Jessica Hammer



Harvard - Computer Science

NYU - Interactive Telecommunications

Columbia - Cognitive Studies

Jessica Hammer has always been a creator.

In fact, she was only eight years old when she started designing her own games, which led to games for all of her friends' birthday parties, too. And now, as a Mellon Interdisciplinary Graduate Research Fellow at Columbia University, Jessica fosters that same creativity by designing a wide range of video games and researching, teaching and writing about the different ways video games affect the world in which we live and the people who play them.

Jessica nurtured an intense interest in the science of gaming while majoring in computer science at Harvard. As her questions and ideas increased, so did the notion that they could lead toward a career. Now, as a graduate researcher, Jessica is still asking questions. And that curiosity, along with persistence and courage, are the traits she believes allowed her combine scholarship, research and design into a career she loves.

Persistence means you'll keep plugging away through the tough parts of the job.

How did you discover your current job?

Persistence. I knew I wanted to understand play better, but I didn't know where to start. I kept talking about my research ideas to everyone I met. Eventually, a friend of a friend suggested I meet with a professor at Columbia. After one conversation, I was hooked. I saw an opportunity to ask big questions and spend my life answering them.

I'll add, though, that my job isn't exactly one you can “discover.” It's one you create! I have a lot of freedom to figure out what questions I want to spend my time trying to answer. I also get to figure out how to balance the universal parts of a scholarly life (teaching, writing, researching) with my own approach (playing, designing, mentoring). It's not always easy, but it's wonderfully worthwhile.

What drew you to a life of developing and researching games?

When I was eight years old, I took a book of party games out of the library. I read that book a dozen times -- then reinvented and remixed and revised until I threw myself the most kick-butt ninth birthday party any girl has ever had. Then I helped my friends do the same for their own birthday parties. Fortunately, my parents were both patient and supportive.

This isn't actually a story about how I always wanted to make games. My games craze lasted about a year, at which point I moved on to other things. I didn't realize I might be interested in studying games until after college. I majored in computer science, but I kept asking myself, “What difference does technology make in people's lives?” I noticed that one place people were having powerful emotional reactions to technology was in games. I started wondering about what made games different from other kinds of media and how they might affect players in both obvious and subtle ways. When the questions wouldn't go away, I started to think they might be pointing me toward a career.

What my fourth grade experience taught me, though, is not to focus solely on technology. Games can be a powerful force for social connectedness. It also showed me that making games is really fun and that it can be accessible to anyone. Those are lessons I still draw on in my research and teaching today.

What does your typical job schedule and day look like?

As a graduate researcher, I have a lot of flexibility, both in terms of what my day looks like and what projects I work on. I try to have all my meetings in the early morning. For example, I might help a student design a research project, brainstorm new ideas with a colleague or discuss the psychology of games with the head of a start-up. After that, I keep a big block of time free for the creative work (the hardest part of my job). That usually means one of three things: writing articles, conducting research studies, or working on game development. At the end of the day, I treat myself by reading a thought-provoking book or playing a game I've never tried before. Yep, they're both part of the job!

The one thing I'm not doing right now is teaching and I definitely miss it. My students inspire me to become a better teacher, a better designer and a better scholar. They always have great questions that challenge my assumptions and stretch my capacities. I'm looking forward to teaching again in the future.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

My favorite thing to do is work on projects that combine scholarship, research, and design -- especially if I get to collaborate with smart, playful, insightful people in the process. Bonus points if the project might change the world or help us understand it in a new way!

For example, I'm working on a project called Lit 2 Quit, which looks at whether a mobile game can help people stop smoking. It brings together a playful spirit with a real-world issue: tobacco use is still the leading cause of preventable death in the United States and a significant problem worldwide. Almost half of American smokers try to quit each year. If we could find a way to help them, it could be a big win for public health.

Our team researched the psychology and physiology of smoking and one of the things we found out is that people get into playful, or “paratelic,” states. And when people are feeling this way, they have a hard time sticking to their long-term goals. We saw an opportunity there! If we could make a game that pushed the same buttons for people as smoking did, people might pick up our game instead of a cigarette when they wanted to have fun.

Next, we started the design process. We knew our game needed to be mobile, so that it could be with the player anytime a cigarette would. But what did “push the same buttons” mean for smokers? What impact were we trying to have on players' minds and bodies? What game mechanics could we use to do that? And how could we make it fun? We ended up building our game off existing game genres, so that smokers would find it easy to pick up and understand, but with a big twist. Part of each game was controlled by breathing into the phone. The patterns of breathing we created through gameplay helped us affect players' bodies and minds.

Finally, we brought smokers into our lab and tested whether the game actually satisfied smokers' needs. We looked at how the game affected their body, biofeedback style – we measured their heart rate, stress levels and brain waves. We also had players report on their emotional state before and after play. Then we compared how the game affected people to how smoking affected them. We found out that while parts of our game still needed more work, some parts of it actually made smokers feel just as good as a cigarette did, and in similar ways.

Not only does this research have the potential to save lives, I got to work with a group of my former students – some of the most inspiring people I've ever had the opportunity to collaborate with. That's pretty rewarding all around.

What challenges keep you awake at night?

Academia is a tough road, especially these days. I want to be a professor, but many universities are hiring primarily adjunct faculty -- low-wage part-time jobs with no benefits and very little community support. Full-time faculty are also increasingly overloaded and underpaid. Even if I'm able to beat the odds and get a great faculty position, the problems of the field as a whole are ones I feel morally obligated to grapple with.

