I am so pleased to share this Commencement Address given this year at the Ellis School, by one of the earliest TPII clients: Dr. Jessica Hammer. To see someone I worked with go from applying for her first job to delivering a commencement address… well, it makes me feel all… verklempt!
My favorite line? “My lab has rules like, ‘we cheer for rejected papers, because it means you were ambitious.’”
Jessica Hammer is an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University, jointly appointed in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute and the Entertainment Technology Center. She combines game design with qualitative and quantitative research techniques to understand how games impact human behavior. In 2018, she won Carnegie Mellon University’s Teaching Innovation award for her work improving game design education. She also is an award-winning game designer.
The Ellis School Commencement Address 2018
Good evening everyone, and thank you so much for inviting me to speak to you tonight. Congratulations to the Class of 2018! Congratulations as well to your family and friends. I’m sure they are all very proud of you tonight.
As Ellis students, I know that you have worked hard over the past four years, and that you have many accomplishments under your belts. From robotics to journalism, from social justice to visual arts, your passions and interests are wide-ranging. I hope you also had some fun. I say that speaking as a game designer. If you’re not having fun, I’m out of a job.
Let me tell you a little bit about what I do. I’m a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, and my research area is games and play. That means I make games, I study games, and I teach game design. In particular, I work on games that transform the way players think, feel, and behave. In just the last year, I’ve worked on games that help kids be more curious about science, games that help families talk more honestly about mental health, and games that teach players about women’s history.
Games aren’t a panacea for every problem, but in the right context, they can be transformational. For example, in our daily lives we usually want to eliminate obstacles, so that we can complete tasks more easily. In games, we do the reverse. We create rules that make it harder for us to accomplish the goals of the game, and then we celebrate playing by them. Imagine basketball with the hoop lying on the ground, hopscotch where walking is permitted, or a permanently invulnerable Mario. Even if it would be easier to achieve the goals of these games, they’d be a lot less fun. Games change our attitude toward rules, and mastering rules is a key skill for a game designer.
So, as you prepare to go out into the world, let me give you a game designer’s blessing.
First, may you know the rules.
Knowing the rules lets you play by them, and succeed. As a child, you are often told these rules explicitly. Do your homework. Eat your vegetables. Brush your teeth. As you get older, though, the rules will be more and more often left unspoken. What major should you choose? How can you meet new friends? When should you ask for promotion? Many people can give you advice about these questions, but few can articulate the hidden structures that shape what they tell you. To know the rules, you will need an analytic mind and a keen eye for observation, so that you can discover unspoken rules and puzzle out their effects.
Knowing how rules might affect you, though, is only half the battle. The novelist Anatole France wrote, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids both rich and poor to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread.” A rule that has no practical effect on your life may have a profound and powerful effect on the lives of others. For example, in most of this country, it is legal to put someone in jail if they don’t pay municipal fines, like speeding tickets. For people with even a few hundred dollars in the bank, this might sound like a reasonable deterrent, since they always have the option of paying. But those who can’t pay end up in jail. This rule amounts to what the Civil Rights Corps calls wealth-based detention. Same rule, very different effects depending on who you are.
To truly know the rules, you will need the ability to listen closely and generously to the experiences of others, so that you can understand how rules play out for people who aren’t you. And you will need to know who you aren’t hearing, whose experiences with rules you don’t yet understand. Then, go and understand.
Second, may you break the rules.
Breaking the rules is a tough one. I’m sure you can all think of people who break rules because they’re selfish, or reckless, or because they think the rules don’t apply to them.
But breaking the rules can also be heroic. As educated young women, you are here today because of generations of rule-breakers. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to graduate from medical school at a time when medical education was reserved for men. Grace Hopper, whose pioneering work on computer compilers still shapes our technology. Marsha P. Johnson, who fought for trans and gender-non-conforming women at Stonewall and beyond.
These women, and countless more like them, decided that society’s rules were unfair. They often faced harsh consequences for their rule-breaking. But, they opened the doors of male-only institutions and insisted that women be safe and free. They changed laws and standards of behavior. They insisted that all women be included in the gains some women made. They have made it possible for us to be here today, honoring your success and anticipating your bright future.
To break the rules, you will need wisdom and judgment, so that you can know when breaking the rules is necessary and when it is merely self-serving. And you will also need the courage to face the consequences. So, look around at your friends and family who are here today. These are the people who will help you cultivate wisdom, judgment, and courage, and who will stick with you when rule-breaking becomes necessary.
Third, may you make new rules.
Someday, each of you will hold power. That power might come with familiar external trappings: titles, money, status, prestige. It might come more quietly, with the realization that people look to you as a role model, or that you get to set the norms for behavior in your community of friends. No human being is all-powerful, but each of us has areas of power. It’s important to know what they are – because when you have power, you get to set the rules.
Every game designer knows that making rules is hard. Rules can be so complicated that no one can possibly follow them, or have unintended consequences, or that can be easily exploited. For example, in the game Ultima Online, it was illegal to steal someone else’s items. If you did, the town guards would attack you. But, it wasn’t illegal to pick up items from the ground – even if those items had been stolen a moment before. When players realized this, some people started pairing up for a life of crime. One player would use a throwaway character to steal items and drop them on the ground, and the other would pick them up. Eventually, the throwaway character would be attacked by the guards, while the partner walked away clean with the loot. So, getting the rules right can be pretty important.
Because people react to rules in unexpected ways, it’s often hard to tell whether new rules work until you try them out. Testing rules in a game is relatively easy. Write a rulebook or some code, and invite people to play. But testing rules outside of games is a lot harder – especially when you’re thinking inclusively about how rules affect people differently based on their life experience. You will need to be alert to unexpected consequences, and you will need the humility to live with being wrong on a regular basis.
Even though it means being wrong a lot, I think that the game design approach to rules is worthwhile, and I’d like to share a story from my life about what it can look like in practice.
When I went to college, I followed the rules. My father told me to take a computer science class, so I signed up for one. When it finished, I figured I’d take the next course, but I wasn’t sure I had enough experience. I decided to meet with the professor and get some advice about what to do. “No,” he told me. “You’re not ready for this class.” At that moment, I had a choice. I could follow the rules, and forget about computer science. Or, I could ignore the professor and take the class anyways.
You can probably guess what I decided to do.
Because of that decision, I ended up switching my major to computer science. But, I also paid attention to the experiences of women around me who couldn’t afford to risk breaking the rules, or who broke them less successfully. I promised myself that someday, I’d see that they didn’t have to break the rules to succeed.
Today I run an interdisciplinary lab at Carnegie Mellon University, where we blend computer science, social science, and game design. In my lab, I’m in charge, and the rules I make are designed to help everyone succeed. For example, academia is a high-pressure environment where rates of anxiety and depression far exceed the norm. These issues are systemic. Individuals who struggle with mental health can do things to look after themselves, like find a therapist or practice self-care. But those individual choices don’t affect things like the culture of overwork, or the pressure to always perform at your best.
It takes a system to beat a system. So, my lab has rules like “We cheer for rejected papers, because it means you were ambitious,” and “If you are working hard to hit a deadline, schedule extra time off afterward.” The day I found one of my graduate students advising an undergraduate about taking enough time off, I knew the rules were working.
These kinds of decisions may sound impossibly small in a world full of systems that need fixing. But I believe that by building equitable, accessible micro-cultures where we are able, we can inspire others to do the same, even if they haven’t yet mastered the work of rules. I believe that by practicing every chance we get, we can train ourselves to be responsible with power. And I believe that every life we change along the way matters.
So, may you know the rules, may you break the rules, and may you make new rules. And most of all, may you have fun doing it.