judi wolinsky

judi wolinsky

OK. I'm your Mom, Judi Wolinsky, I live here in the house in Flossmoor, Illinois. The last time I played a game was probably this morning. [Laughs.]

[Laughs.] What were you playing?

Drop 7.

Oh, that was one of the ones I told you about on iPhone.

Yeah, you did. You got me hooked on that one.

There are a couple of reasons I wanted to talk to you. One of them is that we were talking the other day, and you said Tetris is not a videogame.

Yeah, I -- well it's funny. I don't think of the games that I play as videogames. I think of the videogames more as the ones that you and your brother played as kids.

The Sierra stuff.

The Sierra, and that have more of a storyline, and you have to discover things, or you kill things, or… [Laughs.]

[Laughs.]

I think of mine as more like maybe online puzzles. I never really thought about them as videogames. There’s two games I like to make sure I play everyday: 7 Words and Sudoku.

That's on iPhone, or...?

Yeah, it's an iPhone sudoku app and I try to play the mild version, which I gather other people really know some tricks, because I routinely score under 50 percent on it. [Laughs.] But I enjoy just the mental challenge of it. There's another game that I play that, where they give you little ambiguous words, clues, and there are just so many little pieces of words, and when you get all seven there's none of these little pieces left. And usually, there's one or two that had some ambiguous meaning, and you say, "Oh, that's what they meant."

The other ones that I play routinely are more like Tetris and this Drop 7, things like that. Timewasters that have short little -- it's not an ongoing story or anything. I think I like the -- like with Drop 7, I like, oh, it's only like a minute or so. Some of them are timed. I play on Facebook, Bejeweled Blitz. And that's just timed for a minute. And so -- although I've been known to play it 60 games in a row or so, it's just a minute at a time, so… [Laughs.]

Insert

[Laughs.] It's not an hour.

No, it's not!

60 minutes.

And it's probably occasionally longer than that, but it's a way of relaxing and challenging myself, and -- but again, I've just never thought of those as videogames. I don't know why.

I told you about Gamergate last year. I feel like, I don't know, the Internet is a weird, angry place around videogames. A lot of that seemed to just erupt last year around, like, what is a videogame and what is not.
Some of those people would say online, "Well, that's not a videogame." And I'm not saying you should weigh in, but it's just interesting, because I never thought, "Well, why wouldn't Tetris be a game?" Because you put it in the machine and you play it. It has to be a videogame. [Laughs.]

Well, in a broad sense, of course it would. And then even when Atari or whatever the first -- I can't even remember what the first system we had. Like, there's no plot in Pac-Man. But it's funny, I just never even thought about it needing a definition of whether it was or it wasn't.

Apparently, after last year, some people feel there has to be.

Yeah. I mean, there was violence or something, right?

Threats. Rape and death threats.

Wow. Yeah. Seems extreme.

It does seem extreme.

But, I mean, I guess there's always been -- when I think back on it -- there have always been more of what I call the puzzle games and then more of the story games. And I think for me personally, when it came to complicated maneuvers with the controllers, that's when I just never picked it up. I remember when keyboards, computer keyboards, went to using mice. And a lot of people, that was their falling-off point.

I remember just sitting in awe of you and watching you kids and all that you could do. Occasionally I would play, and then you'd say, "Jump! Jump!" And it's like, "I would if I could remember which two fingers or combinations you..."

But I seem to remember -- I mean, Dad played, right?

I think it was the Texas Instruments system was maybe the first? Well, there was a Kaypro, but that was mostly a word processor, but the first one that had games. We got Parsec. I don't know if you remember that. Oh my gosh, I hope it's still around somewhere, because I would love to see -- we just thought it was the most sophisticated thing in the world. And, you know, 8-bit might've been sophisticated, maybe it was 4.

I mean, it was more sophisticated than Pong. Was a little more sophisticated than that.

Insert

Dad played that?

Yeah, Dad played that. And this was at the house --

The old house.

The house in Skokie, all the way upstairs. I think he bought it for "you kids," and I just remember one night, him trying it, and he was up til like 2, 3 in the morning, and he wanted me to sit there and watch. And then it was like, "One more game, and then I'm going to bed! One more game!"

