Sunday, April 26, 2009

An Interview with Liz Danforth (Part II)

5. I also recall seeing your artwork in a couple of GDW's Traveller products, most notably The Traveller Adventure, which remains a favorite of mine. Did you find illustrating a science fiction RPG more challenging than illustrating a fantasy one?

I did quite a lot for GDW, actually — they were one of my primary clients for many years. As a reader of the science fiction/fantasy genre as a kid, I preferred hard science fiction to fantasy. It wasn’t until I stumbled on Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser than I learned to love fantasy. So I was perfectly happy to illustrate in both genres.

That said, the answer to your question is Yes, SF is harder for me than fantasy. Why? Not because one is mushy in terms of research to create believable images but because I am someone who prefers organic shapes. This is a topic I’ve discussed with other artists, and I find most artists have a decided preference — either for mechanicals or for organics. We can learn to do either, but one takes more effort.

For me, mechanical things are hard. I just don’t “see” them. Moreover, because one of my early influences was Art Nouveau and the likes of Aubrey Beardsley, my work has a strong “graphic design” look. Shape and flow are often where I start a drawing’s idea, so perspective took some retroactive learning on my part — particularly because I was almost entirely self-educated in art. (My bachelor’s was Anthropology.) It is extraordinarily difficult to do convincing mechanicals until you know about perspective and vanishing points, and are willing to use a straightedge or other such tools.

6. You've continued to do gaming projects over the last 30 years. I take it that the hobby is still something you enjoy participating in?

I certainly do. The hobby has done much to shape my life and while I’ve rarely been a high profile “personality,” I have always considered myself a gamer and working professional in the field. The last half-dozen years I was as distant from the hobby as at any time in my life and career. Everything in my life was in transition and almost all of it was exceedingly unpleasant and problematic. Now things have re-stabilized after far too long, and I’m glad to say that working in the hobby again is one of the things I’m enjoying getting back to. It’s not the same as it was before, but I am as excited by what I’m doing now as I was when I started my career at 20-something. It’s not many people who get to do two wonderful things in their lives, and I am incredibly lucky in that respect.

7. My wife is a school librarian and was very excited when I told her about the project you're doing with the American Library Association. Can you tell us a bit about that project?

That’s what is so amazing about where I am right now. This is a LONG story, so you’ll have to bear with me.

History:

Twenty, twenty-five years ago, libraries and schools met gamers at the gates with pitchforks and torches. D&D was castigated as the devil’s work, Magic cards made kids into thieves and muggers, and the nascent video games were destroying children’s minds and morals — if you believed all the bad press.

Flash forward to the present, and the gamer generation grew up to become good citizens, attentive parents, desirable employees and respected entrepreneurs. For the last ten years or more, academia has been studying gamers — the video game generation mostly, but the older gamer crowd has gotten some attention also. What they’re finding, with reports released in peer-reviewed journals and at major conferences, is that by and large gaming can be very good for you. It develops a variety of cognitive processing skills; the MMORPGs develop leadership skills without regard to age, gender, or social demographics; the FPS games improve spatial processing skills important to engineers and scientists of various types; many games including RPGs enhance understanding of math, economics, and teamwork; and so much more. Games are strongly social, not isolating, and most people play with friends and family preferentially, whether in the same room or across great distances. The stories I hear that make me smile most are about parents who play games with their sons and daughters. Not only is that smart parenting, it is just plain fun for everyone concerned.

Learning:

Gaming of all kinds encourages reading and literacy even if you consider only printed matter to be “literacy.” There are countless tie-in books, graphic novels, strategy guides and cheat code books about almost every game ever made. The Pokémon cards rely on multiple nested conditional sentences well above the average reading level for the youngest kids playing the game — their motivation to do well in the game raises their motivation to acquire the vocabulary and parse the sentence construction. Several of the New York Times bestselling authors of today learned their craft writing for games first; I edited work by both Michael Stackpole and RA Salvatore in their earliest gaming days, before they had a single novel out. Ray Feist, Margaret Weis, and Kevin Anderson would have had quite different careers but for gaming. Today, fanfiction.net has tens of thousands of stories inspired by games and game worlds (Final Fantasy alone appears to have about 40,000 stories), and that is just one website! The converse is also true; through games you can explore the worlds created by authors like HP Lovecraft, Robert E Howard, and of course JRR Tolkien, to name just a few. Further, if you look into the “21st Century learning skills” as outlined by the influential The Partnership for a 21st Century Skills, then gaming encourages most of the key technological literacies that tomorrow’s citizens and employees will need to succeed.

The 21st C learning skills are of particular interest to me. Right now I am completing a research survey on how some of these skills might be acquired in WoW and their transference to real life. Results are mixed about WoW in particular, in part because a number of respondents are telling me they learned the skills in other games, particularly the RPGs. The positive anecdotal evidence I’m hearing is astounding: people telling me some truly amazing stories about what a positive impact the game has had on their lives: medical techs who feel they keep a more level head under pressure during surgery because of their experience in PvP; how a guild’s best raid leader — the tactician and strategy communicator leading up to 40 players into difficult conditions — turned out to be an 11-year old boy; how many women find themselves guild leaders when they’ve never been “leaders” of anything before. Over and over again, people talk about what deep and abiding friendships they’ve made through the game, friends they have since gotten to know well who they have since met face to face in real life. WoW gets a lot of bad press because it is a highly engaging, immersive game that can eat your free time and all your attention if you don’t have time management skills and understand the need to balance it as part of your whole life — but those also are skills you’ll learn in WoW if you don’t enter the game having them!

Libraries:

What does all this have to do with the American Library Association?

