Games By Day, Ska By Night: An Interview with Generoso Fierro
by Henry Jenkins the Provost's Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California.
During a visit back to MIT in August, I had a chance to pay a visit to my old friends at the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab and get a sense of the progress of this summer's workshop. Each summer, the group brings about 50 Singaporean students to MIT to work with Cambridge-based students in an intensive process to develop, test, and post games which are designed to stretch the limits of our current understanding of that medium. The Lab has enjoyed remarkable success both as a training program for future game designers, with many of its alums helping to fuel the growth of the Singapore games industry, and as an incubator for new game titles, many of which are becoming competitive in independent games competitions around the world, and some of which have been springboards for professional game development. The project has assembled a great group of highly dedicated researchers who embrace the interesting challenges of training the students, doing core games research, and inspiring creative development. You can sample this summer's games on the GAMBIT website.
This was the first summer I had not been able to participate in the design process -- at least on the level of helping critique the student work -- and I was very pleased to see the growing sophistication of the games in terms of the visual design (which looks and feels unlike anything you are apt to see from current commercial games), the sound design (which is always expressive and innovative in its own right), and the play patterns and game mechanics (which often embrace alternative interfaces or explore functions of the medium which fall outside the mandates of most game companies.)
One of the things that pleased me the most was the way the Lab was opening up its design process by sharing webcasts of key research presentations -- part of the larger mandate the Comparative Media Studies Program had accepted to help expand access to its core research and public outreach activities. I learned that Generoso Fierro, a key member of the GAMBIT team, had launched an ambitious project to document the design process behind one of this year's more provocative titles, elude, which is intended to be a game which explores issues of clinical depression and hoped to be a resource for patients and their families. The series is now running in installments through the GAMBIT website and is worth checking out, especially for those who are involved or would like to be involved in the game design process.
If Fierro spends 9-5 focusing on how to document and publicize the work of the GAMBIT lab (not to mention helping to stage key events that emerge from the lab's process), he has on his own time been an important Cambridge-area DJ and documentary producer (who is gaining growing visibility on the film festival circuit) for his fascinating work on the Jamacian music scene. Fierro's films manage to capture the process by which these musicians work, mixing together rehearsals and behind the scenes moments with the finished works in concerts, but they also have deep insights to offer into the cultural and historical contexts within which these artists work.
Fierro is, as this interview suggests, deeply protective of the integrity of his finished films -- especially of their soundtracks -- so it is a real privilege to be able to share some short clips from these productions here on this blog. In the first segment of this interview, I am focusing on his games-related work (his day job) and in the second part, his music-related documentaries (his night work).
The MIT-Singapore GAMBIT games lab has been producing a steady stream of interesting podcasts and webvideos. What has been the driving goal behind these projects?
Whenever it's brought up that I work for the game research lab at MIT, people usually follow that up with "So, does that mean you play games all day?" And although their assumption isn't totally incorrect, it lead me to believe that the general public and even some of those who are involved in the games industry are still a bit unclear as to the nature of game research.
In the fall of 2009, the bulk of GAMBIT's outreach initiatives were in the form of blog posts and events that mostly highlighted the final research, achievements and games of the lab but I felt that there needed to be more focus on the day to day creation of these efforts. In December of 2009 I began filming the weekly research meeting which is organized by our post-doctoral researcher, Clara Fernandez-Vara. These weekly meetings are a chance for the staff of GAMBIT to get feedback on current papers and research initiatives. Individual meetings were condensed on video resulting in the monthly GAMBIT Research Video Podcast Series. So far the subjects have ranged from a discussion of a paper by our Audio Director, Abe Stein (Episode 3) based on the flawed adaption of the game Dante's Inferno (Episode 3) to the original research initiative that became the summer 2010 GAMBIT game, elude (Episode 5). The creation of that game, from its initial research, through the day to day creation of the final prototype over nine weeks during this past summer's program became the ten part weekly series I produced entitled "Making A GAMBIT Game" .
