Sure. My full name is Frank Lantz and my age is 52.
My experience in the game industry is I started out making games at a place called RGA in the ‘90s. I was a creative director at a design studio that was making CD-ROM games and PC games early on, but kind of as an outgrowth of the design work they were doing. I made a couple of games there, one of which is Gearheads, which was published by Phillips. Then I split and went freelance -- because I was at RGA, we were making games but we were also making CD-ROMs and interactive stuff that weren't games. I realized that I wanted to devote myself fully and completely to just making games.
I split and for a while worked as a freelance game designer between a couple of different places. There were a handful of small independent studios in New York at the time -- Gamelab and This is Pop. I worked at both of those places making games, usually work-for-hire making online games, web-based games for places like Cartoon Network and LEGO. Then eventually, GameLab grew large enough to hire me full-time, so I was director of game design at Gamelab, which was a studio most famous for Diner Dash, and at the time making all kinds of games -- "downloadable games" we called them at the time. A weird transitional phase where people started making smaller games for a more casual audience that you would download from the web -- you know, in between a web game and something you go to the store and plunk down $60 for, but also historically in between the era of plunking down $60 for a games and now digital distribution as being the standard thing. So, it was the early days of that.
So I was at Gamelab for quite some time, and then during all this period I was also doing a lot of experimental game design for my own on the side. I was really interested in large-scale, real-world games. I have a background in art, and I was always really interested in where games can go if you approach them and push them in strange directions -- as experiences where you're not starting with some preconceived notion of what a game is, and instead you're imagining what would happen if you made a game for a totally different context or pushed things in a really strange direction. So I was thinking large-scale, real-world games for conference settings, collaborating with people and making games where 200 or 300 people could play at once. Very simple games, but social and physical and in real-world spaces, and collaborated with Katie Salen and Nick Fortugno on a game called the Big Urban Game, which was for the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. We wanted to turn the city into a giant board game, basically. So we had this game where there are these giant, 25-foot-high game pieces moving through the city: red, yellow and blue. They’re all just drifting through the landscape, but it was an actual game and everyone in the city could determine which direction the pieces would go.
I was also during this time doing a lot of teaching at NYU, teaching game design as I was also working on stuff. I made a class called "big games," which was about this kind of game. I made that class, and there was a game called Pacmanhattan, a final project that all the students worked on. That created kind of a splash. It was a life-size version of Pac-man happening on the streets of New York. Through the publicity that these big game projects were getting, I met a dude named Kevin Slavin who said, "Let's start a company that makes these games. I think I could line up a bunch of big projects and we could specialize on this kind of game and make money doing it." So I was like, “Okay! Let's try that!” [Laughs.]
So we started Area/Code, and the premise of Area/Code was games that blend the real and the digital. Kind of a mix, "area" and "code" represent this idea that we're going to find ways to make games at the intersection between the physical world that we inhabit with our bodies -- the world of real spaces and objects -- and the imaginary world of virtual, digital spaces and information systems and symbolic logic. We were going to take advantage of these emerging technologies that were starting to already mix these two worlds together -- ubiquitous computing, wearable computer, location awareness, smart rooms and smart objects, cars that drive themselves -- all of this stuff, objects that talk to one another. So it was like, let's make games that sit on top of this emerging web of the mix between the real and the information. We did that for six, seven years maybe. Area/Code, we did a bunch of big projects. We started out with street games, location-based games, people running around in physical spaces, activating the urban landscape, all that kind of stuff.
Then we branched out into just anything - just any weird thing that would cross between different kinds of media. We started calling it cross-media games. We made games where you'd be watching a show on TV, you'd be playing a game online, and then you'd watch a show on broadcast television that would be synchronized with that game. You'd be collecting the pieces of The Sopranos, and then The Sopranos would come on TV and the pieces would light up. If they were in your collection and they were next to each other, you would score extra points. So you're trying to rearrange them based on what you thought was going to happen in that episode. Or a game for MTV where you're watching The Hills, which is this terrible scripted reality show. And you're chatting, but then if people like what you say, they click on it and it gets bigger, and if it gets big enough it shows up on TV -- which was before Twitter. A lot of these things were sort of -- like if I had been a little bit smarter, I could have maybe invented some of these very successful things like Twitter or Pokémon Go or something. But I get to claim at least that we were there first.
[Laughs.] You were there first.
Yeah. You know how cool that is when you're in a forum and you get to say "first" in a comment to a message? Well, we were like that. We were that cool. [Laughs.] That was Area/Code.
Like Neil Armstrong, but way cooler. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] One of the things we did was we ended up doing this big, sprawling alternate-reality game called Chain Factor, at the heart of which was this very simple puzzle game. This little puzzle game was the kind of game that Area/Code would never make, because it's not this big experimental, avant-garde thing. It was just like Tetris or something. It's a little, abstract puzzle game. Secretly I think we were just hungry to make a little thing like that.
So, in the original Chain Factor ARG, Drop7 was a fictional game within the fiction of the larger game. It was actually a front for a scheme by this evil genius who used the addictive power of games to harness people's cognitive machinery and have them all collectively work on cracking this big formula for doing something to the global financial markets. At the end of the ARG, we were left with this little abstract puzzle game that we really loved, and a lot of people really loved. We were like, “Let's just make a standalone version of this.” So that was Drop7. There's some interesting lesson there, that that ended up being the thing that we're most well-known for.
We were also making Facebook games. There was a lot of energy in Facebook at the time, and we thought we can do good games on Facebook. That's our experiment, we're going to make this grand experiment -- we know so many people playing these games that are pretty terrible, and let's see if we can make something really good that meets this audience and finds some overlap between what we think of as being a good game, what's interesting about games, and this audience and what they're looking for. That was sort of the final stages of Area/Code, making Facebook games, and that got us acquired by Zynga at the end. That was just kind of the end of that experiment. For a while there was this idea that we're going to hold our nose and become the R&D department at Zynga and see if we can actually make something truly good, and kind of turn this around and have it be something that's original and interesting and has some of the qualities that we love in games. And it was like kind of like -- oh. Didn't really work out.
Throughout all this time I was doing more and more teaching, and eventually became the director of the NYU Game Center and the chair of the game design program at NYU -- which is now sort of the bulk of what I do. I'm still doing game design. I have this game I told you about, which is coming out in a few weeks, Antigrams. But most of my time now is teaching and running the program at NYU.
Since we’re going to be talking a fair amount about academia, it probably makes sense to start off by asking what you got your degree or degrees in. What did you study?
Painting. I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts in painting, from the University of Maryland. I studied with Anne Truitt. Brilliant minimalist painter. Hyper-minimalist, big, empty, simple beautiful paintings. But that was not my style. I was the opposite! I was painting during the time of the East Village scene, which was a big influence on me. The height of postmodernism, eclectic, borrowing from pop culture and mixing things up and appropriating stuff. Very high-concept, weird, interesting, kitchen sink kind of stuff. So, my painting was all over the place.
Early filmmakers, when they started making films, were coming at their work with ideas out of the newspaper, theater, and their lives. As film got more established, with it came the availability of film-school degrees. I know your forte is more games, but how do you feel the availability of that education for filmmakers helped change film?
Well, one of my ambitions for the NYU Game Center is to -- we like to draw inspiration from the NYU Film School, which was very influential and helped establish the American New Wave of film in the ‘70s. Partly out of being in contrast to Hollywood, right? NYU, New York City, it wasn't as closely associated with Hollywood and the traditional machinery of filmmaking. I think they embraced that and thought of it as a strength, and it led to a different kind of filmmaking. It was good. I think that's a good example of how higher education can intersect with pop culture and a creative industry and a cultural form, and have an impact.
I think about this a lot. You certainly don't need to go to school to learn how to make games, and there are many paths towards making games. But we think of ourselves as being -- I think you have an obligation to justify for your own sake and for other people, why you exist. Why should we spend so much money and so much time doing something? If you're really passionate and dedicated and diligent you have access to YouTube, you can pretty much learn to do anything in this world. [Laughs.] It's kind of shocking, right? It's kind of shocking that universities continue to exist at all, in a weird way. I know I maybe shouldn't be saying this --
I was gonna say! [Laughs.]
But seriously, man. If you seek out the education you want online, you can put together an amazing education. Now, for many people, they just don't have that capacity. They don't have the meta-knowledge to know how to do that, or the diligence to organize it for themselves. But it is I think important that if you teach at a university, if you're in higher education, you really have to think about, “Okay, what is it that we're doing that justifies the effort and the cost?”
