Sure. Ryan Kuo, 33, and currently based in Cambridge, Massachusetts having moved here a few years ago from New York where I was editing a magazine called Kill Screen. It's funny, I noticed that you had this kind of format. I looked at a couple of your interviews and I noticed that people were doing these self-introductions.
I feel like we live in such a presentation-centric culture that to not have a ready-made introduction seems like a huge faux pas or something these days. Well, who am I to you?
[Laughs.] Oh man. We're starting right away on this.
Yeah. You tell me?
I think we sort of alluded to it before in our emails, which is I remember your name from Kill Screen and you were at Crispy Gamer, right?
Oh, sure. Yeah.
Yeah. So, my memory of entering writing about videogames was I was an editor at The Onion and that led laterally to me starting to write about games. I helped push for and collaborated on the creation of what became the games section for A.V. Club. But before that got off the ground I was doing a couple of smallish, beginner-ish pieces for Crispy Gamer and I remember seeing your name there and I remember your being involved with what today would be considered the first generation of what Kill Screen was.
Which, I didn't realize this at the time and this is something I wanted to ask you about because it was progressive for its time. But my awareness was always, "Well, of course you write about games as if they relate to the rest of the culture." I didn't realize until later and I started writing elsewhere that that was pretty unusual. I would run into stuff from editors at places like GamesRadar like, "You should take out this reference to Aaron Sorkin because we don't think our audience is going to know who that is." That isn't meant as gossip or a slam, but just a recognition that there was something special going on with Kill Screen. But that's where my sensibility of this stuff started, being edited either by you or Chris Dahlen.
As far as who you specifically are to me, I mean, I've followed you loosely through the years. I see you somewhat as -- and you can correct me if I'm downplaying or overstating -- one of the architects of Kill Screen and someone who thinks about these kinds of things a lot. Or you did. Based on our emails, it seems like you still do. Maybe you follow it a little more quietly or you've just returned to civilian life. [Laughs.]
That's the way I think of you.
Did that sound good? Did I introduce you properly?
That sounds fine to me for the context of this interview.
What did I miss? What led you to where you were when I first heard of you?
No, I think that's -- if you know my name through the game-journalism world, that's basically, I suppose -- calling me one of the architects is almost -- my question is always -- I know you're interviewing a lot of different people.
Even still, it's like, "Why would anyone even care what I think about videogames?" I went to GDC one time and some guy I met who was working for a blog of a friend of mine's said to me, "I hear you're a big name." And I'm like, "What are you talking about? What is that?"
I have no idea. It's funny, I think that those of us who work on the internet as media -- I think the feeling of working in a vacuum is always there. You're working in an echo chamber inside of much vaster vacuums. So, vice versa. It's hard to tell which is which. You know, it may be that at one point people cared about -- people valued my opinion or my name. And now, no one gives a shit about my opinion or my name as far as I know as far as videogames go. And so, it's interesting. I'm kind of harping on this introduction thing because it’s this question of how do you form your identity in what field and with what criteria, especially now with identity politics being such a thing. I don’t know. To me, I was never quite comfortable with this idea that I was a game journalist or hardly even a game critic because I honestly didn't feel like a real journalist. I mean, I've done a little bit of actual reporting in my life, but that was for the Harvard Crimson. [Laughs.]
A lot of game journalists that I worked with were not interested in picking up a phone so much as they were interested in writing essays about their experiences. You know, if that's part of what I was helping architect, I feel ambivalent about that.
[Laughs.] I knew as soon as I used that word, that that would be picked at.
But I think just on a much more basic human level, it's just that you were around doing this type of thing before I was doing that type of thing. So on a real simple A to B level -- these interviews are very much, "What do you remember? What was it like? What was strange?" I do think there is a lot of what you said, the attitude of, "Well, who cares what I have to say?" And I guess the working theory guiding this project is there might be nutrients in exploring and indulging and just seeing what people who feel that way have to say. 'Cause I feel like people who say that sort of thing, it may just be that there's stuff they haven't been listened to in what they have to talk about. So many people come through, leave, and it’s not about making sense of their exits but about highlighting what knowledge they took with them and don’t transfuse back into the ecosystem.
It could also be -- like, you know Gus, and when I was talking to him about doing this thing, I mentioned I wanted to interview people who stopped playing games and he said there might be a reason that some people aren't listened to: Maybe they don't have much to say.
But a year in, this is my strange new normal. I know it's not a typical thing to do, but it's not lost on me how unusual what you're talking about with this is. For me, the introductions aren't expected to be ready-made but just someone in their own words saying why they want to talk, and why I’m asking them about that kind of thing in general. Even if it's shrugging, that's okay because that's how I felt when I started this. But for you, asking who cares, why do you say that? Is it because this is about games and you've moved on from it?
I don't mean it in a rhetorical in even a particularly skeptical way. It's an open question, I guess, because I guess this does come down to my memory and my personal experience. But it often seems arbitrary what gets a lot of attention on the internet. I've labored for hours over things that barely got any feedback and I've also dashed off things really quickly that became almost viral, you know? All the things that I've written, the more I went on, the more kind of esoteric and I feel not personal but maybe more esoteric I became as I was trying to work out my feelings about, I guess, videogames, videogame technology, videogame aesthetics, how they related to my own feelings and intuitions and experiences and ambitions -- where was I going with that?
I think that sometimes people really seem to connect with the -- I'm very thorough as a writer and as a person who analyzes stuff. Basically, I tend to just try to turn every single stone that I can see in my sight and then cover and somehow cover everything that's underneath those stones and tie them together in a way that makes sense to me. And I think that used to come through. People would say things like -- sorry, David, I don't know if I'm making everything way more complicated than you're hoping. I'll just go with it.
My perception of people's receptions to what I wrote -- it's funny. Like, people would tweet at me. I would publish a review, okay? People would tweet at me, like, "This was a really great review!" Or, "This is one of the best reviews I've ever read!" Like, my Bastion review, people were like, "This is almost as well-written as the game!"
And that's fine, but it's hard for me to understand. It's like a Facebook "like." You don't know what's in that "like." You don't know what that means. It's a form of positive feedback, but it's such a small grain that's divorced of any context that it's hard for me to think about. Obviously some people did care about what I was writing, but to what extent and for what reasons? I have no idea.
