The appropriately strange journey of QWOP's creator from philosopher to game professor

Bennett Foddy had to make a difficult leap. Moving from one continent to another carries enough difficulties along with it — acquiring visas, scheduling the move, coordinating with his wife and her job, buying food for their new cat. But for Foddy, the biggest jump is not one of location but of profession.

After years leading a double life as a game designer and philosopher, Foddy is looking to make a more permanent break and focus solely on his game work. That decision has led the QWOP creator to his latest teaching and design venture at New York University's Game Center. And though it marks a split from his philosophy past, without his background and years in academia (and maybe even his time in music), the Game Center may never have been his destination.

Rocking down under

Cut Copy, an Australian electronic outfit, began as a one-man band, spearheaded by DJ Dan Whitford. Whitford wrote the entirety of Cut Copy's music for its first album, Modular Recordings, but he soon sought to expand the group's scope. He turned to his friends to fill out the band's sound, which included Foddy. He and Whitford had known each other since they were five years old.

When Foddy joined as bassist to help Whitford pursue his dream, however, it came with an additional burden he did not expect. As an established act, Cut Copy came with a fervent fan base already in place, and Foddy played his first show in front of a crowd of thousands.

"None of us could play our instruments, not that this has ever been a problem for any rock band in history," Foddy said, joking of this initial experience with the band.

Foddy had to impress in front of the spotlight with the group's growing audience. Cut Copy enjoyed an increased popularity both in Australia and abroad. The band was offered the opportunity to tour in America with Franz Ferdinand, whose hit "Take Me Out" had become a radio staple.

With this opportunity, Foddy had to choose between the two facets of his life — the unintentional musicianship and the philosophy he had invested years in studying. Foddy had already completed his bachelor's degree in philosophy and was serving as a research assistant writing philosophy papers when Cut Copy started. He enrolled in a doctoral program in late 2003 at the Center for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne. There, his research primarily focused on cognitive science, medicine and the nature of addiction in humans.

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Cut Copy — Le Point Ephémère - Paris Xème - February 29, 2008 by FXR

Cut Copy was more a favor to a friend, and Foddy wanted to continue his studies. The rigor of touring internationally for months at a time didn't suit Foddy. Despite the level of celebrity he could have achieved that most aspiring musicians crave, Foddy felt more compelled to stick to his schooling, which involved cognitive science, medicine and the nature of addiction in humans.

"Most people don't realize how much waiting musicians have to do when they're on tour," Foddy said. "It doesn't suit my personality at all ... and neither does all the partying."

Foddy left Cut Copy in 2004 before the band began its major stint overseas. He sought to devote more time to his Ph.D. rather than lead the double life of rock star and philosopher.

"The culture in philosophy is that people are supposed to be 100 percent into it," Foddy said. "And when you start to have rumblings of considering something else, it's something distinctly bad to the philosophy community."

Yet as Foddy chose to stick to a community that would admonish any decision to leave, his pursuit came saddled with procrastination. The philosophy student and writer by day led a third life by night - burgeoning game designer.

The First Step

In 2006, out of avoiding work he should have been doing for his philosophy degree, Foddy began teaching himself how to program and design, which led to his first game, Too Many Ninjas. The simple Flash game released in 2007 tasked players with defending their yellow ninja from purple enemy ninjas.

"I made Too Many Ninjas while following a basic tutorial online," Foddy says. "I started mucking around on Flash [late at night] ... when I should have been writing my dissertation."

"I started mucking around ... when I should have been writing my dissertation."

Ninjas prevents the player from moving their character around the screen and requires only a couple of buttons and a good set of reflexes to play well. Its simplicity, however, proved addicting enough to garner recognition in the press. Both Kotaku and Wired's Game|Life blog wrote about the game, which encouraged Foddy to continue programming. Shortly after Ninjas released, his work as a philosopher pulled him back to academia.

Foddy would spend three years living full time in the United States as a posdoctoral researcher at Princeton University. From 2007 to 2010, he would spend his time at the university writing philosophy papers and lecturing on scientific and medicine topics, including addiction. Yet his aspirations to design games, and to make them reminiscent of the titles of his youth never left him.

Avoidance leads to productivity

Just as Too Many Ninjas resulted from Foddy's attempts to avoid his doctoral work, Foddy's most recognizable title also came at a time when he should have been focusing on his research at Princeton.

