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  • The Systems Approach: An Interview with Gamelab's Eric Zimmerman

    - Jill Duffy

  •  EZ: I think that you really have to think about things from the other person's point of view. If you're contacting a big company, for example, they probably have very differentiated roles. They're looking for someone for an internship who's very specific and narrowly focused. Your resume is going to be in a big pile of resumes, and how are you going to stand out? If you're applying to a small company, maybe then a humanities background is better. Maybe then the fact that you can write and communicate well, the fact that you have done some game design and are comfortable doing a little bit of art production -- if it's a tiny company, then you're probably going to play multiple roles.

    Also, I think that it's really important when you're contacting a company to address that company specifically. If we get a cover letter here at Gamelab for a position that we've advertised, and it's clear that there's nothing in the cover letter that mentions Gamelab in particular -- and sometimes not even games, "I'm interested in a technology position" because they're some kind of computer science student -- we just put it in the trash pile. We like to see students or graduates who specifically want to come and work at our company. If you can mention, "Here's why I like Gamelab in particular," or X company that you're applying to, it makes a huge difference.

    Maybe that's very common advice, but I think that those are some of the ways to get yourself to stand out from the pile of other students who are also doing the applying. Any personal connections that you can possibly work, I would do that, too.

    As a designer, to me, anything that you write, anything that you're trying to do - the design problem is that you're always designing for an audience. When you're doing a resume and a cover letter, that's a design problem, too, and your audience is the person reading it. Get over your feelings of inadequacy -- "Am I overselling? Underselling?" -- just think about the person who is going to be receiving this. What do you want them to see? What's most important? What's going to make you stand out from the pile.

    If you really want to be seen as a student, list all your education stuff first. If you want to be seen as a working professional, put your education stuff small at the bottom. All these little tactical decisions, that's design. You're designing an experience for the person who's going to be reading your resume.

    GCG: I found a quote from Karen Sideman. She was quoted in an article on The Escapist last year called "Gamelab's Hustler." I think you had spoken at the Astoria Museum of the Moving Image and someone had interviewed you. Karen Sideman spoke to the same reporter and she said, she thought that
    you were successful because you are "extremely comfortable" talking about things "systematically." I was curious first for you to comment on that, and second, if you could tell us something that you are either not systematic about or something that suffers because you are too systematic.

    EZ: Oh, wow, that gets kind of personal. ... I would say, look at the way I gave advice for the resume thing. I said you have to think about the situation as a system. I said that implicitly, I guess. There's you; there's the person; there's the piece of paper; and you're designing an experience or a context, and the context is this semi-abstract person, but also ultimately real human being is going to be reading your paper. That's a way of thinking about things systemically.

     Certainly the way Peter Lee and I run Gamelab is all systems. What are the company procedures, company structures? What's going to result in interesting and unexpected emergent results that are going to be the games that Gamelab actually makes?

    I also want to say that thinking about things systemically is not dehumanizing. It just depends on what you do with it. In the instance of the resume, what I'm really saying is that you need to understand that there is a human being who is going to be looking at your resume, and it's not just about the object of the resume, but it's about how that object ramifies in a human context. I wouldn't want to think that thinking systemically somehow empties all the humanness out of the equation.

    So you said, "What is an example of one thing I don't do systemically"?

    GCG: -- either something you don't do systemically or something that suffers because you're too systematic.

    EZ: Deep engagement with something, whether that's a romantic relationship, whether it is being in the moment of playing a game, or something that you study seriously - I've studied martial arts for a number of years - you go through cycles. Sometimes you rise above it all and have a very rational analytic consciousness of what's going on. Other times you're really taking a very deep dive and are acting very intuitively.

    I think that you need to be able to let go of systemic thinking. Sometimes it's good to be able to analyze what's going on in a relationship or with your feelings. Other times it's just totally wrong because that analysis itself is you sort of hiding your feelings. ...

    I would say that systemic thinking is not necessarily rational either. Part of acting intuitively is that you have learned systems so well that you're no longer thinking rationally about it. You've moved through that rational process into some space of deeper play.

    If you think about great play, whether it's Counter-Strike or tennis or poker or basketball, there's a kind of flow that occurs. In that space of flow, is that really systems thinking? Yes, but maybe more on a preconscious level than a conscious level. I'm not a cognitive scientist, so it's hard to speculate. I wouldn't want to always associate systems thinking with rational analysis.

    GCG: You said that just now about play, but do you also mean that about designing?


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