Parsons prof. Macklin to open week illustrating what games can teach us


Julia Weber
Staff Writer

When Colleen Macklin’s grandmother asked her what she wanted to do when she grew up, Macklinw told her that she wanted to make video games.

Now, the game designer and professor is not only creating and developing video games, but also leading cutting-edge research about the role of games in our lives.

As a child, Macklin became interested in gaming and, more specifically, in coding games. 

“I ended up realizing that more than even playing video games, I loved to make them,” she said.

Macklin will open Week Two of the Chautauqua Lecture Series and the theme “Games: A Celebration of Our Most Human Pastime,” with her lecture “Gaming the System: What Games Teach us About the World,” at 10:45 a.m. today in the Amphitheater. Macklin is an associate professor at the New School’s Parsons School of Design, where she teaches in the Design and Technology program — and where she founded and co-directs PETLab (PET stands for prototyping, education, and technology).

Growing up, Macklin had an Atari 400 and learned how to code video games by using game codes from magazines to download her games and, later, to start altering them. 

Jacques Cousteau, specifically, helped drive her passion for games. Using what she knew about coding video games, Macklin started to create fantasy underwater worlds, designing games with premises like discovering Atlantis and she began to learn how to alter the basic codes to adapt and customize the games.

When puberty hit, though, Macklin took a step back from gaming because of the gender stereotypes associated with the activity.  Boys in her class were also interested in progamming games, but she was starting to feel more social pressure to just hang out with the girls instead.

“Unfortunately, I kind of dropped the game-making, because for me it was as much about making them and talking about them with other boys in my class – because it was only boys at that time – but it was also about sharing them, you could actually offload them onto a disk and share them with each other, and so that’s really how I got my start.”

After attending college, where she studied photography, Macklin met Eric Zimmerman, a fellow game designer and now collaborator, who helped reignite her passion for creating and developing video games.

“I think many of the paths that we take in life, they’re not always logical, you know?” Macklin said. “And I think in another way, also, they’re very much about who you’re with at the time and the people you like to be around.”

In their most basic forms, games have existed for thousands of years. Technology like the six-sided die, for example, long predates modern society, yet still remains widely in use today. To Macklin, the importance of gaming is immeasurable – both at a personal and a societal level, starting in childhood, when games teach core principles and ideas.

“At the very beginning when we’re born, the way we learn is we play. We pick up a ball and throw it. We learn physics. We crawl around and we’re touching and constantly experiencing things,” she said. “And I think as humans we need to keep learning.”

As we grow older, games help us understand the systems in which we live, Macklin said.

“I think a lot of it is about an understanding of systems, and when I say systems, I mean almost everything that underpins our lives,” she said. 

Systems can refer to the natural systems in our lives, such as the environment, as well as our impact on them, like climate change. Video games, to Macklin, can be used to understand and reimagine how we approach and navigate these systems.

Another benefit of games is the refuge they offer and the outlet for relaxation that they provide, Macklin said, adding that video games are “a little bit of an antidote to that constant pressure to be productive.”

She is optimistic about the future of games, and hopes that Chautauquans will leave the lecture with a playful spirit. 

“I think that if we can take the best parts of games, which I think are those kinds of parts of games, the social, the systemic, what they can teach us about systems and how they work, then I think that they’ll give us a better ability of at least understanding the problems we’re facing as systemic and being able to see what kinds of rules we need to change to help solve those problems,” Macklin said. “So, that’s my big hope, is that, through games, we develop a systems literacy that can lead to better problem-solving in the real world.”


The author Julia Weber

Julia Weber is a rising junior in Ohio University’s Honors Tutorial College where she is majoring in journalism and minoring in art history. Originally from Athens, Ohio, this is her first summer in Chautauqua and she is thrilled to cover the theater and dance performances. She serves as the features editor for Ohio University’s All-Campus Radio Network, a student-run radio station and media hub, and she is a former intern for Pittsburgh Magazine. Outside of her professional life, Julia has a newly adopted cat, Griffin, and she is an avid fan of live music and a dedicated ceramicist.