Serious Fun and Games in Pittsburgh

Home to cutting-edge artists and leading technologists, Pittsburgh is fast becoming a national leader in game-based learning.

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t first became evident about five years ago when the Art+Technology Initiative at the  Pittsburgh Technology Council hosted an art exhibit to showcase regional artists. Kim Chestney Harvey, Director of the Art+Technology Initiative, planned for about 50 people. Five hundred showed up. “We almost broke the fire code,” she said. It was then that she knew there was something here.

“Here” is Pittsburgh, and the “something” is the confluence of creativity, technology—and play—into a viable industry.

“I think [the blending of] art and technology is one of the crucial elements of innovation in our day,” says Chestney Harvey, whose work focuses on cultivating talent and helping creative businesses grow and remain in Pittsburgh.

“Before you could be innovative by finding new code to write, but now the creative aspect is such a driving force. You can’t have technology without design. If you can’t get both sides together, you won’t be at the forefront of progress.”

Pittsburgh is fast becoming a hub of just such innovation and creativity centered on children and digital media, particularly game-based learning, and particularly “transformative” games—games that are meant to change players in some way by the time they’re done playing. These games, according to Jesse Schell, CEO of Schell Games, are the fastest growing part of the game industry. And Pittsburgh is one of the fastest growing transformative game design hubs in the country.

Pittsburgh has all the elements, many argue, to draw creative innovators and start-ups. It has the perfect combination of size, a rich cultural base, world-class universities, and a legacy of children’s programming in the venerable Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, whose studios were in Pittsburgh from 1966 to 2001.

[dropcap]O[/dropcap]ne of those innovators is Schell Games. In the past ten years, they’ve created educational games and platforms for Pixar, PBS Kids, Sesame Workshop, Disney, and other luminaries. They’re currently the largest game developer in Pennsylvania, and employ more than 70 people. One of the company’s latest projects is the interactive website for the new “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood,” an animated program on PBS that builds on the legacy of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” The show and the interactive games on its website, mobile, and tablets are designed to teach key social skills to preschoolers ages 2 to 4.

“A lot of shows have shapes and colors, and animals,” says Schell. “But this is about real life, dealing with your feelings. What do you do with jealousy or feelings of disappointment? What happens when you go to school? All the things that young kids need to know.”

Another innovator is Sabrina Culyba, co-founder and designer at Interbots, as well as senior game designer at Schell Games. Culyba and her team have developed Popchilla, a cute (there’s simply no other description) robot that helps autistic children navigate the world of emotions more easily. Culyba first became interested in robots as a student at Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center. She and her team decided to stay in Pittsburgh after graduation and build a business.

“We didn’t understand what we were getting into,” she says today, nearly a decade later. “We just thought, hey we love doing this and we’d like to do it more, and in Pittsburgh. Actually, looking back, what we didn’t know probably helped us. If we’d known what we do now, we might have taken a safer route.”

Today Culyba and Interbots are excited to be part of the larger Pittsburgh game-design family. Pittsburgh, she says, is a “melting pot of collaboration.”

And the collaboration extends to many seemingly disparate fields.  In other words, the thinking goes, throw a lot of different people in a room and ignite a fresh idea.

[blockquote]“Interdisciplinary collaboration is where the best and newest innovations are coming from,” says Schell. “It’s one of the things we talk about a lot. If you look at the iPhone, engineers couldn’t have created it alone; it’s too beautiful, and artists couldn’t have created it because it’s too high-tech.[/blockquote]

Game design seems particularly good at this, bringing in artists and engineers and storytellers and mathematicians in such a way that allows everyone to build on each other’s ideas.

As Schell puts it, “We focus on how you work with people who can do something that you can’t, so you can create something that none of you could create yourself.”

[dropcap]J[/dropcap]ames Paul Gee, scholar and author of “What Video Games Have to Teach About Learning and Literacy,” calls these “cross-functional” teams, which he says are going to be key in the high-tech workplaces of the future. Experts like Gee say that the skills game designers use to create these products are the same skills they believe they engender in young players and the reason they believe games have such potential for teaching and learning.