Clip from GAMBIT Research Video Podcast Episode Five
Your most recent series focuses on the development of elude, a game about depression. What drew you to focus on this particular game? What did you discover about the game design process through following this title from conception through completion?
GAMBIT has handled some challenging research ideas over the last four years but the thought of a game which would aid the families and friends of people who suffer from depression was too intriguing for me not to document. My earliest thoughts centered around the team itself who are charged with making the final prototype and the myriad of issues they would encounter along the way. Our games are created every summer by teams made up of Singaporean interns, US interns from Berklee College of Music and Rhode Island School of Design and interns from M.I.T. Every GAMBIT team usually has to overcome the brevity of their time together, the usual cultural and subtle language issues and working within the particular game development system here.
With the elude project I immediately wondered how the team would deal with the challenge of making a game that had some fairly rigid goals for it to be successful. Specifically, a game that had to maintain a level of gameplay that would be interesting for a ten year old who plays games regularly to an adult who may have never played a game but are hoping to gain deeper insight into a loved ones depression. I was first stunned at the turnaround time of the team and their strong grasp of the task before them by their output of three early prototypes after only 8 days in the lab (two of them fairly involved digital prototypes, one paper). Early on I was impressed with the ease of the interns communication with the product owner Doris Rusch, the game's director, Rik Eberhardt and the research consultant for the project, T. Atilla Ceranoglu, M.D from Mass General Hospital, who were on site to assist and comment on the game's progression. The interns took direction extremely well but were not shy about offering their own opinions on the project. In fact the level of interpretation that the students had on the final prototype was more than I would've ever imagined.
"Making a GAMBIT Game" Episode Five Clip
This is a bit of a cliche as a question, but I am interested in this particular case. How do you think the presence of the camera impacted the design and training process these films depict?
To start off, I must say that the interns were extremely welcoming whenever I came into the lab and the game director and product owner were also key in letting me know when a meeting or milestone was about to happen that was outside of my normal shooting schedule. I found that early on I may have stifled some discussion within the team's meetings where the product owner/game director were not in attendance as they did tense up a bit when I was in the room. For the record, I would always assure them that A) If something was said that you did not want to be included in the final video, I would not include it and B) These videos were to be released long after the team had disbanded so they wouldn't have the episodes airing as a distraction from the creative process.
That said, I was never asked to remove something that was said by the interns during the entire shoot which leads us to episode five (week four of the US lab experience) A very frank discussion where the interns begin to have some serious issues with the progress of the games development. During that particular discussion I wholeheartedly felt as though my presence was not felt in the room and the freedom of what was said completely candid. There was at times a small amount of direct talking to the camera but mostly I felt outside of the games development process.
There are relatively few films to date which document the process of making a game. What do you think game design students might learn from following this series?
Most of the interns had never worked on a game start to finish prior to coming to GAMBIT. I think the series really benefits those who are considering an education in games. Unlike the game industry there is a unique challenge at GAMBIT where the client is also your supervisor and the concerns that arise from that situation. The elude project is a success, but still there are many moments in which the team had issues not understanding certain facets of the game and the supervisors failed in communicating the resolutions back to them in a way team could understand. This is not uncommon in this type of setting and seeing this might help a student who feels the same level of frustration while in a team like this at their game program.
Apart from your work at GAMBIT, you have been gaining visibility as a documentary filmmaker who has specialized in exploring the history of Jamaican music. Where does your interest in this topic come from?
I became interested in Jamaican music in the early 1980s during a reggae concert that a friend's older brother took me to in Philadelphia. The show was held in all of all places, a horse racing track that would sometime have the occasional concert back in the day. Setting excluded, I felt instantly connected to the music and shortly thereafter began to obsessively collect original recordings from the era of Jamaican music I adored the most.. Mento releases in the mid 1950s, through ska and rocksteady in the 1960s to the earliest sounds from reggae in the early 1970s.
