Making Up the Rules
An interview with Jaime Griesemer C'99
by Elizabeth Lamberti G'2012
Jaime Griesemer graduated from North Park University in 1999. After finding early success in the video-gaming industry with his collaboration on the popular Xbox game Halo, Griesemer now works as lead game designer for Sucker Punch, a division of Sony. We caught up with him recently in Seattle to ask how his liberal arts education helped him forge a career in the fast-paced world of technology.
North Parker: You’ve had an exciting career thus far. How did you get into video-game development, and what was your first job?
Griesemer: My first job in game design was as a tester for Myth, a game that my friends and I played during college. I had developed a fan site for Myth, whose parent company, Bungie, was then based in Chicago. They noticed my work and asked me to come in to do some testing for them. That led to a job after college, and when the company moved to the Pacific Northwest, I came with them. That’s where I did my work on Halo.
What led you to choose North Park for your undergraduate experience?
I was being courted by some bigger schools and had done a summer internship in physics at Harvard, but it did not feel very creative. I started to think about what else I wanted to explore and realized I liked philosophy. I wanted a smaller school, and North Park afforded me the opportunity to do both philosophy and the sciences, and to have more dialogue and personal attention. Also, I liked the fact that there was a seminary on campus. I could take courses in New Testament and Greek. Where else can you do that?
At North Park, you had a double major in philosophy and physics. How did your preparation in these subjects inform what you are doing today?
Physics causes you to think about the world in terms of laws and rules. As a game designer, you get to set the rules of whatever you are creating, so that was good preparation. I was just a few credits away from having a third degree in mathematics, so that was a big part of my coursework as well. I would say that math and numbers influence my work on a day-to-day basis.
In your blog, The Tip of the Sphere, you talk about the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic rewards for achievement and about exposing fatal flaws of the hero or enemy in a game.
Some of it is basic psychology. But philosophy treats your mind as a tool, it asks you to step outside yourself and analyze your own thoughts objectively. It causes you to be flexible with your thinking around many different arguments. So when I’m designing a game I have to think, “If X is true, how does this play out?” When we are creating a new product, we bring in people [to test the games] who have never played and ask them questions about their experience. Philosophic training helps you be more objective, to not ask leading questions. I think a liberal arts education gives you a range of knowledge and experience to draw from.
Was there a faculty member who was particularly influential to you along the way?
Professor Greg Clark taught my intro to philosophy class. He took us on a trip to the Grand Canyon, which was a significant experience for me. I had Professor Linda McDonald for physics. We had classes of five or six students and high-quality professors. Being able to be one of a few students in the classroom was great. It also meant I couldn’t sneak by without doing my homework or being ready to discuss the material!
You must have heard about the new Science and Community Life Building that is planned for North Park’s campus. What do you think?
Science is not done with just a slide rule and microscope anymore. You need new technology to get students involved. This will be a great opportunity to do hands-on stuff.
We visit with a lot of North Park alumni across the country, and they inevitably tell us about pranks they pulled while on campus. Are there any hijinks you would like to admit to?
I worked in the computer lab for my on-campus job. During finals week, we had to keep the lab open until 3:00 am so people could study. We had to find ways to entertain ourselves. So we would wait until students finished their papers and were just ready to print, and then tell them the lab was closed and they had to leave. Also, with some fellow physics classmates, we threw a bowling ball off a building to measure the acceleration of an object due to gravity. We were supposed to use ping-pong balls, but this seemed like more fun. No one was hurt!
North Park’s mission is to prepare students for lives of significance and service. Looking over your accomplishments and future aspirations, what do you hope will be your mark in the world?
I try to focus on being a light in the industry I’m in. Essentially I work in the entertainment industry, so it’s about fun, but I want to encourage more than that. I was able to go on a mission trip to Iraq to take TVs, Xboxes, and games to soldiers stationed in Ramadi. We stayed for a week, working alongside the USO, to bring some fun to the troops. I saw that real problems, like the ones they were dealing with, sometimes need an escape.
If you had a message for students who are trying to identify their strengths, interests, and career pursuits, how would you advise them?
Don’t speculate on your career path too early. The person you are as a freshman is not the same person you are as a senior. Be adaptable and flexible, because your major may not always match up perfectly with your career options. Take pieces of your studies and apply them. Become the best at something and don’t chase the money. Find out what you would do for free and then find someone who will pay you for it. If you are good at something and enjoy it, money will follow.
What’s next for you?
I’m writing an advanced game-design book. There are plenty of guides out there for how to get a job in the gaming industry and how to be good in your first year, but mine will be focused on how to manage your career ten years down the road. There are a lot of promising young professionals coming up in this field and we need to help them succeed in the long-term.
Follow Jaime Griesemer on Twitter (@32nds) and read his blog at thetipofthesphere.com.