Women@SCS conducted an interview with Jessica Hammer, Assistant Professor jointly appointed between the Human-Computer Interaction Institute and the Entertainment Technology Center.
Could you tell us a little bit about your background and your journey before you came to Carnegie Mellon?
Sure. People ask me how I got into games. I actually started making games when I was eight years old. I made games for people's birthday parties. I made games for the kids I babysat for. I made games for my siblings. But, I did not know that making games was a job that you could have.
So, I actually had quite a winding journey coming to CMU and coming here to the HCI. I did what I like to call HCI the hard way. I did an undergraduate degree in computer science. I did a masters degree in design. I did a PhD in psychology and learning. Then, a friend of mine sent me the ad for the job I have now and said, "Jess, they want someone who does all the things you do and works on games." I went, "Oh, oh, that's it –" you know, I didn't know that's where the path was leading, but that's clearly where the path was leading the whole way there.
I was really lucky, because when I got started, the field of gaming research and especially serious and transformational games was still just getting started. I had some really important mentors who helped me along the way. Scot Osterweil gave me my very first job in games. I used to hang around his office door just looking in going, "What are they doing? It looks so cool." Finally, one day, he just said, "Come in. I'm going to show you what we're doing."
After doing my masters, Frank Lantz and Eric Zimmerman helped me move into the professional games world. I actually took time off between all of my degrees to work. So, as I said, long road. I've just had a lot of help from people along the way to stick with it, because it was not obvious when I started out that the job I have would ever exist. I feel really lucky that I got here, and the field got here at the same time.
So, you said that made a lot of games when you were small. But what excites you about game design and the psychology behind making these games?
Good question. One thing I really love about making games is that we often think about games as sort of these very high-fidelity, visually beautiful, digital experiences. But actually, we play games all our lives. We play hide-and-seek. We play tag as much as we play World of Warcraft and Call of Duty. Most people actually make up games or modify games. They play pretend. They make house rules. They change the way they play games.
One of the things I believe is that most people are already taking on the role of a game designer at some point in their life of play. The question is whether they want to pursue that as a craft or as a profession, as opposed to just that being part of the scope of their playful experience.
For me as a child, it was all totally non-digital games. I found a book in the library that, at eight-years-old, I was sure would make me the most popular kid in school which was 101 Party Games Your Friends Have Never Heard Of. I would take those games and I would remix them. So, I would take two games and I would figure out how they could be played together or take some rules from one and some rules from another or the materials from one game and rules from a different game. That's really how I got started. That kind of design is accessible to almost anyone.
I spent some time working with girls in rural Ethiopia, for example. We were designing game clubs for these girls to help them forge new kinds of social connections and have conversations about kind of difficult topics. One of the things that we found is that these girls had very little access to materials. So, we were making our game materials out of found objects; cardboard, rocks, leaves. Then you could craft them into materials for the games. But while these girls had very little access to technology, to the point where we were really thinking about using just found items in their environment as game pieces, they were actually quite skilled as game designers because they had this rich library of folk games that they would play together but that they would also adapt based on who they had to play with, how many people were playing.
We actually pivoted midway through the project from making games – "Here are your games, have them, here's a box" – to making a game design kit for these girls to enable them to make games that could be spread through their community, which turned out to be super fun. It was an awesome project. But that's why I believe that – people often ask if I do work on digital or non-digital games to which my answer is, "Uh-uh, nope, can't answer that question because games are games." Whether you're making them with computer technology or pen technology – this pen is technology, too, right – or whether you're taking advantage of people's memory and cognition as your base technologies - there's a through-line of how you think about games that goes across all of those different mediums.
It turns out that if you're not requiring people to learn digital technology, if you’re working with paper or dice or cards, you actually get much faster iterations on design. That's why all my game design classes, I start with teaching non-digital games.
That's pretty cool. So, one question I had was: why did you choose to go into game research versus industry?
That's a really good question. So, as I said, I actually have worked in industry. I've gone back and forth between work and academia my whole life. After my master's, I was a working game designer. I loved it. It was great work. But I found that I was making things, but I didn't understand why they were affecting players the way that they were.
