In 2002, Tracy Fullerton packed up her car, grabbed a copy of Walden and drove 10,000 miles around the United States. She had just closed up shop on her startup, which made massively multiplayer games to coincide with television shows such as The Weakest Link, and was thinking about what was next. On the trip, Fullerton read Thoreau, spent time in Concord, Massachusetts, and stumbled upon the answer.
While running the startup, Fullerton had spent Tuesday nights in a USC basement teaching game design. Video games were still new to academia, and her class was an elective for film-school kids who wanted to branch out a bit. Still, she'd come home ecstatic. During her trip, she realized she was a teacher at heart.
Thirteen years later, Fullerton, 49, is the director of the USC Games program. Consistently ranked No. 1 in the field, USC has produced acclaimed indie teams such as thatgamecompany, which designs emotional games including Flower and Flow, and the Odd Gentleman, which with Neil Gaiman created Wayward Manor.
In her campus office, Fullerton is aglow after sitting in on a thesis-preparation class. Her department has succeeded through “a lot of one-on-one work,” she says. It also helps that it has access to USC's other departments. Game makers fashion teams consisting of student writers, musicians, animators and others. “Our students are focused on games as a form of expression,” Fullerton says. “They're not focused on games as technology, and I think that makes all the difference.”
Fullerton grew up in Mar Vista and, later, the South Bay. She was the ringleader of a group of friends who staged plays and made Super 8 films, which they would screen for the neighborhood during summer vacation. To get cash to fund costumes and props, they traded in recyclables and later screened their films and charged for popcorn.
When the 1980s hit, Fullerton's grandfather gave her and her siblings a computer. They got their hands on magazines that included game-making codes. Fullerton made Global Thermonuclear War, like in the movie War Games, but with a fake explosion at the end.
She went to school to study film but ended up working in interactive media and games. She was part of a team that created a game designed to function like a game show with prizes from a then-new travel service, Expedia. It didn't survive, but it led to other endeavors, such as making online components for Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune.
Now, Fullerton creates single-player works that use art and narrative to create introspective moments. She's currently working on Walden, A Game, based on the Thoreau novel that inspired her years earlier.
Now back in Mar Vista, she says she never outgrew the creativity and DIY attitude of her childhood. “The beauty of today is that you can have that fun and you can change the world,” Fullerton says. “You're not just doing it in your garage anymore. You're not just putting fliers around the block. You can make something, and people all around the world can experience it and you can start to change the conversation.”