Is work/life balance ever a problem with you? If so, what is one no-fail tactic you use to create balance?

The hardest part about working on play is that play becomes work. Whenever I play games, there's always a part of my mind that's in “scholar mode” -- even if I'm just trying to hang out with my friends. Admitting that games don't help me unwind was a big step toward balance. These days, I treat play as professional development and have my just-for-fun fun in other ways.

What is one lesson you've learned in your job that sticks with you?

Iterate. To me, that one word sums up three critical lessons. First, experiment quickly. Second, fail usefully. Third, rebuild thoughtfully.

The iterative approach makes it easier to try big things. For example, the first time I taught a game design course, I wasn't sure I could do it. I reminded myself that I'd have fourteen classes over the semester. Even if I bombed the first one, I could learn from it and do a better job in the second class session and better again in the third. Knowing I could iterate gave me the courage to say yes to something new – and I ended up with great student reviews that year.

The iterative approach detoxifies failure. Failure just means you have some new information to work with, so you can do a better job next time. For example, I designed a storytelling game to help people experiment with different emotional states. When I watched people play, they avoided playing with certain emotions. Instead of deciding the game was a failure, I asked myself why that might be happening and made a better game as a result.

Finally, the iterative approach helps you stay flexible. It encourages you to try multiple approaches to solve a problem. For example, I got interested in how people learn from games. I tackled the problem in several different ways, each of which had its limitations -- but I was able to see each attempt as providing a useful step toward the larger goal, even if each one was imperfect.

What are some of the rules you live by?

Time is precious. As a creator -- both of games and of scholarship -- I find uninterrupted time to be a rare and precious thing. I try to be very conscious of what I commit my time to; not just in the workplace but also outside it. I couldn't do the work I do if I didn't have the time and space to meander, mentally. I go down wrong paths, read things that turn out to be irrelevant and have ideas that don't make any sense. That's a necessary part of the process.

Open heart, open mind. Academia prizes the critical faculties, but radical empathy can also be a powerful way to learn. When I read something new, I give my mind and heart entirely to the author. I can come back later and pick holes in the argument, but first it's important for me to sympathetically understand what the author was trying to do. It helps me see possibilities, what-ifs, next steps and applications – my favorite way to work!

Everything is interesting. What do doing dishes, singing opera, answering email and performing improvisational comedy have in common? All these things have made me a better scholar. Approaching my life mindfully means I can see connections between everyday activities and the questions I work on professionally, like how technology helps us think differently and why work feels different than play.

Unplug. I spend one day a week completely offline, no matter how busy my schedule. It helps me distinguish between what's important and what's merely urgent. I need patience and silence and solitude to do certain kinds of intellectual work and removing the temptation of constant communication makes it easier to get there.

What qualities does it take for someone to be successful as a Research Fellow?

There are as many ways to be a research fellow as there are research fellows! But here are three qualities that will help you no matter what: curiosity, persistence, and courage.

Curiosity will help you ask great questions. It'll drive you to read and learn new things that you can bring back to your own research topics. Games scholarship, in particular, is very interdisciplinary. You'll benefit if you want to know about lots of different fields and understand how people play lots of different games.

Persistence means you'll keep plugging away through the tough parts of the job. Sometimes you have to spend twenty hours messing with a spreadsheet or read a dozen papers on the same subject before it makes sense. Persistence is critical for making games, too. I tell my students that their first stab at a game probably won't be much fun for people to play. It's whether they keep working on it that matters.

Courage lets you face ugly possibilities and new challenges. Maybe your experiment won't work -- but you won't know until you try it. It takes courage to do that. Courage is especially important for working in a developing field such as games, because there is no one right way to do things. You can only do the best work that's possible for you.

What advice do you have for women who want to follow in your footsteps?

Read voraciously. Don't limit yourself to things that seem immediately relevant, but do read with your big questions in mind.

Ask lots of questions. Ask the same question from different perspectives. Learn what makes a good question according to different disciplines. Don't stop at the easy answers.

Keep a journal. Today's fleeting thought might be tomorrow's brilliant game or next month's research project. Go back and re-read your journal periodically to see what questions and issues keep coming up; those are probably the ones you should find a way to work on.

Play as many games as you can -- even the bad ones. Even the ones you don't like. Even the ones you can't get anyone to play with you.

Make games. Don't think you have to learn to program: you can start with index cards and construction paper and dice. But do make games that are very different from each other and do get other people to play them. It's the best way to learn.

Where do you see yourself five years from now?

I expect to be reading, writing, researching, playing, designing and teaching -- but to be doing it as a professor instead!

Is there anything else you would like to add?

The single most important professional choice I made happened in my private life. I chose to marry a man who actively works to give me the time, space and intellectual freedom I need. That might mean making dinner while I read a book, or running errands when I'm under deadline or reformatting my presentation for a big lecture. Beyond his ordinary household responsibilities, he notices what I need and he makes sure I get it.

Most women still can't count on this kind of domestic support to free them up for other activities. It makes me deeply grateful that I've found a partner willing to back me up, but it also makes me wonder how we can make it easier for other women to get what they need to do amazing work.

Our culture is slowly changing, but I still hear lots of men talk about “babysitting” their children or “helping when they're asked.” The data say that married men average five hours more leisure per week than married women. Five hours every week -- that's a lot of time to read and think and play. If I'm going to do my job right, I need those hours for myself. I shouldn't have to give them up just because I'm a woman and neither should you.

In other words: if you want my job, marry someone who'll help you get it and keep it. I did.