My name is David Weinberger. I'm 65 years old. I'm in Boston, Massachusetts.
I write about the effect of the Internet on ideas. Part of that has included writing about the Internet's effect on businesses' ideas, and in particular, marketing. I've been writing and consulting about that for a long time. I've been a marketing person in the software industry since 1986 and I've been an electronic gamer since before the invention of PCs.
So, that's a good place to start because when I first reached out to you, I think the way you phrased it is you are "embarrassingly a gamer." Is that right?
Could you elaborate a little bit on that?
Well, I'm a very serious individual. [Laughs.] I have a PhD in philosophy, I'm a senior researcher at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, I was co-director of the Harvard Library Innovation Lab. I've been a Franklin Fellow at the State Department. So, I'm a very serious person and I play videogames where, if it's online, I am almost always the oldest person there and sometimes I can be, if I can get the math right, nine times older than the youngest person.
[Laughs.] Yeah, you said you're too old to actually have friends on Steam and you're usually you're about 58 years older than any of your other teammates.
I'll stick with that.
[Laughs.] You said you were a very serious person, but were you joking when you said you were "embarrassingly a gamer?"
No, I was joking about being a serious person.
[Laughs.] I thought so.
Gaming is one of those things that I try to be up front about because it's good for people to acknowledge their harmless vices.
It feels completely out of place for me.
Yeah. As a person who examines media, like, should we be looking at videogames as media like movies with an authored message or should we be treating them as sports where players' stories are more of the meat of the output around them?
Well, it's both. It depends on the game. Clearly there are games that are sports and are recognized as such. But every game has an authored message, because it's a set of rules that guide behavior. When you shape behavior, you are authoring a message. Obviously, in some cases the game is more focused on narrative than others. Some of them are quite closely focused on narrative, but one of the most fascinating things about games for me -- for me, I'm not saying this is the appeal of games to everybody -- but one of the most fascinating things about games for me is the way you see old ideas about narrative coming apart once we are released from the solid grip of an author.
In movies and in books, you see what the author wants to show you. And in games -- in some games -- you are given a world with goals and tools and rules and that's a very different sort of narrative and the variety and range of mixes of narrative now is mind-blowing. It's fantastic.
In our history, we don't often get that. We get serial inventions of new media. So, we get radio, we get TV, we get movies, and each of these is a major innovation. And within them, there are further innovations, but the basic form doesn't change that much. I mean, television is broadcast and we watch it. That's a pretty fundamental way of shaping behavior. And although within that there are, of course, many different types of narratives that unroll, they are always unrolled by someone else for you.
In games, that is not the case. And, in fact, the rise of modding -- or I should say the co-evolution of gaming and modding -- even at the authorial level, it's no longer in control of the makers. This is a fundamental change in how narrative can work.
Not to mention the rise of co-op games, of online gaming. I mean, this is all really new and it's a dramatic innovation.
Yeah, I mean. This is all stuff that had to be created. But you said you had an interest in some of the conversation around games and you said you're not an expert, but there's a lot of stuff that just doesn't interest you about games. Just to help me dial in correctly with the way I approach questions I have and for people reading, what sort of stuff does not interest you at all?
As a gamer or somebody who writes about the net?
I'd say both, if it's not tiring to explain something that doesn't interest you somewhat at length. [Laughs.]
One I understand better than the other.
Clearly, what sorts of games I like. You can look at my Steam list and get pretty good evidence of what types of games I like and which ones I don't.
So, I don't particularly like twitch games. Platformers are too hard for me. Hard games that require fast reflexes are too frustrating and I don't like them. Being an old guy, I will forget names, but Miami, what's the name of it? Hotline Miami? God.
Okay, so that's way too hard for me.
There's another one whose name I don't remember, but it's more of a 3D thing, but the point of it is it just kills you relentlessly.
[Laughs.] That could be anything.
This one in particular, I keep looking at it thinking, "Oh, this is the sort of game that I like!" And then I remember or read the reviews that say, "It's cruel! There's no saves! It just keeps killing you!"
That's not good for me. Meat boy? What's the rest of that one?
Super Meat Boy.
Way too hard for me! But at least it respawns you quickly, so that's good.
Twitch games are totally uninteresting to me as a player. I keep thinking for the past, I don't know, 30 years? Whatever it's been, I keep thinking that I should like adventure games, text-adventure games. These days of course, not many of them actually are text-based -- but I should like those because those are narratives. And Zork was so clever.
And I keep trying them and I don't have the patience to click through conversation trees, dialog trees. I don't like RPGs. So the range of games that I like as a player is relatively small, but somewhat unpredictable.
