nicky case

nicky case

So, hi! I'm Nicky Case, I'm 20 years old, and I move all over the world, but right now I'm in Portland, Oregon. I've been here for less than three weeks.

I'm probably not qualified to talk about the game industry.

[Laughs.]

But I've been making -- I guess independent and weird web games for, like, over 10 years. Also, one of my games Coming Out Simulator -- one of my interactive stories -- was nominated for Best Narrative in the Independent Games Festival this year.

For people reading this who don't know, what is the IGF?

Oh! Also. Sorry. I forgot to say about Parable of the Polygons is also at the Games for Change festival this year, which I'm going to next week. That's the one more accolade I wanted to mention.

And, so, the Independent Games Festival is pretty much the Oscars of indie games. I guess.

The Games For Change festival is a three-day conference to talk about how games or interactive media can be used for social change. It's in New York. It happens annually. I think it's founded by Suzanne Seggerman and Benjamin Stokes.

Why did you say "you guess" about it being the Oscars of videogames?

I’ve, uh, never seen a single Oscars event, televised or otherwise, ever? So, I’m straight-up guessing they’re both "big prestigious awarding event thingies with a schmancy jokey host and hastily prepared award speeches" or whatever. Oh, god, I have no idea what I’m talking about.

Is Games for Change festival part of the whole "serious games" movement?

I guess there's a certain amount of overlap between Games for Change and serious games. Or a lot of overlap. Yeah, I'm trying to think. [Laughs.] In a Venn diagram of what would be a game for change that is not a serious game. I think they're pretty much synonymous. Maybe some gamification stuff is not considered serious games, and -- you know? I have no idea.

Okay, a serious game that is not technically a game for change, I guess, maybe. I don't know. I have no idea. I guess, like, military simulation games. Like, the games they actually use in the military. Those are definitely very serious simulation games to train soldiers, but they're not meant for for social change.

Yeah. Which is sort of ironic in and of itself, but as I understand it, serious games -- which sounds like such a silly name to say -- are games meant to explore and explain issues or the costs of ignoring them. Does that sound fair?

To be honest, just the fact that they have to put "serious" in the title makes them sound so insecure about the medium. [Laughs.] Just to lay it all bare.

[Laughs.] That's kind of what I was saying. But, I don't know. What do you think about all these different strains and categories of games, and then you talk about gamification. Like, in my memory, this used to be all divided by console. Then it was hardcore and casual. Then it became big-budget or "indie," but then there's also big-budget and indie and serious games and alt games and punk games -- and I don't know. To use your word, do these feel like insecure distinctions or are they actually helpful?

Sometimes they're helpful. I guess the thing about labels and categories is that sometimes they're helpful, sometimes they're not. I've been thinking a lot about maps and how a map is a huge simplification of the world but it's useful because it's simplified.

And so these categories, they're definitely oversimplifying a whole spectrum -- not even spectrum, because that only applies to one axis as a whole. Like, multidimensional spectrum of the possibilities of forms and functions that interactive media can have. [Laughs.] But, categories are simplifications, but they're useful because they're a simplification.

So, I guess, basically, it's like a map. Sometimes it's good, sometimes it's not.

[Laughs.]

Like, I think alt games -- I've heard some valid criticism about the new category of "alt games," but I think it's useful for people in indie games right now because indie games is kind of like an industry itself. They stuck it to the man, and now they are the man or something like that.

I'm not really sure these categories are all that helpful. There can be many interpretations of these terms and what they mean, but I find it largely to just be a distraction.

So, yeah, imagine a map of the world where continental drift is one meter per second. That's basically what we're trying to do: Make a map of the world where the continents move.

One thing I want to build off on top of labels and everything. I was chatting with someone from the BBC yesterday, actually. He's from the Interactive Storytelling Group. One, I didn't know there was an Interactive Storytelling Group, but, that's really cool. [Laughs.]

The BBC is really interested in interactive education, and also interactive storytelling. They recently published a thing called Syrian Journey, which was kind of like a Choose Your Own Adventure, but based on several interviews from Syrian refugees. In this interactive piece of journalism, you got to choose your escape route. Like, did you want to fly directly to Sweden, which is really great with refugees? But that's really risky because it's expensive to get a fake passport. Or, if you wanted to go by land through Turkey, which also has different risks. It was really interesting.

Connecting to Coming Out Simulator, it had to be half-fictional because the player had choice, which meant that not every single outcome could be the outcome that actually happened. That's why Coming Out Simulator was fictional.

So, the BBC took this really interesting approach in that every single choice and result was non-fictional because they created a composite character from several dozens of interviews of Syrian refugees and statistics. That's a really interesting way forward, a Choose Your Own Adventure where it's completely non-fictional. Every single choice and consequence is non-fictional because it's a composite. So that's really interesting.