Maybe it's the crux of what I'm struggling with right now. Actually, the most meaningful thing -- for some reason, I keep thinking about this, but I used to lurk on NeoGAF. You know, the forum?
I was reading about some game that came out. I must have reviewed it. Oh, it was Fez. I was reading the thread about it and then somebody posted the link to my review and they said, "Oh, Ryan Kuo's review is finally up." And I was like, "Finally up? What, you're waiting for me to review it?"
And then this other person goes and says, "Man, that review was all over the place, man. I love Ryan Kuo, but that review was all over the place." And it's like, that's fine. It was all over the place. But, "I love Ryan Kuo?" Like, are you serious? That, to me, I was like, "Wow, that's really cool." You can just say that you love me and my work and you're not saying it to me. You're saying it to somebody else. That, to me, means more. You know? Okay, I'm done being complicated.
No, no. It's totally fine and you aren't being complicated. It's weird. I've not witnessed that sort of thing about my own work, but I have been told, "Oh yeah, you're a known name."
I don't know what that means.
I think it's meant to be encouraging. But it's not like you get any sort of clout within an industry when people tell you that, right? Has that been your experience, where because people tell you you're a name you're able to do certain types of things?
No, I don't think so. In my experience, it's always had more to do with who I'm writing for. When I was writing for the Wall Street Journal, that gave me a concrete measure of what kind of access I would get from certain companies and how quickly -- and probably because the Wall Street Journal was a concrete measure of their public relations person's success of doing their job. So, it's just interesting. There are many different notions of power and prestige, even in this esoteric world. Writing for the Wall Street Journal was one and having my name was another. [Laughs.] But I don't think they had anything to do with each other. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] Well, we already started nebulously and so we may continue on in that direction. Some of the stuff I emailed you about is intentionally broad. You gave the impression that since Kill Screen you haven't been following "the conversation" around games.
Was I reading you correctly? If so, what was behind that decision to disengage or to pay less active attention to it?
I think that it was, in a way, not a conscious decision. Well, I did make a conscious decision to not check Twitter every day at one point because I just found it quite literally depressing.
And so, when I deleted the Twitter app on my phone, that was probably some kind of turning point. [Laughs.] But, I don't know. The more banal answer, also, is just that I broke out of the habit because I stopped having to have opinions and formulate them all the time and I also stopped getting games in the mail for free. [Laughs.]
So, therefore, I didn't really -- I really feel like to be particularly engaged in the "conversation" is an all or nothing endeavor. That's almost what's so upsetting about it, is that you're all in or you're out. Places like Kill Screen and other venues that try to emphasize the resonances that games can have with other mediums and other fields -- [Sighs.] It's really hard to support or foster that kind of approach without feeling like you're half-assing it in a way, too, because you can just go deep into one game. You can go deep into Street Fighter and only think about Street Fighter mechanics and techniques and what that means to the community around Street Fighter. You know, every game can be a world into itself and that's very exhausting. And so, when even communities of people who are primarily playing games and talking about each game together as they play it and then moving onto the next game and the next game or maybe they're playing two or three games really deeply at a time and their entire worlds are orbiting these games.
Like, I don't begrudge anybody doing that, but it's very exhausting. I don't know.
You were saying, too, in your email that you'd like to see the whole enterprise decelerate. Your example was if you want to play Firewatch in three months from now, you don't want to have everyone referring to it like it was back in the '80s.
Yeah. That brings me back to -- I feel like I didn't address your earlier, really basic question about what were my memories back then. It's funny because when you say "back then" and talk about remembering my name, it makes me feel like decades have elapsed. [Laughs.]
Yeah, for the transcript, we should probably say: It was, like, five years ago.
It was. And, you know, all I've managed to do in those five years -- well, I got a degree and I lost some weight. It's funny. Yeah.
But my memories of "back then" -- [Sighs.] Kill Screen was heralded as this kind of breakthrough platform for “serious writing about videogames.” I don't know if you're aware that Crispy Gamer, where I had my first job, was also founded with this framing intention that the people writing for Crispy Gamer were supposed to be the best of the best at the time and people who were veterans of game journalism. And so, for me to be referred to now as any kind of originator is just a little strange to me because I was such a new jack when I joined Crispy Gamer and people like Gus, who had been doing it for years and years, and the editor-in-chief who hired me, John Keefer, he had been doing this for a long, long time. So long that enough time had passed for it to become a completely different -- I had a bit of a small conflict with somebody I worked with at Crispy Gamer because I was the copy editor and I was reading his review and it was written in such a way that he was kind of talking to this very close audience of grizzled old gamers who had been doing this game buying and reading the review of the game cycle for so long that it was almost by rote. He had written this line in his intro saying, "Now let's just get right to it." And that line, "let's just get right to it," that really, at the time, struck me as, "Well, get right to what? And let's what? Who are we talking to? Who is this collective 'let's' that you're employing here?"
But this invisible audience was familiar to me as well, because I actually grew up in a rural town reading obsessively, game blogs and game journalism going back to websites like Blue's News or Shacknews or whatever. I forgot -- there was Planet Quake or something.
These really old -- not even that old, but PC gaming sites. There was just a way of talking about games that was a very trusted format. I always felt like I wanted to participate in that and then with Crispy Gamer, I finally got my chance, but I've never felt like I originated anything because it's always felt continuous to me from this random childhood aspiration I had, what I saw other people doing. And then it was already mutating into something else around when Kill Screen was being conceived. So, maybe that's my way of saying I don't really feel like I started anything. You know? [Laughs.]
Part of that, too, is just by proxy of my point of entry and what I saw. Even when Kill Screen started, I remember writing some stories for the first few issues but it's not like I was in those meetings. I was just a satellite writer who got asked to write some stuff and I wrote some stuff.
Yeah. You want me to talk about how I felt about Kill Screen starting and all that?
Yeah. Sure. That makes sense.
Okay. [Pause.] The thing is I can't really definitively say if Kill Screen was the first time that people could write meaningfully in this mode of games as a significant medium, for lack of better words, on par with film and whatever the fuck. Sculpture. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] Yeah, we'll count those.
