EDT791: Interview with Shawn Andrich

Posted by Jeff Beeman on Tue, 02/12/2008 - 20:58

Note: For those of you coming to this article outside of the context of the Video Games, Literacy and Learning course (EDT791), I reference topics discussed by James Paul Gee in his book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. If you have even the slightest interest in the topic of gaming in the context of education, I highly recommend the book, even as a casual read.

I met Shawn Andrich in July of last year (2007), when I made the mistake of asking him if he needed help with the popular gaming website he co-founded, Gamers With Jobs. The site runs on an application-, content-, and community-building platform called Drupal, and I spend pretty much the bulk of every day building websites that use it, so I figured I could use my knowledge to give back in some small way to the site that had given me, week after week, free content in the form of amazing front page articles, intelligent gaming discussion, and a wonderful podcast. Little did I know what I was getting myself into.

Shawn, being the discerning community manager he is, knows pretty quickly when there's a sucker he can take in and abuse for the good of the site. Within a couple of days, I was rolling forward on getting the site upgraded to a new version of Drupal, completely blind to what was coming. Shawn sent me an email one day, introducing Eric Carl, another member of the community and a fantastic web designer. Now, over half a year later, what would have been a small project has turned into a complete overhaul of the site's look-and-feel and the addition of some great functionality, which we should be rolling out sometime early this year. And despite the countless hours of work, I couldn't be happier with how the whole thing ended up going. It's secretly what I wanted to see happen anyway.

Shawn was and continues to be a fast friend. When it came time to decide on a gamer to interview for an assignment in my Video Games, Literacy and Learning master's class, I immediately thought of him and the unique perspective he would offer on the topic. In our interview, I talked to Shawn about his general gaming interests, what sorts of influences he feels gaming has on his life, why he plays what he plays, and dug a bit into his thoughts on learning and games. I'll say before I start that, because I've known Shawn for a bit of time, there are many things I already know about him. He's well-informed on what's happening in the gaming world, has some connections to relatively prominent figures in the industry, and can talk intelligently at length about games, game design, and the industry as a whole.

Shawn is the kind of guy that sort of feels like Michael Keaton in Multiplicity - except he manages to get by without the clones. (I guess that effectively makes the Multiplicity reference irrelevant... but you get the idea.) At only 27, he has a full time job as a Tech Director for a security and video monitoring technology company and runs, moderates and writes for Gamers With Jobs. He does all this while also keeping a healthy and happy marriage and what he considers a well-balanced life.

Due to his fairly time-consuming involvement with running Gamers With Jobs, full-time employment and maintaining a real life, Shawn keeps a pretty tight reign on his gaming schedule and doesn't play an excessive amount. Shawn was self-employed from the time he was 18, which caused him to adopt rules and habits that would allow him to be successful. Even now, as an employee working for someone else, he has trouble playing during normal work hours on a day off. As a result, he never plays before 5 PM, and usually waits until between 7 PM and midnight when he does. He ends up playing several times a week, around five sessions depending on his schedule. While Shawn doesn't feel like gaming ever takes away from his time with his friends or family, he does feel that the inverse of that can be true. As someone who runs a gaming community, online games such as Team Fortress 2 are frequently the place where relationships are built and maintained. At times, he feels that if he doesn't connect with the staff or community in all the ways possible he runs the risk of becoming completely disconnected from the site and, therefore, his friends. It's little surprise then, that he enjoys social gaming just as much as gaming alone.

Gaming time for Shawn is generally spent playing a variety of genres on a variety of systems. He tends to prefer first person shooters, third person action-adventures, platformers, RPGs and sports games, but essentially enjoys "anything good." This is typical among the Gamers With Jobs staff, and fairly common within the community as well, and is most likely the reason he can talk intelligently and at length about the industry. While he has played MMOGs in the past, and can talk at length about the time he has sunk into Everquest, he doesn't play them any more as he feels they require too much time for the little reward they offer, and, "I don't have a particular need to have my social itch scratched, so there's not a lot to draw me in from a purely "gameplay" level. I get that camaraderie and community feel of a shared experience across a spectrum of games, rather than pouring all of my time and attention into one."

In an effort to start drawing some parallels to some of the psychology behind how and why we play games identified by Gee, I tried to dig a bit deeper into why it is that Shawn plays games. "I play games because I enjoy them, primarily. Why we enjoy something is tough to qualify, but I'll try. It's because when playing you're mentally engaged, you often experience it with others, as an industry it's constantly evolving in both design and technical achievement. There's basically a lot of different aspects that make the whole very appealing as a hobby."

