A Q & A on gaming with a kids entertainment technology expert

A one-on-one chat with Drew Davidson, Ph.D., Director of Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University
June 8, 2011

A one-on-one chat with Drew Davidson, Ph.D., Director, Entertainment Technology Center, Pittsburgh,
Carnegie Mellon University

When Drew gave a presentation at Sandbox Summit@MIT on what makes good games, he used Minecraft as an example.  But if you don’t have 45 minutes to listen, here are his Spark Notes: (Watch the video at bottom of this post.)

First, the easy stuff. What do you say when people ask, “what do you do?”

I help run the Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) at CMU, which entails working with an interdisciplinary group of faculty and some of the most talented graduate students around. We have team projects with an applied research emphasis, in which students design and develop experiences ranging from games to animations to installations and more. It’s an inspiring and crazy mix that yields innovative work. I also started ETC Press, a small, experimental academic publishing imprint, to help provide a forum for analysis and discussion in this area.

It’s called the Entertainment Technology Center. Most people (at least in this industry) think of entertainment as games and media. But there’s a serious side to this too, right?

These projects are meant to be entertaining and engaging, but we look at how to apply entertainment to other fields, such as education, training, or medicine. That way we can leverage the ability to create immersive and engaging experiences in order to surface content that has different goals, like learning or civic engagement or improved health. We believe in the Marshall McLuhan quote, “Anyone who tries to make a distinction between education and entertainment doesn’t know the first thing about either.”

Would you define a good game as one that people want to play over and over?

That can be a key component of a good game, but it’s not the only one. A good game comes together through a synthesis of a multiple factors: gameplay mechanics, ramping difficulty, player feedback, interface, graphics, writing and more. When they all work together, it makes for a pleasurably frustrating playing experience that challenges and rewards you as you play.

So games can teach good things, but you also believe the act of playing games is a good thing.

There have been several people who’ve noted that playing a game is a learning experience. Chris Crawford and Greg Costikyan both wrote some early essays to this effect.  And Jim Gee really unpacked the concept in his book, What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy. In essence, they all explore how a well-designed game teaches you how to play it through the act of playing. So the experience is inherently about learning, although usually focused primarily within the context of game itself.  The next step is to work to design and develop games that can help us learn about things in the context of our lives.

From a developer point of view, what are the “must haves” that make a game good?

To me, it’s all about the right mix and balance. As I mentioned above, there are a variety of things that come together to make a good game. It reminds me of cooking recipes in that similar ingredients can be combined in different ways or proportions to create equally amazing—or not—dishes. A good games need to have that mix, in which all the elements are combined in a unique way to create a compelling experience.

Is there anything you can think of as player or developerthat sets off sirens of impending disaster?

I’m not a huge fan of the notion of gamification or funware where everything is more compelling with a sprinkling of magic game dust. Will Wright calls it MSG, where people are looking for the secret sauce that will “make it seem game-like.’ And I think Jesse Schell calls it a gamepocalypse for a good reason. Not everything needs to be a game. I think it’s better to allow different media experiences to make the most of a medium’s strengths as opposed to trying to force it to fit a format.

We’re talking to readers of KidScreen. Curious minds want to know: is every online game a potential seed for transmedia platforms?

I don’t think so. While polished 3D MMO’s can provide a deeply immersive experience in a fictive world, they’re often building from a world that was initially created in another medium. In that case, it’s less about a game in and of itself, and more about the consideration of an overall transmedia experience of which a game is one part. But sometimes, a game is just a game.

And finally: what’s your all-time favorite game?

That’s such a complex question, because I enjoy different games at different times and for different reasons. With that caveat in mind, I’m going to mention two of my tops. Ico (on the PS2), is a wonderful adventure game that has an enchanting atmosphere and elliptical experience that I enjoy while I play it and that sticks with me afterwards. Second, would be Words with Friends (on the iPhone). I regularly play it with my wife as we both enjoy word games. It does such a nice job of taking advantage of the platform to make it easy to continuously play asynchronous games and keep in touch throughout the day.

Check on more on multi-faceted, multi-talented, multi-playing Drew Davidson’s website:

Email me know if you have any opinions about good games or just good things at

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