The way that we think of it is that our program is complementary to the game industry. It is not a professional training school, not just an onramp to the industry. It's not that. There are schools that are like that, and if you want to do that, that's fine. That's not what we offer. What it instead is is we're trying to create this space that encourages experimentation and innovation and attracts people who want to really push the game industry forward. To think about how it's evolving, how it's changing, and they want to lead that process. We're creating space that allows for more risk-taking -- because the game industry is already very innovative in a lot of ways. We're not about some kind of simplistic critique of the industry -- that it's moribund, or that it lacks innovation, because it's thriving in many ways. It's thriving and robust and there'stons of innovation in the game industry.
But the industry responds to a set of incentives, and is driven by constraints that have to do with the marketplace and the pragmatics of surviving in that. And that's not the only possible set of incentives and constraints. So we can open up a space that has longer term thinking, and allows for more extreme trial and error and more ambitious visions for what's possible, and more research-oriented design. That's the kind of larger framework that we think is appropriate for higher education in relationship to an industry like the game industry. Within that, for the students, it's a space that allows them to learn the basics of how to make a game, the practical stuff and the craft, but also then develop their vision of who they are as a game designer. What does that mean, what are the kinds of games they want to make, and why? That is something that we are, again, inspired by film school, art school. That's the general approach that we have. It's learning the skills, it's developing the craft, but within this context of experimentation and innovation and developing your own personal vision as a designer. Figuring out who you are and what your voice is as a creative person, and how that fits into games. And doing that within a social context. It's a scene, right. You're doing that with other people, collectively through collaboration and argumentation, and developing relationships and all that other stuff.
I feel like you just answered my next three questions. [Laughs.] In that case, though, if anyone can make games and anyone can self-educate themselves without enrolling in a university, what does a game-design degree make you better at, and therefore more capable of expressing yourself through a game?
I would say there are a couple things.
One is that it is possible to do it on your own, but what we try to do is synthesize that down and compress it to a really good version. It's an intense and compressed and efficient way of learning the practical aspects of the skills and the craft.
Two is that the No. 1 thing that you can't get on your own is the social contacts, which I think in some ways is the most important thing. It's through being in a community and interacting with other people that you figure out what your individual voice is. It’s a powerful way to discover who you are.
So, it's better for everything. It's better for learning the practical skills, that social reinforcement and the support of having a network of other people that you can learn from and teach. The teaching and learning that happens between students in a healthy community -- that's the most valuable thing of all.
Also, just the art school-vibe of creation and critique. When you're making something, knowing that you have a group of people that care about what you're making, regardless of whether it's good. They care. They care about it! Because you made it. Your family is like this, your close friends are like this. When you're in a scene, that's there. So you're making something, you know that there are always stakes. There's always something at stake. There are people who are there who are going to pay attention to what you do. They're not necessarily going to like it, and you don't necessarily want them to like it. It's not like there's a unity of opinion or a unity of taste, but you can't have taste without some kind of community. Some kind of overlapping set of values and an ongoing conversation about what games are, why they matter, what type of games we should like and play and where games should go, what the big problems are. All that stuff.
I'm thinking of Paris in the ‘20s, and how much that we think of the painting and the writing that came out of that important era as emerging out of the relationships between the people. Arguing and talking and having affairs and having feuds, and putting on group shows and looking at each other's work, and competing with each other. That's ultimately I think -- I believe strongly in that. In that power, and that's one of the things that we're trying to create in New York City and at NYU.
So, if I’m understanding you correctly, you’re saying the emphasis is more on teaching students to have the ability to express themselves rather than being positioned to get a job at a game company?
I would say -- it's such a good question. It's more like it's a one-two punch. The one-two punch is the siren call that brings in the kind of students we want, is the first thing. Figure out where games are going, how you can contribute to this transformation that is happening in games. What's your personal voice as a creative person? That's the kind of students we want to attract, who are more interested in making something groundbreaking and new and original, and deeply interesting and powerful and expressive, in all the ways that great culture and great art can be. That's the main thing that we're about, and that's the main thing that draws people.
As opposed to, "Oh, I'd just like to get a job working on the next Mass Effect," or something. "I would be happy with a job where I'm just building assets for some large AAA, and I think the status quo in games is perfect and I just want more of the same." You know what I mean? Which is fine, if that's your attitude, that's great -- but then you should probably not be in grad school, right?
Or game design, right? So that's the bat signal we send out. Once we have them in the program, both we and they want them to have successful careers in the game industry. Once they're here, and they're working on this stuff, they're also aware of the fact that they want to have successful careers. They want to get out there and have good jobs, and make money, and have an impact and get respect, and be successful professionals, and all that stuff. And we want them to do that. It's very important for us that that happen, because that's our business model. We're not going to continue to bring in students unless our students are out there in the world having successful careers. Luckily those things are not in opposition. They're not identical, but they're not in opposition. You can do both, you can do great work -- and in fact, doing great work in all the ways that I described, is the best path to having a successful career. That's how we like to think about it.
But you don't have to go to college, period, to legitimize your dismissal of the status quo. Is it possible that by the requirements that universities look for in other teachers they hire, it breeds a more homogenized pushback or challenging of the industry in certain ways? Isn’t it good for all of us if people take other paths, too?
The way I see it the real value of higher education here isn’t some kind of unique or especially powerful critique of the status quo. It’s about setting up a context that encourages and supports new ideas, new approaches, risky, challenging work. We see ourselves as complementary to the industry, not in opposition to it.
When I started thinking about working on this project, I had a call with a colleague who asked me where the next Sid Meier supposed to come from. It’s a good question. Are those days and paths completely gone? I thought back on this putting questions together for this, because I interviewed Warren Spector a little bit ago, before he left academia.
That was quick, right? What happened?
He told me he felt like there's maybe three people he would trust in the entire world to direct one of his games, and at the time we talked his going back into games was not even on the table as a thing he was discussing or thinking about. So I'm curious --
I'm trying to guess who would be this -- can I guess, who were the three people he would say, these are the people I would trust to direct.
He wouldn’t tell me, but --
Oh he didn't! I still want to guess! Harvey Smith, I would almost say Clint Hocking, but because Clint has been out of the picture in a way, he's been drifting from these other jobs. I wish he had told you!
I’ll ask him again sometime and let you know, for sure.
But I'm curious about educating people to go into the game industry. It feels like, as you mentioned even just some of those other names are not being as active in the industry anymore. Even Warren Spector, he did leave for a bit. But does that world or those paths even exist anymore, for people to become the next Sid Meier, to become the next Warren Spector?
Oh, absolutely. There are still big success stories out there. There are still people having a huge impact on the industry. They're not doing it in exactly the same way, but they're still doing it. It's more possible than ever for a small team or an individual to make a game that ends up having a really big impact. I mean, look at Markus Persson. That's one dude over the course of a weekend. There's so many, it's the Golden Age for next Sid Meiers. [Laughs.]
I think so! But I'll tell you how our approach is: just make things. Don't focus too much on being the next Sid Meier because in some ways it's impossible. You can't teach someone to be a Picasso or to be a Sid Meier. But you can teach them how to hold the brush, and you can teach them how to code, and you can teach them how to collaborate with other people. You can teach them how to get a complicated creative project done on schedule. You can teach them how to give and receive effective criticism, and how to thrive in a climate of rigorous critique and respectful debate. You know what I mean? You can teach them how to use Unity, and when you would want to use Unity, when you wouldn't. You can't teach people taste, but I think you can create an environment in which good taste happens. And that's in some ways one of the main things, one of the big things. It's like, listen, the game industry has a lot of people who know how to code, and know how to do lighting, and know how to compress video -- but we have a taste problem, more than anything else! [Laughs.]
So just that sensibility of valuing originality and seriousness, but not being pretentious or middle-brow. That position of recognizing what's great about the past, but also being sensitive to your present moment, and wanting to make something that responds to it. That ability of being able to embrace and love what is the simple pleasures of pulp culture, without becoming a superfan of the past, and just getting bogged down in a weird, defensive, entrenched status quo. All of these things go into -- that to me is what makes a healthy art forms. You can't teach that. You're not going to sit down and -- but you can create an environment, hopefully, in which that's the goal. We call that critical literacy, because you have to call it something. [Laughs.] But we spend a lot of time thinking about that and trying to create an environment in which that -- will that produce the next Sid Meier? I don't know. But we're already seeing students that are doing really interesting work, doing great stuff, going out and getting good jobs in the industry, and I think that we are making a change for the better. That's our goal.
That's the thing about this whole project -- all of the co-authors of the NYU Game Center really don't see themselves primarily as academics. It's really, primarily our main context for ourselves and our work, is games. We see ourselves contributing to this larger project of games. That's our primary goal, to make a positive impact in the world of games and in the lives of young people who want to go into that world. And people who are already in that world, and want it to continue to evolve and grow and get better.
How does games academia and the games industry interface?
