For more than 20 years, Eric Zimmerman has been a singular presence in videogame development. From his early, controversial advocacy programs to the very first wave of browser and downloadable games all the way to the halls of the NYU Game Center, his years as a designer have been guided less by the way games are than by the way games could be.
“I came to games in a couple of ways,” Eric Zimmerman begins thoughtfully, looking like he’s working through several years of memory. “As an art student in the turn of the ’90s, contemporary art was in something of a crisis. I studied painting and received a very traditional, modernist training. Painting was taught to me as line, color and composition; it was a purely visual affair. At the same time, however, I was studying contemporary art and history. I learned about post-structuralism and post-modernism, deconstruction and feminism—different ways of looking at the world. I was looking for something new.”
A grin crosses his face. “I eventually ended up doing performance art, installation art, photography, filmmaking, media hoaxing—you name it. For one piece, I put signs on the art building at my university that said ‘Art Production and Distribution Center.’ I also did strange things on campus like passing out fliers that were somewhat inflammatory but for no particular reason.” With a shrug, Zimmerman adds, “It was the late ’80s and ’90s. I was moving through that era’s trendy modes of art-making.
“As a painter, I had the feeling that I was shuffling the cards of a deck that had been made hundreds of years ago. There had to be something new. ... I remember getting the first few issues of Wired and reading them from cover to cover. It made me realize that there was something about technology and games, in particular—people were doing things with them that no one had done before. Games were a form of culture that was reinventing its own possibilities every few years. This was when 3D games were just coming out and virtual reality and CD-ROMS were the new trends. People felt like there was a huge thing going on and they were drawn to the idea. I was drawn to it too, drawn to the idea of being able to make something genuinely new.”
Zimmerman grows more emotional as he talks. “So on the one hand I came to games through a rejection of the art world. But at the same time, it’s also true that I’ve made games all my life. Even as a little kid, I liked making games at least as much as playing them. Board games. War games. Role-playing games. Variations of physical neighborhood games like Kick the Can. Maze-like haunted houses in my basement. I would make board games as presents for my family. Games were fascinating to me. They combine logical things like structural thinking and the understanding of systems with things that exist opposite of logic: emotions, psychology, storytelling, aesthetics. That paradoxical coupling of rational rules and irrational play in games still completely fascinates me.”
But it was his mischievous performance art that grabbed the attention of the gaming industry. “My first industry job was an internship at RGA Interactive, where I met [area/code co-founder] Frank Lantz,” he says. “What made them want to hire me was this project, a media hoax I did in the first year of grad school called ‘Arm the Homeless.’ It was a fictitious organization that was meant to give firearms and firearms safety training to homeless people, and it was meant to draw attention to the problem of homelessness by presenting an uncomfortable image of a homeless person that was armed and empowered.
“Arm the Homeless was a wild success. We completely fooled the local media. It went on to make CNN. Within one week, we had to shut it down and admit that it was a hoax. We were being sent death-threats, people were threatening to shoot the homeless in Columbus, Ohio, where we were going to school. We were the lead story on the local news for a week! It was amazing but homeless advocates were furious. They said we were going to ruin the possibility of people giving money to the homeless during Christmas. That year, funnily enough, though, was record-setting for them,” Zimmerman quips, “so I guess it ended up a positive thing.”
Instead of returning to school, he began working a full-time job while continuing his studies in New York. He worked at RGA for a few years. During that time, he was involved in the creation of PC games like Gearheads and The Robot Club. After that, he went on start the multidisciplinary design studio FLAT with some of the people involved in the ‘Arm the Homeless’ project before moving on to freelance for a few years. During his freelance period, he created games like the groundbreaking SiSSYFiGHT 2000, a game about little girls in a social conflict on a playground. SiSSYFiGHT, according to Zimmerman, was the first game to use real-time chat in a browser and a surprising success.
Nominated for a Webby award a year after its launch, it was one of earliest examples of a browser-based massively multiplayer online game. An eloquent representation of the prisoner’s dilemma—a game problem that demonstrated players would sometimes not cooperate even if it was in their best interest—SiSSYFiGHT 2000 was logistically simple but far more complex in actual implementation. The real thrill laid in the political machinations necessary to secure a win, in that certain actions would only work if more than one party directed it at the same target.
Of course, what followed then was the creation of Gamelab, a company that would go on to last for nine years and assist in paving the way for casual games and the independent game studios that make them. In an industry dominated by mega-corporations, Gamelab had been an anomaly as were most of their practices—they were amongst the first to adopt the ‘try before you buy’ model, a concept that was once absolutely alien to the industry at one point.
“It was the year 2000 and we had made a small game called BLiX for shockwave.com,” says Zimmerman. The game won ‘Best Audio’ at the 2nd Independent Games Festival at the Game Developers Conference and we got a lot of attention for our little game. We ended up selling the rights to the game to shockwave.com for enough money to let us open an office and have income for a few months. During that time, we were mostly involved in online games and it was a new thing, really—this was long before indie games, Steam, XBLA, PSN, smartphones, virtual items.
“Diner Dash was our first hit and our first downloadable.” It was also one of the titles that helped shape casual gaming in years to come. Numerous sequels emerged over almost every platform imaginable. As one of the top-selling downloadable games of all times, Diner Dash was also proof that not every best-seller had to feature an extensive, high-budget team behind them. It did help that Diner Dash spawned enough clones to warrant becoming a genre of its own.
Zimmerman knew PlayFirst’s CEO John Welch, who was planning to publish online games and decided to team up, drafting a two-title deal. “I wrote a one-page list of concepts and amongst the ideas was one called ‘Lunch.’ It was about a waitress running around trying to serve customers, and they liked it a lot; that was how it all started. We wanted to do work that was commercially successful and innovative at the same time and it’s funny now because Diner Dash might be so clichéd today but at the time, it was completely bizarre to do a game about work.”
Though Gamelab has ceased operations, it doesn’t look like Zimmerman has slowed down. Now a lecturer at the New York University Game Center, his classes focus mostly on the creation of non-digital games. “I want to focus on the fundamentals,” he says. When I was a painting student, we took classes like figure drawing. It wasn’t art. The teacher never called it art. But it was training our visual sensibilities—that’s what I’m doing in my classes, but for game designers, I am training their systems thinking, playtesting analysis, team collaboration and communication skills.
“If you want to make innovative games, you must iterate and by focusing on non-digital games, I can have my student make a new game every week or two weeks. What makes a game a game and what makes it meaningful for players and the principles by which games operate has nothing to do with technology. Certainly, technology makes certain things possible but the fundamental principles of what makes a game meaningful is the same on or off a computer. In fact, that’s exactly what Katie Salen and I wrote about in our game design textbook [Rules of Play].”
In addition to his work at the NYU Game Center, Zimmerman is still deeply involved with his greatest passion: the creation of games. Recently, Kickstarter funded the hugely-popular card-based MetaGame, a project Zimmerman worked on with Local No. 12. He has also been doing narrative-driven experiments with the Leisure Collective including an on-going project entitled 1968, a work-in-progress that involves nothing but motion text. On a more physical level, there have been gallery games with architect Natalie Pozzi like Sixteen Tons, which debuted at Indiecade 2010.
After two decades in the industry, Zimmerman doesn’t seem keen on slowing down anytime soon. No longer bound to the necessity of creating specifically for the market, Zimmerman’s work appears to have grown more speculative with every project. Eric Zimmeran may be a lifelong advocate of the idea that people have yet to see the full potential of games, but he works every day to move the medium one step closer to realizing that very potential.