yehuda berlinger

yehuda berlinger

My name is Yehuda Berlinger. I'm 46. I currently live in Israel, but I was born in the U.S.

I have never lost interest in games in general. Very fervent board game designer and player and writer and scholar -- I'm writing a book about it. Videogames are just one of many different types of games.

I definitely had somewhat more tendency to play videogames specifically, and less as I got older. Less, actually, when I moved to Israel.

Although I played arcade games and I played some console games back in the '70s and '80s, about the time the 1990's came around, I was no longer interested in those games, mostly because I had lots of other interests. I was getting married, I had a fervent interest in Dungeons & Dragons and board games, which I continued. Moving to Israel made it very hard -- and a baby. I started a game group with friends. I like to play with friends and with people and videogames were not specifically designed for that.

They were expensive, they were time-consuming, and mostly they were very violent and just not my style anymore. But that doesn't mean I didn't play videogames. It just meant I didn't play the industry's videogames. I played Solitaire Online. I played Bridge over the Internet with other people, which could be considered a videogame depending on how you define "videogames."

I used computer-assisted gaming techniques. I read about games on forums. I organized games using computers. I did many things that involved computers in games, just not what the standard industry's videogames would want to sell to me. [Laughs.]

You have to realize that I make a very big distinction between what is a "game" and what is an "industry game," the same way I make a distinction between what's a "movie" and what's an "industry movie" and what's a "book" and what's an "industry book."

I care almost nothing about industries. I care only about actual games and people and participants.

Where are you making that distinction between what you deem a videogame and what the industry deems a videogame?

Well, I play Bridge online with friends because it was assisted by a computer game which simulated Bridge. It's a videogame. It's not part of any -- it's sort of part of whatever company was running that particular system, but it's not part of what console gamers or the games industry -- it's far off of the field. If I design an app for something I want to do and it has game-like properties -- I don't know. I tend not to be interested in the mainstream things in general. Same with my tastes, again, in books and movies.

The recording industry is always complaining about copyrights and how important it is that they stay around and to me, the music industry, the movie industry, and probably the game industry have probably done horrible, horrible harm to what I consider to be real media, which is done by people who love it in order to make it for people who love it. They do it because they want to make money, fine, but they churn things out based on demographics and based on what will sell and based on what's the sequel of the next thing and based on what's the most expensive and most explosive things.

That's what I like about the board-game industry, outside of Mattel and Hasbro, is that the people making it are still small. Even the ones who have million-dollar turnovers, they're still relatively small and are making games, I think, that are good games. I love that. It's the whole industry as an independent industry. [Laughs.] Still.

Over the course of time you have observed what the industry deems a videogame, has that definition ever shifted? Where did it start and where does it seem to be now?

Well, it's a long history of videogames. [Laughs.] The videogames in the '80s were based mostly on gameplay and because they were new, I guess, we gave them a pass. The fact that almost all videogames, essentially, are a collection of two things, which is how fast you can hit a control and how can you either intersect two pixels on a screen or prevent two pixels on a screen from intersecting. That pretty much wraps up, I think, every game. [Laughs.] Any game that is built on timing. Ever. Whether it's bullets or Donkey Kongs or space invaders -- if that's the only thing, I got bored of it. I didn't want to hear another fast one, another race game, another jumping, another kicking, another anything.

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I had enough of it for 10 years, and then I was done with that theory.

The industry started putting out more and more games like that, and worse, they became more and more bloody, with sounds of fighting and became human. You could hear people getting hurt and you could hear people dying. It's no longer -- it's too macabre for me. It's not what I would consider a moral use of my time.

So, I gave up.

Plus, it was expensive! More and more people making more and more expensive boxes with games that would only last for a certain length of time and then you were done with them and then you'd have to buy another $60 cartridge. I don't need it.

That's a lot of reasons already wrapped up.

Have you heard of the Hotline Miami games?

No.

They're kind of like -- there was one that came out a couple years ago. It was basically, like, a very bloody puzzle game. Which will sound weird, but that's basically what that game was.

That doesn't sound weird. Everything is bloody. [Laughs.]

Well, and then there was a sequel that came out more recently, a couple months ago. And there was a big dust-up about a rape scene in the game that turns out to be part of a movie. On a movie set, in the game. And what I saw happen was a lot of people getting upset over the depiction of rape, whether it was "fake" or not in a game. But I didn't see people talking about, well, "Why is violence and murder okay in games?"

I'm gonna give you contradictory answers. You'll like that, I think.

