My name is Brenda Laurel. I have an MFA and PhD in theater. I'm 64 and a half years old and starting to face some odd transitions that snuck up way too fast. My experience in the industry started in 1976 with a small game company called CyberVision. When that game company went belly up, all of us one at a time kind of trickled out to Atari. I started in producing. I produced for Atari, Activision, Epyx , a few other places. I became growingly disheartened by the complete male-ness of the field and I had some -- you know, Atari is a great example. It was so vertically integrated -- games by young men, for young men, sold to young men, you know. All the way up the line except for the old dudes at the top who thought they understood everything.
[Laughs.] Right, right. [Laughs.] Well, we all did at that age, probably.
Yeah, but that's not necessarily something you would wear to the workplace, is what I'm saying.
Yeah, I agree. I remember when I came in there, I was the only woman in the personal computer division as far as I know and my desk was a cubicle with no chair, no desk, a phone on the floor. I was the odd bird for a while.
I remember the first time I went to the women's room, it was filled with marijuana smoke because everybody was in there whiffing their daily doobie and there were no women using the restroom. I said, "Guys, things are about to change now."
There was no women's restroom at Atari?
No, there was a women's restroom. No women were using it, so the men used it as a smoking lounge for marijuana and so when I had to use the restroom, I had to explain that I actually did work there and they needed to leave. So, that was funny.
Well, was that funny or --
No, it was hilarious. We all laughed our heads off.
So, I had a seachange in about 1981, 1982. Warner had acquired Atari by then, and I was getting a lot of direction that I didn't like. For example, spending half of the personal computer software budget on porting Ms. Pac-Man, when in fact we were trying to differentiate a product. So, it came to my attention that I wasn't making much of a difference on the strategy side -- although I did have some great conversations with the president. So, about that time Alan Kay had been hired to start the Atari Systems Research Laboratory, and I ran across the street to his office. I had spent a lot of time yakking with him and said, "You know what? I gotta get out of here. Can you give me a job in research?" And he said, "Yes." So, that was a major change in my life.
It lead to my dissertation. Among other things, I had the opportunity to finally sit down and explore -- you know, the real questions: "What are games? What is interactivity? How can we make games smarter, etc.?" So he was a real change agent in my life. Anyways, I continued to do producing after Atari folded and I did some work with Apple. I edited a book with them on human and computer interface design, which came out in 1989. And they were all aflutter because I had an essay in there by Timothy Leary, with whom I had become friends because I was his producer at Activision. But anyway, the book went out and I wrote my own book based on my dissertation, which was called Computers as Theater, and I just revised that book last year since I had written it before the Internet and multiplayer games and a few other things. [Laughs.] So there's a new edition of that book out.
I went to Interval Research after that, which -- do you know about Interval? So, Paul Allen, the accidental billionaire at Microsoft decided that he wanted to start a lab and run it for 10 years and ask that lab to create something that would produce as much new economic opportunity as the personal computer did. So, David Liddle started as CEO of Interval Research and he did the most amazing thing: He hired people over 30. [Laughs.] And he hired a lot of us who had been real veterans of the industry for a long time. People like Lee Felsenstein, Paul Freiberger, who's a journalist, my husband Rob Tow, who's an intellectual property guy from Xerox PARC, Michael Naimark, who's a pretty well known installation artist, you know, a lot of different personalities that were very smart came together there and we all worked on different projects.
I was getting ready to produce a virtual reality project at The Banff Centre for the Arts at the time, and so Interval tossed in a million dollars to make that excellent and Rachel Strickland and Row Tow and Michael Naimark all worked on it together and it was -- I think it was a historic project.
And then when I got through with that, I had began a project that lasted all through my tenure at Interval that was looking at women in technology. And that became really targeted on tweenage girls. Because we felt there was such -- that project started in 1992 -- a difficulty in getting girls interested in computing and getting them access. This was before things on the web were possible or catching their attention. It wasn't there. And there had been one or two lame attempts to design games for girls before that had been just terrible, so word on the street was, "Girls don't play videogames. No use looking at them as an audience."
