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Interview with Kris Wheaton of Mercyhurst University and Sources & Methods Games

Brant Guillory, 27 March 2013

Kristan Wheaton's track record in the Serious Games world is well-known to those in the business. Now he's striking out (again) into commercial games.



Many of our readers are hobby gamers, but are also involved in the defense and security world, and might be intrigued by your actual ‘day job.’  Can you take a moment and introduce yourself and give us what would be the first paragraph in your Wikipedia bio?  (I checked, there isn’t one already, so you can’t cheat and cut-and-paste!) 

Sure!  I am an Associate Professor of Intelligence Studies at Mercyhurst University.  Mercyhurst is the largest and oldest full time, accredited, residential, private university educating intelligence analysts for the national security, law enforcement and business communities.  I have been at Mercyhurst for almost 11 years but before that I was a Foreign Area Officer for the US Army for 20 years.  I spent most of my time in intelligence and intelligence-related jobs while in the army and spent a lot of time in the Balkans during the 1990s.


While you and I have known each other through some work collaborations for a few years, can you give our audience a sense of how you came to be involved in the use of games and sims for teaching your students? 

I realized that my students, as intelligence analysts in training, needed to be able to see deep patterns in disparate sets of information.  I also realized that I acquired this skill from playing many, many types of games.  I decided to see if the systems thinking that playing different types of games encourages would allow students to be able to see below the surface of intelligence problems and generate more nuanced analysis.  It worked.


How (if at all) have you seen the students’ reactions to the use of games for learning morph over the years and where do you see that trend heading in the future?

I have seen very little change in student's reactions since I started using games in my Strategic Intelligence class 4 years ago.   I don't use games to teach explicitly; i.e. 'play this game and learn this skill'.  I use games to teach implicitly.  Students typically don't understand how the games are improving their abilities to see patterns - it just happens.  What they do see is two new games every week with new rules and new formats and the requirement to link those games to the learning objectives of a very rigorous class.  For long-time gamers this may seem easy but (and I have talked to a psychologist who specializes in games about this) it is actually a very cognitively demanding activity.  I call it interval training for the mind and it turns out to be mentally exhausting.


You’ve recently launched Source & Methods Games, obviously stealing the title from your blog, and leaving you with the, uh... “interesting” acronym of “S&M Games”.  Tell us a bit about how you decided to strike out on your own, rather than shopping your designs to existing game companies?  What are you gaining by going independent, and what do you think you’re giving up with this course of action? 

Well, I prefer SAM's Games if you must abbreviate but your point is taken...  This is actually my second games company.  My first, Wheaton Publications, I started back in the 1980's and I ran it right into the ground in about a year.  We had a couple of really good games but the company was woefully underfunded (as was I at the time).  mindSince then the ability to build collaborative teams through the internet and get funding through sites like Kickstarter have revolutionized the tabletop gaming industry.  Furthermore, where I live, in Erie Pennsylvania, I just happen to have a wide variety of low cost, high quality artists, printers, box makers, plastics companies - just about everything you need to be competitive in tabletop games - right in my own backyard.  It just seemed like a good time to try to carve a niche for myself again.


You’re known (at least to me, and most of your blog readers) as someone who works in a rather serious game/sim environment with your coursework in intelligence.  And yet your first Kickstarter game might best be described as a “family game”.  Are there other more ‘serious’ games on the way from Sources & Methods Games, or are you planning a larger foray into more casual gaming? 

I absolutely intend to produce games for the educational and intelligence markets.  While Widget is my first Kickstarter game, my first recent game is actually "The Mind's Lie" which is designed to teach intelligence analysts how to identify and mitigate the effects of six specific cognitive biases.  We hope to validate the game this summer (i.e. make sure it really works) and then offer it commercially next year sometime.  I chose Widget as my first Kickstarter game precisely because it was simple and likely to have a broad appeal.  I wanted to learn how Kickstarter works by actually running a campaign.  Offering a game that was more specialized and complex on Kickstarter as my first project didn't make a lot of sense to me.


Tell us a bit about the next project from Sources & Methods Games?  What should we keep our eyes peeled for next?  What’s the long-term vision for Sources & Methods Games?  Are you taking the show on the road at all this year for convention season? 

Let me answer the easy questions first.  Long-term, I expect to keep designing a mix of games ranging from the less complex ones like Widget to games designed to help intelligence professionals learn very specific skills.  I also hope to collaborate with other game companies looking to design games for the educational or intelligence markets or with companies and agencies looking to me to design games to teach specific skills to their employees.  I will be on the road this summer hitting a variety of cons, starting with Origins.  I will be looking specifically for groups of experienced gamers who will be willing to volunteer to help me validate The Mind's Lie.  As for the next project from SAM's Games, I hate to be coy about it, but it is still under wraps.  Hopefully we will be in a position to announce it next month.  And, yes, you will be among the first to know.


What’s one game out there that you wished you had designed, and what do you love about it?

La Bataille De La Moscowa.  I spent all summer back in law school playing that game with my brother and two friends.  It had this extraordinarily elegant design that permeated everything from single unit combat to the way larger forces shaped the entire battlefield.badger  The scale and the audacity of the design were extraordinary -- It was clearly a labor of love by some brilliant designers.  I doubt we will see anything like it ever again.


What should we have asked you if we knew what to ask you?  Do you mind sticking around a bit and poking your head in the forums in case some of our readers have some follow-up questions for you? 

You did a really good job asking questions!  I am not sure there is much left to say but I would be happy to answer questions in the forums.

Hey, it never hurts to cheese up to the interviewer! Thanks for the time.


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