brian rubin

brian rubin

Hello, my name is Brian Rubin and I have been gaming since the late '70s for a very long time. I blog about space games for a site called Space Game Junkie and I am a very passionate, passionate gamer. But for a while I wasn't playing games just for the joy of it. I was playing games for the escape, as well. I had a not very happy earlier part of my life. So, the level of time and money I spent on games was unhealthy for a long time. I got away from that, thankfully. 

How old are you now?

I'm about to turn 42 and I got my first game machine -- it was a Pong. Remember -- how old are you? 

I'm 32. But chances are if you're talking about the '70s I probably have read a bit about it or dug it up or played it a bit since it was laying around the house growing up as well.

Okay, so you might remember that one of the first home consoles was the Pong console. It just played Pong. All it did was play Pong. I got that in the middish, lateish '70s. And then I got the Atari 2600 in like, '79, '80. And that just started the whole thing. Pong and the Atari.

I found that gaming worked for me because I have a very short attention span. Back then they called it hyperactivity, but now they call it ADHD. [Laughs.] So videogames just really clicked with me because it was one of the first things we were able to really focus on. 

I'm not even sure what all to ask about. When did you realize that games became a thing that were capturing you in a negative way? Is that how that progression worked?

Eventually that's where it went. For decades. I discovered this in my mid thirties. I love games but I was also using them a bit unhealthily for decades. It was about 2006 that I discovered this because I was in a long-term relationship that wasn't very happy for a variety of reasons. No one's real fault, just we weren't as compatible as we coulda been. But I had settled because I had no self-esteem, so I figured this was the best I could do. I have to credit where credit is: Do you know who Browncoats are? 

Firefly?

Firefly fans. I started hanging out with a group of Firefly/Serenity fans and they started opening my eyes to the fact that, "Hey, I'm worth a little more." I ended that relationship, I started going to therapy in around 2006, and I realized in one of my first sessions of therapy that I'm spending way too much time and money on videogames. I had bankrupted myself several times because I have no concept of money and I grew up with compulsive spenders. But also, if I wanted a game, I bought it. There was no filter. "I want it. I have to buy it. I'll play it for five minutes. I'm done." That's how it was for many years. 

In one of those early therapy sessions, I came to the realization that I'm using games to escape. I'm enjoying them, but I'm using them to escape my issues that I'm dealing with. Depression. Post-traumatic stress disorder. Anxiety. I was diagnosed with all of those. 

I don't know how I did it, but I stopped cold turkey for about a year and a half-ish. Two years. I just stopped. I used to go to forums all the time, and I stopped doing that. I stopped reading gaming news. I'll be honest: I kinda replaced it a little bit with television for a little while. But gaming is not the same as television. Television is so much less engaging than videogaming, I think. I kinda sorta replaced one addiction with the other, but because television doesn't demand as much of you, it left enough space in my brain to still work on my issues. Does that make sense? 

It does. Although nowadays it's a little different, you don't have to go to a store to buy a TV show. But with games and things like PS+, you don't even necessarily have to even do anything and suddenly you have -- 

That's true. It's so much easier to get games now. But yeah, back then you still had to go to the store. You're right. 

When did you mend your fences with games? You said you stopped playing for two years, so when did you start playing again more healthfully?

I had several breakthroughs in therapy because I found a good therapist. Anyone listening to this: If you're thinking of therapy, it's so important. Don't just go to your first therapist and stick with them. No. [Laughs.] Try several therapists. I had gone to several therapists over the years, and before this I wasn't really ready for therapy so I didn't really listen. At this point, I was ready for therapy. About late 2007ish, early 2008ish I started having a lot of breakthroughs with therapy. A lot of amazing breakthroughs. Once all these doors opened in my mind and I started getting rid of the depression, I started getting rid of all this anger that I had been holding onto that I didn't even realize for decades, and I was shedding all the anxiety -- I mean, it's not totally gone, but once I started getting rid of that I was like, "Okay, well, games gave me a lot of enjoyment."

So I figured I would try a game or two to see if I had that same all-encompassing escapism. Before, when I played games it would be all that I focused on. The world around me would disappear, and in a way that can be the sign of a good game. But that's not what this was. This was just, "I'm ignoring everything around me to play this game." 