So, originally, our intention, David's and mine, was one of sort of social justice. We wanted the opportunity to build things that would attract girls to computer technology because they weren't getting a piece of the action. That ended up in a three-year study on tween girls and how they play. We couldn't say how they were playing computer games because they weren't. So, duh. You know? [Laughs.] We looked at play in general and we looked at social structures and how girls and boys might differ a little bit in achieving social status and same-sex groups, we looked at social problems girls that age were having, self-esteem issues, etc. By the end of those three years we interviewed over a thousand girls in eight cities, and we felt we had a really good picture that was very different than the one painted either by the tween cosmetics industry or Mattel, that there was an opportunity to intervene, if you will, and the construction of femininity and feminine power with these kids through the vehicle of computer games and thereby establishing two things: one, access to technology and removing fear of technology -- and that's important because at sixth and seventh grade we had learned that if we are going to lose girls from STEM, we're gonna lose them then. So, if you're gonna change something, that's when you need to do it.
But the other thing we learned from talking to girls, really, was that they had many, many needs and issues that we could address even more by representing characters who were like them, looking at situations that were like the ones they looked at, including in their fantasy lives. So, that turned into a company called Purple Moon, which was one of the first companies to do games for girls, if not the first. What we didn't know was the year we launched, Barbie launched Barbie Fashion Designer, and so we had a real war in the streets, you know? [Laughs.]
That turned out to be the best-seller that year, right?
It did. There were two series of games and they were both in the top 100, and Rockett's New School beat John Madden Football, which I will always enjoy. [Laughs.] So, that went on for about two years, two and a half years, and at some point in 1999, our investors who were dominated by Paul Allen and his cronies, decided that there was more money to be had in the growing new web area. And that has a lot to do with basic economics. I don't want to bore you, but when you've got inventory in a warehouse, your valuations really can't exceed 10x annual revenue. If you don't have real product to ship, if you're doing things virtually -- I don't know if you've ever had manufacturing or warehousing or distribution issues, then the sky's the limit. And if you remember those times, which you may, people were launching web businesses without a business program plan at all and getting $2 million first rounds and stuff.
You're talking about the dot-com bubble?
Mmhmm. So suddenly our investors pulled. I had at that point about 60 employees, we were launching our eighth title. We had a website that had beaten Disney.com in terms of dwell time and visits for about three months. And they just pulled the rug out from under us, so -- there are little stories there. We pulled a caper to get everybody paid on that last day, but eventually ended up selling the company to Mattel and Mattel immediately drove a stake through its heart as it did most of the game-girl companies of the day. They acquired almost everybody and killed them to avoid competition for their Barbie franchise. But I think there's something else going on there, honestly, and that is they were kind of demonic enforcers of a notion of femininity that supports, you know, raging consumerism and the kind of insecurities that people in the market can take advantage of. They're always saying, "You're not good enough. You need to do this, you need to do that. You need this new outfit." Whatever.
Which seems ironic, too, if you're saying that you were guys beating Disney, you'd think there would be some credence or some deference to the approach you guys were taking.
[Laughs.] I remember when we showed our website to Paul Allen he said, "Oh, this is cool. Can you make this for boys?" Now this is after $4 million and four years' worth of research on girls he says this. I don't think they ever got it, honestly. And that was true of Atari, as well. Investors in those days, they rarely understood what they were doing. And those of us who were doing the work were trying to do stuff that mattered in different ways. At least some of us were.
In all this time you're talking to up to today, what's the main way you've seen things change in games?
I want to mention what I did for the 10 years before I went to UCSC: I founded the media design graduate program at Art Center College of Design. I was chair there for six years and then I founded the graduate design program, which was a transmedia program at California College of the Arts and ran it for six years and then left CCA to purge my little soul and rewrite my book, and I ended up with a friendly relationship with a game design group at Santa Cruz who hired me as an adjunct professor and I've now learned a lot about how fucked up that is, but, I have been close to that organization and have done some interesting work there, mostly in the classes I've created and taught and that kept me going as a researcher on this stuff.
