The World According to Josh Whitkin
Josh Whitkin, a legend of game design, fatherhood, and friendship. We explore dropping out of high school, getting a PhD, unschooling his kids, education, designing pro-social games, growing up on rainy Oregon days, and so much more...
00:00:00 - Introduction
Welcome to episode one of The World According to, a podcast that digs into how amazing people have come to view the world in their own fascinating ways.
In this episode, I had the great pleasure of talking with Josh Whitkin, a legend of game design, the most playfully connected father I've ever had the fortune to witness in action, and a man with a great heart for friendship.
With his characteristic gift for generous self-reflection in full display, we explore education, game design, note-taking, choosing a last name, soccer, rainy days, and so much more.
I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did.
Welcome to the world according to Josh Whitkin!
00:01:00 - Jenkite or Whitkin
- Merging last names
- Witkovich -> White -> Whitkin
00:03:20 - The hallmark of a good decision
- "The only way you ever know you made a good decision is if you forget about it after you 'bought it.'"
- "I see erasing things from my life as a reward."
00:04:55 - Note taking
- Primary tool: Evernote on the phone
- "It feels great once I get it written down. It's a release."
- "I'm totally confident that my subconscious will bring it back at the right time and place. I don't review."
- "When I'm writing notes, I'm sure to scatter keywords in that I think might be useful later."
- "I simulate my future self forgetting; what would I be frantically clawing for to get this idea back?"
00:07:50 - Conversation with your future self
- "Notes are the first sentence in a conversation with my future self."
- "When I was a teen, my future self was this crazy dude. He was like superman. Mainly he did amazing, terrific things."
- "I might have peaked at age 48. My speed is slower—but my skill is higher, my strategy is higher. It's not an absolute and depressing slide into worse and worse every year. There is some trade off there."
- "I have this temptation to compress all of me down into one curve."
00:12:00 - Growing up in the Oregon rain
- "I started in the forests of Oregon."
- "Raised by my dad in a survivalist ten foot by twenty foot shed in the pouring Oregon coastal rain."
- "I am traumatically scarred by rain."
- "Rain is the physical representation of isolation and discomfort."
- "Nine months of Oregon winters were me inside."
- "It was me, my brother, and my dad for pretty much my whole childhood."
- "I rebuilt model cars, tore them down, built them again, over and over."
- "I read everything in the house. I checked out my limit on the bookmobile which came through every two weeks."
00:14:30 - Early book influences
- "Nancy Drew was the shit."
- Clan of the Cave Bear
- (Clan of the Care Bear)
- The Hobbit, over and over.
- "I have many versions of the hobbits and the dragons in my mind. Like when you ask a kid to draw a dragon when they're 3, when they're 6, when they're 9, they're 12."
00:18:25 - Dreams
- "My dreams are so literal."
- "In my dreams the meaning is so crystal clear."
- A dream about sprinting full speed. "I realized that if I leaned down and used my front legs I could just turbo . . . Chunks of earth flew behind me from all four limbs. It was amazing. I'll never forget that."
00:20:30 - High School in Eugene, OR
- "Graduating eighth grade was a class of two. Then in ninth grade it was a class of a thousand."
- "I was so ready to leave my tiny grade school."
- "I felt simultaneously smart and insecure."
- "I was really excited to see how I stacked up."
- "I felt like a ghost."
- "The smell of the linoleum. The clang of the lockers. The number of students . . . like a river of people. The smell of institutions: dust and chemical cleaners. The number of doors."
- "It was Harry Potter, first day of Hogwarts. Excited—not belonging, got a weird backstory . . . "
- "I had no clue how to navigate the beurocracy of a big school. Nobody in my life did."
- "Guidance counselors said, 'We're going to start you at the basics, and if you do well, we'll accelerate you.' . . . It was awful. They put me in with all the kids who couldn't perform at a higher level and were not interested in performing at any level . . . The teachers were resigned and certain that everyone in that class was done . . . No one knew where I was; I was lost."