So I started playing a game or two in 2008ish just to see if that feeling would come back. Just to see if I would still lose myself, unhealthily, in a way. Because I could start to tell the difference. And I didn't. I could tell I was just enjoying the game to enjoy it. Which was amazing. It was an incredible feeling because I started to realize, "I can just enjoy these to enjoy them. Not to get away from something." Because in a way, what I was doing was using games as a crutch and I was putting a lot of unfair pressure on my own gaming. I think I robbed me of my own enjoyment because I was putting all this stuff. I was using it to get away from all this stuff.

Life stuff.

Yeah. Life stuff. And once I didn't have to do that, I could just mentally sit back and enjoy the experience, which was completely new to me at the time. 

So you're kinda talking about the difference between disappearing into a game versus being immersed in a game. Can you articulate what that difference in feeling is like? 

It's kinda hard to explain. When you disappear in a game, it's like you're digging a hole downward as far as you can go. You start the game, you're just digging to get away from something. To escape from something. You're digging the hole and filling it in behind you. You're just digging, digging, digging to get away from the stuff in your head, the stuff in your life. That kinda thing. 

But when you can enjoy it, it's like you don't have to dig that hole at all. You can just sit on the beach and take in the scenery and just enjoy the moment. Just enjoy the moment of the game rather than, "Oh my God, I have to play this so I don't think about this. I really have to get into this so I don't think about that." Rather than putting all that effort in to escape something, using gaming, you can just sit back and relax and be like, "Oh yeah, this is awesome. I can enjoy this." It's a different amount of effort. It's also a different feeling. 

Games give you an experience, one, that you can't get anywhere else. I could never fly a spaceship or command an army or blah blah blah. But the fact that the games had nothing at all to do -- no connection whatsoever to what was actually going on in my life was actually a big deal. None of the games talked about child abuse. None of the games talked about unhealthy relationships. And in a way that was cathartic in its own way. But that wasn't the game's fault. That was my fault. I put a different slant on what the games did for me and my own headspace rather than what the game -- when the developer makes a game, they're just trying to make a fun and enjoyable experience. They're not trying to give this poor kid a way to escape. I mean, okay. That's not true. 

Gaming can be a way to escape. "Okay, I had a bad day. I'm gonna play a game." That's fine. "Oh, someone just died, I need to get away for a little bit." In moderation that's healthy. But this was not healthy. This was constant, continuous, all-encompassing. And so it wasn't really the games that enabled -- I guess the fact that they're presenting you with these different worlds that I would grab onto so tightly in my head and not let go as hard as possible, that's probably where games helped enable. I can't blame games for me. I have a kind of addictive personality, so I can't blame games. I would have maybe got addicted to something else, but games are a lot healthier than a lot of other things. So it's good that I fell in with games. The escape into games is just a symptom of a much bigger problem. So I can't blame games for it. 

Insert

And I'm not looking to point fingers, but I find it interesting that a TV show helped turn your life around. How likely do you feel other people who play games could have helped you realize the things these Firefly fans did? 

It's interesting. Gaming is much more solitary in a lot of ways. Like, you game multiplayer online and stuff, but it's still a lot of time you by yourself. So I didn't really have the connection to other gamers that might've helped bring me out. But it was interesting because being with this group of people, of like-minded individuals who loved the same things that I did in a lot of ways in a real-life setting, really started opening my eyes to the fact that I didn't need -- not just games, but anything to escape, because I shouldn't be escaping in the first place. I should be dealing with this stuff instead of trying to run away with it. In a way [that] really helped me come to grips with that. Because I had been running my whole life. I had been running away from my past. I was running away from my present. I'm getting a little verklempt thinking about it because I've never thought about it in those terms. 

But hanging out with these wonderful people really slowed me down and made me take stock and make me go, "Wait a minute. My life can be better than this." And so I don't need that crutch anymore. So, I mean, it made it very easy to stop gaming for a while because I replaced it with hanging out with these people, with watching television shows with them, or watching the shows that they recommended to me. 

Did you not really approach gaming before in a social way?

Not really. The interesting thing was I have a lot to be thankful for because of gaming. Gaming got me the job that brought me out here to Los Angeles from Philadelphia. I became, for a year or two, a professional gaming critic. So I have a lot to be grateful for in terms of gaming. But I think in my head there was such an escapism wrapped up around the whole concept of gaming that even talking to other people about gaming kinda was an extension of that. 

