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MIT's Game Lab

Once the province of hackers, gaming has grown into a thriving field of research.
February 24, 2009

On a computer screen in the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab at MIT, a bubble-­blowing redhead leads a parade of gum-chewing followers through village streets, pied piper-like. Suddenly, police officers attack the parade. The gum girl fights back, trapping the officers in her bubbles.

A sly commentary on politics in Singapore, where bubble gum is sold only in pharmacies for medicinal purposes, the game known as Gumbeat is just one result of a collaborative effort between MIT students and their counterparts in that country. Founded in 2006, the GAMBIT lab fosters a hybrid community of academics and industry professionals, who explore new directions for video gaming.

Far enough from the center of the MIT campus to blend in with the growing number of technology companies that have flocked to Kendall Square, the lab seems more like an office than a classroom. The open, colorful space above Legal Sea Foods has an unmistakable aura of fun, but it’s also clear that the lab houses plenty of serious research. Posters on the wall warn students of the dangers of overworking. “I do kick people out of the lab on occasion,” says Philip Tan ‘01, SM ‘03, GAMBIT’s U.S. executive director. “Game developers and students have a tendency to work very hard and burn themselves out.” The effort, however, pays off. The lab developed a dozen game prototypes in 2008 and produced finalists in the Independent Games Festival and a winner in the 2008 Dream-Build-Play Challenge.

Such industriousness is a long way from the unofficial playing that gave birth to gaming at MIT. But official MIT projects such as GAMBIT and the Education Arcade, which works to build fun, addictive games that also aid learning, draw on that hacking tradition for inspiration while giving students an opportunity to take gaming seriously.

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