Sure, my name is Jacob McMurray and I'm 43 and I'm in Seattle, Washington.
My relationship with the game industry -- I mean, you know, I might have told you before my first videogame I ever played was Wizardry 1 that my parents bought for me I was in 10 years old in 1982 on our new Apple IIe and I was totally enthralled with that. Played tons of games throughout my youth. I kind of look back to those classic Apple IIe Brøderbund games and RPGs -- I loved RPGs -- throughout elementary, middle school, high school, even into college.
But I mean, really kinda diving into what's happening now really only happened with us doing this exhibition called "Indie Game Revolution." For that, I needed to really kind of bone up on what was happening in the industry in that sort of larger game space so I could feel competent enough to talk about it in an exhibition setting.
I'm the senior curator at the EMP Museum in Seattle, so, I create exhibitions on all sorts of different topics and often we're unlike a traditional, say, art museum where the curators would have a deep history in a certain field and would only do exhibitions in that particular field. For me, I'm jumping around from doing exhibitions on Nirvana to horror film to Jimi Hendrix to indie videogames to etc. So, I often have a very short window in which to become a quasi-expert or at least enough so that what I'm saying in an exhibition isn't completely wrong.
[Laughs.] What piqued your interest -- I remember you told me a few years ago you were just doing this thing. But we didn't talk too much about what piqued your interest in becoming "mini" expert in doing an exhibit and curating a selection in a physical space about videogames.
Well, you know, in 2013 we hosted a Smithsonian traveling exhibition called "The Art of Videogames" and that show was really popular for us. You know, it was very much a Smithsonian-style exhibition where it's very plug and play, there wasn't a huge amount of playable games. I think there was only, like, five in the exhibition.
But what it did do was it engaged the nostalgia of all the visitors that came, you know, no matter what your age was because it had, like, a four-decade reach in that exhibition. And that really got us thinking about just, like, "Wow, we've been focusing on these different aspects of popular culture: music, science-fiction, fantasy, horror, film, comics, etc. We've touched on programs with videogames but why don't we bring gaming into the core of what we do?" Especially, we live in the Northwest, a huge center for the game industry. So it just made perfect sense.
With that idea, I was tasked to come up with an exhibition concept. And really, then, I started thinking, "Well, how do we want to approach this?" One thing that I thought was fascinating about that "Art of Videogames" exhibit was that it did engage that nostalgia. But for me, there was something -- it felt like all of the exhibitions that I had seen out there, and there was only, like, three or four, that were major traveling exhibitions on videogames, they all just focused on the past, like, "Hey, look at this crazy world of videogames back when we were kids!" And for me it felt more exciting, like, "Well, why don't we do something that feels vital now?"
And I had been, at that time, before, working on this exhibit -- I had been playing games here and there, but I had started, I think maybe I got fixated on Terraria or something like that. And so I was playing just a few indie games and I was reading a lot of Rock, Paper, Shotgun and just kind of -- that was sort of like my drip feed as to this kind of mysterious world out there.
[Laughs.] What was mysterious about it? I had told you a few rock critics I talked told me the game industry on the whole seemed largely invisible. What seemed invisible or mysterious to you about what's going on with videogames with where you were coming from?
To back up a little bit, you know, when I said I had been playing throughout school and college and stuff like that, pretty much sometime around the early 2000's I basically stopped playing any games for like a decade. Life just got too busy and I don't know what happened but I just didn't play anything.
And so it was actually when Fallout 3 came out -- because I loved Fallout 2 -- I was like, "I'm gonna play videogames again!" And I started playing, you know, some games. But my window for seeing what games were out there was solely on this AAA level. Which, you know, was kinda my experience throughout all of my youth. The only thing I was seeing were the stuff I would see at the store, and I'm sure that I would see shareware stuff and stuff in baggies and stuff like that. For the most part, it was like I getting those big titles that were being advertised in Compute or whatever magazines I was reading at the time.
So, for me, it's like playing Fallout 3 and I don't know how I got -- I think maybe I was just psyched about RPGs again and I was looking for sites on the web to read about people playing RPGs and Rock, Paper, Shotgun came up as one of them. And I started reading that and seeing, "Wow! There's all this other stuff that I kind of had no idea about."