I think switching gears and maybe not talking about a TV show solely, but the people I started hanging out with were fans of so much sci-fi besides Firefly, so I was able to engage on a variety of topics besides gaming. There were gamers in there, too, but besides gaming [also] books, movies. I really hadn't had a group of people or anyone to engage with in those types of things at the time. So it kinda made me aware there are other people out there. 

For a while I was alone. But because I found this group of people, they really opened my eyes to being able to see gaming and other things as the crutch they really were. If that makes sense.

After your respite from gaming, do you tend to play different things now? Do you avoid certain types of games? 

It's interesting. When I started playing games, all I played were flight sims and space games. And then eventually I started playing strategy games and role-playing games and just about everything except sports. I'm not into sports. I'll play just about every type of game but sports. 

[Laughs.] You're a similar player to me. Yeah. 

And when I started playing games again, I kept playing just about everything. All the same types of games. I didn't avoid anything. But it was like I found a new joy in -- it was interesting, in the time I took off, a lot of good games came out. So it was kinda a new joy to not only rediscover gaming in a whole new light but, "Oh my God. There are all these games I missed! I have so much awesome in front of me!" You know what I mean? 

And since then, I've never lost that joy of not only playing the games for the discovery -- and these days, the discovery is part of the joy because of all these indie developers, all these Kickstarters. We are truly in another Golden Age of gaming because of digital distribution and crowdfunding and that sort of thing. It's really kind of incredible. But I'm not spending all my money on games anymore because now with the help of my girlfriend, I have a budget. I'm not spending all my time with games anymore because I'm trying to find a balance between spending time with friends, spending time with girlfriends, spending time with the blog, and gaming for myself and that sort of thing. So I haven't really changed my gaming habits in what I play, but I have changed in how I feel about games and how I approach my gaming time, I guess is what the big change has been. 

What about games media? We're both critics and people who write about games. 

Yeah.

Prior to that, prior to your coming out to LA, how did the games media impact what you were interested in? 

Quite a bit. I didn't have the money for subscriptions, but I swear to God I went to Borders back then. Remember bookstores and Borders?

Yeah, I remember Barnes & Noble. I remember Crown Books. Depending on where you're from, that'll ring a bell. 

I've never heard of that.

I remember physical spaces!

Yeah! So, every month I'd go to Borders or Barnes & Noble, but it was more Borders I think in my neck of the woods, and go to the magazine rack and read every gaming magazine I could get my hands on. Back then that's really the only way you could find out what was coming and what was out and whether you should buy a game or not. I also spent a lot of time in gaming stores, like -- my girlfriend at the time was addicted to going to malls. I don't know why, really. But I'm like, "I'm gonna go to EB or Babbages and just look." 

Remember when game stores mostly had PC games? 

Mmhmm.

Remember those days? So I would just go and stare at the shelves and I would be like, media or no media, "That game looks good. I'll buy it anyway." So it was kind of a one-two punch of the media really did affect what I didn't and didn't buy, but I would also -- just sometimes based on the box, even if I've never heard of the game. I'd be like, "That box looks cool. I'll buy that." More often than not, it didn't work out. [Laughs.]

Do you still pay attention to games media today?

Sure! Oh no, not only because I have a blog that tries to inform people about the latest in space-gaming news, but I am addicted to the conversation. I am addicted to going to forums, learning about new games, I'm addicted to reading the games -- I mean, my feed.ly section for gaming news? Oh God. How many feeds does it have? [Laughs.]

Hang on. Let's see. Let's go to feed.ly here. I've got so many -- I'm an RSS junkie. I'm an absolute RSS junkie. One, two. Oh yeah. I've got three dozen sites in my gaming-news section for feedly. Blues News. GamaSutra. Gamingindustry.biz. Polygon. Rock Paper Shotgun. Yeah, all that stuff. I'm still addicted to knowing what's coming out. 

Like, today, as we record this, Sid Meier announced he's releasing a new game. Sid Meiers Starships. So, yeah, I learned about that on the toilet at 4 in the morning. 

[Laughs.] It doesn't sound like you've compartmentalized.