00:26:30 - Are there "angels" out there?
- "My experience of the world has definitely been: there are no angels."
- "I joined Murdoch University . . . those people took care of me. Right down to the level of 'How are your kids?' but at the end of the day I couldn't accept it, not because it was too unreal but because it didn't fit my culture."
- "It's not my critique of the world. It's my ability and predisposition to accept help."
- "I want to be an angel—everyone does; it sounds too good; the angel is the definition of good; who doesn't want to be good?—there are times in my life when I've tried . . . but I expect other people to work how I do. And I wish I didn't."
00:31:00 - Dropping out of high school
- "I went internal, sullen and resentful. I waited for someone to notice. Not a winning strategy."
- "I failed ceramics, which wasn't easy. But I did it!"
- "I generalized my anger at The System. I felt The System had failed me. I didn't ever take it on myself."
- "I wrote a big essay for the student newspaper called 'Why I dropped out of High School.' It was a devastating critique that only an angry seventeen-year-old can bring; one-third truth, two-thirds bitterness."
- "My dad was my rock. 'Whatever you are, you are welcome to be. If you are gay that is 100% okay with me, if you do drugs, if you anything most parents would freak out about that will not freak me out. But there is one thing: you got to go to college.' For the first time I made him cry."
00:36:00 - After dropping out
- "There are five chunks of me: friends, family, work, place—like home—and something around self."
- "I had work: at a venture-funded startup as an intern doing AutoCAD."
- "Ever since sixth grade I had been working with computers and it steadily built to this point of extreme confidence and ability."
- "It's not like, 'I'm going to drop out and wander around the streets . . . I'm going to do a full-time job with cool people I like."
- "My dad said, 'You're going to have to pay rent.' I said, 'All right. Here's some rent money.' And he's like, 'Damn. That's kinda cool.'"
- "My dad talked me into get a GED and going to community college."
- "The college environment felt way better, but it was too late. I had already committed to hating the system."
- "The ceramics teacher said, 'The one thing I want you to do is make a plate.' I said, 'Ooh, that's the one thing I'm not doing.'"
- Josh is down for the challenge of taking a third ceramics class sometime to see how that goes this time.
00:41:20 - The Love of Soccer
- "[Growing up] I was completely nerdy. I had no physical life at all. I was short and kinda chubby. Most of my friends were a head-and-a-half taller than me. I had this round baby face. I was not loving my body or my physical self at all. Then, Junior year, I shot up. I was 5'2" on my learners permit at 15 and 5'10" on my driver's license at 16. I suddenly grew a man-shaped face."
- "I didn't catch up with my body mentally for three years. I still thought I was short and chubby and baby faced."
- "I started soccer at 25."
- The doctor asked about a back spasm, "What do you do?" "I sit in a chair and program." "And what else." "That's it." "Well, there's your problem. Do anything. Just move and you'll be fine."
- "I picked a game that didn't use my hands, so that if I hurt myself I could still work—that's soccer."
- "My whole body was in agony for a year. Because it had never worked. After about a year I started getting fit. I gained ten pounds of muscle. I loved it and still love it. It is such a beautiful thing in my minds."
- "I play pickup. In leagues there's so much anger. It's a completely different experience."
- "When I say soccer, I mean friendly, casual, neighborhood soccer. It's pure joy for me."
- "For the first time I allowed myself to bring out a male enrgy of aggression and dominance and fighting. It was the side of myself I had denied my whole life. I found through soccer that I could still be a good guy and battle for the ball."
- "I never hurt anyone out of anger, but I hurt people and I am hurt in soccer all the time. It's part of the game and I love that."
- "A lot of guys work to be in touch with their feminine sides. I've always been in touch with that, very easily and naturally, but my masculine side took more work. Soccer was a big part of that for me."
