lauren tozer-kilts

lauren tozer-kilts

Okay, my name is Lauren Tozer-Kilts, 48 years old -- yes. That's correct.

[Laughs.]

Birthday is approaching, so I had to do some math.

Let's see here. Name, age, serial information.

It was kind of a slow process. It goes back 20-some odd years ago, and this is going to tie back into a little bit about Nintendo as well, but when I first started at Nintendo I was a game play counselor, which meant -- since the position no longer exists, it's probably best to describe it a little bit.

Back before the Internet, if you needed help with a game, they would call a number at Nintendo and there was a staff of people who knew the games, played the games, had access to a large database about the games and how to get through them. And so it was my job for quite a while to help people finish games.

The interesting aspect of that, and this is a question that I got asked quite a bit at the time, was, "Why are you helping people play games? Isn't that kind of antithetical to selling more games?" And the truth back then was that if you finished a game, you'd want a new game to play. And so we helped people reduce the frustration about getting through a particular thing so that they would still be excited, go out and buy another game, and continue the cycle.

I'm trying to remember. Were those toll-free calls or at some point were they paid calls?

Well, the first year or so -- and this was before I started working there -- it was an 800-number, but that got to be too expensive, so it was changed to just a regular long-distance call. In other words, we weren't charging for it.

And so basically if you wanted to pay the long-distance charge to call Redmond, Washington, then that's all that was required. Then, toward the end, even then that was getting a little expensive because of staffing costs, we did switch to a 900-number. But that was about the time I starting to get out of game play counseling and doing other jobs within the consumer-service department, including writing for that database that other game play counselors were using, so it would be my job to sit, play a game, occasionally take phone calls, but play the game and write up how to get all the way through a particular game. And then that transitioned into answering letters and emails which eventually transitioned into technical writing in a completely different department.

So I spent eight years in the customer service department in associated with in some way helping people play videogames and then another 14 years in the department that was responsible for repairs.

So, I was writing the repair manuals that were used in North America and Europe to repair the product.

Insert

And so it was somewhere in that transition between doing it as a job and then not doing it as a job, but doing a very mentally taxing difficult job that coming home after work, videogames just weren't that appealing. I still play -- we started playing MMOs, my wife and I, quite a bit in that timeframe. Couldn't tell you exactly when. Look up Everquest to get a kind of a time on that.

We weren't the first people into Everquest, but I think it had been out for less than six months when we started. I don't remember.

That's okay.

Long time ago, galaxy far, far away.

But since that was an activity that the two of us were doing together, that still kept me into -- I guess what you would call videogames. But the platforming experience, and the solo videogame experience really just started not being as much fun. I would occasionally dig back into strategy turn-based games because, you know, those are easier to pick up and set down without having to invest a lot of time into. So, I continued on doing things like Civilization and the like, but even then it just -- [Sighs.] The amount of time needed to do anything, and there were just so many other things that we wanted to do that even MMOs -- they're fun, they're great to do in the wintertime, but if you only do them in the wintertime, you kinda get left behind.

In what way?

If you're with a guild and you're doing a bunch of adventuring with them, if you say, "Okay, it's motorcycle-riding season," and you're gone for six months, there are new raids, there are new things out there, so you're just not as powerful and a lot of the guilds out there aren't willing to get you caught up because, well, you weren't there to gut it out, and so it becomes just less fun.

Do you feel like you were mourning the loss of something for opting instead for other activities?

At first I kind of was mourning the social aspect, but as soon as the social aspect sort of get separated from the game, the grinding aspect of it really leaped to the fore and it was like, "Oh my God. Do not want to grind. Grinding is teh suck."

[Laughs.]

So, MMOs are wonderful social constructs, but when that's taken away and you're just left with the grind, then it is zero fun. We stuck with Lord of the Rings Online for quite a while because the storytelling within that game was really, really good. However, they're kinda winding down the storylines now and they're just setting up a bunch of these grind-tastic events and, well, that's no fun. So I haven't played Lord of the Rings in probably, I don't know, six or nine months. Even when I did play before that, it was only for -- I would go through cycles with that game of two weeks to get through the new storyline content, then hit that grind roadblock or lack of guild to make raiding fun. So that would be it. Two or three weeks where it's interesting and then give it up for nine months or a year until the next big patch came out, go through that bit of story, and then leave it alone again.