And I think it was -- I don't know. For me, it was really interesting to see that because it was something where it was this undercurrent that wasn't being advertised. I mean, I think I've probably heard of Minecraft at that point but it wasn't huge or anything. So, anyway, I don't know. And for me, I have to credit Rock, Paper, Shotgun a lot because I think the fact that I kept reading that blog for a good year nearly everyday, I think because just because I really like the writing and I liked the way they engaged with the audience. But I don't know. I think that was the seed for me thinking, "Well, maybe we focus it on all this little stuff that's happening. All of this stuff that's happening in the indie space, because it is happening right now and it seems to be happening so rapidly.”
So you have a decade there where you stopped.
That's something else that I talk about is, like, people stopping and the big-budget space. In that time, what seems to have changed about that space and their output? What seems to have not changed?
Well, I think the last games that I played and -- God, maybe it was even the late '90s. But it's like, I remember playing Diablo 2 a ton and Fallout 2 and, gosh, you know, just all this sort of isometric RPG kind of stuff. And then to go from that to basically playing nothing and then the first thing I played is Fallout 3, I mean, I just remember just being blown away. I should send you -- the EMP had a blog for a tiny amount of time where all the curators had to write these little essays. So it was just like, "Fuck, what do I do today?" What do I write an essay on?" So I wrote a whole essay on mods in Fallout 3 'cause I was just like -- I'm sure to anybody actually playing videogames it was just like, "Where has this person been?" But, you know, I was, like, so psyched. I was like, "Oh my God! You can make anything!" So, yeah, I think there was obviously a quantum shift in what you could do in games from late '90s to whenever Fallout 3 came out. In 2008, I think?
What was the guidance like on you studying and submitting games for inclusion? Did the museum veto ideas? Or did they pretty much give you a leash to do whatever you want?
Well, you know, the way the process works is basically I've got a set amount of time to kind of come up with a concept and flesh it out into an expanded concept document and then I've gotta present that to our leadership team and get buy-off on it. And, you know, there's a lot of scrutiny on those things because we're not an institution where it's like whatever idea I come up with just goes. It's, like, we have to make sure that the concept is gonna feel broad enough and it's gonna attract a good amount of people, that it has hooks for development, for marketing feels like they can market it. So, one of my big fears was pitching the idea of focusing on this larger "indie" space was thinking the people upstairs on the leadership team who don't play games are gonna go, "Well, why don't you focus on Grand Theft Auto V. It sold a billion dollars in product in three days." Or whatever. That was my main fear. I was sure that they were gonna focus on what they would know. But, I was really surprised. And the fact that people were very supportive and the idea that it really -- the exhibition idea really spoke to personal creativity and empowering individuals to create was really important to us.
And I think that's the difficult thing is, we talk about the games industry a lot. The idea of an industry, it's about money, it's about capitalism and transactions and sales and stuff like that. What's exciting about that indie space is you can talk about it in sort of an art language. It doesn't have to be about commerce, that it can be about creativity. Not that the "games industry" can't be about creativity, but it's interesting that we kind of conflate these two things.
The curation you’re doing, like, how is it different than, say, a listicle on a website? It’s not an accusatory question but I think for some people, especially younger, that distinction may not be clear.
Well, I think that a big difference is that a listicle is generally being created for maximum page-views, so the authors of said listicle are including content that is generally widely known to the desired audience group, and it’s either focusing on popularity or nostalgia or some sort of meaty hook that will cause the audience to bite. For what I do, and I have to preface this by saying that every exhibition is wildly different in scope, content, and direction, so how I approach each exhibition is often very different, but in general, while I am trying to appeal to the broadest possible audience -- because keeping the museum doors open is obviously a priority -- I feel like every single thing in an exhibition is incredibly considered. Nothing is left to chance or is included on a whim. Every decision I think about and weigh all the pros and cons.
