USC Games director Tracy Fullerton pushes boundaries, touts diversity

May 09, 2014 | 12:00 p.m.
In a newly created role, Tracy Fullerton will be the first director of USC Games. (Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times)

In a newly created role, Tracy Fullerton will be the first director of USC Games. (Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times)

When it comes to screen adaptations, Hollywood and the video game industry tend to focus on comic book franchises as opposed to literary classics. But the computer game “Walden” finds its compelling narrative in an unlikely place — the mid-19th century writing of Henry David Thoreau.

Players of the forthcoming “Walden” have the abstract goal of discovering how to live a life of balance somewhere between society and nature. “Walden” may not represent what we regularly see on home video game systems, but it does bear a similarity to one particular game we’re all rather familiar with.

“This is a game in the way that life is a game,” said its creator, professor Tracy Fullerton. The 48-year-old was once a full-time game designer but now runs USC’s Interactive Media & Games division within the School of Cinematic Arts, which has a staff of more than 20, including part-time lecturers.

“We all make these choices and try to find this balance in our daily life, but we play games that put a false life before us — this false dream that if we work hard and buy more stuff that we’ll be satisfied. I want to make a game that has an alternative worldview and rewards us for following that view.”

Fullerton’s “Walden” is a work-in-progress risk, one designed to change the way we think about games and who plays them. It’s a nonconventional approach that has been a blueprint of sorts for the Mar Vista native’s career.

Tracy Fullerton's latest computer game creation is the soulful "Walden," shown on screen. (Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times)

Tracy Fullerton’s latest computer game creation is the soulful “Walden,” shown on screen. (Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times)

After decades of bending the rules, Fullerton will continue to trailblaze as the first director of USC Games. It’s an appointment that’s expected to be made official this week. In her newly created role, Fullerton will work more closely with other USC departments, including the technical game programs in the Viterbi School of Engineering.

“If you think about how games will be used in medicine, healthcare, education, politics and social activism, we need to open up a lot more in our view,” said Fullerton, who is far more T-shirt-casual than professorial in style and demos games with a smile. “This is the beginning of that. We’ve been doing it unofficially, but this is us leveling up our program to be more outward facing, more collaborative.”

Fullerton is considered a pioneer when it comes to creating casual games — the norm today on social networks such as Facebook, but rarities in the mid-to-late ’90s and early 2000s when she was designing companion games to quiz shows such as “Jeopardy!” and “Weakest Link.”

Tourists the world over have no doubt unknowingly encountered her handiwork. Fullerton was the puzzle designer on “Space Race,” an interactive attraction found inside Mission: Space at Walt Disney World’s EPCOT in Orlando, Fla. And those in the arts may have caught wind of “The Night Journey,” Fullerton’s collaboration with video artist Bill Viola.

Having started teaching at USC in 1999, she has been the principal steward of the university’s graduate and undergraduate game design programs in the School of Cinematic Arts, the former of which was launched in 2002 and the latter in ’04. Under her guidance, the Princeton Review has regularly ranked USC as the top university for game design in North America.

Jenova Chen, a former USC student and co-founder of Santa Monica-based Thatgamecompany, was the architect of 2012’s “Journey,” a PlayStation 3 title cited as one of the biggest success stories in the modern independent era.

As Chen tells it: “Without Tracy, I probably would not be doing Thatgamecompany and making these games.”

"Journey," released in 2012 for the PlayStation 3, was developed by a team led by Jenova Chen, one of Fullerton's former students (Thatgamecompany).

“Journey,” released in 2012 for the PlayStation 3, was developed by a team led by Jenova Chen, one of Fullerton’s former students. (Thatgamecompany)

USC has played a crucial and largely undocumented role in bringing more multiplicity to the game industry, both in terms of who is making games as well as the range in topics those games are exploring. Some of Fullerton’s former students, such as Chen, are credited with ushering in an era of new emotional depth in independent game development, and there’s evidence that Fullerton’s pledge for gender and ethnic diversity isn’t just an academia talking point.

The incoming freshman class of 2014, for instance, marks the first time in the program’s history that women will outnumber men. While one undergraduate program of about 70 students will not reshape a male-dominated industry, it underscores the beginnings of a generational shift that can have long-lasting ramifications.

Consider, for instance, that a 2012 survey of 4,000 developers found that women account for just 4% of programmers and engineers, 11% of designers and 16% of its artists and animators. If there is hope for top-shelf game makers to stop viewing the white, muscled male character as the default, it will likely take a generational shift.

