Gamers, Grog, and GAMBIT: Singapore’s Video Game Industry Looks to MIT for Innovation

All fall I’ve been trying to free up time to attend Boston PostMortem, a gathering of Boston-area video game developers held once each month at The Skellig, an Irish pub in Waltham. When it turned out that a team from MIT’s GAMBIT video game program would be presenting at PostMortem this Tuesday, I persuaded Bob and Rebecca to unchain me from my Mac for a few hours, and braved the freezing drizzle for the drive to the western ‘burbs.

I arrived half an hour late, but it was okay—the drinking hadn’t yet given way to the speechmaking. The Skellig, it turned out, is about as authentic as Irish pubs get on this side of the pond, with real red-headed Irish bartenders and a real flute-and-fiddle ensemble belting out Celtic dances in the front room. I ordered a Harpoon and settled back to listen to Philip Tan, Matthew Weise, Clara Fernández-Vara, and Eitan Glinert talk about GAMBIT’s first year in operation.

GAMBIT is one of those freaky acronyms that pertains only indirectly to its namesake group’s mission, which is to study game-related subjects and foster fresh, cross-cultural innovation in game design by bringing students from Singapore to MIT for an intensive, hands-on, nine-week course in game development. (It stands for Gamers, Aesthetics, Mechanics, Business, Innovation, and Technology. Believe me, it’s better than the Tolkienesque alternatives the group considered, including SMIGIL, for Singapore International Games Innovation Lab, and GOLLUM, for Games, Online Learning, Large, Utterly Massive.) As Tan, the group’s U.S. executive director, explained, GAMBIT is a five-year project sponsored by Singapore’s Media Development Authority (yes, the government of Singapore has an entire Authority devoted to promoting the city-state’s video game industry) and MIT’s Comparative Media Studies (CMS) program.

The Illogical Journey of Orez — Screen ShotUnder co-directors Henry Jenkins and William Uricchio, who are also the lead principal investigators on the GAMBIT project, CMS has evolved into the closest thing the U.S. videogame industry has to an intellectual headquarters and rallying ground. In an interview with Wired reprinted on his blog, Confessions of an Aca-Fan, Jenkins argued that innovation has stagnated at the giant U.S. and Japanese game studios amidst the pressure to churn out predictably marketable franchise games. (The best-selling video game of 2006 in the United States was Madden NFL 07, which is, mind-bendingly, the 17th iteration of that game). He believes that academia can help inject new ideas.

“Studio-based production, across all media, has had two effects: insuring a relatively high standard of production and capping opportunities for innovation and individual expression,” Jenkins told Wired. “As the costs of games get pushed higher and higher, many wonder where fresh new ideas will come from…University-based games programs can be the place where the next generation of game designers stretch the medium.” He called GAMBIT “a space where we can move swiftly from pure research into compelling applications and then partner with the games industry to bring the best ideas to emerge to market.”

From Listening to Tan, Weise, and his colleagues Tuesday night, it wasn’t clear that any of the games produced by the first batch of GAMBIT students this summer have the potential to … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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