It's probably even been over a year since I logged in.

Insert

You have an interesting perspective on this since it was your job to talk to people who played games before the Internet.

Well, before the web. Let's be more precise about that.

Yes.

No, I'm the one who used "the Internet" first.

But for people reading this who may not know and may think we both sound extremely old, and we are not -- what does that distinction you made mean?

Well, of course, the Internet was invented back sometime in the late '50 or early '60s. It was the Defense Department trying to connect computers to continue doing research.

ARPANET.

Yeah. And then the universities kind of took over that because they found it to be very, very useful.

And then there was a period of time -- for those not familiar with the Internet before the web, you had to physically know the address of servers, have access to those servers, and there wasn't necessarily a big free-flowing pool of information like there is on the web. It was very segmented, the Internet. If you weren't part of a college or whatever, you were kind of limited to email, and -- oh, brain freezing.

Bulletin boards.

Bulletin boards, and I'm also trying to think of -- not IRC, but these little communities that were tucked into weird corners of the Internet.

And there was a name for that type of community, and I forget what it is off the top of my head because I'm being forgetful right now. "Usenet." That’s what I was looking for.

But, again, there wasn't easy access to information. This also was before search engines, so you couldn't exactly go to -- as we just said, Google, and say, "Zelda level 2." You had to know where the Zelda community was and then there might be an answer or maybe not.

But even then, it was more discussion-based stuff and so there just, again, weren't these wads of information that you could just go and get. And then the web started transforming that as people started setting up their own websites and whatever and become repositories for that kind of information, but then you still kinda had to know where to find it. You had to know the address or know where there was a link to that particular thing.

And then the search engines came and changed all that yet again so that you could literally just type in a question and be given a list of places to find that information.

And it was that part of the evolution of the worldwide web, the search engines, that's what really came in and killed off the need game play counselor because you no longer had to know where stuff was: You could go to the search engine and it would tell you where the stuff was.

So you worked for Nintendo for 22-plus years.

'91 to to 2014, so, 22 and a half a years, yeah.

You said the last 13 were spent being a technical writer, so I'm trying to do the math. How long were you a game play counselor, then? About seven, eight years?

Yeah, eightish years. And my job title did evolve in that eight years, because as I mentioned I started doing other things in addition to the game play counseling.

So that's part of Nintendo proper.

Yes.

So, what do you remember about that time?

Well, let's see here. This is -- Nintendo is still a big company and generates billions of dollars in revenue. But, remarkably, there's only about 5,000 people worldwide, and compare that to, say, Xbox, where there's 5,000 people in Redmond alone.

[Laughs.] Yeah.

So, the call center had about -- with seasonal fluctuations, because we need more people in the winter, but there were about 150 full-time people in the call center, split between regular consumer service duties and game play counseling duties. I believe the split was something like 60/40, with 40 percent being game play counselors. You can quote me on that, but I'm not standing by that number as being correct. [Laughs.]

About, is what I'm assuming.

Yeah.

[Laughs.] What were kids and everyone like who was calling in those days? Because normally I ask in this space, "What do you remember about people who play games before last year?" and most people struggle to even remember 2010. But you had a lot of conversations over a --

A lot of conversations over a lot of years. My combined consumer service contact and game play counseling contacts were over 150,000 contacts.

You mean individual --

Yes.

-- people that you interfaced with to talk about videogames.

Yes. I'm certain that I talked to a couple people more than once. That's a lot of phone calls. [Laughs.]

It's more than six.

[Laughs.] It's more than six.

So, yeah, 150,000 contacts with consumers. The thing is at the beginning of that, there was more people who were excited about talking to us, talking about the games, and getting help, and were thankful for that help than towards the end of my tenure there. It became more assumed and expected. And the philosophy of how we answered questions changed, too, because in the first few years it was, "Don't give the answer, but give a hint. Help them figure it out." But towards the end it was, "I need to know precisely how to do X, Y, or, Z. How to find the chest that contains the hookshot in the Zelda game." For example.

