Game of Thought

Bringing video game thinking to the real world.

In the last four decades, video games have evolved from the pixelated mazes of Pac-Man to immersive and complex worlds—and game designer and start-up coach Amy Jo Kim ’79 has been at the forefront of it all. She attended her first gaming developers conference in the late 1990s, when consoles were just beginning to connect online, and, as she puts it, she was immediately all in.

“The moment I went, I was completely hooked by the people,” Kim says. “I’ve always been an interdisciplinarian, and that’s why I took to gaming and game design so much. The best people in gaming are both incredibly creative and highly analytical.”

You’d think Kim was describing herself. As a game designer she’s drawn out megahits like The Sims, a life-simulation game of interacting avatars, and Rock Band, a skill-building game allowing players to jam together on individual instruments. Yet Kim’s next level is taking the principles she has used in video games to build products outside of gaming, garnering design credits in products like eBay, Netflix and The New York Times online site.

Kim calls it game thinking, a philosophy which combines game design, systems thinking and user experience insight to build engaging environments that cater to a customer’s innate desire to master a skill. Her method requires both creativity and analytical thinking—two dichotomous thought processes certainly found within Kim, and traceable back to her days at UC San Diego in the 70s.

Though her declared major was experimental psychology, Kim was able to interact and learn from other students in different tracks—from political science to chemistry. “A lot of schools are very siloed, but UCSD just wasn’t like that at the time,” she says.

One project she co-founded as a student was Faces of Healing, a cross-departmental lecture series dedicated to exploring different modalities of healing—a hot topic at the time. “There was an explosion of that happening in the San Diego area,” she says. “We had lectures where chiropractors were duking it out with yoga practitioners. We had access to surgeons and pain medication specialists through the medical school. As students we had the power to make our own group, and UCSD really laid the foundation for me to cross boundaries.”

After graduating, Kim moved on to earn a PhD from the University of Washington before landing her big break as a programmer at Sun Microsystems in 1986. She would move through companies like Viacom and Electronic Arts over the course of her career, but Kim’s breakthrough moment, however, happened during the dot-com crash in the early 2000s.

“A good friend of mine was a financial advisor at that time, and her world was falling apart,” Kim recalls. She realized her friend was turning to a game she helped create: The Sims. For her friend, it was the perfect escape from a hard reality. “She could go into that world and completely control it,” she says.

The synthesis of creativity and order is crucial to game design—and also partly why we love games so much, Kim explains. “The thing about games is that they are micro-worlds. They’re simplified versions of real systems we encounter in life,” she says. “Most of our life is structured activities with rules and goals. In gaming it’s the same structure, but one meant for pleasure. That’s why we find them so compelling as an escape from the real world.”

Kim still helps in gaming, but she now spends the majority of her time consulting start-up entrepreneurs and innovators on the power of using game design to build out other products. Her book on the subject, Game Thinking, is a road map of what she’s learned over her career, a manual that has been used by large corporations like Disney and Electronic Arts. She also teaches game design to students at the University of Southern California and Stanford University.

“People used to call me the ‘Queen of Gamification,’” Kim recalls. “But it’s not about sprinkling game mechanics on things—game thinking is about building engagement from the inside out, for everyone who wants to innovate smarter and create deeply engaging experiences.”