GamesBeat: How do you look at the relationship with Pittsburgh and the economic development argument?
Davidson: It’s interesting. One of the things I’ve found, students come here and they become charmed with it. That was my wife and I’s reaction. We moved here from Austin, Texas. Everybody knows Austin’s fun, but Austin’s way outgrown itself. We got here and we were pleasantly surprised. It’s a big enough city where there’s an infrastructure. There are good cultural institutions, a strong tech background.
It has an industrial focus. What I mean by that, we talk to a lot of VCs around funding games, and they’re like, “Well, we funded steel.” When an industrial project is halfway done you see half of what you need. When a game project is halfway done, that could be, “Well, we’ve iterated toward the right idea.” It freaks them out a little. It felt like they weren’t seeing anything happen.
But the students feel charmed. The cost of living and cost of doing business are crazy good. We have regular meetings with state government about more support and more incentives. Coming from Austin, there it went from not much to a big hub, and mostly because of Texas being so supportive.
GamesBeat: Jesse mentioned that there’s a film credit being extended to games soon.
Davidson: That’s a big deal. Of course, the film industry is like, “NO!” I’ve been pushing for them to do something. They did something like a million dollars for startups, which is great if you’re a student team coming out and you’re like, “Hey, 10 grand, we can try something.” But I’m like, “EA would move here if you give them the tax incentives that Louisiana or Delaware did.”
GamesBeat: I guess the challenge is that your grads are high-level people, but they’re getting jobs elsewhere.
Davidson: Right. They’re getting courted. You saw Schell Games. There are probably about a dozen companies, and the IGDA has a really active chapter here. The opportunities are there. Having lived through it in Austin, there isn’t gravity yet. If you wanted to leave Schell, or they had to lay you off, you’d probably move to your next job. It’s not as if there are that many studios to go to, as much as I think that’s happening tech-wise. Games are getting there.
GamesBeat: At some point, do you think there will be more collaboration there, with the city and the state?
Davidson: We’ve done work for the state, and on state grants. [Game training company] Simcoach is excellent there. Some of their stuff is not only with the state, but being supported by the state to work with things like a local grocery chain called Giant Eagle. They’ve been making training games. You’re at a grocer and you’re checking out literal tons of groceries every day. It teaches safe ways to move heavy weights so you don’t get injured. We’re seeing a lot of that.
What’s fascinating for me, powerful me—being at Carnegie Mellon, we get invited to New York or Chicago or Los Angeles. Those cities are large enough that you can’t get people to agree to be in a room. Whereas Pittsburgh, you can get all the philanthropic organizations together for a meeting, or all the museums. Two of them, locally, started something that was initially called Kids in Creativity. “How do we support quality of life for kids? Education? What are they doing in school? How do we get parents’ support?” It was involved with funding from Gates and MacArthur and local groups.
Now it’s called Remake Learning. It has non-profits and schools and museums and businesses involved. It led to meetings where we worked with the children’s museum to build something called the Make Shop, a DIY hack lab for families. It’s been a huge success for them. It led to Maker Faire coming to Pittsburgh. It all started just by meeting each other.
Similarly we’ve done something with local school districts – one called Elizabeth Ford in particular, which at the time was the southernmost district in the county. If you get outside the city it gets rural real quick. They were, if not the bottom, then toward the bottom of school districts in the state. They had nothing to lose. They were willing to experiment. We worked with them on getting games into the curriculum, getting a smart lab into the school, getting a fab lab in their library. We got funding from MacArthur and a local foundation. Now they’ve risen into the top 10 in the state. The students are excited.
What was really inspiring on top of all that was hearing from their teachers. It took about a year, and some people quit. The librarian quit. She didn’t want a fab lab in her library. But just having college students hang out at the school while they were working on a project got their kids talking to our students. They started talking about college. These kids had never talked about college, particularly the girls. They met girls who were programmers and wanted to be like them. They’d never met anyone from another country. They started wanting to travel. It’s crazy, the impact you can have just by taking a field trip. We do once-a-month tours now where we take a day, visiting schools and Girl Scout troops, stuff like that. Civically, that’s a big part, and educationally.
Business-wise, there’s the Pittsburgh Technology Council that we’re a member of, focusing on the creative industries. We’re in all those meetings where we talk to the state. There’s recruiting. There’s VC support and angel funding, so a lot of students will stay. The hope is that if they fund you, you’ll stay in Pittsburgh. There are incubation spaces, co-working spaces happening now.
GamesBeat: Getting the economic flywheel going, so to speak.
Davidson: Right. Google’s coming here big-time. Uber came in in some interesting ways. They stole the whole robotics department. You’re seeing a synergy there. They’re rebuilding. It used to be that Pittsburgh was a steel town. When I moved here from Austin—Austin self-promotes to a fault. They’re the capital of everything – music, whatever. Pittsburgh civic attitude is like, “We used to be great.”
That’s spun around in the last 15 years to “eds and meds.” Educational opportunities, the universities and the medical centers here. It’s boomed in different ways.
GamesBeat: Are there really 36 institutions of higher education here?
Davidson: There are. I wanted to show you this, all our ETC Press publications. They’re all free for download, public access. We partnered with Lulu way back when, though. That way we don’t have overhead. That enables us to allow for open access. We did all those “Well Played” books back in the day. Deep dives into things like, “What makes a video game work?” It was so popular we turned it into a journal.
This is the book I really wanted to show you, though. We had a colleague from the business school four years ago doing a study on how we teach creativity. Her expertise was in small-group innovation. She got a grant and they studied more than 60 projects, hundreds of students, and just unpacked what we’re doing, what works. When they started publishing the results and the data, that helped us quantify and unpack how we teach and try to support creative work.