Interview: Halo Designer Leaves Bungie For Academia

Imagine this: You designed missions and gameplay for Halo 3 alongside lead designer Jamie Griesemer at Bungie. After wrapping up one of the hugest hardcore smash successes of all time, what's your next move? Hang around to help continue the Halo franchise? Parlay your way into a choice role at another industry-leading developer, get on board the next big blockbuster?

If you were former Bungie designer François Boucher-Genesse, you'd have picked none of the above. Boucher-Genesse decided to leave top-shelf game design behind for the world of learning, academia and social change.

At the 2008 Games For Change conference in New York, where he'd come to learn more about the field of social and educational games, I asked him, flat out, if he was nuts. But Boucher-Genesse told me that Halo 3's massive success prompted more soul-searching than ego boosting, and he explained to me the reasons behind his decision and what he hopes to accomplish next.

"It is hard to figure out what is the impact that Halo makes in the world," said Boucher-Genesse, who is originally from Quebec. He acknowledged having heard stories of people who claim Halo helped them make an easier time of life's trials and travails, but in general, despite the commercial proliferation of Master Chief, Boucher-Genesse felt unsure of what effect Halo and games of its ilk were actually having on people.

"I don't have a clear sense for that... that's why I'm going in a field where the impact is going to be smaller, but at least I'll know that I'm probably educating some people. So I'm going to do educational games... where the impact is clearer," he said.

His primary goal, now, is to play whatever part he can in helping show the world that games are capable of teaching. For Boucher-Genesse, it's less about making a totally new kind of game and more about how to use the game design philosophy that already compels game fans in a broader way.

"I do believe that gamers could be interested in more subjects. I think that games already teach them something, it's just not being recognized as effective learning," he said.

For example, he said that playing real-time strategy games teaches quite a lot about resource management and coordinating various elements at once, but most gamers don't think about their play as being a useful skill - and most games don't offer learning experiences that gamers can apply when they're not playing.

He'd like to see more academics recognize the teaching power of games, firstly, and secondly, he'd like the gaming audience to be a little more open-minded as to possible wider context for the things they play. With that in mind, he's currently working with the University of Quebec in Montreal to research games for learning, and he's also going back to school this fall for a Masters in Education. With more academic research and more quantifiable results, he said, it'll be easier to get funding for future projects.

Boucher-Genesse said his former colleagues at Bungie were supportive of his dreams. Negative or inaccurate perceptions of games on the part of the broader culture, he said, make it very challenging for this kind of socially-oriented learning work to come from within the industry - but that doesn't mean developers aren't interested in creating games aimed at educating and empowering people, and hopeful that such efforts will find success. Microsoft, who owned Bungie until recently, is one of Games For Change's sponsors.

"When I quit Bungie, I spoke with a lot of people... who want to make something that's really good in the world, and they were like 'Yeah!'" He said. "They were really enthusiastic about me going there... the state of the industry right now isn't like 'developers want to make something, therefore they're going to make it.'" Every game has a publisher, after all, and every publisher has to make money.

Many in the non-profit sector, academics and education fields have just begun to consider games as a teaching tool. Now, it looks as if they'll have the benefit of experience from Boucher-Genesse and hopefully other accomplished game professionals as they aim to change the world.