“Times are changing,” said Fullerton, who excitedly rushed through descriptions of the numerous games at USC, sharing one big-picture theory after another.

Though Fullerton recently completed chemotherapy and radiation therapy treatment in January after a breast cancer diagnosis in April 2013, she showed no signs of slowing down through a double-booked schedule earlier this month.

“My next goal,” she continued, “is to make sure we have diversity in more than just gender, which is really hard. Where are Hispanic game developers? Where are African American game developers? As a woman walking into a room of white dudes — geeks — there’s always a sense of, ‘Oh, do I belong here? Will I be able to get anything done? Or am I wasting my time?’ Everyone who is not in the majority feels that way.”

Tracy Fullerton (Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times)

Tracy Fullerton (Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times)

How someone feels, especially when that someone is playing a game, seems to have become something of an obsession for Fullerton. It’s a shift in thinking away from the more conventional questions surrounding games, such as what an underlying computer program or character can do, or what goals a player may achieve.

The emphasis on emotion has marked what have been some of the most successful games to come out of the USC game program, namely the work of Thatgamecompany. Titles such as “Flower” and “Journey” emphasize exploration, as either a flower petal or an anonymous robed figure. Environments are pastoral, puzzles are light, the look is abstract and the games are designed to evoke a sense of curiosity. You can play “Journey” with someone else, but its whimsically grand vistas encourage reflection rather than competition.

Thatgamecompany’s Chen graduated from USC’s masters program in 2006 after moving to Los Angeles from his native Shanghai. Now in his early 30s, when Chen arrived at USC his thoughts on game design were far less experimental.

Fullerton recalled that one of Chen’s early projects involved gunning down aliens that had taken over the USC campus. Chen can target the precise moment that Fullerton challenged his design philosophy: He was working on what would become the student game “Cloud,” and his initial vision involved aliens from Jupiter who could manipulate climates.

“I was telling Tracy this Jupiter idea and she was just like, ‘Why don’t we change the alien to a boy?’ Why not? She gave me the inspiration to channel my own childhood into the game and it turned ‘Cloud’ into a very emotional game. Those words — ‘why not a little boy?’ — they changed my life.”

The refashioned “Cloud” began in a hospital and centered on a young, bedridden boy who regains the power to dream. It garnered national attention and generated more than a million downloads.

“I could see the potential in the idea was all around the emotion of flight and childlike wonder of making shapes in the sky,” Fullerton said. “Everything else seemed like a distraction — the aliens, and there was some idea about making realistic cloud formations, none of it really mattered for the overall experience.”

If those games designed by recent graduates are also taken into account, the USC program can lay claim to many success stories.

Former USC student Miguel Oliveira is leading a team developing “Thralled,” which is set in 18th century Brazil. (Miguel Oliveira)

Former USC student Miguel Oliveira is leading a team developing “Thralled,” which concerns slavery and is set in 18th-century Brazil. (Miguel Oliveira)

Alumni Ian Dallas and Max Geiger formed developer Giant Sparrow to release the student-developed “The Unfinished Swan” in 2012 for the PlayStation 3, a game that re-imagines the first-person-shooter as a melancholic children’s book. More recently, 2013 graduate Miguel Oliveira signed with developer Ouya to bring to life his final USC project and tale of 18th century Brazilian slavery, “Thralled,” and recent graduate Sam Farmer this month successfully funded “Last Life” via Kickstarter, a noir detective story in which a character investigates his own death.

While all wildly different and not all overseen by Fullerton, they in varying degrees represent an artist-driven aesthetic.

“Tracy plays all kinds of games. She’s extremely competitive. She loves ‘Halo.’ But she makes these sublime, Zen games — games that can be about things like standing still,” said Celia Pearce, the co-founder of independent game festival IndieCade and a games professor herself. Pearce has been teaching games at Georgia Tech for the past eight years and in the fall will be moving to Boston’s Northeastern University.

“It’s so antithetical to what mainstream games try and do, where you run around and shoot things,” Pearce said.

Fullerton began tinkering with game design as a teenager in Mar Vista, creating rudimentary games on a Commodore 64 — a sequel to “Star Wars” here and a riff on “Battlestar Galactica” there. She focused early on cinema studies and graduated with a masters from the USC film school in 1991.

“Through film history classes, I started to see similarities between games and films,” she said. “That really informed me as to where the next level of innovation should go. If I didn’t go through the film school, I probably wouldn’t think about games from an entertainment level.”

– Todd Martens| @toddmartens | @LATHeroComplex

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