I could tell that I was developing my craft. I was getting better at making games, but I didn't understand why they were better. So, that's why I ended up going back to do my PhD and ended up here. I could have, after my PhD, gone back to industry and I actually did consider it. But one of the things that most lights me up is working with students. That's something that you really can't do in industry. I love teaching.
I love mentoring students because I feel like I already know the ideas I have. I don't know the ideas that collaborators and students and mentees have. So, to me, there's a real joy in that kind of collaboration that's not about producing an artifact for purchase, but about helping people find what's beautiful, fascinating, original, thought-provoking, valuable for research in the ideas that they have. That's a kind of work that is not usually accessible in the game industry because it's focused on shipping a product.
The other thing that I really love is the autonomy and the ability to pursue my ideas wherever will they lead. So, for example, one thing I got really interested in was making these feminist history games as part of the War Birds women’s game design collective. There's not exactly a huge market for that. Riot Games is not going to create a feminist history game. So, I feel like that's part of what being in academia provides is a space where you can choose your project based on values other than the financial.
So, between those two, it was actually quite clear to me that academia was a place I wanted to be, and actually, specifically, CMU. When I got the call for this job, I loved that it was a little bit of an unusual academic job. It really tightly marries studio work and student supervision and mentoring projects with running a research agenda in a much more conventional research environment. The ability to bring those two things together and that I'm expected to maintain a practice as a practicing game designer, right – I'm not just meant to be, "Here are my ideas about games," but, "Here are the things I've made," to me, that was the best of both worlds. So, here I am.
Could you tell us a bit about the current research projects you have ongoing right now?
Yeah. So, that's going to be hard. I think my greatest weakness as a researcher is I find too many things exciting. Therefore, I always have a lot of research projects going. But maybe what I'll do is I'll tell you about a project that just wrapped, a project that I'm working on right now, and a project that's starting. How's that?
That sounds good.
Okay. So, we just finished a big chunk of work on what we're calling live streamed audience participation games. My lab has been doing a bunch of research on a streaming service called Twitch which is a platform where people can play video games, stream the gameplay, and stream video of themselves while they're playing. Other people can go to a browser and watch the game stream and simultaneously see the person talking about their play. So, we got really interested in this question of creating new interfaces for audiences on Twitch. It turns out to be a really interesting and cool design problem. So, why would you want to do it? Well, it's something that actually benefits a lot of different stakeholders.
For example, one of the things that Twitch streamers, people who are playing games and sharing them on Twitch, want to do is engage their audiences more. Giving new kinds of interfaces to Twitch audiences can be a way of doing that. We did some work on motivations of Twitch audience members. Why do people go and watch streams on Twitch? Some of them were really interested in being more interactive with the streamer and participating in game play. Creating these new interfaces for audience participation could serve this audience in a way that isn't really being served very effectively right now, for reasons that are too long to go into in the scope of this interview.
Then, we also wanted to explore what new kinds of – what new frontiers does this open for game design. Because when you think about multi-player games, you have a couple of different, very popular models. You have team based, like five of us are playing against five of you. You have massively multiplayer. There are 100,000 people on this World of Warcraft server.
But the streaming environment offers a really interesting model where you have people who are at varying levels of engagement. So, this streamer who is playing maybe more than one streamer. Maybe audience members who have dropped in and are playing with the streamer. Then maybe audience members who are participating in browser using some of these interfaces that we've developed. Then, maybe just people who are watching and participating socially. Then, people who are just lurking. People can fade among these different roles.
So, we spent a year – we built a tool kit for creating audience participation interfaces for games that connected to Unity. So, the streamer plays the game in Unity and then audiences can interact with their interface in the browser and it affects the streamer's game play. We had three teams of game designers build games using our toolkit in three different genres. One team made an arcade game. One team made a horror game. One team made a racing game. They all built in these abilities for the audiences to participate.
So, they made games. They spent eight months doing game development and interactive design and play testing. We collected all the play testing data. Then we analyzed what were some of the design challenges that appeared across these games. Because that would tell us about what kinds of games we can design to be participatory on Twitch. We just published that work at CHI Play. Our paper actually won an honorable mention!
So, that's one of the things that informs the second project that I'm going to talk to you about, which is I have a long-running piece of research on game design education. How do you teach people to be game designers? It turns out to be actually quite difficult, among other things, because any kind of iterative design process is difficult. One reason why iterative design processes are difficult is because people are not very good at giving feedback and getting feedback, especially then knowing what to do with feedback.