In the beginning, it would be like, "Well, let me remind you about this clue or that clue in the game." And they would go, "Oh, yeah." And toward the end of my tenure there, if I tried that, they would go, "Just give me the frickin' answer." "Okay. Go left two screens, up one screen, knock on the door three times. Whatever."

How did you have to change your database accordingly through that?

The thing is, in those eight years, many, many games came out and so where the information was more tailored to giving hints perhaps in the beginning of those eight years, those games weren't getting played or we weren't getting questions about them towards the end. So it was just sort of a natural evolution.

"Okay, now we need to start writing" -- we called them "quick plays."

A quick play about Zelda looked somewhat different toward the end of the eight years than it did at the beginning.

What caused that attitude shift?

There is an attitude shift and I'm not sure -- well, part of the attitude shift comes when we switch to the 900-number. We were now actually digging into their pocket for money, for that information. So I can really empathize with the people who wanted to get on the phone, get their answer, and get off.

Yeah.

So, spending time on the phone was just not something that they wanted to do, and I totally get that. So I'm not sure if there was a change in the gaming community so much as -- because of the way the contact had to be made, there's a different perception about what we owed them when the contact was made.

Did callers ever talk about their personal lives to you?

Generally, no. Mostly they just wanted to be helped.

Were kids or whoever was calling -- would they be rude or abusive?

Rude people would be worked with. Abusive people would be, by policy, hung up on.

In the beginning, there was always going to be someone who was going to be rude and obnoxious and whatever.

What was rude and obnoxious in the '90s? Was it different from today?

I'm not so certain about that.

Yeah.

You keep saying "the kids," well, even back in the beginning, I would have to say that 40 percent of our contacts -- again, kinda making that number up, and I'm gutting the feeling -- were adults.

And they'd also be rude or obnoxious?

They're the ones who tended to be rude or obnoxious.

Generally speaking, the grannies were great, the kids were great, it was the teenagers and young adults that were always the worst to deal with.

How so?

I guess there -- as you're a young adult or late teen, you have a certain sense of your place in the world and perhaps growing entitlement. I hate using that word here, but I think it kind of makes sense.

You know, you want -- you're more goal-focused than the kid or the granny. I love talking to the self-admitted grandmothers who were playing games because they were there for fun.

I mean, I remember seeing profiles in Nintendo Power of grandmothers bragging about their high scores or best times.

It wasn't rare. They certainly weren't the largest percentage of callers, but just two or three times a week I'd get the granny call and those were wonderful.

What made them especially enjoyable?

I think it's because they had fewer expectations about completing the game and just -- the young kids and the older players were more in it for fun. Even though the late teens, early adults were playing for fun, there's more of a competitive "I have to complete this, I have to find everything, I have to, I have to, I have to" as opposed to "Wasn't it great playing through that level? That was a fun level. Whatever."

If that makes sense.

Is there any sort of line or comparison you can draw with your huge sample pool from when you started to the entitlement that exists around games today?

[Sighs.] That becomes increasingly difficult for me to draw any kind of straight lines because as I got separated from doing it as a job to doing something else, my interaction with the larger community of gamers also diminished.

And so my only real connection with community might be through guilds in MMOs and even that's somewhat sporadic. So I become more isolated from the larger gaming community in general and just going back to what I want in a game now is radically different from what I wanted in a game 10 or 20 years ago because the way my life has evolved, there's just -- the story for Mass Effect sounds interesting. I just do not have the time to have to play all the battle scenarios to get to the story.

Insert

You had mentioned in our email thread that you've changed and grown a lot in your life, and that was part of putting down videogames. For people who don't have a context for videogames, why can they be so incompatible with having relationships in your life?

Well, time.

Games have gotten more complex, which is good in a way. It means the artform is evolving. People are putting more thought into it.

But it also means because of that level of complexity, you have to invest more time into it. And relationships, good relationships, require you investing time with that person in that relationship.

