On The Border: An interview with Heather Logas

Game designer Heather Logas.

Game designer Heather Logas.

After a brief hiatus, On the Border is back with its next bi-weekly installment. The Border House sat down with Heather Logas, a long-time game design veteran with the unique trait of having spent extended time in both the video games industry and academia during her professional career.

Logas started playing video games on a beloved Atari 800 around age 5 or 6, and a bit later dove into the playing and creation of role-playing games. As she grew older, completing her undergrad work at San Francisco State University and going on to complete her Master’s of Science at Georgia Tech, her interests veered toward more cutting edge technologies like virtual reality. Her life’s journey has seen her weaving in and out of academia and the industry: From Georgia Tech, she worked an internship with Lucas Arts, followed by the completion of her M.S.. This led to a long-term position at Telltale Games, which gave way to Logas returning to school at the University of California, Santa Cruz, for her M.F.A. Settling on academia as her environment of choice (for now), the MFA culminated in several academic positions at UCSC, where she currently resides as a lead game designer on a research project.

Amidst all of this, Logas started a family and heads her household, with two small children and a husband. The Border House was eager to hear about this amazing journey.

The Border House: Heather, thank you for agreeing to interview with The Border House.

Heather Logas: Thank you! It’s exciting.

TBH: Tell me about your time at the Georgia Institute of Technology. What did you study? What was something notable that you accomplished there?

HL: At Georgia Tech, my degree at the time was called Information Design and Technology, but I think it’s now called Digital Media possibly. I went there to work with Janet Murray. The degree was like a new media degree, but it was very flexible so I studied games pretty seriously. ¬†Michael [Mateas] came my second year, and he and I started the experimental game lab there. I organized the space, found the equipment, and started the game library there. That lab still exists, that was a really cool accomplishment. The thing I did while I was there was I started the project which would later develop into my Kickstarter project, called Before You Close Your Eyes.

Logas teaching her Experimental Game Design Workshop at the University of California, Santa Cruz campus.

Logas teaching her Experimental Game Design Workshop at the University of California, Santa Cruz campus.

TBH: You also have a second master’s from the University of California at Santa Cruz. How was your time in the MFA program at UCSC?

HL: Awesome. It was almost the same story as earlier in my life: I had been laid off, I was contracting, we weren’t really making enough money, weren’t sure what to do, I didn’t really want to get a full-time industry job, I had a small child, and that was… hard. I was contacting people at this time to help me promote my Kickstarter campaign, and I contacted Noah [Wardrip-Fruin]. We talked, and he suggested I come down and check out UC Santa Cruz. I had lunch with Noah and Michael, and they encouraged me to apply for the MFA program. With the idea that if nothing else, I would be qualified to teach certain courses. The idea was that I could at least make some money lecturing while doing contracting. So I came to Santa Cruz, did the MFA, and it was really great. I think what I really appreciate about it the most was that it really changed my relationship with art and design and helped me see they are two different things. And to think about art in terms of research, really asking good questions about when people are making something. I want to know why they’re doing it that way.

TBH: What was one of your most inspiring memories from your time at the [Digital Arts and New Media Program]?

HL: I think what was really inspiring were the amazing people that I worked with. Everyone in my cohort was just so smart and thoughtful and really interested in experimenting with art, what art could do, and how it could be used to give you a deeper understanding of the world. I learned a lot from the other people in my program. Just listening to how they talk about things. And the professors, as well. It was really, a really great experience.

TBH: So you have an MFA in Digital Arts and New Media. How would you describe the intersection between your knowledge of the arts and the games that you work on?

HL: It’s interesting how it all ties together. There’s a body of work that I’m definitely interested in pursuing that I would consider much more in the realm of art, and then there’s kind of what I do on a day-to-day basis. The game that I work on professionally, I definitely bring some of that sensibility to it. [E.g.:] Why are we making this thing? Should we do the design this way or this way? What does that say about the world, and what kind of message do we want to put into the world? It’s like looking at game design through a different filter, rather than being in the realm of art.

As far as art goes, the kind of projects I really like to work on are things that really challenge the notions of what games are for. I’m interested in games that bring people together, that increase empathy, cooperation, and a deeper understanding of each other. It’s the only way I see to make a lasting change on the world: To increase the general level of empathy in the world. Which is a tall order.