The way games have changed, that's enormous. You might as well talk about the beginning of life on earth. [Laughs.] The one thing thing that hasn't changed is the sort of battle-fighting shooter-violence mythology that dominates those games. The battle motif is still there, big. But what we're starting to see, first of all is well, we've got multiplayer games. At first those were computer-to-computer and then they became huge things like World of Warcraft that went on 17 server farms or something like that. In WoW, the different blades really give you occasion to look at different style of play, which is one of the things that I like about that particular game.
Anyway, battle, war, and stuff like that continued but we started to get into situations where even in battle scenarios, people had to collaborate. And that was kind of a new thing in games and because the form was so successful, you've got games like The Lord of the Rings Online has become a big online game. And it is very welcoming to women. There are female character types that you can inhabit and it has a lot more to do with economic and social behaviors than it does with battles, although you can still fight plenty of battles. So, that multiplayer stuff has changed and it had to -- it was kind of necessary that there comes some elasticity onto the gender construction of masculinity when we got to these bigger games. It didn't happen with Halo, and it hasn't happened with a lot of things. But it did happen with World of Warcraft and certainly Lord of the Rings Online and some other ones. So that's something that's changed.
I guess another thing that's changed is that there's a growing indie community, as you know, that is really a rift with the AAA games business and you sort of have to choose your weapon fairly early in your career to figure out, well, what side of that you want to end up on because if you're looking at AAA, you need a different skill set, really, than if you're doing indie games. And so today at this current moment we see large growth in the narrative games world that's dominated by queer communities and female communities. And we see new play patterns and, like, I'm thinking of Never Alone, for example, as a new kind of play pattern -- not because it's a massively online game, but because it's an indie game that was developed in concert with elders in Alaska and a game development company in New York attempting to capture and replicate and, you know, spread the word about Native American culture while offering up a really good game.
So, games are starting to change because of the cool factor of the indie-games industry and the fact that we have now serious games conference sand games for change and the whole indie game conference confabulation that's going on. [Laughs.] So that's definitely a change. There are many, still underexploited literary forms like romance that we don't see yet enough of, I don't think. [Laughs.] I know that sounds silly, but --
No, if you heard me laugh a little bit it's because the number of times I've heard people say that, at least in these interviews, it would surprise you. Like, there's one developer I know out in Charlottesville who is too busy with his job making apps, but he has an idea for what he calls "the perfect rom-com game."
There does seem to be a real lack of that kind of thing, though.
So, it's not that it's funny or silly, but, like, if so many people are saying it, why isn't it out there?
Well, maybe it's harder to do than we think. [Laughs.]
To get back to the event last year, if you want to talk about that, I can sort of see the relationship between the changes that we've had in gaming in the last 20 years and the virulence of that particular attack movement. And I think it's because this field started, as I said, as a really vertically integrated male scene and that it was culturally tagged male. It was incontrovertibly male. For decades. It stayed male in stuff like America's Army and Halo, you know, and then all of a sudden women start showing up. It turns out they like World of Warcraft. They're doing stuff online.
And for a certain group of people, this is a massive, horrifying invasion of their last private space in a way. If they're not out playing team sports, where is their male-to-male thing happening? And I have some sympathy for that, but I don't have any sympathy for the way people have acted out on it.
But for me growing up -- I'm 32 -- games never really felt like an exclusively male thing. To me, games seemed more like a thing for misfits or outcasts.
Oh, nerds? [Laughs.]
Yeah, nerds. And "nerd" knows no gender, it knows no bounds. You and I are both probably nerds.
For sure. But nerds my age, many of them, I can remember going to my first hackers conference in 1986 and I was holding a little session for the 11 women there. [Laughs.] It was on feminism and stuff like that and some men from Lucasfilm came because I was producing then, at that time, for Activision. I think they were just there out of kindness because they were buddies.
But I can remember just asking the question: "Why aren't there more women in this community?" And one of the men who showed up was an old-school nerd, we're talking, you know, poor personal hygiene, overweight, junk food-eating dude said, "Did it ever occur to you that we don't want to work with you? We don't want to be around you?"