There are some sorts of seeming arcade games that I actually do like. I am oddly attached to Luxor Evolved. But it turns out I -- and this is embarrassing to me -- I'm a first-person shooter sort of person.
For whatever reason, and this will be uninteresting to your readers, but it's interesting to me, psychologically: Ever since I was a boy, I have been deeply interested, fascinated by dream landscapes, made-up landscapes that one can explore. Twisty pathways.
Things that couldn't really exist?
It's not that they're fantasy pathways, it's for some reason I really respond to movement through landscapes. That's why I say, it's uninteresting. It's some weird personality quirk.
No, that's fine.
First-person shooters, first of all, I can dial down the difficulty to the point where I can do them. And I've gone from normal to these days to easy, because of my age. Reflexes just aren't --
And there is usually some narrative. It's quests. When games try to have narratives, frequently they're not very good. Or I have a low tolerance for bad narratives. It's true in what I read, as well.
So, I tend to not get as involved in the narrative as I'm supposed to. So, I've played all the Mass Effect games and I like 'em okay, but I know I'm supposed to be more interested in the characters and the plot than I in fact am.
The only type of online game that I really respond to -- and this, I know, as a researcher because that's what I am, is a problem: I don't really like online games very much. But that's where so much of the work is being done. That's a problem, from your point of view?
No, I mean, I'm right there with you. I'm not so interested in the online stuff, either.
I put a lot of hours into Left 4 Dead, Left 4 Dead 2 because the co-op play is so perfectly constructed to force collaboration that I find it really optimistic and encouraging. I like the gameplay for sure, but the fact that you are penalized if you do not collaborate and you are rewarded if you do, and you cannot make it through the map unless the four people playing are actually consciously working together I find -- I like that experience of working with three strangers to get through this arbitrary task.
[Laughs.] What about as a researcher and a person who studies media, what do you find not so interesting about the conversation around videogames?
Well, so, again, this is embarrassing.
[Laughs.] It's okay. You don't need to be embarrassed.
Yes I do! It's fine! Nothing wrong with being embarrassed.
Okay, I'll trust you: If you say you need to, but I'm not judging.
Okay: I'm not all that interested in the debate over games and violence. I just don't find it interesting. I don't find it resolvable. And I don't generally find the topic very interesting. I am somewhat more interested, but not as interested as I should be, in the abuse that some games permit and in some cases perhaps encourage or don't do anything to stop. And to me, it's clear that that's an important issue. A very important issue. But there are lots of very important issues that I don't spend time on. Climate change is a hugely important issue and I have not committed myself to it in the way that one should given its importance.
Right. For me, what I find pretty interesting is within the game industry, the way that it's set up is a lot of the labor force is pretty invisible. I don't know if you know what I mean when I say that, but when I talk to people outside the game industry, what they tend to see are stories that are marketing stories and stories about companies making a lot of money or some sort of new game coming out. And this is sort of pervasive throughout a lot of the game industry where a lot of it just feels very, very promotional.
I think this is right out of Cluetrain Manifesto, and I don't know if you wrote this or if it was another one of your co-authors, but you guys do talk about how we are not eyes with wallets or end users. Realistically speaking, for people who are not working at game companies, if they want to make the conversation have more depth and oxygen but can't find cooperation from what we nebulously refer to as an industry, what can people actually do to nudge things away from being so promotionally oriented?
So, I think I'm getting your point, and let me know. So, everything is relative. If you compare gaming now to the film industry which is a very reasonable thing to do, lots of points of comparison, often in terms of the quality of the input these days and the economics. Lots of money being spent on production, lots of money being made.
Put that aside. Those things are the same. There is a far larger participatory element to games, and this shows up in a couple of ways. The first is that in some games the users co-create the narrative. You don't do that in movies. That's radically impossible. If you try to do that in a movie, they throw you out of the theater, and they should.
In games, many of the most popular are co-created, absolutely, by the users. The prior generation was the Choose Your Own Adventure books and then an attempt to do that in the '80s on PCs. That turned out to be pretty lame, which is why we don't have that anymore. But now have open sandbox adventure games, and that’s real co-creation. And multiplayer online games that are co-creation. So, co-creation is way realer than ever.
By the way, I’m confined to PC games. I don't have a console.
