Why I am going indie, leaving some bits of academia for now

I grew up playing games, but it wasn’t until in 1995 I got obsessed by them. Back then, I wrote stories, and saw that games didn’t only tell stories, they made players co-creators in another way than other media.  I wanted to get under the hood of the games, to really understand them, and then (and perhaps it is still so), the only way to do so was to learn to read and write code. So I set about to do so.

Five years later, in 2000, I was working as a game programmer in Stockholm at Liquid Media. We were making mystery games and other games that were heavy on the story telling aspects. I dug up some some readings from my university years on story logics, and what had seemed, before, as esoteric, was suddenly something that was possible to apply in practical manner.
I went to my former advisor in literary studies, a professor at Stockholm University, and proposed a masters thesis project. Our studio head had come upon a scholarship, which I applied for. Then I forgot about the whole thing because we went in to crunch (The Mystery in Rosemond Valley).
How it was, I got the scholarship – it funded the whole masters project. In Visby, where me and my ex had a summer cottage back then, the Interactive institute funded an applied research studio, Zero-Game. When done with the thesis (Object Oriented Story Construction) I stayed there as researcher and tech lead.  It was there that I discovered the research world – it was a whole new and wonderful thing to me.  I took a step out of story logics and dialog systems and started to look at MMO’s, believable agents, and semi-autonomous agents.  It was mesmerising. So much to explore, so much one could build.  We worked on a prototype MMO, Ouroboros, on a commedia del arte application, and on a location based game, Visby Under. I found  that there is a loophole in the societal structure called ‘making a phd’ that would allow one to drill into an idea for years. That it was legio to even have experts around supporting ones ideas. That no one would tell you that your idea was too far out as long as you could prove that could be of some use, that it was feasible to do some work on, and that it had not been done before.

Five years after that, in 2005, I had just stated my PhD. I did it with Gotland University as my home base and Teesside University as my academic home. I worked with design in an EU project IPeRG, in the work package Massively Multiplayer reaching out. We build a prototype where player could play simultaneously in different modes in Stockholm – some about town with their phones, other in a 3D world of the same geography.  I went to Georgia Tech for an autumn, to the lab that one of my advisors, Michael Mateas, had there. I built the first version of the Mind Module, using a spreading activation network to mimic NPCs and avatars personalities, emotions and emotional memories. I made a music application that expressed it as concert. Another autumn I spent as a guest researcher at Tokyo Tech in professor Nakajima’s lab. I spent mostly of my time implementing a MUD. I spent a year at EIS in UCSC in California, again because Michael had his lab there (he had moved). I built a prototype world using TorqueEngine combined with an open source python MMO layer. It was pretty messy. I dropped that, and got help from a german company, Pixeltamer, to build the MMO prototype Pataphysic Institute. All game play mechanics were designed around the MindModule, so all conflict resolution used emotion as the bearing metaphors.

Five years later again, in 2010, I was done with the dissertation, and became a faculty member at Gotland University. I kept doing research on the Pataphysic Institute prototype, making formal multiplayer play-test sessions. I kept working with my friends at UCSC, going there every now and then as a visiting scholar. I was by this time realising that the type of research and prototype work that I found most rewarding, but also challenging to work with, was at the intersection between AI and game design (some might even argue that it isn’t really an intersection, it is so closely related. My husband and I wanted to find a way to do less travelling though. We also wanted a warmer climate than Sweden. We moved to Malta in 2012, where I was part of building the Institute of Digital games at the University of Malta, and our masters in digital games. I also got to work as a designer with an interesting EU project, C2Learn, which all about co-creativity in educational settings.

Now in 2015, it is time for the next shift. I love building things, making stuff. Wierdly, there is this immediate route that is taken for granted that one after having done a dissertation is to become a teacher. One teaches, one administers various things, and one is in committees. The time that is left over can be dedicated to research. So, what one produces is academic articles, students with (hopefully) refined skill-sets, and various long documents, often being funding applications, policy documents, and course plans. This might sound a bit drab, but one sometimes find time to build things, one gets to go to pretty awesome conferences, have intellectually stimulating conversations, and it is highly rewarding to teach and advice students. There is also a kind of comfort in that there is such a clear achievement system with rank based on number of publications etc.
BUT. I don’t find that much time do creative work on my own. Some people manage to do it, to find those extra hours in the day, but I don’t. Like many others I have a plethora of more or less formulated game designs I would like to realise, but there is one in particular that I have been mulling over for years. Its a game that is played in instances, by two or three people who are close friends, using the most successful part of the game mechanics of the Pataphysic Institute prototype. One player instantiate a representation of an emotionally complex *something*, inspired by real life, and the game play is about overcoming it, understanding it, and together puzzling it out. I realised that because I haven’t been able to carve out time to do this, which is really want to, I must make a change. This game in particular isn’t going to get made unless I make it. I *have* been able to do a little bit of water-colour painting in stolen moments (like 10-15 minutes here and there), but I haven’t been able to make larger projects. Also, I haven’t been writing fiction in 20 years, and that is too something that I need larger stretches of time for.

SO. I set about on a new journey now. I’m leaving the life as a faculty person, at least for now, and I am starting Otter Play. I will make my games and I will write my my stories. Some of the games and development ideas and obsessions can be done in research contexts (such as agent architectures and systems for story modelling) , and I’m hoping to be able to be part of research projects on part time. The first year I plan to make small prototypes that I can do on my own, while in parallell devising somewhat larger plans. I am not ruling out going back as a faculty member in the future – but then hopefully with a stronger sense of an own creative practice – something tangible, that exists, and that  I can carve out space for.

Its like I’m going full circle – in -95 I was curious about what one might be able to accomplish with code. I’d say I have an inkling now, and that its time to get cracking 🙂

Mirjam P Eladhari, Malta, 22 Feb 2015

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3 thoughts on “Why I am going indie, leaving some bits of academia for now

  1. Hi, you don’t know me, and I just stumbled onto your webpage, and in fact I very often just lurk around the internet and rarely comment on things, but I wanted to write a short note to cheer you on. Please make your games, I want to play them 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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