Okay. I wasn't sure. Sculpture and Firewatch.
Together at last.
Which I still haven't played, by the way.
That's okay. I figured when you said "in three months," that it was some specific intention you had.
I put it on my to-do list to finish it last Saturday and I haven’t even downloaded it. [Laughs.]
So, but the thing I think that Kill Screen did undo was to -- it seems that for a lot of people, this was the first time such a thing could be possible. Having a kind of iconic platform that would convince people once and for all that games could be and already maybe were connected to everything ever. This is in maybe 2009? And I think that Kill Screen's self-awareness about what it was doing and the image it was cultivating really dovetailed with many people's self-consciousness about what they were doing. More people wanted to self-identify more strongly as being a gamer, and they really wanted to read and write about this, for better and worse. I think that the timing was also good because Braid had come out recently and there was the sort of feeling that these indie games were undergoing some kind of renaissance. I'm not saying that's true, because indie games have been around forever.
But there was this feeling that this was happening. After GDC I remember blogging about this idea that the more indie games would become a thing, the more it was gonna be contested whether or not you're indie. That ended up happening.
I might sound cynical. Kill Screen was very meaningful to be involved with in the beginning. Because Chris Dahlen's editing was so amazing, and the quality of long-form writing he got and was working on and what he shaped it into was just very -- it was kind of profound to me. The way that first issue, Issue 0, could be read front-to-back and somehow cover much more ground than I think anyone could have expected. I still don’t know that I’ve seen that breadth in any other publication.
I was honored to be a part of that. I don't necessarily share the broader ambitions of Kill Screen as a culture company.
Can you say more about that?
Well, it’s an uncomfortable thing. I think that living and working in New York City shapes a particular kind of worldview, um, where you’re under constant pressure for the many numbers that you’re juggling to add up, and accrete infinite value. But in fact those numbers don’t add up, because it’s a media city where everything is challenging each other to know more about everything and to know better about it, and meanwhile that’s a kind of zero-sum game. I’m sure we’ve both met many people who pathologically need to act like they know a lot more about a thing than they do.
And I think that just the fact of trying to build this authoritative knowledge base about “what games mean” in the fucking center of that kind of environment has certain unwanted effects that you have to continuously ward off, at least in your head, or at least I did in my head, and it also just seems impossible that there wouldn’t eventually be a really hard disconnect between you and all your New York City pals and everyone else outside of New York City. [Sighs.] I’m being vague because this is really -- this is vague. I’m not saying Kill Screen represented that. But it was maybe complicit in fueling it, if only by virtue of being a visible media company. And that just doesn’t sit well with this ongoing phenomenon of people on the internet wanting to connect and feel meaningful about playing games.
Like we had a couple meetings with the design curators at MoMA because they wanted advice about which games to acquire for their permanent collection. They were lovely and gracious about it, and it really seemed like an amazingly smooth process to go from this very broad mandate to a particular, very deliberate set of acquisitions in the end. I mean, we didn’t see a lot of the behind-the-scenes work. But I guess the critical -- the artist in me sees this as opening many more questions than it answers. Which I’m sure Paola Antonelli, the design curator, would encourage.
But when this announcement went out, a lot of people just thought this meant the whole “games as art” debate was a done deal. Here, there’s this major New York institution that has now put some games in its museum. Here’s the proof we were looking for and which we really didn’t need anyway, since we all knew the truth about how games are art. But it’s just not that simple. There’s the whole question of why -- why institutional power should matter so much and determine that kind of truth for anyone. And then there’s the fact that it wasn’t any of the art departments at MoMA, it was the design department, which is specifically about an entire field that is not art, by definition. I mean they had just acquired the fucking [email protected] symbol, and it’s not like everyone who’s into typography was out there saying, oh this proves the [email protected] symbol is art, thank god. So there’s a lot of complicated layering here about the role of institutional power and media visibility in New York that wasn’t really part of the so-called “conversation” around games back then, but those things did help drive the credibility of, I don’t know, the act of having a website about games being important.
When you said you haven't been keeping close tabs on "the conversation" since then, do you feel like you've seen -- are there other outposts for that type of writing? Are there fewer? What seems to have changed in the time since then from what you can tell or maybe what you see or hear online?
Hmm. [Sighs.] You know, I don't know if I can really answer that question.
Maybe -- do you have any leading questions you can ask me?
[Laughs.] I try not to. I was just generally curious what your perspective was. I mean, I don't know about leading questions. Do you want me to tell you what I think?
No, wait. Let me tell you what I think right now in this moment and then you can tell me what you think. I actually wanna know what you think.
I think that this idea that you can have one magazine that covers the gamut of videogames and where, from one article to the next, as you turn the page you're leaping continents and worlds and dimensions with each person's specific approach to a specific genre of game and a specific historical or critical context -- that was a romantic ambition that Kill Screen tried to fulfill back then. At this point, it just seems like -- I don't know. I feel a little more cynical about it. Like, how can you relate the New York Street Fighter community to somebody who's really into visual novels and dating sims?
Or even somebody in between. Like, how can you relate your average start-up bro who heard about that game Firewatch that looks pretty dope to somebody who really cares about what the new XCOM does and doesn't do in relation to the original one?
[Laughs.] Yeah. I think if you're looking at etching out some sort of media empire, each of those things you said could be individual networks that you could plan Sunday through Saturday programming for, 24 hours.
So I don't think "cynical" is a bad term for it. I always think of cynics as wounded optimists. Are you saying it's too ambitious? Or, like you said, and I get a sense of this from the people I interview who do and don't follow writing about videogames -- I just wonder what the point of entry is for people who didn't grow up playing or didn't care or haven't cared decades ago. I've heard people say that just even the names of some of these publications are intimidating: Kotaku, Kill Screen, Destructoid. Any of those. I don't think the names are what's scaring people away, but I think there's lack of recognition that it's worlds within worlds within worlds within screens within screens. Like, how do you throw people ladders now? [Laughs.] You know what I mean?