Well, we have a network of connections to the industry that's always growing. For example, we have a project called the NYU Game Center Incubator, and that has a board of advisors. On that, there are people from Microsoft and Sony and Kickstarter and Unity. There are game designers and there are product managers, and it's meant to be a transitional thing for students between the work that they're doing in the program and the work that they're going to do as professionals, either at a game studio or working on their own. So that gives us an opportunity to have an ongoing conversation with a lot of people in the industry. In New York City, we do a lot of public events that a lot of game industry people come to, so that's also another interface. We're constantly -- because part of our mission is to support the New York City game industry, and for the most part our faculty is in the game industry in various ways. Coming out, drawing from their experience in the game industry, or actively participating in the industry. There's a lot of interaction there.
We're always interested in what studios are looking for in terms of talent, because that's obviously important for us to understand. My theory, as somebody who ran a studio and hired game designers, is that studios are looking for someone who is really smart, but can get things done. The getting things done part is primary.
So, you want people who are thinking about design and understand design on a really high level, but they have pragmatic skills. They can ship code, if you will. And they're willing to work on whatever needs doing. It's kind of what you want is people who are developers. They don't think of themselves as a designer or a writer on this or that. That might be their passion. Their passion might be visual design and animation or storytelling or world-building, or system design, high-level competition -- it might be any number of things. But they are there to get the game done by doing whatever needs doing at the moment, using their skills and their talent and their general intelligence to get things done. Like, if what needs doing is figuring out why the audio files are all corrupted, and then copying them over one-by-one, and cleaning them up -- then that's what you do. If you figure out that's the most efficient use of time and energy right now, because that's the thing that needs to happen, then you do that, and you do it willingly and happily, and you discover -- the truth is, again, that these things are not opposed. It's actually in the making and the doing, it's in Photoshop or Audacity or Maya, it's in the actual moment to moment building and doing and making, that design happens. Not just in this kind of visionary mode. So, that's what we're trying to emphasize to our students: Get a taste for hands-on building and making, no matter what your vision is and what your voice is. Learn how to channel it through productive, hands-on building things and making things.
We talked about this back in March at GDC this year, but I’m curious about the ways students discuss or talk to students, as far as the ways they might be expected to speak on or defend what they create. What I notice a lot of in the game industry and also outside of that nebulous concept or group of companies is people want to be creators of culture but not have any of the responsibility that comes with it.
I hate hate hate picking on Ubisoft, because it’s the go-to company to mock, it seems. But I don’t know if you saw this stuff coming up this and last week about the whole “Augs Lives Matter” --
[Groans.] Oh, of course, yeah. That's the best. But that's not Ubisoft, dude, that's Eidos. That's SquEnix.
Eidos, I'm sorry. I knew that. That's Monday morning. Sorry, I’m getting rivals mixed up.
This the best thing that ever happened to Ubisoft! Because their rivals just stepped in it. And in fact, leading the charge is Manveer Heir, who works at Ubisoft, is leading the charge against Eidos, and you can see the relief in his face. [Laughs.] No it's the best, I'm following it. What's your take on it?
I mean, that's my question for you. I feel like it's so different from other creative industries, where if called upon, you would make a statement one way or another. But from what I read last week, there was a lot of aversion to taking ownership. It’s like they’re running for office, claiming it was a total coincidence?
Oh yeah. It's weird. Their response was super-weird, wasn't it?
Yeah, but don't you feel like that's standard game company response to that kind of stuff?
Well, it's typical. Yeah, it's typical. But of course, typically you don't do it in the first place, right?
What’s non-standard is them trying to make work that engages with a contemporary political topic in the first place. That's what makes it atypical. But I think, honestly, this is a great example of this thing I was just talking about, which is this quality of taste. The problem with the “Augs Lives Matters,” first of all is the "matters." [Laughs.]
What upsets you about this is the grammar? [Laughs.]
Why is it "matters" with an "s?" What's going on there? Is that just a French-Canadian thing?
But anyway, the main problem is that it is distasteful. Come on, really? Guys, seriously? They don't get it. They don't get what's wrong with it. It's just the wrong thing. It's off. It's bad. You can't really pinpoint it and say, "Oh, you shouldn't ever reference any political topic." It’s inappropriate, it's distasteful, it's awkward, it's dorky, it's embarrassing. It shows a lack of sensitivity to the subtle dynamics of political discourse; and how we go about dealing with difficult issues, and working through in public, working through the legacy of slavery and civil rights and the contemporary status of racism and police brutality. And the balance between wanting to have police, but wanting to constrain their power. The way all of these things relate to each other, working through that complicated thing involves a special kind of emotion. A social skill, or sensitivity to protocol of how we treat each other and how we talk about these things. And that is what's missing. That's what's present in a lot of other traditional art forms. In writing, and in film, and in the kind of narrative-based art forms - because their specialty is how people talk to each other. Their specialty is in modelling discourse. Their specialty is in thinking about the subtle nuance of a gesture or a phrase, because that's what they're made up of. That's what theatre is made up of, that's what film is made up of. It's all the subtleties of how you walk into a room and get people to admire you and respect you. Because that's what a movie star does, that's their job.That's all they do.
And that's missing! We don't have that. In some ways it's good that we don't have it, David. I think in some ways it's good. Because the power of mastering the subtle protocol of social interaction that results in the charm of the movie star and the persuasive charisma of the great actor or the great director, and you even see in novels and plays -- we're working with a different set of materials. Not all art has to be made out of that.
Games are made out of other stuff. There's some of that in them, I'm not saying there's none of that, and this is another dimension of the argument about stories and math, the tension between system and story and game. So that's me trying to find something optimistic about this, that it's not just that we're terrible at. We're really good at other things. But this is not one of the things we're good at.
This in some ways is worth getting good at. It is important to get good at it if we want to continue to evolve and grow in importance, and influence, and respect as a cultural form. Then this is one of the things we're going to need to master -- especially if we're focusing on games that have simulated people in them and that are telling stories, and that are using representational techniques to evoke real-world things. Then we sure as hell better get good at it. And we're terrible at it. So this is this taste issue I think, in a nutshell.
It's like farting in an elevator. "What? Everybody farts!" Yeah, no, don't. Really, you don't get why that's bad? And then the response to it is, "Well, we didn't even mean to! We thought of this years before Black Lives Matter." It's like, what? Who do you think is going to believe that? Just step back for one second and imagine a world where that even makes sense on any level. You're obviously putting it in there because you're struggling to engage with a serious topic -- and that's a good thing. My big take on this was that Deus Ex was always wooden and awkward and kind of ham-fisted in its treatment of story elements. It didn't matter when they were pure pulp, when the story elements were just about alien conspiracies and cheesy science fiction tropes. Then it didn't matter that they were handled awkwardly and executed inexpertly, and they were kind of clunky, and they didn't work very well. It's fine. It's like, “Oh, who cares?” It's all in good fun. But now that they're trying to apply those inexpert techniques to this more delicate problem of how you make political work, how you do a work that resonates with the politics of its time, we're seeing, oh god, no. That they never could do it. Deus Ex was never good in that way.
But what we did was, as an industry, we're pushing ourselves to engage with more serious topics and more serious themes. I think in general that's a good thing. But I think maybe we overestimate how important that is. I think we overestimate the value of, "Oh, let's put a serious topic in our game, because that's what makes great art. That's what makes great work." In a hard-to-explain way, there's more powerful -- you will change the world for the better by mastering the subtleties of craft, than you will simply by explicitly addressing big important topics. People mistake serious topics for seriousness as art. You know what I mean? They think, "Oh, well great art is about war is bad or something, so let's just say war is bad."
Like it's like a game of Bingo or something.
Right! And honestly, saying “war is bad” is almost meaningless.
Association football, cricket, these games have done more to change the history of war than Guernica ever did. Right? That's probably not going to make a lot of sense out of context. It might not even make sense in context. Let me see if I can construct the context. Do you understand what I'm saying?
Yeah, I think you're talking about real-world change versus changing the way people feel about something, which may indirectly lead to change?
Even just saying "war is bad," you're not changing anyone's mind.
No, you're not changing my mind about it. [Laughs.]
What you're doing is -- so here's the larger way to frame this --
And it depends who you are, because maybe you really like war. Maybe you really profit from it.
Yeah! Or maybe you like fake war, which is what people who play videogames with shooting in them like.
Some of them do, yeah.
It's hard to know what the relationship between fake war and real war is. Is fake war an extension of real war? Does it simply reinforce the ideology that maintains war and military conflict in the world? Is it a catharsis that might be an escape valve that might reduce the kind of pressures that produce real military conflict in the world? Is it a form of reflecting on military conflict that might over time allow us to think more deeply and clearly about it, because we have all of these complicated models that resonate and reflect with it in different ways and so we're just building up the capacity and the toolset to actually think our way through military conflict?
