Harry Lee is 19 years old. He wants to change your life. Well, maybe not your life, but someone’s life. He wants to help you understand other people, he wants to confuse you. He wants to make you happy. And he wants to do it with video games.
When he was young, Harry Lee's favourite toy wasn't a PlayStation 2. And he didn't care much for Buzz Lightyear. Harry preferred his cardboard box. A cardboard box with a piece of rope attached to it — and a stick.
It was also a time machine.
Harry and his sister did what most kids would do if they had a time machine: they fought dinosaurs.
"I had a very tough childhood," he says, laughing.
Now Harry Lee is focused on creating video games that recalibrate the way you think about play, what play is capable of. Harry Lee wants to transform our physical limitations and prejudices. He want to make you happy. Sometimes he tries to squeeze Dinosaurs back into the equation.
You look inside your pocket. You find a card. You have no idea how it got there. Why is it even there? You read the card, it says the following:
"Your objective: give this card to somebody without them knowing. If your target catches you giving this card to them, you must take back this card."
What do you do? How do you react? How do you deal with the fact someone managed to sneak this card into your pocket without your knowledge. What will you do next? Will you rip the card in two? Will you engage in this game?
Another scenario: a stranger approaches you. Randomly, he challenges you to an arm wrestle. For some reason you accept. After a brief struggle you lose. Before he leaves the victor hands you a card. On the card it says the following:
"Your objective: defeat someone in a duel. Challenge somebody to a contest (eg arm wrestle). If you are victorious give this card to that person."
This was one of Harry Lee’s very first projects. 'Sneaky Games', a real life game Harry Lee designed when he was 16 years old. He won the Digital Open competition in 2009 with that game.
Harry Lee tends to win a lot of things.
He won best overall game, alongside a friend, at Ludum Dare 22 for his game Midas: an intriguing puzzle game with platforming elements. "I was thinking a lot about these mythological metaphors for love and these old stories,” he says, “and how they could be reinterpreted and reapplied for the modern age."
For a game built in 72 hours, Midas is polished and surprisingly playable. It warms the bones.
What else? Well there's Impasse, a game Harry describes as "a love letter to minimalism and elegant puzzle design". That game won Harry the Qantas Spirit of Youth Award in the interactive content and games category.
Then there's the small matter of Harry and his studio winning Best Australian Game at Freeplay, for its work in progress, Stickets, set for release on iOS early next year.
Harry Lee tends to win a lot of awards. But what he really wants to do is change people's lives.
—————— "It's always been a passion of mine to try and help people," says Harry. "To use your own knowledge to better people's situation. That appeals tremendously to me."
Harry Lee is studying to become a Doctor. That surprises most people. At 19 years old he is one of the most interesting developers in the creative hub of Melbourne, but he's also two years into a Medical Degree.
"Doctors have the most interesting balancing job," says Harry. "They have this wealth of information behind them but they have to translate it in a meaningful and empathic way to patients, and there are all these interpersonal skills involved.
"But most of all it's just this idea that I could do this thing and do games and they could be totally different but then I could put them all together into this beautiful love child!"
Harry Lee is already taking steps towards that goal.
You are tethered to a device. A device that has the ability to send electricity directly to the fibres in your muscles, forcing them to move involuntarily. By your side; a second player, tethered in the precise same way. You’re both looking at different screens, but playing the same game. At the same time. With the same mouse.
Both players have the power to shock the other and take control of the mouse, but working together is a necessity. The player on the other screen can see power ups you can’t see, and vice versa. Working together in order to avoid enemies is a necessity. The electric shock is representative of both positive and negative feedback depending on context. How will you work together? How will you play this game, alongside another human being, at the exact same time?
Harry designed this game to help build relationships between two different people. You are playing this game together, as a pair; it cannot be played without some sort of cooperation.
“EMS [Electrical Muscle Stimulation] is a really cool device. And it can lead to some really interesting game scenarios,” says Harry.
“It tempers with our fundamental control, this aspect of agency. Because we always expect to be able to do what we want to! And that's sort of the trademark thing for game agency, right? EMS has the ability to take that agency away from you. What does that mean for the player? And how can we express new things?
“With EMS, when you take away something that most people take for granted, you induce feelings of helplessness and vulnerability but you also open new doors to different types of emotion.”
All of which makes Harry sound like some kind of sadistic scientist, prodding test subjects like a human GLaDOS with a sophisticated taser gun. He’s not, of course. Harry Lee wants to help people. Alongside two other medical students at the Exertion Games Lab, Harry wants to change the way medical games interact with patients, moving them away from tepid gamification towards something more seamless and, hopefully, functional.
But the first medical game Harry designed wasn’t for public consumption. It was designed because Harry struggled to remember the names of drugs in his first year Pharmacology class. So he built an ontological tool to help him remember stuff.
“I thought, if I can remember 150 Pokémon and all their movesets and evolutions and stuff, surely I can memorise the names of drugs in the same way,” he laughs.
“I really sucked at Pharmocology.”
According to Harry there are three different types of Medical games. His Pharmacology game is typical of the first.
“The first type of medical games are about education and that’s fine,” he says. “That serves its own purpose, like my pharmacology game!
“The second is attaching an activity to something that doesn’t really warrant a game and not thinking deeply about the game experience. This is the category most medical games fall into. They give you points for doing something, but no-one has thought about what makes the game fun, and they haven’t thought about the fact that games are an immersive medium. That’s not a game. That’s not a well built experience.”