Logas at her Digital Arts and New Media exhibit, "Games/Reality Workshops," at University of California, Santa Cruz.

Logas at her Digital Arts and New Media exhibit, “Games/Reality Workshops,” at University of California, Santa Cruz.

TBH: You’ve also spent some time in industry, most notably as a game designer at Telltale Games. Can you give readers some insight about what it’s like working in industry for a game company?

HL: First of all, it’s very different depending on what company you work at. My experience is not necessarily someone else’s experience. For me, one thing that’s really cool is having all these people who are really smart and focused on what they’re doing. At Telltale, everyone really was invested in making the best thing they could given the time and resources, and that was a really great environment to be in. We did do long hours sometimes, although nowhere near as bad as I’ve heard about other places.

Games still have this mystique about them. People want to work on these magical things that have affected them so deeply. So working in the industry is seen by young people as a privilege. And it is in a way, but I think there’s too much willingness to give up things that are important for that privilege. I think sleep is important, I think your health is important, I think family is important. You have to have a life outside of the company, because if you don’t, you’re not bringing in new inspirations to the product.

So what happens at some point, it stops being interesting. The sacrifices you’re asked to make become too much. I know a lot of people who hit that point and then ditched. So sometimes I feel like I don’t have that many peers anymore. They go away. And so there’s this hope that the industry’s getting better, but I don’t see how that can happen actually if the people who are getting fed up- instead of trying to change things- are leaving. Maybe they have to, for their own sanity.

TBH: What’s it like working on an industry title?

HL: It’s really nice to have a lot of people focused on the same mission, which is getting this great game out. It’s fun to bounce ideas off of people. At the same time there’s a lot of pressure to get it done on time. At Telltale I think- maybe because of the episodic structure of the games- it was just frantic. And that gets exhausting.

TBH: What was it like for you transitioning from academia to the industry?

HL: Hard. It was hard. The thing I wish I’d had more of when I was in my Master’s degree was emphasis on professional skills, professionalism. The program did do a bunch of stuff around entrepreneurialism, but I think the assumption at that program was, “You are going to be a technological genius and go forth and start your own company and do your own whatever.” But most of us went to work for other people. And I don’t think I was ready to do that. That’s not necessarily Georgia Tech’s fault, but it’s not something that I experienced much.

Logas teaching her Experimental Game Design Workshop at the University of California, Santa Cruz campus.

Logas teaching her Experimental Game Design Workshop at the University of California, Santa Cruz campus.

TBH: And what was it like transitioning from the industry back to academia?

HL: Delightful! [laughs] When I went back into the MFA, a lot of stress was lifted from me. The financial stress was alleviated a lot. There was living in Santa Cruz, it’s beautiful here, I got to meet amazing people, I was learning constantly, and that’s so important to me to be happy.

TBH: Can you tell me a bit about an interesting job you worked during your contracting work?

HL: I worked on a bunch of interesting jobs. I think the most interesting, just in the way it came together, was Disney Interactive on a DS game. The game had been produced by Disney, but the developer was in China, and hadn’t really designed a game before. They’re designing a game for American tween girls, and it was being designed by Chinese men in their 20s. It had all these complicated RPG mechanics. Basically I was given this design document by Disney and was asked “Will you save us, please?”

I dove in, and it was an interesting process because I was communicating with this team in China and I would end up on these weird phone calls with them at weird times because they’re in a completely different time zone. In the end I think it turned out pretty good; I didn’t get to see the project all the way through the end. I was basically in charge of getting the design doc in shape and then the producers took it from there.

The thing about working on games like that is that no one reviews those games. So when I’ve been wondering “How did people receive this game?” I can’t find any information. Except I did find a video review from like a 10 year old girl who really liked it, so I think that’s a success.

Logas with her husband and two children.

Logas with her husband and two children.

TBH: I understand that you have a family, with two kids under 6 years old and a husband, and that you’re often the main breadwinner of your household. What has that experience been like?

