Interview – Liz England

On Game Design, Academia, & Interactive Fiction

Liz England is a game designer at Insomniac Games. She has degrees in English Literature and Interactive Media. Over the past six years she has worked on titles such as Saints Row 2, Scribblenauts, and the recently-released Sunset Overdrive. She has also created a number of games for jams such as Ludum Dare & Asylum Jam.



FPS: On your site, you mention that your have a BA in English and a Masters of Interactive Technology. It’s fairly evident how the latter is useful in a career as a game designer, but how has your English background informed your perspective?

Liz England: I obviously came from a background where I had to look very closely at the text to support my points, and that kind of critical – textual – analysis of games has been very helpful in research at work when trying to analyze and compare systems from other games to inform our designs.

But when it comes to making games – especially as one member of a very large team – there’s not a lot I can point to particularly. My day-to-day specialization as a systems designer has more in common with economics than my literature degree.  Being able to think and write critically, and having a wide background in humanities and culture certainly helps in the creation of new content.

FPS: Is your background in English (or the humanities in general) unusual in the games industry?

LE: Film theory grads are pretty common here in Los Angeles, but you also find theatre, literature, history, and creative writing majors who have turned to game design. Designers tend to come from a grab-bag of different backgrounds, and we find that diversity very helpful in a design team.

On Game Design & Game Studies

FPS: I want to spend some time talking about where game development and academic scholarship on games intersect. Or, rather, whether they intersect at all. Several years ago Kill Screen magazine published an article titled “Toppling the Ivory Tower: Are Videogame Academics Irrelevant?” The article was written by Mitu Khandaker, a PhD student researching videogames. She opens the article with a loaded question: “Is games academia irrelevant?” I want to flip this question around and ask you, as a game designer, is games academia relevant to you?

LE: To be honest I usually enjoy games studies in spite of its relevancy rather than because of it. I think there’s value in thinking critically and deeply about the games we make and how people interact with them, and great leaps forward will be built on top of a hundred smaller academic papers.

I don’t want to stop academic writing that feels irrelevant to those in the industry, so I hesitate to honestly say it is. We’d be poorer if academia only pursued scholarship based on what the industry dictates.

FPS: In Khandaker’s article, she quotes Johnathan Blow who states that, “As someone in the industry, I just don’t pay attention to the output of games academia—none of it is relevant to me. Who is this stuff supposed to be relevant to? Or is games academia basically just about writing stuff, and who cares if nobody ever reads it?” (Blow). In your experience, how do those in the industry view games academia?

LE: Blow has an accurate read on the game industry, unfortunately. Prior to this interview, I asked a few fellow developers what they thought of the topic – the relevancy of games studies. Every single one responded the same way – there’s nothing of value there as working professionals.

I don’t agree entirely with that. I love data, models, results, and actionable design lessons and I believe academia is actually serving the first three pretty well even if I think the process of getting that information into developer hands could be streamlined better. Research studies give us data about who are playing our games and how, models help us visualize and communicate design and give us something to test practices against, and results come from the wide spectrum of experimental gameplay prototypes created in design labs at various schools. Unfortunately, that’s only a subset of games scholarship, and very rarely do I find content that hits the last category: design lessons that I can act on.

When we talk about the “realities of game development” it sounds like a brush off – a canned phrase used to wave away hard questions. But until you are in the industry you don’t realize how we prioritize our work or what significance an element in a game may actually have from our point of view. This makes divining “practical” from “irrelevant” very difficult for academia. I don’t have an easy answer to this.

While I think most games scholarship is interesting on its own terms, there are very few – if any – situations where I can put that new knowledge to use even if I believe I am richer for having it. “Now that I know this, what can I do with it?” Scholarship seems to be directed at a very big picture view, but critiques of a game’s vision and new ideas along those lines really only address the concerns of the less than 1% of developers who are in a director role (art director, creative director, lead designers, etc.).  This leaves the other 99% of developers largely empty handed when browsing non-technical games scholarship since there’s just so little that we can take and put directly into practice.