We got our kids one, but it was all twitch games so I never played it. In the PC world, modding is still very important. And modding is, I don't know, close to unprecedented? I'll come back to modding before I forget, but especially in the PC realm, indie games are thriving. So we have these monstrously large games, monstrously large, expensive to produce, and awesome in what they produce. I'm playing GTAV now and it's -- as with anybody who plays it, you're just astounded by the richness of detail, how much work went into recreating Los Angeles. I mean, it's mind-boggling. This is a very expensive thing to produce.
So on the one hand we have a game industry that is producing more and more extensive and expensive games and looking more and more like Hollywood. At the same time, we have a really vibrant, lively innovative indie game environment. This is part of the dialectic. We have Steam come along, it seems to be really on the side of gamers, it's very game culturish. It becomes so important that it re-centralizes or centralizes game acquisition. That's the sort of consolidation that typically in our history has resulted in the further locking out of individual users having any direct control over the ability to contribute.
At the same time, Steam has been pretty good about providing services that encourage user co-creation and modding and selling of mods, a marketplace for mods which I think in general is a really healthy thing. I love free mods, but to make money off them encourages yet more modding.
So, this is an atypical dialectic. That is, we are getting consolidation, fewer big name titles, bigger and bigger and more expensive games, consolidation around one or maybe two gaming platforms, Steam and Origin, and at the same time we're seeing more and more co-creation by players and more and more game co-creation by modders. This is not the typical pattern for consolidation of media. There's a great book by Tim Wu called The Master Switch which goes through the history of new communication media through the last 200 years and shows that in every case, just about, they start off as populist. People make fantastic claims for the telegraph that it'll bring world peace and everybody'll be able to communicate and it sounds very much like the Internet sort of claims. The same thing for radio, which started off as ham radio and amateurs. And in every case these media get consolidated into rock-hard boulders of power. They squeeze out all individual efforts. It becomes corporatized and centralized. You can see the same things happening with games, for sure. The cost of a game to build, a game like Grand Theft Auto V or the Call of Duty series is phenomenal and requires a kind of consolidation that is in fact happening, but unlike the other media consolidation that we've seen over the last couple hundred of years, games are carrying with them -- at least on the PC side -- strong elements of individual participation and co-creation and creation.
Was that long enough for you?
That was fine! You compared the game industry to the film industry, which is a comparison that I hear often.
I can certainly understand the parallel of how it's a couple decades behind the evolution and trajectory of other industries but, for instance, I recently interviewed the Library of Congress and a lot of fuss was made over the copyright changes for preserving software. But what's interesting is the Library of Congress told me that change in the law didn't impact much for them and, in fact, it's an uphill battle for them to work with game companies. I’m paraphrasing, but the quote is, "Game companies don't feel like their output is culture."
What do you make of an entertainment industry that doesn't feel its output is culture? Film turned that corner, but videogames just see the straightaway.
The line between entertainment and culture is relatively recent one, and it has the pernicious effect of saying that culture can't be entertaining. So it's a really bad line to draw.
But anyway. And so, I have the standard sorts of answers, which I'm going to nod at but not subscribe to entirely, which is, well, take a look at games like -- phooey. Oh, shit. Home? Were you going to take a guess?
Were you going to say Gone Home?
Yes! Thank you! Ah, man. This is what happens, I've discovered: When you get old, it takes two people to remember any one thing. So, I got "home" right, and I wanted to say Home Alone, and I knew that was wrong.
I got you.
So, Gone Home and how about the one that was built on Half-Life, that's the exploration of an island, a beautifully rendered island?
Is that Proteus or is that something else?
No. Or, there's the first-person shooter in a battlefield in which it turns out -- there's a moral switch in it. I can't remember the name of it, something "dust," maybe? The normal response, I think, and it's not a bad response, is to point to games that have strong elements of actual feeling and meaning in them.
And that's good, but I guess I don't have anything to say beyond that. I so detest the line between entertainment and culture that I don't know what to say that doesn't re-draw that line.
Was Seinfeld culture? It was a sitcom? Is Two Broke Girls culture? I guess? I'm not sure it's entertainment, either, so that's maybe not a great example.
One of the first times I really noticed this sort of thing was when they came out with the 25th anniversary release of Super Mario Bros. It came with a CD, it had a two-second track of Mario getting a coin, a lot of different sound effects, and it had a very short booklet with interviews of the creators of the game and they had chopped down the interviews to one sentence per topic.
In the notion of approaching marketing as conversations, what does this sort of guardedness tell you about an industry, whether you think it's culture or not? That this is how they mark the occasion?
Not by going to the sound designer who came up with the sounds?
That's all you get, is what I said.
Well, there's a couple of things. Just to push back, because what you're saying, I think is right, but I always push back, I guess.
I welcome it.