Now, I sort of have it lucky because she's a gamer too, as I've mentioned. And so there's a certain amount of gaming that we can do together as a family that's investing time in that relationship. And working together in MMOs was certainly part of that. Or board gaming, especially cooperative board gaming, we've become particularly fond of that in recent years.

But competitive gaming like fighting games, neither of us have been particularly interested in that.

The single-player experience, say, playing a Zelda, that's stepping away from cooperative time. If I want to play a Zelda game now, I have to say, "Well, I need to forego this other activity and separate myself into this Zelda bubble, play Zelda for a while." And I'm less interested in that time away from the relationship, especially when we can -- there's so many things that do invest in the relationship like going on motorcycle rides together or taking a photo safari together or any number of things.

What made you want to work for Nintendo in the first place?

I needed a job, I was in college, they hired me.

That's a good reason. [Laughs.]

It doesn't really get any simpler than that. I was in college: "Crap. I need a part-time job. There's this company that I've only vaguely heard of called Nintendo and they're hiring part-time people to work on the phones. That doesn't sound particularly interesting, but the pay seems to be okay for a part-time position. Let's go apply. Oh! I got the job. Okay. Hey! This game play counseling stuff is kind of fun."

Twenty years later. [Laughs.]

So I completely blundered into the job.

When it did coalesce into your head that, "Oh, okay. I could maybe do this from here or I could do that from here." Where did you imagine the job could be a path to?

Yeah. Exactly.

That's a little more difficult -- there's a lot of stuff that goes on in a company like that. In most companies, I've come to learn, by talking to people outside of Nintendo, a lot of stuff is highly specialized where at Nintendo there was a lot of need for flexibility since the company is a big company with a very small population. And so it wouldn't be unusual during the summer -- it's like, "Okay, we don't need nearly this number of people on the phone. We're going to farm them out to different departments who do need help at this time."

So I spent some time in game testing, which I hated. I spent some time doing grunt work for the advertising people. I spent some time hither, thither, and yon.

But when I went back to the call center, it'd be like, "Okay. They have this structure of advancement and promotion." So I would work on that stuff because it was a fairly clearly defined structure of advancement. And that kind of came to an end when I was sent on a "six-month project" to help out the technical services department with some documentation.

And as that project was coming to an end it's like, "God, there is a lot more stuff that needs to be done." I talked to the manager, "What would you think about extending this project because X, Y, and Z, and this is likely to be ongoing." He said, "Yeah, that's probably true. Well, let me think about it."

And about two weeks later he said, "Um, congratulations, your new job title is technical writer."

"Huh, what? Hubba? Zuh?"

What is that actually?

Exactly. And so I had to do a bunch of self-education to find out what a technical writer actually does. [Laughs.] That took me about two years to figure out properly what a technical writer did through educating myself.

What does a technical writer do?

In the circumstances that I was working in, and this can vary from job to job, but basically I was translating engineer into English so that I could create a clear set of instructions for a repair technician saying, "Okay, first remove the fram widget, then remove the left-handed pron-flange." Stuff like that.

IKEA stuff.

Well, a bit more complex because for IKEA stuff, if there's eight steps to removing the left-handed pron-flange, all those would be clearly spelled out. But an educated technician is like, "Oh yeah. I was taught how to remove left-handed pron-flanges in school." So I didn't need to tell them how to do it but they needed to know the order because one was on top of the other or whatever.

What were the perks like at Nintendo? Not necessarily just the monetary perks, but what were the really nice things about working there?

For the first 18 or so years, there was a very high value on the individual performing and stepping out and working there. So there was the intangible, like, "Oh, we noticed that you were stepping up here, there." So there was a good bonus structure around that. The health benefits were pretty good for most of the time I was there. Decent 401(k). Decent retirement program and fortunately I got grandfathered into that. So, even when I got laid off a year ago, I'd been there for so long that even though I'm not anywhere near retirement age, guess what? I'm drawing a pension now.

I mean, it's not a lot of money, but it means that between my wife working full-time and this pension that I'm getting, I don't necessarily have to work. Although I do like to work and so I've been doing part-time stuff intermittently -- just being stuck in the house all the time is hard. [Laughs.]

