Imagine being in the business of making learning into a game. That’s exactly what Scott Shaw does.
He created and currently chairs the Game Design and Development program at Wilmington University. After running his own game design firm in the late ’90s and early 2000s, he didn’t exactly envision teaching as a potential career path back then. He just wanted to make games.
Shaw talked to us about his first job, and why he picked up Pokémon to get closer to his son.
How long have you been in the industry?
It wasn’t always called the gaming industry, it was called “interactive media” in the early ’90s. I did all kinds of interactive contract work on DVD-ROMS and CD-ROMS for [accounts] like the U.S. Navy, for trainings and onboarding procedures. All the interactive content was done through video and design. For Stanley Black & Decker and W.L. Gore and Associates, we designed and built interactive quizzes and games for training and development.
It was gamification before they started calling it that. The whole concept of play is very important to learning. They wanted to make sure these components gave the learner a time to retain and assess so they didn’t just get burnt out during the training.
"We're uniquely leveraged to utilize what’s around us, but we haven’t done anything as a state to make a game industry happen."
How long have you been teaching?
I started teaching in 1994 and was an adjunct at Cecil College. I did some teaching at Delaware College of Art and Design before someone convinced me to come here [Wilmington University].
I graduated from here, I’ve always liked this place. I spent about three years out of my five-year college experience transferring around to different schools because no one had exactly what I wanted. It took me three years. I always remembered that experience and wanted to continue it for other students.
What was your first job? How did you get into this?
I was a graphics guy, production assistant, grip and camera operator at ProCom Associates and I was there for six years. I started at University of Delaware and got lost in the numbers. Went to University of Maryland but they killed their radio, television and film program. I said, “I can’t stay here, they don’t have a program!” Then I ended up here at Wilmington University.
After a number of internships, I started my own company. It was called Third Row, LLC. In 2009, the economy started to plummet. Wilmington University was recruiting me, so it made sense for me to take the job. After I got hired, my mom would call and ask me what I was doing. I would tell her I was playing a game. She said, “Won’t you get in trouble for that?” “No mom, I’m doing research.”
Sometimes there is a preconceived notion that students will think they’re playing games all the time. It’s some complex work. The software is complex, the theory around it is complex, understanding game mechanics isn’t always intuitive, explicit and implicit. Someone that just wants to come in and play games is not going to have a nice time. There’s a lot of programming logic that goes into it.
There’s a lot of stuff that goes into game design. You will be playing games, but for different reasons than just enjoyment. Programming and applying design with purpose to games gets a lot more complicated.
What’s your favorite game?
Here are a few: [Editor’s note: Scott couldn’t stick to just one.]
- Super Meat Boy: It reminds me of “Donkey Kong” but in a way that you’re literally a chunk of meat and get to slide around and jump around.
- Solitaire: If you try building a solitaire game, you’ll realize it’s not the easiest thing to do.
- Dr. Mario: It was addictive, like “Tetris” but wasn’t.
- Settlers of Catan: I just love the base core mechanics of the game, it’s social.
- Blind Blades: The social aspect of it, I’ve seen it from a game jam game that was made in 96 hours. It was polished into something really professional. Everyone I know that’s played it has had fun playing it. The social aspect of the game has made it even more fun. I like people and talking to people, when I can have that in a game, awesome.
- Pathfinder: Just like “Dungeons and Dragons” or “Warhammer” I like tabletop role-playing games.
- Anything with pirates: My guilty pleasure is “Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag” — not for any other particular reason other than pirates.
What’s your take on game addiction?
I’ve been approached by people who have kids that can’t stop playing games. I suggest they read Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken. It explains why people spend so much time playing games, how ADHD students can’t sit still in school but can sit still and play games for three hours. If people understand what that other person is going through, they can start to help.
"We used to do this as a society but it was around baseball cards, about players. But that’s not the day and age that we live in."
Game addiction can be a problem just like anything else. I have a coffee addiction problem.”Pokémon Black and White” — before “Pokémon Go” — when it came out on 3DS, my son was really into it. Anything that came out of his mouth was related to the game. So I bought a 3DS and started to play it with him. Now we have a conversation around the game, rather than a disciplinary conversation. We spend a lot of time together and we have intelligent conversations around the game, it’s a bond that I don’t think enough parents have.
If you can talk about the difference between a Charizard and Emboar, you child is going to feel like you understand them. We used to do this as a society but it was around baseball cards, about players. About sports. But that’s not the day and age that we live in. Much like the baseball player has stats, strengths, weaknesses. So does Pokémon. If you understand that, you’ll be able to get closer to your child. It’s a different method than saying, “Why don’t you put your phone down while I’m talking to you?”
If you weren’t teaching what would you be doing right now?
Haha. Probably still struggling as a single business operator of a production company or an interactive company. I’m not business savvy in terms of operational stuff, I’m a creative person. I wanna build stuff, I wanna make stuff.
What’s your favorite class to teach?
GMD 405, the second in the line of game development courses. It’s the last one [students] have to take in the game curriculum, it’s my last chance to give them that knowledge. I don’t let them work on projects that are assigned in class so they can learn time-management skills outside of class together on team projects then against each other in competitions.
On the East Coast, there are a few pockets of game companies. Some people would probably get mad at me for saying that, but Delaware needs to step up in terms of supporting a gaming industry.
The first thing is support around incubation. These startup companies have spaces like The Mill and the CoIN Loft, but they’re all focused around programming and programmers for banks. They’re all [courting] established companies.
When can we create a space like what Nathan Solomon has done in Philadelphia? The outcome? We can learn about what happened in Philadelphia, they didn’t have a plan for longevity. There’s too much good stuff [in Delaware] that New York, Baltimore and D.C. can’t do, but we can. We’re uniquely leveraged to utilize what’s around us, but we haven’t done anything as a state to make a game industry happen.-30-