Yeah. And I'm committed to be an obnoxious asshole, so.
There has been, I don't know how, and I don't know if this will catch on, but there certainly have been games that have included a director's track in which they're not celebrating the people who did it but they're celebrating the design decisions. And in the age of DVD director's commentary, I think is really interesting and does help make clear the challenges in creating what feels like a fluid game.
One of the things that immerses us in games is that the form doesn't get in your face. Wth art, you occasionally will step back, which for some of us -- and again this is my psychology -- you step back and you do look at the brushstrokes and say, "Holy shit, how did Rembrandt turn that little stroke into light?" Or whatever it is.
Rembrandt's actually a good example: "How did that thing become a brass button? Oh my God, it's just a little swirl of paint." And you step back for a minute and it's a highly realistic rendering of a brass button. So there is this moment in art where you do notice the technique, but when you do, you're now removed from the painting because you're looking at the brushstrokes. Games have a high incentive to keep you involved and immersed, rather than having you step back and notice the artistry.
Director’s tracks for games give you the opportunity of stepping back and appreciating the design decisions that were made. So, I like them. I would hope that that continues. But even if they don't, one of the reasons why I think games look more like entertainment than like culture -- in quotes because I deny that split -- is that they have such a high commercial incentive to keep you involved and thus not to notice that they're culture. A game like The Stanley Parable is all about stepping back and recognizing the tropes but also the artistry in putting together a game. A game like Portal 2, which, for me, is one of the most brilliant games ever done. It's way up on my list of favorite games.
Part of that is a meta-attitude towards the game itself. It doesn't quite break the fourth wall, but when you’re playing it, you are aware in doing so that something really unusual is happening within the confines of the game, and thus you become aware of it. You're reminded that you're playing a game.
I have another example. Oh! Bioshock, but spoiler alert, here: Have you played the first Bioshock?
Bioshock's twist in the middle was 100 percent about wrenching the player out of the frame, making you realize that you've been played, by having gone along with a gaming convention. I think it's brilliant. I think it's a brilliant narrative. I think everything about that game -- it's always way up on my list -- is brilliant. And to say that Bioshock 1 is not culture is, to me, crazy. To say that Portal 2, in particular, isn't culture? What more do you want?
I mean, is it War and Peace? Is it [William] Faulkner? No, but most things aren't War and Peace or Faulkner. That's setting the bar far too high.
[Laughs.] Yeah, but I mean, unlike Faulkner, games have been sort of this position where they've flown under the radar of societal reflection for however many decades now. And so I think what you see is a lot of people at the cultural levers at various outlets and institutions still under the assumption that these things are for kids or they're not worth looking at, or in the case of some media outlets, to start covering them they'd have to do a mea culpa and explain why they've been ignoring it all this time.
This is why I'm embarrassed by it, right? It's the same thing.
I figured. But I didn't want to press you if it was something that was embarrassing you, and I didn't know how sincere you were in saying that.
Oh, I'm complete sincere about saying I'm embarrassed. Portal 2 famously engendered an emotional attachment to a cube.
That's just showing off. That's culture. I mean, there are -- the Mass Effect series, which, as I said, I didn't respond to as much as the others, but that I think for many people absolutely succeeded as moral tale, in many ways a deeper moral tale than most movies and most books because you had to make decisions and you had attachment to characters that you lived with over three separate games. A universe in which moral behavior was possible, in which attachment to characters was possible. And it's entertaining. So, that's culture.
Since you mentioned Mass Effect, do you know about the push among players for Bioware to change the ending to the trilogy?
What did you make of that as far as --
It was a shitty ending!
But does that happen in other media?
Sure, but you can't do anything about it!
[Laughs.] They could re-edit a film or re-release a book, but I don't know if I have examples on hand of that.
Sure they do, they do director's cuts of movies.
Yeah, but that's what the director wanted, not what the audience wanted.
Yeah, no, that's true enough.
The book Gone Girl famously has a shitty ending. Haven't seen the movie. It’s a great mystery and then the ending is equivalent to "everybody gets run over by a truck." That was not a spoiler.
[Laughs.] That's okay.
I would sign a petition to have Gillian Flynn -- is that her name?
Yeah, that's her name. Yeah.
How do you know that off hand? Oh, you're young and smart. Oh, I see what's going on here.
I would sign a petition to have her come up with a better ending, and I would read fan fiction that ended it right because the ending is just shitty.
In the games space, as I was mentioning, a lot of the communication is gated and it creates a space where a lot of the personnel just have no public space at all, and then what you end up hearing oftentimes is the audience complaining or appreciating. Do you think there's any harm in an industry where its employees can't say much or interact much? I have a colleague who says that they feel they just become "the unfortunate face of projects."
