we can afford to sand.

I was fortunate to be exposed to computers from a very young age. I can’t actually remember when I first made something using one. But I do remember when it got hard. I was fifteen and making webpages so that my online friends and I could tell stories in a fantasy world. When I made those pages — at that time a very technical thing — it wasn’t because someone made HTML a safe space for me. It was because I wanted that website so damn bad that I was willing to put up with all manner of nonsense to get it. And that, by and large, is how technology works. It is not easy. It is not friendly. It is not welcoming. It’s clunky and difficult and imperfect and beautiful. It is command line, not start button; it says break me.

If you get frustrated and give up because you are not welcomed, you are never going to make it. And so this is what I would tell my brilliant young colleagues: you are so, so welcome to this strange world of power and mechanism. It is going to resist you. But that resistance is what will make victory sweeter. It is what will make cooperation more powerful. It is why we need your minds and your hearts. Come on in, and be ready to fight.

This readiness and willingness to fight for what you believe in is more complex than we like to consider, and that might be why we so hesitate to spotlight it. It goes deeper into our perception of what constitutes good behavior.

My parents gave me many gifts, but the gift from my father that I treasure most is skepticism. He taught me to question everything — as much with his own cranky behavior as through deliberate instruction (sorry, Dad). He, like Carl Sagan, believed that it was his civic duty to question, to challenge. I have come to regard this attitude as not only practically helpful in my life but as a thing of extraordinary beauty: a notion that we as human beings can hold the world to a higher standard. That it is in fact our duty to do so, it is what we do as a species, the thing that — if anything can — defines us as more than animal. We question. We build. We change our world.

And so the will to fight begins, or dies, very young. It dies when you tell your little girl to be quiet and well-behaved. It dies when pretty and sweet are how we praise and opinionated is how we chastise. It dies when a girl is called bratty and argumentative where a boy is brave and strong-willed. It dies when you compliment nice and condemn difficult.

Our girls need to be difficult because the world is going to be difficult for them. The world is difficult for all of us — that’s part of what makes it amazing. Technology can be especially difficult. I wouldn’t be in it if it wasn’t. In education today, grit and tenacity are two words you hear often, values we talk about instilling in our young people as predictors of success in life. Cultivating these values exists in direct opposition to creating a padded environment that always welcomes, always invites, always asks.

I would be one of the first to tell you that the often toxic Silicon Valley world needs to become more welcoming to women if it wants to survive. It needs to do that just to achieve a certain basic bar of decency and to continue to be a place where I want to work. But the work of bringing young women into technology only begins there. And it disturbs me to hear us so often beating that drum of inclusiveness while we simultaneously build a world that puts children in racing lanes and pushes them to perform, but only in a certain way. Excel, we say, but stay in your lane. Achieve, but only within this approved set of activities. Check these boxes to go to college. Pass this test. Play this instrument.

We can get young women into STEM careers. We can inspire and encourage them. This is a fantastic thing. We can make workplaces more civil and inclusive. This would materially make my life better. But if we don’t change the on-rails experience of education, if we don’t foment rebellion in the hearts of our young women, how can we say we’re preparing them for the world? When they go from one rigid institution into another, when will they learn to innovate? When will they learn to disrupt?

Parents, please grow your girls to be difficult. Grow them to challenge. Grow them to fight.

We need them.

Crossing the Streams: win a bunch of books!

Hi folks. Well, I think I’ve set an official record for gaps between blog posts, but if you’re still there, look for that to change Real Soon Now. The game, she is afoot, you might say.

I have a couple of short stories recently escaped into the world: “The Glittering Boy from Norieda” is in By Faerie Light from Broken Eye Books, and “Stormrise” is in Kaiju Rising, the Kickstarter-funded giant monster anthology.

Since you may have clicked through to this post for the word “win”, here’s what you’re looking for:

The very fine Ari Marmell (fellow Pyr alum and one of the few I would consider genuinely qualified for the oft-overused title “raconteur”, especially if he would consider the variant “ratconteur”) contacted me a few weeks ago asking if I’d be interested in participating in his second “Crossing the Streams” massive book giveaway. It works like this: several authors will post about this contest and will give away two books on their own website. A third book will go into a huge giveaway pile composed of books from all of the participating authors, and one of the winners from the individual contests will win that pile.