It was like screens where you were flying, and then things were shooting, and I just remember there was some difficult part where you either had to come in low and fly in between some obstacles or whatever, and it would say, "Good flying, ace!" or whatever it was, and for weeks in the car, he would make some maneuver, and everyone in the family would go, "Good flying!"

[Laughs.]

Or you know, there's like a tunnel that you go through right near downtown Chicago that has lights on it. We always, as a family, would chime in -- you don't remember, but all of us, "Good flying, pilot!"

I was young.

You were young, yeah. But you did it, too.

I did. I don't remember it.

But as a kid, I remember you and Adam just playing for hours, those Sierra games, and me watching. I thought those were just the greatest.

It sounds like you’re saying you’ve mainly always watched. Do you feel like there were games that were interesting to you at that time?

I don't know when Tetris...

Yeah, you were really into Tetris. But I mean when Dad was into Parsec or whatever --

That was earlier.

-- were any of those interesting to you?

Not so much.

What’s your perception of what videogames are now?

Well, I mean, we have...though I don't think I've played anything other than the Facebook or the iPhone apps myself, we do --

I work in a public library, and we lend a couple of systems' games. I know the library purposefully doesn't buy the ones that are rated Mature or extra violent, and I see them and I -- to me they kind of fall into a couple of groups. I mean, I see some that are obviously for little, little kids to keep them busy. I mean, they're, you know, Bubbleworld or something.

I would play Bubbleworld.

And then there's some that are maybe have Disney or movie tie-ins. The rest of them, I just think a lot of them are more like adventure games.

Like, the old Sierra games?

Like the ones that you see people playing in movies. Which are -- they're playing either sitting next to each other around the couch and they're nerds. Or, you know, they're playing over the Internet together.

How do you remember games being marketed on TV when we were growing up? I just remember the hype for Mortal Kombat in the ‘90s, offhand.

Oh I think there was a lot. I think you guys got the magazines and I think you -- as a parent, my perception was that you and your brother, you were both very good at it, and devoted a lot of time to it, and got better and better, and would consume these games quicker and quicker and they got more and more expensive. You would just go through them one after another, and then you would know through Nintendo Power magazine or whatever you were reading, you knew exactly the date -- it kind of reminds me of how people line up at the Apple Store now.

Is that good or bad?

How it is. I guess there's good and bad aspects to it.

I’m just curious about what else might have appealed to you over the years. The Nintendo Wii was meant to be something for the whole family.

Yeah, we have those in the library.

Did that ever interest you at all? Did that ever seem like something that was supposed to appeal to you?

Yeah. I mean, I think marginally. There's just so many other things that were in competition for -- and are, still -- for my time. Time's limited after work, and then there's chores, and so on.

TV to catch up on.

TV to catch up on. TV to sleep through.

[Laughs.]

[Laughs.] I think we largely felt from the beginning the computer games were for you kids. Yeah, I don't know, I was always sort of interested in what was the Wii Nintendo like, or what was that experience like to do the tennis, or whatever. But at the same time, in terms of exercise, I either had DVDs or went to the gym or something like that.

But do you remember how that perception in our household shifted? Because you said Dad used to play, you guys used to watch us play. Why did Dad stop playing? I know he plays a lot of Scrabble on Facebook.

I think you guys finally said, "Give us a turn." [Laughs.]

I mean, at the beginning, it was one player at a time, so you had to wait your turn. And I think as people got better and better...

...the turns got longer and longer.

[Laughs.] Yeah. And it was sort of a time-consuming pasttime at that point.

[Laughs.] It's not now?

Yeah, it still could be, I guess. So let me back up a minute. So today, are most games played on the Internet, or most games need a system, or...?

I mean...there are just so many systems now. Like, iPhone is a system, and there's computer, and there's console, and...

So I mean, not a dedicated system.

Like, there’s no "true system," but people talk as though there’s something like a “true” gamer. Like the perception seems to be in some groups you have to play the “right” games to “belong.”

In my world, there isn't -- if it hadn't been for your involvement in this arena, I don't think I would've given it much thought.

I think with me a couple things happened. One was I got more professionally involved with the industry, but also there's just so much stuff, and just very little of it feels special or different. And, I don’t know. There’s just so much stuff out there, and you can sense where people are hedging their bets creatively or don’t have many ideas to begin with.

It's kind of like movies.

How so?

"Son of." You know, "Part two." [Laughs.]