And that was a real wake-up call to me. It had never occurred to me. I just felt the field was infected because of its origins and because we had no breakthrough products where women were major audiences -- although, now, for narrative games back in the day, text-oriented adventures, you sometimes got up to 40 percent female. But these were nerd women with long hair and glasses. So, there is a kind of nerd that's not the nerd of your generation.
Yeah. But what do you even say to someone who says that to you? Like, what did you say?
I say, "No, it never occurred to me."
[Laughs.] I mean, that never occurred to me, either.
"Thank you for sharing."
It was important that he said that. It must have cost him something. And it got us right down to the truth, at least the truth for that guy, and gave us a much more robust conversation almost immediately because people weren't pussyfooting. So I've seen the ethos of the male game developer change radically from those days of those nerds to people who are much more, you know, balanced.
I wouldn't even say it's sophisticated or progressive -- it's just a basic human thing.
Like, you can say, "It's cool that you don't want to work with me, but you can deal with the fact that we're not going anywhere."
But if that was the case back then, then why do you think there is such an aversion right now to including more people?
Okay, so, my suspicion, for which I have very little evidence, is that the violence right now is coming from a couple of places. It's coming from people in your age group and younger who are kinda skinhead-ish. They're probably not very well-educated. And they just had a big ole' wake-up call. And they don't have the emotional control or civic consciousness to attenuate their dislike of whatever's going on. So there's that. There's really just a bunch of little punky criminals out there who just got the news that there were girls in the house. There's probably some resistance coming from an older -- my demographic as well who has this long history of owning the field and suddenly they don't. They may still be living in their mom's basement, for all I know. I mean, that's the picture that I have. I don't see this as being something that's being done by intelligent, sophisticated metro-type people. I think this is coming from an underclass who's already pissed off because they're poor, poorly educated, live in ratty-ass communities, have bad influences in their lives and this is the last little shred of something for them, you know? And they got pissed and they don't know how to behave, and they probably don't know how to behave in a classroom or in a community meeting or in a church.
Or online. Right. So, when I think about the solution space, yeah, I have lots of ideas. To engage people in conversation who try that shit, and I've seen that work. But to me the strongest thing we can do, I'm sorry to say,is true name: I think anonymity is something that's really allowing this to fester, and I understand that moderation is difficult for games as large as the ones we have today, but true names would certainly help. It isn't necessarily that one has to use their true name online, but just an example, when we did the Purple Moon website, it was an opt-in situation and in that case we had you get parental permission -- and so we could link a user name to a real person. And on the screen, there was a panic button. And when somebody started behaving badly, if you pushed the panic button we got a screenshot of that very moment and we could see who was where online and we could go find that person and kick them out. That's such an easy solution. [Laughs.] It doesn't mean you can't use Fluffy as your name: It means that we know who Fluffy is. And if Fluffy gives some shit to people, there's a panic button.
There are consequences.
Yeah, there are consequences. I look back to the -- I think the last real effort at self-governance was a thing called LambdaMOO that goes back to the late '80s. It was done by a fella at Xerox PARC, who really tried to create a republic with some responsibilities and elders who could solve quarrels. But eventually that grew into anarchy because he didn't have the brainshare to manage it as the population of it grew. And talking to him about it now, he wonders if he had missed something there. So. Those are my theories about Gamergate, that there are just women-hating punks in the world and they come in different flavors, and my suspicion is that they're ignorant.
It's just bad. I just don't get the companies who make games, why they feel it's not in their interest to get as big an audience as possible.
You can come at it from a human sense or a dollar sense and it’d be the same conclusion.
From a dollar sense, I think these guys who are thinking about those dollars are still not noticing that there's an $80 billion business with an empty lot next door. It doesn't occur to them. They don't think women will ever be much of an audience. They grew up that way. That's what they believe and nobody's yet been able to show them a spreadsheet to the contrary, you know? They don't fucking believe it.
You did the research in the '90s because the research before, the conclusion drawn was that girls don't like games.
When, in fact, I think what's going on is that girls just want something else. Right?