With smartphones, why do you need to? 

What trends do you notice in the things that are covered or not covered? 

Well, if you listen to my podcast cohost, he has all these theories about why the press doesn't cover indie games and it's all about who you know and all about who you network with. 

Was this position before last year?

Before last August? I don't know. But that's when he started talking about it. I'm not a fan of that whole thing. 

There's always been mainstream gaming press, but the beauty of it now is -- and they can't cover everything. I guess they could cover more than they do, but whatever. They cover what gets them hits. Gets them ad revenue. But that's the beauty of the Internet age that we live in -- like my blog and other blogs -- that there are all these specialty gaming sites. Sites that cover just indie games. Sites that cover just flight simulators. Sites that cover just shooters. That's the beauty of all these people putting themselves out on the web, that there all these ways now to get information besides Polygon and Rock Paper Shotgun and Joystiq and Kotaku. So that's kinda the beauty. There are options now.

Back in the day, all we had was PC Gamer -- and they were great. I loved those magazines. I loved PC Gamer. I loved Computer Gaming World. I loved Computer Games Strategy Plus. I loved reading them. But now we've got so many more options to keep us informed that I don't think you can put the blame solely on the gaming media for, "Oh, they're only covering certain things." They've always done that. That's how it's always been. But now you have options to go elsewhere and find people that're talking about your specific like. Even if it's a forum or something like that, there are places and sites now where you can get any information you want about any time of game. So that's the beauty of it. 

Obviously they don't get the traction and the visibility that the larger sites do, but that doesn't mean they're not there, and it doesn't mean you shouldn't use them voraciously. So that's why I have so many in my feed is because I love -- I have two different gaming sections. I have one just for space-game news, which has dozens of feeds in it, and I have one for general-gaming news. But if I wanted to, I could have one for horror-gaming news. I could have one for role-playing games. Or whatever. Because the options are there now. If I wanted a section just for MMOs, there are sites that cover those. So I think gaming media and "gaming journalism" has really been changing but some people, I'm not sure if they want to admit it's changed.

Oh, it has.

It has. But they want to still focus on these big sites where they feel they're not getting enough coverage or whatever. It's like, "There's so much more than that now, guys.." [Laughs.] 

In the spirit of that and what you said, there's so much more awesome ahead for you, what do you make of the pockets of people on the Internet who talk about their desire for there to be more creativity in games, or greater diversity of types of creators?

I don't think they have their eyes all the way open. We've got more diversity and variety in gaming than we've ever had before, with indie games, there are more women in games now, more women playing games, more women developing games. It's becoming a much wider, more awesome playing field. So I don't fully understand where the grievances come from because there's so much awesome out there. Do you know what I mean there? Just the indie-game space alone there is so much crazy-awesome stuff out there that we would have never have had if games were still just on the shelf at EB or whatever. So I don't -- I'm not fully understanding where people's grievances are coming from about this. 

I think what they're talking about is it's harder to be discovered. It's a very modern problem. 

That's not completely unfair. I mean, just look at Steam. They just redid their entire UI to try and make things more discoverable. Which, good on them. They still have work ahead of them, but it's definitely a step in the right direction. And Greenlight has problems, to be sure, and I'm sure there are developers who wish they could get more coverage, and I'm sure there are developers who wish they could sell their games like hotcakes on Steam. That's not invalid. But at the same time, think of it 10 years ago. They could not have gotten the Unreal Engine for free. There was no Unity. [Laughs.] There weren't these amazing tools to give budding game developers the platform they need to make their dreams come true. There wasn't really Steam or GOG. There weren't these amazing platforms to get your games on, there weren't all these indie sites and these indie-friendly sites to get your game covered. So if you kind of look at it -- if you don't keep a historical perspective about it I think, yeah, you might see it from a very narrow viewpoint where, "Oh my God. Kotaku won't cover my indie game." That's not completely unfair. But at the same time, if Kotaku covered your indie game, they'd have to cover every indie game, and there's not enough time in the day.[Laughs.]