Okay, so I want to answer a different question. I want to go back one.
I would hypothesize and speculate that one of the reasons why gamers will demand a better ending, a rewrite of the ending, is that games are participatory.
They're co-created right from the beginning. You get all the way to the end, then the ending that is supplied -- you're given three endings. Which is not enough. There are more than three paths through the game. Through Mass Effect. You can make, I don't know how many, but some huge number of decisions about how you do things and who your friends are and who's on your team, which result in the game-making decisions about who dies. A lot of pathways through that game. You come down to the end, there are three endings, as I recall.
I think so.
Bioshock had the same thing. It had three endings, and they weren't very satisfying.
You were back, in the old world, then, of authors dictating to you and here are your choices, this is it. Or, more typically, in the old world you don't have a choice. So, you play through a game as a collaborator with the authors, as a co-creator, and you get to the end and not only are you no longer in that position, you have to only listen to the author, but the author has made some crappy decisions about the endings.
That's why, I think, gamers are more insistent about getting new endings than readers of Gone Girl are. We're more passive reading Gone Girl than we are playing Mass Effect.
I would think, too, that would put one under the column of it being more entertainment than culture. Like, I talked to one of the doctors from Bioware earlier in this project and he told me his position on this that they felt they were commercial artists and they had a responsibility to address their audience's concerns, I guess, to put it diplomatically.
Because they're commercial artists.
Yeah. Underlined. Commercial.
Yeah, so, that's one very good reason to do it. That's apparently enough motivation. But the actual reason to do it is that this is a co-created medium.
Between creator and audience.
Yes! Yeah. Bioshock gives you -- it's somewhat on rails, but it doesn't absolutely dictate. It gives you choices all along, which upgrades you're gonna take, the genetic modifications you can make to yourself. You want to have exploding hands? You want to be able to do action at a distance? Whatever it is, you are allowed to do that. So, it's on rails in that there is a story, you've gotta accomplish some tasks, and that's its form. That's fine. If you don't like it, don't play that game. Play something else. Play an open-world game. But those are the decisions that the creators of the game have made, and if they've made good decisions, the game works and is satisfying all the way through. Bioshock, I think, is a pretty satisfying game. It's a very satisfying game, almost all the way through. Extremely satisfying game almost all the way through. That's co-creation. And if at the end, they feel the need to supply pre-fab endings, that's fine, too as long as the endings are satisfactory, but the users will react as co-creationists. If you haven't beaten them at your game then you're, like, Lost. That is, the TV show Lost. You spend two years trying to wrap things up in a way that will surprise your readers and it's just unintelligible junk.
Outside of politics, can you think of other industries where specific individuals are ragged on for years about their perceived professional choices like we see in games and entertainment.
All of them. Wherever people feel attached to the medium, to the project, they feel deeply -- and especially if they feel that the project speaks for them, that they have some form of participation in it, then they will feel betrayed if the creator of it has failed to live up to expectations or has acted in a way that exhibits contempt for his audience. This is not a new thing. I don't think.
Right. I don't think so, either.
There's a great deal of attachment to cultural objects that mean a lot to them. That's what culture is. Culture are things that matter to us. That's what culture is. Maybe that is oversimplified. [Laughs.]
Obviously there's a line between passionate complaining and being flat-out toxic, which is not just limited to the conversation around videogames online. There was stuff in Cluetrain, or maybe New Clues, that if your audience or its conversation is toxic, it's your job as the company to address it. Is there something game companies or the industry could realistically do to nudge the conversation or to make it less toxic?
That's -- I don't know. There are lots of toxic conversations about lots of topics outside of games.
And it's in general. I worry about answering this, but I will. I'll answer it. And this applies outside of games.
In general, if there's a toxic conversation going on on your site, then you should think about what you as the site owner can do in order to prevent that or to make conversations on your site less toxic. And sites have done this over and over and over again. Whether it's having a "no hate speech" rule or having moderators or having thumbs up/thumbs down way of ranking or trying to set norms or flagging, having abuse flags. Over the last 20 years we've invented lots of different ways of trying to manage conversations so they do the thing that we as the site owners want those conversations to do. In very rare instances do we, as site owners, actually want toxic conversations. There are a couple of sites where they do. They're pretty good at it, apparently.
But most sites don't want that. But that's independent of the people who -- that applies across the board, whether it's a political conversation or a conversation about games.
