Graduate Student Interviews
Welcome to the 2nd of my interview series with faculty and grad students. This is The Social Academic, my blog about online identity in the HigherEd world.
This week features Greg Loring-Albright. He’s a PhD student in the Communications, Culture and Media program at Drexel University. We chat about his life as a game designer and student.
Games and Play, a Drexel PhD student
JENNIFER: Hello, this is Jennifer van Alstyne, The Academic Designer.
Today I am here with Greg Loring-Albright. Hello, Greg, how are you today?
GREG: I’m doing well, how are you Jennifer?
JENNIFER: I’m doing so well! So, you’re a 2nd year PhD student at Drexel in Communications & Media. I’d love to hear a bit about your work there.
GREG: Yeah, so the program at Drexel is very interdisciplinary. Which is great. We’re all kind of working on different projects as they relate to media, communications, and culture.
My particular focus is on games, and play. And in particular, non-digital games. So I’m writing right now about a board game. But I also write about and design games in the city, things like room escapes, LARPs, that kind of thing.
JENNIFER: Room escapes? OK. Do you work with companies directly? Or do you do most of the games yourself, and design/produce them yourself?
GREG: Yes, to both. So I used to work for and then ran my own little game company for a while. That’s kind of dormant right now as I focus on school.
JENNIFER: Oh, of course.
GREG: I’ve done a little bit of consulting for room escape companies as well. Mostly when I make games it’s for me and making money is sort of an incidental effect.
JENNIFER: I love that. And especially because you’re in grad school right now. So getting out there, being with the public, is a big part of that.
Mostly Analog Games
JENNIFER: Your Twitter profile says you’re a creator of “mostly analog games.” What does that mean?
GREG: That’s because I don’t like to commit to anything too hard. I don’t want to explicitly say ‘nothing digital, I hate computers!’ Even though I’m pretty bad at computers and don’t know how to program.
When I make games they’re usually purely analog. But sometimes I have an element of requiring texting, or I just made something that people had to visit a website for. That’s about as digital as the games get.
So I say “mostly analog” so that I have some room to breath a little bit.
JENNIFER: Oh, that’s very interesting. And is that for the scavenger hunt type games?
GREG: Yeah, exactly.
JENNIFER: Could you describe one of those for me? I’d like to hear about one.
GREG: Yeah, so the most recent project I worked on was a promotional game for PAX Unplugged, which is a big 40 gaming convention that’s coming here to Philadelphia.
A couple months before the show they wanted to get people engaged here in the city. So I designed a scavenger hunt for them.
I used some iconic Philly landmarks. There’s a Rocky statue in front of the art museum. There’s a big plaza right in front of the city services building that has a lot of game pieces on it. It’s a permanent installation art.
JENNIFER: Yeah, I’ve seen that!
GREG: Yeah, so I used these sort of iconic Philly things and had people visit them and decode numbers and solve puzzles. There was a Sudoku involved. And part of that was they had to visit my blog and enter a code on a page to learn some information.
JENNIFER: I love that. And it’s a great way to get people back to your blog as well, and introduce you as a creator of the game.
GREG: Yeah, it was a little bit mercenary, but they were OK with it.
JENNIFER: No, I don’t think that’s mercenary. I think that it’s kind of creating you as part of that community too. At least, that’s how I see it.
GREG: Yeah, that’s fair enough. It wasn’t a bad thing. I guess I wasn’t trying to shame myself.
I thought about what I was doing and I said yeah, this is. Should I drive traffic to my blog? Sure!
JENNIFER: No, absolutely. I think any chance you can take. Especially when you’re doing something that’s trying to create community, and highlight a company. You’re doing good things.
JENNIFER: So, what is the favorite game that you created, that you designed?
GREG: Oh, man. That’s a hard question.
JENNIFER: I’m sorry!
GREG: No, this is good. Hard questions are the best. Favorite game that I’ve designed…
So this game was a one time event. I went to Swathmore College for my undergrad, right here in the Philly suburbs.
And after I had been out for a few years and moved around, and was back in the area, their Student Activities Office contacted me and hired me to make a game for their New Student Orientation.
JENNIFER: I love that.
GREG: It was so much fun. They gave me a lot of room to play with. You know, they had a lot of things they wanted to do. They wanted students to visit these different Student Services Office, Student Life, Career offices. Pretty much any place a 1st year would need to know about to get through their 1st year of college, they wanted it included as a destination, or a part of this game.
