Feature: Digital Arts Instructor a Game Maker in Disguise

When talking with digital art instructor Tim Hutchings, it’s clear the conversation could go in many directions. Will he tell you about his years as a “fancy-pants artist,” with gallery shows throughout New York City and “traveling the world on someone else’s dime”? Or will he discuss his life as a WOU teacher, and how, for two years, he’s enjoyed bringing the excitement of unexpected education to students?

Or, it could be something completely different – namely, his lifelong affinity for games.

“I’ve always, my whole life, been deeply interested in games,” he said. “There’s a whole aspect of games that I’m interested in making that will never make a dollar. For example, I won a pretty amazing design competition (The Golden Cobra Challenge) with a game called A Crow Funeral, which is just a four-page game about people pretending to be crows.”

Hutchings’ creations are not just fun and games, though that is the main object, he says. He likes to pack meaning into the game mechanics so players get a dose of social commentary with their frivolity. Sound like a buzz kill? Hutchings admits it’s a fine line to walk.

“I’m a failed old man punk rocker social justice warrior person. That’s part of who I am,” he explained. “Also, I think hard about ways to mechanically structure certain interactions between people.”

One of his most recent creations fits the bill perfectly. Called Dear Leader, the board game is, at first blush, an improv-heavy concept in which the players attempt to placate an egotistical and cranky Kim Jong-un, the real-life dictator of North Korea. Groups invent increasingly hilarious ways to address threats to the “most perfect kingdom” and its ruler’s equilibrium.

The gameplay may seem a little uncomfortable at first, but when players unleash their imaginations, the endeavor gets pretty silly. The people around the table tend to pay less attention to the civil rights issues at hand and instead focus on one-upsmanship and creativity.

Front of "Dear Leader" box.
Front of “Dear Leader” box.

“I’ve played it with innumerable strangers, and I’ve never had a bad experience,” Hutchings said.

Hutchings created a Kickstarter campaign for Dear Leader, as he has for other game-related projects. It raised about $35,000 – much more than its initial ask – but fell short of Hutchings’ goal.

“Stupid as that sounds, that’s not much,” he said. “Once you start spending it on printing and art and all the stuff you have to spend money on, it goes fast.” He expects he’ll have enough for an initial run of about 1,000 copies, which will be available locally and online.

The game’s outsized action cards suggest outrageous circumstances such as “Dear Leader, Agents of deceit from the Western powers are beaming radio signals into our coastal villages. How can we protect our people from these lies?” Players take turns suggesting sycophantic solutions while the designated Kim Jong-un passes judgment on their responses. Demerits are dealt to displeasing advisers.

Hutchings admits his discomfort dictatorial norms led him to do extensive research while creating the game and prompted him to consult with experts on the subject.

“As soon as the fat white guy shows up and says ‘Hey, I’ve written a hilarious game about North Korea,’ someone should hit him over the head with a chair. It’s because I’m so uncomfortable with that subject that I made sure to go and talk with people who represent interests in this. Chol Pork with the Free North Korea Association OK’d everything. I also talked to other experts who said ‘We will help you, but don’t put our names on anything.’ ”

Because he sees Dear Leader as a work of art and social critique, he allowed himself to lean in to the satire. But he remained determined to present commentary – even if it only lurks in the background.

“Part of the trick of that game is that it’s somewhat disguised as a fun party game,” he explained. “But the responsibility of working with other people’s stories is an incredibly heavy weight, and you just have to respect it. Even if the subjects will never see them.”

Since the Dear Leader Kickstarter campaign, Hutchings has collaborated with other game makers to get their fundraising efforts under way. This summer, he assisted Merle Rasmussen in getting Top Secret: New World Order onto the site. As of July 25, the tabletop role-playing game (RPG) had garnered $106,825 in pledges with less than two days remaining.

Hutchings’ past forays into the gaming world have included a role in the card-game version of video game Spaceteam and an electronic archive of documents related to tabletop RPGs and computer games. He also compiled the complete works of a fantasy gaming fanzine from the 1980s (The Oracle) into a bound volume that may be purchased online.

Just a quick look at the board game sections of retail stores indicates that tabletop games are enjoying a renaissance at the moment. Games with an air of edginess, such as Cards Against Humanity, Secret Hitler and Exploding Kittens, are particularly popular.

“Target has told distributors it is looking for ‘irreverent’ games,” Hutchings said. “I don’t really know what that means. But I do have an appreciation for where art and games meet. For a long time the art world was not looking at games, and games weren’t looking at art. And you had parallel evolutions coming out both formally and subject-wise. People were starting to make games about heavy, serious experiences as a format to open things up in ways that can’t otherwise happen. Art is supposed to do that, too.”

One of his current creations is a simple game using cards from a regular suited deck. It’s called No More Kings. He’s still working on the game mechanics – how the moves work – which is one of his favorite aspects of game creation because that’s where social commentary enters the equation. For example, in his award-winning game A Crow Funeral, members of the murder (the word for a group of crows) can shout down a crow that doesn’t follow game rules or social norms.

“(A Crow Funeral) has mechanics that examine dominance in conversations,” he said. “It does really interesting formal things through games and addresses social things that I think are really important.”

Clearly, Hutchings enjoys tweaking the gaming audience. He entertains them while still pushing them to reflect on tougher issues. He attributes that to his artist’s sensibilities.

“It’s easy for me run with one foot in the games world and one foot in the art world,” he said. “Because I’m an artist, I let myself flit around. The gimmick that I think is more important (in gaming) is that through the mix of focus and a bit of idiocy and misunderstanding, artists can create valuable insight about certain subjects.”

Perhaps that’s the reason he enjoys teaching at WOU. He said his class curriculum is not pre-determined, so he can take students on an educational journey without worrying he’s straying from a lesson plan.

“My favorite thing about teaching with the art program is that everyone there cares about results — and less about how we get them,” he said. “In an Introduction to Digital Art class, I can talk about widely disparate concepts that I tie together and give an actual introduction to art concepts, which most of these students have never had, and use them as a lens to teach them digital tools. The students love it. I’ve had students come to me and say ‘This is the wildest class I’ve ever had. That was amazing. Thank you.’ ”

And how does he respond to those comments?

“I say, ‘Aw, shucks.’ No, seriously though, I tell the students ‘Not every class is going to be like mine. Every teacher here does it exactly the way they want to do it, and that’s a strength.’ ”

He’s also a believer in finding interesting ways to teach art concepts (tabletop games, perhaps?). Anything that presents information in an unusual way will always pique students’ interest, he said.

“Students are excited about being introduced to ideas that have a place in history that might be so embedded in our current lives, we don’t even see them as being interesting. They are getting an art history tour as well as everything else, and they get excited about that. Art isn’t just about making pictures. It’s about finding new tools to let us think about things in new ways. And we acknowledge that those tools change over time.”