So, working with my student, Amy Cook, we've been looking at, "How do you improve this peer feedback process?" We've built some systems to look at this. She's created a system called PeerPresents that does live peer feedback during class with some scaffolding around it. We've also been looking at non-digital methods, so what are pedagogies that can improve the feedback process. But right now, what we're actually doing is taking this out of the classroom and saying, "How do game designers in industry give and receive feedback?"
It turns out that expert designers face a lot of the same problems with giving and receiving feedback about their games that students do and that novice designers do. These problems don't really get easier. You become a better game designer, but that doesn't necessarily remove some of the structural problems around giving and getting feedback. One of the things we've found is people don't get better by doing it. They have to train to get better at giving better feedback or using feedback more effectively. But there are also structural factors.
So, for example, we've been doing these interviews to see what are the challenges that game designers face with peer feedback in the workplace. They talk about things like, "I'm not in control of when I give and get feedback. When people are free, it's not necessarily when I need the feedback. Sometimes my boss tells me, 'You're going to get feedback on this date,' but I'm not ready." So, there's misalignment.
So, that happens – there's both an individual element but there's also, "How should companies structure themselves in order to make effective peer feedback processes work?" So, that's something we're actually collecting data for tomorrow from our second site. We're going into game companies and interviewing working game designers. We think we can use what we learn to build tools that make game companies better at making better games.
As my third project, I want to talk about my baby, my pet project, which is Rosenstrasse. I guess it's new – or at least the new element is that we're actually going to be doing a Kickstarter for this project in February, which is my first Kickstarter. But we want to try to fund production of a bunch of units of the game.
Rosenstrasse is a feminist history game working with Moyra Turkington of Unruly Designs, as part of the War Birds women's game design collective. These games do what's called brushing history against the grain. So, that means telling stories about historical events that are not really well-known or that aren't seen as the dominant story. It's based on a theory of history from Walter Benjamin, which is about trying to turn what he calls "the River of History" into a delta of many different stories, many different paths through it.
We're trying to do that through these games where you take on the roles of, in this case, Jewish and “Aryan” Germans who are married to each other in Berlin, between 1933 and 1943. You're living through the characters– the game does what we call packing ten years of a marriage into three hours. You spend three hours at a table with other players, playing out these relationships through role playing prompts. So, you would be asked to answer questions like, "Because one of the people in your marriage is a Jew, because you're married to a Jewish man, you and he have to move to a tiny apartment. You're not allowed to rent your apartment anymore. You have to move in with your mother-in-law. So, tell us about the things you're getting rid of and tell us what you decide to keep."
In response to these prompts, players develop the stories of these characters and figure out who these characters are to themselves. The game culminates in the historical Rosenstrasse Protests. On February 27, 1943, the Nazis said, "Any Jews left in Berlin is too many Jews left in Berlin." They went, and they rounded up the remaining Jews of Berlin, including about 1,500 Jewish men who had previously been protected because they were married to non-Jewish women. They said, "Enough of that. We don't believe in that anymore."
But unlike previous roundups, this one sparked a protest – a spontaneous protest with thousands of women protesting in front of the facility where the men were being held. The Nazis threatened them. They fired guns over their heads. They brought out the Jeeps and drove them through the square. The women would scatter and then they would come back. They basically stared the Nazis in the eye and the Nazis blinked.
Eventually they released the men. Some of the men had already been sent to Auschwitz and they actually sent a train to Auschwitz to bring back the men who had not yet been murdered there. It's an incredible, profound story of resistance. Most of these men, by the way, survived the war because of this protest. It's not really a very well-known story in part because the Nazis actively tried to suppress it. They burned the papers because they didn't want anyone to know that they had backed down.
There are historians who have been uncovering this history starting in the late '70s. We've been really inspired by the work of Nathan Stoltzfus, who is a historian down in Florida and is one of the preeminent researchers on this. He wrote a book about it and he actually came to visit us. We gave him a copy of the game, which is an incredible honor. We just published a paper where we talk about the results of our play cast and iterative design. We've now played the game with well over 150 people.