When visitors enter into an exhibition, they shouldn’t ever see anything and be puzzled as to why that thing is there. While I don’t want people to feel this oppressive curatorial hand while walking through an exhibition, I do want people to see the patterns and the structures upon which all the content exists. With an exhibition, we’re paring down the complexity of life into an extremely simplified form that is defined by the exhibition space, the budget, the creative resources we have, and the content available. In order to give the visitor the impression of nuance, of complexity, there needs to be a robust and considered conceptual -- and often literal -- framework for that content. I think that’s the difference. For me, and might sound weird, but I feel that curating an exhibition is an artform. And hopefully I’m becoming an okay artist.
I sometimes wonder about museums adding videogames and wonder which is lending which more relevance. Museums don’t seem or feel to carry as much cachet as they used to, but maybe that’s just my perception. Obviously, the EMP is a fairly different sort of museum -- it’s not the sort of musty or outdated kind of establishment that word “museum” brings to mind, but what do you think? Are there instances where you feel like games are being approached disingenuously and their inclusion serves to only try to make the museum seem more hip?
I think that museums are in a weird space right now. For a couple centuries or more, museums have been in that position of holding the keys to “worthy” culture and dictating that culture to the masses. As the content of culture shifts from being something that is created by a few elites and passed downward to the proles, to something that is created by everyone, the role of many museums becomes more uncertain. Because of this, you see many museums trying to cater to audiences and content that they never would have given a shit about in the past. This can lead to weird content decisions or tokenism, content-wise.
But I think that’s where this strange museum that I work at has really excelled. We started out being a rock ’n’ roll museum, and then added a science-fiction museum, and now we unashamedly embrace various passionate, nerdy forms of popular culture. With that evolution, institution-wise, I really do feel that my job as a curator isn’t really about dictating what is important to the audience, but it’s more about reflecting what the audience already cares about.
And I think that’s the difference. Because, curatorially, we approach exhibitions as fans and not ivory-tower intellectuals, I think we are making real, valuable, emotional connections to the content-creators that we work with in various communities. And people aren’t stupid -- they can see when they are being pandered to. But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve worked with lenders on various exhibitions that are at first skeptical and guarded about whatever geeky passion they have, but when they realize that we are serious about showcasing their passion in a real way, they are incredibly psyched and supportive. I think part of it is that idea that an institution, a museum, is celebrating what they’ve dedicated their lives to -- its validation for them, and on our end we get a real supporter that believes in what we’re trying to do.
And as for that term “museum,” we are a museum. There is a scholarly and considered vibe around the word “museum” that I really like. I get it that museums for many are viewed as mouldering edifices of a different age, and many are. But there are many museums that are embracing change. Much of this is because of newer generations of museum staff and attendees.
I don't know how much you love to nerd out about terminology, but I find some of the language around videogames to be a little fuzzy. Given how much you've cross-pollinated with your exhibits and work, but does the use of the word "indie" in videogames, does it seem confused or used differently?
Well, for me, I had a definite evolution through this where I kind of thought of the title for the exhibition, "Indie Game Revolution" pretty early on. And it was kind of just a draft title, like, "Oh, we'll find something better." And then people were into it.
So it was like, "Okay, I guess we can use it." And that was at a point where I was thinking, you know, for me it felt like a definable thing. And it was only as I started doing more research and interviewing people that realizing how problematic that term was. And for me, I mean, that's all part of the exhibit development process. You know, especially interviewing people, it's not only for me to gather people's stories but it's also to serve as a sort of autocorrect for what I'm doing. When I'm realizing so many people are going like, "Oh, I don't want to talk about 'indie,' I don't feel like I'm 'indie' this," I'm like, "Oh, okay, this is a really interesting thing.
The way that we dealt with that in the exhibition is that, you know, I kinda took this very broad sense of what "indie" is. In a way, I kind of likened indie to punk-rock. It's like, you can kind of define it any way you want to. You know, sort of used a broad brush for that.
But, yeah, I think it's problematic. This, you know, "indie" space that we're talking, it's comprised of zillions of different individuals and communities and it's a fallacy to categorize it as one thing when it's not. But, at the same time, it's our natural kind of human inclination to categorize things.
Yeah. We like buckets.
So I don't know. I think that it is problematic but I think that it's also -- to our audience, using that terminology, because our audience generally isn't so insider and so knowledgeable about what's happening, that terminology works.