In the mid-1990s I began to produce/DJ a show at WMBR 88.1FM in Cambridge called Generoso's Bovine Ska and Rocksteady, the title taken from an animal that would best exemplify the physical union of the black and white motif commonly associated with ska from the 1970s. Over the last 14 years I have focused in on the aforementioned era of Jamaican music by not only programming the songs but providing background for all of the tracks provided.
In the early part of the last decade I began producing music for some of the local reggae bands which led to collaboration with Eli Kessler, a musician from New England Conservatory. Eli and I had a great admiration for Trinidadian born reggae guitarist Nearlin "Lynn" Taitt, who besides playing on thousands of essential recordings from 1962-1968 was also responsible for the creation of rocksteady, the precursor to reggae in 1966. Eli with a few other musicians from the area who also respected Taitt wrote and performed pieces with Lynn for what would be my first documentary, Lynn Taitt: Rocksteady. Appearing in the documentary is legendary musician Ran Blake, a senior faculty member of NEC, who donated a piece that he had written which he performs with Taitt in the film. Sadly, Lynn passed away in January of 2010.
Clip from Lynn Taitt: Rocksteady
Part of what emerges from your films is an attention to Jamaica as a crossroads for many different cultural traditions. For example, your current project centers on the historical exchange between Jamaica and China, which is an unexpected cross-current. What have you discovered so far about the cultural interplay between these two traditions?
The Chinese came to Jamaica in the mid 1800s as indentured servants to work mostly in the fields. After their contracts were up many of these workers began to fulfill a desperately needed role on the island, that of shopkeeper. In the late 1940s a hardware shop owner, named Tom Wong (later to be known Tom "The Great" Sebastian) had a sound system built for him by a former RAF engineer named Headly Jones. Tom used his new sound system to attract people to his store but soon the sound's popularity grew till eventually this led his spinning records at clubs and thus the sound system culture was born. Soon after, Ivan Chin, a shopkeeper who owned a radio repair service began recording local artists and releasing mento (known as Jamaican calypso) records which were very popular on the island. Leslie Kong, who operated an ice cream shop was the first to record a young Bob Marley, Desmond Dekker and Jimmy Cliff. Kong was one of the most creative and successful producers in the 1960s.
It was this merging of the musical traditions of African Jamaican and the shopkeeper tradition which the Chinese brought from their homeland that helped propel Jamaican music to the international stage. Though they were only a small percentage of the island's total population, they had a huge impact.
Going into the project I was aware of their role in Jamaican music history but many people have also erroneously perceived their motive for participating in the music industry as entirely commercial based on the history as mercantilists. Through the many interviews I conducted along with my Associate Producer, Christina Xu and Editor, Garrett Beazley, we see that the Chinese Jamaicans possess a genuine love for the music they helped create and promote throughout the world. This assertion is quantified but not only the Chinese Jamaicans themselves but also through interviews with many of the prominent African Jamaican artists who have worked with them. The documentary is entitled Always Together and we hope to be submitting it to festivals in early October.
You've worked on portraits of two other leading Jamaica-based performers -- Lynn Taitt and Derrick Morgan. Why did you choose these particular artists and what does each teach us about how music is produced and consumed in Jamaica?
As in the early work with the GAMBIT lab, I am forever interested in the creative process. The final product is fine to watch but its the moments observing the formation of that final product that made me want to make documentaries. In both of the Jamaican documentaries I have previously produced, we do see the final product but most of the time you are given a rare access into the process, the arguments and the successes.
With Lynn Taitt, it was a combination of his sound, which as one of the interviews in the doc states best, " When you hear Lynn, you automatically know it's him and that is one of the best things you can say about a musician you love". The tone of Lynn playing is so absolutely beautiful and I wanted to know what went into his method and instrumentation. Also it was the sheer volume of tracks he arranged and played on which from 1962-1968 was roughly 2,000 songs. Some are of course average cuts but many are amongst the most beloved and repeated rhythms in Jamaican music.
