Play Nice

Seven Siegel, Heller MBA/MPP’16, believes in the positive power of games.

Illustration of tiny people on a computer desk, working and manipulating the mouse and webcam
Cassie Sim
Illustration of tiny people on a computer desk, working and manipulating the mouse and webcam

On a sunny Saturday morning in January, as arctic winds sweep across the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus under a hard blue sky, two dozen 20- and 30-somethings huddle in a fluorescent-lit classroom inside Building 32.

Sitting alone or in loose clusters, they peer at their laptop screens or stare into middle distance. Along with the odd Hawaiian-print short-sleeve, hoodies and T-shirts are the sartorial go-to. Backpacks slump on the floor. A guy with headphones topped with cat ears sits before a portable keyboard piano, air-drumming to music only he can hear. In a room crowded with people and devices, the ambience is surprisingly calm. Every so often, someone murmurs something like “A decoupled system is better than a universally accessible one,” or “Make a static blast,” or “What if we had Mr. Toad play with a marble?”

This is not a gathering of lonely nerds quietly geeking out over computer code. These are just a few of the happy participants in Global Game Jam 2019, a planet-spanning event tens of thousands of people strong. The young fellow threading among them is Seven Siegel, Heller MBA/MPP’16, who makes GGJ happen. Sporting a sweatshirt, a scruffy beard and an earring, Siegel has a lightly freckled face that’s at once relaxed and alert, amused and earnest. An iPhone chimes. “That’s my reminder to breathe,” Siegel says, and does.

Founded in 2008, GGJ is the world’s largest game-creating event held in physical locations. Though some participants play solo, most form teams with complementary skill sets, combining designers, artists, musicians and writers. At the start of the weekend, a theme is announced — this year it’s “What home means to you” — and the clock starts ticking down to Sunday, when each team unveils the game it has just invented. Over the years, about 50,000 games have been made, and several have gone to market, including Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, a bomb-defusing simulation, and Home Improvisation, a creative take on home-improvement shows.

Make no mistake, however: This is not a contest. It’s simply a chance for people who love games to come together and express themselves by making something. It doesn’t matter whether they have any game development experience. With no prize at stake, camaraderie trumps competitiveness. And even though it’s a timed event, this jam eschews “crunch” — the sleep-deprived slog developers often push themselves through to get a game to market.

“You’re here because you want to be,” says Siegel. “For a lot of people, it’s hard to find the time to make a game. We’re able to say to them, ‘Here you go. Here’s the time, space and energy for you to create in a safe environment.’”

This year, the jam attracted 47,000 people at 860 locations in 113 countries on every continent except Antarctica. Gamers gathered in Finland, Australia, Kazakhstan, Iran — even Venezuela. (The Zimbabwe team had to pull out at the last second due to unrest over a rise in fuel prices.) Some 9,000 games were created.

“Once we have a team in the International Space Station,” says Siegel, “it’ll be the biggest game jam in the galaxy!”

Fun is not a four-letter word

If Siegel (who uses the gender-neutral pronouns they/them/their) aims high, it’s because they take play seriously. And they believe it can fix a lot of what ails us.

Starting with peekaboo, games are how we exercise our imagination and gain cognitive, physical and social skills. As we get older, Siegel says, “we think it’s OK to play less. But play is important at any age.”

Play is also good for society as a whole. “We’ve always used games as a means of bringing people together,” says Siegel, “whether around the fire when you’re camping, or playing board games at home, or bringing video games to a friend’s house.”

Analog or digital, games are just like books and movies, Siegel says, with the added quality of being interactive. They believe we all have something to share, a story to tell, and GGJ facilitates that. “Our goal,” they say, “is to give everyone in the world the opportunity to make a game.”

Siegel thinks a lot about what sociologist Ray Oldenburg calls the “third place,” those neutral, public places accessible to all, regardless of class or status, which he considers essential to community, not to mention democracy — think barbershop, beer garden, basketball court. Siegel laments the paucity of third places in much of today’s world. Global Game Jam, they say, creates temporary third places all over the planet.

“For 48 hours, this is the community space where everyone comes together,” Siegel says, exposing people to all kinds of cultures and experiences, and maybe “creating a more understanding world.”

Of course, in some quarters, games, especially video games, are blamed for inciting acts of violence. Siegel flatly refutes that.

