Tracy Fullerton is not your average game designer. Instead, she turns traditional game narrative and motivation on its head (evident in her work-in-progress Walden, a Game). She isn’t the typical gamer, either. She’s drawn to games that experiment with player choice and present complex dilemmas. And she’s anything but your average faculty member. After all, how many college students have the opportunity to learn from someone who has produced games, started her own venture-backed company, and acts as a thought-leader in the industry and academia?
Fullerton does all of this as Director of USC Games and Game Innovation Lab, one of the nation’s preeminent game programs that consistently snags the top spot in the rankings. Offering a B.A. and B.S. from two of USC’s most prestigious departments (the School of Cinematic Arts and the Viterbi School of Engineering), USC Games also lures majors from other departments with its minor degrees in addition to its M.F.A. and M.S. graduate programs.
Carving paths that were once non-existent, Fullerton intently pushes the bounds of what is possible in the realm of media and games. Her students at USC often reflect her trailblazing mentality and tackle projects that speak to the ever-growing relevancy of games in society. We caught up with Fullerton to pick her brain on USC Games, how she chooses the projects she does, and the satisfaction that comes from her work. (This interview was conducted via phone and has been edited minimally for clarity).
ACR: Tracy, what were the games that captivated your attention growing up, and when did you realize that games presented a viable career path for you?
Tracy Fullerton: I’ll show my age and confess that the first game I played was Pong. I was from a family of early adopters; we always had the earliest game consoles like the Commodore 64 which my siblings and I played. But we were also a family of makers whether it was plays and films or telegraphs and lightbulbs… we were always busy creating things.
Making games didn’t strike me as the one path; I was interested in media in general. After film school (MFA, USC), I wound up in the early days of what is known as multimedia. It became clear to me that it was a bit of a Wild West where people were trying to make meaningful, emotional media that was interactive. Games in particular was where that was happening which is what appealed to me.
ACR: You worked in the industry for years as a producer, creative director, and founder and president of an interactive TV game developer. You were also an early innovator in the casual games space… back when no one seemed to foresee their impending influence. What made you decide to shift your attention to education and make your way back to USC as a faculty member?
TF: Early in my career, I was asked to be a thesis advisor at the School of Visual Arts when I was working in New York. This was in the early ‘90s. We were working with MacroMind Director (which became MacroMedia Director) to control physical objects. It was so challenging but really fun. I started teaching one night a week and kept that up even when I started my own company despite all the extra work it took. When the company closed, I thought about what I really wanted to do. My favorite thing was teaching that one night a week so I decided to push in that direction. It wasn’t that I wanted to leave the industry as much as it was about exploring a new direction.
I saw firsthand that the industry needed to change. I knew that much of the research and new thinking comes out of universities. I could affect change in the industry in a different way by teaching a new generation to think about games more broadly as a form of media and push the medium in new directions. I could also train a more diverse group.
ACR: Diversity is something intrinsically important to you and the work you do at USC Games. Women outnumbered men in the incoming class this year. How far we’ve come in a relatively short time! Yet, the uphill battle remains. What are the biggest roadblocks in the way of greater diversity within the industry?
TF: I really think it’s multi-pronged. It’s one of those so-called ‘wicked problems’. And it’s not isolated to the game industry; it’s the entire tech industry. The first hurdle is getting young women and people of different ethnicities to imagine themselves in these roles and careers.
To tackle a problem like this, I ask myself what I can do to leverage my abilities and help the situation. Ultimately, I feel that at the college level is where I can personally make the most difference. At USC Games, we’ve built a community that is open and respectful and welcoming. We want everyone to thrive here. I hope we can do that by providing models and a sense of community. It’s a contentious time in the industry and I don’t want to diminish that, but it’s also a contentious time in our society… this is part of a wider set of issues that are coming to a head. I hope that when the dust settles, we’ll have people that are trained and ready to thrive and contribute.
ACR: The Games program blends the School of Cinematic Arts with the Viterbi School of Engineering. How valuable is the cross-pollination of ideas, faculty and students to the success of your graduates?
TF: I think it’s essential. One of the beautiful things about games is that they require left brain and right brain collaboration. People we look for are those who can access both of these extreme sides equally well. Our program is really unique and it’s more than just those two schools. Thanks to our minor degrees offered, we also pull in students from across the spectrum- from psychology majors and music majors to education majors. We might have a business major undergrad who wants to work in the game industry, or a psychology major who wants to do research into games. There are so many ways that this cross-disciplinary integration occurs because we have set up the program so that students can really craft it to their purposes and best utilize their talents.
ACR: Those interests and strengths will serve them well given the sheer scope of applications and industries that utilize game designers and developers today...
TF: Absolutely. It really is an exciting time. New students come in and almost always want to become game designers in the entertainment industry, but they learn that many opportunities exist and are developing as we speak outside of the game industry. The fields of medicine, education, behavioral change, civics, and community building are all wide open to them. That’s also where our research comes in. We have a number of research labs that students work in while getting their degrees where they can explore all of these options.
ACR: Let’s talk about that research- particularly your own. You’ve tackled wide-ranging projects that question our preconceived notions of what games are. How do you decide which ideas are worth bringing to fruition?
TF: That’s a great question. Usually, there are a number of factors. The first is that you’ve got to be tremendously excited about the idea. A lot of the projects I’ve worked on stem from a personal connection to the topic. For example, Walden, a Game, is something I’ve wanted to do since 2002. I was at Walden Pond and had an experience there that caused me to consider it for a game setting. When you have that kind of connection to the subject, it keeps you going.
Another project I did arose when William Tierney, my future collaborator, came to me with an idea of his own to help underserved students access college. After talking with Bill, it occurred to me how much the college admission system is a bit like a game itself. There are a lot of rules and many aren’t necessarily obvious. Unlike a game, we play it once and we either win or lose. Bill’s idea was to give kids the ability to practice this system in a safe and fun way so that they can become better applicants, choose the right college and understand their financial aid choices. It was a great space for games. As a first generation college student in my own family, I’ve always remarked how easy it would have been for me to fall through the cracks because I didn’t have a sounding board or help at home to guide me through the process. All of the things that need to be thought-through are in that game.
ACR: Many of your previous students have gone on to create games that push the bounds in their own right. ‘Journey’ by Jenova Chen is certainly one of those that stands out. How satisfying is it to watch them grow and mature as game designers?
TF: You know the answer to that! It’s incredibly satisfying and gratifying to see them go out there and do amazing things. At USC Games, we talk so much about changing the world and making it better through the work we do. Whatever it is that we wind up doing, we want to be those thought-leaders that help others and contribute thoughtfully and meaningfully. To see them go out and make that happen is incredible.
ACR: Tracy, you have many roles between teaching at USC and guiding its Games program and Game Innovation Lab to your industry work, innovative projects, speaking and contributing. Is there one area that drives the rest?
TF: Honestly, I would say that working on my own games keeps me going, but working with my students gives me the boost of energy that I need. In everything that I do, there’s also the (benefit) of being a part of this wider movement in which games are changing whether it’s independent games, academic games, or games for change. There are really no words for how satisfying it is for me. It’s why I do all of it.
Check out more interviews at Animation Career Review's Interview Series.