I've never made a game that has affected people the way that this game has. When I was writing up the paper, the thing that made me go, "Whoa," was that almost 15 percent of the people we've run this game for have spontaneously contacted us. We didn’t send out a survey to say, "Can you tell us about the game?" - they have gone out of their way to contact us and talk about how the game has changed them. These changes, in some cases, have been quite profound like, "I've never had an honest conversation with my family about the Holocaust before this," or, "I went to Berlin to go to the Rosenstrasse Memorial because of this game."
These are not small – this is not, "I gave an answer that's one point higher on a quiz because of this." These are deep changes. If that's what happening to the percentage of the people who think to tell us, we believe that the game is affecting our players – that's the tip of the iceberg. It's really – as a designer, it's quite humbling to have made something that has that kind of impact on people.
I also feel it is a really great responsibility because it reinforces for me – what I tell my game design students is, "Game design is power." People are putting themselves in your hands. They will do what you tell them to do. Those actions will stay with them. After you play a game, the things you've done and the things you've felt don't just disappear because the game is over.
I've really had that sense of responsibility driven home. I come from a Holocaust survivor family. So it was a very personal game to make in a lot of ways. We've actually run the game for descendants of survivors who have said things like, "I wish I could have my grandmother play this game," or, "I wish my mother had lived long enough for me to play this game with her because she survived and this would have been a transformational experience for her." That's just – it's amazing. It's an honor.
Yes, just hearing back from all these people- that it's changed you and that you've created something so impactful, that must feel pressuring, but also amazing.
It's amazing, yes. But that's part of why I think the research side is important, that you don't want to just scattershot stuff out there. We made the decision we made in Rosenstrasse with a lot of intentionality. I think that's part of why it's effective. But also understanding why things work and having this research-backed understanding reduces the chance that you're going to make a game that you're hoping will have a good effect but actually doesn't.
So, in this case, out of everyone who's played – we haven't had a bad outcome from Rosenstrasse yet. We know it's possible. That's one of the challenges of game design is that you can't control players. Someday, someone might play that game and be like, "What I learned is that Jews are terrible people," right, or, "What I learned is that World War II is dumb." This is because you can't control who people are when they're in the experience you created. But if you are really approaching your work from a theoretically rigorous perspective, I think you can create things that are much more likely to have the effect that you want and less likely to have the effect that you don't want.
But that's part of what's glorious and terrifying about being a game designer. Ultimately, you're removed and you have to give the game that you created to players, and they're going to make something without you. It's like Star Wars. The more you tighten your grip on players, the more the play is going to just slip through your fingers. So, you have to be willing – it's almost like raising a child – you have to be willing to just let it be what it's going to be and hope. That's something it's got in common with research. So, it's a good thing that I've learned to tolerate that ambiguity and uncertainty.
Okay. So, you talked about why you chose to go into academia and why you chose to come to CMU. You did mention that you liked teaching and working with students. So what did you find surprising or unexpected when you first became faculty here?
The biggest surprise I had was actually a really positive one, which is people here were really kind. I have other friends who are in academia and academia is not a very mentally or emotionally healthy place, especially right now with increasing academic precarity. More and more schools relying on adjuncts, cuts of funding – there's just a lot of stuff going on that makes it not a very happy place to be in a lot of ways. What I found though when I came here was that the people I got to work with were joyful and kind.
I sort of had a clue when I came to interview, but I thought they were overestimating. They were saying, "Oh, yeah, we're great," when they were actually pretty good, but in fact, they far exceeded what I was told. My first semester, I’d be sitting in my office, and someone would come by and say, "Hey, Jess, let's collaborate on a cool new project," or, "Hey, Jess, I'm writing a grant. I would like you to participate and I want you to make sure it's expressing your vision and not just mine."
That is not something that happens – it's not something you can take for granted in an academic environment. Because of that modeling for what could be in my first semester, that helped me figure out what kind of lab culture I wanted to create for my collaborators and my students, which is about doing the work joyfully, being a whole person, making sure that you're respecting your own needs and your own self, being kind to one another, putting ethics first, and using all of that to do great research joyfully and well. Having the ability to do that has been – let's put it this way. I knew that I could do it. I thought I would have to pay a price for it. Actually, here, I've found that it's been appreciated and rewarded. That's been the surprise.
