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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Illinois: IAM not

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Illinois: IAM not

I have a first cousin twice removed who I call Uncle Pep. (We call him an "uncle" because he grew up like he was my grandfather's brother.) He's 83 years old, which is kind of hard to believe because he's always out doing things. He's the sort of person who can adapt to any situation and just run with it, and that's served him very well in his many fields of business. So he's accumulated a lot of money over the years, much of which he donated to Columbia College in Chicago. He's a member of the board there.

A few years ago he was in Israel as part of an effort to help the Bnei Menashe in India move to Israel. (It's a long story.) The head of Columbia College's film department, a guy named Bruis, came with him because he was filming a documentary about the work Uncle Pep was doing. I met him then, so I knew about Columbia College and that it had a videogame program.

When Uncle Pep asked if I'd like a tour of the place, I said yes. I didn't have any intention of learning there, but I was certainly curious to see it.

He drove me into Chicago on Sunday. He's blind in one eye, and the other is weak, but he's still capable of driving. (He said he watches the white lines on the ground.) As we drove in, he told me about the logical numbering of the streets relative to the center of town, and I said it seemed like making the order of things so rigid and precise would limit the place's character.

But I was wrong- Chicago has tons of character. Massive skyscrapers are all over the place, so that even though the roads are very large they feel a bit tiny by comparison. Lots of radically different kinds of architecture are standing next to each other, so that the overall impression is one of utter anarchy, but if you look at any particular building chances are you'll be very impressed. Uncle Pep pointed out all the points of interest as we passed them.

At the school, we first looked in at what the art students had on display. They'd put up an exhibit about religion, and it didn't surprise me to find that most of them were mocking religion rather than supporting it. (It's a cliché for college students to say that religion is a comfortable lie, but at least they were finding new and interesting ways to say it.) There was one piece I liked, with lots of little white sheep figures laid around on the floor and bombs dangling from strings.

Then we went to the film department, where whoever we came across immediately threw down whatever they were doing as soon as Uncle Pep entered the room. He was being treated like royalty, and it made me a bit uncomfortable. It turned out that there had been a misunderstanding, and they'd gotten a student ready to show me the film department, which I'm sure is very impressive but wasn't what I came for. So they called the game division, and they quickly got someone who knows the place well and would be willing to show me around.

They call it IAM, which is short for Interactive Arts and Media. I find that name so funny, because music is an "interactive art or medium" last time I checked and that's a whole different branch of the school. The game students could learn something from them, I'm sure. Well, it's unreasonable to expect everyone to be as radical as me.

The guy showing me around (I've forgotten what his name was.) described the format of the program. The game designers who plan out everything beforehand are kept separate from the game designers who prototype and figure it out as they go along. I told him that that's strange to me, because my first game was all planned out and my second I needed to figure out as I programmed. Different kinds of games need different kinds of design. But that's how it's divided.

They've got all sorts of state-of-the-art facilities, most of which didn't impress me. There's a recording booth for voice acting, there's a motion capture studio (which is shared with the film department), there's lots of rooms filled with huge screens and drawing tablets, etc. But there were two things that did impress me. First, they have a room where they make hardware. So if a design student wants a specialized controller, he can make it. And in that room is a 3D printer, which is just one of the tools they use for doing that. ("3D printer" as in it prints out 3D objects.)

The other thing that impressed me was in a smaller room: eye-tracking technology. You look at the screen, and it sees exactly what point on the screen you're looking at. Now, my first instinct is to use that to focus the camera, so that it's like you're looking through a window into another world. (I wonder if it's precise enough for that. It probably is.) But that's not what they're using it for at all. They're using it so that they can analyze the players of the game later and try to figure out what they were thinking. That's really clever; I would never have thought of using it like that. They're doing this for the American government, actually. Long story, but it's really cool.

After the whole tour of the facilities, and his description of how they work (which surprisingly made sense), he asked if I had any questions. I did, but I wasn't sure how to phrase it. I wanted to know how they can cram all of gamism into one curriculum. How to ask that.. I asked him if it's one teacher grading all the projects, whether it's a text adventure or a music game or an action game or an RPG. He said no, the music game would be graded by their sound guy (an accomplished composer, apparently), and the action game would be graded by someone with experience making action games, and they don't have anyone who does adventures but there's someone they're trying to hire. I asked him who grades the projects that are weird hybrids of lots of different kinds of games, and he said they're always looking for someone like that but a person who's an expert in everything doesn't exactly exist.

I walked away from that building impressed that they do, to some extent, know what they're doing. People will come out of this program and go straight into the game industry, and understand how to work in teams and how to do all sorts of technical work for games and maybe even how to design the kinds of games that they want to make. So this program is something to be respected.

We went back to the film building to say hi to Bruis, who hadn't been there earlier. We went into his office, and he and I chatted about games and where they're headed. He asked me what kinds of games I make, and I told him how the first one was just a character and the second was a strategy game and the third is a movement game and the fourth will be an exploration game and I want to just keep jumping from one art form to the next. And he seemed very interested, not just the kind of faux-interest that you do to be polite. He said that it sounded like I was thinking "as much about the experience as about the game". I still don't understand what he meant by that. But anyway, we talked about independent games and how with the rise of the internet those are becoming more realistic, if only as a second job after an ordinary one to pay the bills. I name-dropped a whole bunch of indie games like The Path and Small Worlds, and he said he'd heard of them though he'd never played them. I'm not entirely sure why he seemed to know so much about games. I guess it's because there's such a crossover between film and games at Columbia College.

Then he was talking with Uncle Pep about some new building they're building, and the financial aspect of that. And then I asked him my final question: "Considering that I'm kind of on the side of what the game industry is doing, would I get anything out of learning here?" He was surprised by the question and had to think about it - this really was just a friendly chat and not a sales pitch. He said to me that maybe I wouldn't get anything out of it, and he'd rather be honest than have someone come to the school and then realize they don't want to be there. He's a cool guy, that Bruis. When we got up to leave, he realized that we'd been talking for way too long and he was late for something or other.

Uncle Pep and I drove to his house, so that we could pick up Aunt Paula for dinner. Aunt Paula has Parkinson's - she used to be in the middle of writing a book, but now she just thinks she'll finish her book soon and can't really work on it. When I saw her she was shaking around a lot but was very coherent in conversation. As she was getting ready to go, I noticed the upright piano in the corner and asked if I could play.

I improvised for a while, and then Uncle Pep asked if I'd play something I'd actually composed, so I did. It's an awful piano, horribly out of tune, but I did what I could with it. Aunt Paula good-naturedly asked if I'd shown them how I play at Columbia College. Uncle Pep said that he'd like it if for his 84th birthday I'd record a CD for him. He said to me, I just need to find out where there's a good, professional recording studio in Israel, and how much it costs, and he'll send the money. I told him it sounded like I'd be getting the better end of that deal, but he laughed. He said to call the CD "Happy 84th Birthday, Uncle Pep".

I do have what to play for a CD.. first the innocent piece, then the one that keeps wandering, then the classical one, then the new one, then "Dots and Curves", then…



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