Yeah, I do. I mean, shoot. Well, I had a capitalist answer: I think even just now, the way I phrased my last response, I was stereotyping a lot of different game fans and groups according to how I perceive them. It does seem that if you want to reach an audience, you first have to know who your audience group is and you're gonna have to start building your platform or your publication around your perception of what that audience cares about and then you're gonna give it to that audience in such a way that hopefully they will feel that they need what you're doing, then.
That's the sort of gross capitalist answer.
The sort of utopian answer -- one person I've read who's written about games in the last few years who I really feel a deep affinity with is David Kanaga, the guy who composed Dyad and Proteus and Panoramical. He's this brilliant kind of philosopher type of dude who's a musician guy -- I feel that, and I think that he feels that -- well, I won't speak for him but I feel like he feels generally the way I feel, which is the lines between games and other artforms of creation and expression should not be determinate and they should be very porous and constantly in flux and in question. I guess, for me, a big hang-up for me is that so much of videogame production and fandom and criticism is part of this deeply market-driven industrial complex and because these are the conditions from which a lot of games exist, even going to these fan-favorite indie games, like the things that appear in the 3DS eShop or the whatever, the PlayStation store for downloadable games, it really feels like there's this self-determining kind of aspect to games that relegates them to being a form of commercial art. And if it's a form of commercial art, then it's going to have divisions and subdivisions and it's going to follow a kind of market logic and it's never going to be a thing that you can just point to, the way that -- I don't know. I'm not sure what my example of that would be. Let me think about this for a second.
[Pause.] It started to be a thing, like quality of life. "What is your quality of life?" That could mean anything to anybody but it does mean something to everybody. But if it's just a really market-driven, capitalist kind of endeavor then it's always gonna be about, "This type of person will like this type of thing."
"Maybe this type of person would be more amenable to liking this other type of thing that we just came up with." You know?
And so, like, a person's identity is always gonna be kind of closely following what that identity has been groomed and cultivated into developing into by somebody who has a vested interest in that person identifying with that identity. And a lot of people in games, I think, identity politics right now -- I don't know if they're critical enough of that. Maybe they are. I don't know.
But for me, that is a huge barrier with engaging with games because also as myself, as a minority in this country and feeling quite fraught sometimes about my minority status, I just look at what games are trying to tell me is meaningful and fun and I just want to burn them all down.
I don't know. That's unfair because a lot of people are trying really hard, I guess.
Well, but you're entitled to have your feelings.
I think that's completely valid and I think it's common. I can definitely relate to the conclusion of your perspective, and I know several others who do too. I think together we comprise another type of minority, in that if you assert not enough people are trying hard enough, you will get shouted down.
I mean, what I remember from your email is you were describing the ways people are trying to make concessions to that kind of thing. I think oftentimes they see it as a money-making opportunity. I'm talking about how the way some games try to be inclusive is by charging for extra downloadable skin tones. So, to see yourself in a game, you're gonna have to pay a little bit more. You were talking about how that's reductive and aggravating.
Yeah. Are people actually building games this way? Or was I just making that up?
[Laughs.] No, there is some of that. I have seen it. Obviously that's met with pushback. But it happens.
You know, I was just talking to a friend of mine earlier today about Miitomo. You know, the Nintendo app that's about to come out.
I don't know -- have you played Tomodachi Life?
I have. I love it.
I just played the demo earlier this week and the thing is, like, what I find great about that is it's not that your Mii is supposed to be your avatar that represents yourself in this little microcosm of the real world, it's that the Mii either is or isn't a version of you. I imported my Nintendo Mii into Tomodachi Life and there was some option where I could say, "This represents me." But one of the first lines the Mii says to me is, "Oh, you look like me but you're not me." Or something like that. And immediately drawing this ontological line between us.
I found that super-meaningful because it shows this real sophistication about understanding how you relate to the stuff on the screen. It's an alien thing. It's not so literal as being our lives or even a second life. It's just -- it's some other life.
And what's amazing about that is as you follow your Mii and a Mii is meeting other people that might represent other people in your life, their relationships and their paths can totally diverge, but they can also converge. And it's just very meaningful the way they do that. I think that that is something that I just don't see in a lot of Western representation. [Sighs.] I think it goes back to this kind of Judeo-Christian anxiety about the body and about this problem of the body in representation and how we can sort of feel at one with this idea of the body. That's just not there, I think, in some other cultures. But it is so there in Western gaming and in the reception thereof and identity politics kind of, these political battles that happen.
And, to me, I just see it as a zero-sum game. I'm just sick of that shit. [Laughs.] I don't know how else to say it. It doesn't do anything for me. It just feels like a losing battle. Like, what are you gonna do when you feel like the game represents you? Are you just gonna keep playing that game, then? What are you gonna do?
I'm sorry. This sounds really bitchy.
No it doesn't.
I actually reviewed Tomodachi Life for Kill Screen.
I found myself -- it's fascinating. But then I ran into that thing where it's like, okay, so, I really ruminated a lot on my thoughts on it and my feelings on it and what I thought was really interesting about it and what was really strange and amusing and haunting about it and I took notes and pondered on those, too. And then you're faced with that thing with, "Okay, how do I quantify that as a number?"
I guess if we're talking about videogame criticism, this is part of the conversation: How do you assign a number to a thing like that?
Do you care about that sort of stuff? The rating systems and what rippling effects that causes? I guess I'll state this for the transcript, but historically there has been stuff where on the aggregator site Metacritic, game companies have tied bonuses to being contingent on the median rating will be from a bunch of different media sites.
I think in Kill Screen's case -- I don't know when they started doing reviews. I don't remember being there being reviews in the first few issues. But I do know that you make a concession to have ratings so that your site can get traffic because it will show up on Metacritic when people are searching for games and whether to buy them.
What are your feelings about scores? I don't even know if it's a binary of whether they hurt or help the medium, but maybe it's more -- how do you apply them and how do they seem to affect the ecosystem?
You know, I actually enjoy scores. [Laughs.]
Oh, okay! [Laughs.] I just never know how to put a number on it, you know?
Yeah. And that's why I think that it's not something you can take too seriously. Like, I really like being the guy who gives a thing a 3.8 versus a 4.7. That's just some inner kind of critic nerd in me. But that's the thing -- you have to treat that in itself as a game. And actually what you're describing, it's definitely not a game.
