Eric Zimmerman on The Age of Play


12.19.13 | Eric Zimmerman is a game designer and founding faculty member of the NYU Game Center. He is the coauthor, with Katie Salen, of “Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals,” and was cofounder and chief design officer of Gamelab.

This post is part of a series of conversations with thought leaders on digital media and learning, then and now. In conversation with journalist Heather Chaplin, leaders reflect on how the field of digital media and learning (DML) has changed over time, and where it’s headed.


Photo/ Eric Zimmerman

Spotlight: You were one of the first people I heard talking about games and learning.

Eric Zimmerman: When I was at RGA in the early 1990s, people would always ask Frank Lantz and me about educational games. And we always had the same response, which is that any good game is educational. If you’re deeply engaged in a game, you’re learning. When I was playing Dungeons & Dragons in the fifth grade, my friend and I wanted to understand the probability of getting certain rolls with six-sided dice. We put it on a graph and we basically created a bell curve, though it wasn’t until I was in high school and was introduced to the bell curve that I understood what we’d done.

So when did you start thinking about gaming literacies specifically?

It was at a gathering sponsored during the Games+ Learning + Society conference at the University of Wisconsin with Jim Gee, Kurt Squire and Constance Steinkhueler. It was in the late 1990s. We were asking how to explain what games had to do with learning that was beyond merely injecting content into players. We realized there was a set of literacies that games embody. Literacy means the ability to create meaning and understand meaning—and over the years literacy scholars have come to realize that literacy is about more than just reading and writing. Today it needs to also include visual literacy, technological literacy, procedural literacy, and computational literacy.

And you guys saw things even beyond that.

The idea of gaming literacy is that games embody a certain set of skills and ways of viewing the world that are very of the moment. None of the older literacies are going away, but they need to be complimented by new literacies. For me the three key literacies that games embody are systems thinking, play, and design.

The big three. Systems thinking, play, and design.

Today we live in a world of systems. So many aspects of our lives are completely intertwined and enmeshed in networks of digital information. The way we work, learn, communicate, socialize, romance, connect with our government, do our banking—all of these essential aspects of our lives are totally embedded in and dependent on complex systems. This means we need to be fluent and literate in how systems work in order to function in a basic way.

So what’s the connection to games there?

Games are the cultural forms of systems. To play a game is to push and pull at the outputs and inputs of a particular system. When you play a game, you’re seeing how a system works—whether it’s chess, tennis, or SimCity. That’s why games are particularly relevant in the time in which we live. They are the cultural form that embodies this historical moment. The rise of games is a symptom of their relevance, but it’s also a symptom of our need to be more systems literate.

Okay. Why is play so important?

When you play a game, you’re seeing how a system works—whether it’s chess, tennis, or SimCity. That’s why games are particularly relevant in the time in which we live.

Play is the idea that it’s not enough to just understand how a system works on an analytic level. It’s also important to understand how it works on a human level. To play a game well you need to understand not just how the system works but also how people work. To play a game well invites you to understand the human element of a system. Play is about innovation. Playing with the rules of a system allows you to transform them into something new.

And then design is third.

Design is the idea that in our Ludic Century, there’s a blurring of producer and consumer. And more and more people have to think like designers.

People are always talking about the importance of design these days. What does that actually mean to think like a designer?

To me, designers solve problems. I think a designer’s mindset is a way of starting to think about solving the complex problems that require systems thinking and playful thinking. And I would argue that when you get good at a game, you learn to think more like a designer. You have to really understand how the system works and begin to reverse engineer it.

These were the ideas that led to Gamestar Mechanic, right? What were you hoping to do with that? Why bring game design into the classroom?

We were trying to think of a project that would embody these ideas. We ended up coming up with a game-making tool that focused on designing rather than programming. It focused on the idea of small-scale game creation.  Jim Gee and I wrote the initial proposal to the MacArthur Foundation. He was the principal investigator and Gamelab was the commercial partner. Then, at Gamelab we realized maybe we should have a nonprofit that owned it, so we created The Institute of Play. We brought in Katie Salen to head that up and she’s taken it to really exciting places. We knew she was the perfect person.

The Institute of Play has been involved in a lot of cool projects since then.

Their flagship project so far has been the creation of the Quest to Learn schools in New York and Chicago. And they’re working with Electronic Arts to think about how to leverage SimCity as a gaming platform for learning—specifically for assessment. I think the most important thinking about games and learning is less “This game teaches you X,” and more “How can we understand what’s already amazing about games?”

You’ve referred to the Ludic Century a couple of times in this conversation. Do you want to explain that?

I was trying to think about how to frame the idea of gaming literacies, and I came up with this idea of the Ludic Century and with it the core ideas of systems, play, and design. Then you and I did that talk at the Games ± Learning ± Society conference where we took it further. And it’s continued to percolate since then—you and I have been working on writing something about it!

Right. We’ll do that after this! So summarize what the Ludic Century is.

If the 20th century was the century of information revolution, I want to ask: what comes next? Computers were invented more than fifty years ago, so has something taken hold since then? I would argue yes. And that thing is the Ludic Century, or the age of play. It’s not that in the future everything will be a game. This is not about gamification. I’m talking about the way people create and understand meaning. I think it’s an optimistic view of the future, asking “What happens when we’re increasingly interconnected and playfully reinventing the systems in which we live, and learning to think like designers?”

What’s been interesting to me is watching your growing skepticism about the “serious game” movement. When you look at how much excitement there is about games and learning, what do you see?

People look at the kid buried in his Gameboy and they say, “How can I get that kind of interest and attention in education—for example, in the classroom.” But the problem with this approach is that games get instrumentalized and become valuable only because they lead someone somewhere else. Or they get so narrowly focused that they lose their soul. The problem with learning and games is that it too often reduces games to informing a single skill or making people “better” in a very narrow kind of way. It’s like saying to a chef, “Everything you do with food is nice, but ultimately, cuisine is just about nutrition. We really don’t care about any other aspect.” No chef would agree with that.

So you’re resisting the idea of instrumentalizing games?

There’s this impulse to tame the wildness and complexity of games in the service of something else. I never want to say games are valuable because they make us more literate. I want to resist that as strongly as possible. I want to remind people that games are beautiful and valuable in and of themselves.

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