Son of Dracula? [Laughs.] What do you mean, like, sequels and stuff, or...?

Sequels, yeah.

But I'm talking about someone making a game similar to what someone else made.

Well, that's kind of what I mean too. Formulas of movies, or -- games are like that too, that thing.

I’d agree with that. So, wait. Why were you asking about most people playing online?

No, I was just curious, because when I pass through Best Buy or Target and see the racks and racks and racks of games, and then I see the ones that we purchase for the library, I understand that some of the ones that even though you purchase the game, there is an online component. You purchase it, you have the console. That's correct, right? That you play with other people who are currently playing?

Yeah.

I just never really thought about it, except for like I said, you see on TV and movies, they're playing over the Internet.

But you typically only see one or two scenarios of people playing games on TV or in movies. But everyone plays games.

Well, you know, I guess the thing is that in a way, if you define the games I do play as a game, then I am very involved. I don't think a day goes by without playing some Facebook game, and Dad the same. So, I mean, we're very actively involved, but not with the ones where you hold a controller or use your keypad.

So maybe you guys are more progressive than I am.

Yeah, maybe. [Laughs.]

I guess what I’m just nostalgic for, really, is the time where the systems were a bit cooler, took bigger chances, and there was bigger competition and creative things going on.

So you have a similar definition than I do, I guess.

What is it? I think it's just I remember the way things used to be and I'm getting older.

Well, there was some point where in our house, maybe, when Nintendo was the only game in town. And then at long intervals, a new game would come out, and you'd either save your money, or a birthday would come around again, and "Now I want this game for my birthday."

But then everything started to speed up, and not only were there sequels to the games or expansion packs or whatever, but the systems themselves kept changing, and if you want to stay cutting edge -- and that's the stuff that's advertised, so I think that's what's attractive. The newest and the latest. It started to get a little overwhelming and very expensive. The games got really, really expensive, especially if it's a kid saving his allowance, and then finishing it in a weekend and being disappointed.

[Laughs.] Are you referring to me?

Well, on occasion. I mean, you were really into it, you were really good at it, and you'd just blow through these games. Especially if you had done chores or whatever, or earned money -- birthday money -- and then it was gone over a weekend, it was really disappointing. Then what happens with the console? You play it again.

I mean, on Amazon right now, just looking for a system like the PlayStation 4 -- I don't know, it's $400, $500… You can get one for $620. The games are about the same as what they used to be. I remember Super Nintendo, Street Fighter II was like $80.

I was gonna say $80 dollars, yeah.

And then it started to seem a little..."really?"

Expensive. I mean, the content wasn't there. Maybe it wasn't as challenging. I just remember you guys, whether it was you and a friend or you and your brother, "OK, this is the boss, and you gotta keep doing -- you gotta hit the boss 19,000..."

And you had it. It was like you saw behind the curtain. And it was just a question of persevering. It was only a challenge in that you hope that the next thing would -- you just wanted to get beyond it. And I think earlier on, you guys really liked the challenge of it. I think you really liked the creativity of the Sierra games, really. Now, if you were a kid coming up now and you had never really played those, I don't know that you'd -- you'd have a whole different perception, I guess.

Yeah. It's been interesting. And there are kids that age, too, wanting to make them, and...

And in terms of who's playing them now, I mean...at $600, $700 dollars a system, who's affording this?

Parents. [Laughs.]

[Laughs.]

I mean, who is, really?

I don't know!

Thirtysomething dudes.

Dudes who don't have a family, or have a big income, or...

The thing too, is, like, I don't even want to buy a PS4. It's a weird new feeling for me. When Microsoft was coming out with the new Xbox, the Xbox One, they had all these announcements they were doing with it that seemed honestly pretty greedy. They were saying it would only work when it was plugged in online, like a Chromebook. They said you would not be able to buy used games. And then that year at E3, Sony announced, among their suite of features for PS4, that you can buy used games the way that you've always been able to. And this big amphitheater in Los Angeles just, standing ovation.

[Laughs.]

I just think that’s embarrassing all around. Celebrating that you can do the same as you’ve always been able to. I sometimes wonder, like, because the legend has it if Sega hadn’t come to market, Nintendo was planning for Super Nintendo you could still play the old games. But they had to ditch that feature to compete. So maybe it would have just become an unassailable fact about all systems and a different ecosystem.
But, like, I told you about the new 3DS that doesn’t come with a charger.
I don’t know. You’ve known me for a while. What do you think I’m so disappointed with here? Certainly, yes, people being awful to each other, companies getting greedier, but...