At schools in Pittsburgh and around the country, educators are experimenting with bringing gaming, and the kinds of learning that takes place during game play, into the everyday classroom to help teach collaboration and to support experimentation and inquiry-based learning. At Elizabeth Forward Middle School outside Pittsburgh, students learn science and math concepts in a Situated Multimedia Arts Learning Lab, a Wii-like space that uses ceiling-mounted projector, motion-sensor cameras, and a computer to create a kinesthetic learning environment. And at the Quest to Learn School in New York City, sixth-grade students play “Gamestar Mechanic,” a video game that teaches systems thinking, collaboration, and iterative design, all of which these educators feel are going to be key 21st-century literacies.

These projects often rely on partnerships from artists and developers to make them happen. Drew Davidson, acting director of the Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) at Carnegie Mellon University, has been a consultant to schools and libraries as they aim to integrate new creative technologies into learning settings.

Davidson knows how important the burgeoning game design industry is, especially in a place like Pittsburgh with its focus on transformative games, to the future of learning. But he also knows this sort of collaboration does not happen overnight. It is the result of smart planning, strategic vision, mentoring, and support. Or as Davidson puts it, Pittsburgh has the “creative gestalt with a business savvy.”

The ETC program is in many ways a first step in this fruitful mix. Through its two-year master’s program in entertainment technology, it brings together students in fine arts and those in computer science, effectively cultivating a talent pipeline for future businesses. It focuses broadly on games, from video games to theme parks, as well as how to apply the technology to other fields such as education and medicine. It also gives future entrepreneurs a head start by allowing them to keep their own copyright on their creations, unlike some other universities. And when the graduates are kicking around ideas, the Pittsburgh Technology Council (PTC) and similar organizations, such as the Idea Foundry and The Sprout Fund, ensure that the structure is in place to launch those ideas from the planning stages into something bigger.

“People in Pittsburgh are always running in to each other,” says Culyba. “We meet each other and realize we could collaborate on something. And then that’s supported by groups like Sprout or PTC, who give a framework to those ideas. They see the opportunity for a grant or festival where that collaboration could take root and be fostered.”

The result of this concerted effort is a cluster of businesses that seed related businesses that seed other businesses and on down the line, until eventually Pittsburgh reaches a critical mass of business all working directly or tangentially in a certain field. This in turn, says Schell, creates stability, both for individual companies and the area as a whole.

“Back in the 1990s a successful game studio got up to about 30 staff,” he said. “But then they hit a rough patch and they had to lay off people. Unfortunately, most of them had to leave the area because there were no other firms working in game design. So the talent drifted away.” Today, he thinks the story would end differently.

“When you have a critical mass of companies, the others will pick up the talent.”

But something else also makes Pittsburgh a place to stay.

“It’s a cultural thing,” said Davidson. “It’s what drew me here from Austin, TX,” another art-meets-technology hotbed.

People play well together, he says. “There’s more organization initiative and strategic vision than I’ve seen elsewhere.”

And they also really do play.

[dropcap]F[/dropcap]or two days in January, the Pittsburgh chapter of the International Game Developers Association took part in the Global Game Jam at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh.  Game developers (programmers, designers, sound designers, artists), both students and professionals, have 48 hours to design and create a game and share it with the global community. The jam is not a competition but rather a way to spark creativity and collaboration.

More than 25 Pittsburgh teams took part. Although not officially a competition, the Pittsburgh chapter did vote to recognize many of the teams’ efforts. The “Audience Choice Award,” for example, went to “Stealth,” and “Get Pumped!” took the “Judges Choice Award.” The judges for the latter were Tom Murphy of Google, Jen Stancil of WQED, and Jesse Schell of Schell Games.  This year the group added the “First Penguin” award, to  “Quick or Dead,” for a team that takes an impressive risk.

The number of game-jam teams that assembled suggests that Pittsburgh is a draw to emerging talent. Now whether Pittsburgh can sustain this creativity-meets-technology hub is the next big question. Start-ups cannot continue to rely on philanthropic support forever, and homegrown venture capital, while growing, is still thin. 2012 closed with 79 venture capital deals across an array of fields, totaling $168.97 million, an 8% increase over 2011, according to MoneyTree Report by PricewaterhouseCoopers and the National Venture Capital Association.

To survive and grow, game designers, as Schell puts it, “have to make products and sell them, period. You just have to find a way to do it.”

Published February 14, 2013