Leading Change in the Game Industry: A Look at the Work of James Portnow and Jesse Schell

By Dustin Treece on 11/04/13 05:14:00 am

Leading Change in the Game Industry: A Look at the Work of James Portnow and Jesse Schell

(Portnow - Left, Schell - Right)

Two of the most prolific leaders in the game industry today are James Portnow and Jesse Schell, both of whom have a strong basis in academia relating to games, have taken similar steps in leading change in the game industry, and have very strong visions of the future for games, but think about the future for games in decidedly different ways.

James Portnow is a game designer, professor, consultant and CEO who has used his skills as a writer and speaker to bring attention to various issues within the game industry as well as teach the concepts of game design and many other game related subjects to his audience through the weekly web series Extra Credits, for which he is the principle writer. His most notable contributions to games in the industry were his design work (specifically narrative driven) at Activision on Call of Duty and his work as a consultant on Farmville with his studio Rainmaker Games (Mazzjammin22, 2013).

James Portnow leads change in the industry through communicating both within the industry and directly to the consumers of games. He has been published by many reputable game trade publications, including Gamasutra and EDGE magazine. James maintains a professorship at DigiPen Institute of Technology in Redmond, WA, where he teaches young designers how to create meaningful, engaging and impactful interactive experiences through their games (The many roles of James Portnow, 2013). In addition to educating students, consumers and industry veterans on the processes of game creation and design, James has been known to touch on very serious subject matter relating to games and issues that effect games. His Extra Credits series alone has tackled issues including freedom of speech, gender discrimination, piracy, politics (+, +), racial diversity, sex, abuse (+), labor conditions, education (+), religion (P2), security, creative responsibility (+), parental responsibility, unethical business practices, and a heartfelt testimonial on the effects of gaming addiction/compulsion (P1, P3) (Extra Credits, 2013).

However, perhaps his most influential role as a leader of change comes from his visionary qualities, or his ability to communicate his vision of change, as Kotter (1995) would say (pp. 2). James Portnow sees the game industry as being in the crux of a great change that will soon propel it onto the level of other serious artistic mediums. However, he stresses that it is the responsibility of the developers to push the limits of conventional game design and create new and innovative games that broaden the horizons of mechanics and storytelling in games. “We have to move past this idea that we’re just making a pastime for children and accept the responsibility that comes with the fact that we are one of the biggest entertainment media in existence right now.” He believes it is also up to the consumers, the players, to step up and demand better, more innovative games, and to explore and stand by those games that do try new things. As Portnow said, “Nobody’s going to let me make better games if the consumer doesn’t demand better games” and these principles are his motivation behind educating his students, his peers and players at large (The many roles of James Portnow, 2013).

Jesse Schell is or has been a game designer, Disney Imagineer, professor, author, CEO, an IDGA chairman, speaker and professional juggler. While Jesse Schell had a very technical background, earning multiple Computer Science degrees and working for companies like IBM and Bell Communications, he eventually found his way into working for Disney Imagineering, designing games (Schwartz, Schell, 2003).

As an Imagineer he designed critically acclaimed games like the Disney Quest attraction Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for Buccaneer Gold and the MMO Toontown Online (Schell, Shochet, Macedonia and Rosenblum, 2001). It was while working at Disney that he met Dr. Randy Pausch, a professor who taught a Master’s degree program at Carnegie Mellon University in Entertainment Technology (where James Portnow earned his Master’s degree). After Pausch left his position due to medical issues in 2002, he asked Jesse Schell to take over his position at CMU, which is where he has been teaching ever since (Schell, Klug, 2010).

Jesse Schell leads his students at Carnegie Mellon through quick and iterative team and individual project assignments, which have his students making board and card games, giving them an experience akin to real world game development (Schell, Klug, 2010). By giving his students these short project cycles and using the medium of board and card games, which can be iterated upon rapidly. Schell is setting up the framework for Kotter’s principle of short-term wins (1995, pp. 2), which wouldn’t be possible in the lengthy production cycle of a computer game.