Each of the contests is a little different. For mine, I’d like to know your favorite species of hummingbird. Show your work, please, and leave a comment on this post. I will borrow a mechanic from Ari: one winner I will select based on the answer to this question, the other winner will be selected randomly. And again, both winners will also have a chance of being selected super-mega-ultimate winner, and receiving All the Books.

To find the other contests, click the links below — and check out some new speculative fiction while you’re at it, why don’t you?

For my part, should you win, the books you can choose from include:

And now the authors:

Good luck!

Come see me in San Diego Saturday at 2pm, and congratulations to Jennifer Adams!

A super quick post from down here in San Diego! I have been at the incredibly amazing Starship Century Symposium — but more on that later.

I will be at Mysterious Galaxy this SATURDAY at 2pm! If you’re in the area I hope you’ll come and say hello!

And congratulations to Jennifer Adams, who won the Windstone and Shield of Sea and Space giveaway! There will be more giveaways this summer as I think of things you all might like. 😉 If you have suggestions, drop me a line!

Hope that you all have a great weekend. 🙂

Mother's Day, and the Geek in Disguise

Back in 2006 I wrote an essay about the origins of girl geekdom in my life and how influential my mother had been in my eventually going into technology. It was later published in the spring 2007 issue of Shameless. It’s a goofy piece, and a little nostalgic now looking back at it through the lens of the recent amazing leaps forward with programs like Girls Who Code, Girls in STEM, and Women 2.0. You were ahead of the curve, Mom — as usual. 🙂 Happy Mother’s Day.

The Geek in Disguise

Ladies and gentlemen, I wish to present to you one of the most powerful hidden forces of our time. I speak of a silent sisterhood, an ineffable affinity, a culture shrouded in a mystery wrapped in an enigma, so secret that the members themselves may not be aware of what they are. I speak, of course, of the camouflaged chix0r, the masked mechanatrix — the geek in disguise.

Oh yes, verily I tell you, they are all around us, and always have been. Adelaide Cabete, doctor, activist, and first ordained female Freemason? Total geek. And let us not forget that the programmer of the first computer was not a man, but the vaunted Ada Lovelace. Searching through history, the inquisitive mind finds them everywhere: What about Rosalind Franklin, who decided to become a scientist at fifteen (despite her father’s desire for her to be a social worker), wrote a university thesis on “The physical chemistry of solid organic colloids with special reference to coal and related materials”, and later went on to provide critical photographic evidence on the structure of DNA? And Mary Anning, discoverer of ichthyosaurs? Even the enigmatic Emily Dickinson, with her inexhaustible obsession with words and penchant for dreams, has the traces of it; when the geek is in you, it is inescapable.
As I write this, I am on an airplane to California, traveling with my boss — video game developer, CEO, mother, geek par excellence — to pitch a new project to three Los Angeles publishers. I am a game designer, a career some would find at the very fiery heart of geekdom; just to the right of Dungeons & Dragons(tm), slightly left of Linux administration, poised at the apex of toy and tech — there lies my profession. When I was a kid my friends used to mock my obsession with the Commodore 64, but now I fix their PCs, and tolerant sighs have turned to envy.

In our current age a woman can wear her flash drive on her sleeve and win social capital, but it wasn’t always so. Before it was culturally acceptable for a girl to debug C++, pioneer geek women asserted their right to ones and zeroes all in a row. My mother, now a senior manager for Computer Sciences Corporation, brought home a 286 when the only other kids in my class to have computers in the home were a couple of comfortably outcast Trekkies. And it was from her influence, not my father’s, that the term ‘defrag’ entered my vocabulary before I was ten years old.

Yet even for my mother, the heart of her geekiness lies in a tireless pursuit for a better way to do things, a sense of eternally young idealism, not merely a lust for high tech toys. Her love of gadgetry is a love of efficiency, of building tools that allow us to do more, experience more, and accomplish more with this brief mayfly’s season that we spend on Earth. From my father I learned scholarship and a fascination with the sciences, but not a week went by in my childhood when my mother didn’t have another idea for a great invention or a better way to do things.