You gotta make your game stand out. You gotta really make your game awesome to stand out to be covered by those big sites, and you can still get covered by the smaller sites. But 10 years ago you wouldn't have even had a multitude of those options. You wouldn't have had the accessibility to game-development tools like Unity or Unreal. You wouldn't have of had access to smaller websites that had more niche products and whatnot. So you've gotta keep a historical perspective about this, because things have just improved dramatically, I think. Just in the last five years -- five years ago. I'll talk about my passion: space games. I started a blog in 2011 thinking I was just gonna cover all the old games, because nothing new was coming out. Nothing new was coming out. For like a decade, nothing new would come out. So I was like, "Fuck it. I'll just cover the old stuff. At least that'll give me something to talk about." 

But now we're in a resurgence. Like Star Citizen and Elite and all these indie games like Limit Theory and Enemy Starfighter and Imperia, and all these other games. Apollo. [They] have a platform because I think during the 2000s, a lot of game developers started focusing on less varied types of games. I call it consolification. Like, throughout most of the aughts, most of PC gaming took a backseat, I think. At least that's how it felt to me. They totally took a backseat to console games and I was very bitter about that for a long time. I didn't play console games, I was PC purist all the way. And now I'm kinda kicking myself because I missed a lot of great games. 

The thing is, developers and these people forget that for a while we didn't have this amazing variety. We didn't have all these outlets. We had 10 Jak and Daxter clones on the PS2 and you had four Mario games on the Nintendo. And, "Oh, sure, we'll port Rogue Squadron to PC. We'll throw you a bone. Sure." [Laughs.] That's how it felt. For many years.

And so it's an amazing time now, and I mean, first-world problems. People kinda get blinders on to the fact that there's so many gaming possibilities out there for developers and players that we've never really had anything like this. And sure games are gonna get lost through the cracks and there's so many indie games now, which in a way is great, but yeah, they're gonna be harder to find. That's why I think Kickstarter is great. That's why I think -- a lot of people don't like bundles, but I love bundles because they're a good way to get games cheap and they're a good way to discover games. I've gotten a few games through bundles that I never would have touched otherwise, that I really enjoy.

There are all these avenues of discoverability, that I think people are kinda forgetting if they don't get on Steam or they don't get on Kotaku or if they don't get their Greenlight or something, they forget of all these other things that they could do to be discovered. I hate to talk like that because it sounds like I'm putting the blame on developers and whatnot, "Oh, you're missing all these things and should be doing more." And they are doing more. They're not sitting on their ass with their thumb up it going, "Someone please play my game!" No. They're doing the hard work. But I think the people who are complaining the loudest are the ones who see the least.

What more would you like to see games do? Or what sorts of games are you not seeing enough of, if your eyes are completely open? 

Well, if you had asked me five years ago, I would have said, "I want to see more space games!" It's hard because for a while there was a dearth of RPGs, but now we're getting RPG games out the butt. I guess what I'd like to see more, if I'm talking about a genre?

It doesn't have to be genre. It can be anything. 

I would love to see -- and this is gonna be difficult, but I would love to see more '90s-style flight simulators. And what I mean by that is nowadays you have flight simulators that are all about the rivet-counting, which is the flight modeling and the cockpit modeling and the weather modeling and the blah blah blah, but there's no soul. There's no story. There's no spark. But back in the '90s you had games with story, you had games with these amazing dynamic war campaigns. You had games where you felt like you were in this living world. Even if they fudged it, you still felt like the bubble around you was active. Nowadays you gotta really dig for that kinda experience. You either gotta -- there's one game called Wings Over Flanders Field, which is this amazing WW1 flight simulator that has this amazing dynamic campaign. You either do that or you go back to the '90s and you play those games.

So I would love to see more of that. What else would I love to see more of? I'm kinda sad that real-time strategy games have fallen by the wayside. I'd love to see more of those. We did get inundated with them for a while, though, that is true.

Other than that, I'm like, it's hard because any type of game that I can think of, there are tons of. Like, I like love roguelikes. Oh my God. There are so many roguelikes out there right now. I love racing games. Tons of racing games to play right now! I love flight sims! I just talked about that. I love space games! More and more space games coming out. I don't have time in the day to play them all. Which is wonderful! 

It's kinda hard because all these indie devs are really filling in all these gaming gaps that we had for so long. It's kinda great. And yeah, there are a lot of them, so that leads to the discoverability problem you mentioned , but the fact that they're out there doing their thing is so inspiring and so amazing to me because they're making the types of games -- like there are a couple guys out there making hovertank games. Remember those? Battlezone and Uprising? There are a few guys making hovertank games because they loved those games and they wanna make more of 'em! I'm like, "Yeah!" 