I mean, a lot of game companies had told me -- in some of the digging up I've been doing with this project -- that they felt a lot of this toxic stuff, that work wasn't the appropriate place to discuss it, so it never really got discussed.
At their workplace.
Yeah. At companies like Rockstar or companies that have made a lot of shooters, those were some of the ones I've been able to get insights into this from.
That seems -- I'm surprised. That seems to be short-sighted. That's to say that they live in a bubble and need not be concerned about not only questions like the effect of violence on society but sort of closer to their home, the effect of their games on their players.
These are co-created games, and if your co-creationists are not creating something of value to them, then you would act. If people playing GTA or some other relatively open-world game, if those players are not having good experiences, or if the only thing that's happening in those games is abuse based on gender or race or anything else, then of course they would pay attention.
And they should. Of course they would.
When we care about objects of culture, our care extends beyond our experience with the thing. So, if you love Gone Girl, part of that love means that you're gonna talk about it with people. You're gonna recommend it and you're gonna bring it up at dinner conversation and complain about the ending. That's what it means to care about a work, and caring about something, having something matter to you is what it means to be a cultural object.
So, necessarily, cultural objects, things that people care about, spillover past the experience with the object. That's what it means to care about something. That's what it means to be a cultural object. And to write that off as "it doesn't pertain to us because it's not work-related or it's not commercially related" seems to be very short-sighted.
Yeah, I don't know if there's a fear of the audience they've created or if -- I'm not sure what it is. Because oftentimes that conversation will just hit that point where they're like, "Well, the problem isn't really that bad or it didn't seem like the place to talk about."
Some of these things are very difficult to talk about, some of the conversations are incredibly difficult to participate in, so that well might discourage a commercial entity from entering into a conversation. But that's shortsighted and cowardly to say, "We will not enter into this conversation."
Right. Did we build up an immunity or desensitization to toxicity in online conversations?
Well, I think we have coping mechanisms. And part of that might be a desensitization. I read things now in comment threads, and not game-specific comment threads, that I think 20 years ago would have drained the blood out of my face. But we have coping skills. First of all, the sites have coping skills because they do things like all the different techniques sites use to manage conversations, they have the abuse buttons, and the thumbs up, and moderation, all the rest of it.
So, we see way less of the toxicity than is out there, which, from my point of view is a good thing.
And if the site is toxic, I don't go to it again.
We have coping mechanisms. I mean, I love Reddit, but like everybody else, I choose which subreddits I attend to. And if it's toxic or if it's gore, for example, a different type of toxicity, then it's not on my front page. I'm not reading it.
What I hear from some people at game companies is they wish they could interact with their audience but they're behind walls and walls of NDAs or even sometimes there's interdepartmental NDAs. Is there any sort of way that an industry could change its structure if it wanted to let people have more of a voice? Or is it too ingrained to be able to change?
Oh, things can change. I mean, a company can always decide that it wants to embrace its users and there's lots of ways of doing that.
There are lots of things you could do and a lot of them have absolutely no barrier except will.
It is certainly the case as companies get larger and larger and they're producing fewer and bigger and more expensive products in which more of the company is at stake, often you'll see them become more defensive and targeted, and that's too bad. Especially in an industry in which by its nature the audience is participating in the creation of the product. Far more than readers.
What confounds you about the Internet and the way some people or companies attempt to communicate on it?
What surprises me about the Internet? Well, a couple things. Sorry, this is slightly hard to answer because the things that surprise me about the Internet are ways in which I thought the Internet would develop but it did not. And so some of this is just flat-out disappointment: I thought that businesses would be webbier, faster than they have where they'd be less targeted, more engaged with their customers. Less controlling of their image and more willing to engage in conversation.
On the other hand, having said that, which is true, and I admit that, I feel that it's my responsibility as somebody who writes about the Internet because he loves it: I'm not an objective writer, for better and for worse. I feel it's my responsibility not to keep saying that which everybody says and everybody understands, not to keep saying, "Well, the Internet sucks. Here's why."
Everything else that you read is saying that. So I think it's more important for me, having said that I am disappointed that companies did not become webbier faster, to try to talk about the remarkable ways in which businesses and enterprises have been profoundly impacted by the Internet.
I will say this, though, that over the past few months I have noticed that my role as a writer who loves the Internet, my role has in some ways flipped. Around the time of Cluetrain, around 2000, I felt that my contribution was to try to explain to the parts of the media and businesses and the world that did not understand the Internet -- my role was to try to explain it to them to make clear to them how radically new it is, how radically different it is, and what a radically wonderful opportunity it is.