All of these things are at play. And it's not clear which of them should dominate our understanding of how this stuff works. We certainly don't know for sure how it works, but we have this idea that it's simply, "Oh no, you should just be sending the message that war is bad." That's the one thing I will guarantee isn't happening. There's no one on the planet who has ever been persuaded not to start a war or go to war by engaging with a piece of art and getting the message implanted in them to not go to war. You know what I mean? [Laughs.] It's never that simple. But we act as if it is, and one of the reasons -- sorry, I'm gonna finish up in one second, I know I'm kind of ranting here --
No, you're fine. That's the point of this.
One of the reasons we do this is because we're engaging in our own war, which is a status war. We want games to be given more respect, we want them to be treated more seriously. We're embarrassed by them. We want them to be higher status. That film has higher status, theater has higher status, painting has higher status. Games are looked down on. So, how are we going to get this status? By themes. Thematics, right? That's our simplistic view of this idea, "Oh, well, that's what these high-status works are about. They are about serious topics and serious themes." So if we inject those serious topics and serious themes in our games, they will be more important. They will be more respected. And as a result you get "Augs Lives Matters."
I think it's one step further. I think it's do progressive thematic things thoughtfully, but then stand behind them. And I don't want to just pick on Deus Ex, but --
It's a good example, though. You hate the waffling. You hate that they do it, and then they're like, "What? We didn't mean anything!"
“Hating” is strong. I mean, it's just kind of laughably cowardly. I see a lot of insecure, "Oh, I wish we were more legitimate. I wish we were more important!" And then it's like, here's a weird pussy-footed half-statement that they won't stand behind.
I agree 100 percent.
People can argue about this, but at the end of the day -- I don't know if it's ultimately media's job to hold their feet to the fire, but when they have their feet held to the fire, they just say, "Oh, it's a coincidence." Shouldn’t it be more than that?
Media's job is to point it out very clearly and say -- which I think is happening in this case. I think people are saying, “Look, guys, this just looks stupid. It makes you look stupid, it makes the game look like there's no clear vision. Listen, this stuff is hard. Most times when people make mistakes, I think it's because the thing that they're trying to do is genuinely hard. I think what they're trying to do is hard. It's not easy to understand how we should reflect the world around us in all its complexity, and something like Black Lives Matter in the games that we are making. But here's an example of a way not to do it.”
So why is it bad? I don't know. It's just wrong. [Laughs.] And one of the ways is what you're pointing out, is that they haven't done the work. They haven't sat down and thought it through. They don't have any answers to the question of, "Dude, why did you put that in your game?" They're like, "Woah, we didn't!"
[Laughs.] "It was a coincidence!"
Yeah! [Laughs.] I admire that they are trying to be more ambitious.
Yeah, and I think you’re right. It is an attempt.
Now, what does that mean? That means struggling to stammer through an actual position, to understand what are the ways in which science-fiction operates to help us reflect on the real world? If you work at Eidos, think of what some of your favorite science-fiction novels are, whether it's The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin, or The Foundation Trilogy, or The Handmaid's Tale, or Stanislaw Lem, or J. G. Ballard. Look at J. G. Ballard! He has no simple message about violence and culture and media. But by God, you know he's thinking about that shit. That he's watching news and thinking how do you live in a world like this, and what might it be in the future, and how will we live then? And then he's putting that into his art, and it makes his writing so great. Whatever it is, think about and draw inspiration from it, and then try to do it!
Yeah, but I don't think this is an author's, "You have to respect my process. I don't talk about my work.”
I wonder about things like Gamergate, I look back at something like that and I think about the game industry as a thing that no one -- from the interviews I've done with this, everyone I've talked to who has been at a major game company when that was happening two years ago, no one felt like work was the place to discuss it. And I wonder, is progress getting made? How do we track that if it isn’t transparent? Not that it should be, per se, but how can we tell if progress is getting made?
Oh, yes. Progress is definitely getting made. I mean, this is what progress looks like. It just looks like one problem after the next, right? Imagine you're working through a book of math problems. What does success look like? Harder and harder problems. So I think it's wonderful.
I saw that you had made a statement to students or to whoever on the school's webpage, that as that was happening, what disappointed you about the way that the industry and media and audience was --
Can I be 100 hundred percent honest with you? What disappointed me was the eagerness of people to engage with other people for whom they had no respect. Basically, they were fighting with children with mental problems. Don't get into a fight with a mentally challenged child! Like, what is wrong with you? That you would pick a fight or enter into a fight with someone you did not respect and someone with whom there was no hope of productive, useful conversation? I believe in debate. I believe in engaging with people whose ideas are different than yours, whose values are different than yours. I believe that that's what civilization is. That's the forward progress of civilization, it is through dialogue, debate, and discourse. You mentioned The Nation magazine. I always loved the letters column of Nation. That was my favorite part of Nation. These people just argued and debated and tried to not necessarily find consensus but arrive at some kind of forward progress through serious and good faith debate and argument.
And there was none of that in the fight with Gamergate. That's on us. Our side. We should have recognized early on -- listen, there's the harassment part, which is a separate issue. That's just a crime. It's horrible and I feel bad for people who were the victims of harassment. But then there's just this eagerness by people who should know better -- there's just this eagerness to wade into battle with children! They're mostly kids, and they're mostly kids that are trying to figure stuff out for themselves, and many of them do have psychological problems. I'm being serious. Not everyone in Gamergate has psychological problems, because that's not the case. Gamergate has lots of people in it that are just -- they have different values than me, and they're trying to do their thing. And there are plenty of people there, I'm sure, who are smarter and well-adjusted than I am. But the main arguing, the main fighting is happening with people who are obviously unbalanced. Because they're engaged in a forum war.
An all-encompassing forum war that leaked far outside of the forum.
A sensible, grown-up response to that would be to look at it and be like "ugh!" And either close the browser, or look on in sick fascination as this crazy, out-of-control forum war spirals deeper and deeper up its own asshole. Not to jump in feet-first and be like, "Hooray! Finally, an opportunity!" I felt like that was such a lack of judgement on so many people on our side, "our" side, who should have known better, and who were not arguing in good faith. Because you should not argue with people who you can't even imagine their point of view. Arguing is a precious resource. You only have a certain amount of arguments to have in this world. You should use them wisely and effectively, because they can be applied for good. Do not argue with idiots -- everyone knows this. It's like a T-shirt slogan, it's so obvious.
But what was it? I think it was immaturity on our side, and psychological problems on our side that led to this eagerness. So it's on both sides. There were children, there were people who were psychologically imbalanced and were finding some deep, compulsive pleasure in this endless cycle of attacking and being attacked. They were finding too much joy in winning fights against opponents that they did not respect. There is no joy in winning a fight against an opponent that you do not respect. There should not be joy there. And people were just finding so much joy and satisfaction in that. And it's embarrassing. They should be -- we should be embarrassed for ourselves that we did that. And I'm glad that it's over.
Because it's over, by the way. It's over. There is no debate there, there really never was. It was a weird, dumb, watered-down version of a culture war that was never truly, deeply meaningful. There were a bunch of people who were way too defensive about their tastes on both sides of the coin. You should not be defensive about your taste. There were just too many people who had bad taste. Taste in arguments, taste in a larger sense of protocol, the subtle protocol of how to talk to other people as an adult. How to engage in dialogue about difficult topics. How to give and receive criticism. See, David, how I'm folding it all back into art and art education? [Laughs.]
It's true, though! For me, everything is channeled through my love of art, my love of culture, my love of games, and this is why it matters. It's all of a piece, developing that in yourself. And I'm not saying I'm above it, or that I'm better. I'm just as bad, and I've had bad arguments and done stupid things, and said stupid things. Got drawn into fights I shouldn't have had. But I try to learn, and we should all be in a process of learning, and self-overcoming, and self-improvement. So that was my number one take-away.
What I remember from some of that time was just a lot of people saying with absolute authority that they Know why game companies do what they do.
Do you get into arguments with people who talk about chemtrails? If somebody comes to your house and they're like, "Chemtrails are a thing I'd like to talk to you about!" Oh, please, come in and let me hit you with a frying pan. [Laughs.] What? What is going on? No, you're like, "Oh, oh thank you very much. I'm sorry, I'm not home right now." That’s the only sensible answer to someone who wants to argue about chemtrails. You've seen these people that claim to know how videogame companies -- it's the equivalent, isn't it?
Well, my way of looking at it is I think a lot of things that weren’t necessarily done out of malice a long time ago has enabled a lot of malice today. I’ve told you about this crusade I’ve had all year trying to get this piece about labor in the game industry and media apathy placed.