I was thirteen years old when she took my grandparents, my brother, and me to Disneyworld. We purchased one of those ticket package deals — the type where one ticket gets you into three or four parks. We all went to Epcot, but my grandparents stayed behind for a couple of trips to the other parks, and this created a desynch when we all went to the Magic Kingdom; we were two tickets short, even though my grandparents still had many entrance tokens on their tickets. Mom to the rescue! Rather than purchasing extra tickets, she shunted my brother and I through with my grandparents’ tickets, got a hand stamp, then went back outside and escorted my grandparents back in with a second run on their tickets. At the time I thought of it as merely clever (a classic sort of logic puzzle) and perhaps a bit mischievous, but I recognize it now for what it was: the relentless pursuit of efficiency. My mother was defragging Disneyworld admissions.

Yet geekhood is not about technology alone. It has its roots in something truer, deeper, and more complex — the vision that we can make the world a better place, and the passion to pursue that vision with vigor and clarity of purpose. For what is ‘geek’ if not an unquenchable thirst for perfection? What is a gadget, or even a computer, if not a shortcut on the path toward fast accomplishment? At the end of this road is a world where there is no hunger, no thirst, no privation, and no disease; a world where we find balance with nature and time to pursue the mystic higher reaches of our minds’ potential. The eyes of a geek are locked on this world.

To be a true geek is also therefore to have a dauntless idealism. There is another American subculture famous for this, and similarly not always well regarded — the hippies of the 1960s. To this day, though she might not easily admit it, my mother owns a pair of beaded leather moccasins, and for a time was as hippie as they come — with an attitude that shaped the person that I would become in adulthood.

There is a kinship between geeks and hippies that often goes unrecognized. Once while walking to class with my college boyfriend (local alpha geek), I was stopped by a puzzlingly exuberant security guard who swore that my companion and I were the spitting image of Janis Joplin and Paul McCartney. (Aside from our long hair [mine has not been cut above my waist in years] and my green peasant shirt, we weren’t — and were quite confused, touched also with the mild effrontery that comes from being socially assigned to the wrong subculture. Don’t get me wrong, I love hippies — but I owned a Starbucks Visa at the time, an act that probably forever disqualified me from true hippiedom.)

If you asked the average geek, you would probably find that my experience was not uncommon, especially for the bearded and longhaired male set. In this transition period where geeks have not yet established visual recognition in the social sphere (most normals probably picture actors from The Matrix when you mention the word ‘geek’, but no geek I know is so obsessive about their wardrobe or appearance; leather trenchcoats are great and all, but who can justify the expense when the World of Warcraft expansion is so shortly forthcoming?), the mistake is easy to make. And not just on the street. Ask them, and you will find that most geeks cherish the environment, resent the Establishment, and boast eclectic tastes in music. In the great social taxonomy, geeks and hippies are common descendants, for they share a philosophical vision. And vision — an unflinching dream of excellence — is what ‘geek’ is all about. No wonder, when she did enter the corporate domain, my mother gravitated toward technology — the thing that, if anything does, will deliver our dreams of utopia. In her path she has been a pioneer; professional, visionary, technophile — mother, daughter, and friend.

And so here I close, with the parting suggestion that there is a little geek in all of us, and women over time continue to shed their camouflage. Deeper within the realms of gadgetry and efficiency, previously perceived to be the domain of the masculine, we see a higher ideal: elegance; symmetry; intricacy. And these could not be more female; ‘geek’ is sleek and sexy in our present age, and thus we will see more women, as Nietzsche may have put it, becoming who they are, led by pioneers who expressed these aspects of their personality bravely when society found them distasteful. As with all such things, they did so because they knew it was right, and of late the world agrees. Onward, good companions, to a bright future!

May 25th @ Mysterious Galaxy, Journey @ Polygon, May 4 @ OGPC

That’s a lot of at signs!

Thinking calming manatee thoughts at everyone on this chaotic end to a chaotic week.

The promo cards have arrived, so you know what that means: time to move some books. 🙂20130419-152509.jpg

The spectacular folk at Mysterious Galaxy have invited me back to launch Shield of Sea and Space, and that will be taking place May 25th at their San Diego store. Both previous volumes had their debut events at Mysterious Galaxy, and I’m thrilled that the same will be true for the grand finale.