And honestly I think most of us want something else.
Most of us. Kids who will go through their whole education wanting nothing but to work for a AAA company doing that kind of stuff, and they're professionals now, and they have good shops and that's what they want. That's their outcome.
But the industry itself has been really sluggish to respond, too, so it really thrills me that tools like Twine are starting to show up that more and more people can use to create communities of gaming and play where they feel safe and where they feel good. And that certainly goes for the queer gaming community. In fact, there's a lot of security around that now, too. As you might expect.
What's been the biggest or strangest misperception you've heard about what people expect girls or women to want from games?
Well, I can tell you a funny story. Back in 1986, Activision created a Barbie game for their audience and I heard one of the designers say that, "Since girls weren't very good at projectiles, the action of the game was throwing marshmallows."
Now, first of all, that's an inane thing to say. And second of all, you can throw a marshmallow really fast if you try.
But it was a total failure because it was sold in male spaces with nothing around it on the shelf, buried between nasty games at consumer electronics stores before there were any kind of retail environments for games or before games got sold at places like Target and Walmart, which I think has been a nice corrosive, by the way, that the retail environment has changed.
How does the game industry learn from its mistakes?
That's interesting. It's hard because, you know, you're trying to say, "But you could have so much more." And you don't see it. And so you're making mistakes. I don't know how a person learns from that kind of obdurate denial of reality. I do think that when people get upset and yell at game developers, there can be revolution.
I can remember before the E.T. debacle at Atari, the Warner guys had the idea that if you just had a good property, you're gonna have a good game, and so they really underpaid and undervalued their designers most of the time. And they got a license to Superman, I think it was, and the poor bastard who had to write the code had like three months, and with this attitude in management he produced a pretty crappy game. Well, the programming staff at Atari raised hell. "You can't embarrass us like this. We need more time. The qualities of the gameplay really do matter. Etc." And of course they ignored them and we got E.T. And that was that for Atari. They didn't get a second chance.
I also know of situations where there have been write-in campaigns from parents and stuff that have caused people to back off from some stuff. But generally speaking, the only way game companies learn from their mistakes is if their mistakes cause them to lose money. Or cause them to get involved with lawsuits. [Laughs.] That's what I think. What do you think?
I think unfortunately that's true. I think the thing is if people keep buying crap, we'll keep getting it at equal or greater levels.
People buy them. That's right.
So there is no real reason to change. I think it's going to have to cost them money to have an impetus to change. But I also think you can make the case that it's already costing them money. I've also heard, too, that more women have left in the last in the last eight months than she's seen in the last 10 years. I think you could make the case that it's already costing them money, but I don't think it's costing them the right money.
I don't even know who we're talking about here. Who's gonna be able to do something about this? Is it the ESA?
I think individual companies have to change their views. I remember being hired on a consult for Sony back when they were doing their big thing and don't even know what girls would like. I got a bunch of bored middle managers sitting there, looking at their email. I got paid for it. But they weren't of a mind to listen. Part of this is just denial. It's stupidity and denial.
Denial of what?
Denial that there's another audience out there. Denial that women do like games. That that is a thing that is true. "It can't be. We had such a sweet deal." And so they keep pushing out John Madden 27. That's part of it. But I think another thing that could happen, and this is what I talk to my students about, and it really comes down to the commitment that game designers make. Individual game designers. First of all, you can think about working for a company that is not huge. That it has the possibility of some flexibility. And I know that's hard because oftentimes that means start-up risk and all that stuff. But the main thing that I think of is that what has to happen is that somebody needs to design a game that is so attractive to other kinds of people that it's no longer something one can ignore. In other words, it has to be a success-disaster with its own mythology. And I tell my students: Making that kind of game is hard. It's harder than making another shooter. But if you want the world to change, it's hard, go suck it up, go do it. We have to have hope and courage and resilience and commitment as designers.
And I see that coming up in a lot of places and it really encourages me.
I also think people will be caught with their pants down, as it were, because sooner or later people from other disciplines will storm in and, frankly, embarrass all of us. And, honestly? I think they should.