I do think there are certain things that are NDA’d or we just don't know much about. It has gotten me curious as far as ways people feel similarly voiceless in their jobs and in their careers. I think the people in industry are complicit in some of what happened, in that for so long they have thrown up this smokescreen against criticism of, “Who cares! It’s just videogames!” And they are obscuring or blotting out an entire workforce that can’t speak out about a lot of things. So, some of it might have been preventable. And it does hurt people. I’ve had so many people who work on big games point out to me that their series are more well known than anyone on their team. That’s frustrating, and also some of the runway to this stuff.
Yes. I think there's no question, if you scrape away all the chemtrail bullshit, there's a potential critique underlying Gamergate that a smart person, or an adult might have been able to craft into a reasonable articulation. [Laughs.] In some ways it's like looking at "Augs Lives Matters," and people saying, "Oh jeez, don't inject politics into a videogame." What we're saying when we critique "Augs Lives Matters" is, we're saying don't do it badly. In a way, you could say they're kind of saying the same thing. When it is done, by and large, it is done badly, so don't bother doing it. Also, don't get caught up in this status quo where you're trying to signal how serious and important you are by putting a thin veneer of serious and important topics on your game, and it's stupid. That's not wrong, and people have made legitimate arguments about the illiberal left and the kind of ideological bubble of people who just surround themselves with other people who all think exactly alike. The bad aspects of that kind of monoculture that you can get caught up in.
But by and large, those arguments weren't being made. Instead it was just a nightmare of pathetic shrieking and mewling.
Well, but how does this stuff begin to shift? Just like you’ll bring it back to arts and education, I’ll keep bringing it back to the media. I feel like the game industry is afraid of its audience, and you will never really see that acknowledged or discussed in any corner. So, if our side of the coin can’t collectively pick into these things -- how does it shift? You can I might agree on this phone call, but so what?
First of all, is the game industry afraid of their audience? Yes. I think you should be afraid of your audience. [Laughs.] If you're an actor, there's a love-hate or kind of an attraction and a repulsion. You fear their judgement. It's just terrifying to make work and put it out in the world, and then have people interact with it. So just on a base level, I think that that's true.
I think there's also a sense in which there's a dishonesty about games, and in seeking to make them more serious and important, we don't acknowledge what's really going on in our own relationship to games. Why we like them, and instead we tell ourselves stories that we think are impressive. We tell each other stories about games and what they are and who plays them, as opposed to being honest about what they are and why we play them, and what's going on there. I think if we were a little more honest with what was actually there, we would still find things to be proud of. Find things that are deeply meaningful and beautiful, that are not as simple as, "Well, it's an anti-war game." That's the equivalent basically of saying it's an educational game, which is what we did for years. People who wanted to make games but they wanted to give them the veneer of positive social impact would make an educational game or a game about a serious topic.
This is not to say that all games that are about serious topics are victims of this mistake, but I do think there is an element of that that is going on. Whereas I think it's more honest to say, "What is it that I truly love about games? Why am I fascinated by them? Why do I play them, and how can I get more of that? What do I not like about them, and how can I get less of that? How can I make something original and new and different, that moves games in the direction I really want them to go?”
I think people are doing that, and I think that's the process we're observing. It's just a difficult process.
How about from the creator's side? How do you wish that they were more honest?
[Sighs.] One way is that I would like people to demonize other humans less. I think there's value in making work that is a critique. In fact, all great work you could say in some ways is a critique. In the same way that a move in chess is a critique of your opponent. You're saying, "Oh, you've made a mistake. I think I can win." When you make work as an artist, you're saying, "Here's something that no one else has thought of. Here's a new way of doing it that is good, and it's different from what's happened before in some important way."
So, I do believe in the critical, but I think there's a shallow version of the critical stance that people are too willing to embrace, which is to say, "Ugh, everything sucks! Mainstream games suck, AAA games suck. This sucks." Or, "walking simulators suck," or "you suck" or "this sucks" or "that sucks." Everybody imagines that everyone else is a complete idiot. And the reality is just average intelligence -- we're all basically the same. If you stop and think for two seconds it’s obvious that everyone is basically the same, there's not this radical difference between you and your friends and all these other people. You happen to be born in the suburbs of Minneapolis, and you went to this one high school and you listened to this band. It's so easy to look at anything that isn't your scene, or isn't your taste, and find it monstrous.
I think it's valuable as an artist and creator to be able to look at these things and say, okay, this is not mine, but it is not alien to me. Nothing that is human is alien to me, and I understand the people who play Evony, David. I understand that. Whatever it is, the people who play games that I don't like, these mainstream AAA games like Mass Effect or Deus Ex -- I get it. I understand it. You have to have some level of respect. People who go to casinos and play slot machines -- as soon as you think of them as sub-humans, you're missing a truth about the world that will make you a better creator and a better artist. To understand, no, I too go to casinos. I too play slot machines. Or I could, or I might. And I might watch football, and I might play League of Legends; and I might play Flappy Bird, and I might play Dear Esther. I might play Hatred, or any of these games. Anything that seems alien and monstrous to you, resist the urge to use your work as a signal for who you are, and instead use your work as a way of constructing who you want to be. Do you see what I'm saying?
Absolutely. That's very well-put. We talked about this when we met up, but I'm curious to hear, in the spirit of honesty and the context of this conversation: We talked about this pattern of people proclaiming they are "quitting videogames."
I'm sympathetic. [Laughs.]
They are no longer going to --
Here's what I will say on the record: I'm totally sympathetic to those people. Darius Kazemi I think is a genius, and when he says "fuck videogames," I listen. The Tale of Tales folks I think have made a career out of being oppositional, defining their work in opposition to other things. And who can blame anyone? I think the real problem is not the dramatic goodbye- - everybody who grew up on message boards knows there is only one response to that, which is, "See you next Tuesday," right? [Laughs.]
It's like when rappers retire.
[Laughs.] Exactly. See you next Tuesday, which is genuinely both an insult, but also an honest expression of love, an indication that you will be welcomed back. That's what it means. It's teasing you and making fun of you, but it's also saying, "We will be here, and you can come back whenever you want." That's the way I feel about every single person who has ever said goodbye to videogames. See you next Tuesday.
[Laughs.] I wonder, some of the questions I sent over, it's more meant to see what it sparks in you. You mentioned not that you want less of this, but you would like to see stuff that is more ambitious, cool, and beautiful than zombies, ninjas, and superheroes.
Maybe, I don't know what to think about that anymore. On the one hand, I'm so tired of superheroes and zombies, and so embarrassed. But the thing that I love about League of Legends is can you imagine showing that to someone who didn't have any context for it? You're like, I'm a serious, public intellectual. I'm engaging with the topic of games and I'm trying to make the world a better place, and my heroes are people like critics and thinkers of the past, and we're talking about culture and art and stuff. Okay, but in League of Legends, this guy's a dragon, this guy's a princess. The princess has a magic spell that makes -- it’s like, “What? What are you? What's going on?” At a certain point, you just have to give up. I'm not going to tilt against that windmill. I think there are some people that can't get over it. Like Chris Hecker, I talk with him about this stuff all the time, and for him it's very hard to get past that. He's making a serious competitive game, Spy Party, which has a much more sophisticated, and less dorky and pulpy thematic surface to it.
I can't believe he's still working on it. I emailed him a few weeks ago, asking whatever happened to that game. And he's still working on it.
But I Iove Chris. He's putting his money where his mouth is. He's making stuff that demonstrates his values -- he's not just complaining about it. That's what I respect. People who are doing it, I think that's great. I'm not going to sit around complaining about it. There are subtle reasons why it's happening that are deeply entrenched that have to with legibility; and also I think there's a way in which a very pulp surface is like having no surface. So I'm interested in abstract games, and in many ways League of Legends is an abstract game. It's like The Simpsons chess set. The Simpsons chess set is not about The Simpsons, it's about chess. League of Legends is not about dragons and ninjas and pirates, it's about League of Legends. The surface is almost like a decal that indicates that you shouldn't be looking at the surface -- it's there as a set of handles on what's really happening in the game, which is what's happening underneath.
To totally shift gears, I'm curious when you have these conversations with prospective students or parents of prospective students, what do they typically ask of you or about the program?
Sometimes you get parents that are still very skeptical of this whole thing. From the outside, it just looks absurd, and they're just like, "Well this is not a reasonable thing for anyone to study, or an industry to go into." So I think for them, it's a matter of reassuring that this is a reasonable thing to want to get an education in, and not totally impractical, and that there are people here who had successful careers. For a lot, it's reassurance and confirmation that this thing is normal. I feel like it's part of my job to be someone who can explain League of Legends to parents. There's more going on here than you might think, and it's maybe not as bad as it looks to you.
What sort of antiquated notions do you still hear from students or from parents of potential students?