I'm freelance.

So you know what I'm talking about.

I'm well-acquainted for a couple years now, yeah. I mean, I'm in the media, so the same sorta stuff that messed up what I do messed up what you did. Or had done.

What I had done, yeah. Dealing with the proprietary stuff on the technical writer side of things, that's all proprietary and so not so much there. It was just -- I'm gonna have to not talk about those reasons because there's still a) some bad feelings there on my part and b) there is proprietary knowledge there that I really can't get into because, well, proprietary.

Well, so, you did talk to 150,000 people.

Over 150,000 people. That doesn't include the letters or emails.

What is the view of humanity that you get through that lens?

Ten percent of the people are jerks. Complete and outright jerks. I could use more harsh language but, you know, they could learn from Wil Wheaton's "Don't Be A Dick." Let's just leave it at that.

Fifteen percent of the people are just outright stupid.

And the worst callers are, of course, the stupid jerks. If we're doing a Venn diagram.

So you've got 75 to go.

Fifty percent of humanity is relatively reasonable. Even if they come onto the phone angry, as soon as you understand the basis of their anger and remove that, then life is wonderful for them.

So a large chunk of humanity is actually relatively decent people. They've been, as I said, sometimes angered in some way. If you can remove that source of irritation, then life is golden. Because I cannot tell you how many times, and this is a quote: "You have ruined my child's Christmas." I've heard that and then 10 or 15 minutes later when I've sorted out the problem it's like, "Oh my God! You have just saved Christmas." That's going from zero to hero in ways that it's hard to describe.

This is actually interesting. I am one of those people that just -- I let a lot of stuff just roll off my back. But I've seen that kind of battering really wear at some people and they're usually short-lived in the consumer-service environment, where they take all that negative stuff to heart and it kind of can ruin some people, which is sad. And so it's more about my personality persevering and seeing all the good that I did and someone else who has a completely different attitude just letting it get to them.

But going back to that Venn diagram of stupid and angry of people who just don't want to be helped, and so no matter what you do for them, it's never gonna be enough. It's those calls that some people find the most destroying.

What's the last 25 percent?

Wonderful, cheerful people that clearly and accurately state their issue, and understand that the resolution to their issue may not be a straight line.

So you said you'd get calls, emails, letters. How would you characterize the typical tone of each? Would one tend to be more angry? Would one tend to be more stupid? What's the frequency of you running into those percentages per medium?

Okay, well, most people on the game play counseling side, you rarely got anger. Straight-out anger. You'd get frustration, you'd get whatever. On the consumer service side of things, they're not calling you unless there's a problem.

So I would have to -- when I talk about the 10 percent angry people, I'm talking about the people who even though you've solved their problem, they're still harboring that anger that they started the phone call with because they shouldn't have ever had to have dealt with it.

Then there's the stupid-angry people who felt that they should never have to have dealt with the issue and just are not willing to listen to anything that you want to give them to solve their problem. So I would have to say that -- let's talk about the more or less reasonable 60 percent chunk of humanity somewhere in the middle. They're gonna start off, most of them, at least upset. Sometimes outright angry. But that larger 60 percent chunk of humanity, once you find out their problem, once you have an active resolution for their problem, they go away happy. And that's mostly what I take away from it: I solved people's problems. That was a good feeling.

To fast-forward to today, why do you think people are so angry around videogames?

It depends upon the perspective of the question.

There is a larger videogame playing audience out there these days. And there is a sense that the major game makers are only making games for a segment of that audience and so that's where people growing up -- games out there for young girls and young boys. And there's a lot of young girls who like their pony games and their Barbie games and their whatever, and then they get to a certain age and games that cater to them disappear.

And they might find some happiness in playing the Mario games or the Zelda games. But because of the way a lot of games are written, they're really aimed at the late teen, early 20 male audience and so I think there's part of that disconnect there. I know that some larger companies are thinking about that.

