Last year in April, at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, Eric Zimmerman stood at a podium and pitched his company, Gamelab, to an audience of geeks. The event was a panel discussion on videogames, and Zimmerman brought a highlight reel for his introduction.
As Gamelab’s most popular games played out on a projection screen, Zimmerman narrated seamlessly, mentioning “millions and millions of people” had played Diner Dash, where players control an overworked, hash-slinging waitress. In Arcadia, the crowd saw clones of games they knew well – Pong, Pole Position, Mario Bros., Connect Four – with a twist. The video zoomed out to reveal the player controlling all four games at the same time. The audience gasped; they were already hooked.
“I think one of my main roles here is hustler,” Zimmerman once told me. “I hustle the company.”
It seems Zimmerman has a hand in every aspect of gaming. He’s a regular speaker at the Game Developers Conference and travels roughly once a month to other speaking engagements. Rules of Play, a game design textbook he co-wrote with Katie Salen, is required reading for game design students around the world. He’s an advisor to Games for Change, a support group for the serious games initiative. And Gamelab, originally a three-man operation, has ballooned to a staff of 30 – not bad for an “indie” studio.
So it’s somewhat paradoxical that middle-aged women are Gamelab’s primary audience – not the sort of people who read scholarly texts or attend panel discussions on gaming. Zimmerman’s skill is in bouncing between those factions.
“He’s a real cultural broker in that he regulates between regular commercial games, the serious games industry and academic learning,” said James Gee, a professor at Arizona State University, who is working with Zimmerman and Salen on a game that teaches game design principles.
When the panel retreated to the museum’s third floor for refreshments, Zimmerman quickly attracted a crowd. It was the first time I met Zimmerman, and I had to wait in line. He’s a short guy, with an oval face and undefined chin. His head is shaved, and he wears glasses with thick frames, seldom choosing contacts. “I like glasses, aesthetically,” he later said.
In conversation, as with public speaking, Zimmerman’s voice – slightly high-pitched with a hint of flamboyance – always seems to be the loudest in the room. When asked a question, he answers it fully, even if it takes 10 minutes. He rarely leaves gaps for interruption, and it never feels like he’s blowing hot air.
“The reason he is successful … is that he’s extremely comfortable thinking about things systematically,” Karen Sideman, a friend and former work associate of Zimmerman’s, said. “That’s what game design is.”
Sideman theorizes that most designers view the world in terms of rule sets, and Zimmerman has probably been in that state of mind longer than anyone she knows. “He has seriously been thinking about the design of games since he was a child,” she said.
Born in 1969, Zimmerman grew up in Bloomington, Indiana. It was a childhood rich with gaming. Kids in his neighborhood played Kick the Can, Ghost in the Graveyard and Dodgeball, and Zimmerman would often create variations on the rules. He also designed board games for Mother’s Day gifts and for school science projects.
He took college-level art classes in high school and majored in art at the University of Pennsylvania, but it didn’t truly satisfy him. “Look, I can paint images on paper and I can enjoy it,” he said, “but ultimately I felt like I was reshuffling a deck that had been created by other people, and there’s thousands of years of painting, and … I had the itch to make culture that was genuinely new.”
After college, Zimmerman started designing amateur tabletop board games with an old friend. He spent hours writing rulebooks, testing his designs and making revisions. As an artist, he never felt time melting away like that.
“They never got published,” he said of the games, “but it was really the experience of working on the design that was just incredibly important for me.” Shortly after, he enrolled in a master’s degree program in art and technology at Ohio State University.
Recognition didn’t come overnight for Zimmerman. “There was no big moment,” he said. “It’s not like I did a game that was as huge as Sim City or Myst, and suddenly everyone knew who I was from that thing.”
In fact, his introduction to the game industry began modestly with an internship at R/GA’s interactive unit in New York, though he was hired a few months later. At the time, Zimmerman thirsted for more involvement in game design discussions, but felt like an industry outsider. Game Developers Conference organizers rejected his pitches for years.
“Basically, [the pitches] were quite academic and more theoretical, and none of the people doing it knew me or any of my work,” Zimmerman said. “They thought, ‘Who’s this guy who thinks he knows something about game design?'”
So Zimmerman learned. After overhearing two R/GA employees talking about a possible game design class at New York University, he and game designer Frank Lantz offered to teach it. To prepare, they combed library databases, discovering game theory classics such as Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens from 1938. It was a hugely influential experience. “Meeting Eric and talking to him about games,” Lantz said, “was a big turning point for me, personally, in the way I thought about game design in my work.”
Teaching also built important contacts for Zimmerman. Peter Lee was one of his first students at NYU, and after Lee graduated, they began to collaborate. Zimmerman had started a company with two friends from graduate school but left to consult and design games as a freelancer. Lee was a systems administrator for a medical communications company. They co-founded Gamelab in their spare time in 2000.
Nick Fortugno worked for Gamelab in the early years, and he witnessed the seeds of Rules of Play brewing in Zimmerman’s head. “In retrospect, I can see that Eric was trying to dissect games as he was making them,” Fortugno said. “The terminology of the book was something that Eric incorporated into philosophy, and it spread through Gamelab.”
Rules of Play debuted in 2003 and is praised as the first textbook to take a theoretical, rather than how-to approach to game design. It is Zimmerman’s best-known academic achievement. The Vancouver Film School’s game design program gives free copies to incoming students. At a recent conference in Israel, two students approached Zimmerman to sign their books.
There is a downside to all the recognition. As the public face of Gamelab, people assume Zimmerman’s authorship on everything the company does. He often explains that Fortugno was the lead designer of Diner Dash, their most popular game to date. Fortugno left Gamelab earlier this year to start his own company with Margaret Wallace. Though he had no qualms with Gamelab, Fortugno realized he was capable of making executive decisions and being a public face on his own.
“Eric is a hard figure to avoid, and he’s a very talented game designer,” Fortugno said. “He does a lot of speaking and does a lot of self promotion, and so it’s hard … to be outside of Eric’s shadow.”
But Zimmerman does the best he can to deflect that. He’s quick to correct mistaken authorship, and when he can’t attend a speaking engagement, he’ll try to pass it on to another Gamelab staffer. Greg Costikyan, founder of New York-based Manifesto Games, recalls panels where Zimmerman went out of his way to give Peter Lee a shot at speaking instead. “The problem there is Peter Lee is a hardworking guy but he’s kind of a behind the scenes guy,” Costikyan said. It makes sense for Zimmerman to take the lead, because he’s so intense.
This year, Zimmerman was involved in a half dozen GDC presentations, panels and lectures. His hallmark event, the Game Design Challenge, pits high-profile designers such as Will Wright and Peter Molyneux against each other to theorize a game based on an unusual concept, such as the poetry of Emily Dickinson or a needle and thread control interface.
“He has a sort of showmanship, a sort of flamboyant personality,” said game theorist Jesper Juul. “If the party isn’t happening, he’ll invent some sort of game where everyone has to say something strange or everyone has to jump around.”
Juul said Zimmerman’s personality has enabled him to know practically everyone in the games industry. “For Eric, it’s not the six degrees of Kevin Bacon, it’s the one degree of Eric Zimmerman,” he said. “He just enjoys talking to people.”
And yet Zimmerman views this simply as a means to an end. “So we become well-known, we have a better reputation, people want to work with us or invest in us, people write articles about us and that helps our profile. That’s not an end to me,” he said. “I don’t really care about that stuff, what I care about is having an impact on the culture of games.”
At least he’s an honest hustler.
Jared Newman is a freelance contributor to The Escapist.