00:47:00 - Start-up culture in the Bay Area
- "I'm 25 in Oakland and I just bought my first house. That was a huge milestone for me; like castling in chess. I am a legitimate adult now. I just won life—because of my family values."
- "I was a rising star in the video game industry because I was the first guy who ever wrote a texture mapping tool. The video gaming industry was just turning to 3D. All the artists in the field were 2d artists, hardly any tools. I was there to guide them. Because of that I was tremendously valued for a short time. I was invited to advisory boards and Disney was recruiting. Big stuff was happening career-wise."
00:39:00 - Before the Bay Area in Michigan
- "I had followed my girlfriend to Oberlin. I had an undergraduate student life—just without the formal education."
- "In Michigan I got my first 3D job using workstation for finite element analysis for Mechanical Engineering. That 3D model experience I brought to video games."
00:50:30 - How did you know 3D modelling was your thing?
- "Raster graphics are bit maps, you zoom in and they get blurry; vector graphics you zoom in forever, they never get blurry. They are infinitely precise, for all practical purposes."
- "The first thing I built in AutoCAD was a drawing of the entire U.S. and I zoomed in until I had a house-sized block and I drew a house. And I blew my own mind by finding I could draw the door accurately at one-meter length. I coudl zoom out to a five-thousand meter length and zoom back in and the door didn't blur. I was hooked from that day on."
- "It took me about a tenth of a second to see a 3D model of a Ford heavy frame being bent under load to be like, 'Oh yeah, that's obviously what i should be doing.' It wasn't a fate-meant-to-be thing, it was a hunger for the obvious next big thing for somebody with my skills."
00:54:00 - Finding a job in the Bay Area
- "They all wanted me to have a degree in Mechanical Engineering. I didn't so. So I called everyone in the Yellow Pages under Computer Graphics. Every single one of them. 'Hi, I'm Josh White, and I know 3D modeling. Do you have a job for me?'"
- "The first interview I walk in and show printouts of the 3D models I'd made. This guys was like, 'Great, you're hired. What do you need?' I'm like, 'Uh, I don't actually have a computer.'"
00:55:50 - Hustle and Hiring talent
- "Much later I was looking for talent and I didn't go look for big names and people who knew the 3D. I hustled young guys, like my past self, who had raw skill that complemented mine. And I trained them on all the tech side."
- "A non-stop hustle of going to conferences, meeting people, learning how to listen, learning how to offer, learning how to sell, and befriending and building a network and community, but with purpose."
- "Real estate. That's all real estate is in a lot of ways: hustle."
00:58:00 - Getting a PhD
- "The obvious thing I could have done was Computer Graphics. But that didn't actually attract me. I identified as a designer rather than as a techical artist or a tech guy."
- "I had my share of shitty sketches of race cars. They were not designer-worthy in my mind. I wanted some legitimacy on that front."
- "My experience with design was very messy and nuts and bolts . . . very tactical, in-the-trenches production-oriented designs. It felt like working as a cashier. There was no theory here."
- "It's different this time. I've got no dreams. It's down-and-dirty this time. It's, how do I play the system?"
- "What I got was a great mentor in Andrew Hutchinson. He said, 'Josh, this is what you do: apply for a Masters by research. Don't take any classes. Pick one little thing in your field that hasn't been done. To write that up, you've got to read what's already been written about it and critique it. Part way through your masters just ask that it be recognized as a PhD; that the work quality that you're doing is actually PhD level. I jammed that thing out in a third the time most of my peers were doing their PhDs."
01.03.30 - PhD Focus: Activity/Goal Alignment
- "I focused on Game Design. I wanted to do something pro-social, so I picked 'Games for a Non-Entertainment Purpose.' I read this one paper about Activity/Goal Alignment, a theory that says, 'What a player does moment-to-moment maps to what the designer's long-term goal is. Are those aligned? Should they be aligned? Can you tell if they're aligned?' Once I read that paper I was like, 'That's it! There's something importnat in there that I've touched on in my own work, I've never had a name for.' So now I've got a theory name and I've got to critique and improve on it."
