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!