The first one is about my objections. I have this thing -- here's an analogy. I have this thing in the supermarket where certain price points hit by a food item, I'm no longer interested in buying it. The price continues to rise and rise and rise again until it's like, I only want to buy it at five and I was willing to buy it up to five, and then they went up to six, then seven, then 10, then 15, then 20. It's like: You're so far past what I'm interested in, it's not even a conversation anymore. Videogame violence -- for me, people are talking about a little more violence, a little less violence. It hit the violence point the moment they put in sound effects of people being hurt, which was in the 1990's with Street Fighter and things like that. That was 25 years ago, or however many years ago that was. [Laughs.]

It's so far past that now, it's not a conversation for me. Even the really cute ones where this guy's swinging and then he falls and if he misses, his limbs fall apart and blood spurts and it's such a cute game and nobody cares -- to me, that's already too much. [Laughs.] I'm not interested.

Yes, it's the desensitizing -- it's not the violence. I don't think it leads to violence. In fact, I think it doesn't. But there's a certain desensitizing culture about other people in general and how they react to this versus how they react to news stories or how they feel about their nationalism and how they feel about other cultures. I have -- it doesn't fit in with what I want to do.

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But on the other hand? [Laughs.] Now I'll tell you the contradictory element.

I believe that games -- there's a very large space for games, not entirely untapped, but nearly untapped, that can deal with the subject of extreme violence, with torture, with rape, with the Holocaust, with everything because, well, Serious Games does that to some extent. And the idea of tackling any issue, like any other media should be able to tackle issues. The point is that it doesn't necessarily have to be done as something you sell as an entertainment purpose. Games don't have to be made purely by an industry purely for commercial profit. There are lots of other ways and reasons to make games and ways to make games and they may be games that are not replayable and not fun and not intended for sales but may have their areas of development that are all possible.

So, the idea of something as a game doesn't mean that it shouldn't have serious subjects in it. It's just the idea of a game for entertainment shouldn't have serious subjects like rape in it.

You said you are largely ignoring games being put out by the industry. I know you mentioned Solitaire, but among the other stuff you are paying attention to, do you feel there is a more tactful treatment of subject matter like what you just mentioned to address issues?

Well, yeah. First of all, there are.

I don't read videogame industry news, but I read general news and I read board-game news. This stuff bleeds out to various places, and the most interesting things will sometimes get me looking around at various different places. There's lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of games that are not violence-based, that are puzzle-based or that -- I can't remember the names. They're probably very famous videogames and you'll say that you don't know them, but there was this very pretty game about wandering around the desert or something.

Journey?

Yeah. That. And then there was Flow, and actually the only videogame I think I've purchased in the last 25 years, just because I was interested in it. Kind of like an Alice in Wonderland character wandering around in the forest, just because I wanted to get the idea of what videogames were intended for.

And I found out that -- if someone hasn't been playing videogames they literally don't have the whole language to understand how to interact with videogames. So, that was one thing I figured out. But, so, I hear about them and I think there's a lot of things going on and some of them are very interesting. Great. [Laughs.]

But most of them still require a very large amount of time and the idea of having to solve puzzles which I'm not necessarily interested in. You always have to figure out how to do things really quickly, which I'm not that interested in. So, they still don't really appeal to me. [Laughs.] But, look. I played 165 levels of Candy Crush on my phone, so. [Laughs.]

Why do you mention that?

So, a game can sometimes appeal to me for small lengths of time for whatever reason.

Yeah. I mean, sometimes people mention that they play Candy Crush, but typically it's in the context of, "Well, but that just means my opinion isn't worth much." Or they mean it like, "Well, but I don't know what 'real' games are?" But Candy Crush is a "real" game.

Of course it's a real game. It's just -- there's a whole number of major genres of videogames and apps are certainly one of them. [Laughs.]

Well, Apple is certainly one of the biggest companies involved in distributing games.

Well, Apple is the biggest company, right? What are the top five companies in the world? Unless it's an oil or gas company in Mexico or Russia, the odds are extremely likely they make games in some way. Sony makes games, Microsoft makes games, Apple makes games, everyone pretty much -- and they all make board games, too, on some extent, which is funny. They all have their hands somewhere in the board-game industry as well. [Laughs.]

So I hear you that this space of the industry isn't holding your interest, but is there a way you'd like to see them progress creatively? Or is it just so far past that point that you just don't care anymore?

Like I said, I am sort of interested when I see people doing different things with games, like Journey or Myst. Whatever it is. I'm interested in how people do it and I'm interested in seeing them continuing to develop different ideas and different things they can do with games. None of these are going to be Grand Theft Auto IV or The Witcher 3 or anything like that.