- "In my PhD I tried to operationalize [the theory of Activity/Goal Alignment] for today's working industry."
- "I tried to actually do it in the real world after doing my PhD by getting some grants to make a game and build games whose activity matched the goal. I generally found it was way more complicated than I thought. That's when I really earned my stripes as a product designer."
01:07:00 - Battle Food
- "[The first game I was lead designer on] was called Battle Food. It was a video game where you threw food at each other. An arena shooter where you try to make your friends fat. Imagine counterstrike but all you've got are burgers and celery. We teach the food groups."
- "The insight was that multi-player arena shooter players who master the games, master the weapon. They understand the nuance between the burger and the fries."
- "There was a mathematical model of human metabolism in the game. Each food mapped to a model. The idea was that players would eventually reverse-engineer the mathematical model of human metabolism by being good at this game."
- "The learning goal is the play; that was my goal."
- "What I discovered once I got an expert on board is that there is no good mathematical model of human metabolism. There is no math to be had. And that ruined the whole project. I should have had that conversation first before we built the project, but I was new."
01:09:45 - Games about depression and anxiety
- "With the grant world you're always pitching; you have three going."
- "They never really had names because they never got fully funded."
- "In Squirrel Quest I started with my subject matter expert and recruited them as co-designers. I never really succeeded with that. I could not extract him from his academic world enough to really participate in a startup."
- "I asked her, 'What is one thing that definitely prevents anxiety and depression in humans?' She said, 'A strong relationship with a parent.'"
- "I built a game designed to provoke teens into having conversations with their parents. The model was backyard sports: throwing a ball back and forth chatting about your day. We wanted the equivalent in a video game. But then we wanted the game to suddenly provoke the internalizing youth to show themselves."
- "Any form of play, you learn something."
- "It was too hard to provoke a teen to revealing themselves in front of their father. We couldn't find a design that was sufficiently provocative. I don't feel like we've finished that journey, just that we ran out of money."
- "The older I get as a designer the less prescriptive I get."
- "What I'd love to do now if I had more money to tackle that idea again is play games with other fathers and sons, play games with my own sons, make a bunch of notes, and invite the kids especially to design. Because most game players are good designers and most youth design games relevant to them. Then I would ask them to design a game for their fathers. The hardest part is engaging their father because they're time-poor, insecure, and it's embarrassing to be so shit in front of games with your own kid."
- "Disney rides had a similar problem. They let the moms steer the ship and the kids fire the canons. They made two different games designed in one."
- "Asymmetric play styles would be a fun area to explore."
- "I would really follow the lead of the players, the teens especially. Perhaps a game building kit that would make it easy for sons to build games for their father, not for fathers generally."
- "I would remove the pro-social motivation. It screwed me over and over in all my pro-social efforts."
- "You cannot get anything funded [in a pro-social setting] if there's any risk of them doing harm; but art? You can do harm. You can do whatever you want. It's art. That kind of freedom might be essential for building a game that truly saves lives at a scale that's never been done before."
- "If you put anything in front of someone and say, 'This is really going to help you' you just killed any pleasure they might have gotten out of it. That is just poison. It doesn't matter how fun anything actually is; that frame is a damaging frame. But if you say, 'Dude, this thing blew my mind, check it out.' It could be pretty mediocre and still have effects. The frame is as important as the product."
- "People try to build stealth learning games and it almost never works."
- "The core problem that we're talking about here is power relationships. Education presupposes a teacher and a student. An imbalance of power. That imbalance is brought with the lable 'Educational Game'."
- "Educational Games is an oxymoron."
- "Game says 'Fun.' It promises the player, 'You are going to have fun. This is for you and it's going to be pleasurable.' Educatioal says the opposite—so of course it's not going to work."