Even then, a major constraint on creative vision in most games is the problem of selling your game to the widest audience as possible, which leaves little room for idealistic and/or experimental topics. Some of the questions a developer would ask is, “Are the people who will be playing my game going to care about this?” or “How much time will it take to use information from this paper to improve the game, and is there a more practical use of my time?” With the sheer scope of mainstream games and quality of life problems endemic to the industry, our time is very limited.

(This is one of the reasons why educating the players is just as important as reaching out to the games industry – we pay very, very close attention to what our audience wants.)

This is overall a hard question to answer, mainly because specific examples are clearer than flawed generalizations about “all games scholarship”.

FPS: What barriers do you or have you foreseen in engaging with scholarly writing on games?

LE: There’s a saying in the industry: “No one reads documentation.” If I can’t get my fellow teammates to read documentation on the game they are currently developing, what makes you think they will read academic work written by an outsider? Creating relevant, actionable writing is a very hard problem to solve even within the game industry, so I don’t have many insights to share.

The biggest problems I run into when attempting to read games scholarship comes down to trying to discern practical content. It takes a lot of time and effort to parse through games scholarship to find information that I feel is relevant. Papers often spend a great deal of time trying to convince the reader of the importance of the topic. This makes sense within academia, but as a developer if I am reading the paper it’s usually because I have already bought into the premise. I just want the results… in short bullet points, with appropriate illustrations, followed later by the accompanying details and supporting evidence. In a sense, I am really asking for scholars to dumb it down.

FPS: Anita Sarkeesian is someone who comes to mind when thinking about the intersection between academic discourse and games. How has her work been received by those in the industry?

LE: Feminist Frequency is a great example of bringing academia to the industry. The video series has given a lot of developers a common, shared vocabulary to use to describe the things they see, and it’s been invaluable in ways that I don’t think people outside the industry understand. Developers love data, and these videos present a ton of easily digestible data, an easy way to describe it, and a reason to do better. What Sarkeesian does is a form of “translation” that is really important to bridge academia with industry. She delivers content in an easy-to-digest format that’s not all that different than, say, a good, engaging GDC lecture by a peer. I believe there’s practical information out there in academia, but it needs to be translated in a form that is approachable (and actionable) by developers.

FPS: Many of us at First Person Scholar are coming from an English language and literature background. One question that comes up in studying literature is whether you need to know how to write a novel in order to critique it. As someone who has transitioned from an English background to game design, where do you stand? Do you need to know how to make games in order to critique them?

LE: I firmly believe that you do not need to make games in order to critique them. I land pretty heavily on the side of the player’s experience trumping the author (or developer’s) intention, though obviously the latter can reveal a lot about the context in which the game was created. A personal experience a person has of a game is valuable: we look at player experiences all the time (not just usability tests, but even reviews and forum comments) and are very good at interpreting all kinds of feedback into practical lessons. A player that is also thinking critically about the game, rather than just consuming it, can be incredibly valuable. I’ve enjoyed many of the critical essays – not just reviews, but personal experiences – written by games journalists and critics on games they’ve played and how they’ve affected them, from Gone Home to Bioshock: Infinite. They are usually written in a very readable, personal style where I can easily pick up on what succeeded and failed them from a design or narrative standpoint.

Previous Work

FPS: Speaking of making (language) games, you’ve done a lot of work in Twine. What do you find appealing about Twine as a platform? Could you describe your favorite pieces?

LE: Twine has the lowest barrier to entry as any game-making software I’ve ever run into, and as someone who long thought she’d be an author before she’d become a game developer, its textual interface and output suits my needs beautifully. As a developer, I like to refer to Twine as “free” – in the sense that, in order to create an object or simulate an action, all you need is a word. In other non-textual interfaces, if you want a dragon, you need to be able to somehow represent a dragon – which leads to a variety of artistic and technical efforts and slows down the development process. In Twine, if you want a dragon, it only costs as much as typing the word “dragon”. This is a freedom of the imagination that is very rare in games.