Because back then, in the early days of the web and the Internet, the mainstream kept its natural inclinations to try to appropriate their understanding of the Internet to their current understanding, and thus to make it feel less radical. They talked about it as an information system. They talked about it as a publishing system. Which, of course it is both those things but that's just the beginning. It's not just an information system. People aren't on the Internet because they love information so much. They're on it in part because they love connection, and that's what Cluetrain was about.
The web is about people connecting with people and empowering people.
Now, the past few months, I've realized that I spend my time trying to explain to the current generation who have grown up with the Internet the very same things. Trying to tell them why the Internet is so different than what came before, because they don't remember it and in many ways they don't appreciate it -- which is inevitable, that's fine. Of course they don't.
But that means from my point of view, they need reminding that the Internet changed everything, even the most basic things about how we worked and learned and have been changed by this thing and changed for the better. To a large degree, changed for the better.
And this is especially important because I now hear over and over again from the new generation that they are constantly told that the Internet is bad, that it's a disease, that it's misinformation, that it's an addiction, that they need to be careful about it. That is all that they are being told, and they're being told this in their college classes as well as by the rest of the media landscape. I'm overstating this, but that's what they are hearing: "The Internet is bad."
I feel like I'm back now 15 years saying, "Let me tell you what life was like before. I want you to understand the huge difference and why this is an amazing step forward for human beings."
So, that sort of addresses what you were saying.
What do you think people forget about the pre-Internet world?
I'll give you an example. If you read a story in The New York Times or the local paper, before the Internet there was nothing you could do to get an answer to a question or to discuss it further or to find out more, to explore. Your curiosity was cut off by the rectangle that that article was in. That's inconceivable now. The fact that we weren't constantly frustrated before the Internet is just because we didn't know any better.
Curiosity doesn't fit into those rectangles. This is such a radical shift in how we know and who controls what we know in our ability to learn and the sociality of learning and the breaking down of what were in fact artificial, but not entirely useless, hierarchies of knowledge in which some people were experts and the rest of us were passive recipients. This changes everything. And to go back to that world now where you get a newspaper once a day, you read an article, and not be able to learn anything further? We would feel like we were being put into isolation.
Locked in the cell. Another little rectangle.
I think that's a really crucial difference, but it's just one of them. So it kills me when all that I read -- that's an exaggeration -- so much of what is said about the Internet talks only about the Internet as negative. And of course I know there are negatives, and some of them are really serious and scary. Nevertheless, the negative is not even close to the whole picture. And it's irresponsible not to remember -- for media not to do their job of contextualizing and helping us to remember what the Internet is and why it matters.
You mentioned a few relatively recent games. How do you find your videogame information or news or about things to consider buying?
Well, so, I subscribe to PC Gamer, the print magazine, which, I read in print. I don't know why. I check Steam sales and have my wishlist there.
Typical behavior is if there's a Steam sale on something that looks interesting, I will check the Steam review, that is, player reviews, and Google for reviews of the game. There are flags for me in reviews that eliminate games really quickly like "really hard" or "no respawn" or "RPG." [Laughs.] I have a set of criteria.
I go for a couple of main sources. I'm not on any gamer mailing lists. I don't pay attention to many of the websites, based on what's their front page. I don't pay a lot of attention to Reddit’s gaming subreddit since most of it seems like screen grabs of interesting Just Cause 3 maneuvers.
What sort of patterns or trends do you notice in things the games media does write about or don't write about?
My interaction with games media is too spotty. I can tell you about PC Gamer.
Oh, I like the fact that PC Gamer has increased its coverage of indie games and of mods. It certainly covers the AAA games the way you would expect, but they do pay attention to the indie side. It's a bit of an afterthought, but it's there and I'd be annoyed if they didn't.
What do you think videogames have accomplished?
[Laughs.] Steven Johnson, who you should probably talk with, writes in Everything Bad is Good for You defends videogames there in part by pointing out that in many cases, videogames implicitly require users to become meta-aware of the game. You have to try to figure out what the rules are. It is very rare for one of the immersive games to spell out its rules. You'll get a tutorial, which will teach you how to do some things, but playing the game means learning what success is, how to succeed, how things work, how things interact, which things don't work, are there invisible walls, are there multiple ways around things,and what are they? Oh, the crossbow makes a whooshing sound, but it’s masked if you wait for the wind to pick up. So, you are learning the rules that are the game, and a game to a large degree is nothing but rules and scenery.