It ended up being this sort of 3-day extravaganza. And one of the big moments we had planned at the end of the 2nd day was the Dean of Student Life appeared.
They have this beautiful, wooded amphitheater that boarders the campus. All day students were solving puzzles to put together this place and time for this secret meeting.
And we gave them a bunch of candles. And the Dean of Students came out with a big candle and a big robe on. And the whole story of the game was a secret society. And he was inducting them into this whole secret society that was student life.
JENNIFER: Oh, I love that. That’s such a great way to create ritual. Orientation is such an important time for that.
GREG: Yeah, absolutely.
JENNIFER: Did you do student affairs stuff when you were in school, when you were an undergrad?
GREG: I didn’t really. I wasn’t very institutionally minded as an undergrad. I didn’t really understand the things that college as an institution could offer me, and didn’t take advantage of any of them.
I did make scavenger hunts for my friends, and for anyone who would stumble upon them on campus. One of my regrets about undergrad is that I could have networked with people to sort of make those things more interesting, or bigger, or reach more people with them.
JENNIFER: Well maybe if you had a scavenger hunt when you first started that was just as cool as yours, you would have gotten more into it.
GREG: [Laughs] Haha, there you go.
JENNIFER: Well one of the things that I think is sort of cool is that you started off making those games on campus just for your friends. And then it evolved into something that could be used on campuses to introduce students to new resources.
GREG: Yeah, for sure.
Social Media Life
JENNIFER: Do you talk about your games a lot on social media? If you don’t use social media as part of the game itself, do you talk about it on social media?
GREG: I do, yeah. When I’m running something that is site or time specific like this PAX Underground thing I was talking about. I’ll push it out through Twitter mostly, a little bit through Facebook.
And I also make board games, table-top games. In the industry mode right now is a lot of Kickstarters. When I have a Kickstarter for a project live, I’m always tweeting about it, and Facebooking about it.
JENNIFER: Have you done a lot of Kickstarter projects, and sort of crowd-sourced fundraising for your own games?
GREG: Not a lot. I tried to self-fund one game. And I failed miserably, and learned a lot.
And then I sold another game to a publisher, who ran a Kickstarter. I was part of that process but it was not my job to do it. Which was great.
One of the things I learned was that I like designing games. And I don’t like publishing games.
JENNIFER: You like designing, but not publishing. That’s a really good thing to learn. For me when I was starting my business, I thought I was going to be more into social media management.
But I don’t really like doing that. So I focus mostly on strategizing, and helping people get trained. And that’s because I just realized that it wasn’t something I enjoyed doing.
GREG: Yeah, it’s so hard to sort of learn like, the lingo, or the boundaries of a job from the outside. It’s like oh I like games. I like playing games. I like making games. Oh, I probably like publishing them. I had to have that inside experience to really learn no, it’s a pretty hard distinction between what one does, and what the other does.
JENNIFER: Yeah, and then the continuing sale and promotion of that game.
JENNIFER: Yeah, that’s really hard definitely. Thank goodness there is a whole industry of people who want to publish games.
GREG: That’s right. Same with social media. There are other people who can do the management and leave you to strategize.
So how do you balance everything with the game creation and also being in school full-time?
GREG: Oh, it’s hard. With this upcoming convention this weekend, I’m cramming all my final writing for my term and grading for my students.
Getting games together to pitch to publishers.
Uh, I don’t know, is the answer this week. In a less busy week, maybe it would be that oh, I had thought about my schedule in advance and planned time for doing different tasks. But this week it just feels like I’m sort of crashing and using every hour as best as I can.
Finding game scholars and designers online
JENNIFER: Now, since you are active on social media, about how much time does that take for you a week?
GREG: That’s a great question. I don’t know if I track it. I don’t use social media…well, that’s not true. I was going to say I don’t really use it professionally, but I do.
I try to connect with other game scholars and designers, any other people in that community in any capacity.
JENNIFER: Have you found a number of them?
GREG: Yes! Oh, absolutely. There’s a great community of both game designers and game scholars on Twitter, which is my primary social media.
JENNIFER: That’s great to know. Is there a hashtag, or maybe a person that everyone should know about?
GREG: Oooh, that’s a good question. I’ll self-promote a little bit.
I’m one of the hosts of #BoardGameHour every Monday afternoon. So I just got finished hosting this week.
We all have a little conversation and use the hashtag. We talk about board games and there’s a number of different hosts that rotate through so we have a good spread of topics.
JENNIFER: That’s great! So what are some of the different topics you’ve discussed recently?