I don't know if they're necessarily antiquated notions as much as it's sort of befuddlement. If you look at something like League of Legends, it just looks like an explosion at a comic-book factory. It's just a mess, it doesn't look like a valuable use of your child's time and energy. But hearing about what's going on under the hood, and realizing that there's more to it than you might see in a casual observation, is nice.
As for students, there's sometimes still a certain amount of naiveté about the value of ideas in raw form. There's still a lot of applicants who are like, "Well, I have these ideas for games, I have concepts for games. I know that's really valuable, so that's what I want to focus on." And we have to kind of dissuade them of that. No one's going to pay you for ideas for games. You're going to maybe have a career if you can learn how to make things; and those things will be better if they're informed by ideas, and they have concepts and thinking behind them. But the concepts and thinking on their own are usually not worth anything.
That's true everywhere.
Sometimes I worry that games are a safety net for people. Sometimes games are the perfect fit for someone, and it's obvious that given this person's combination of skills and interests and passion, games are a great thing for them. And then sometimes it's like, "Well, I couldn't do any of this other stuff." [Laughs.] "But I really like games, and maybe I'll make games!"
"What could happen?" [Laughs.]
As if just being interested in a thing is enough. "I like a thing a lot, so maybe that's the thing I should do" - which is not always the case. You can like albums and like music a lot, but not be a musician. I think the same is true of games, but I think sometimes people just assume that this thing that they like a lot is inevitably going to be the best fit for them as a career.
I don't remember when the last time was I was out at NYU. I was there visiting Julian, and it must have been 2014. It doesn't matter. I remember there was a poster hanging in the Game Center. I don't know if it's still up, but I think it said something about every well-educated person should know about games. You know the poster I'm talking about?
That's a poster for the games 101 class.
I wanted to ask a little bit about that, as far as what are the responsibilities of an institution that's helping to build what academia or the educated class may one day consider the canon of games literacy. How do you figure that out, or is that too broad of a thing?
I'll tell you what we wanted from that rather saucy subtitle. It was meant to indicate our belief that -- games 101 is sort of a fundamental class in game studies. Critical literacy is what we call it. On the one hand, it's designed to be a foundation for shared knowledge so that our students can have design conversations. It's really about making sure that the students who are taking design classes at bare minimum are aware of a set of ideas and games, and the historical period. You know, fundamental literacy in the history of games is an important part of being a game designer, and a deep knowledge and a deep literacy of games is an essential part of being a good game designer. But then that phrase, "every well-educated person should know about games," is also meant to indicate that it's our belief that we're entering into a world where games, understanding games and what they are and how they work is something that everyone who wants to participate in contemporary culture should have a basic literacy in.
In the same way that you assume people have a basic knowledge of literature and film and music, kind of a certain shared set of cultural touchstones if they want to participate in the conversations of contemporary culture. The same is true of games, is becoming more true as they continue to be influential and more important. That's a project that we'd like to contribute to, this idea that games can be part of the general set of concepts and ideas that inform intellectual discourse in a broad sense.
Recently somebody defaced one of those posters to say "what every well-educated white male should know about the history games." Which was their indication that they were dissatisfied with the gender and racial diversity of the creators who are featured in games 101, and whose work is highlighted as part of this canon-building exercise. We were aware of the fact that that was a critique was out there, so it wasn't that surprising to see it, and it’s something we take very seriously. The games 101 class is constantly being revised and updated, and we're always thinking of these issues of diversity. But the fact of the matter is that the history of games and videogames in particular isn't super-diverse. So we have to make an effort to reflect that in the class, or to reflect our concerns about that. It gets more diverse over time, and we emphasize where we can the contributions of women and people of color. But it still kind of is what it is. This year when we went to look at games 101 we made a special effort to look at this particular issue and see where we could do a better job of including and highlighting work by people that weren't white dudes.
That was something I did want to ask about -- it seems at least from the outside that that's a thing you guys are of course aware of. I don't know how you go about solving things like that and making everyone happy. I know that you do have two recent new hires. I'm probably going to be mispronouncing her name but you probably know who I'm talking about: Mitu and Naomi?
So when the program is looking at adding someone new to the mix, what do you look for?
Well, one of the main things is making sure that the faculty itself is diverse. As you pointed out, we have hired some really talented and exciting and excellent women faculty members, which I think is super-important. Then there's also encouraging women to apply to the program, and supporting women who are applying to the program; and making an effort to make women who are part of the Game Center community feel especially welcome and safe and encouraged to explore game design. Those are the fundamental things, because it's about how you build a community and the norms within that community. To me, you can never separate ethics from aesthetics. Doing good work, doing smart, original, interesting work means being aware of these kinds of issues. If you're just recapitulating the status quo, you're also making boring work.
So in some sense these things go hand-in-hand. Doing good work often means being a good collaborator. Being a good person. You can't really separate those things out. It's not like they're identical. I'm sure there's plenty of great art that's made by assholes. [Laughs.] That does happen. I'm not going to rule it out. But I think it's actually not the general rule. I think the general rule is that to make good work, especially in a really collaborative field, means not being an asshole. It means being aware of other people and respecting them, and treating them as equals and listening to their point of view -- even when it's different from yours. All of those things that are the foundation of ethics are also the foundation of doing good work in a collaborative environment.
It's something that we're constantly working on, and we know that we've got a lot of distance to cover to make game development and game design education a better place and more welcoming and encouraging of women and people of color. That's something we're constantly trying to do.
We talked before about a certain eagerness for rage in talking about or arguing about things around videogames. Maybe this isn't specific to press, but I'm curious to hear what you feel like maybe press, and/or enthusiast press could be doing a better job of in covering games and the game industry?
I think it's pretty good. It's easy to find examples of things that are terrible. It's hard to know how to judge, in general, where things are relative to where they should be. It's really hard to bridge the gap between journalism and criticism that is for hyper-literate insiders, and journalism that is for a broad general audience that isn't stupid. You know what I mean? I think that's maybe the hard problem in games journalism right now. I don't know of any really consistent game criticism in mainstream publications, like the main newspapers or magazines. Instead you get this stuff where it's meaningless to me, or it's useless to me because it's so introductory: "Minecraft is a computer game!" It assumes that there's zero literacy, and it tries to introduce these concepts on a fundamental level. It's like trying to educate people, and that's not sustainable. You can't have that week after week, this kind of introductory-level stuff over and over again.
What you want instead, is the way newspapers cover film and cover literature and cover music, where they assume that they're speaking to a literate audience at the highest level. But at the same time, it's work that's been done in a context of a general audience publication. It's not for specialists. I think that's the thing that I don't see as much of as I would like. If I had to say one thing, that's the thing I would pick.
You mentioned ninjas and pirates and -- I don't remember what the third one was.
Maybe dragons? Or it could have been wizards.
Any of them, and they're all welcome there. I wonder, too: we're seeing a real strong rise of articulate analysis and philosophical reflection, but I wonder about that. That doesn't really change the fact that they're doing deep dives on ninjas and pirates and dragons and their color schemes.
Well, yeah. But that's only if you think that the ninjas and dragons are the important thing. If you think what's important is the representational layer, the thematic content, then it doesn't even merit a serious analysis. But if it's The Simpsons chess set, then you don't need to talk about The Simpsons part of it at all, really. Instead you can cover League of Legends the way that they cover baseball. When they're talking about baseball, they're not talking about Bears and -- help me out, I can't think of a single other baseball team. [Laughs.]
When they're talking about sports, they're not talking about Cowboys and Eagles and Jets and Bears. They're talking about people playing a game at a really high level, and it's an industry, and there are people's lives involved; and there's the beauty of what happens in the competition and in the performance. This beautiful, athletic performance. All this other stuff, the team dynamics, strategic elements, and the emotional and the psychological aspects of it, and everything else. There's a lot there to talk about. In some cases the surface of the videogames is really important, and it is the heart of what the game is about, and it's worth talking about. But in the case of something like League of Legends, it obviously isn't. So articulating that is a hard thing to do, getting people to wrap their heads around that. Especially when it's not even obvious that it's true. What I'm saying is not exactly accepted knowledge. If you talk to the people who cosplay as Teemo or cosplay as other League of Legends characters, it is the important thing for them. So who am I to say that it's not the important thing about the game?
It's a genuinely hard problem, but I do think we are getting there. More and more there are games that are mainstream, and that really are about the representational aspects. They're about the stories and the characters and the imaginary world that is created, and the narrative that happens. And they're not embarrassing -- Firewatch is not embarrassing. Dear Esther, or Kentucky Route Zero, or The Beginner's Guide, Her Story, 80 Days. There's a lot of stuff out there that you can point to and talk about that doesn't have any zombies in it. I think that that's healthy. I'm not saying there should be no zombies. Although I don't think there's any danger of that happening any time soon.