Yes. I've been really happy here. Did I mention that?
That's awesome though. It feels like you are – like this room – is very bright and happy. So, the fact that you feel that way here is also a positive thing.
Yes. There's a reason that I have a pink bookshelf in here that's full of games. It's for several reasons. So, number one, it's joy and happiness. Number two, it's memorable. People always look and say, "Oh, I remember your awesome chairs." But number three, actually, is that one of the things that's really important to me is that femininity can be included in the work that I do. So, the numbers of women in computer science are, obviously, not super great. In games, it's way worse. Depending on how you're counting, between 3 and 12 percent of game designers are women.
Not good. Sucks, in fact. And there's, also in many places, a cultural expectation that if you are a woman, you can't be feminine. It's okay – if you must be female, at least be masculine. So, I feel like part of what I do, in addition to carving out space for what I think of as values-driven research and the values-driven lab culture, is to also make sure that more kinds of people see that they can be included.
I definitely have students who walk in here and they see my pink rug and my pink bookshelf, and you could just see the tension go out of their shoulders. Like, "Oh, you can be a professor of computer science and own sparkly, gold shoes? Cool." That's actually getting back to the question of surprises. That's been a big surprise to me because I have never been a particularly feminine person. That's something that I have deliberately chosen to do as part of my role modeling. It has actually turned out to be surprisingly fun.
But that's one of the many small ways. When I think about what does inclusion in computer science look like, I think that there should be more kinds of people in computer science, but there should also be more different ways to be a person in computer science. Other people wedged open the door for me, and I'm going to wedge open that door for as many people as I can get in behind me. I've been looking back – when I went through reappointment, I tried to count how many game designers I've trained. I've trained something like 250 women game designers over the years. So, that's good. That's a pretty good goddamn wedge.
Before I'm done, I'm going to train 2,500. I'm not going to stop. I'm going to keep doing it. Not all of them are going to go into the game industry. I don't think that's a marker of success necessarily. In same way that not everybody who writes poetry wants to be a published poet. Not everybody who likes to paint wants to be professional artist. But I want to give more people, and especially more people who have been shut out of existing networks of game design and a game design education, the chance to find out what a joy expressing yourself through games can be.
That sounds amazing. So have you experienced any adversity because you're a female in computer science? Do you have any advice for other women in male-dominated fields such as computer science?
That's a really good question. One of the challenges of answering that question is that, of course, you're never sure what is happening to you because of your gender and what is happening to you because of chance and what is happening to you because you just ran into a jerk who is an equal-opportunity jerk. I can say that my response to someone saying, "No, you can't," has always been, "Forget it. I'll do it better. I'm not taking that from you."
When I went to college, I thought I was going to be a poet. That was the plan. Not much of a career plan, for the record. Not a big job market for poets right now. But I was going to be an English major. I wrote, and I was like, "Aww, I'm going to stay up until 4:00 AM drinking tea and writing poetry."
My father actually said, "I have only three requests for you when you go to college, three requirements. You call us once a week, you don't drink your first year, and you take a computer science class. One computer science class, that's it. Everything else, up to you. Have fun." I agreed. I said, "That sounds very reasonable.” So, I decided I was just like, "Okay, you know what? I'll do this my first semester and get it over with."
So freshman year, I signed up for the introductory computer science course never having programmed anything before in my life. I came this close to failing. Before the final, I think I had a D. I walked into the final knowing that I needed to score a 95 percent or above in order to pass the class, which I did, for the record. Go me. But I was so pissed off by that, I said, "You know what? I'm going to take a second computer science class, just so I can show I can do it." I already had committed to other classes for the spring, so the next fall, I turn up in the introductory – now I did not even know enough to understand that this was a different kind of thing – in the introductory algorithmic theory class. After the first class, I went to go see the professor. I said, "You know, I'm not really sure I'm prepared for this class." He said, "No, you're not. You should drop my class."
I said, "Hmm, thanks for your advice. You know what I'm going to do? I'm going to take your class. I'm going to get an A and be your teaching assistant next year." That's exactly what happened. So, my response to people saying, "No, you can't do it," is generally, "Screw you," which I think is important. But that's not the advice I would give to other women, because I don't think you should have to be that way to succeed in computer science.