You mentioned punk-rock, but can you mention other instances or explain why these labels or terminologies in scenes or sub-scenes matter and why they can cause friction?
Yeah. Well, how to say it? When you mentioned [before we started] about likening games or the thing that we shall not name to hardcore punk, and just that idea that when punk came around in the mid-'70s, it kind of was whatever you wanted it to be and people doing all sorts of crazy stuff, but by the early '80s a good portion of punk had been codified into hardcore punk. It was primarily dudes and it had to be, like, super-fast, and there was sort of rules as to what it was and what it wasn't and it became really repressive and regressive instead of really freeing and creative. And I think that's the negative side of labels is when a label becomes something that excludes people rather than include.
And I think that's when people start pushing away at the idea of, like, "I'm not indie because indie is now becoming these five sets of criteria and three of those I completely don't agree with."
The thing that seems so strange to me, and coming from a broader entertainment journalism background and getting my degree in music business, just following and watching that evolution as a fan since a kid -- it always seemed odd to me to be called "indie" when your goal is to get a huge publishing deal and get embedded with a big corporation. I think that's certainly the dream of "making it," but it's weird to see it play out on the internet as somehow linked while they're actually at odds with one another.
Well, and I think, another thing to add in here is this terminology isn't springing up from nowhere. I mean, this terminology is totally being borrowed from music and from film and the ideas of "indie" in those realms.
Oh, even media in general.
Yeah, yeah. Totally. You look at the original indie rock was really kind of '80s indie rock.
Then there's, like, '90s indie rock. And then we have indie today which is, like, not indie by the strict terminology of what we think indie is.
It's a channel on Spotify.
Right. Yeah. I mean, I don't know. I think when the terminology starts describing not only the creators or their creations but starts describing the fans, starts describing the environment in which that piece of media is ingested -- when it becomes a lifestyle, I don't know, it becomes much more problematic.
With hardcore, it just sort of died out. I'd been told before that the types of things in videogames, the aggressive antagonism, while not wholly unique but the way it has coalesced is very much its own thing. And that's certainly separate from the developer or creator community.
It may not have come up in your research, but the people who ascribe to the "indie" label in the strictest sense, do they feel they are part of a lineage that has roots? Or do they feel like it's very much its own thing.
Gosh. You know, I think probably the best answer is that everybody is coming to it with their own personal histories and baggage and affinities and they're identifying as that or a myriad of different reasons. You know, I wonder how many people -- I think a lot of people have a general sense of that deep history but I wonder how many people have an actual personal connection to that deep history.
I don't know. I think that, you know, what's happening here is similar to what's happening in other mediums because it's all just the way that culture works. Scenes get formed, they break up into little other scenes, a certain scene might rise to the surface and become mainstream and then there will be some sort of counterculture response to that. I mean, that's just the way culture works. There's probably, like, one point in time where indie ever felt like it was perfectly described the way things were. And then things modified and changed.
You know, I don't know. I always think of music analogues because I do a lot of music stuff, but there's a lot of music that I'm just like, "Wow!" I don't know, when you have to describe music with, like, eight different modifiers, it really sits in there and it doesn't fill squarely a -- it's not like the Sex Pistols. They're punk-rock. It's like, "Well, what do I call this band?”
I don't know. I mean, labels are useful up to a certain point but it's -- I don't know. There's a reason why in my iTunes list I don't worry about modifying the genre of my songs because it's frustrating and in the end it's not super-useful.
I forget who has that quote, it might have been Duke Ellington? "There's only two types of music, good and bad."
Right. Right. [Laughs.] Yeah.
For people coming to your exhibit -- I don't know how you had it set up. Is it the kind of thing where people could wander in even if they weren't planning on it? Or do they need to buy tickets specifically?
Yeah, I keep forgetting: You haven't actually seen it, have you?
I mean, I know what the floor plan is and we talked about that last year.
But no, I haven't actually seen it yet.