To go back from the tangents, and why I brought up this about labels is that I was talking with the guy from the BBC -- like anytime he's trying to talk to the higher-ups in production or marketing at the BBC, they all get tripped up on the word "game" because they think either Call of Duty or Angry Birds.

Insert

And so, we were thinking, maybe it's the word itself? We brought up, as an analogy, the comic-books industry where they really just solved the problem by calling themselves "graphic novels." That worked really, really well. I mean, a lot of people criticized the term "graphic novel" for just being a marketing thing, but marketing matters. If you want the type of audience that obviously can appreciate the kind of work, then, marketing is the art of finding an audience.

I would say every label is a form of marketing. Okay. Marketing. When I say "marketing," I mean marketing and/or trying to set the audience expectations, trying to find the right audience. "Indie game" has a certain set of expectations and stuff, and also the word "game" itself has a whole bunch of expectations. And the word "comic book" has a whole bunch of expectations, like, "Oh, it's just about superheroes?" But "graphic novel," just the word sounds like it has more gravitas.

So we were just brainstorming different words or phrases instead of "game" that would mean pretty much the same thing but would set different expectations from the audience, and I think that's really important because a lot of the criticisms of a lot of the more story-based or text-based games is that they didn't make it clear what people could expect from a game, which is more escapist or challenge-based or fun. And, so, I don't know? Interactive story?

Yeah. Or I've heard "interactive fiction," which isn't new by any stretch.

Yeah. That one also has a bunch of other expectations as well because it's its own genre, and people expect interactive fiction to have a parser base and puzzles and actually there's a little bit of friction in the interactive-fiction community over Twine because Twine doesn't have a parser, it's more click-based. It's more hyperlinked fiction. There's actually another genre called "hypertext fiction." [Laughs.]

And it's a little bit of a controversy in the IF community over parser-based games where you type in words and there's some form of language processing that decides what's going on and maybe puzzles and inventory and all that.

What's the friction?

I guess my bar for what is infighting is really high post-you-know-what. That thing. The gate.

I'm reminded of the XKCD comic: There is no bottom to human subcultures, it's nested fractally.

What were some of the names or labels you and the person from the BBC came up with?

Interactive stories, interactive experiences, for more fiction-based stuff.

And for non-fiction stuff like Parable of the Polygons, God, my co-author and I call them "playable posts." Bret Victor calls them “Explorable Explanations”, Alan Kay coined the term “active essay”, and once, as a horrible joke, I called them “glogs”. Like blogs and vlogs, except it’s a game, so -- “glogs”. [Laughs.]

Insert

Well, so you talk about the term "game," and one of the common expectations you wanted to talk about was "fun." And I feel like when people talk about stuff like this, they feel the need the need to start off by apologizing, "Look, I'm not saying that all games shouldn't be fun."
Is this some of the weight or the baggage from the word "game" you're talking about, where people feel they have to apologize before they even say what they feel?

Yup! That's exactly it. [Laughs.]

You don't want a mismatch of expectations with the audience. Like, of course, I have made this disclaimer as well: "I'm not saying that all games should not be fun. Fun is an emotion that can be used in your toolkit in any medium whatsoever. It's a thing that exists that can be used as a tool for eliciting whatever emotions you want. It's part of the toolbox."

It's in the toolbox of emotions that we're allowed to use in games. But it's just fun and rage. Those are pretty much the only two emotions that I guess a lot of people expect from games. Both hardcore and casual, I guess.

Well, so, we were emailing and it's interesting to me that things you mentioned you'd like to see less of are the expectations, almost, of the old marketing terms around games. You had a list: "fun, challenging, and addicting."

Yeah. One thing about the word "addicting?" In hindsight, it really creeps me out. [Laughs.]

Yeah. You said it was "messed up." [Laughs.]

Right? Actually, it's really creepy to have a mental disorder as a marketing term.

No, that's not good. Addiction is not good, people. I know how they mean it metaphorically, but why do we want that as a metaphor?

I think with "addicting," you want the player to keep playing over and over again, and I guess that's -- I'm thinking of games, like, gaming's roots. Arcade machines where monetization was getting a player to put in more quarters and play over and over again. So, in that case, being addicting and/or something you would want to play over and over again is -- yeah. It makes sense. That's the model there.

But going back even further, I'm thinking about slot machines. Like, I guess those would technically be the original arcade machines. [Laughs.] An addiction to slot machines -- gambling addictions are a real thing. They're actually really, really damaging. [Laughs.]

I don't know how much of that just carries over or if I'm making connections that don't exist. It's like with any medium. But, like, with music, we call it "catchy." We don't call a tune "addicting." We call it "catchy" or something.

Well, but music has something just as troubling. Have you ever heard the word "earworm?"

Yes. [Laughs.]