HL: It’s a weird experience. My daughter Celia is five and a half, and my son Dale is almost sixteen months old. It’s an interesting model. Single breadwinner households aren’t that common anymore, unless they are also single parent households I guess. For us it really works. But one of the hardest things is that people don’t understand.

I think that’s exacerbated by the fact that I’m the breadwinner, and my husband is the one who stays home. There are definitely other house husbands in the world, but I run into weird attitudes about it. Like people don’t know what to do with it. People will say to me “I don’t know how you do it, I don’t know how you do everything,” and he is a big part of the reason why I can do everything that I do. I have him to make sure the kids are safe and happy and fed, so I can feel really secure about the fact that they’re in good hands while I’m doing the things that are important to me. My family is amazing; they really keep me going. My children are a constant source of inspiration to me. They just see everything so differently. They make my life much richer.

TBH: You also have a game of your own that you’re working on. Can you tell us anything about that?

HL: I’m working on this independent game called Before You Close Your Eyes. I’ve been working on it for about 3 years or so. The concept started out while I was at Georgia Tech. The idea behind it was to take a stab at solving a problem that I saw. I’ve been a tabletop roleplayer and live action roleplayer for years and years and years, and I was very dissatisfied with computer or digital role-playing games, because I felt that they had zero role-playing in them. So what I wanted to do was to address how when you play a game you form an idea or an image of who your character is and what they’re about, but that image is not supported by your choices in the game.

Before You Close Your Eyes is a game that takes place in a dream world that’s heavily inspired by H. P. Lovecraft, Dream Cycle. and the Lone Wolf game books that I devoured when I was a kid. The game can be played a couple different ways: it can be played as a role-playing game or in sort of a more self-examining way. If you were to create a character with a personality, the choices you have are based on your personality. And they can change over the course of the game. It can be played in a very self-reflective way, if you play a character who’s based on yourself and then you go in and you make certain choices, then the game asks you something like “Are you sure you wanna do that? That’s braver than I would’ve thought of you.” And you say “Well yes I am that brave.” I think it gives you a chance to think about who you are.

[A link to the demo of Before You Close Your Eyes can be found here. It is optimized for iPad play, and can be played in any web browser.]

TBH: What are you using to develop the game?

HL: I’m using a scripting language called ChoiceScript which was developed by Dan Fabulich. It’s a really easy way to create game book-style games. It gives you a framework where you can create a set of stats and have things in the world affect the stats.

TBH: Where do you find inspiration for your writing & design?

HL: Everywhere. I think the best game designers find inspiration from everywhere. I try to be open to experiences informing me. I think that you can make a game about just about anything. ¬†Inspiration is everywhere. The hard part for me is recording things. I want to collect all those impressions and thoughts, but many times I don’t, and I wish I had.

TBH: What are your thoughts on the changing landscape of the games industry? Particularly as it pertains to the ongoing debates about gender and race, the surge of new developers and easier dev tools.

HL: That’s a very big question. There are many answers that come to mind. I am really excited about how it is becoming easier for people to publish their games in formats that are easy for other people to play. I think that is really amazing. That allows for more voices in the world. However, I don’t necessarily think that they are taken advantage of by the people that we might wish were taking advantage of them. So I think the tools are becoming more available, but the sense of “Look you can really do this” is not there.

I think there are some inroads being made, in terms of diversity, but I don’t think it’s changing as quickly as I would like. I think a lot of that has to do with, again, assumptions that people make about what gamers want, and want to play.

I think that programming is a big barrier, and there will be people who insist that “Oh we have these tools, it makes it easier, it’s not that hard.” But it is hard. If not actually hard, there’s a big mental/emotional part of it that is hard. Programming is alienating.

I think that the way forward really has to do with involving communities in making non-digital games together. So that they see it as a collaborative process, as something that’s fun, as a form of expression, something that not only they can make together, but that they can take and play with someone else and that person can get a deeper understanding of their experience. Games are one of the few mediums where you can do that kind of thing. If I were to sit down and make a game about what my day was like, and then you and I could play that together, you’d gain a really good understanding of what I’m about moreso than if I even wrote a story about it. It brings you closer to things.

The Border House would like to thank Heather Logas for participating in On The Border. Stay tuned for next week’s companion article, the Part of Threes, featuring this week’s guest, Heather Logas!

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