I guess the advice that I would give is – Number one is hold tight to your sense of injustice. One of the most poisonous things that will happen is that when you are treated unfairly, you, at some level, will justify it. This is the just world hypothesis, which means that we all want to believe that things happen for a reason. "So, I'm getting passed over while that mediocre dude over there is getting special treatment. Oh, I must be an imposter. I must not be very good. I must have to accept that I need to be twice as good to get half as far."
Nuh-uh. Hold on to your sense that that is not right, because you can't control the way that you are treated by other people, but you can refuse to internalize that that is the way that things should be. Among other things, that will help you be resilient to it. Yes, things happen that are not fair. Own it, accept it, and then use that to fire your own commitment to make things more fair. “That bad thing happened. That was unjust. I will take it, and I will transmute it into justice for others." That's been a critical thing for me and that is something that I think can generalize.
The second thing that I would say is hold tight to your sense of what makes you unique. I often have students come in and say, "How can I make myself fit this mold?" In my experience, contorting yourself is tough. Because if you succeed at doing it, the reward is having to do it more. That is not a good situation to be in.
You are going to succeed based on your strengths and your skills. You don't have to fit a particular way of being in order to be successful. That kind of self-knowledge about who you are and what you're capable of will fuel you to find the place where you can make an exceptional contribution. It may not be the things that you necessarily expect. So, this is going to sound like a very silly example, but one of the best, most frequent compliments I get here at CMU is, "Wow, Jess, you really know how to run a meeting."
Not exactly the skill I thought would be critical to my success as faculty, but over the years, I have noticed that I understand how to lead, and I understand how to use time effectively. I understand how to make decisions about what activities are productive and I turned that into a skill that is actually so notable that other faculty compliment me on it when it's not even really part of the job description. But it makes me far more effective because I know how to do it. So, you don't have to limit yourself to what other people tell you is valuable. Strengthen your skills, know your strengths, and look for ways that those can contribute toward your dreams.
That's good advice.
So, you did mention that you were good at time management and stuff like that. So, especially for like freshmen, for college students in general, that's obviously a skill you really need, especially at CMU.
So, what management tips or strategies do you have that you'd like to share?
Yeah, really good question. So, I – because I am who I am, I, actually, before I got this job, read a bunch of research on, "What do we know about how to work effectively?" So, there are a few things that I do that have made me able to get a lot done with relatively little time. There are people in academia who work 80-hour weeks. I don't do that because one of the things I learned is once you're working more than the 45-hour week, nuh-uh.
You're not going to be – not only are you not going to be more productive, there comes a point at which you're actually screwing up the work that you did back when you were functional. So, I take that 45-hour measure as, "That's my number." I should be working about, on average, 45 hours, 40 to 45 hours. If I'm working more than that for more than a week or so, I need to correct that because I know that more time doesn't mean better work. That's one thing that I would say to students.
A second thing is that most people are not capable of more than about three to four hours of sustained mental or intellectual effort in a day. So, it's smartest to schedule those at the time when you are the most mentally alert. So, what that means for me is I come in early. I try to be here between 7:00 and 8:00. I usually make it about 7:40.
But until 11:00 AM, I don't schedule anything. That's what I call my deep work time. I treat that time as sacred. That is the most important thing in my day. After 11:00, right – I've had three hours of intense, focused work and then I go have meetings and I go and teach and I go and do other things that don't require me to be deeply focused on a hard problem.
In those three hours, I'll do things like write papers, look at data, plan new research projects, write grants. I'll do co-working with students. But only things that are about doing work - not having meetings, answering email, doing anything administrative. I actually do a fair amount of planning and prep to make sure that every day when I walk in, I know what the first thing is that I'm going to work on so that I can walk in and not lose half my time to that what I call the flail, "Oh, I should work on this; no, I should work on that. I should work –" nope. I actually – you can see I have a list of deadlines right at my desk where I can see it.