I will also be at the Starship Century Symposium being put on by the brand new (amazing) Arthur C. Clarke Center for the Human Imagination on the 21st and 22nd — the lineup of speakers is amazing and I am stoked.

Before all this, I will be the keynote speaker at the Oregon Game Project Challenge on May 4, 2013. The OGPC combines several of my favorite things: video games, learning, middle (and high) school kids, and the Pacific Northwest. It is sponsored by the TechStart Education Foundation and involves some of my favorite people. Many thanks to Corvus Elrod for making this happen.

This week I had an essay about ThatGameCompany’s astonishing game Journey published at Polygon. Take a look, send me your thoughts, and give Polygon a vote for the Webbys! I love the work they’ve been doing and am honored to now be counted among their contributors.

Finally, if you’re interested in talking to game designers about learning, I’ll be at the Playtime Online office hours this coming Wednesday at 9am PST. Join us on google hangout for some terrific discussions on games and learning with the Institute of Play and our guests!

Not so "genius", Apple

I wanted to be writing about ♥♡♥ THE PULSE POUNDING HEART STOPPING DATING SIM JAM ♥♡♥ tonight, but instead I am writing about this. It is entirely possible — quite likely, even — you should go and play Jurassic Heart instead of reading it.

Made your choice? Okay.

There’s a first time for everything. Before this weekend I had never cracked an Apple screen of any sort, had never explored the marina around the Rosie the Riveter museum (beautiful, btw), and — at least in my relatively recent acquisition of the term ‘mansplaining’, I had never been talked down to by a nerd on a matter of technology.

The experience has made me realize that I have a relatively insulated life insofar as women, technology, and mansplaining go. I’ve been in the upper bracket of design salaries for awhile now, so I’m very accustomed to being respected and heard when speaking about my work. I’m very fortunate to have worked overwhelmingly with men and women who value my views and skill. There have been outlier experiences, but in every case the individuals in question have been received with shock and disgust by my colleagues, so even in uglier moments I had a network of support from my peers.

Don’t get me wrong — I’ve seen enough crap that everything in this tumblr is deeply hilarious, sad, and identifiable — but I can still recognize that I’ve been really, really lucky. Although I also wonder how much of that is my bad behavior filter, and I’ll get to that in a second.

I posted on facebook yesterday when this happened. My bike and a hill were involved. It sucked. The internet was consulted. An appointment with the local Apple store was made.

The 80 was heinous, so I was ten minutes late to the appointment. Which meant of course that I needed a new appointment an hour from then. I didn’t feel like doing all of this over again, so I agreed to wait. The store was quite busy. The time for the appointment came and went. Ten minutes after it was scheduled (Apple being late doesn’t appear to incur repercussions) I was introduced to an Apple “genius”. Let’s call him Rupert.

Rupert was your standard issue tech nerd, Apple style (reasonably well groomed). His voice was slightly too loud (even for the busy store), he had a very self-assured smile, and he was deft with his iPad.

I should pause to explain that all of my many interactions with the workers at this store over the past three years have been pretty positive. I don’t expect a lot from them, and for the most part they’re affable and reasonable. They listen to what I say and generally treat me like a grown-up. I was expecting the same from Rupert.

He entered my device’s information into his iPad, checking diagnostics as a matter of procedure. He explained that even though my AppleCare was still active, it didn’t cover physical damage, so the replacement would be treated as an out-of-warranty replacement. Which would mean $250.

Yikes. Up until then I had heard two prices: $50 and $200, depending on level of AppleCare. I had not ever heard $250. So I paused the process and asked for more details. Rupert explained that Apple doesn’t repair screens, it just does device replacement, so I would be getting a new iPad for $250, which he thought was a great deal. And maybe it was, but I wasn’t interested in paying that much for a two-year-old device whose further support, if it needed any, would not be covered by Apple.

“Okay,” I said. “Explain to me why I shouldn’t have this repaired by a third party.”

That was when the fiasco started.