- "The promise the designer makes the player is, 'I'm going to make some rules you have to follow, but it's going to be awesome for you. These rules are for you and it's going to be great.'"
- "It's fun to play with players; it's not fun to play with teachers."
01:23:00 - How do you merge the fun of soccer with that noble cause?
- "This is the central question of all educational game design. One of my favorite answers was given by this guy at MIT's Education Arcade. He listed the Four Freedoms of Play. I can't remember all of them, but the ones that were really useful to me in my design work were the freedom to fail—so you're not free to fail an SAT, you are free to fail Pac-Man. Freedom of effort, this is the really awesome one: you can put in a really big effort and master it in soccer and other days you can just kick the ball and perform kind of crappy, you're just hung-over, you run around the back line, you never really go for a full sprint and—not in competitive soccer, but in neighborhood soccer—that's fine. Everyone laughs a little at you. 'Oh, big night, that's funny.' If you put that moderate effort in at school you are harshly graded for it. Everyone notices and everyone punishes you. Find the fun in the learning."
- "As a designer you do not start with the fun and then glue learning on to it. That's chocolate covered broccoli. You start with the learning and you find what's fun about it. And you make that the game."
- "From this theory come some successful educational games. Some of the citizen science games around DNA discovery by presenting DNA folding as a puzzle. Fold It out of the University of Washington. There are about four others like it: they found some little important problem in the world and they made a puzzle game out of it. It's tough as hell to find that alignment. Fold It's actually not very fun, unless you're a hardcore puzzle nut. The more recent iteration's a lot more fun."
- "You asked how one takes the joy of soccer and maps it to a pro-social goal. I'm more of the question, 'Does one try to find that? Is there a better approach? If I come back to this in my career, and I probably will, I'm going to take an art game approach. I'm going to set myself way free-er. I'm not going to constrain myself to a pro-social game. I'm going to concern myself to a theme. I'm going to deal with depression, or eating, or something, but then I'm going to build a game about it. Maybe you can find the learning in the fun. But just build the fun first. It's hard to build fun. Don't even try to hit this other thing as well."
- "If it's fun, you're probably learning something."
- "Another approach is to shop the bazillions of commercial games and designs already built and then just identify the learning in them and map that to a curriculum if you're trying to do more formal education."
01:28:00 - Unlearning
- "But I, right now, am into unlearning."
- "I'm backing away from all the pro-social stuff because I think there's something poison at the root of it all. And unlearning attacks that root."
- "I'm doing the most unethical experimentation one can do. I'm like, 'Hey, kids! Good news: you don't have to go to school anymore.' 'Yay Poppa, yay Momma—now what do we do?' 'I don't know, go figure out life, kid.' It's defendable because there's thousands of people doing it and the outcomes are every bit as good as formal education on any scale you choose: happiness, money, career progression, whatever. So, I'm joking when I say it's unethical, but it is a bold experiment and it's a high-stakes experiment."
- "If society at large embraced unlearning what would happen is schools would turn into summer camps. Power would be flipped. Summer camps advertise and work hard to make their programs fun and they have two audiences, the kids and the parents. It depends on the age very much. Schools would be summer camps and everything would be way more focused on fun and way less focused on curriculae. The frustration in society at not having stable paths through life would vanish. That expectation would be gone. No longer would you be born and expect to be a doctory, a lawyer, an engineer, a plumber, a taxi driver. That whole frame of the world would be shattered. Irreversibly shattered. That whole idea would be a hilarious anachronism. It would be as funny as the idea that bloodlines determine your level of power—that you can be born a king is laughable today. Instead people will be expected to do a thing for a while. And they'll be expected to perform instead of be credentialed. Credentials and the idea of credentials will be much more like video game achievements: I worked five years as a doctor, I've done twenty successful surgeries, my surgery success rate is 80%. These'll be stats that are knowable. Right now you could not get that out of a doctor. We should know that number as patients. So, a lot of changes like that that are positive. I'm not sure it's a utopia, so I want to think about the negative side. The negative is the howling chaos of uncertainty that could actually bring down some of our Western mindset, in the same way that losing religion comes with a terrible loss—eventhough I think it's the right thing for the world to be less religious—but there is some big loss. The sense of purpose that religions build is valuable. It's so much harder to build it yourself than to just be told your sense of purpose. It's better, but it's harder. I think a similar thing would happen to the world where without a frame for success or progress and any kind of measures we might fall back on more simple measures like money. It might become more a 'How rich are you?' question. Universal measures like money become over-valued, possibly. Your networking ability would become much more important."
