Power Punk: Eric Zimmerman

Grown-up game boy dips into “systems of pleasure and desire.”

How much money is there in Frogger? The Entertainment Software Association puts the value of the industry at $6.9 billion annually, and Eric Zimmerman and his digital design company, gameLab, might just be the industry’s foremost indie game developers. With teaching gigs at N.Y.U., M.I.T. and Parsons, Mr. Zimmerman doesn’t just sit down in front of an XBox and have fun; he looks at games as “human experiences of play, as systems of pleasure and desire, how games create meaning, systems of narrative simulation, social play.” On a recent afternoon, he was sitting in gameLab’s Broadway offices, which are filled with vintage board games from Mr. Zimmerman’s personal collection, as well as shelves of plastic robots and handheld electronic games.

“Designing games and play is as ancient a human endeavor as designing structures that are inhabited,” said Mr. Zimmerman, who speaks in a loud, pointed voice and looks at the world through chunky Lucite glasses and a mass of untamed dark curly hair. One game his company designs, Junkbot, goes against the slick, blood-strewn commercial standard: A lo-fi, garbage-eating robot must be guided through a series of spatial configurations that would challenge a civil engineer. The graphics are distinctively 1980′s; there are no explosions. The pace is methodical and requires intense problem-solving. It’s the intellectually satisfying sort of game that would delight the sort of guy who spends his free time wondering, “If there were a critical discourse that would bridge the theory and practice of making games, what would that be?”

Mr. Zimmerman attempts to answer that question in a fresh-off-the-press, 680-page textbook, Rules of Play , co-authored with another academic designer, Katie Salen. Jennifer Olsen, the editor of Game Developer magazine, called the book “ground-breaking” and “a tremendous achievement for such a young discipline.”

Mr. Zimmerman, the son of academics in Bloomington, Ind., used to spend hours as a child toying with army men and inventing subversive versions of kick-the-can.

“I do create conflict for a living,” said Mr. Zimmerman.

At gameLab, Mr. Zimmerman and his co-founder and partner, Peter Lee, work with 12 or so programmers, visual designers, animators, game designers and project managers. In a back corner, TV monitors ping! , zoich! and blast! with the sounds of PlayStation 2, Nintendo and Atari. It’s a giant playpen for kids who came of age in the 80′s.

Among games that have come out of gameLab is Crash , an online game available on shockwave.com. In Crash, which is deceptively simple and completely addictive, the player must manage two intersections by speeding up the flow of cars, trucks and ambulances to avoid collisions. It inevitably ends badly. In Sissyfight , a pre-gameLab program Mr. Zimmerman created with the now-defunct Word.com, each participant chooses a cartoon persona of a schoolgirl on a playground; pushing, scratching and sassing ensue. Each girl must choose her alliances carefully (especially when the other players are liable to be anonymous cyber-freaks.)

“For me, the idea of being an indie game developer means something more than that no one owns us,” Mr. Zimmerman said. “It means somehow that we are trying to expand the boundaries of what a game can be.”

While he seems to be succeeding in this endeavor, it doesn’t leave much time for a social life.

“My life is like a sliding number puzzle-everything is just getting out of the way in time for the next thing to happen,” he said. “I’m going to sound like a neurotic workaholic, but I need more times in my life when I wake up and I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do.”

-Sheelah Kolhatkar