Yeah, I mean, you basically buy a ticket at the front for the whole museum and then you can wander into whatever you want. There's, in theory, there's a general flow but no one ever follows the flow that you want them to. So, I mean, it's pretty open in that gallery. And you know, there's four kind of big display areas where we talk about some pretty big ideas in there that I want to get across to people. And, you know, it's, again, the primary audience for this are people that their idea of what videogames are is about shooting people in the face and about high scores and Pac-Man and stuff like that.
That's not to say that any indie developers that have come to this exhibit haven't been delighted 'cause I think they have, just the idea that a museum is treating it with seriousness. For me, the whole goal of that exhibition was to show that videogames could be every bit as much of a powerful emotional experience as the best of film or music or theater or whatever. So, the angle is that way.
So, we have a big display on kind of the idea of: What is indie? And another display on: What is a game? What are the different components that go into making a game and how you make it? So, you know, it's trying to get across some of these big concepts. And then, really, otherwise, just letting those games thrill people or piss them off. There's one or two games in there that I get probably two or three complaints a week from, from concerned parents that bring their kids into the gallery, which I think is really interesting because nothing in that gallery communicates, "This is all for kids." Nothing does. The text doesn't, the exhibit design doesn't, the games largely don't either. There's still this big popular idea that games are for kids and games are frivolous, silly things. It's like parents come in there and don't read the text panel, they don't see something very large that says "contains mature content" on some of the games and they're pissed off when they see, you know, [Porpentine’s CRY$TAL WARRIOR KE$HA’s] "vagina mobile" or something in a game. So.
What would the kid-facing version of your exhibit look like and its selection look like? Like, how do you telegraph, like, "This is specifically and not exclusively for children?"
Well, I think the main reason that I didn’t want all the games to be okay for all audiences is that I really wanted to use the exhibition as a subtle tool for advocacy and to push back against that heavy heavy cultural force that has said that games are just for kids. It was more interesting for me, personally, and I think more impactful for the exhibition as a whole, to show that games can be about anything, just like every other art form. But, if I was doing an exhibition of games just for kids, there’s a lot of great work out there that can still feel edgy and pushing the boundaries and perfectly fine for kids.
I think part of the problem is that a lot of institutions and a lot of parents treat kids either as idiots or as hyper-fragile beings that have to be coddled and protected from the outer world at all times. Anyway, if I were to do an exhibition on gaming that was kid focused, I think there’d still be a lot of overlap, game-wise. Games like Vectorpark’s Metamorphabet, or Etter Studio’s Plug & Play, Moppin’s Downwell, Amanita Design’s Samorost series, MOON Studios Ori and the Blind Forest, State of Play’s Lumino City -- so many great experiences.
It is interesting that there is still that notion, that this is just for kids. I think part of that may come from the way that it's marketed as well as the fact -- like you said -- that it's sort of difficult to fit a Fallout 3 or a Fallout 4 if you have a relationship or if you have kids and a family. But I don't really get the sense that's a direction industry game companies are interested in throwing down on or making concessions to.
No, I mean, again, at that level it is about the money and the margins are small enough because they're putting in so much resources that gotta go to what they know is gonna sell and that's to primarily white dudes that have a shitload of time and seem to want 200-hour games. Not that I'm complaining about that because I'm currently -- I think my wife thinks I'm married to The Witcher 3 right now.
[Laughs.] Are you? We could set the record straight here.
[Laughs.] No, I'm kind of tiring of The Witcher 3 a little bit. But, I have to say that that game has some of the absolute best narrative quests that I have ever played and despite its many problems I am enjoying the quests.
For people wandering into the exhibit, what are the misperceptions they had or the epiphanies they had beyond the obvious, "Oh, I didn't realize games weren't just for kids" thing? Like, what are some of the more nuanced misperceptions or epiphanies you've run into?
Right. I mean, I think -- I've really tried to have a really large tent as to what a game is and not really worrying about that definition at all. So, I think having experiences like David Kanaga and Fernando Ramallo's Panoramical on display which is, you know, really just this kind of interactive audio-visual experience where you're moving sliders on a MIDI controller and that's changing the visuals and audios that you're seeing. Seeing people play that, where you see this -- for a certain visitor you see this light go on like, "Oh my God! This is amazing!" And I've seen people sit there for, like, an hour just fiddling with those knobs.