Like, developers' livelihoods are on the line based on that number.
Kill Screen -- as soon as we launched the website, they wanted to do reviews and that’s because Jamin [Warren, co-founder] wanted Kill Screen -- he was modeling the website after Pitchfork. I think there was a big debate about whether to have numbers or not. We had a lot of internal discussions, really fun ones about, "Well, if we don't have numbers what kind of rating system can we have? How about a color wheel?" That was one idea.
That would've been really cool but eventually I think we went with no ratings. No numbers. And then it switched -- no, no, we actually went with numbers. We started with numbers and then we took them out.
And then at some point after I left they put them back in and now they're on Metacritic and I'm pretty sure that they had commercial reasons for doing so.
And that's fine, but to begrudge them that would be to kind of lie to yourself about the fact that that's what they've been doing all along. I mean, they wanna be -- the thing is, a lot of gamers are kind of unsophisticated in thinking a company is gonna buy that score from you. It's not like that. It's not that kind of capital. It's cultural capital that they want.
What they want is to say, "We do this. We produce this kind of stuff." And it's the intangible value that they produce that I find -- that is the true market logic and that is what I find distressing. But it's there with every publication. You can't see it and that's why I feel like something that is visible and blunt as a number almost -- and the discussions around whether those numbers should be allowed to exist kind of distract us from the other invisible things happening between the lines that we need to be aware of.
Like, I don't know -- even something like a game site tells us what new games are out and we just believe that these are all the new games that are out and we should read about them and have opinions about them. But what about all the other games that are out that no one -- you know?
This is the thing that Pitchfork does with music. You read Pitchfork and you follow their Best New Music feed, or whatever, and you can actually be made to think you’re in touch with all music. Not just recorded music, or commercial music, but music with a capital M. All of what music is.
You touched on something that I was curious to ask about anyway, which is: What are the types of stories that the games media -- maybe the question is to ask, when you were writing about games, were there stories you always wanted to tell but you weren't able to because you couldn't get the greenlight somewhere?
Oh, yeah. There was one that was difficult. I actually did write it but that was one point where I had difficult -- I mean, I don't know if this is even an interesting story to tell about the story. But I was writing an article for GameSpy about suicide in games and representations of suicide and acts of suicide and I was definitely trying to talk to -- yeah, there were two. Basically I wanted to talk to people who had worked on Persona 3, you know, where you shoot yourself in the head, except it's not really a gun but it's like a gun-like thing where you shoot yourself in the head.
And then people who worked on Modern Warfare 2 and the airport scene where you kill everybody and then you get shot as a martyr or whatever at the end of that scene. And you know, obviously, they didn't want to talk to me about that stuff. And I don't know, I was just grasping at every straw that I could think of. Persona 3, I understood because that game was pretty old by then. They didn't feel like they wanted to -- I'm sure the whole thing was just a PR nightmare and also there was probably a lot of cultural stuff lost in translation with that game and the conversation around it over here. So, you know, I felt fine not opening that can of worms with them. For Modern Warfare, they just -- yeah. I guess it was the same thing. They didn't want to deal with talking about this. They just didn't want to talk about it.
This is not an interesting story, sorry. [Laughs.]
No, I don't know if people are aware of this kind of barrier that exists. It's difficult to do things around games because as you mentioned, the people who are around you are mostly writing essays and not getting on the phone. I don't know if that's because the reality is when you do get on the phones you can't really get anyone to talk to you and when they do, it's only in a very specific way.
I mean, I think that that's something like I said that the audience or parts of the audience doesn't realize. It's a very lopsided dynamic where it's difficult to get cooperation to get companies to talk about things that they don't want to talk about it and oftentimes they just won't.
I don't know. Do you have experiences with stuff like that?
Of course. Yeah.
When it came to any kind of big-budget game, especially if I was covering it for the Wall Street Journal -- there was a really short blog post I wanted to do about Kinect or something, back when that was coming out. I think I sent them three or four questions. I just thought, "Oh, this will make a really quick post about Kinect." And what I got back from Microsoft or whoever their PR team at the time was -- the answers were so obviously worked over, vetted, fuckin' had gone through this kind of committee grinder. They were so anodyne and sapped of any kind of actual assertion other than a general kind of positivity and a fatalism that, "We're gonna bring this to market and people will buy it" kind of feeling. [Laughs.]
My editor looked at it probably for, like, three seconds and was like, "Yeah, let's not publish this." [Laughs.] You know? That was one extreme. On the bright side, I had a really nice conversation with two of the guys that worked on Borderlands 2 during a live demo of that game in New York. We got to talking about guns and how they're from Texas and the guy who had designed all the guns in the game, he obviously has such a deep passion for -- he was a huge nerd about these guns and what historical and commercial influences he had as inspiration for each fictional brand of gun in the game. They both got really into it. It's really great when you're just talking to people who don't even have time to think about what they are and aren't allowed to say because they're so in love with what they're talking about.
That's when it works.
Was that for a piece or was that just a conversation?
I think that was also for a Wall Street Journal post. It was just a preview of the game.
It was fun. I don't know.
But I don't think people realize how unusual it is to be around people who make games, especially from companies like the ones you're talking about, where -- [Sighs.] I think you already did a better job of nailing it in your description, but it's very, very careful interaction.
I don't know --
Well, what do you -- I guess to be quite blunt about it, I feel like this is an issue that's been talked about for more than a decade, you know?
What use can there be in talking -- why do you -- I don't actually mean this in a confrontational or critical way, but just the way to put it is what do you think is interesting about this question? Like, what do you think is interesting to you about this question? What is still there to be mined? What insight can be mined from this issue?
I mean, yeah. A completely honest response and part of the reason why I started doing this is this a lot of stuff I was wondering about and wanted to read more about and I wanted to publicly share my ignorance dissipating learning about this stuff.
But another thread that has emerged is I think there are a lot of people in a big global workforce who feel they have little to no ownership over the work that they're doing or any agency over the types of projects that they work on.