In 2006 I attended the first ALA Techsource Symposium on games, learning and libraries. I only became aware that games were of interest to libraries the year before, when I started on the road to getting my MLS. My mentor encouraged me to combine the two parts of my life. I’d been working 16 years in libraries already, as a part time paraprofessional — paralibrarian, we’re now being called — while making most of my living doing freelance for the game industry. Freelancing has its financial ups and downs, and my library system in Phoenix was very flexible if I needed free time to devote to a major project (as when I took a 3-month leave of absence to write the T&T computer game for New World Computing.)

I only remembered the BADD old days and was frankly astonished how much had changed. The Techsource Symposium opened my eyes to how far libraries had come, and I got to meet some of those leading the change, visionaries like Jenny Levine and Eli Neiburger and Beth Gallaway. I told Jenny how very impressed I was, and to let me know if there was ever anything I could do for her or for ALA since I still had contacts in the game industry and a deep understanding of the profession.

To my surprise, she took me up on it. In March of 2008 she and Dale Lipschultz asked if I’d like to work with a dozen others as part of the “grant experts team” being formed to carry out a two-year, million dollar “Libraries, Literacy, and Gaming” grant funded by the Verizon Foundation. Our job was to look at what the best libraries were already doing with gaming in the library, and then fund 10 new libraries to do new or expanded gaming programs. We put together a “best practices” toolkit that libraries everywhere could use, and the 10 funded libraries would let us “playtest,” refine and expand the toolkit too.

The team received 390 eligible requests for grant monies when the Request For Proposal went out. It was overwhelming. We had every kind of library coming forward — public, academic, and school libraries, from small towns, large urban areas, tribal libraries, and everything in between. The best 10% were given to the grants team to review — I read 10 proposals myself — and it broke my heart to know that only 10 libraries out of that 390 could be funded. Some were just amazing. As I write this, the winning libraries have been selected and informed, but not yet publicly announced. I am eager to see what has been chosen. I hope that there are ways to acknowledge and perhaps adapt some of the ideas of gaming librarians whose requests didn’t get funded. The energy, drive, and innovation I read in just the 10 proposals I saw were enough to rock me back on my heels.

And coming full circle:

My eyes and hands are getting old, and doing art as much as I used to is growing ever more difficult. I’m a huge adopter of Web 2.0 but not for art, where I’ve found the learning curve just too steep. I still paint and draw largely by hand, although I’m passingly conversant with things like Photoshop and other graphic programs. The fact that I can bring my knowledge of the industry and my love of games and gaming to the service of libraries, which I also have loved for decades, makes an amazingly satisfying combination as I look to the future.

For the games industry itself, I’m looking to do more writing and editing, as well as what art jobs cross my path — I can’t give it up entirely and don’t want to! — and I’m also working assertively on fiction writing which I mostly had to abandon in past years, although I expected to be a novelist long before I ever achieved recognition for my artwork. Sometimes life takes you on unusual paths and I’ve always been one to follow my nose to the projects and places that interest me the most. I’ve been lucky enough to find people willing to pay me to do what I love. There could be no better life, I think.

Or, as Michael Stephens said (of TametheWeb.com): learn to learn, adapt to change, scan the horizon, be curious, bring your <3 with you. Words to live by, whatever your profession.

10 comments:

  1. Although it is a worthy service to publish any interview at all with Liz Danforth, a blog that concentrates so much on old-school design techniques misses a serious bet by not focusing on Liz's extensive design and editing career. Liz Danforth is, along with Paul Jaquays, one of the most widely talented figures in the adventure gaming field, and to restrict your interview to her illustration work is to waste an opportunity.

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  2. Liz isn't going anywhere. If there are questions anyone has for her about other aspects of her career, I know she'd be happy to answer them. Most of her editing and design work of which I am aware was for T&T, a game I've admitted represents a huge gap in my knowledge of the early hobby. I'm working on correcting that, but I didn't feel comfortable posing questions about subjects of which I had no immediate knowledge. My apologies is you feel this approach is to "waste an opportunity."

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  3. Jeeze, Allen, James - I know both of you and I'm pretty sure you'd enjoy getting to know each other over a beer. Can't you two get along? :)

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  4. James this was a fascinating interview--especially the library project. I had no idea such academic work was going on that focused on gamers and the benefits of games. Thanks a lot for this, it was fun and informative!

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  5. Great interview. The idea that gaming is good for your brain and your social skills...shocking stuff!

    It's about time that fact was recognized, as most anyone who's been around it has known this for a long time!

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  6. @Welleran, yes we DID know it but we couldn't prove it to the nay-sayers. Now we can.

    @James @Allen: illustrating is what people know me for, and I'm okay with that. I got to point out here that I do more, and I appreciate the opportunity. The bottom line is I did much more art than anything else, and I hope to do more in the future -- writing, editing, and art.

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  7. (And yes -- I'd be happy to answer other questions if anyone has some.)

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  8. A perfect run-down of the importance of new ideas have for keeping libraries more integrated with what's happening among creative people at all levels. And I hope to read more about your editing, Liz.

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  9. I believe Liz was one of the editors (and designers?) for FBI's Blade line of accessories in the early '80s, and I know she edited The Sorcerer's Apprentice for a good chunk of its run.

    That being said, I always associated her (Hi, Liz!) with art, because of the work she did for ICE's Middle Earth line, which was one of the first RPGs I played. The art continuity made it easy to move into T&T later, even though the rules were totally different.

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  10. Sorceror's Apprentice! Best-magazine-ever, gaming or otherwise. I treasure the dozen issues I have. Thank you so much.

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