Expert Interviews > Lee Sheldon

Lee SheldonLee Sheldon is Associate Professor and Co-Director of the Games and Simulation Arts program at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He has written and designed over 20 commercial video games and massively multiplayer online games. He has published two books: The Multiplayer Classroom: Designing Coursework as a Game and Character Development and Storytelling for Games (which is required reading by many game developers and in univer- sity game design programs). He is a contributor to several books on video games and regularly lectures and consults on game design and writing in the US and abroad. Before his career in video games he wrote and produced over 200 popular television shows, including Star Trek: The Next Generation, Charlie’s Angels, and Cagney and Lacey. As head writer of the daytime serial Edge of Night he received a nomination for best writing from the Writers Guild of America. He has been twice nominated for Edgar Awards by the Mystery Writers of America. His first mystery novel, Impossible Bliss, was re-issued in 2004. Lee began his academic career in 2006 at Indiana University where he taught game design and screenwriting; first instituted the practice of designing classes as multiplayer games; worked on the serious games Quest Atlantis and Virtual Congress; and wrote and designed the alternate reality games The Skeleton Chase and Skeleton Chase 2: The Psychic funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; and Skeleton Chase 3: Warp Speed funded by Coca-Cola. He continues as creative director of the narrative-driven massively multiplayer online game Londontown; and is head of the team working to build the Emergent Reality Lab at Rensselaer. He was design consultant and lead writer on the upcoming casual massively multiplayer online game Star Trek: Infinite Space; and is currently writing a new Facebook social game for Zynga.

From your perspective as a games designer/researcher, what is it about games that interests you most?

Writing is the biggest challenge in game development. Wedding player agency to meaningful story involves interactivity, logic and sleight of hand. If writing and game design are collaborative and simultaneous wonderful things can happen.

What are the most important lessons you have learned about how to engage players in games?

Never forget they are there. Take them places they have never been. Empower them to acts greater than they can perform in real life. Reward them for their efforts.

What advice would you give a novice game designer for education?

Focus, but avoid tunnel vision. Don't be a mechanic. Get a solid, well-rounded liberal arts education and travel. Most of what you'll learn will not be on a computer screen. It's in that world out there. If all you end up with is knowing how to make games, but you learn nothing of the world around you, you will never have anything worthwhile to say.

How do you think that games can most effectively be used in education? Is there anything they can't be used for?

They must remain true to the design principles of non-educational games. Too many educational games begin with curriculum, then try to slap a game on top of that. They are too literal. Abstraction and fun are essential. I've yet to discover a subject that cannot be taught with greater engagement and retention using games.

How important do you think that graphical quality, and realism, is important in computer games?

People used to laugh at me when I'd answer this question by saying neither is important. Now with the advent of social games, iPhone games etc. more are realizing that attraction is in a game's play and in its heart. The multiplayer classes I design are games played in the real world in real time. Graphics, realism, even computers are unnecessary.

Where do you see the future of computer games?

Pretty much status quo if they continue to focus on stereotypes, clichés, content without context, sensation without humanity. If they evolve to the place other media has been for decades, even centuries, the  limit is somewhere beyond the sky.

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