GREG: One of my favorite things that we talk about, and I hosted so, surprise (we talk about things we like). Part of the perks of being the host, I guess.
We had trouble landing on a term for it. But we ended up saying Games for Change, which is a sort of field in it’s own right.
We were using the term a little bit more broadly than the field specifically uses it. But games that sort of address social problems or attempt to get people to behave in certain ways in relation to certain social issues.
And so we were talking about really interesting board games that, rather than being escapist, tackled social issues head on. And that was a really interesting conversation.
JENNIFER: That’s really interesting. Could you give me an example of 1 or 2 of them?
GREG: Yeah, totally. And this is actually one of my favorite games to play right now, Bloc by Bloc.
And it was designed by these activists in Oakland who were involved in the Occupy Movement. And they made this semi-cooperative board game where everyone plays the role of a different group of activists trying to occupy the city.
And you all play collectively against the game which controls the police.
So right off the bat you’re immersed in this sort of radical rhetoric where, if you’re going to win the game within a turn or 2 of starting you’re like well, I’m going to send these people to get in a fight with the police.
JENNIFER: That’s fascinating! Oh that’s really interesting. That could be used in a classroom to start interesting discussions.
GREG: One day I’ll write a paper about this game. I haven’t figured out what it’s going to be yet. But yeah, absolutely. It’s a super interesting game.
What about Instagram?
JENNIFER: Is Twitter your favorite social media platform?
GREG: Yeah, it is. I was on Instagram for a little while. I’m a bad photographer, so I didn’t get a lot out of that.
I spend more time on Twitter than on other social media platforms, for sure.
JENNIFER: When’s the last time you were on Instagram?
GREG: Oh, I don’t even remember. I have an account, but I don’t check it anymore.
JENNIFER: I was going to say you should consider starting again. You don’t have to be a good photographer, you can just use stock photos if you need to.
But people are having interesting conversations, so if you’re thinking about sharing the cool games you design, the cool games you’re interest in. I bet there’s a huge audience out there for you.
GREG: Well alright, maybe I’ll reconsider.
JENNIFER: It’s worth taking a look.
GREG: My last Instagram post was on May 24, 2014. I just looked it up.
Find a gateway person, and other advice
JENNIFER: [Laughs]. So, what advice would you give to someone who is thinking about joining Twitter, and say reaching out to try and join a community like you did?
GREG: Yeah, I think it’s hard. I think that Twitter has a deserved reputation for being sort of a horrid place some of the time.
Probably some of my good experiences are because I’m very normative. I’m a young white man, I’m not going to get harassed right out of the gate. So that probably helps.
But I think aside from you know, changing or concealing your identity, finding people who are interested in the things you’re interest in…
Find a gateway person. I’m sure you have a better way to think about this because you think about these things all the time, but the notion of the sort of node of the network.
When I was getting connected with game scholars and game designers on Twitter, it seemed like there were a couple people who sort of just kept coming up. So I friended those people, and then I looked at who they talked to and I friended those people.
I just snowball-sampled, to use a term from my discipline, into oh, now I’m in the conversation.
Now I’m somehow, sort of by the exposure of these people. Like, nobody told me oh, this is an important person to follow.
JENNIFER: You just noticed they were talking. It sounds like what brought you to other people was by looking at the conversations that the people who were talking most often were having.
GREG: Yeah, absolutely. Part of why I wanted to get into Twitter was not to hear about promotions or like…I follow this famous game designer who has a big name. And I’ll follow their Twitter, but they don’t talk a lot.
What I really wanted were people who were engaging, who were thinking through things in this public forum. Finding those people was really valuable to me.
JENNIFER: Yeah, that’s what social media is all about. It’s all about having conversations and engaging either with their research, or what they’re talking about, or people’s thoughts and ideas.
Yeah, I completely agree with that. In fact my biggest piece of advice for people on Twitter is to go to the people you most admire and look at who they’re following, not just who follows them or who they’re talking to.
GREG: Oh, that is good advice.
JENNIFER: Because who they’re following is probably people they’re having conversations with. And sometimes it’s faster than looking through a whole list of tweets.
Your method is exactly – looking for the people who are having good conversations. I love that.
GREG: Cool, well thank you. I’m glad I stumbled upon something other people advise.
JENNIFER: I think especially when we’re trying to find such niche communities, to figure out what is the hashtag, or what is the keyword everyone is talking about…but finding a person is a good way of doing that.