I don't know. My sense of it, and I could be totally wrong, is I don't know if you find the games challenging. I remember a number of years back, when you reviewed games for magazines, I'd ask you, "What are you doing this week?" "Oh, I've got two, three games to review. I'll just play them and finish them off."

And it just was shocking that instead of a game taking months to complete, or weeks even, you know, days or hours, because they were either so formulaic… I don't know that much about the game, I don't know whether… but it seems to me that there's some storyboard for the game, and it starts here, and stuff happens, and then you've got X number of screens. I mean, it's finite. you reach some endpoint, and it just felt, over time, that either the endpoint got a lot closer to the start, or it was a lot easier to get there.

It's probably a combination of the two.

And to me, I thought maybe that was where your interest kind of waned in that the games weren't exciting.

I don't have any direct experience with this, so I can't really speak to it, so my only experience is what I've seen people pretending to play on TV. And I mean, they seem really engaged to the point where -- was it just on The Good Wife?

I don't know? I don't watch that show.

Spoiler alert! No, I mean, I can't even think of the last thing we saw if it wasn't that, you know, where people just get really, really involved. And if they're playing two people, "Come on, you get ‘em!" "No, you get ‘em!" "Get ‘em!" "You got the shot, take it!" That just seems like it's really engaging, and anything that you're passionate about is something that you want to spend time doing. So maybe that's one of the keys, maybe the passion is gone for you in some of the games.

There was a Law and Order episode about Gamergate, and it does get reflected back to you guys, to the people who "don't play." I never really thought of myself as this being core to who I am, just the chips fell in my life where I have bandwidth to explore this and try to figure it out: But yeah, obviously, how could the passion still be there? Could you be really into quilting if there was a group online that was making death and rape threats to certain quilters because they're not making the right kinds of quilts? [Laughs.]

[Laughs.]

I mean, wouldn't that kind of bum you out for a while?

Yeah.

And then eventually you'd get back to it...

Huge understatement, yeah. I guess you'd -- yeah.

I mean, it's all just screens and we're trying to have fun. So I don't know why it's gotta be a big deal.

Well, what was the last game that you played that you really liked?

I don't know. I did a review of this game called Sunless Sea, which you may actually like also, it's a computer game. So, I'm really into now what's called procedural generation, which is just, the computer makes things happen at random.
For me, this game is like playing with a train set -- but the way when you were a kid looking at an adult playing with a train set. You might’ve been too young to really get it, but there’s just this world to explore and you journey out and report back. It’s just menus that pop up with text, some combat, and exploring. But a lot of text.

Oh boy, that's a real throwback. Is that a big company’s, or it's an independent?

No, it’s like a dozen people in London. So, smallish.

Well, let me ask you: Would you consider, like, YoVille and those things --

What's YoVille?

Insert

You don't know YoVille?

I know how to spell it. What is it?

And FarmVille, and...do you consider those videogames?

Yeah. Absolutely.

So, I mean, those are largely played, I bet you, online by women, and I know a lot of people that play those, but you build -- they're sort of like Sims was.

You start off with a little piece of land in FarmVille, and then you have to plant -- you buy seeds -- you earn money online and then you buy seeds, and then they tell you, "Oh, there's a drought, you better..." or "rabbits are eating your..." Then you buy more and more and more and more and more, and then you ask all your friends to please water your plants.

And I think there's one where it's more apartment building, decorating your apartment.

There’s a Nintendo game called Animal Crossing that’s pretty much the same thing.

Well, what's that one where there's a whole world and you can… I know that people in the library were --

Second Life?

Second Life, that's the one I'm thinking of, yeah. I mean, just...

Insert

Well, it's like a chatroom.

Yeah, kinda, but it's focused at "let's have a library, let's have a this, and" --

Well, it's like a sandbox, I guess.

Yeah, it's like a sandbox.

I mean, it'd be really interesting, to me anyway, to take a poll of people who play Facebook games and see if they consider themselves gamers.

[Laughs.]

Because I don't. When you said, "Oh, let's talk about it." My first reaction was, "I'm not a gamer."

