Fellows Friday with Kellee Santiago

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For Kellee Santiago, founder of thatgamecompany, video games are an interactive art form. Inspired by hiking, gazing at clouds, and even stories of religious conversion, her games invoke emotional responses, pushing the boundaries of video games as a communicative media.

What was your first experience with video games?

Well, I had played games all my life growing up. In my house, it was me and my younger brother. It was something that we could always share. We made every game cooperative, I think, whether it was or not.

I really liked this one PC game called “Sleuth.” It was like “Clue.” You played as the detective, and the goal was to find out who was the murderer, with what, in what room. Your icon was this little ASCii smiley face that moved around. If you hadn’t solved the mystery in so many moves, you would start hearing footsteps behind you. Eventually, you could get caught by the murderer. And it just scared me to death! [Laughs] I just loved that. It was so simple, but so effective and so evocative.

But I was coming from a theater background when I came to the University of Southern California’s MFA Interactive Media program. In the second semester we had to take a course on the history of games throughout human history. It discussed how the evolution of play occurred. It was really inspiring to me. Coming from my background in theater, I was always really inspired by creating new and original work. That’s why I was drawn to interactive media, because a lot of new theater was incorporating digital media and interactive elements. It was that same inspiration that drew me to games. I felt there was so much untapped potential in video games, as a communicative and expressive medium. It was really attractive as a creator.

Moving from theater to developing video games seems like a big jump. Did you have a background in computers?

I had grown up with computers. My dad was in software engineering. So we always had a computer at the home, as soon as you could. His rule of thumb was, “Do whatever you like, just make sure you back-up and make a copy first.” I think that really did leave me open to experimenting with technology, and inspired me to use technology, as it evolved, to express new messages. Every stage of evolution in technology unlocked more possibilities for creative communication. I find that really exciting.

Tell us about your flagship video game, “Cloud.”

“Cloud” was the student game that launched thatgamecompany. “Cloud” was an experiment in seeing if we could (a) make a game that expressed something different than video games had in the past, and (b) if people were even interested in playing that type of game. This was five years ago, and a lot has happened in games in the last five years, so it’s funny to think about it. But we really didn’t know at the time. We thought, “Maybe people only want to play ‘Grand Theft Auto’ style games. What do we know?”

So we started with the idea of trying to capture the feeling of what it was like to be a kid, staring at the clouds and daydreaming. We thought this was an emotion that anyone could relate to. In the game, you play as a boy who’s sick and trapped in a hospital. He daydreams that he can fly through the clouds. And you move the boy through the clouds, collecting them, drawing in the sky with them, and you can create thunderstorms. It’s a very simple game.  It’s at thatcloudgame.com.


It was just put up online because it needed to be available for download for festivals. We didn’t promote it or anything. Within four months we had over 400,000 downloads, which was more than every single person in every single theater I had ever worked in. That sort of did it for me. I saw the Internet as the new theater. It’s just a great way to access people directly around the world.

“Cloud” had unprecedented success, especially for a student game. And that was extremely validating. We really saw that people were excited by playing something different. And that’s what inspired us to start a studio to keep doing that.

You mentioned cooperating with your brother as you played video games. Do you design cooperative games now?

The games we make so far aren’t necessarily cooperative, in that you don’t play with another person. But one of the fundamental goals of our studio is to make games that anyone can relate to, regardless of their age, gender, or race. So they’re meant to be experiences that could be shared, across boundaries that have been perceived in the past.

We often get emails from parents who were really touched by being able to share a video game experience with their children, in a meaningful way. They both were getting something very meaningful out of the experience together.

What do you think of violent, mainstream video games?

I love video games, and I’ll play “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2” just as much as the next gamer. But I think it’s important to know that not all video games are like that. It’s sort of like saying all films are action movies. Of course that’s not true. At the same time, I don’t think action movies shouldn’t be made. I think those games have their place. And I think those developers should be free to develop the type of game that they want to make.

You have said, “Video games are going to outgrow every medium in the upcoming century … Marketing, architecture, city planning — every industry will start to use game design as a way of engaging people in their experience.” Can you explain what you mean by this?

A fundamental aspect of game design is creating “flow.” A state of flow is achieving the right balance between challenge and experience. If we’re presenting the player with something that’s too difficult for them while they’re playing it, they’re going to be really frustrated. But on the flip side, if it’s too easy, and their skill level is very high, it’s going to be boring. The sweet spot is called the state of flow.

The term comes from the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi and his observations of people in the 1970s. He studied how people achieve happiness and how we define it. He came up with the word “flow” because most people describe that feeling as being carried along in the water. So it not only is a great tenet of game design, but it really applies to our whole life, and life design.

And what is fantastic, is that in the last few decades in game development, we’ve really refined and honed in on what that means, and what it takes to achieve flow. Because that’s all we do. That’s the job of game design. And I think we’re seeing that knowledge base now being applied in different areas, including education.

