Nicole Lazzaro, founder of Oakland based XEODesign, opened the curtains of a picture window behind her desk overlooking College Avenue, to reveal a super-sized “Clyde” Pac Man ghost, made of 1.5 inch orange post-it notes.  Clyde is the mascot of the hour, but for more than twenty years, XEODesign has been thinking outside the maze.

Lazzaro spoke last month at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco on emotional game design.  Her research has become core curriculum for industry insiders and her expertise recently brought her to the attention of  the White House.   XEODesign specializes in player experience research while offshoot XEOPlay develops games that use the new technology of our devices and their global reach to give everyone a button that can help make a little change in the world.

There is a term designers use, for hidden surprises within a game.  An “easter egg” can be a buried coin, an inside joke, or a mushroom that reveals a secret door.  This is how the offices of XEODesign appear to me, nestled within a small commercial building, just down the block from Wendy’s in Rockridge.

The interior of XEO is playful and low key.   Most of the doors have been taken out so that you can wander through the offices like, well, a bug.  There are animation storyboards lining the walls, and bean-bag chairs. The boardroom doubles as a game library.   There is not an adult swing anywhere.

XEO’s website defines the sci-fi sounding “xeo” as a “thrilling feeling of discovery’, a sense of wonder Lazzaro compares to the “Oh My God” moment the alien mothership lands in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

A love of sci-fi has been a constant.

Growing up in St. Louis, Missouri, Lazzaro’s family didn’t have a game console (she learned to play at the arcade), but she spent a lot of time reading.  Standouts include Piers Anthony’s Apprentice Adept series and Ray Bradbury’s There Will Come Soft Rains, the classic short story of a fully automated house that continues cleaning itself and cooking breakfast after a nuclear holocaust:

“9:15 sang the clock, time to clean!  Out of warrens in the wall, tiny robot mice darted, rooms were acrawl with the small cleaning animals, all rubber and metal.”

Nicole has made a life’s work of imagining a different, less sinister future, despite predictions.   Her twitter profile includes the phrase,  “State of Pronoia,” what Electronic Frontier founder John Barlow called “the suspicion that the universe is a conspiracy on your behalf”.  She is interested in games that don’t stop at entertainment.

Nicole went to Stanford to become an interactive documentary filmmaker.  She created a major in psychology with coursework in programming, a bit of mechanical engineering and film;  this unique constellation allowed her to consider the questions  “How does film move us?”  “How does film create an experience?”  “How do emotions work?”   Today Nicole asks the same questions of games, to discover what captivates, inspires and teaches.   “I’m an artist and a storyteller, first.”

After Stanford, and a brief stint in New York, Nicole returned to the Bay area to pursue her dream of opening her own studio.  She chose Oakland because it was halfway between her start up clients in North and South Bay, the rent was cheaper than SOMA, and the traffic on the east side flowed. Nicole started XEODesign, Inc. in 1992, in her first apartment.

Nicole chose clients both in and out of the gaming industry, to insure a steady flow of work. “When the tech bubble burst in 2001,we  had our best year ever.”  Outside of gaming, what kind of client is interested in XEO’s services?    When  Snow Operating of Vail, Colorado realized that only fifteen percent of people who try snowboarding try it twice, they hired XEO to consider why.  ( Lazzaro is fond of the twitter hashtag #WTF (Where’s the Fun?),  as in her recent tweet, “USAirlines you are the most unfun airline!”)

XEODesign’s continued success is more than being in the right place at the right time. Staying competitive requires staying responsive to new technology as it appears.   XEO released the first game designed to use the “accelerometer” the tilt feature of the iphone, just a week after the phone came out.

TILT WORLD (“Score Points, Plant Trees”)  is a game that fosters environmental stewardship.  It features a small tadpole-like creature named Flip who eats his way through different forests, collecting seeds to become an “eco hero”. Win all fifteen levels,  and XEO’s partner will plant a real tree, in Madagascar.

XEODesign has a lab where games are tested and a subject’s emotional responses are monitored as part of the player experience research.   Over the years of recording thousands of gamers in this way, Lazzaro created a system she calls the Four Keys, which she freely shares with clients. The Four Keys, include Serious Fun, People Fun, Hard Fun and Easy Fun.  “The most successful games have at least three of the four keys working for them.” Lazzaro’s  presented the keys in a talk called the Future of Work is Play,  given at Tedx in 2010.

At the office there is an actual key ring with old oversized oxidized copper keys, grounding the abstract concepts in the physical object, a meta-concept that is echoed throughout XEO.   Lazzaro periodically schedules “breaks” where her programmers and designers turn from the virtual world to the physical, to create things that inspire the same kind of curiosity, and interactivity that they desire from a game. Recently, XEO’s designer Rebeka Reinhart cut out delicate white paper snowflake archways for a few interior hallways.

As a business owner with more than twenty years experience in a male dominated field, Lazzaro is often asked to speak to the social issue of gender disparity in gaming.  She recently contributed a chapter to “Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat (MIT press) “Are Boys Games Necessary?” Nicole notes that the renaissance in gaming has made more room for games that more girls enjoy. The ability of small studios to produce games that allow more “pick up and play”, is brining the market into balance. The feminization of video games comes with its own set of critiques, but Lazzaro sees a path through divisive language in the mechanics of the games themselves.

Last year, Nicole submitted a paper to the White House, culled from a poll of her colleagues,  called “Voices from the games industry to the Vice President,  on gun violence.”     The contents of this discussion can be found at Nicole’s blog .   The potential for games to reflect all of our human emotions and desires, the way that movies have and do, is there.

“Emotional gestures”, such as the swipe and pinch, which are integrated into the design of the iPhone and iPad are the same ones that build intimacy between people.  Emotional gestures  create new more complex ways to interact with information, games and the world.

XEODesign is imagining participation in ways that go beyond the joystick,  trigger and steering wheel.

Follow her @NicoleLazzaro

Tilt World a Game to Plant a Million Trees