Lynn Scerbak is an alumnus from USC who graduated from USC Games in 2018. While at USC, they worked as an artist and game designer on the educational game Tracking Ida, which drew inspiration from Ida B. Wells’ investigative journalism against lynching in the 1890s. Currently, they are working full-time at DigitalFish as a technical artist in Facebook’s Spark AR program.
Here are some highlights from our talk with Lynn, edited for brevity.
For those readers who haven’t met you, can you tell them who you are?
My name’s Lynn Scerbak. I use any pronouns. I graduated from USC’s IMGD program in 2018 with my degree in interactive entertainment.
While you were a student, you worked 0n Tracking Ida. Can you share your experience working on it?
Lishan Az, who was the game’s lead and creative director, is an amazing designer. She always asks really great questions that always lead people to think about the project and the design process itself. So that project was really fun to work on.
My main contribution was certain types of puzzle design and different kinds of aesthetic components. One of the things that I really enjoyed researching was different typefaces that were used during the late 1800s and early 1900s. We had to balance using historically accurate type with people’s perceptions of what historically accurate type would be. Some of the typefaces looked really modern, even though they were from the late 1800s, and others looked just like a complete affront to modern design sensibilities! I think that was one of my favorite parts of working on that project. Tracking Ida was a cool project because it showed how so many different disciplines, when you’re doing historical research, can be adapted into a playful format that leads to an experience.
The game was exhibited at E3 and IndieCade, and won the Impact Award at IndieCade! When you were working Tracking Ida, did you expect it to be so well-received?
I would say “no.” I didn’t anticipate it because that’s really not what we were designing for at all. I was mostly concerned with the educational impact of the game. Showing it in a festival setting was cool–it was definitely fun for a lot of people. But we definitely had to adjust certain elements of the experience to be more festival-friendly. I don’t think either of Lishan or I necessarily anticipated that.
Tracking Ida was designed specifically to be in a classroom context with a traditional educational lead into the project. We imagined the game being experienced in the context of Black History Month or a broader history class, and so students would have context for approaching it.
Have you seen the game be used in a classroom?
Yes, I got to help out with some of the classroom tests for the game. That was really cool! Kids got really excited when they got the right combination for a lock. It was cool to see history taught in a playful, meaningful, and interactive way; students were actively engaging in discussion about where to place the pieces of the first puzzle.
In the first puzzle, you’re presented with a series of newspaper headlines and excerpts that you had to figure out the chronology of. But you also had to figure out which angle was being taken by the presses that were publishing the headlines. There were two different presses: Ida B. Wells’ press and then the Memphis Scimitar, which was the white owned press that was running parallel to Ida’s. These tasks were something that you could do alone, but the physical pieces of our game invited collaboration. Anyone could pick up a piece, read a headline out, or move things around physically in front of each other. It was cool to see kids really invested in the experience. People weren’t hanging back too much or not really engaged. They were really trying to insert themselves.
Did you always know you wanted to be an artist?
I was convinced that I was going to be an author until I was sixteen, and then I got to study animation as a part of California State Summer School for the Arts. I met a few people through that experience that I actually ended up going to USC with, so that was really cool. And then I thought “I’m definitely going to be an animator.”
I applied on a whim to USC’s Game Design program because I really liked AP Computer Programming. I didn’t expect to get into the program because the only game that I had completed was a Gameboy Advance game called “Kim Possible 2: Drakken’s Demise,
which I put over 300 hours in as a child. That and Webkinz. I thought, “I know nothing about games,” but here I am.