So, for me -- you mentioned earlier the existential reality of writing or creating for the internet, and I think there's a certain kinship in doing this project of just hearing the same types of experiences from those walks of life. I think people know about stuff like EA Spouse. It's probably not a household name, but I think people who already care are aware that it's not horrible conditions everywhere, but it's very hushed tones about other types of issues and exploitation. Which sounds very abstract in conversation, but I just think the basic fact that people can’t be free to be complicated or thoughtful individuals in a creative industry is just, well, bizarre and opposite to what’s being presented.
It's not like I'm fishing for the dirt.
It's kinda like a therapy.
For the people I interview, yeah.
[Laughs.] This is my new normal. And I don't know if it answered your question, but my hope is to do something to honor these insights to help people and help change this somehow.
Have you felt burned by this interfacing with inhuman companies and the people that carry out their goals, their agendas?
Who's gonna interview you at the end of this interview series?
That is the question that no one has asked but I wonder. That is obviously how it’s going to end. Is it gonna be you? Is that what you're saying?
I don't know, man.
[Laughs.] I mean, I don't know if burned is the thing. The framework I look at it with is this is a creative industry that has to deal with the way that the internet has changed it. That's happened to the media, for sure. So, I mean, you talk about have I been burned? I don't think I've really been burned by the game industry. I think I've been burned the same way a lot of people of our generation has. We're the same age. We've all been burned by trying to figure out how we make our way in how much the world and landscape has changed since we were kids, where we trying to exist in these systems that today feel like they were bolted onto the past and the things that were around when we were growing up.
Yeah. So, for me, and also, I studied the music business when I was in college. I studied it at the time when Napster was happening, so I think it's very encoded in my DNA to just be fascinated and aware of industries that are changing or industries that are resisting change.
Yeah. So, I mean, people don't tend to flip questions back on me with this, but of course I had to do this for a while to realize this was a variation on a theme for me. It started off just because I felt like looking around at the internet and parts of the videogames world that I was around offline, I just felt like I wasn't seeing or hearing human beings trying to figure this stuff out. It was very much people shouting each other and telling them, "This is exactly the way it is and here's how to feel about it." It was a lot of that or lot of people telling you exactly the way it is to be someone unlike themselves.
So, I mean, I don't know. Burned? Maybe. But that was probably a long time ago. [Laughs.]
You know what I mean?
I'll let you process that and react.
I have complicated, big feelings about what you just described as it relates to my experience growing up and existing now but it might even -- I don't know. I feel like I would just go off the rails about it.
Well, I mean, is it just -- what is it?
[Laughs.] It's hard for me to anticipate what it is.
I don't know.
Let's see. I mean, I guess I have dissociated thoughts about it.
But I -- you know, I went to art school. Right? At MIT, in this very critical kind of theory-driven program and I think the typical stance that one would take in this program is that we need is liberation from all of these systems which are so oppressive and in such invisible ways that we really cannot see the way that a capitalist logic proposes a burning need to us and then instantly with that same fire seals the loop on us before we can notice that there are many seams in what we're being presented with and that there are many games and many other margins and ways that we can actually exist and find and create meaning for ourselves. That's one form of response.
I don't know. I wasn't raised that way.
I mean, I'm a very privileged person in some ways. Or in many ways.
I don't know. This goes into my artwork and some of the themes that I'm interested in developing, but I actually work for a corporation now. I won't say which one. I'm a technical writer. Like, I blog for them and I edit and write a lot of their developer documentation and stuff like that.
That's been a perfect gig for me because I can work remotely and it kind of nominally funds my art practice, but then I think about -- maybe my art practice is allowing me to continue working for them.
So maybe this goes both ways and maybe this is a double bind? Maybe I'm feeling quite cynical about it and this is a failure of my own imagination or my own kind of risk-taking, but maybe there is no escape from the specter of -- I don't know, capitalism and maybe this latter-day industrialist kind of logic that we submit ourselves to.
But actually, what I'm interested in personally is -- oh, and the other thing I wanted to say about that is that could also be informed by my own experiences growing up in a Taiwanese household where my parents were immigrants and they really had a very strong idea that I should have a certain kind of life. I, at one point, rebelled against that and have been doing so for a while. But I still feel bound to a lot of the cultural givens that I inherited and fulfilling those, actually. And so, I actually don't know that liberation from something that is affecting you and seems inescapable is a thing. I kind of feel there are ways that we can adapt and mutate, twist these given frameworks into structures that work for us. That's easy to say. I'm working for "the man" right now. [Laughs.] And doing things that sometimes disturb me.
But -- yeah.
I don't want make it seem like we have to braid it back.
But I feel like if you want to try to examine any of these types of things through the lens of videogames or "the man" of videogames, there's really no place you can go to do that. I think the other thing is, too, if you really want to go write about the experience of being a freelance journalist or a journalist -- I think the difference is that sort of skillset has been so devalued that I don't think people within the game industry realize that regardless of whatever happens to them, they have a skillset that is valued.
But if you write about these sorts of things with games, I don't know -- you can't really go anywhere. If you want to write about this stuff about the writing world, no one really cares.
What do you mean, "No one cares?”
Oh, you mean this whole topic.
Yeah. If it was about people writing -- if it was about the writing industry, instead of the videogame industry be it would just be, "So what? Everyone writes now. It's just content. What do you expect?"
Oh yeah. Uh huh. Yeah.
You're saying the writing industry is different from the videogame industry or it's the same in that way.
I think it's the same, but I think games haven't been necessarily devalued -- maybe they have. To me, it's all just creative stuff having this expectation that you have to endure a lot of bullshit and abuse and exploitation. But if you want to write about this existential examination about the videogame world specifically, I just don't know where you would go. That's why I started my own thing.
I have a direct segue from what I was saying into this.
Yeah, go ahead.
I think that as a game critic, I kind of think that you can tell a lot about a company's philosophy and view of its customers but also of an individual person's way of relating to the world especially through something like games because the majority of them you can describe as a series of rules that we have to follow in order to get meaning. To me, I have a deep suspicion of following anybody's rules that are just being given out and being told they're good for me. That's a very -- I mean, I just have a very deep resistance to that for personal and political reasons.