Derrick Morgan was dubbed "The King of Ska" early in his career as he was the first superstar in Jamaica. On one occasion in the early 1960s Derrick occupied the top seven spots on the Jamaican top ten, a feat that has not been repeated since. I have always admired his voice, a voice that is both powerful and at times sentimental. He wrote, sang and produced an epic number of hits through ska, rocksteady and reggae. Always impeccably dressed and possessing a stage persona of that is so rare these days.
After bringing him to Boston for a concert in 2002, I had for years wanted to do a documentary on him and in 2008 I brought him back to Boston to film, Derrick Morgan: I Am The Ruler, the title coming from a track Morgan penned during the rocksteady era. During the island's heyday in the 1960s it is said that between 200-300 singles were produced per month, which is incredible for a country that is roughly the size of Indiana. Though the purchase of music on the island has decreased over the last ten years as it has worldwide, the production of that music remains a constant from that era. As one of the major exports of Jamaica, reggae is an essential part of the island's cultural identity and for many the only chance of rising above the crippling poverty that exists there.
These films are deeply respectful of the integrity of the musical performances, yet it would be wrong to describe them as concert films. They attempt to put the music into a cultural context. Can you tell us something of how you see your work relating to previous attempts to capture musical performances on film?
Thank you Henry. The environment that an artist creates in is crucial in understanding their process. The lyrics are usually reflective of their surroundings and without some cultural context added into the mix you are left with a partial idea of their work. Director Julien Temple did quite a sensational job with the Sex Pistols documentary The Filth and The Fury as far as putting you in that time period by using archival footage of the political climate during the formation and career of the band. That footage combined with the past and present interviews and a significant amount of live music helped the audience fully understand how something like punk would've manifested and why The Sex Pistols were the band the media latched onto at that time.
Amazingly, Temple's next film about Clash frontman, Joe Strummer The Future Is Unwritten failed miserably as Temple chose to showcase meaningless celebrity testimonials (Johnny Depp, John Cusack?) , a meager amount of Strummer's music and the stylistic choice of not titling any of Strummer's acquaintances over adding any content that would've created an accurate picture of that artist. Strummer had passed before the film had been produced but there is a large amount of existing interview and live footage of him that could've been used.
As there isn't much in the way of musical footage from 1960s Jamaica I was left with the situation of having to bring the artists to perform and record so that we can see their unique style when they create. During the course of these interviews I draw heavily from articles from Jamaican publications from the day and rely on the artist themselves to comment on well known events from their lives. In the case of the Derrick Morgan documentary I produced, I relied almost entirely on Morgan to create the narrative of the film and I insisted on having no other talking heads in the film to tell his story, except for one, that of Prince Buster, a rival musician whom Morgan feuded with in the early 1960s. I felt that it would've been unethical to not hear his side of the story. Morgan's interview, coupled with Pathe newsreel footage and Jamaican Gleaner articles and the music, were arranged in the film in chronological order. Understanding the changing face of the island's politics, especially during a key rise in violence after Jamaica's independence in 1962, was key in how Morgan's music changed over time, not just in the rhythm but in lyrical content.
Clip from Derrick Morgan: I Am The Ruler
The GAMBIT films are created to be consumed on the web, while your own documentaries are created to be watched on larger screens. What have you learned about the differences in producing work for these two different viewing contexts?
Oddly what I feel is the main difference is in sound. Though a web video needs to be of good audio quality, films for the screen need sound that captivates an audience. On the Morgan and Taitt docs I spent almost as much time and effort on post production sound editing as with the editing of the film as a whole. For that reason I have yet to put those documentaries on the web as most of the dynamics of the sound would be lost due to the rate of compression on the predominance of video hosting sites. The videos I create for GAMBIT are specifically edited for an m4v file that is easily downloadable to smart phones but are actually quite good in keeping color and sound at a high enough level that the information comes through in an entertaining manner.