I also have a master spreadsheet. So, every semester, I make what's called a strategic plan which is everything I want to accomplish that semester from paper submissions to my goals for teaching my class to, "Do I want to do home repairs? Do I want to organize my sock drawer?" Everything I dream of doing goes onto the master spreadsheet. I use that, week by week, to divide up what I'm going to do into four lists. Critical tasks are tasks that directly help me accomplish one of my goals. Any task that is not directly on through line to one of those goals does not go on the critical list. Usually, if it's a ways out, it might get demoted to one of the other lists. But that's my eyes on the prize list. That helps me from getting distracted by things that seem important, but I don't care about.
The second list is what I call necessary. This is just stuff that has to happen whether or not it's strategically important. Things like, "I have to get my hair cut." Stuff that's necessary but distinguishing it from what's critical. Then I have what's called a helpful list, things that future Jess will be very happy if I do. Then I have a list called Delight. I try to make sure that I have four or five things on my list every week that just make me happy. If a task is not on any of those four categories, I just don't do it.
So, that's been really helpful for me in using my sustained work time effectively. But yeah, I come in usually between 7:30 and 8:00 and I go home between 4:00 and 4:30 most days. I don't work weekends. I don't check email in the evening. I have dinner with my daughter every night. It's a marathon, not a sprint. That's how I try to organize my life and that's what I would recommend to students, too.
One thing I run into is people will often say, "Oh, you're so smart about managing your time. It must because you have a kid." I actually really resent that.
I'm a person. The way that I'm able to be successful in my career, have a relationship with a husband I adore – we just celebrated our 22nd anniversary – have a child who is the delight of my life, and read, and sing, and play piano, the way I can do all of those things and be a whole person is by being very mindful about where I spend my time and making sure that all of the ways that I spend my time are in line with my needs and my values. So, I think that that's a risk that women, in general, and especially women in male-dominated fields face is, if you have a child, being seen as mommy first.
So, I guess I just want to say that part of my commitment to using time wisely is really the sense that no one has enough of it, no one. We never know, none of us know how much time we're going to get in this world. So, treating time as precious and thinking about how we spend our time, to me, is an important thing that did not start when I became a parent and I don't expect that it will end until the day that I die.
That’s some really good advice. So, one last question, what do you do in your free time?
What do I do in my free time? Other than make games?
Yeah. Well, that's your work.
Yeah, well, that's a really interesting question. I went through a long period of time where I didn't play games for fun. Last year, for my birthday, my husband bought me a Switch. I've been playing Breath of the Wild. That is just for fun. I decided I'm never doing research on this game. Keep it separate.
I do make games for fun, too. Art games, weird stuff that has nothing to do with my research. That's one thing. One of the challenges of being a game designer is that there isn't that clear-cut line between what you do for work and what you do in your free time.
But the other things I do, I'm an avid reader. I read usually between 280 and 320 books every year, not counting what I read for academic purposes. I will basically devour any kind of fiction you put near me and many kinds of nonfiction. I write – I'm pretty active – I write book reviews. I do end-of-year lists. I have a whole community of people who follow my blog – that's like my secret life, my secret hobby.
I play piano. I am involved in my synagogue. I sit on a bunch of committees there and I volunteer. I sing opera, amateur, not well, but enthusiastically. I definitely used to have more hobbies before, A) getting a faculty job and, B) having a child. That's not a knock on either of those things. It's just that those are both pretty heavy activities. But now that my daughter is almost four – she's about to turn four – one of the really fun things has been starting to develop joint hobbies.
So, one of the reasons that I don't just do game design at work is because my husband and I actually design games together. We make gift games for each other. We make games together for our friends. It's really fun. That's something that I do with him. So, I don't want to just leave it at work. My daughter's now at an age where I can start to develop joint hobbies with her. That has turned out to be incredibly fun.
For example, last night, she brought home a map – she rolled up one of her drawings that she made at school and she came home, and she said, "Mommy, this is my treasure map. My stuffed animals and I are going to go hunt for treasure tonight." So, we made up a whole story. I said, "You put the landmarks on the map; I'll write down what they are." We had this whole imaginative, pretend play. That somehow made me see that in the same way that I make games with my husband, maybe someday I'll be making games with her. I can't wait.
That's so wholesome.
[Laughs] Yes. I am surprisingly wholesome.
Yes. Everyone aspires to be wholesome. Okay.
Okay. Yeah, #TheJessicaHammerStory.
Yeah. That's about it for our questions. Thank you so much.