The industry can continue doing whatever they want, just like the Hollywood industry can continue doing whatever they want. I'm not going to go out and pay money to see all the Marvel movies. It's just -- they want to do it, then fine. [Laughs.] It's not interesting to me.

Before we started recording, I mean, you said you don't even think there's a problem here.

As long as what they're doing doesn't become monopoly. As long as they don't crowd out every other game from somehow existing or having space or have consoles that can only play certain games and independents can't get on it or there's no way for independents to have any platform for distribution -- as long as there's still space for people to have their own creative expression wherever they want, then I don't think it's a problem. It's only when you have a monopolistic system where only the people who play by the industry rules get to make any noise that you have a problem.

You mentioned earlier that you don't really read game publications. Was there ever a time that you did?

Videogame publications? For a short time, I think, when I was first blogging and I was exploring the entire concept of what games are in general, like, beyond just board games but videogames and sports and counting games and augmented reality games. All these different types of things, I would read some of them to learn about what's popular, what's new, what's been happening. And there was a blog post I wrote for one of my blogs, which went through, I think, several thousand sites or something and cataloged all the available game jobs or something like that in order just to get a feel.

Whenever I want to explore something that's really big, I give myself a task to do at the same time. I figure that's a task to do: Let's visit a thousand sites and we'll compile all the ones that have open jobs available and then make a list. [Laughs.] So I did that once. I think game-news sites have job postings as well, so I went to them.

That was the only reason. It was just for specific reasons, not because I was particularly interested in following it.

Even if you were hopping on, then, what did you tend to notice about the things that those publications would cover or would never cover?

It's purely in the hands of the industry. It's all industry spokesman stuff. Whatever's the biggest and the best is what's covered and usually whatever's biggest and best is what people like the most. That's the end of it.

It's not serious journalism. It's industry spokesbusiness. I had the same issue on my blog, on Purple Pawn, I was trying to do industry -- sort of some industry coverage, but I was much more interested in writing about things I found interesting and curious in the world. But contacting -- whenever I wrote something that wasn't laudatory about a publisher, the publisher would usually get unhappy and not want to deal with me anymore. So you end up with a situation where you have no choice but to get information from an industry and kowtow to what they want, and I wasn't interested in doing it. [Laughs.] So, I didn't write that much industry stuff.

Do you think there's more the games media could be doing to help shift or nudge the industry in other directions?

They could actually do journalism.

[Laughs.] To you, what might that look like?

The people -- it's not that the people here are necessarily dishonest or that even a small percentage of them are doing journalism, because it is an industry. I'm sure many of the people there who really like these big games, obviously -- just like many people really like Marvel movies -- but continuously writing about what's most popular and what makes the most money is just one aspect of games. It's just one aspect of videogames. The game industry is just one aspect of videogames.

All of the theory, all of the articles, all of the conference proceedings, all of the research, all of the ideas of how interaction systems work, and all of the TED Talks about networks and communications or about the idea of people playing in general -- that's all stuff that I find interesting. It's all related to games.

If your object is to write about the game industry, then keep doing what you're doing. But if your object is to write about videogames, then you'd have to write about videogames. [Laughs.] It's just a different idea.

What's odd is that for all these nuances that exist, it's still largely pretty niche. Like, you seldom see stuff about videogames in the mainstream world that digs past the surface.

The mainstream media? You mean like The New York Times now? Or media like 1UP and Gamestop?

Well, just for as big as the industry likes to say it is, it's hard to gauge whether that's just projection or statement of a legitimate fact.

I've heard that it's around -- I don't know, what have I heard? [Laughs.] Like, $10 billion, maybe, or something, for worldwide? Depends what you mean by the "videogame industry," of course. [Laughs.] Once again, we're talking about industry, not people playing games, but industries. If we're talking about the industries, then the videogame industry is something like -- I don't know, last time I checked a couple years ago, it was $8 billion. I'm sure it's more by now. Maybe it's $10 or $20 or whatever it is.

The casino industry, which is one small way that you can play non-videogames, is $150 billion. I don't see a lot of write-ups in The New York Times about the casino industry usually, because it's just not that interesting. [Laughs.] But, it's there.

I'm sure the industry of the people who make chess sets in China is probably pretty big, too. Maybe they write about it in China, but I don't see much about it in the rest of the world. So.

The New York Times has its own business: writing to whoever reads it. And The New York Times is obviously not that interested in videogames most of the time, unless they're investors.

Do you think games are worth that level of attention?

Games or the game industry?

Either. Both. I understand the distinction you're making.