Leviathan, a Moby Dick card game
GREG: So I just Kickstarter a card game about Moby Dick. And if there are extra copies, the publisher and I are looking at getting some retail presence for it, which could mean some online sales.
So if you like Moby Dick, follow my Twitter and I’ll be tweeting about how to get a hold of this game as soon as we have extra copies.
JENNIFER: That is very cool. Do you design a lot of card games?
GREG: Not a lot. I dabble in them. That’s like my hobby when I’m taking a break from academic work I think about a fun game to make.
Card games are particularly quick and easy to prototype.
JENNIFER: Oh that’s really interesting.
GREG: I’m making more of them than other…If I have to make a board game with a board, and pieces, and dice. That requires a lot more time investment. So I’m like, I’ll just print out some cards and see if this works.
JENNIFER: Oh, I love that. About how long does it take to design a prototype of a card game?
GREG: It really depends. If I want to just get something on the table, I could probably get something together in an hour.
JENNIFER: Then it’s almost like an exercise, a creative exercise.
GREG: Yeah, it really feels that way. In fact, there’s some people who tweet using #54CardChallenge, and they’re like little prompts for using a regular deck of playing cards, which includes 54 cards including the jokers, to make games.
It’s like, make a game about cars, using only hearts. That’s not a great example, but that’s the kind of thing they tweet out.
JENNIFER: No, that’s fine. You know I’m also a poet. And some of the writing constraints that we’re given, at least in MFA classes, are equally as kind of formulaic. And it can create some really interesting things.
GREG: That’s really cool. Constraints are great for games, and I’m sure for poetry as well.
I want to ask you a question. And I don’t even know how to ask this. What kind of poetry do you do?
Do you have a form you enjoy? Or do you sort of range a little more freely?
JENNIFER: So, I do not have a form. I like really tight language. So I write smaller poems, usually no more than a page. And I really like to play with narrative language and focus on a single moment.
That’s probably the best way I can describe it.
GREG: That’s a very succinct description. I feel like I understand the kind of poems you write now. . .
“I make games in the real world”
JENNIFER: What about you and games?
It’s hard to just, you know the sort of joy of making games. You know, I’m not constrained by “it has to shift to the PS3 next Christmas.”
I make games in the real world, or using cards and bits where it’s basically anything. Like what do you want people to do, is a really hard constraint to start from. Having external constraints to apply is very useful.
JENNIFER: Can I ask what you’re considering doing once you finish?
GREG: Yeah, totally. I realize we’ve been talking more about me as a game designer. Which is my hobby.
I don’t design games for school, for anyone who is like chomping at the bit to apply to my program right now because you get to be a game designer. These are the things I get to do in my spare time for fun.
My studies are more about sort of games as communicative texts, or as mediated elements, and sort of studying games that already exists, or player practices that already exist.
JENNIFER: So you do research on game production and reception?
GREG: Yeah, exactly. Yup.
I am in the 2nd year of my PhD program. So I’m wrapping up my coursework. I came in without a master’s degree, with just an undergrad.
My program has been very gracious and helpful getting me through the coursework to take my qualifying exams.
Then I’ll write my dissertation. I have a few ideas about what that might be about, but I have to start nailing that down next term.
But yeah, once I graduate, I don’t really know what I’ll do. I’ll probably look for an academic job. I enjoy teaching, I enjoy interacting with students. And I’ll keep making games because I’m already doing that. Having a PhD is not going to stop me from doing that.
JENNIFER: Well I love that, and I wish you luck in your future endeavors. It was really a pleasure to talk with you today.
GREG: Thank you so much, and the same to you. Good luck with the poetry and the social media strategies.
JENNIFER: Thank you so much!
Greg Loring-Albright is a PhD student in the Communications, Culture and Media program at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA. He studies board games as mediated communication, materiality of games, and games and play in tabletop and urban contexts (LARP, scavenger hunts, room escapes, etc.).
He has worked as a game designer making tabletop and real world games, including a micro-card-game about Moby Dick and site-specific game experiences for the Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and his alma mater, Swarthmore College.
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Jennifer van Alstyne is a Peruvian-American poet and public relations consultant. She founded The Academic Designer, LLC to help academics, researchers, and writers control their online presence and share their work with the world.
She holds a B.A. from Monmouth University in English, and an M.F.A. from Naropa University in Writing & Poetics where she was the Jack Kerouac Fellow. Jennifer also holds an M.A. from University of Louisiana at Lafayette in Literature and Cultural Studies where she was one of four master’s fellows and a finalist for the Outstanding Master’s Graduate Award.