And I think in many games -- this scales to every kind of conversation you can have about games. You can talk about, like, "Is the tutorial too long and condescending?" That means they think you're like a child. [Laughs.] Therefore, like, fuck them and their game.
Or, fuckin', like, Jonathan Blow and that game was like, "It really blew my mind." But it's like, you know what? He was trying to blow your mind with the wad that he blew when he made that game.
And the place where I think it's interesting and it does have greater and more philosophical implications is when you play a game that seems perfectly designed -- and people say this all the time, that a game is perfectly designed -- that's when we can't see the seams anymore in the proposal that the game is making. For me, I don't know that all forms are the same kind of perfect. Like, I think there are some games that seem perfect, that have perfect feedback loops. Like -- I don't know, you know, like Call of Duty multiplayer. Or not to bag on Call of Duty constantly. Or even the way something -- shit. I can't even -- my reference points are so well-worn now.
Call of Duty's still around so --
All right. Or, even though, I'm trying to think of an indie game that also does this that I would be really critical of. Like, a really great pixel platformer: To what degree are they exploiting your own nostalgia and capitalizing on it? Something like that versus something that actually seems like something perfect that seems like something that really adds meaning to your life. I don't know. I just feel like when it's perfect, then you can think about in what way is it perfect and what have they perfected and what were they trying to do with that perfection?
I mean, that is pretty interesting and that does require a level of, I think, critical engagement that to some degree is predicated on knowing some technical ins and outs but also just requires reflection and critical discipline that a lot of people don't go there. They're content to have it feel like a perfect piece of design and give reasons about why they think it's perfect and it's just perfect and that's great. What we're trying to get is “perfect” in games, and I think we can't stop there. If we want to fall in love with games and become obsessed with them, it would do a great service to allow ourselves to obsessed and addicted to games and then examine -- parcel out the differences between different game addictions. I don't know. This sounds really weird.
[Laughs.] I don't think so.
I'm going on, man. I'm sorry.
No, no, no. I'm sure you've seen these. This is what this thing is. Well, about how this: Why did you stop writing about games?
I guess I stopped because I wanted to go to art school. And I wanted to go to art school because for me, making artwork is a more comprehensive and critical way to work out my feelings and ideas than trying to shoehorn all of those same, vague intimations into a review of somebody's game. At a certain extreme that's what I wanted to do with my games writing and the only reason it ever worked was because I have an analytical tendency; but being a good critic is also about reckoning with what a work wants to be on its own terms, and I guess I was getting sick of those terms.
I don't love games enough to want to grapple with their untapped potential as an expressive medium, or whatever, for the rest of my life. I do that already, by starting a new game and struggling to justify why I should spend more than an hour learning those systems and putting up with that writing. Being in America, I've also felt more and more alienated by the way Western game design seems to be an extension of a Western outlook that I don't especially identify with. For example, the idea that the mechanics of a game system have, or should have, some inherent expressive value that has primacy over the other so-called components of the game, like the visual texture or the sound or the words that make that system apprehensible to begin with. Putting aside this kind of partitioning of a game into arbitrary categories that I immediately want to dissolve, the nerve of a creator to say that the abstract system, or syntax, they've invented is the one "real" text that only a privileged few, like other game designers and game academics, will be able to read at face value, while the rest of society just dumbly follows the rules and generates the intended meaning for that creator like a bunch of hamsters running on wheels, just smacks of the way an empire imposes a master tongue on its colonies.
I fucking hate this kind of deterministic rule making. I feel super hostile to it. It makes me mad just thinking about it out loud. It's the same rhetoric behind the Internet of Things, which talks about controlling your devices so that they can automate your life for you. As players, we've already been trained to generate capital by following our impulses, or maybe it's more accurate to say that our impulses have been trained to do so.
I'm also tired of game designers saying that Western games are the most sophisticated. It's true that they dominate the global market. But it's also possible that a country like Japan is struggling to catch up with that market because it doesn't think in the same design language. You go on a game design blog and you get these schematic articles breaking down this or that world-building problem that today's game designers need to solve. But it's possible that there are also people in the world who don't see these as problems, and also don't need other people inventing more problems to bring to the table. I mean, I guess this is how the history of Western philosophy has worked, and maybe that's fruitful for some people. But all the way on the other end of discourse, engaging on Twitter felt to me like having somebody say, "Hey, here's a problem I have just concisely defined that you need to address immediately," and then having to come up with a comprehensive solution that can also fit into a very small hole. I experienced a version of this in art school, as well.
There's a kind of divide-and-conquer attitude about games writing in English that feels totally futile, because it operates on this assumption that you can cover the whole thing by cutting it up and dealing with the pieces. But we can see that there is no actual end to the divisions, because capitalists appeal to us by introducing new divisions, and the whole critical engine follows suit. This is how both the games media and games fandom are complicit with the industry, and the whole thing just makes me feel very tired.
I'm not very interested in the discourse on play—particularly when it claims that play is a form of learning, which in modern game design means we're meant to learn the lessons that game designers teach us. What are the lessons? Why do we need them? That feels both patriarchal and infantilizing.
There's this notion that we're having a renaissance of play, but who says so? The last thing I need is a white guy telling me what my childhood play was for, and then having me play at his game. It was certainly not for any particular endpoint; and actually, this is my way of playing: it's a wordplay, and perhaps provoking a reaction, or at least disgust, and coming out on top, only to fall back into doubt. The greatest irony about the games discourse is that there is nothing playful about it; it's full of lectures and trauma.
This is sort of a related question: How do you feel writing about games could have more empathy for the people who make them?
Oh, interesting. Yeah, you have to care about yourself less. Like, this marketing line that games are all about you and your experiences. You're just playing right the fuck into that if you're just obsessing over your experience and what a thing does and doesn't do for you. I mean, I've been very guilty of that myself because I used games as a way to work out my feelings about other stuff.
You mean with the stuff you wrote?
With the stuff I wrote, yeah.
Yeah. I feel like a lot of people are doing that. [Laughs.]
Yeah. And it's like, okay, but I don't know. I do subscribe to this belief that once a thing is out there, it's not yours anymore and so you can talk about things meaningfully in isolation from the people that made them and that actually does them a great service, too, because it validates what they made as a thing that can live on its own without having an umbilical cord back to themselves.