- "If I am isolated, I am screwed. I don't have credentials. An isolated person with credentials can get a job."
01:35:00 - Advice for parents about schooling their kids in the era of quarantines
- "There's a book called Unschooling Rules that I'd recommend to anyone. One of the lines in it that I absolutely love is, 'Learning rarely happens in a classroom. Go for a walk with your kid, if you want to teach them something. Just talk about the same thing, do the samething you were going to do, on a walk. It's so simple and do able and appealing."
- "My advice would be to remember that child as a person and to try to earn a spot on their board of advisors. This is something I learned at Park Day School. It's very hard to let go of power. What I recommend is: let go now. Try letting go as soon and as deeply as you can. The more you do that, the more trust you're going to build and the more your child will turn to you and ask you for what you're trying to jam down their throat right now. And if they don't ask you for it, think about why they're not asking you and respect them."
- "A really hard-to-apply concept from unschooling is to trust totally, deeply and utterly your child. If they don't want to do something they're not just being bad. They're not brats. They are not wanting it for a reason. If you can get to the bottom of that reason and solve it then they will want it. And if you can't solve it you should respect that, too."
- "The other idea is to de-school. You can't do any of this until you've freed yourself from school for a while. What most unschooling experts advise is take three to six months and do nothing: kick around, play video games, travel, do anything except anything related to education. Just be with your kid. Be—not their buddy, not their peer—but be the parent you want to remember yourself as.You'll start to free yourself from the teacher role that you think you have and that you think you need to do. You'll start to decide what is actually important for you to do as a parent. And you'll find that education rarely makes the list. That was a hard one for me and I'm still not fully there."
- "It's like when you train the dog—you don't train the dog, you train the owner of the dog."
- "It's sort of like trying to train someone to be somebody else."
- "We call it World Schooling."
- "When you witness your child suffering, you can't ignore it—most people can't ignore it.
- "The kids were learning as we walked through the streets of Portugal. They were noticing the tiles, they were playing with the stray dogs, they were trying to order food and learn the Portuguese word for tart, which they liked. [My wife] was like, 'Oh, there's the learning.'"
- "I think it's really spending time with your kids. It's hard in the Bay Area, or any modern, hustly expensive city. Nobody has time. That's the one thing we don't have. That's tragic. I don't have any solutions for that one. Move somewhere cheaper!—which is brave and terrifying and most people won't do."
- "Game designers exist to empower their players—but almost every game designer I know also has a God Complex. The pleasure is building little worlds where people have to follow your rules. So there are these two, weird ends of the spectrum going on as a game designer. I have more learning to do there and I'm hungry for it."
- "If I could change one rule about formal education, it would be to make it non-mandatory. That strikes at the root of the power problem. If you had public school as it is today and the only change was: students didn't have to go, and that was a real freedom not just a stated freedom. They'll do summer camps is what they'll do. They go someplace fun: splash water and do canoes. That's what kids want to do. Universities are a great example of non-mandatory formal education.
01:46:00 - Where you can find Josh
- "Drop me a line, say, 'Hey, I heard you, I'm interested and start a conversation if you want or just say Hi.' Because if you liked this conversation, I want to know you."
- josh at whitkin.com