His interest in gaming comes from several directions. The act of playing games is fun for him, and more engaging then other forms of entertainment (as he unsurprisingly said to me, "it's not like I'm running a book fan-club"). He finds gaming to be a way to connect socially with friends and a community, and following the industry is interesting to him. Yet, despite an obvious interest in and dedication to gaming, Shawn does not think of gaming as an important part of his identity. He considers it to be something that he happens to do with his time, and thinks of it pimarily as a means to interact with people, whether that be playing or just talking about games. "It's no more a part of my identity than a hammer is a part of a carpenter's."

While Gee's writing tends to indicate that over time players develop an understanding of systems at play and how games are designed at a macro-level, there's an implication that the great part about this is that the players don't usually realize that it's happening. In the couple of days since our interview, I've thought about this idea of games teaching intangible concepts, such as the incredibly broad and difficult to describe notions of cause-and-effect or economies. I tried to see what Shawn thought about this by asking if he paid attention to these sorts of things while he played. While he feels like he has a "broad, conceptual level" understanding the systems that are working behind the scenes of a game, he tries not to think about them much until he looks back critically on a game as a whole, saying, "Trying to see past the curtain while you play makes for a tedious experience." I found this quite interesting, and I have an inkling that most gamers would respond in a similar fashion. While he doesn't like to pry too hard into a game's design as he plays it, he does appreciate it when developers include features like Half Life 2's commentary mode that allows the player to get a sense for how the game was created. However, features like world editors aren't as valuable to him, as he doesn't have a huge interest in modding games ("My enjoyment is in the playing, not the creating"). While we didn't have time to get into it in the interview, I know from listening to countless Gamers With Jobs podcasts that in spite of his desire to not peek behind the curtain of game design while playing, Shawn can discuss critically and at length the various merits or flaws of a given game's design and clearly enjoys discussing topics of game design with developers.

When it comes to game difficulty, if a game gets too hard or frustrating, Shawn will generally stop playing for a while. If it happens often enough in a game, though, he'll usually stop playing the game altogether. When he encounters extreme difficulty like this, he considers it to be more of a flaw in the game's design than a challenge presented by the designers. Before giving up on it, though, he will generally use the Gamers With Jobs community or a website like GameFAQs as a resource, "so long as it's something preventing forward progress rather than an overall difficulty like poor camera controls, cheap A.I. tactics, etc." While difficulty can be frustrating, Shawn does enjoy mastering a game when possible. However, he doesn't go out of his way to do so, citing time as the main factor that keeps him from attempting to master a game. For example, in Team Fortress 2, he tends to pick the class that his team needs in a given moment, over picking the class that he wants to get better at playing.

I asked Shawn if he felt like his years of past experiences with games influenced his ability to enjoy particular games now. He cited times when he's watched inexperienced players attempt to grapple with a 3D space using a controller and their inability to connect the use of the controller with movement on screen as a primary indicator that "experiencing the organic ramp-up in design through the years absolutely informs your ability to understand a game quickly and enjoy something that would otherwise be unapproachable." He does feel, however, that platforms like the Nintendo Wii and DS are, to a certain degree, making 3D worlds and games in general more accessible to new players and cites Mario Galaxy as an example of a game that does a good job of simplifying the experience. When learning to play a new game, he appreciates a well-designed and presented tutorial, and feels that the best games integrate the teaching directly into the game play. He mentions how Zelda games do this subtly by introducing new features while the player is accomplishing tasks within the game proper.

Shawn and I spend the bulk of our time communicating with each other over IM, whether it's discussing work that needs to be done on the site, the games we're playing, car buying or conducting an interview for my master's class. Clearly the session for conducting this interview was a long one. (Praise be to the inventor of the chat log!) The interview covered a smorgasbord of topics, and I thank Shawn for his patience while I fumbled through it like some amateur gaming blogger. Err, wait a sec... I was intrigued and surprised by many of his answers, and while I've tried to give my thoughts on some of them here, there's simply too much to cover in a reasonable number of words. Needless to say, I'll probably be coming back to this interview over and over throughout the semester for reference, and Shawn will have to put up with random late-night instant messages about semiotic domains and projective identity. I'm sure he'd appreciate, instead, news that I just fixed a nasty bug on the website but, well... let's just consider this payback.