I knew I was asking a tricky question, but none of the other associates had had difficulty with it. The first person I spoke with — as I explained to Rupert — even suggested that it was possible to get the screen repaired by a third party service. It’s possible he wasn’t supposed to divulge this, but I appreciated the openness and respect for my intelligence (because of course I had googled and researched not only where to get such a repair but how to do it myself if I were so inclined). The associate who introduced me to Rupert had also acknowledged that third party screen replacement did, in fact, exist.

But I would have been fine with a “we can’t recommend or comment on third party modification of Apple products, and we don’t support devices that have been so modified”.

Instead, what I got was a ton of bluster, and a tortured explanation of how “screen replacement is impossible” because “you’re opening something that was never meant to be opened”, and “it’s not just the screen”, and it would be “severing connections that were never meant to be severed”, all of this with the longsuffering tone of someone who knows just so much about technology that he couldn’t possibly convey all its myriad complexities. I understood that he probably felt he was in a difficult spot, so I was patient and tried to keep my questions simple.

When I described that I had seen numerous services that offered third party screen replacement, so clearly it was possible, he pivoted: “they’ll do it,” then many very disapproving noises about the dirty, dirty people who would dare to touch the sacred insides of an Apple device, “but it’ll work for a week and then you’ll be back in here and we’ll see that it has been modified and we won’t be able to replace it”. In case I wasn’t understanding, “It’s a terrible idea,” he added.

Okay, that’s almost reasonable. It voids the warranty. But as I pointed out, I had less than a month left on the warranty as it was, and the “new” iPad Apple would provide as a replacement would only be covered for 90 days. It didn’t seem cost effective, considering they were charging more than half the price of a full replacement. I told him that if the cost were prohibitive I was considering upgrading to a Mini for myself, getting the device repaired inexpensively, then giving it to my nephews for the variable remainder of its lifetime.

Rupert dug in. He seemed okay with the idea of my buying a Mini, but said “if you’re going to do that, you might as well just recycle it”, pointing to my cracked screen. I was aware at this point that the tone I was getting had no small correlation with my lack of external genitalia.

“But the whole rest of the device still works,” I said. “There’s a lot of value in it still.” I told him that I wasn’t considering turfing the device — I was just trying to decide whether to repair with Apple or to take a risk on a third party solution.

Eventually, the nearby associate jumped in and tried to bail Rupert out — by explaining that “those third party places aren’t electrostatic safe”, indicating the static band on his arm and saying “we all have to wear these special armbands because the electronics are so sensitive. Those third party places don’t have them.”

This associate had been very reasonable previously, and I looked at him for a second, trying to suss out whether he actually knew nearly nothing about computer hardware or just assumed I didn’t. I did not say “listen Biebershorts, I was wearing a static bracelet in 1994, overclocking home-built PCs with my dad when you were probably shitting your diapers”. I said “but that’s true for all computer work, right?” He nodded and shrugged politely. I realized that I was dumbing myself down because of how they were treating me, and that was when I quietly tipped over from annoyed to livid.

I’m a pretty controlled person, but there must have been a look in my eye that Rupert saw said “caution”, because he pivoted then into a still-blustery “look, it’s totally your call,” and “I don’t want to talk you into something you’re not comfortable with. It’s your call.” My call to make a clearly terrible, terrible decision.

Oh, Hallelujah. Thank you for reassuring me that whether I hand you my credit card or not for this transaction is actually within my control. My delicate feminine sensibilities would otherwise be only too susceptible to bending to your manly will.

Rupert went on to heartily elaborate that “this option isn’t going away,” giving my battered iPad a fatherly pat, “you don’t have to decide right this second.

I didn’t, at that point, feel like explaining to him that the broken iPad had been so deeply integrated into my life that I wasn’t keen on omitting it for however long it would take to repair. And I wanted the interaction to be over. “I’ll go with one of the Minis — Verizon, slate, 32gb. Can you do that?”

“I’m going to introduce you to a man named *****,” Rupert said. “***** will walk you through all the options.”

“I don’t need him to do that,” I said. I had had plenty of time to review specs during the hour I was waiting for this rescheduled appointment. “I just need him to sell me the device. Can he do that?” Rupert nodded and retreated.

