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 break into the commercial market. But given the program’s brief nine-week time frame—really, eight weeks, since the 30-some participants spent their first week in lectures—the products turned out by the six teams, each of which was led by a producer or game designer from MIT, are pretty amazing.

One project, a Windows PC game called The Illogical Journey of Orez, employs animated carrots and TV-watching bunnies in puzzles designed to teach kids about adding and subtracting positive and negative numbers. (Orez is zero spelled backwards. Get it?)

Backflow — Screen ShotAnother, Backflow, is a multiplayer game for Java-enabled mobile phones; it challenges users to direct municipal waste through pipes to bins where they’ll either be recycled (allowing you to upgrade your system) or, if you choose the wrong bin, will end up polluting your city and driving away the population. The objective would sound familiar to city managers almost anywhere in the developing world: “Try and build the biggest city you can without getting buried in the garbage!”

Eitan Glinert, a graduate student at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, talked about his team’s effort to build a Windows PC game that would be equally enjoyable for both blind and sighted users. Their product, AudiOdyssey, is a music-driven game in which players swing a Nintendo Wii controller to emulate a nightclub DJ, synchronizing component tracks of a song. Glinert said that one of the many lessons his group learned during the crash development project was that meeting deadlines often means eliminating features that turn out to be unreasonably ambitious—and that while the decision can be painful, the game is usually better for it in the end. In the case of AudiOdyssey, the group had to give up on a complex multiplayer version of the game. Glinert compared that experience “cutting off my arm”—but added, “there’s always next summer.”

The most interesting part of the night was Weise’s rundown of the “myths of video game development” that each of the GAMBIT teams has to confront and unlearn as they push forward with their games. I’m paraphrasing here, but one of the myths was that “If a game isn’t any fun after the first iteration, the team has failed.” Nonsense, Weise said: the first version of a game is always broken, and it’s only by testing it, throwing out most of it, and starting over that it gets better.

AudiOdyssey — Screen ShotAnother myth—one that often afflicts us journalists as well—is that “if you can get x amount done by working eight hours a day, you can get 2x done by working 16 hours a day and 3x by not going home at all.” Game designers are afflicted by all the same frailties as other humans, Weise advised, though they often try to deny it during the inevitable crunch period at the end of a development cycle, usually with disastrous results. GAMBIT organizers hope that the students will take such lessons back to Singapore, where the expectation is that they’ll work their way up into that nation’s video game industry.

You can check out the GAMBIT games yourself. The Illogical Journey of Orez, Backflow, AudiOdyssey, and another “Wiimote”-driven game called Wiip can all be can be downloaded at the GAMBIT website. The games, to use Glinert’s words, are “guaranteed to probably not crash your computer.”

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

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