"The best design work I've ever done in my life has been work I've done when I should have been doing something different," Foddy said.

That work is often informed by the endeavors he may be avoiding.

In 2008, Foddy released another title with a similar design goal to Ninjas — a simple experience that throws the player immediately into the game without much buildup. QWOP debuted in 2008 to a modest level of success.

The game tasks players with running a 100-meter sprint at the Olympic Games using the Q, W, O, and P keys to control the runner. Initially, it drew attention for its difficulty spurred by its control scheme. While Foddy believes he did not intentionally infuse QWOP with his work as a philosopher, reflecting on the game he sees a connection to the way he approaches philosophy as a field.

"My hope is that I can make games that are 'literary,' in the sense that they refer to the pioneering work that came before, but that are also genuinely new in some sense," Foddy said.

Qwop
QWOP

For Foddy, QWOP was designed as a critique of the classic arcade game Track & Field. Foddy always looks to the games of his childhood when developing his own works rather than his more recent philosophy studies. Foddy preferred the immediacy of a game like QWOP or Track & Field and seeks to provide that instant connection in most of his work.

"Modern console [gaming] rules make it impossible ... I reached my lifetime limit waiting for games to load," Foddy said of current games and the difficult-to-load Amiga and ZX Spectrum games of his childhood. He prefers to base his games on those that worked like "appliances" — titles like Pong that plugged directly into the TV.

"I don't want to put other people through that," Foddy said. "I want them to have that experience I had [as a kid]."

It's a design philosophy that runs through nearly every game Foddy develops, from his first project to more recent fare like Get on Top or Speed Chess.

Though the field of philosophy can cover a broad range of topics, Foddy believes it retains a stigma of only involving academia and little creativity. For a man who, despite his studies, has always held an interest in the arts, philosophy is a far more creative area than most would give it credit for, according to Foddy.

QWOP may not be directly linked to his studies in medicine and science, but the game is born from the research and papers that Foddy has devoted so much time to over the last decade. QWOP's maddening difficulty is meant both as a critique of its predecessors as well as a tool to evoke emotion in the player. While it took a few years, the game certainly brought out enough of a response in its players to skyrocket to popularity in 2010.

Running into success

Foddy dubs QWOP's rise to notoriety as a "perfect storm" of social networks - Stumbleupon, Reddit and YouTube exposure helped push the game into the cultural consciousness in December of 2010. While this initial leap in popularity would not sustain until present day, QWOP has continued to enjoy a level of social permeability few games of its size experience. The game earned a spot in Kill Screen's "Arcade" event at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2011, and last year viewers could catch the character Toby on NBC's The Office playing QWOP while avoiding his human resource duties.

"I [couldn't] play it off as a hobby anymore," Foddy said. "Philosophers, as a rule, don't play video games," he continued, but now his secret came out and was nationally televised for all to see.

"Philosophers, as a rule, don't play video games."

Foddy's time at Princeton was coming to a close as QWOP became such a staple of the indie game scene. The timing could not have better suited his dual-career path — QWOP was assuredly more well-recognized than any of Foddy's philosophy work, so much so that when he gave academic lectures, his game design work was being mentioned.

"[Princeton professor] Peter Singer introduced me as a philosopher who also makes video games," Foddy said. "So even to philosophers I seem to have crossed some kind of line that I probably can't un-cross."

The game served as a coming out for Foddy to his peers in the field. While many of them may believe philosophers should not divide their time, Foddy could no longer hide the double life he had led for years.

Yet at that point, more than ever before, the game design scene became an integral aspect of Foddy's career. With his secret out, Foddy saw the opportunity to fully invest himself in this new avenue of work. He crossed a line, and his life as a full-time philosopher was coming to a close. That didn't mean he could not find a way to mix the two portions of his life.

NYU Game Center

New York University's Tisch School of the Arts is renowned for offering its students both practical experience and a history and vocabulary in their field of interest. Tisch's game design department, the NYU Game Center, is its youngest program, and aims to do for its future designers what the Drama department does for aspiring Alec Baldwins or the Film and TV department does for hopeful Spike Lees. Until this fall, however, the Game Center shared office space with other departments, squatting until the university found more room for it.