That's something I never want to hear.

The mental image that comes with "earworm" is actually pretty horrifying, actually. [Laughs.]

Sort of with what we're talking about, this notion of "fun" in games can be seen as a line with some people having a very narrow idea of what games should or shouldn't be. Where do you think that comes from?

I have no idea. [Laughs.] So, like, the word has a lot of baggage.

What word?

The word "game."

Yeah.

Like, I was talking to the BBC guy and we were thinking about -- oh, is there a way to save the word "game" from the stigma or is it just easier to create an entirely new word without this baggage?

For the person from the BBC, what is the stigma? What is the baggage that they perceived?

Let's call the guy Steve. His name's not Steve, but for the sake of -- let's just pretend he's called Steve. [Laughs.]

I'm pretending his name is Steve. I don't know his real name, so you could have just told me his name was Steve. [Laughs.]

[Laughs.] Right. Anyway, so, when whenever he tries to talk to someone higher-up in production or marketing, they think what a game primarily adds is entertainment. Rather than, say, using mechanics themselves to teach a concept or teach a system. So, when asked to think of an "educational game", they think of a normal, like, regular multiple-choice quiz with flashy effects and a point system. [Laughs.] That's hard for people’s imaginations, to re-imagine what they think of as a game when applied to education.

And I don't blame them for that, because the word "game" has a lot of expectation and baggage with it. And I guess -- I don't know how long the word "game" has lasted. Probably a very, very long time. [Laughs.]

Well, games have been around since --

Forever.

Yeah.

Actually, what's interesting is when I was doing research for this Gamasutra article called "I Do and I Understand." It's a little article/tutorial I wrote about how to teach systems and teach lessons through interactive media. Through mechanics. You know, "procedural rhetoric" as Ian Bogost puts it. And when I did the research, it's interesting that the earliest board games were kind of like serious games! Extra Credits actually did an episode a while back on the history of Snakes and Ladders, and it was meant as a teaching tool for karma and fate, where the dice is completely up to fate. You can't control it, and you move up and down this karmic scale, getting closer to the goal of moving further away. Before, it was called -- because I think there were seven virtues and seven sins, or, maybe I'm mixing it up with the Christian remix of the original Hindu game. Ancient Indian? I have no idea.

Anyway.

The other example that I used in my article was Monopoly. Monopoly was originally designed by Elizabeth Magie in the early 1900's, and it was called The Landlord's Game. And it was specifically meant to teach the economic principles of Georgism, which was and still is an obscure economic philosophy. But it was fascinating. A hundred years ago, one, we had women game designers. And, two, we had serious games. Like, she wanted to make a serious game that taught people the economic principles of Georgism. This kind of has a sad ending because Parker Bros. pretty much swiped her designs and then credited someone else for the design and at most they gave her $500 for the patents, and then they removed all the messages about Georgism and just made it a fun thing about something else.

A fun game about upsetting your friends and family over money.

Yeah. It's so weird. I have no idea why people like Monopoly so much, because Magie specifically designed the game to break because she wanted to show that the current economic system would necessarily break into a winner-takes-all system. That's what she wanted to show with her game, The Landlord's Game.

And one other interesting thing is in a later edition, if everyone agreed to switch mid-game to a different rule, they could. So, in the beginning, whenever you landed on a piece of someone's property, you have to pay them. The person who owns the property. But in this new rule system, she changed one rule so that if you land on someone's property, you pay to a public treasury. And that solves all the problems, apparently. So, she was doing procedural rhetoric 100 years ago. Interesting.

I think it's good but not always necessary to talk about perspective and history when discussing this stuff, and I feel like it's rare around videogames. For example, I think that's how somehow the notion that "indie" games are anything new is a result of that, and after Indie Game: The Movie. Even though people making games on their own has been around since before there even was an industry.

Yeah. Everyone then was indie. Shareware! That's what it was called, yeah.

Sorry, one other thing I remembered from that article I wrote is that when videogames first came out, they were criticized for not being real games. They didn't have the dynamic, human-generated narratives of a good D&D session. They didn't have the tactile experience of hands moving stones in Go. They didn't even have the social aspect of Never Have I Ever.

Say right now videogames were coming out and we would compare them to, like, other games like Dungeons and Dragons. We've got a person who actively generates and creates narratives. I think for the most part D&D has more interactive narrative flexibility than most computerized games. And I think that's mostly a limitation of a computer versus a human -- like, a computer is great at handling super-fast calculations, which is why physics and graphics are the things that a computer has a comparative advantage at. But social and narrative stuff is something that a human is currently better at than a computer.

Have you seen that video of the two AI chatbots talking to each other?

No, I haven't.

Here, let me send it to you.

[Laughs.] Oh my God, this is actually existentially terrifying.

