In preparation for the NYU Game Center’s PRACTICE conference, we are publishing long-form interviews with some of the amazing designers that will be speaking at the event.

The PRACTICE: Game Design in Detail conference runs this weekend, November 9-11 2012.

In this interview, MFA student Franziska Zeiner interviews Annika Waern, a research leader in the Mobile Life center at Stockholm University and Game studio director at the Interactive Institute, both in Kista, Stockholm, Sweden. Annika has a long-standing career as a computer science researcher, focusing first on intelligent interfaces and most recently on pervasive games, and has published about 50 articles in conferences, journals, and books.

Franziska Zeiner: You work as a professor at Stockholm University, and as a director of the Mobile Life Center. Much of your work over the past couple of years has focused on pervasive games. What brought you to pervasive games and what fascinates you about them?

Annika Waern: My background comes from the field of computer science, and the original reason for my interest was as a new application domain for pervasive technology – basically, sensors and actuators that you place in the environment or build into artifacts. I was also interested in augmented reality (techniques that allow the designer to overlay the physical world with virtual content.) But my interest very soon changed to focus on the particular factors that make pervasive games different from other games — the way they mix play with ordinary life, how they blur the distinction between fiction and reality, and how they create deeply meaningful interactions between game content and the non-game world. Pervasive games are an extremely powerful means of expression – as games, as art and for persuasion.

FZ: What is your greatest challenge when designing pervasive games?

AW: The game we are building right now tries to tackle the issue of building for large-scale and long-term gaming — akin to massively multiplayer games but staged in the physical world. By now, pervasive games have reached commercial maturity but they are still primarily played as short-term events, and I believe that the long-term games that have been designed are all too ‘virtual’ — they miss out on the physical presence that is so central for the pervasive game experience. Creating pervasive games that have physical presence, and still scale over time and space, is still an unsolved issue.

[EXPAND Click here to read the full interview.]

FZ: Between 2004 and 2008 you worked on IPerG (Integrated Project on Pervasive Gaming), a research project commissioned by the European Union. What was the EU’s interest in pervasive gaming? And to which extend do you think an institution like the EU should invest in games research?

AW: There were two motivations for funding IPerG: One was that EU already had a competitive edge in this area through previous research projects as well as through a couple of commercial initiatives. One of the original partners of IPerG was the company It’s Alive, who released the world’s first location-based mobile game in 2001, BotFighter. (BotFighter was branded as a ‘pervasive game’ from the start, and the term as such was actually coined in 2001 as a collective term for a number of games that came out that year.)

The second reason was that pervasive games were considered to be potentially ‘good’ for you, in that they make players move (sometimes rather a lot) and meet with other players not just online, but also in physical space. EU funding tends to go to projects that have this double edge: that they both address a human-social issue, and have the potential of creating business for Europe.

It is important to know that IPerG was a unique project. EU hasn’t funded any other similar projects. Today, EU funds research in games when the purpose is not just to learn about game design, but the games must be used for something useful. EU funds research in games for learning and for medical purposes, and has some projects on particular game technology issues, but funds almost no research on games as games.

Since I am a games researcher, I of course believe that academic funding should go to games! Today, games are a dominant cultural form – if not the most important one – and we must allow academics to explore what that means – for society as a whole and for us as humans.

FZ: In an interview about IPerG you say that you were very pleased with the project itself but that you would have liked to see the results commercialized. What do you think needs to change to make pervasive games in general a commercial success?

AW: The break-through for the smartphone was one factor, and the second is that production companies would start to develop pervasive games. The second has started to happen, but so far almost only in transmedial settings — games are produced together with films or TV shows, e.g. I am still waiting for that one well-produced, well-marketed long-term pervasive game – the phones are out there and there is an audience who are waiting for it.

FZ: In a recent blog post about “Gender-Aware Pervasive Game Design” you said that you think certain types of games should have a gender specific design to reach more female players. Why do you think that the problem of many games being designed for a male dominated audience should be solved by designing games specifically labeled ‘for women’ instead of balancing out the gender imbalance on the production side?

AW: Firstly, why does this have to be an ‘either or’ question? The game industry is male-dominated, and more women in game design and development as well as in game journalism would would help widening the scope of games that are developed and reviewed. To some extent this is already happening.

Secondly, I don’t believe that games should be labeled to be ‘for women’. The blog post you are referring to is about the challenges of designing pervasive games in a way that they are accessible to teenage girls. (I specifically discuss the challenges of making the game gender-neutral!) As pervasive games mix with everyday life, we must take into account how young women live their lives, or else we run a risk of designing games that they simply cannot (or dare not) play. This might be less important for computer games, but I still think it matters.

Thirdly, I believe that even if your team contains (or entirely consists of) people who ‘represent’ your target group, the project benefits from articulating the lived conditions of the target audience. (We’ve done the same thing in a previous project, when we worked with Parkour practitioners – a community of street acrobats which is rather male-dominated.)

FZ: A new generation of game designers with a more formal education in game design is emerging from schools like NYU. How do you think this will change the industry and the current practices of game designer?

AW: I hope that it will lead to a wider recruitment base for commercial game designers, a greater awareness of the design potential in games, and a greater variety in the games that are commercially designed.

Annika Waern is a speaker at PRACTICE this year. Join us on the weekend of November 9th – 11th for a deep dive into game design theory and practice with Annika and a collection of the best game designers in the field.