But it's a weird point to make in a world where Comic-Con calls the shots for Hollywood now. You would think in a way this is an example of how videogames are ascendant, because they're part of the Comic-Con industrial entertainment complex. But I don't think they have to be. Fuck Comic-Con, quite honestly. I don't give a shit about any of that hyper-fan stuff. I'm so tired of it. I'm so bored of it. Superheroes -- I grew up on science-fiction. I love it and I will always love it, but this is different. This kind of endlessly celebratory fan culture stuff that is so much about hyper-literacy within this very narrow channel, but a kind of illiteracy on any broader scale. I'm just not into it, and I don't want videogames to succeed on those terms. I want them to be -- there is no one singular videogames. Moreso than movies. Movies, there still is kind of this one big movie scene, and it has its edges and it has its underground elements and indie aspects and it has its arthouse aspects, but it's all kind of one big thread. Where I think less so of music. We don't think of music as being a single monolithic thing, that has different genres in it but is all one big industry. It's more like multiple industries and they're all very different. And I think that's what games are more like.
I guess really what I would like to see is a broader and more eclectic and healthier, robust ecosystem of different game industries, each thriving and feeding off the others and bouncing back and forth and crossing over. But no longer do we need to maintain the idea that there is just one big videogames thing that we're all fans of and all parts of. It's not. It's no longer the case.
I don't know if you wanted to revisit this, but when we met at the Game Developers Conference we talked a little bit our uncertainty in whether we would be attending GDC again. Is that a thing you feel comfortable talking about?
I'm not sure to what degree that expresses anything about the field of games, or I think it might just be me. I've been going to GDC for a long time. I have always enjoyed it and I get a lot out of it. But I might take a break from GDC -- and it would not mean that I'm less interested in games and game design as much as it is that that format isn't perfect for me anymore.
It might be where I am in my own life, and I'm not sure if that's true of other people. It just seems like when I first started going, it was so exciting just to meet other people that did the same thing I did and were into the same things. Now I feel like that's less special. I think it's partly because the internet has evolved to create those social contexts for the work we do in a better way and also that GDC itself has just gotten so big. It just feels a little bit too big for me at this point. Giant, beige boxes full of people, and the kinds of the dynamics that are created by that scale serve less and less to deliver the things that I'm looking for -- which I'm not even sure what they are. Little glimpses of insight into other people and how they work, and what they're interested in, and their ideas. Maybe it will happen on a smaller scale -- for me it happens more in a room with fewer people and more risk-taking, as opposed to these giant, beige boxes with the PowerPoint presentations.
[Laughs.] Similarly, I have this quote from a couple months ago from our emailing, you wished as a community that games was more honest. You said you think we tend to spend too much time anxiously and defensively posturing, worried more about what we were signalling than what we were saying. Worried more about our own status and the status of our indie groups, than about careful, truthful observations.
I do. I'm not here to tell people -- I don't feel comfortable being prescriptive. People, just do your thing, and try to be excellent to each other. Find the things that make you happy in this world, and do them. I'll put it this way: the things that I want to see more of in myself are honesty and humility and maybe confidence. How about those as a three-part thing that I would like to see more of in myself, and by definition things that I admire in other people. Humility in the sense of we're so just defensively hostile in insisting in our point of view as being correct, and demonizing points of view of other people. So humility just means being more comfortable with not knowing all the time. We're humans, we're the smartest things in the universe as far as we know. But being smart is constantly not knowing. It means constantly struggling to know a little bit more, a little bit better.
And yet are just so secure in the knowledge that we are right. I think that in general, our arguments and our conversations would be more productive if we entered into them a little less secure in our own beliefs that we start out with. Which doesn't mean nihilistic, or cynical, or nothing matters or relativist, but it means open more to evidence and persuasion, and the kind of perspective that you get from putting yourself in the shoes of the person you're talking to, and really trying to see the world from their point of view. The process of steel-manning, instead of straw-manning.
It's saying okay, if I'm going to argue with this person, first let me come up with the best argument in favor of their position. let me see if I can paraphrase their point of view, in a way that they would agree to. They would recognize and agree that yes, this is their point of view. And if you can't do that, then you're not really arguing in good faith. I think 99 percent of the time, we can't really do that to people that we're talking to. So I think that's the humility thing.
The honesty thing is about getting outside of this constant signalling of who we think we should be, in order to be impressive to other people. Worrying about status and projecting a kind of idealized image of who we think we are, and instead just owning up to the truth. Just being awake to and aware of the facts of the matter when it comes to everything you're involved in. The facts of the matter are often not the way we want things to be -- but they're often beautiful in their own way. Being true is beautiful in its own way. The fact of existence in itself is a quality that can make something beautiful. But we're not that sensitive to this beauty, because we're constantly admiring things that aren't true, as if they were. It starts with thinking about our own experience with games. Thinking about the games we play, and why we play them, and what we get out of them -- and then building from that, as designers, as players, as critics.
You see it occasionally. I can't remember the last time I saw it. I really like this critic Michael Thomsen, I don't know if you've ever read Michael Thomsen. He plays Dark Souls and he kind of hates Dark Souls, but he plays the Dark Souls games, he can't get away from them and he sort of hates the fact that he's compelled to play them. But he’s working through this weird, conflicted relationship to Dark Souls that to me is so much more honest and powerful. Whether you like Dark Souls or hate Dark Souls, there's more in watching Michael Thomsen struggle to figure out what he thinks than there is in most people when they're just praising it or critiquing it -- where he's just like, "This is the worst game in the world, and I'm going to tell you why, because I've played a thousand hours of it."
[Laughs.] Yeah, I know Michael.
At the same time, he's also trying to write well. It may be a little bit troll-y in a sense, that he's calling something the worst game in the world, but it's a weird example of honesty. I do think that to me, it just rang true with my own experience with games, which is often conflicted. It's not some kind of -- occasionally you'll come across some kind of deeply positive, moving experience that reminds you of why you love games, and you're just swept away. You have this incredible experience.
Sometimes it's just the comfort of repetition. It's allowing yourself to be wrapped up in a compulsive loop, or taken away. And there's this self-destructive aspect that isn't entirely negative, in the same way that we have a conflicted relationship to drinking and to drugs -- and we should have a conflicted relationship. It should not be a simplistic thing that these things are good or bad entirely. It should be this complex engagement with something that is very, very complex and nuanced and ambiguous.
So the honesty there -- I would like to see more of that kind of thing. An honesty that -- the things about games that are so terrible, like the "Augs Lives Matters" thing. Deus Ex. Story in games across the board is that bad. This one just happens to be more obviously bad because it's embarrassingly appropriating this political movement. But everything that -- ninety percent of what games do with this kind of stuff is equally embarrassing. It's just that we're not acknowledging it, because we want to pretend that it's better or something. I don't know.
And then confidence -- humility and confidence together, I think that's the killer combo. The humility to recognize that you are not -- that you don't have a special position that gives you some privileged perspective on the world, where your ideas and your opinions, and your point of view is somehow magically better than everyone else. I'm willing to give you, if you're reading this, I'm willing to give you the benefit of the doubt that you're of above-average intelligence. Great, that means that you are like 40 percent of the rest of the world. [Laughs.] It seems like to everyone from their point of view, from your point of view, that you've got a window into some deeper insight into all the things you think about. But it just can't be the fact, it doesn't make sense. Everyone has that same feeling. So that's the humility part of it.
But then the confidence part of it is that it also conversely seems to everyone that they are the besieged and beleaguered target of a conspiracy of power. [Laughs.] Whose goal, whose purpose is to keep you down. If you're not careful it looks like that no matter where you are. It's very easy to feel the headwind that's pushing back against you, and it's very hard to remember the tailwind that is pushing you forward. Psychologically it's the thing that we're designed to notice -- we literally don't remember tailwinds, and we can't ever forget headwinds. So no matter where we go, and I'm as guilty as all of this as anyone -- seeing myself in oppositional terms to the rest of the world, and seeing my point of view as being the exception. I'm in the minority in terms of this opinion, and everyone of the status quo is against me, and all the kinds of institutional power structures are against me.
As a result, that's one of the reasons we enter into a lot of these debates and conversations already loaded for bear, and defensive and anxious and angry and upset. Maybe it's easier and arguably flippant for me to say this from my position of super-privilege. I recognize that I am in a position of super-privilege, where it's easy for me to recognize my privilege and my power, and acknowledge it. But I honestly think it's the best thing for most people, in most situations, to focus on the power that you wield. Focus on the power that you wield. Think not of the power that is wielded against you, but instead think of what power you wield. Once you start thinking about that, then you're in a position to start to wield that power responsibly. No matter who you are or where you are, I guarantee you you have more power than you recognize. And your responsibility as a human, your ethical responsibility and what it means to be a good person and live a good life is wielding that power responsibly. Thinking, what are my values, and how do I want to make the world better? How can I do that? What are the results of my actions? Who am I affecting, and how can I make sure that I am not hurting people? Or that I am improving their lives and on balance making the world a better place?