Absolutely. Absolutely. The more the merrier. This is not popular culture yet.
[Laughs.] Which is the thing, too. Games are no where near as mainstream as people in games think that they are.
Yeah. Right, right. So you're looking already at some sort of self-selection factor both in players and designers that tends to uphold an outdated mythology that's so precious to them that they can't look at reality and see much opportunity. I'm speaking as a business person. That's what we did at Purple Moon and we damn near won. You know? If we hadn't had wonky investors, we'd still be going as far as I'm concerned. And I still, every week, get a letter from some twenty-something woman saying, "Your games changed my life. I'm a designer now. I feel free. Somebody heard me, somebody saw me."
And everytime, I send them a copy of my book, Utopian Entrepreneur, about how the sausage was made. [Laughs.] Which is kind of a nice closing circle for me, you know? But, to me, it has to do with being a good old-fashioned revolutionary and deciding you're going to kick some ass.
Well, obviously, I'm here talking to you.
Well, other than buying your book, what do you think the average person reading this -- what can they do if they're not a person who doesn't make games?
I think people could get a good dose of business acumen, especially if they want to do something different or revolutionary. There are some ways you can think about doing that. For example, I use a proverb with my students: A cultural intervention is injecting new material into a culture without activating its immune system.
So, you have to understand what the immune system is, and you have to understand how to wander around outside of the boundaries where the electric fences are. That's one thing. So I think a person who is interested in a humanistic approach to any kind of business could learn from that book.
I think that, you know, there are real simple principles, like don't let dickhead investors run your board. You know? Make sure that you've got an even chance. Stuff like that.
But at the end of the day, our company succeeded to the extent that it did because we had heart and soul in it, and we were lucky enough to find some money. You know? And at its high point, I think we had 80 people working for us and about 80 percent of them were women. And I still run into these guys at GDC. They found jobs in the industry or they're doing indie games or whatever, but they're around. They're still working. So I don't know -- I'm not on the ground with the big industry so I don't know about the exodus that your friend is discussing. It's a tough game.
I can see it. I have seen it happen now that I think about it. I personally escaped into academia to -- there I was, a 55-year-old with the shit kicked out of me for no good reason. I spent a year grieving. I wrote a very bitter book. I burned it. I wrote a smart book. It got published. It took some time to get over it. Academia, I said, "Okay, I'm kind of reaching those years where I have some things to teach. And I've learned some stuff from the real world and I have a whole lot of things I can explore with students that you can't explore in the context of the company." So it's been wonderful in the sense that I've gone along tracking and being part of innovation in a bubble, really, inside a world that's protected from market forces to a certain extent. You've got NSF market forces, but that's another issue. It's been wonderful.
For example, this semester I taught a human-centered design research class to game design students at UCSC. This was the second year I ran it, and I've run classes like this since I started in education where I said, "Okay, we're just going to start with some basics. Here are three words: Go find the interstices. Figure out what kind of research you need to do. I'll hold your hand. We'll learn the methods. We'll get somewhere that has that creative concept at the end of it." So, you know, I did things with hybrid cars and little boys' construction of masculinity and toys and all kinds of stuff.
Well, this year was only 10 weeks, which is a drag. We looked at kids with math anxiety as game designers. And so they did big secondary research and talked to expert. They did a prospective exercise where I made them look at pictures of themselves at 12 and remember what math class was like. They did interviews with real kids because I got IRB approval for it. About a third of which I would say were borderline math-anxiety people. Although we didn't have diagnoses. We just observed this by talking to them. The students did the interviews. They came back. They took their findings. They did data visualization. They represented their findings to themselves until they started to see patterns and then those findings got translated into heuristics. This is exactly how I did Purple Moon: "Now that I know this about kids, the heuristic is: Don't ever shame somebody." That's an easy one. But another one: encourage collaboration. Because that's really gonna help the kids who are having trouble. "Remember to relate math to the real world, because that's where they engage."