As CEO of Schell Games, the largest development studio in Pennsylvania, Schell continued to stand out as an active and prominent figure the game industry (Schell, J., n.d.). Although he’s been an influential figure in games and a professor for over a decade, Jesse Schell’s most important work in leading the games industry was through his book The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses. The Art of Game Design has been widely cited as one of the foremost books on game design and development. While the book does not offer a set of formulaic laws of good game design, it does offers 100 different “lenses” which focus on producing different thoughts and perspectives that can be used to look at and evaluate games on their different individual qualities. By looking at games through these 100 different principles that are often used in good game designs, the reader can develop dozens of different avenues through which to judge the quality of a game and its design (Schell, 2008).

While both James Portnow and Jesse Schell share many commonalities, like a bright vision of the future for games (also both being professors of game design, Carnegie Mellon alumni, writers, speakers and visionaries, etc.), they do take very different approaches to that vision. James Portnow lobbies for a world where games are elevated to a level of art on par of that of other great artistic mediums, a world where games capture the entire spectrum of human emotions (The many roles of James Portnow, 2013). While Jesse Schell concentrates on the future of games as an entertainment medium, where they are going, how we can make the next iteration more fun and entertaining (Schell, 2010). While the focus of both men may differ, it is important to point out these certainly aren’t opposing viewpoints, and each man’s focus is shared by some degree by the other person (after all, James talks about mechanics and finding fun often in his lectures and on Extra Credits, and the title of Schell’s book was The ‘Art’ of Game Design). While many see these viewpoints as competing visions (though not necessarily the two men themselves), it is important to realize that both are important and possible to fulfill in the future of games.



Floyd, D. (Presenter), Portnow, J. (Writer), and Theus, A. (Artist), Scaldaferri, S. (Artist), and Dewitt, S. (Artist). (July, 2010-Present). Extra credits [Web Series]. Seattle, WA: PennyArcadeTV. Retrieved from: http://www.penny-arcade.com/patv/show/extra-credits

Kotter, J. (1995). Leading change: Why transformation efforts fail. Harvard Review. Retrieved from: http://media.online.fullsail.edu/2010/08/LeadingChange_JohnKotter1d8f900c-6563-465f-b26f-3f47d58d1f07.pdf

Mazzjammin22. (August, 2013). James Portnow. Musings on mediums [Audio Podcast]. Retrieved from: http://www.hulkshare.com/mazzjammin22/james-portnow

Schell, J, Shochet, J, Macedonia, M, and Rosenblum, L. (2001, August). Designing interactive theme park rides. IEEE Computer Graphics and Applications, 21, p11. Retrieved from: http://web.ebscohost.com.oclc.fullsail.edu:81/ehost/detail?vid=11&sid=bf24d061-626a-40b1-b46a-d6fb5a9bf844%40sessionmgr15&hid=20&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=a9h&AN=5132284

Schell, J. (2003, August). Shaping an entertaining future at Carnegie Mellon. Computer, 36 (8), 96. Retrieved from: http://web.ebscohost.com.oclc.fullsail.edu:81/ehost/detail?sid=bf24d061-626a-40b1-b46a-d6fb5a9bf844%40sessionmgr15&vid=12&hid=20&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=a9h&AN=10586114

Schell, J. (2008). The art of game design: A book of lenses. Burlington, MA: Elsevier.

Schell, J. (2010). Jesse Schell: When games invade real life [video presentation]. Retrieved from: http://www.ted.com/talks/jesse_schell_when_games_invade_real_life.html

Schell, J. (n.d.). About Jesse. Retrieved from: http://www.jesseschell.com/about-jesse/

Schell, J., Klug, C. (2010). Building virtual worlds carrying on the legacy of Randy Pausch’s “head fake”. IEEE Computer Graphics and Applications, 21, p11, Retrieved from: http://web.ebscohost.com.oclc.fullsail.edu:81/ehost/detail?sid=bf24d061-626a-40b1-b46a-d6fb5a9bf844%40sessionmgr15&vid=13&hid=20&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=a9h&AN=87617943

Schwartz, B. (interviewer) & Schell, J. (interviewee). (2003). Jesse Schell interview [Interview transcript]. Retrieved from The Games Journal’s website: http://www.thegamesjournal.com/articles/JesseSchell.shtml

The many roles of James Portnow. (2013, March). Digipen news. Retrieved from: http://news.digipen.edu/academics/the-many-roles-of-james-portnow/

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