One woman in her twenties told me when people hear the word "gamer," they think of people who play shooters.

Yeah. I think that's largely what I think of.

Well, and then there's Gamergate, and then it's like, well, are you a gamer if you think more people should be included? How is this even actually a real question we can ask?

What, actually, was their argument? The people that feel like the other people shouldn't be gamers. What was it that prompted them to make these threats? I remember your saying, but I don't know, I can't recall the specifics.

I’ll just read to you from Wikipedia: Apparently there's also a type of ant called a Gamergate ant? [Laughs.]

[Laughs.]

Anyway. From the correct page: "The Gamergate controversy concerns sexism in videogame culture." So I don't really know what videogame culture is. Like, how would you define videogame culture?

I have absolutely no idea.

I have no idea either. So the definition continues: "...it garnered significant public attention after August 2014, when several women within the videogame industry, including game developers Zoe Quinn and Brianna Wu and feminist cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian, were subjected to a sustained campaign of misogynist attacks. The campaign was coordinated in the online forums of Reddit, 4Chan, and 8Chan in an anonymous and amorphous movement that ultimately came to be represented by the Twitter hashtag #gamergate. The harassment including doxxing..."
Do you know what doxxing is? Doxxing, again from Wikipedia, "is the Internet-based practice of researching and broadcasting personally-identifiable information about an individual."

Doxxing, like document?

"Methods employed to acquire the information include searching publicly available databases and social media..." Basically it's stuff like releasing your social security number --

Oh, my goodness.

-- your address, your phone number, your bank account stuff. Just basically ruining your life for having an opinion about videogames that doesn’t mesh with your own.
So "the harassment included doxxing, threat of rape, death threats, and threat of a mass shooting at a university speaking event. Gamergate has been described as a manifestation of a culture war over gaming culture diversification, artistic recognition, and social criticism of videogames and the gamer social identity. Some of the people using the hashtag #gamergate have said their goal is to improve the ethical standards of videogame journalism by posing social criticism in videogame reviews, which they say is a result of a conspiracy among feminists, progressives, and social critics."

Wow.

So… I don't know, what do you think it'll take for stuff to be more fun around games? [Laughs.]

[Laughs.]

It's depressing to think about.

Well, but maybe the fact that there are these other games, in spite of Gamergate or whatever -- judging by the fact that in spite of all the publicity that's negative publicity, that people are still creating games like this sea -- what was it that you said?

Sunless Sea.

Sunless Sea.

I think even in a climate that has these huge negative overtones in this one area, the fact that people are still creating games, they're fiddling with all the pieces and being creative and coming up with something… some germ of an idea, in creating this Sunless Sea, they were harkening back to something, or heard of something, or it's come ‘round again. But this so reminds me of the Oregon Trail kind of, where even before the internet was graphic, before the World Wide Web, there were these text-based games, and you guys played it and played it and played it. And there must've been something that captured your -- I mean, it's like reading a book in that all the action's really going on in your head, and you're creating it. So the fact that you're interested in this kind of game, maybe that's the direction for other people and that'll proliferate.

So when you say, "Well, Tetris isn't a real game, or the games I'm playing aren't real," I think, to me, that's kind of the danger, is letting other people think, "Oh, there's only one true type of game."
My friend Davis uses a different movie comparison, though maybe similar to what you said earlier. He once asked me, "Why is the same movie being remade over and over again?"

I was going to say, maybe it is very analogous to the whole movie industry in that all it takes -- I mean, there are still the movie studios, and then there's all these independent studios, and all it takes is for one independent movie to really catch on, and then that changes the direction of everybody. That broadens the thing. And in a way, yes, I mean, I suppose the media that reports on the film industry, maybe they have an obligation to report on the independent films. But I think in the end, something good and fun, it seems to rise to the top. I mean, I don't know how many things have died on the vine, but regardless of whether you call me a gamer, or I call myself a gamer, I'm still going to keep on playing those games. I love 'em. I mean . I just spend way too much time doing it. And I enjoy it, whatever you call me, or whatever it's called. So we're looking at it from a different perspective --

But I think we're saying the same thing.

Yeah, kind of. I feel terrible about the Gamergate thing, it just seems an extreme point of view to have. I don't know why people who feel the way they do feel threatened to have other people enjoy the same thing they do.

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