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Few graduate gaming programs hold a candle to Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center. Founded by a dramatist and computer scientist (the latter of whom is the late Randy Pausch of The Last Lecture renown), the program balances art and technology. Research and development take a central role in this interdisciplinary sandbox where students are encouraged and expected to “learn, work, play”. To do so, they work with a host of corporate and non-profit sponsors for the most up-to-date and experiential education possible.
Drew Davidson is just the right person to immerse students in the world of interactive media. Joining ETC as a faculty member a decade ago, his passion has catapulted him into the spotlight and he has become a leading advocate and researcher in the field. Today, Davidson serves as Director of the ETC graduate program in addition to Founding Editor of ETC Press. We caught up with him to pick his brain on the origins of ETC, the unique sponsored projects that his students tackle, and the impact that he hopes they will have. (This interview was conducted via phone and has been edited minimally for clarity).
ACR: CMU’s Entertainment Technology Center is the brainchild of Don Marinelli and the late Randy Pausch- esteemed dramatist and computer scientist, respectively, who coupled their fields into one of the first-of-its-kind interdisciplinary programs in 1999. Do you remember learning about ETC for the first time?
Drew Davidson: I was studying at the University of Texas at Austin with Professor Sandy Stone who had created the ACTLab which was a transdisciplinary program, as well. Stone was a colleague of Randy Pausch and Don Marinelli so I learned about it in that context while still a student. As life happens, after graduating I went from industry work to the dot com bubble and I eventually made my way to Pittsburgh for a teaching job. I reached out to Randy and Don, telling them I studied under Stone at the ACTLab, and they were very supportive of me joining as faculty at ETC.
ACR: Given the breadth of technologies, projects and media your students tackle, how do you keep up with it all?
DD: It requires having a continual openness to change and to the unknown. We half-jokingly say that the special sauce of our program is the (required) improvisational acting class students take in order to get comfortable with sharing. Sharing and giving feedback becomes imperative.
Our students must own their projects together; having that attitude helps (them) be fearless about something even if they have never done it before. That’s a skill that is invaluable across all creative industries. Who knows what comes down the pipe in five years, let alone the fifty years that this generation’s careers will span. Being comfortable with change and tackling new problems is crucial.
ACR: How do you select students that fit into this interdisciplinary approach?
DD: It’s a common misconception that they have to do everything. We don’t focus on Renaissance individuals; instead, we create Renaissance teams. What can an individual offer to a team? How can he or she work collaboratively? We have a mix of artists and designers and programmers. All of them are valid and necessary. They have to be really good at what they do… they each contribute what they are really good at on projects.
ACR: Your students really do come from such varying backgrounds. There are requisite classes that must be taken including the Improvisational Acting course that you spoke about. What is it about these classes that make them critical to students’ education?
DD: That’s a good question. Our curriculum is intentionally constrained. We have a mix of students: about 40% are from technical backgrounds and 40% are from artistic backgrounds and in the middle we get students from all over. We have chemical engineers, biology majors, artists and designers, programmers, writers… you name it. And we have a pretty even mix of genders, along with students from around the world. We take that mix and send them through an immersion semester that we refer to as boot camp. For programmers, that improv acting can be a little tough! There’s something to challenge everyone.
ACR: And there’s a class on virtual worlds that’s required, right?
DD: Yes, the Building Virtual Worlds class has a crazy time line. Four people who have never worked together before are tasked with creating an engaging virtual world together. But there’s constant switching of teams to keep them on their toes! They also take a Virtual Story class because good storytelling makes things more immersive. With that course, they are stuck in the same team for the entire semester. It doesn’t matter if they like their team members or not, so it very much mimics what they’ll face in their careers.
We reward a Master of Entertainment Technology (MET) which, like an MBA, is professionally-driven focusing on design and development. Going through that first immersion semester and working on projects with team members, clients and sponsors really makes our program stand out. Our graduates can jump in and work immediately in the workforce after graduation. They become feelers- they figure things out.
ACR: Right, let’s get to those projects- driven by an enviable list of corporate and non-profit sponsors including museums, games and entertainment, aerospace and more. What’s the upside for organizations to partner with your students on R&D?
DD: It took a lot of effort with Don and Randy up front to grow that list. Our students retain their IP, which is a bit different from the sponsors’ perspectives. That’s why our students do R&D- it’s not work for hire. A lot of companies find value in the ideation process working with students. Students bring new ideas. Failures can be good, too, because these aren’t paid employees. The ability to tap into a creative endeavor and the DNA that comes out of it has helped companies do some things differently. And, of course, it’s a great way for companies to recruit. We also have a robust internship program that many students take advantage of.
ACR: In addition to your role as director and faculty member, you also oversee ETC Press – an open-source, multimedia publishing platform at Carnegie Mellon that intersects technology with research across media. Tell us a bit about this significant resource…
DD: We do everything at ETC Press: games, short films, animation, location-based installations… you name it. We look at ways to utilize all of this for education and learning. How can we expand health or civic engagement? How can we create transformational experiences? We want to enable people to publish in all of these areas. Admittedly, 99.9% of the stuff that gets submitted to us is technology-related.
The two things I was happily and humbly surprised by are the Well Played set of books and close readings of video games. It’s basically about what makes good game design. It was so popular that it launched out to Well Played Journal which is open to submissions and peer review. Conferences and museums do installations and highlight games for informative talks. There’s a real value and meaning to be had in this unique form of expression that games merit. We just did something on using MineCraft to teach kids. We lean on a philosophical underpinning which encourages volunteering and editorial boards and review boards. We can be experimental and supportive while also being accessible to influence the field.
ACR: Drew, what impact do you want ETC to have?
DD: We talk about transformational experiences and making the world a better place by helping people address their health issues or getting more civically involved. Our aspiration and inspiration is to challenge ourselves and our students to push with creative solutions and immersive experiences that make a difference. We hope we can have that type of impact. Because we’re fifteen years old now and we have a great network and a great name, they think it’s a safe bet. But we don’t want students to come here to just get a job. We want them to come here to make a positive social impact.
Check out more interviews at The Animation Career Review Interview Series.