So, one of the outcomes was kind of a LARP about running logistics for an archaeological dig that a teacher could do with kids in the classroom. There was a group game about a pizza parlor that looked at the same thing. Another group came up with an emulation of a math test: You do three problems and indicate by pressing on buttons on the screen how anxious you felt, wearing a heart monitor. And then at the end of the three problems, you could go look at what the heart monitor had to say about what was going on in your body. Sometimes you might find that you were more anxious than you were or whatever. And it was that point that had the opportunity to engage in learning some stress reduction. Breathing. Other kinds of tricks that kids use like manipulables to take their stress down. We had this stress-management thing embedded in it and you could go back and do some more problems. It was a lovely idea and there's no reason why it can't be implemented, you know?
But the thing that impressed me most was these were kids who intend to be game designers who engage with full hearts about this issue of math anxiety and thought it was perfectly appropriate to consider it as the premise of a game. That's a difference. That's a change, that I see that. That the young people I'm talking to now are much more willing to more socially relevant issues and problems and try to find a delightful way to address them that will make people's lives better. That's so awesome. [Laughs.]
In some of my own teaching, I've run into some confusion from students: "Why would I want to look outside of games to look back in on them?"
No, I teach a whole class like that, too. We talk about places where you might find mechanics that you haven't thought of, like, what goes on inside of a plant. Like, human evolution. Like, climate change. What goes on when you have a synergistic melding of two organisms in the early days of the planet? What goes on in a protein? You know, just dragging them around tied to the back of a truck so all these domains that they haven't probably explored, seeking game mechanics -- and again I've had some pretty good success with that class. Not as good. I would say about a third of them got it. But that was the first time I taught it and I think I'll get better at it.
The design-research thing I think I kind of have down to a science now.
It's like we used to talk about: Once girls get their hands on a computer, they're gonna go everywhere. When the web showed up it was like, "Okay, I did Purple Moon, now, what's this Warcraft thing?" It was like, "Okay, they're loose. They're loose in the world."
But with these game designers, it was like -- once they talk to real people about their lives, the way I teach them to interview and really learn as much as they can about what is going on inside a person's head, their lives are changed. They are no longer imitating what happens to be the biggest hits this year in terms of the play pattern or the mechanic. Now they have a completely different vision of how one goes about developing a game, which might have to do with talking with people who aren't you. The more we can get them to do that, the more they're gonna build games for people who aren't like them. And pretty soon they aren't going to be like them or like they were. [Laughs.] I mean, one hopes. I'm an optimist.
It's odd, because people will talk about games as a waste of time and what you're talking about is a way for them to objectively not be.
So, why is there such resistance to turning something fun into something greater? Like, you could make the same case of reading can be fun and it changes you and other forms of entertainment can be fun and can change you, but somehow games get a pass from that.
I don't understand that. And certainly there's "trashy" or things in other mediums with not a lot of nutrients.
[Laughs.] They have eye candy at the movies.
But that's part of the spectrum of the experience, too. So why is there such a resistance to that in videogames?
I think it's changing. We have to be a little bit patient here. Serious games didn't exist 10 years ago. Games for Change was a baby. And also we have people who have actually got a liberal arts education in games studies programs, which means just a world of difference, it seems to me. They didn't just start as a CS major and blow through and have no experience of the history of culture or anything. They're just little instruments.
And so I really think it's important that we get programs to encourage as much of what I would call a liberal arts education as possible. When you have designers who are like that, they are not gonna be your average run-of-the-mill guy. They're just not. At least in my experience. That's what I've seen to be true. And when you have a kid who doesn't have a liberal-arts education, you have an opportunity to mentor them a little and guide them into some classes that might help.
But also, I must say, there's a tremendous ahistoricity that's intrinsic in people who have BFAs and engineering undergraduate degrees where -- I've got kids in my class who are juniors in game design who don't know who Doug Engelbart is. Now just take a minute and think about that. [Laughs.]
What do you think is lacking in games academia? How could they be better?
One way, certainly, I think is to get them to a place where they have a deep understanding of the history of games. Not just computer games but the history of games and computer games because it's packed with so many revolutionary folks who have humanistic values. Those studies. That's one thing.