Or, you know, watching people play Tenya Wanya Teens and the idea that a game doesn't have to necessarily a keyboard or a mouse or a controller. It can have this crazy control scheme that has 16 buttons and you're just doing goofy things. Seeing people watch games like that -- we had a game on display for a long time called Never Alone, which was produced by a local Seattle team in conjunction with an Iñupiat tribe in Alaska. And it was a platformer. I mean, you know about it. But it incorporated the Iñupiat legends as well, so, it's like the idea that a videogame can be a vehicle for sharing cultural knowledge between different cultures really resonated with a lot of people. I don't know. I mean, even something that seemingly -- I was kind of surprised it had such an affect on people 'cause I was figured everybody would know it, but I put Monument Valley on display and just the amount of comments I got from people just, like, "Oh my gosh, I didn't realize how beautiful this could be!" I don't know. It's been a good experience, definitely.
And what I really loved is just the idea that we are switching out new games every three, four months. I actually have a slate of a dozen new games that are coming in in the next few weeks, and just seeing how people react to those games, whether it's positively or negatively -- and I really purposefully make sure there's some games in there that are going to sort of push back at people. CRY$TAL WARRIOR KE$HA was one of those. We're gonna put on display Nina Freeman's How Do You Do It.
But even things that are really popular, like Binding of Isaac: Rebirth. Like, that's gonna challenge some visitors. And I don't know. I like that.
It's interesting because you say even the things you think people will know, like, Monument Valley was an iOS game, so it's not necessarily dependent on reading Rock, Paper, Shotgun or whatever. But, obviously, stuff like your exhibit helps. But what do you think the vague thing I refer to as "the game industry" can do sort of get a wider reach or at least the reach that it seems to think it has?
Right. Well, I think part of it is that, you know, we've heard so much about in the last year but -- the games you're gonna be creating are coming from the people that are creating them. So, it's like, if you don't have diverse set of people creating those that don't come from a diverse set of backgrounds and have diverse experiences, the games you create are not going to be diverse and are not going to express different experiences. And I think that's the biggest thing. And there's all this bullshit talk about, like, "Well, it's a meritocracy and so we should just hire the best people." And it's like, "Well, no, that doesn't work in the end. In the end, that still ends up creating a very narrow product that reaches a narrow audience.”
And I think that, you know, if games are going to get to the point where they are consistently showing the breadth of humanity, they have to be made by the breadth of humanity. And to me -- that's, like, a generational shift. That's not gonna happen in a couple of years. Just as a generational shift is -- just that idea that videogames are for kids. It's like, that's gonna take a generation or more for that attitude to change as well.
So, I don't know.
Yeah. When you stopped playing, did you run into that thing from people where they felt it was long overdue for you to have stopped playing them? That it should've happened sooner?
Gosh, I don't know. I don't think so. By luck or curse or something -- my whole life has been surrounded by being a giant nerd. My wife knew what she got into when we got married and I've worked at this museum, which celebrates me being a nerd, for the last 20 years. So I don't know what it was. I mean, it's weird to think back now because I play so many games now and that's such a big part of who I am that it's odd for me to think that there was a whole decade where I did not play anything.
When you were doing that deep diving -- we talked about some of those interviews when you came out my way -- what sort of things did you realized in yourself that got you excited or that you realized you were learning or you recognized you knew nothing about and you were like, "Oh, wow, I had no idea. That's really interesting!"
Well, I mean, I think the initial excitement really started before I did those interviews, when I went down to IndieCade in October of 2013 and just, like, by that point I had been reading a lot of different material on the internet and started to get to know a skeletal version of who was who out there and things like that. And the idea that, I don't know, I was going to these panels and I'm like, "Oh my God! That's So-and-so! That's So-and-so!" You know, and kind of nerding out in this, like, really quiet way and getting kind of anxious because it's like, "Holy shit, this is all super-exciting but it's all happening right now and we need to fucking jump on it."
