Last year in April, at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, Eric Zimmerman stood at a podium and pitched his company, Gamelab, to an audience of geeks. The event was a panel discussion on videogames, and Zimmerman brought a highlight reel for his introduction.
As Gamelab's most popular games played out on a projection screen, Zimmerman narrated seamlessly, mentioning "millions and millions of people" had played Diner Dash, where players control an overworked, hash-slinging waitress. In Arcadia, the crowd saw clones of games they knew well - Pong, Pole Position, Mario Bros., Connect Four - with a twist. The video zoomed out to reveal the player controlling all four games at the same time. The audience gasped; they were already hooked.
"I think one of my main roles here is hustler," Zimmerman once told me. "I hustle the company."
It seems Zimmerman has a hand in every aspect of gaming. He's a regular speaker at the Game Developers Conference and travels roughly once a month to other speaking engagements. Rules of Play, a game design textbook he co-wrote with Katie Salen, is required reading for game design students around the world. He's an advisor to Games for Change, a support group for the serious games initiative. And Gamelab, originally a three-man operation, has ballooned to a staff of 30 - not bad for an "indie" studio.
So it's somewhat paradoxical that middle-aged women are Gamelab's primary audience - not the sort of people who read scholarly texts or attend panel discussions on gaming. Zimmerman's skill is in bouncing between those factions.
"He's a real cultural broker in that he regulates between regular commercial games, the serious games industry and academic learning," said James Gee, a professor at Arizona State University, who is working with Zimmerman and Salen on a game that teaches game design principles.
When the panel retreated to the museum's third floor for refreshments, Zimmerman quickly attracted a crowd. It was the first time I met Zimmerman, and I had to wait in line. He's a short guy, with an oval face and undefined chin. His head is shaved, and he wears glasses with thick frames, seldom choosing contacts. "I like glasses, aesthetically," he later said.
In conversation, as with public speaking, Zimmerman's voice - slightly high-pitched with a hint of flamboyance - always seems to be the loudest in the room. When asked a question, he answers it fully, even if it takes 10 minutes. He rarely leaves gaps for interruption, and it never feels like he's blowing hot air.
"The reason he is successful ... is that he's extremely comfortable thinking about things systematically," Karen Sideman, a friend and former work associate of Zimmerman's, said. "That's what game design is."
Sideman theorizes that most designers view the world in terms of rule sets, and Zimmerman has probably been in that state of mind longer than anyone she knows. "He has seriously been thinking about the design of games since he was a child," she said.
Born in 1969, Zimmerman grew up in Bloomington, Indiana. It was a childhood rich with gaming. Kids in his neighborhood played Kick the Can, Ghost in the Graveyard and Dodgeball, and Zimmerman would often create variations on the rules. He also designed board games for Mother's Day gifts and for school science projects.