But empathy for the people that make games? I think that has to come from other avenues as well. I don't think it's on the critic because the critic of the game reviewing the game for the publication and the person that made that game for the market -- they're in the same industry. It's one continuous industry as far as I understand it. It's the same game they're playing.
I -- [Sighs.] I think that the industry, the way it works is just kind of inherently dehumanizing. No. I don't know. For me, I do -- I feel empathy for a person that makes a game when I'm playing a game. I was playing a game -- oh, I was looking at photos of this new Tom Clancy game, what is it called?
The Division? Is that it?
Yeah. Like it just came out?
Yeah. And it's like, "Oh my God, it looks exactly like New York." I'm just thinking about the people that made the concrete blocks on the sidewalks and the detail and filigree on the facades and the stuff that they made just so that you could blow past it and the way that a couple of their lines touched the periphery of your eye, like, made you feel like it was a little more real. Like, that's such a good metaphor for people's lives in these systems in general. I mean, the systems that created the games. [Laughs.] It's like, the same thing. It's like, you could draw a 1:1 correlation, even, between the makeup of any given frame in a game and how that plays out inside the game and what people's lives actually are in this whole enterprise. I mean -- there's only one person that can be at the center. You know? And it's not you. I don't know who it is.
It's neither of us, right?
Yeah. You know what I'm saying?
Of course. Absolutely. This is very broad, and again a little related: I know you don't write much about games anymore, but what do you think people don't realize about what it's like to be non-white and to write about games?
Oh. Hmm. [Pause.] I think that -- [Sighs.] You mean, what do white people not realize about what it means to be that?
[Laughs.] I guess. Yeah. I mean, that's not what I was specifically asking about but that's probably a good point of entry, right?
Yeah. I have an answer. I'm just trying to formulate it correctly. I think -- okay. I'm gonna. Yeah. [Sighs.] I'm gonna take a kind of meta-approach to that question.
I think white people don't realize that everything is not a matter of some kind of meaning or knowledge that they had yet to acquire. So, for example, it may be that there is something that I can say about being non-white doing anything that someone doesn't realize.
It's kinda like -- that meaning is not there for them to eventually realize it. You know?
It's more like, that meaning is here for me and it is a meaning and it is kind of a singularity. I may or may not hold that meaning in common with other people. I may not share that meaning with other people. But I don't know that I share something with another person of color or anything. It's -- I think it's -- [Pause.] I think white people care too much about meaning.
[Laughs.] I would agree.
And about drawing an outline around that and itemizing it for themselves. So, I've always been resistant -- maybe that is something that I've always been super-sensitive to when I've written stuff and when I've seen what people are trying to get out of it and how they're trying to relate and trying to divide it up and package it. I just don't -- if it's too easy for them to do that, then I think you're doing it wrong.
Yeah. No, I mean, you had mentioned sort of the dialog shifted around videogames from being around graphics, gameplay, and fun to meaning, systems, and diversity. Do you feel like in that shift, has the rhetoric has it progressed in any sort of meaningful way? Are we just doing Mad Libs and flipping in different words?
No, I think it would be unfair for me to say that that's the case, that it's just like Mad Libs.
But I think that is definitely there, that the same pattern holds. When the discourse is kind of uncritical with itself, then it does just feel like we're checking off boxes. I've read reviews that were trying to be "good" by saying, "So, like, this game has diversity in these areas but it has some work to do in this area." And I'm like, "Come on, man." That's not being an ally or whatever you want to call it.
But, you know, no, other people are actually facing tons of abuse today and real-life abuse. The fact that they want to continue saying things that are gonna garner abuse because they feel like they're important things to say, I have both admiration and gratitude for that because the more unpopular and important ideas and experiences are made visible, the more they can be allowed to exist.
Yeah. I don't know.
You said that a lot of this, too, comes from the fact that we're all working towards some kind of answer when we talk about videogames. Like, you were saying, too, "What is even the question?"
Yeah, what is the question?
I don't know that I know it. [Laughs.]
I mean, you know, there are many questions. [Laughs.]
This is true.
I almost feel like the answers prefigure the questions.
I mean, have you ever played Retro Game Challenge?
Yeah. Yeah, yeah yeah.
To me, that game brought me back to going back. It just brought me back to being a kid. Like, really. What it was like to have this thing on the screen and it was, like, magic. It was a secret world. Parents didn't care what was on it. Only we knew. And that was like, "Wow. That's a possibility." But then I didn't know -- the question there is, "How do we recover that sense?" It's already been answered and it's already been asked, so you don't need to restate it. So, I guess, yeah, I'm interested in having more answers to unknown questions than questions with unknown answers. You know?
Because, you know, as soon as anyone asks me a question, I'm like, "I have questions about that question." And then it's like, "What's behind that question? What's causing you to ask that?" That's why I asked you.
Yeah, no. I know.
I'll throw one last big doozy of a broad question for you that we can end on: What do you think videogames have accomplished?
With regard to what? Oh, just anything?
What are you -- what do you consider an accomplishment? Or what do I consider an accomplishment? [Pause.] This might actually be -- I don't know. [Pause.] [Laughs.]
I think my answer has to do with button-mashing and -- which I feel two ways about. I think that if you consider the image of a person button-mashing on a controller, there are two sides to that, I think.
One side is that videogames have managed to represent and invoke aspects of human violence in a very direct way that other mediums and other forms of expression and certainly other forms of technology apart from tools like weapons have not. You know, like, I'm thinking of, like, I don't know, button-mashing in order to pull off somebody's head in a game. Or button-mashing in a fighting game, just beating the crap out of somebody else who's also button-mashing. Or just button-mashing for fun and to get some kind of feeling of something.
But that leads to the flip side, which is that at the same time, it's so -- I think that so poetically evokes our total impotence to ever fully grasp whatever the thing is that we're striving for. Whatever it can result in can never be any broader than that one moment of blind aggression and hope. So, that -- yeah. That's one thing that I think that they've accomplished. [Laughs.] That and we do it together with other people and we all feel that way together.