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Chris Martens wants to make it easier to create video games

New associate professor at Northeastern University Chris Martens poses for a portrait. Martens is cross-appointed between the CAMD Art + Design Department and the Khoury College of Computer Science directing the Principles of Expressive Machines (POEM) research group in trying to understand and build tools that foster human creativity, self-expression, and liberation. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Video games should not exist. Every game is a feat of creativity and ingenuity full of technical and artistic hurdles, where even making a door work correctly can prove challenging. It’s why they involve a level of collaboration between so many different groups of people––programmers, designers, artists, writers––that is unlike any other medium.

This kind of interdisciplinary work is exactly why Chris Martens, a new Northeastern faculty member, wants to make it easier for people to make games.

“[I’m] interested in the analytical side and logical thinking and detail-oriented reasoning but also really care about the human experience and the artistic experience and the emotional experience,” Martens says. “It’s been constantly fascinating to me that code can make you have feelings. That’s kind of why I like games.”

Martens, who uses they/them pronouns, is a new associate professor at Northeastern with a joint appointment in both the College of Arts, Media and Design and the Khoury College of Computer Sciences. Their interdisciplinary role is a large part of what drew them to Northeastern in the first place.

“My transition to Northeastern really came about when I learned about how much vibrant connection there was between the art and design department and the computer science department here,” Martens says.

The way Martens’ role straddles multiple disciplines is in keeping with their work. Martens’ goal is to create new game development tools that will bring programmers and designers closer together to help expand the narrative possibilities of video games.

“A lot of what I work on is tools to enable people to have richer creative expression within this medium in order to stretch the boundaries of what defines it,” Martens says.

For Martens, who comes to Northeastern after a five-year stint as a computer science professor at North Carolina State University, this includes work on video game artificial intelligence and crafting tools that can help developers make more believable non-player characters. Their work also extends to social simulations, games that simulate conversational flow and social connections through interactions with digital characters.

“I honestly think some of these conversations about more believable social characters are sometimes muddied by this focus on, ‘Would a person say that in real life?’ when what you really care about is, ‘Can I systematically reason about what this character is going to say to me if I behave in a certain way towards them?’” Martens says.

Their focus on digital social interaction has made Martens particularly interested in how games can support neurodivergent players with ADHD and autism.

“As a member of that community myself, I think there’s a reason why I’ve been so interested in studying social systems as things you can implement in games,” Martens says. “It is this kind of thing where if there are rules, if there’s a thing that I can play and gain a mental model of through interaction in a space where it’s safe for me to fail, then I can slowly build that skill for the real world.”

However, the focus of Martens’ current research is bridging the gap between people working on the technical side and people working on the artistic/design side of the game development process.

“I saw a lot of attention to specifying how you build out the virtual world as a graphical space, but not as much about how you code the behavior of the [objects] that are in the world that I can interact with, the characters who are in the world and their behaviors,” Martens says. “How can we create [tools] where designers and programmers can be speaking the same language to each other if they’re separate people, or, if they’re one person, make it easy for them to do both [design and programming] at the same time?”

Answering those questions involves creating a robust set of tools that are also accessible for experienced and novice developers. Martens says Twine, a free web browser-based interactive fiction creator, is a perfect example of a tool that has helped open the doors for a whole new group of game makers.

Martens is quick to point out that the games industry still struggles with diversity. At the end of the day, Martens says, tools that make it easier to create games–and get started creating games–will create more opportunities for new voices to level up in the industry.

“I just want [those perspectives] to be more visible and for other people who are interested in telling their stories to have access to tools that can make them one of those storytellers,” Martens says.

For media inquiries, please contact Marirose Sartoretto at m.sartoretto@northeastern.edu or 617-373-5718. 

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