To alleviate these issues, NYU opened the MAGNET Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. to offer the Game Center that space, a place for its students and faculty to feel at home. MAGNET, the Media and Games Network, joins together faculty from NYU, including Game Center director Frank Lantz, and the Polytechnic Institute of NYU in a new facility.

In addition to new full-time professors such as Charles Pratt and developer Clara Fernandez-Vara, Foddy is teaching his first studio class in the fall 2013 semester, which began on Sept. 3.

"Bennett is an expert on the subject [of game feel], and I think it's a pretty excellent compliment to our already strong game design curriculum," Pratt said.

Game Center professor Eric Zimmerman also spoke to Foddy's exploration of game feel, an aspect that drew Zimmerman to Foddy's work.

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Foddy's Speed Chess at the Game Center's No Quarter event in 2013

"Bennett's focus ... is so much about game feel, real-time games that use physics as a part of the gameplay [and] put players in a high-pressure situation," Zimmerman said.

In an attempt to diversify what perspectives and skills the Game Center can offer students, Foddy's appointment as a professor represents an attempt to bring an established but individual voice to the classroom.

"[Bennett's games] bear the mark of an interesting, independent thinker," Zimmerman said. "His games are a nice complement to what is already at the Game Center."

Zimmerman teaches an introductory course, which focuses primarily on physical paper and board games. While digital games are discussed, they are not made, whereas Foddy will be teaching students practically how to build digital games.

Foddy will be instructing students in the MAGNET Center's new facilities. The Game Center will now have a dedicated space for classes, game testing and general meeting spaces. Such amenities were previously shared with other departments in Tisch.

"I think it's great to have a space to ourselves and it's something we've all needed for a long time," Pratt said. "Our students have their own studios and everyone feels like they have a lot more elbow room. I think it's going to make the work that comes out of the department much stronger."

Foddy is no stranger to the Game Center, as his earliest interactions with the department spurred from his own philosophy work. While Foddy lectured about medicinal addiction in his doctoral work, he also spoke at the Game Center about the nature of addiction to games.

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Foddy (center) with fellow Sportsfriend Douglas Wilson (left) and Recurse developer Matt Parker (right)

Just as Foddy's own work is informed by the games and studies of the past, as well as a desire to experiment, he hopes to bring that mentality of critiquing, evoking, and toying with the past into the classroom.

Though he will be teaching practical game development for the moment, he hopes to be able to incorporate the history of English and European games, which Foddy believes American students are not exposed to. His focus on placing his games in a larger umbrella view of the field makes his jump across an ocean less a random move than one that connects with the Game Center's mission statement.

"Our point of view is that games are part of culture, like studying music, creative writing or film,"

"Our point of view is that games are part of culture, like studying music, creative writing or film," Zimmerman says. "It is a cultural form that is worthy of serious and rigorous study in the context of critical understanding and debate. We want to treat games with the respect that our culture treats other forms of art, entertainment, popular culture and media."

That goal is one shared by Foddy's own design techniques — the themes of immediate, intense player interaction and reaction result from the games Foddy played as a child. It's also a pursuit informed by Foddy's philosophy training. Just as he performed an unbridled examination to expand his knowledge of addiction and the games of his past, Tisch and the Game Center critique the history of art to become better informed on where to lead these fields.

Looking Forward

As Foddy helps to achieve this goal and usher in a new generation of game designers, he's taking a break from leading a double life. He has always had a lot of options, and each of them has sucked him in. Whether with Cut Copy, philosophy or game design, Foddy looked to the next step not as a hurdle but an opportunity.

His role at the Game Center is simply another one of those opportunities, While such a life change would normally come with major considerations, for Foddy, those concerns are familiar steps from his previous moves. NYU helped to cover the cost of the movers. He and his wife have lived in America and moved continents together before. He's spoken at the Game Center and knows New York City. His wife designs hats, and New York stands as one of the fashion capitals of the world. And there's plenty of pet supply shops to be found throughout the city.

Foddy no longer needs to lead a double life to satisfy his artistic goals. He can take the sum of his experiences before music festival crowds, lecture halls and fellow game designers observing his work and leave a mark on the New York gaming community.

"Whether I'm playing music, writing philosophy papers, or making video games, I'm hoping my work will affect people and that people will talk about it, and remember it."

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