So, the reason this is interesting to me is -- it seems to me this is the next evolutionary step for human beings. I don't mean games are, but becoming more meta-aware of our world. This is crucial on the Internet, where you have local cultures that are now connected global. What makes them local is that they have their own norms, their own way of doing things, their own unexpressed rules about what topics are interesting and how long you're allowed to talk about something before you can be interrupted and all this sorts of stuff. That's what makes locality local.
And now you have localities that are globally connected, and those conversations will fail across localities unless you become aware of the differences in those norms, which means becoming more meta-aware.
I think a lot of morality has to do with being more meta-aware of not only the effects of what you're doing on others, but aware of the interests and needs of others, what they care about, what matters to them.
There are lots of places in our culture where this meta-awareness happens and is happening, I hope, more and more thanks to the Internet, where our assumptions can be directly confronted by people who don't share them. They can say, "Oh, I didn't even realize I was assuming that!" That is the healthiest thing that happens to human beings.
Games are in many cases a type of training in participating while being aware of what you're participating in and the rules that are guiding that participation. That’s the healthiest thing. I mean, learning to take headshots and kill people? Probably not the healthiest thing, and given the gun violence in this country, I'm not sure that training people on headshots is such a great thing. On the other hand, the implicit moral training of becoming meta-aware of the rules that guide our behavior does seem to me to have some moral implications.
So, in that case, why are you embarrassed about playing?
Because many of the games are designed for much younger people. And many of the games I play are -- I mean, it's a good question. I mean, part of it is pure cultural shock: "You play Left 4 Dead 2? Isn't that a stupid game?"
So, we are certainly at the point where, I think, we can hold up the best of videogames against very good movies. I'd say videogames are as good or better than many movies. The question is, I think, "Okay, we talk about culture. We haven't talked about art." If you want to make that distinction, which I think in many ways is a useful one, are there videogames that we could reasonably compare in terms of the depth of their meaning and emotions to the great works of literature? I don't think I have that confidence in videogames yet.
There's a play called Sleep No More. I got the whole title, huh, without asking!
Which is MacBeth played more or less simultaneously in a three-story converted office, a building indoors, where you can walk around. A lot of it is interpretative dance. And you can't see the whole thing in any one performance because it's simultaneous. There is no -- this is not on rails. It could be a little bit more on rails, frankly. Actually, one of the interesting things is when I went in, someone who had seen it before gave me a tip, which is, "Find one of the primary actors and follow him and her around as he or she goes into these various scenes." And you see people who are walking with a trail -- a little piece of the audience after them. [Laughs.] So that sort of becomes a rail.
So, this is an open world where -- I would say it's not as good as a serious art performance. It doesn't have the emotional depth, but it's a pretty powerful evening. Well, it should be. It wasn't. But let's leave it at that. Games have possibilities like that. You could do an open-world version of The Godfather or MacBeth in which the events are happening, some of them simultaneously, and you as a player can drive around, go to them, participate in some of them, but not see all of them. It takes more than one play. You could do this with multiple stories in an open world and there is no inherent reason why those stories could not be as profound and moving as a play. It's a play-like structure. It's people in settings saying things and doing things. There's no inherent reason why we can't have games that will be as rich and deep and as moving as the greatest works of literature. The fact that I can't name any yet doesn't mean anything.
There was a play I saw earlier this year, Cineastas, which is similar to what you're describing. It was on a two-story structure, simultaneously these different stories are playing out and there's no English. There's just a ticker between the floors that occasionally translates either things people are saying or other phrases that somehow comment on the narrative.
Do you think that that play or Sleep No More -- do you think that's a coincidence that those plays are occurring in an age of games? I think there is some implicit, maybe unexpressed or unnoticed interplay between the exploration of possibilities between theaters and games and movies and, to some extent, books. That's what what it means to be part of a culture. You are experimenting and learning from one another.
It's really hard to do, but the truth is I didn't like Sleep No More. I thought Sleep No More was really interesting, but I don't think it worked all that well. Turns out, I missed just about all of the interesting scenes and for me it didn't have the sort of coherence or impact that it should have. But I thought it was really fascinating.
There's no reason why -- and people are obviously experimenting with this in games as well. Gone Home and Stanley Parable and other such things. There's some sense in which Skyrim is like this or a game like Skyrim is like this. You know, clearly it's not at the level of art.
Yeah. But there's no inherent reason why they can't be and can't go beyond this. For one thing, it's way easier than paying $100 to go back and see the theater event again. You can rewind a game. This is a more fluid medium, games are, and so there's absolutely no reason why you could not do something as meaningful and deep as the great works of art and so I assume that we will.
And to complain is to complain that Shakespeare hasn't been born yet.