I didn’t realize until the drive home that I was wearing an RPI sweatshirt. (Not something I would normally wear out of the house, because it’s old and chunky, but it was just the Apple store, and IDGAF.) And sure, it’s California, nerdbro probably had no idea what Rensselaer was (hint: #7 engineering school in the US). But it said ‘polytechnic institute’ right on the sweatshirt. I’m sure he thought it belonged to my boyfriend.

During the actual interaction, I felt numb — it didn’t quite occur to me all of what was happening and why. I only knew I was irritated (and, because I’m me, I was irritated with myself for being irritated and going out of my way to be polite and friendly).

But afterward, I felt sick.

It wasn’t mere aggravation, or the frustration of dealing with a couple of well-intentioned but ill-equipped technicians. I’ve done that lots of times before. It was how they assumed that I couldn’t possibly know what they were talking about, that my questions couldn’t possibly be reasonable — I was a (sensitive, stupid, irrational) situation to be managed, not a person — to say nothing of a technology professional who has been working with computers intensively, every day, for nearly twenty years. It was the way that I, because I am a social person, altered my behavior and language according to their expectations of what I was capable of. And that I did it without thinking, without realizing what was happening.

This is what this environment can do. This is what I am very lucky to experience only exceptionally rarely, because of the insulated places where I work. I have the privilege of being able to select from many, many employers and peers who go out of their way to get the best out of my talent and skills. So many women I know are nowhere near so lucky. Some of them choose to seek the uphill battles. I will always have tremendous respect for their bravery. (Not to mention how straight-up awesome every single female engineer I know is.)

photo (2)

Anyway, meet my new Mini. Her name is Cassandra.

We are working on a Twine dating sim called “Nine Boys”.

Amazing Things

Hey folks — a quick update here from San Diego.

First: thank you to everyone who donated to Marc’s GDC trip!! We’ve had an angel come in and cover the rest of the cost, so I’m thrilled to share that Marc will be able to go to the entire show on an All-Access Pass. More details as I can release them! I have closed the donations as we’ll already be making a donation with the overage. If you’ll be at the show this year and are available for dinner, please drop me a line!

I’ll be at ConDor Con this weekend in San Diego — if you’re able to come by, please say hello!

In honor of the con, I asked the amazing Jennifer Miller if she would be interested in painting a condor gryphon as a commission — and she was! This is it:

I love the mysterious smile. 😉

If you’re in the area, hope to see you!

Operation Launching Eeyore: Help Me Send an Amazing Game Professor to GDC

Hi folks. Hope you’re all having a great February. A coincidence inspired me to write this: I heard about GDC’s great “share your GDC story” contest and Marc’s lack of a GDC pass on the same day. This led to the writing of this piece and a gofundme to raise money to send Marc to GDC. Enjoy, think of the influential teachers in your life, and please let me know what you think! –Erin
Edited 6:30pm PST”: Hooooooly crap. So we raised $500 in 90 minutes. You guys rule. I set up the first campaign to be fixed goal, so that backers would only pay if the goal was reached. Now that we know we can get Marc to GDC, we’re raising money for his GDC pass. $1500 or bust!! Please share/retweet/etc! Marc Meetup plans also in process! The internet is amazing!

GDC changed my life.

In 2003 I was not going to be a game developer. I had been accepted without funding to study existentialism at the University of California at Irvine. I was going to go and be a starving philosophy student.

I was a senior at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. I was an assistant game designer for Simutronics. And because several of my computer scientist friends were signing up for it, I signed up for a class taught by Marc Destefano, a brand new course in the cognitive science department about video games.

If it weren’t for Marc Destefano, I would never have entered the game industry.

(I’ll pause here for a second while you do a little chaos math extrapolation about what that means. Think of butterflies. Think of Jeff Goldblum. What? Fine. I’ll think of Jeff Goldblum.)

(What, done already? Sigh. Ok.)

Marc is an amazing teacher. He’s the kind of teacher that I aspire to be today. He has no distance from his students, no condescension, no agenda. He’s just there in the moment every single class, with every fiber of his goofy, hilarious being. We could reliably make him turn beet red with fury by maligning the good name of Sondheim’s Paradox or suggesting that one might have fond childhood memories of Monopoly. Every class was can’t-miss, and it wasn’t just me — his online reviews (they have those for professors now) are full of phrases like “best prof ever”, “this class changed my life”, and “easily my favorite professor ever”.