But someone make another Interstate '76. That's what I would really love to see. Not '82. Just go back. 

What brought you back to games, and why do you stay?

I find the idea of putting the controller down and walking away so alien I can barely even wrap my head around it. I think games offer just a wealth of possibility and experience, which, like I said earlier, you can't get anywhere else. I could never fly a spaceship in real life. I could never drive a submarine. I could never fly a P38 against the Japanese in World War II. That kinda thing. I guess I do sometimes worry -- I do sometimes worry that when I eventually start having kids I might have to put the controller down in terms of just being a parent. But I guess in a way, life's priorities can change on a person to the point where there's no time anymore for gaming. But I have a hard time imagining losing the desire for gaming. 

But I guess in a way you could -- like a lot of hobbies, people can outgrow. I guess one of the big problems with gaming is it moves so fast compared to a lot of hobbies. I guess you can feel left behind if you don't play everything right off the shelf the day it comes out. Because there is that conversation about all of what's coming out. A lot of the conversation is about what just came out or what's coming out. There's a lot less conversation about a game that came out two years ago. I guess if you just don't have the time to play newer games, you're just playing older games, and you wanna talk about it but you can't really find a lot of people to talk about it with, you're like, "Bleh! Why am I doing this?" 

So I guess because it moves so fast, someone could feel left behind I guess? That's a guess on my part. I can't even imagine. Like I said, I can't even imagine losing the passion for games. But I guess -- that's the thing, gaming has been with me for so long it feels like part of my DNA and so I have -- I'm trying to think if there's something else that I used to really love that I don't do anymore that I just walked away from. I love reading so I still do that. I used to ride bikes all the time, but then I got a car. 

I can't really think of something that for lack of interest I walked away from. What does that say about me? Am I still 12? [Laughs.] I think in a way I am. But I guess if you start seeing other things as more important than gaming like getting a job or having a career or having a family, I guess you can replace things that focus more on those parts of your life and help those parts of your life rather than gaming. 

What does gaming really help? Gaming's been shown to help focus kids with ADHD and gaming has been shown to help improve people's reflexes. So I should not say that. Gaming can be beneficial. But in terms of finding a career? Unless you want to get into gaming, I don't see -- unless you wanna be a programmer maybe? You might have to start replacing -- you might have to change your focus based on what you want to do with your life, and gaming may just not be a part of that anymore maybe and so you may not find the need to play them anymore. You might want to replace that time you might've spent World of Warcraft with learning C++ or something. I don't know. 

That's a criticism I hear often. "You could be spending time spent on X doing Y instead." But that's true of anything. 

That's true of anything. 

Why go to school? Why to college all those years when instead you could be learning how to build a ship? 

[Laughs.]

Or in the course of 16 years, you could really master that craft. It's all very arbitrary. It's all very cultural. The big thing I'm trying to figure out with this is not presupposing that games are important or unimportant, but why do they become important to us? 

Are you wondering how they become important and how they lose that importance? 

Yes. 

This is my guess. A lot of people pick up gaming when they're younger and have a ton of time on their hands. When you start getting older and you start getting more responsibility, you either -- if gaming was never that important to you in the first place, it was just a way to fill time, you'll find other things that are more important. So I guess it depends on how important gaming is to you, whether you play for the joy or the escape, but if gaming stays important to you -- like gaming's always been important to me, it's a huge part of my life -- that way you always make time for it. You always make energy for it. But if you find something else in your life that gives you more joy and is more deserving of that time and energy, you're gonna replace gaming.

You might get older and find out you love badminton. So, instead of playing Baldur's Gate, you'll be playing badminton. Why not? I guess it all depends on how important we see the hobby. Because it is a hobby. It's a passion. But if it's just a hobby and it's not a passion, you could replace it with any other hobby ultimately. I guess that's my answer.

It depends on how passionate you are about it. If it's just a hobby that can be replaced with any other hobby, you'll find another hobby to replace it with eventually. If it's something you're really passionate about, something you really love, you'll find a way to keep it in your life. 

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