Think of yourself as having knives for fingers and having atom bombs for elbows. I think that is the healthiest and best way to go through life. Because you kind of do. But if the only thing you're thinking of is the knives and bombs that are wielded against you, you're going to end up damaging a lot of the people around you in the flinching that you do, and in the defensive postures that you take. You will constantly be cutting people and blowing them up. [Laughs.]
Whereas if you really think about the power you have, I think you are on the road to being a better person -- but also being a happier person! That's also the road to success. I sound like Tony Robbins or something! [Laughs.] Join my cult! But I do think it's really true. I thought about this the other day when Leigh Alexander and I were talking -- this was when she was taking over at Offworld, and she was like, "I hope I will have your support." My thought was, no, I should be asking you. You don't need my support. You are in control. You are in charge. She is a powerful person who makes a difference in the world, and this is an example of her seizing the reins and doing something which I really did support and celebrate. But what I said to her was just, do a good job. Be responsible because you have so much power, and this is your time. Just think about how you are going to wield this immense and dangerous cache of weapons that is the legacy of every human. How they live their lives and how they're going to make a change in the world.
I think it's hard to see that, it's hard in my own life to have seen that, even from this position of super-power and incredible privilege I have. But honestly, if you're reading about games and arguing about games, then you're basically living on this tippy-top of Maslow's pyramid of the hierarchy of needs. It's just all of us -- and I acknowledge that yes, of course there are still all kinds of elaborate power structures and hierarchies and stuff. But all of that is taking place at the very, very, very tippy-top of the pyramid -- especially if you consider the whole history of humanity. We are living at the top of that pyramid, and that pyramid is growing.
I guess those would be the three qualities that I'm trying to develop more in myself, and I admire when I see them in other people.
Real quick too, we talked about this before with game companies: for people who don't pay attention to games, how is it that we talk about people being so opinionated and very forceful with their ideas -- I don't want to harp on this Deus Ex thing, but I think that's one of many examples of when a game company is called out for seeming to have a stance. Why do games companies deny that that's happening?
I think they're scared. I think they don't really know how to handle it. I think it's partly because a game company is a firm. It's not a single person with a point of view, it's a collective of people with different points of view. It's difficult to hold a company to the same standards that you would hold an individual creator. Even in the case of individual creators, it's difficult for them to answer those questions. Why did you put this in your work, and what does it mean? "Well, I don't know, and I don't even remember when I put it in. It's not even about that, blah blah blah." You get that kind of evasive response, even when it's just one person, a director or writer. But in the case where it's a whole bunch of people, it's a board of directors and their investors that they have to be beholden to, it just makes things even more complicated. If they can duck those questions they want to. If they can duck those questions, why wouldn't they?
But the fact that they are nonetheless in their own stumbling, awkward way trying to put this stuff in their games is an example of the fact that they, even with all of these reasons that would make them not want to rock the boat, that would keep them behaving in the most conservative way -- even with that, they feel the pressure of this form evolving. They feel the pressure of people calling them out for a lack of relevance, and wanting them to be more serious and important and less frivolous and escapist. They're awkwardly trying to do that, which I think is -- we should acknowledge that that's partly in response to demands that we are making, those of us that want the form to evolve and grow and change and take more risks.
The point of risks is that they're not guaranteed to work. Here's an example, they took a risk. Why don't we make a game about robots, but then have it try to resonate in some way with larger, other kinds of contemporary political struggles? It's a risk that did not work, they kind of botched it. It's sort of an awkward failure to do that, but it was a risk that they took. That's good! The people like us who want games to evolve and grow and change, and be risky and be interesting and be something for grown-ups. That's what it looks like to get what you want. [Laughs.] You know what I'm saying?
[Laughs.] Yeah, I'd say you gotta put your hand on the stove to learn it's hot.
Well, you should never put your hand on the stove, is the real answer there. You're better off if you've never put it on the stove. But if you want to move in a direction, you have to take stumbling steps in that direction.
If we want games that look like Deus Ex in the sense that they're 3D games with characters in them, but we want them to be less childish and juvenile, and more sophisticated and adult, then you're going to see some awkward, adolescent steps in that direction. This is like Eidos' voice cracking. [Laughs.] They used to sing in a lovely falsetto -- but now this metaphor is starting to become weird. You see what I'm saying? They're going through an awkward adolescence, and that's what it looks like.
I would agree.
What do you feel that videogames have accomplished? You can interpret that however you want.
Wow. I actually think that we are incredibly lucky to be alive during this time. And when I say we, I mean the type of person -- there are plenty of people who don't like videogames or who like them okay, but they're not anything special, and they're just entertainment. Or they're just whatever, they don't think about them all the time.
But there are certain people for whom videogames are just this perfect combination of elements. Of the logical and the intuitive, of aesthetics and engineering. Of the left brain and the right brain, of poetry and science. For people like that, it's such a fantastic time to be alive, and to watch games emerge and become this really important cultural form, and evolve and grow.
When you find a game that really speaks to you and that you love, and it connects with you and it fits into your life in a particular way -- then there's no other experience that's like that. It's different in a really special way from an album or a painting, or a poem or a movie or a novel. It's like those things a little bit, but it's in the ways that it is different, it's extraordinarily beautiful and meaningful to me. When you find a game like that, it's wonderful, and there's nothing like it.
How many people get to be alive during the arrival and the first burst of creative evolution of a new cultural form like that? I think that's pretty spectacular. Even if you zoom in to a single game like League of Legends, for me it's just remarkable to see a game like that which has the potential scope to really sit alongside games like basketball or baseball. To operate at that scale of culture, and to resonate with people's lives and to reward deep study and serious attention for years and years and years. That's amazing.
But at the same time to be something brand new and weird and novel. For someone like me who’s a novelty junky, the idea that you get all that, but it's also just so bizarre and weird and cool, and interesting and alien! It's like alien, teenage culture from the future. For me, that's part of the pleasure of it -- looking at this stuff like, wait a minute. I can't even begin to parse this or understand it, it is so novel and different and original and interesting. That's pretty spectacular.
I think we're pretty lucky to have that happening around us, and to be a part of it. Those of us who can contribute to that I think are doing something special, and that's something to be proud of.
Absolutely. That's kind of a big thing I'm trying to document. I think it can be very easy to see that all* *of these changes are happening fast and invisibly, and it's important to remember that yeah, there's a lot of fires popping up here and there. A lot of hiccups and a lot of confusion, but I think that's absolutely true that these are the things that happen when progress is being made. It's just it may not be progress by your rubric, it may not be progress by someone else's rubric that you know -- but things are still shifting, and they're changing. They may not be as fast as you want, but [laughs] they're definitely changing.
Yeah. I'm pretty optimistic in general about games -- I think it's important to be critical in the sense of always wanting to move forward. Never just taking things for granted, but always struggling to understand what are the important problems to solve, and working to solve them. But I think in general there is a lot to like. I'm not one of these people that likes games because I think at some point in the future they’re going to be good. I think they're good right now. You know what I mean? It would be a tragedy if you would devote your life to a thing and then be like "yeah, well, I know this thing sucks. But I'm convinced that fifty years from now it's going to be really good, and there's going to be some version of it that's worth caring about." No, devote your life to a thing that doesn't suck. Step one. [Laughs.]
Find a thing that you genuinely like, and be honest about what you like about it, and then devote yourself to it in a way that makes it even better. As much as I do criticize things and am frustrated by some of the aspects that I think could be better, I'm not one of those peoples that thinks games currently suck but they're going to be worthy of our time in the future.
But I do think that they are going to continue to be better. I think they're pretty great now. One of the things that I find kind of comforting is to recognize that there are more great games out there now, currently, than you will ever be able to play in your life. Playing a game, for me anyway, there's lots of games you can play lightly and easily, you can spend an hour or two with them and get a lot out of them. I think there's a lot of games out there that are like that, and that's great.
But there are also games out there that you can devote years of your life to, and they will continue to give you great, deep experiences and meaning, and make you a better person, and be worth your time. There are more great games already out in the world like that, than you could ever possibly play. So we're already surrounded by them, an overabundance of beauty and meaning, and it's a matter of finding the ones that are right for you, and playing them in a way that is the best that you can. And then imagine that just getting better and better over time. That's just going to continue to be something that -- there are going to be more and more interesting and great experiences. You don't have to play them all, and you don't have to like every one that you play. But you do have to figure out what it is you like and seek it out, and then make it worthy of your attention by contributing to it in a way where you and the thing that you love both improve.