I had always loved video games — really loved them, all the way back to the Commodore 64 and through the NES, the Sega Genesis, the PlayStation, the Dreamcast. Marc didn’t teach us to love video games. That love got us in the door. He taught us to love making video games.

After taking Marc’s “Introduction to Video Games” class I was so enthralled by this strange world of game development that he was describing that I took his game making class — it had some long and ridiculous name, something like “applications of cognitive science in game development” (remember, this is 2003, and there are no formal video game degrees), which meant we had to sign up in teams and actually make games. It was the first honest-to-god video game I ever designed, and I’m pretty sure the first one my team ever built; the fiction was based on the world that would later become the setting for my published fantasy novels.

With all due respect to my truly wonderful classmates, we made a stupid little game. We didn’t even really finish it, though it was playable. It was a platformer. (A gryphon platformer. Land-to-air quadruped controls and all. I drew the sprites with Prismacolor pencils and scanned them. I made a strange and gawky gryphon in Maya.) I knew it wasn’t good. But Marc thought it was awesome, and I don’t think I’ve ever told him how much that meant to me.

Because Marc was a diligent, savvy, and connected instructor in a field that hadn’t really even defined itself yet, he told us all that we should be applying for the IGDA’s GDC scholarship.

We applied. I got in. I went to GDC. I knew from the first moment I set foot on the floor that I had found my people. I mouthed off at one of Gordon Walton’s roundtables. I got offered a job.

My life pivoted.

And as if that wasn’t great enough, in 2006 we met up with Marc at GDC again, and he bought us tickets to Video Games Live!.

We — I — underestimated the distance to the San Jose Civic Auditorium. I was in heels. I would have blisters for a week. But when we found Marc outside the theater, I pulled him aside, leading him around one of the unoccupied corners of the building and away from the crowding game geeks.

“I’ve got to tell you a secret,” I said. “Have you heard of this ea_spouse thing?”

Marc’s eyes widened. His body seemed to go into slow motion. “Yeah,” he said carefully. Something about it bothered him, which kind of surprised me. I mean, it was a bothersome subject — at that particular time especially raw. But his hesitation didn’t stop me from saying:

“That was me.”

Marc’s face turned ash white. It’s one of the only times I’ve ever seen that happen in real life.

It turns out he was upset because RPI’s game program had internship deals with EA at the time, and he was worried that, from what he was reading, he might be sending tender young game developers into the dripping maw of Satan. Years later — last year, in fact — I would work with a fellow alum at Greg Johnson’s company, formerly one of those interns. His time at Maxis changed his life, I think it’s fair to say, and not nearly the way EA had changed mine, considering how his eyes go all distant and starry if you so much as say the word “Maxis” around him today.

The rest of the conversation was kind of a blur. But Marc was one of the first people I told. I had to — you know, because it was his fault we got into games at all. And I also needed to tell him that we didn’t regret it. Regardless, it remains true that if I have changed the game industry, then by extension Marc’s mentorship has as well.

In retrospect I kind of feel bad that that whole bombshell might have ruined VGL for him. At least, I hope it didn’t.

Lest you suspect that my life is in any way not incredibly weird, I am writing this essay from the EA campus at Redwood Shores. (Well, from the parking garage, because I was on my way out and realized I needed to pull out my laptop and write this right now.)

Marc is one of the nicest people I know. Usually that’s something people say disingenuously — and usually the person in question is either recently dead or the holder of a large debt. But Marc is neither, and he’s the real deal. I can think of few people more truly ethical, empathetic, humble, unassuming, or video game passionate as Marc. And considering the sheer number of truly wonderful game developers I know, I don’t say that lightly.

Marc doesn’t have a 2013 GDC pass.

This year I’ll be giving a talk for the first time about that whole ea_spouse thing. That’s why he needs to come to GDC. If he’s not there, how will he fully understand all that he has wrought?

Erin Hoffman
aka “ea_spouse”

And this is the first gofundme!