You may have seen men and women in white lab coats under extremely large, orange banners from the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab if you attended PAX East 2011. They were a contingent showing off the results of their collaborative efforts meant to promote and discover inventive directions in game design.
You may already be familiar with some of the Lab’s work, but didn’t realize it. Carneyvale: Showtime was released as an Xbox Live Indie title in 2008, and in 2009 was featured as part of PAX 10, which promotes the work of indie creators. Critics praised the game’s polish and design, and a version was released in 2010 for Windows Phone 7 was described as the platform’s “early, lofty, benchmark.”
Carneyvale is just one of four “featured games” on the GAMBIT website, but it’s important to remember that the primary focus of the Lab is not commercial product, but experimentation. The first time I ever met a GAMBIT member was earlier this year in May, during the Games Beyond Entertainment conference held in Boston, MA. Lab Interaction Design Director Marleigh Norton gave a short presentation of an audio-only, single-button game she was developing. This sort of research is one of the Lab’s primary mandates.
Students at the Lab are attempting to teach artificial intelligences how to portray characters and play Civilization, and studying the habits of sports gamers, for example. The Lab plays host to talks by game design
I spoke with Philip Tan, the US Executive Director for the Lab, about its origins. “Five years ago, when we first got started, the government of Singapore was looking to establish research alliances with several notable universities around the world, including MIT,” he said. “The key is the word ‘research’ -- all these partnerships were aimed at challenging assumptions and finding new solutions, whether it was in biotech, environmental engineering, or digital media.”
GAMBIT, an acronym for Games, Aesthetics, Mechanics, Business, Innovation, and Technology, is also meant to investigate how video games can be developed without any specific Western or Eastern cultural context, as video games are global phenomena. I asked Tan, if the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was interested in bridging the gap between game design methodologies, why not partner itself with universities or institutions in Japan, where video games are so established in culture?
“You're right that Japan has a really strongly established game development scene and culture. The same could be said about Korea, England, France, and various regions in Canada and the U.S.,” Tan said. “These places are already very good at what they do. Their industries are driven by big studios that will largely stick to their established methods and genres, because the established culture is their bread and butter. That's great, of course, but that means it's hard for a small research lab like ours to make a big impact.”
The GAMBIT Lab is all about promoting change, and in light of that mission statement, partnering with institutions in Singapore makes sense. “It's a great place to have a base that connects you with the entire Southeast Asian talent pool -- Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines -- and every tertiary institution I can think of has a game development program,” Tan said. “Digipen also has a campus in Singapore. In a nutshell, there's a ton of young talent looking to try to bring something new to the world of games. That's ideal for us.”
The faculty and staff on the US side of the project are an interesting collection of pure academics, video game industry veterans, and artists. Former employees of THQ, Dreamworks Interactive, and Irrational Games work alongside professors of comparative media and experts in interface research, among other fields of study.
The research conducted at the Lab is also eclectic. Looking over the list of publications, lectures, and graduate student theses available on the GAMBIT website, there’s no unifying theme other than experimentation. Tan did identify a few specific areas of interest for the Lab. “Companies and players both have difficulty recognizing and dealing with online hate speech, and that's bad for game culture as a whole,” he said. One of the projects presented at PAX East 2011 dealt with hate speech in the gamer community.
“Our perspective on games for learning and games for health is a little different from where [commercial video game] industries are currently invested in,” Tan said. GAMBIT is also deeply invested in examining video games as cultural phenomena. The Lab publishes a bi-annual journal titled Eludamos, which seeks to discuss games through a wide variety of lenses including cultural studies, media studies, art history, sociology, social psychology, and semiotics.
I asked Tan whether he had seen any of the Lab’s ideas incorporated into the video game marketplace. “I wouldn't claim that any current games or developers were directly inspired by our ideas, but there are a couple of trends that I feel we were slightly ahead of the curve,” he said, identifying some of the Lab’s many game prototypes, available on the GAMBIT website, which can be downloaded and played for free.
“I think we were doing auto-rigging of 3D characters before it became a standard industry technique [Phorm, Abandon]. One-button game design turned out to be pretty useful for mobile game development [CarneyVale: Showtime,
“Then there are our areas of research that are relevant to the industry, but still have a long way to go. We've been pushing game design for accessibility [
Unlike some of the organizations we’re investigating during University Week, GAMBIT is not about a full course of academic study. “GAMBIT isn't a degree-granting program -- we're just a lab at MIT. However, we are housed in the Comparative Media Studies program, which offers a 2-year Masters graduate degree,” Tan said.
“We generally see a lot of computer science and media studies students from MIT, with a smattering from the other departments,” he said, but the Lab is open to students from other institutions as well. “We also have a lot of interns from Rhode Island School of Design, the Berklee College of Music, and Wellesley.”
GAMBIT offers a wide variety of courses like Introduction to Videogame Theory, Game Design, Creating Video Games, Writing for Games, Games and Social Change, Media Industries & Systems, Computer Games & Simulations for Education, and Learning & Games.
In addition to their courses offered during the regular school year, the Lab hosts a nine-week, intensive game development experience called the Summer Program. Groups composed entirely of summer interns, led by the staff of the Lab, create games from start to finish that incorporate research elements that suit the needs of clients drawn from the local research community.
The Summer Program was the genesis of Symon, a browser-based game that won the Best Browser Game category at the 2010 Indie Games Challenge. Symon is a point-and-click adventure/puzzle game about the dreams of a paralyzed man, and is different every time it’s played. This is accomplished with procedural puzzle generation, or computer algorithms that take various pieces and assemble them to make new content on the fly. You can try Symon for free on Kongregate.
I asked Tan what would best prepare students to get the most out of the courses offered by the Lab. “Successful grad applicants to Comparative Media Studies come from a pretty wide range of backgrounds, but all of them need to demonstrate pretty impressive writing and analytical skill,” he said. “That can come from an undergraduate degree or from work experience; many applicants are folks who have already worked a few years in media, including the game industry.”
Finally, I asked Tan where former members of the Lab tend to go once they’ve finished their studies in the program. He told me that local Boston studios like Harmonix Music Systems, Irrational Games, Demiurge, and Fire Hose Games were all attractive for Lab alumni. “Of course, a lot of folks also now work outside Boston, with some going into R&D,” he said, with companies like Electronic Arts, Activision, Microsoft, Zynga, Google, NVIDIA, and Disney.
Fire Hose Games in Cambridge, MA was founded by Eitan Glinert, an alumnus of the GAMBIT Lab. His studio’s first game, Slam Bolt Scrappers, became a PlayStation Network exclusive after grabbing the attention of the video game press at PAX East 2010. I asked Glinert how his time at the Lab prepared him for the realities of running a game development studio.
“GAMBIT was pivotal in my decision to start up Fire Hose Games. People there pushed me to go and implement the games I felt were worth making, never once saying ‘that's a stupid idea,’” Glinert said. “The summer crucible in which we made games in 2 months helped teach me development scoping and gave me a greater understanding of the reality of production. They also helped me build the connections and network I would later call upon when I needed help with my fledgling studio.”
Dennis Scimeca is a freelancer from Boston, MA. His weekly video game opinion column, First Person, is published by Village Voice Media. He occasionally blogs at punchingsnakes.com, and can be followed on Twitter: