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Interview: Maxis' Bradshaw On Freedom In Games, Failure As A Positive

Interview: Maxis' Bradshaw On Freedom In Games, Failure As A Positive Exclusive

May 29, 2009 | By Leigh Alexander

In earlier years the activists, educators, researchers and nonprofits that attended the annual Games For Change event had a tendency to dismiss the commercial games space as less useful to their cause.

But this year, all of the attendees interested in how game design can be leveraged for social change were very excited about lessons from The Sims and Spore.

That's why EA Maxis VP and general manager Lucy Bradshaw was in New York to give the closing keynote, and Gamasutra caught up with her just before her lecture, where she explained how those titles can inspire and educate.

"The body of work that I've had an opportunity to work on [at Maxis] really does have this kind of strange background that has changed the landscape of gaming," she tells Gamasutra.

Bradshaw also has a point of view on why games can act as a vehicle for change. "I believe it really stems more from play than an intent or a key message," she suggests. "I think the experience of playing is something that's transformative, and interactive games have this incredible opportunity to have that same kind of effect," she said.

Play, Community Are Key

Ideas on the essence of play were present in a big way at Games For Change this year, something of an evolution on a self-limiting focus on overt educational and simulation-type projects. And with play comes ideas about collaboration and community, which researchers Henry Jenkins and James Gee also discussed at the event.

Bradshaw agrees with their thoughts on the importance of community surrounding play, and believes that games like The Sims and Spore have a lot to offer groups looking to use games as a part of community-oriented activism efforts.

"I think the important thing that game companies have found and figured out is that to build a community, it's not something that you just put one thing out there," she says. "You need to give community a role to play, and then engage with that community."

"It's not a ship and forget," she stresses. "All of the projects that I've worked on... the start of that adventure is just when you ship that first game."

Players Will Surprise You

That's why EA Maxis has endeavored to begin community outreach initiatives prior to a game's launch, such as when the Creature Creator was released for free well ahead of Spore's launch. "What happens is this incredible transformative process," Bradshaw says. "The ingenuity of our players will take things well beyond what we've even considered."

For example, Spore players had a means of commenting back and forth to each other about creations in Spore. "One day, one player created a mailbox... that was a creature, and said, 'this will be your means of communicating with me.' The next thing we saw was more and more mailbox creatures... until nearly every player had a mailbox creature."

In that way, says Bradshaw, players are liable to design play in ways the designers could not have even foreseen. Similarly, player advocates naturally emerge from within the Spore community, says Bradshaw, to police forums, advocate for desired features, demand patches and point out bugs.

"I hope that people here starting to make games for change start to look at these kinds of practices within gaming," Bradshaw says. "We intuitively understand that games are a vehicle for learning and behavior change --" but game design is still needed.

According to Bradshaw, Spore's players were able to become designers, community leaders and advocates without being instructed or shepherded by the developers because they're given both tools and freedom. "For me, 'sandbox' is... a description of the types of games I've worked on that I think has a basis in creating imaginative play," she explains.

More Sandbox, Less Structure

Bradshaw is a firm believer in unstructured play -- since the amount of unstructured play in modern education has dropped 25 percent since the 1980s and '90s, she remembers having to search extensively for a kindergarten for her daughter to find one that wouldn't assign homework at such a young age.

"I really value that time kids have to be free and explore," she says. Moreover, children who play more with other children than they do with adults develop stronger language, negotiation and communication skills -- "because adults make it easier for them," she says.

That's why it's important to her that the EA Maxis franchises explore the balance between structure and the absence thereof -- games that let players push boundaries are the most effective for learning and engagement, she says.

"There've been studies on how gamers actually become better business leaders," she says. "They're very familiar with that creative, collaborative team space that's so much a [part of] our businesses." And creative, unstructured play means letting players fail, she asserts.

Giving players the opportunity to have failure states -- not just a "strict message that's being delivered" -- is the right way to encourage players to learn and explore. She noted educational game Electrocity, a SimCity inspired resource-management game, that allows for mistakes and consequences. "Sometimes in those moments is when people 'get it' strongly," says Bradshaw.

Learning Through Failure

She also agrees with the consensus of the earlier Ethics in Game Design panel that frustration is actually necessary for empathy and engagement. "I don't think I've ever seen one of my daughters pick up a manual when they start playing," says Bradshaw.

"They use what Will Wright called 'the scientific method.' It's through failure that they really do learn, and then all of a sudden those things really do click into place. The learning process really does stem from the experience of understanding how the gears work."

"That's true in life, true in play, and it's true in games. As a game maker, it's that balance... between the possibility space and how you give players the opportunity to explore it," she says. "With risk comes reward -- I think if there isn't the possibility of things going awry, you don't necessarily appreciate as greatly the progress you're making. And you need to have that sense of anticipation and suspense."

"At the same time, frustration is an interesting word... a funny thing," she says. "You can lose players [by frustrating them] -- they'll just drop right back out."

Spore And Balance

Finding the right balance was a challenge in Spore, she says, particularly in the area of how much impact and meaning to give people's visual choices for their creatures. "We thought about that a lot... how penalizing the editing process should be. How much meaning should any one of those parts have? Should we have focused more on the physics, should gravity have played a greater role -- should we have allowed players to make unsuccessful creatures?"

Ultimately, though, the team chose a "bias toward creativity and ease of use, rather than having physical attributes being damning of your species." If it's so easy to fail because a creature's the wrong size or incorrectly mobile, Bradshaw theorizes, then players may be stuck going back and forth in the creation loop and missing out on the exploration aspect of the game.

"We've gotten some grief for it, because people wanted more meaning behind the editors," she concedes. "I think there's more opportunity for us to look at some of those things and give players a little more sense and depth; to ultimately re-examine some of the elements of Spore. With Galactic Adventures, we're going deeper, allowing players to really invest back in their captain."

Personalization And Connectivity

An earlier Games For Change keynote by Nicholas Kristof noted that when an opportunity to engage is personalized, it amplifies engagement. "And the other thing I have been doing in games is making it personal," Bradshaw adds, "with things like user-generated content -- how do we get players to have that investment? Even storytelling -- 'how do I express the experience I just had and share it with other players?'"

Proliferating connectivity, increased access to online and emerging platforms are making community more possible than ever. "Now, we're on such a verge of change here with new platforms -- open APIs for social networks and iPhone, connectivity between mobile devices and stationary deices. There's such an opportunity to explore these kind of vehicles," says Bradshaw.

"'Connected platforms' is one of the new buzzwords in our industry -- the iPhone can tap into the PC vein, social networks can also be an outlet, you can keep tabs on something that's going on in a different space."

"I think it's going to change game design," she says. "It will change the way in which players invest in games... we've barely scratched the surface."

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