“Many games are powerful and dark,” they admit. But “we want people to be unafraid to make the things they want. We find that when you give people the freedom to create anything, violent games are actually really rare. What you would buy at GameStop and what you would play at Global Game Jam are vastly different.”

As for the notion that games turn kids into sequestered zombies who won’t come down for dinner, Siegel points out that in a culture where over-parenting has shriveled a child’s radius of freedom, games let children get out from under mom and dad’s hovering gaze.

And that kid you think is playing Fortnite all alone in his room? Actually, Siegel says, he’s interacting with millions of other people.

Seven Siegel, Heller MBA/MPP’16
Katherine Taylor
Seven Siegel, Heller MBA/MPP’16

Business casual

The Long Island native who spent their teenage years on a farm in Illinois comes by their position as gamesmeister honestly. They still remember the first game that was all theirs — Sonic the Hedgehog 2 — and the PlayStation they got for Hanukkah in junior high. Friday nights in high school were spent with Dance Dance Revolution and Dungeons & Dragons. Today, they wear their affection for two particular games, The Binding of Isaac and The World Ends With You, on their chest and ankle, in the form of tattoos.

In 2011, after graduating from Champlain College with a degree in game design, Siegel started their own game development company — and ran it into the ground. “I had no idea what I was doing,” they say. “So I knew if I were going to do this entrepreneur thing again, I’d better learn how to run a business. By then, I also knew I wanted to go into the nonprofit world.”

An acquaintance recommended Siegel look at the Heller School of Social Policy and Management, specifically its dual MBA/MPP. “The program fit me perfectly,” they say. “Like, to a T.”

In the MBA for Social Impact cohort, Siegel found a supportive community. After they took the Strategic Management and Social Entrepreneurship class taught by Carole Carlson, she asked them to be her TA for the course, an experience Siegel describes as “pivotal.”

“We’re all about social impact, but we hadn’t had anyone in the class with a perspective on the social benefits of gaming,” says Carlson, now the MBA program director at Heller. “We had an opportunity to give Seven the tools that enabled them to get into a space where they could marry those passions.”

On a trip (underwritten by the MBA program) to the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, Siegel met Susan Gold, a founder of Global Game Jam, and sealed their next career move by offering a bit of advice. Siegel says, “I did some research and said, ‘Wait a minute. You all have been doing this as volunteers for nine years? I’m looking at your books, and you should hire staff.’”

In 2017, GGJ hired Siegel as executive director. Two years later, Siegel’s leadership caught the eye of Forbes, which named them one of its 30 Under 30 entrepreneurs for 2019.

Making the right moves

Siegel now teaches at Northeastern University’s College of Arts, Media and Design, where they’ve developed a popular course called The Business of Games. “The trick,” they say conspiratorially, “is that it’s actually Business 101 but all the examples I use are video games.”

Game design major Rachel Ellis, who participated in this year’s GGJ location at Northeastern, says the class is one of the most important courses in the curriculum, largely because of Siegel’s honesty.

“Seven is not afraid to tell us some of the hard truths about working in the game design industry, which we’re all very grateful for,” says Ellis. “We tend to be dreamers who think we’re going to put these games out in the world and they’re going to make us lots of money. That’s just not how it works.”

In addition to inviting her to TA their course, Siegel got Ellis her first internship, at a board-game studio in Seattle. “I’d always loved making board games, but I wasn’t sure if it was something I would want to do for the rest of my life,” Ellis says. “That summer gave me the chance to explore. Now I know I would definitely love to do that for the rest of my life.”

When they’re not teaching, Siegel is dreaming up ways to spread gaming throughout the world. Last year, for instance, the youth-oriented game jam GGJ Next attracted 800 children in 20 countries.

In their off time, Siegel hangs out with their partner and her rescue mutt, Frankie. They also box, something they took up in 2016 because, they say, they “felt the need to punch something.” And they run, having completed their first half-marathon while at Heller. “I just woke up and went for it,” they recall. “I left my apartment in Waltham, ran exactly 6.55 miles and then turned around.”

That approach is not unlike the spirit of Global Game Jam, which is, Siegel says, “about the journey, not the destination.”

Sarah C. Baldwin is a freelance writer and translator living in Providence, Rhode Island.