I mean, that was the initial excitement. But I ended up doing 46 interviews before the exhibit opened and then I've been doing at a really lot slower pace interviews here and there as people are in town. But, I don't know. Some of the best interviews -- I don't feel like I need to call out names necessarily but in general when I'm going through these oral-history interviews I'm trying to get a sense of people's history and their kind of passion and role and career in creating games. So some of it is very tailored to who that person is and some of it is just the same questions I ask everybody.
But, I don't know. To me, it's just, like, seeing how excited people are talking about what they love and being comfortable enough to talk to me about it because they know that we're gonna treat the content with respect is really exciting. I mean, being able to go places like -- one of the first set of interviews I did was down in LA and we set up at Glitch City and for days interviewed down there and interviewed, like, six or seven members of Glitch City down there. Just, you know, being really excited about how excited they were about their community and what they were doing. And then other things, like, interviewing people like Porpentine or Anna Anthropy and making me really sort of cognizant about my privilege and how that extends out into the gaming community as well. I don't know. For me, there was such a wide range of types of people that I interviewed that come from all different economic backgrounds and different ways of life that -- I don't know, to me, it was really exciting. It was one of the most fun exhibits that I've ever done. I mean, to me, it felt like when I was in high school and I was getting into underground music and it felt like this magical labyrinth that I didn't know existed that's inhabited by all of these fantastic creatures and bands and things like that. I don't know, it was really fulfilling. Those interviews, that's gonna be fascinating to look back on those interviews in 10 years' time and just see how bizarre the state of videogames was in 2014.
What seems weird about the game industry to you? Anything that seems uniquely strange or odd?
I mean, I think the whole idea that we always call it the industry is really weird. I find myself doing it all the time and it makes me wonder why we describe this creative outlet in solely business terms is weird but kind of indicative of how games have been largely created. I think that's odd.
Especially this last year, the whole Gamergate thing -- bleep that out, whatever you want to do -- is fascinating in just this bizarre way. The idea that it's really indicative of a realm that has never been challenged for anything. Just the idea that Anita Sarkeesian's really basic videos that call out really obvious stuff -- which is not denigrating her work. I mean, it's like, she's doing stuff that absolutely needs to be done, but I'm amazed at the vitriol that can come from that when you're like, "Well, she's 100,000 percent right." You know? And you realize that things like film or literature have had this long long history of criticism that videogames never has. It's never had that criticism. And I think that it is hard for people to take that when you've never had to deal with that before. And just that idea -- which I think Anita says in a lot of her videos, it's possible to really enjoy a piece of work while still having problems with certain aspects of it.
It's like, that idea for a lot of people in videogames is a really foreign one.
And I guess this is something we do with our museum a lot as well, but a lot of the topics that we cover -- and I think this is true for videogames as well -- is the visitors, they're part of their own personal histories. When you come to a museum and you see, like, Kurt Cobain's guitar or whatever, there's a lot of people where that isn't something from the deep past. It's something that tells part of their own personal history because it reminds them of where they were at a certain point in their life when they listened to Nevermind or whatever it was. I think games are very much like that. It's part of your personal history and when somebody criticizes that, you feel super-attacked. So, you know, that, again is a generational thing that's gonna take a long time before we get over that.
Are there things in videogames going on in videogames now that remind you of what your industry was like when it was new? I guess, there's that word again, "industry."
But I just mean the field or the space of museum curation.
I don't know. I have such a weird relationship to museum stuff because I feel like I kind of fell into it in a way. But also, I mean, our museum is so weird and I'm such a non-traditional curator that in a way maybe there are some analogies there in that I've always felt like what we do and what I do as a curator often is looked down upon by fine-art curators or contemporary-art curators or the "real" curators.
[Laughs.] Why? Because it's pop culture things that --
Because it's pop culture which, you know, popular culture is often termed "low" culture. The fine-art world has really codified itself in culture, in business, etc. as being "high" culture that is for "elites" or whatever, so I think there is some of that. I think for a long time people looked at what we did as, "Huh, okay. You guys are the weird music museum and now you're doing pop culture. Okay."
But I think definitely we've seen an evolution where people are now realizing that pop culture is that history of the people. I think for hundreds and hundreds of years if not thousands of years, the idea of culture was from top-down. It was instituted and brought to life by the upper classes and the lower classes were told what was important. But now we're at this point where it's like everybody has a say in what is important. And the fact that we can celebrate that -- I don't know. It's kind of a big shift we've been having for probably the past 50 years.