For some reason I've been thinking a lot about the maps as models idea of how we understand the world through maps and models and we can't actually see reality as it is, but the brain is constantly interpreting it. Did you know that the eye is only capable of focusing -- like, if you hold out your thumb at arm’s length away from you, that's about as large as your eye can actually focus on anything at any one time. Your brain is constantly re-interpreting and stitching together fragments of the world into something that has coherence in your mind.

Anyway, I bring that up because everything we -- we're always trying to interpret the world through models. I think it actually is an interesting thing to try to create a model of the world that's simple enough for a computer to simulate but still gets the general gist of reality. That's why, for example, Parable of Polygons -- it's based off Thomas Schelling's model of segregation, which, obviously, looks very simplified. Understandably. There's no section that's supposed to be representative of reality. It's very simplified. It's kind of like a cartoon of reality, but it still gets the gist across, just like how two dots in a curved line gets across the gist that there's a face. Two dots and a line -- a smiley face.

And so in this very simplified model of segregation, gets across, I think very powerfully, the idea that even small, individual biases can hit the tipping point and become institutional biases. So, just been thinking a lot about how we model -- like you said, it's more interesting to see how a computer would understand humanity rather than humanity understanding computers.

Because I don't think --

Because I don't think humanity understands humanity, so.

Exactly. You need to have it reflected back to us in some way. We're too close to it. And I feel like this ties a little bit into something else you wanted to talk about: escapism. But this isn't just true of videogames, like, anything can really provide escapism.
I don't know why sometimes people talk about videogames like it's the "one true medium" that provides the "ultimate" form of escapism.

It's actually really awesome that you said that. I guess every medium can be stretched to do whatever it wants, but, yeah, I think games and/or interactive media is pretty well suited for exploring possibility space.

I mean, what even happens in the world around us is that one sequence of events happens -- we don't get to see the possibility space in our day-to-day lives because other possibilities don't happen. Actually, that's kind of a lie. We do see other possibilities, but in our imaginations and predictions. And that's really powerful. That's one of the reasons why humans are still around and not dead, is that we are capable of predicting and hypothesizing about the future and then planning for it. I think interactive media helps enhance that exploration of the possibility space outside of our imaginations, which could be really powerful for understanding the world that is and the world that could be.

Escapism is -- again, with the whole toolkits thing, like, "fun" is a great emotion that you can use in your toolbox. However, by now, the only emotions we have in our toolbox for what people expect out of games are "fun" and "rage." Pretty much. And so, if fun is a tool, then escapism is a purpose. Because with something like Games for Change, the explicit purpose is creating social change. For escapism, the explicit purpose is creating a whole lot of fun and not really enriching, I guess, the viewer, the audience, the player, after the decision is done. It's a snack. It's junk food.

And it's meant to be that. That's its exact purpose. It's not challenging. I mean, like, escapist games can be fun and challenging, and that's great. And here, again, I'm disclaiming: Yes, it can be great and I freakin' love some fun and escapist games because that's good. It's just ridiculous that I have to keep doing this disclaimer over and over again, because I know --

You don't have to, though. You don't have to.

I mean, I have to. But I shouldn't have to.

I'm very loosely paraphrasing this one Scott McCloud quote I read from Understanding Comics, where it's like, superheroes are fun and they're like eating sweet cake, but who would want to eat sweet cake for the rest of their lives? And so that's why he was doing his call for a bigger diversity in genre for the comic-books industry, and I think the exact same lesson applies to games.

[Laughs.] I actually took a whole bunch of pictures and screenshots from Understanding Comics and replaced the word "comics" with "games" and it works so well. [Laughs.]

That doesn't surprise me. Well, so, you mention genre. I did an interview with someone during GDC who told me he believes there are no new genres. Do you think that's true?

Nope! Because, again, "genre" doesn't even actually exist. It's a useful simplification of the entire multidimensional spectrum that we can do. And, like drawing little borders on the map of where each genre lies is useful. Yeah. It's useful for setting expectations of what you're going to be making and setting an expectation for what the audience is going to be getting themselves into.

But let's not forget that the genre is turning a continuous space into a discrete space, to use some really mathy lingo. And so, the continuous space -- like, I was talking about fractals. there is no bottom. Everything is fractals. All these cultures are fractally nested, and we'll always find new genres, new combinations, new subgenres.

There’ll always be something on that infinitely continuous and fractal spectrum that we'll find.

What do you think videogames have accomplished?

As a whole, I’d say videogames' biggest achievements so far have been in business and technology. That’s not a put-down or anything. They’re really big business. And games have helped immensely in driving technology adoption -- smartphones) or been the primary motive behind new technological innovations, like the GPU.

But as an artistic and communication medium, I think videogames are just starting to finally find its foothold there. It’s not a lot yet, compared to other mediums, but it’s very promising.

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