Margaret Wallace: Video Games And Government Policy Models

During Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco, I sat down with Playmatics CEO, Margaret Wallace, to talk about her experience as a business leader and her latest project. Margaret is currently at the helm of Playmatics as well as a separate company, and project, called Shadow Government (SG).

I’ve known Margaret socially for about a decade (full disclosure) and, knowing what a powerhouse she is in the game industry, I was waiting for the right opportunity to interview her. The impending release of Shadow Government provided the perfect basis for a conversation about her tech career, not to mention an innovative project (SG) with the potential to have a real world impact.

It was a relationship between the investors in Shadow Government, and the directors of the Millennium Institute, that resulted in a game which will open up the Millennium Institute’s T21 policy model to the world. For the first time, the public will have an opportunity to test out various policy scenarios using the same methods as Washington D.C. policy wonks.

According to a press release, “Shadow Government (is) a new reality-based social game for iPhone, iPad and iPod touch…This dynamic and mysterious game puts players in control of the United States’ future. Using real world events to develop the game, Shadow Government blurs the lines between reality, government and entertainment.”

Margaret is a petite woman with a big presence and tremendous dynamism. She arrived for our interview dressed in — what I’ve come to think of as “signature Margaret” — a comfy and cute dark dress, high heeled boots and opaque stockings. Her style strikes a balance between the look of a tech CEO and her roots as a punk rocker.

You started in the game industry in the mid-‘90s. The industry was a lot different in those days. How did you first get involved?

…It was back in 1996…I was on the academic track, back in Massachusetts, and I was studying to be a professor of communications and I was also playing in punk rock bands. Comparing my experiences in the local music scene — and this was just as the internet was coming of age — I felt that academia was not reaching enough people. My experience in music made me want to do something that had more of an impact on people and that’s what made me come to San Francisco. A lot of my friends were working in tech in San Francisco…it was as the dotcom boom was starting to take hold. I networked and had a friend who worked at this really innovative company called PF Magic. PF Magic was a very innovative and dynamic and passionate environment.

I started out doing quality assurance testing (QA) and…there was a real shortage of qualified workers and so I just made myself as useful as possible. I was only doing QA for about three months and I moved on to being a producer…We built an online community of a million people and, back then, that was kind of a big deal.

When did you first realize that you wanted to be a tech company founder?

That’s easy. After PF Magic was acquired, I went to company called…at the time it was an amazingly creative and well-funded environment…it was a wonderful start-up and I learned so much…

I knew that what we had done at Shockwave just kind of scratched the surface of what was possible in terms of digital media and gaming and technology, in general. So, after I spent a couple of years working for other people… I wanted to build something for myself…and that’s what led me to found a company, here in San Francisco, called Skunk Studios. It’s still in existence today. And, I was probably one of the only female CEOs, at the time, of a game company. Which was actually kind of great. People don’t forget you when you’re the odd one out.

Have you met any resistance being a woman in the game industry?

Yes…I don’t really let it bother me because most of that resistance you can obliterate — or wear people down. There are always going to be people who have a problem with another person for whatever stupid reason….they’re the wrong gender or they’re the wrong race or they don’t dress in Dockers pants and button-up Oxford shirts…there’s always going to be a reason somebody’s not going to like you. It’s just a matter of trying to convince them that you’re great or just knowing who your friends are….

Women over 35 are a growing game playing audience. Why do you think more women should be playing and making games?

I think that it’s a generational thing…since the time I’ve joined gaming and since I’ve been involved in tech, I’ve seen an enormous influx of women joining the industry...I would say, for the most part, at least my sectors have been very welcoming to women. There’s always room for improvement. What’s been really irking me lately about the game industry is the lack of ethnic diversity….I would love to see more ethnic and racial diversity in games, that’s the thing we don’t really talk about...

You’re a serial entrepreneur, which is valued in the Valley. Was there anything that was easier the second or third time you founded a company as compared to the first time?

Yes…and I do a talk on this. I go through the various start-ups I co-founded and talk about the different challenges. It’s actually fascinating — how you found the company, who the employees are, where it’s located, what your focus is…how you position yourself in terms of branding and external communications and messaging. For example, my current company, Playmatics is mostly a “bootstrapped” company. We haven’t taken on any private investment except for our Shadow Government project….Shadow Government is funded by angel investors.

Shadow Government seems like a serious concept wrapped in an entertaining package. How did Playmatics come up with the idea?

A few years ago my co-founder of Shadow Government, Philippe Trawnika, contacted me and wanted to talk to me about a project that he and his colleagues were really interested in seeing developed into a game … they were looking for development partners in the United States…

What struck us (Margaret works with co-founders Nick Fortugno and Trawnika) about Shadow Government …to us it almost had aspects of the Prometheus myth. Here’s information that’s only been in the hands of a few and now it’s being released to the many…What happens when that knowledge is in the hands of, potentially, hundreds of thousands of people? Can they improve what has gone before?

Who do you think will most enjoy Shadow Government?

I think the “Play the News” angle is going to be the most resonant and enjoyable…I think everyone we’ve spoken with about Shadow Government seems to really get excited when there’s this real world link in a real time way. Reality-based social games are really huge right now, but I don’t think that anyone is doing it this way…and, frankly, no one else has access to the T21 model.

The investors in Shadow Government, and our advisers, have really a unique commitment to this product…they are super smart people who really believe that this kind of reality-based gaming has potential to change the world.