A very basic example of how it’s being applied in education is the GRE test. In that test, you are given a question, and if you get it right, then the next question is going to be harder, and you’re scored differently on it. If you get the question wrong, your next question is going to be easier. It puts you through that flow to find out the general level of your knowledge base. And that’s just one test. That same process could be applied to an entire semester, or a year’s worth of programs, where teachers can be empowered to evaluate their students on whether the challenges they’re being given is appropriate to the level of skills that they have. That basic tenet can really help someone become more engaged. Because when you find your state of flow, it’s like everything is … better. You’re more excited, you’re more engaged, you’re more able to learn new information.

There are many aspiring social entrepreneurs out there who are trying to take their passion and ideas to the next level. What is one piece of advice you would give to them based on your own experiences and successes?

Learn more about how to become a great social entrepreneur from all of the TED Fellows on the Case Foundation blog.

I think defining your personal goals, for whatever space you’re working in, is an extremely important starting point. This will help you be able to answer some of the much more difficult and complex questions you’ll have to answer as an entrepreneur. Questions like how you want to structure your company, how you want it to grow, or how you want to grow within your field. All of those things are really determined by what your initial goal or impetus is. So it’s very important to define it.

With thatgamecompany, our goal was to make commercially successful games that pushed boundaries of games as a communicative medium. So we needed to find a partner — either an investor or publisher — that would allow us to make those games. It definitely helped us find Sony Santa Monica as our first publishing partner, because they really supported that same creative goal that we had. We knew that we wanted to be commercially successful. Defining that also helped lead us to Sony as a publishing partner — as opposed to trying to raise investments on our own, or going with a different partner. We knew the exposure we were going to get from partnering with Sony was going to be really beneficial in establishing our brand in that space.

And referring back to those initial goals just consistently helps us decide what kind of games we’re going to make.

Can you tell us about “Journey,” the next game your company plans to release?

“Journey” was inspired by a conversation my business partner and I had with a space shuttle pilot. Being the pilot, he got to take people to the moon, though unfortunately never went on the moon himself. But he got to witness the experiences of these astronauts. Many of them were agnostic or atheists before the journey. And then every single one of them, he said, at some point, whether it was immediately on the trip itself, or months after they returned back home, had a deep spiritual experience, and became very religious.

My business partner, who’s our creative director, felt like this was because of the sense of supreme awe and wonder you probably have when you’re standing on the moon, looking back at Earth. And that even a smaller sense of awe and wonder is something that’s kind of lacking in our day-to-day lives now. We have so much power and capability as humans to go at high speeds, to talk to anyone anywhere at anytime, to work in buildings that are above cloud lines … maybe it’s even a very fundamental part of our human experience that we’re missing.

Especially in video games you’re very powerful. You’re usually immediately given a weapon of destruction. “Journey” is an experience that’s built to give the player a sense of being small, and feeling awe towards the environment around them. We wanted to see what would happen when we took all that power away, and also allowed players to find each other online while they were playing this game.

An image from the game “Journey”

We compare it to hiking. You’re moving through this space and exploring and discovering, and you can encounter someone else. There’s no name on them, you can’t talk to them. You just know that they are another person that’s playing. And you can choose to journey together, or not. And if you don’t, then you go on your own way, and you may run into someone else.

You’ve written about hiking experiences before. Is hiking one of your passions?

Yeah, I really got into hiking when I moved to California. In the Los Angeles area, there are just so many different textures within a very small area. In an hour I can go from the ocean to snow. I just really love being able to experience all that.

What are your other hobbies?

I really am passionate about games. I love playing board games. I have a bunch of friends that get together and play modern board games.

At thatgamecompany, we make games that are more like interactive experiences. We really leverage audio and graphics to create a more immersive experience. But some types of games focus more on the elegance of the mechanics, which is the systems of what you do. In chess, for example, the way all the pieces move are the mechanics of the game. And there continue to be board games being made today with mechanics that are just so beautiful. You think you’ve seen every possible way you could use different systems, or ways of people interacting, and then these designers create something new out of these systems. It’s exciting.

I’m also involved with a small investment group called Indie Fund. We’re attempting to fund small, independent projects to empower them to become and stay independent game studios.  The idea is to support them so they don’t have to give up a lot of royalties or a percentage of their company, in exchange for a small amount of money to create digitally distributed games.

Did the TED Fellowship help you in your work?

Yes, absolutely. The exposure to not just the TED Community, but to the other TED Fellows, has been extremely inspiring. It’s been great to have a network of individuals who, although we’re all in different fields, are kind of facing the same challenges: in trying to innovate, in trying to bring new ideas into popular thought. It’s been really useful to be connected to these people, and ask for advice, and at the same time continue to be inspired by their work, which motivates me to do my own.