So the games industry, if it's as big as Hollywood, then it should probably have as much coverage as Hollywood gets. Probably. Except that I'm not sure that the release situation is the same and I don't know that there's enough to be built around the entertainment aspect of the people involved.

Like, the interesting thing about the Hollywood industry is all of the actors and actresses are familiar to the people who are watching the movies because they see the movies. Or, in the music industry, you hear the people and their songs and you see their videos. In the game industry, you kind of don't know who designs the games because they're not represented in the games. So, unless you have that kind of rockstar image, movie-star image, it's just not as interesting because it's not a people-oriented industry. So I can understand there being less interest in the whole industry in general. You'd have to find a way to make it some sort of personal story situation -- which is one of the most interesting stories, anyway. [Laughs.]

Whereas, videogames, yes. There should be more coverage of videogames because videogames -- there's about 100, 200 million people playing videogames most of the time or a lot of the time. That's a large chunk of people doing things and how that affects us and what that does in our lives, those are interesting questions.

I mean, there's still more people playing board games, but yeah. [Laughs.] Not for long.

But I guess it's true that you don't see a lot about board games, either, in The New York Times.

I think there's about five times as many. Though I'm not entirely sure. Casinos, poker, chess, dominoes, backgammon, mancala, Go, and poker -- I think you've still got a lot more people playing regular games than -- but, you know. It's probably closing.

It's not part of the industry to play poker. I mean, there's not really a poker industry. No one sells poker.

So when you did play the industry's videogames, at your height of actively consuming them, what were you gravitating towards and what did you really enjoy playing?

Oh, I had this whole post on my blog about every videogame I've ever played. Four posts. [Laughs.] It was a list that went through, about 150 or something like that, from something like Space Invaders, Joust, Pitfall, I remember all that stuff. Anyway.

First of all, I was playing mainly when I was in high school or pre-high school.

So, I played Atari, and I played other console games like that. I was interested in the idea of computers making games and I was interested in the new form of gameplay, one that allowed people to play on their own, and also the consoles always allowed you to play against other people. Usually.

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The arcades were really mostly a way to have something to do outside of the house. [Laughs.] At the pizza store or whatever it was. But, you know, also getting high scores was thrilling. Being the person who had their name up on the machine for a while or on your console or whatever, and being good at it, the idea of mastery on computer games is nice.

Also, at the same time, I was learning to program. I was an early geek. I was programming when I was eight. I was writing computer games myself -- we had school fairs sometimes, and I would have a stand and my stand would be a computer game that you could play. You know, pay a ticket, and if you get a certain score you get something. That was another reason I did it. I was interested in seeing if I could program them, finding ways to make them work.

Once the graphics got too intense, there was no way I could do it anymore. So, that was another discouragement. [Laughs.]

Do you subscribe to that school of nostalgia, that games used to be way better?

Well, there's so many games now, I think it would be hard to say that. Again, that kind of statement takes the top 100 games in the industry and compares them to the top 100 games in the industry back in 1985, which is sort of a ridiculous comparison, because if you take every game that's available today, I'm sure you could find more games today on the peripheral of the world somewhere that are as fun to play than that even existed in 1985 -- including versions of the games we played in 1985. [Laughs.]

So, they're still around. And to say that the games are better today than in 1985 doesn't make any sense. It just means you're myopic in what you're looking at.

Are there ways you'd like to see games change or improve?

Since I'm not in the industry, I don't devote a lot of time to thinking about that. And I think there's a lot of people doing very good jobs thinking about it. You got your Oculus Rift, which is interesting. The Wii was an interesting idea. A lot of different movements and Kinect stuff. A lot of tapping directly to visual cortex, a lot of the networking stuff.

Well, but the Oculus isn't out yet, Nintendo sort of shied away from their motion stuff, and Microsoft abandoned the Kinect.

Okay. But the whole Surface stuff and stuff like that -- take an iPad, it's incredible. For me, being in the board-game industry, it's an incredible way to play board games without having to carry all the board games. Those are computer games in some definition and they're also board games because they play exactly like the board games do. You can carry it around and play with your friends around on the tabletop. So, that's interesting to me.

Larger ones would be better facilitating for that or tabletops themselves that function that way would be great.

I think there's a lot of development going on and I have nothing in particular to add to it at the moment. [Laughs.]

I have no problems with people devoting themselves to videogames. I don't even have a problem devoting themselves to mainstream videogames if they really like it. That's definitely not for me. That's their thing.

To me, life is always a precious amount of time. You can't waste it. And if videogames are doing something positive for you or for you the world, great. If you have something better to do, then you should do that. You can do both. If you can enjoy it and do something good with the world, then do that.

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