What I really love about Twine is that a lot of creators come from outside the mainstream game industry, contributing outsider art to an otherwise rather closed, homogenous group of developers who tend to make and play similar games. Many Twine developers seek to deliberately subvert the definition of “game”, or unintentionally subvert it since they hold no stock in the label in the first place. I think there’s a lot of value in mainstream developers stepping outside their comfort zone and observing the way others are appropriating, remixing, and reinventing games.

Right now my favorite pieces are Depression Quest by Zoe Quinn and With Those You Love Alive by Porpentine, which take two very different directions – grounded simulation vs. literary surrealism – in telling personal stories. I often refer back to Candy Quest 3: Edge of Sweetness by Michael Brough as an introduction to the platform for fellow developers and gamers who may want something more familiar and game-like at first.

FPS: You worked on the Scribblenauts series. For those unfamiliar with the games, the player types in various words and, so long as they are recognized terms, the game animates those words into objects or actors. In that vein, could you talk about the challenges involved in translating text into images?

LE: A game like Scribblenauts relies largely on representational, rather than accurate, objects to fulfill player expectations. Since the goal was common consensus – even if that consensus was technically wrong – Wikipedia and Google Image Search actually solved most problems when asking the question, “What do people visualize when they read this word?” Determining what counts as a “synonym” as opposed to a “unique object” was a purely subjective undertaking, though. I personally think most fish look alike, so a fellow designer had to take over the classification of that category from me. Likewise, the game has other flaws since it had to rely on my personal perspectives when it came to weighing the significance or uniqueness of objects, and as a single person I cannot represent the diverse audience that would be interacting with the game. Even trying to account for personal bias as much as possible, as the main person in charge of the dictionary many of my internal assumptions and oversights went into the final game. It’s an odd experience when your personal bias is labeled as a “bug” by players on a forum.

One of the outcomes of focusing on representational objects and common consensus was the emergence of stereotyping when that object was a person. It wasn’t obvious looking at a single object, but after we received a collection of 100+ human sprites from our outsourcer and actually sat down with them we could see major problems of representation: service workers were almost all women, criminal characters were black, politicians and leaders were white men – so on and so forth, with little variation. We had to go through and do several rounds of corrections to consciously avoid this stereotyping.

The Role of Games in Our Culture

FPS: Last year Eric Zimmerman offered the prediction that we are entering a “ludic century” in which ‘systems thinking’—the capacity to think through complex frameworks and operations—becomes a highly valuable skill. You’re a systems designer working at a prominent game developer—where do you see the role of the game designer and games in general moving forward?

LE: At the time of his manifesto, it felt presumptuous that games would have such a role in our civilization’s future but I’ve since reversed my opinion on that. Clearly, most of the world has not caught up to let alone received much advantage from our Information Age, so the prediction, I felt, lacked perspective.

I don’t think his claims are that outrageous pertaining to systems, interaction, and recruiting everyone (who has access to that level of technology) into the role of design. However, I don’t think “game developers” will be the ones leading this charge. We have a tendency to reinvent the wheel and then pat ourselves on the back for the discovery, unaware of all the others who have come before us. Developers largely ignore sister disciplines that are much more rigorous and overlap design – human-computer interaction, user experience design, and instructional design, for example. Other disciplines practice “game design” even if they don’t call it that and many more of them practice “systems design” much more carefully and thoughtfully than we do.

I absolutely see games and interaction-focused technology becoming much more prominent in the future, but unless game developers humble themselves and embrace the wide application of games outside of entertainment then other industries will fill in this gap without us. We sit in a precarious place where the games industry could expand massively, or it could restrict itself to only a small definition of “game”.