The third? A subset of games that are games first, or even just regular games that have a propensity for some sort of healing or physiological benefit. A game like Wii Fit, for example, or Fruit Ninja, which has been shown to aid stroke victims in physiotherapy.
Harry’s favourite medical game is SnowWorld, which makes good use of a VR headset and virtual snowballs. It’s used to help treat patients suffering from extreme burns.
SnowWorld is used specifically for debridement, the act of removing dead tissue from skin. For burn victims debridement essentially involves scratching at already damaged skin. Finding a way to control the incredible level of pain patients must endure is a massive priority.
“Debridement is the most painful procedure for burn patients,” explains Harry. “It’s unimaginably intolerable. Sometimes patients will survive the initial burn, but will pass out from the pain of the debridement procedure.”
“Researchers found out that when you put a VR headset and make them imagine snow, and you give them a simple game about the snowball, then the pain goes away,” says Harry. “And that is fantastic design, because it’s actually a game that works with the psychology of the situation and solves an actual problem.”
This is the sort of game Harry Lee wants to create.
Harry and his friends love to play Ninja. They play it all the time.
Ninja is, essentially, real-life turn-based fighting and it’s almost impossible to explain. It’s a physical game. The objective is to eliminate other players by slapping their hand, but participants can only make one movement at a time. One swift movement may make you vulnerable; do you go on the offense, or hold back. This is the balance of Ninja.
Harry’s medical game is about this kind of movement, it’s also about Dinosaurs. But really his game is about giving his friend the chance to play Ninja.
“I have a friend who uses a wheelchair,” explains Harry. “I thought about making this game because he can’t play Ninja.
“I can’t say too much about the game, because it’s going to change drastically, but in its current form it involves turn-based fighting and Dinosaur parties! It’s a way to make a physical game, like Ninja, have a level playing field for people who don’t necessarily have full range of movement.
Harry’s goal is simple: use Electrical Muscle Stimulation to allow patients to complete on an even keel with those who have a full range of movement. Harry wants his friend to transfer the sense of empowerment he feels in video games to real life; he believes he can make this happen.
“He is amazing,” says Harry, talking about his friend. “This guy can headshot me in Team Fortress 2 from halfway across the map.
“And if he can do that, something is obviously working for him with that game. It gives him a sense of power and agency. Why can’t that happen in the real world as well? Why can’t we tie the success he has in this game into real life?”
The game works like mirror box therapy — it’s psychological. In mirror box therapy amputees with phantom limb pain get a chance to visualise physically moving a limb that doesn’t actually exist. Harry is attempting, through game design, to help alleviate the pain that comes from loss; the loss of movement, the pain of exclusion.
“The game’s impact is often more psychological than physical,” explains Harry. “It’s a way to say ‘this is possible’.”
“Games can make us better than we perceive ourselves to be — they change us and give us certain abilities that we don’t have in real life.”
The next time we talk, Harry Lee sounds a little different. He talks faster, a little more hurried.
Last February Harry Lee decided to take a year off from his medical degree, to focus on video game design. To date it’s been a highly successful venture. Studying medicine is intense, and the added space in his schedule has been filled with multiple projects, projects that are genuinely making headway towards the overarching goals Harry has set for himself. Harry Lee wants to change the world with his video games, and that has become a very real possibility.
But now he’s openly wondering if he needs a medical degree to do it.
“How do I condense all these months of thinking into one sentence,” he says, thinking to himself.
We get the distinct feeling that Harry Lee is feeling the tension. His goal is to help people, but how is he best positioned to achieve that purpose? Harry feels the pull between the perceived frivolity of game design and the distinctly solid path that a career as a Doctor will provide for him. Harry Lee is 19 years old. The decision weighs heavy.
“In the first day of medicine they tell all medical students, ‘welcome to the first day of the rest of your life’, and it’s met with nervous laughter,” he says, thinking out loud. “But the professor tells you this isn’t a joke; medicine is something you’ll have to follow up for the rest of your life.
“It’s a long process — it takes five years to get your medical degree, after that you have to do your internship. Then you have to do your residency. Then you work at a hospital and perhaps start your specialization, which can take another five years. Or say you want to become a maxillofacial surgeon, you also have to get a dentist’s degree as well.
“By the time you come out you’re in your mid 30s!”
Harry is self aware. Self aware enough to understand that the prestige and financial compensation that comes from working as a Doctor will most likely outstrip any rewards he is likely to receive in game development. Self aware enough to understand that fact will impact the decisions he has to make.
“I just try and aim to be as rational as I can be,” he says.
“I need to analyse my true feelings, and not be swayed by the prestige and the money. I need to push against it because I know I’ll be influenced by it.
“There’s nothing inherently better about being a Doctor — that’s the first thing I have to understand, not just intellectually but in my heart. I have two options and if I’m at all swayed by money or prestige I should probably take the other option.”
But for Harry, it’s about ultimately about that passion; about changing people’s lives. Making people happy.
“I have to work out whether I’m going to be a better Doctor and serve the world in that capacity, or I’m going to be better as a game developer.”
Harry Lee is only 19 years old, but he does a pretty good job of making your forget that just over ten years ago he spent most of his time pretending to fight dinosaurs in a cardboard box.
He has a focus — an ability to set incredible goals and then go about the impossible task of actually achieving them. Right now Harry Lee is in the process of discovering whether he can achieve all of his goals or just some of them.
“I want to do everything! Why not have both?! It's one of those things, people often say they're happy when they're doing 'this', but lots of different things make different people happy. If I can somehow find a way to integrate medicine and games, then great. I guess we'll just have to wait and see.”