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The M.O. of MMOs

If not for a prescient phone call some 31 years ago, Celia Pearce may not have become one of the world’s leading experts on virtual worlds and multiplayer gaming.

It was 1983 and Pearce—now a newly appointed associate professor of game design in the College of Arts, Media, and Design—was living and working in Los Angeles. She was fresh off a summer internship at ESI Design, a New York City-based experiential design firm where she wrote copy for exhibits and organized a design resource library, but she was still unsure of her next career move. One day, she visited her old stomping grounds and called Edwin Schlossberg, a family friend and the founder of ESI, to see if he wanted to meet for lunch. “I can’t have lunch,” Schlossberg said, “but do you want to come work here?” Needless to say, Pearce had not expected to receive a job offer and asked for some time to consider the move. “But by the end of the week,” she recalls, “I had decided that New York sounded like fun.”

Once she arrived at ESI, Pearce was ushered into a room whose walls were covered in sketches for interactive games. Her days as a copywriter were over, she realized, and her career as a game designer had just begun. Over the next seven years, she helped design and prototype scores of multiplayer games, the components of which included computers, punching bags, and newly invented touch-screens. Her role evolved from game logician to director of game testing to senior game designer and—for lack of any better terminology at the time—she started referring to herself as an “experience designer.”

In the early 1990s, Pearce returned to Los Angeles, where she began working on high-tech attractions for the theme-park industry. In 1993, she served as the creative director of the award-winning virtual reality attraction “Virtual Adventures: The Loch Ness Expedition,” a 24-player underwater fantasy game in which four teams of six try to rescue the monster’s eggs from bounty hunters. The game was created through a partnership between the pioneering virtual reality firm Evans & Sutherland and Iwerks entertainment, a special format media company founded by Walt Disney Imagineering veterans.

By the late 90s, Pearce had developed an interest in the emergence of massive multiplayer online games like “The Sims” and started studying MMOs in earnest. “I was interested in truly social experiences in which people interact with each other,” said Pearce, who eschewed television as a kid and grew up playing board games with her family. “Games are meant to be a social medium. It wasn’t even until the invention of the computer that playing games by yourself became a trend.”

In her 2009 book Communities of Play: Emergent Cultures in Multiplayer Games and Virtual Worlds, Pearce explored a tight knit group of gamers whose bond transcended the networked community in which it was forged. In particular, Pearce studied the ins and outs of the Uru Diaspora—some 300 players who immigrated to There.com, a 3-D virtual world, after their beloved game, “Uru: Ages Beyond Myst,” had closed.

She found that the former Uru players self-identified as “refugees” and were initially ostracized by There.com’s longtime users. “At first, other players were afraid they would take over the world and overwhelm their culture,” Pearce explained. “They were discriminated against and kept out of certain geographical areas.”

Nevertheless, the refugees integrated aspects of their old world into their new world—they used the same language, for example, and created Uru-like villages—and eventually became community leaders. “They turned into very good citizens in this virtual world,” Pearce said, noting that they even co-founded and ran a virtual university. “Because they were so civic-minded, they earned the respect of the rest of the community.”

Pearce conducted the study for her doctorate in game design, which she earned in 2006 from the Smartlab, then based at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London. She comes to Northeastern from the Georgia Institute of Technology, where she served as an associate professor of digital media and directed the Experimental Game Lab and the Emergent Game Group. She has also co-founded Ludica, a women’s game collective, and IndieCade, an international festival of independent games.

Pearce chose Northeastern for its focus on interdisciplinary research and collaboration. “Game schools like Northeastern’s are changing everything, in the same way film schools changed the movie industry,” she told CAMD in a Q-and-A. “In order to develop games, you need artists, writers, computer scientists, psychologists, and anthropologists,” she later added. “I love how this Northeastern group is so committed to working together.”

This fall, Pearce is teaching a rapid prototyping class in which students might be asked to redesign the rules of Monopoly or create a physical sport based on their favorite video game. “Making a paper and pencil mockup of a digital game is helpful in understanding the core mechanics,” she said. “Doing it quickly and collaboratively teaches you about the design process.”

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