Insert

And then there's this whole social construct that is a much, much bigger topic that I can't even begin to do justice to where because a segment of the populace is asking for games that are more tailored to them, there's another segment of the populace that thinks that means games tailored for their tastes will disappear because they're being tailored for another audience. Where, I don't think that that would ever really be the case. I just think -- [Sighs.] I think that one audience has been catered to so long that any change in that level of being catered to seems like they're having to lose something. And I don't think that's really truly the case, but I can see how a segment of the population might perceive it as such.

As I said, I'm trying to very diplomatically step around the late nastiness, if you will.

I mean, another person I talked to for this had asked me, "Is it just videogames where the younger people want to see things stay the same?"

This is very interesting. Because if we step out and look at media as a whole, media as a whole has had the luxury of becoming more diverse over time because, well, film and television and whatever have been around a lot longer than videogames. And so videogames have had to grow up probably a lot more quickly than other types of media out there.

So because there was a perception about what the audience of videogames should be, kind of informed how it evolved and now that we're kind of in the process of growing up and videogames have to grow up. Because for so many years the manufacturers, the AAA game titles, unintentionally created this idea in society as a whole that videogamers are males between a certain age, you know, late teens, early 20s, and that's who we need to cater to because that's the market.

That was not always the market.

I realize that.

I think that the shift of family-oriented gaming -- that's not even the right word. But it was sometime in the '90s, late '90s, after 1995 when somehow, and I don't know how. I can't speak to how or why it happened, but sometime after 1995, that's when this perception really started to evolve and take root and really become the focus.

And not for everybody. Because Nintendo had done -- well, not a great job -- a better job of catering to a wider range of players.

What do you think the games media or the industry itself could be doing to combat or assuage some of the entitlement or toxicity that is not just unique to games but that exists within it?

I don't necessarily have any original thoughts on that matter.

A long time ago -- a long time ago, being a year and a half ago. [Laughs.] A friend of mine, Jeff Vogel, who's an independent game developer. I don't know if you know the name or not.

I've interviewed him, yeah.

He's a friend of mine for non-videogame-related reasons. [Laughs.] Wrote some really, really good articles about this subject and whenever I want to -- which is rarely, because my circle of friends, and this is how circles of friends really evolve is they kind of all agree with you. [Laughs.] That's true.

But just wrote some really, really good stuff on the subject on his blog and so whenever someone asks me about it, I just refer them back to him because just very clear-headed about why it happened, how it happened, and maybe some ways out of it.

What do you think videogames have accomplished?

[Pause.] I'm thinking about that.

I'm going to digress slightly because being something of a history buff, I'm very fascinated about these little cycles of history where when any new media really comes about, and this happened for film, it happened for radio, it happened for comic books, I'm sure it even happened for opera.

But there is a segment of the populace that looks at any new entertainment as bad because it's different and it's somehow going to corrupt our youth.

Oh, rock 'n' roll was certainly like that, just to toss out another one.

And then as the youth grow up with this artform -- and this does hold true again with radio, with television, with film, with comic books, although because of the Comic Code, it took a lot longer for comic books, but that's completely outside of the scope of this conversation.

They were like, "Okay, this is just another form of entertainment." Was it Gene Siskel who said videogames will never be art because there can't be an emotional connection, they can't move you. And that's just because he had this view of three moving lights on a screen, two on each end, one going up and down, tossing this other bit of light between them. Of course that's not going to move you.

But that's the genesis.

If you look at early film, they were equally as shallow as Pong was back in the day. There are certainly now games out there -- Lord of The Rings. We'll go back to that. Lord of the Rings Online, the storylines sometimes have been very, very powerful and moved myself and my wife to tears because the story was that engaging and that involved. There we were.

So, videogames will not accomplish anything more than film or television or radio or any other kind of artform. Okay? But videogames are certainly capable of accomplishing everything that film and radio and whatever have done. So it's powerful and can be powerful. But because it's limited to -- this is the limitation of entertainment, is it's limited to our impact on our internal spheres. If it moves us to then act in an external sphere by going out and helping either through charity or through other actions, then the media, no matter what it is, has done a good thing. And videogames are certainly capable of that. Just like film and radio are.

The artform is capable of moving us just like any other entertainment out there.

What other impact it may have is largely up to us: the consumers of the media.

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