You mentioned TV before and the thing everyone is saying now, it's almost a cliché, is that it's having a real renaissance right now. You talk to people in Hollywood about videogames and videogames has this thing where they feel the need to frame it like they're competing with or they're bigger than Hollywood. I'm sure you've heard that.
I talk to people in Hollywood and they consider videogames to be part of Hollywood. [Laughs.]
Right. Well, I wonder if part of the problem is that -- the word "videogame" encompasses so much now that it's like if I did an exhibit on "fiction." It's such a giant topic. Thirty years ago, a videogame was a kind of definable thing. But now it's, like, what fits under the umbrella of a videogame is so huge. You know, from Dota 2’s The International to, you know, Nina Freeman's How Do You Do It, there's, like, a thousand different things in between those two poles.
But they're the same thing.
Yeah, but they're the same thing which is kind of weird. It's kind of silly to talk about it like that because everybody's that talking about videogames -- if someone in Hollywood is talking about, like, "Oh, we think it's part of Hollywood," they're thinking about a very specific thing within videogames. They're not thinking about everything. So, I don't know.
Yeah. Are there parallels there to music that you can think of? Or is this really just specifically a videogame thing?
Well, I mean, probably. Again, I mean, I guess this goes back to our labels conversation where you talk about popular music or you talk about rock -- it becomes so big that it becomes meaningless. Like, rock and roll meant something in 1956, maybe. [Laughs.] But using that label now is virtually meaningless.
I'm gonna use the word "industry" again, but do you think the games media could be doing something or something more to combat or assuage some of the overabundant entitlement that goes beyond having a product that works and the widespread toxicity?
Sure. I mean, I think it could always do that. I don't know. I feel like my answer is kind of similar to my diversity answer, but just the idea that -- like, Grand Theft Auto V, there's no playable women in that.
I mean, it's just like, how could a game that employed hundreds of people and cost hundreds of millions of dollars that that was not thought of? Or maybe it was and they just decided not to do it. Or, you know, the idea that I know with The Witcher 3 there was a bunch of talk about the only representations of non-white people are these, like, weird, tribal, exotic, not-good representations. But then the response is like, "Well, but it's based on reality. It's based on this Polish history." And it's like, well, reality doesn't have dragons in it and magic. It becomes a different thing when it's a product.
And yeah, I don't know. If you wanna have more inclusive spaces, everything has to be more inclusive. And when it's exclusive, when people criticize the exclusivity, then those people that are fans of that exclusivity get toxic. It's -- I don't know.
What do you think videogames have accomplished?
Well, I think, to me, videogames are showing, like I said, that they can be just as powerful as these other creative media. I mean, it's fascinating to see in my lifetime, games going from being created by a single person and these kind of fairly simple experiences to something that can be incredibly complex and beautiful and amazing.
I think that games are getting to that point where they, for more and more people, can be anything. And I think that's really important. That's what's gonna combat this idea that games are for kids, that games are frivolous -- the idea that games can be many, many different types of experiences and we've both seen that that's the case. Like, that is really amazing.
I think what I would love for games to get to the point where the label "videogame," like, doesn't matter. We're at a point where film or literature is used in so many different aspects of our lives that we don't call it out as, "Oh, look, there's a movie here." You know what I mean? The idea that one day we can get to that point where you have an experience that maybe in the past we would have called a game but it doesn't matter now because it's so suffused into our lives. It's not just, like, one aspect of our lives. Or it's like, "I'm gonna go play videogames now." It's just, like, part of everything. And we're kinda gettin' there.
I think that's where it should go.
Yeah. I'd agree with you. It's just slow.
Well, it's slow but it's not. It's like, that's the problem with being human: We think that we live a long time but it's just a fuckin' blink. When you think about the history of civilization or geologic time, what's 100 years? What's 200 years? It's unfortunate we don't get to see the results, but change doesn't happen that quick when you have that many people. It's like, culture is often a very slow-moving thing and, yeah, change does happen.