If video games are meant to be adventures, it’s no surprise that Erin Reynolds found her way into game design. Born in Colorado, Erin has lived all over the United States and in such exotic locales as Vietnam and Singapore. Now, after a jaunt over to the wonderful world of Disney Interactive Studios, she’s back in Los Angeles, a graduate student in the Interactive Media department of the USC School of Cinematic Arts. And in the course of her video game life, Erin has learned to break the two most oft-invoked pieces of parental wisdom: don’t play with your food, and too many video games will rot your brain. She makes video games that are like broccoli – hang with me here – but she’s much more interested in the cheese on top.
You’ve traveled all over the world. Do you find that games, whether they be video games or regular games, have a different resonance among different cultures?
Games have been around in all cultures since mankind has been around, it seems. And each culture’s values and ideas and things they want to pass on to their children are reflected in those games, and I think that still continues to be reflected in video games.
And you do educational games—you try to embed positive messages in the games?
Yeah. When I first graduated from college, I went to work for Disney Interactive Studios and made commercial, mainstream video games. And I really loved doing that, but I kept seeing areas where video games kept going beyond just the entertainment field, and so I had a lot of interest in that. I’m very interested in finding ways that games can teach players, can inspire players, in ways beyond just entertainment. So you have a lot of edu-tainment games that are supposed to teach people, and they’re not very successful at all. You get things like “math adventures,” and no one’s going to want to play “math adventures,” because you’re essentially just doing math. What I’m more interested in is finding ways that people can play through a fun game and be inspired by that game to go and seek out more knowledge about it. It’s opening up the eyes of players to things they wouldn’t have thought of before, and taking them to places they wouldn’t have seen before, and inspiring them to want to learn more about it and doing a lot of the educational part of their own volition. I think that when you throw data at people they’re not going to want to absorb it, but if you give them a reason to be interested in and inspired by it, then they’re going to absorb it a lot more easily.
So it’s not as much didactic as, “look at this great big world out there”?
Exactly. The metaphor I always use is broccoli. If you give a kid a plate of broccoli, they’re not going to eat it, because it’s broccoli, and broccoli’s not cool. But if you put a little bit of cheese on the broccoli, they’re going to be more compelled to eat it. And sure, they’re eating the cheese, but they’re eating the broccoli too, and now they have this positive association with broccoli, and then they might go on to learn to love broccoli. So it’s the same thing—if you take a concept you want them to learn and put a little cheese on it, make it fun and compelling and sexy, they’ll like that concept.
So then the cheese is the entertainment quality of the game.
Where do you think the video game market is going along those lines? What strides are being made, and in particular, what are you working on?
One project I’ve done recently was a game called Trainer, and it is a game that combines the principles of Wii Fit and Pokemon to help encourage players to become healthier and adopt healthy eating and exercise habits. We give the player a creature that he has to be a trainer for, and the responsibility of exercising with the creature and making healthy eating decisions for the creature. And when he exercises the creature, he has to exercise himself. So there’s a webcam hooked up to the game, and you tell the creature, “Okay, we’re going to run to make you faster,” but you have to run too, in order to get the creature to run. And if you complete the exercise, then the creature gets faster, then you can use it for battle and other parts of the game. And what was really cool is the game recently won an award from the White House—their Apps for Healthy Kids Contest. So that was really exciting and gave us a lot of momentum to continue working on that game.
Do you find any major hurdles? Are there economic barriers against doing games like this?
The biggest challenge for positive games in my experience is you often run into the problem of a lot of cooks in the kitchen. Let’s say you wanted to make a game about the solar system. So you want a game designer on board, and a game developer, programmers, artists, design team, and someone who’s an expert in the solar system as well. And often these types of games are funded by grants, and the grant money looks to the expert more than the game designer, because they want the education—that’s what they’re paying for. Say you’re exploring the planets; it’s fun and you’ve play-tested it and people really like it. Then the solar system guy says, “Well, that’s not a hundred percent accurate, because you couldn’t jump from planet to planet.” And so you have to take that out, and now the game gets less and less fun and gets more and more like an interactive textbook, because it’s so focused on making it educational and less focused on the game. So that’s where I think a lot of games fall through, because they become more didactic and less fun.
What’s been your proudest accomplishment in your design and game career?
It’s hard to pick one because my career has been so different stage to stage. When I was at Disney Interactive Studios, I worked in a game called Ultimate Band for the Nintendo DS, and what I’m really proud of in that game is we were able to put in a feature that lets players creatively write music, essentially, and learn about guitar chords, and it made it in there without being called an edu-tainment game or anything of the sort. And as result, I think kids played it and dug it and it inspired—or I hope it inspired—this want to learn more about music. Each game is kind of like your child, in a way, so it’s hard to pick which one you love the most. Each one is different and I love it for its own unique attributes.
What can our readers do to help you and your projects?
Ideally what I’d like to do someday is make games independently and individually, the way a painter creates a painting on a personal, independent level. So right now I’m going through and trying to figure out a way to make that happen, make that work. So I’m always looking for people with ideas for way to create a business plan or to promote myself, or that kind of thing to make that happen.
The other thing too is I’m always interested in finding ways to use games in a way to communicate a lot of different ideas, and I’m always looking for interesting people who have ideas like, “Hey, let’s make a game about”—I don’t know—“sea slugs” and it’s like, “Cool! Let’s find a way to make this happen and make people realize how awesome sea slugs are.” So I’m always looking for that kind of input and ideas and inspiration as well. So I’m open to any interesting co-opportunity out there.
business partners, ideas