Wendy Ju, who is an amazing teacher, taught -- she still does, I think -- interaction design in the curriculum that I put together at CCA. And she was teaching designers with no experience with electronics or computers how to build shit. One of the first exercises they did was to do research on some machine or interface of the past and build a model and be able to explain what it did. So people were building Engelbart stuff, they were building the code machines from World War II. They were forced to encounter from the perspective of the inventor. That was a really interesting way of getting them some history. It was foam coral, it was Wizard of Oz, no big deal. But that stuff sinks in.
And what I want to sink in is the ethos of the people who have given us the future we're now living in.
What do you think about virtual reality and the direction that it's coming. I feel like it has way bigger potential than just games, and one of my biggest concerns is that's what's trying to be pushed first on these mediums before they're fully understood. Obviously they have huge implications and possibilities for things like education, but what do you think of the direction of how it's shaping up to look now?
You know you're hitting a hot button.
I know I am.
Because I did VR. I was one of those people who am now irrelevant, evidently.
I think we were well on our way of looking at some of that stuff pretty well. We did a lot of hypnagogic experience and virtual play of different kinds that were really promising. Many artists got involved in that field and then it died because it was too expensive to make any money and nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah. And it continued in universities because people could afford the equipment who went back to their old friend, training, in a lot of cases, which is kind of the first use of VR at NASA. At Silicon Graphics, they made their money building Caterpillar-driver training systems. Stuff like that.
We were among the first to say, "Hey, what if we looked at this as a magical adventure into some kind of reality that we don't have around us or some version blah blah blah."
I'm worried about VR going straight to games now because it's affordable. But, man, I was worried when people were talking about desktop VR because that sort of killed the whole idea of what VR is as far as I'm concerned. They started to make it a "turbo" term where it got flattened out into a screen and, you know, that kind of waterlogged model everything as VR.
But it's like television imitating plays.
It's like games copying movies.
Yeah, yeah. The problem is some of us have already been there and thought about it and you're not paying any attention to what we were saying.
We could be doing colossal, seismic, actually amazing things and at Oculus Connect last year, someone in the audience rushed to ask, "So when are you going to announce the controller? And is it going to be a sword controller, or what is it?"
Well, you know what's even sadder is that right now as far as I know the controller is a goddamned game controller. So, if you don't have that in the wrist, if you're a person who's not been a console gamer, you can't run the interface and you can't see it.
For the Oculus, the controller I've seen used most is just the Xbox 360 controller.
I don't know if you attended GDC --
I was there, but only for the education summit.
I checked out Valve's VR, and it's weird -- and I don't know if anyone who hasn't tried it can understand how this is possible, but I never actually saw the controllers. I only saw them being represented through my goggles.
But the controller, as I remember it feeling in my hands --
It was Visine and Morphine.
[Laughs.] This is probably wrong and sounds crazy, but, it felt like ski poles that had dials and you could squeeze and grip them. You talk about an alternate reality: The coolest demo I tried was called Job Simulator and you're in a fake kitchen. It sounds like nothing, but it was a lot of fun. It felt incredibly magical.
Whether that's the way VR should be used? I don't know. But that was one of those things that sold me on the potential it could have. But I think it's probably going to be another decade, and I don't think mainstream consumers will want to wait that long. So, yeah, I worry in the way that you worry about untapped potential here.
Yeah. Well, if Facebook was smart.
Long pause there.
I'm just letting that sink in that I'd said that.
But if they were smart, they would put together a fund for artists to play around with their stuff. It wouldn't kill them, you know? They're making money hand over fist, why not put $10 million into an institute for artists to develop new stuff on their machines including new UI devices?
Before our project, everybody had one hand in VR. They had a glove. That was it. One of our engineers took a couple pieces of plastic -- cost of materials was about 29 cents -- that had resistance. Wired it up. Put it between the thumb and forefinger. It was very much like what you're talking about. And so those things served both to locate -- you could see your hand in virtual space as a result of the sensors on them. But if you squeezed them, they would do things. And so the two-hand problem has been solved, people. Thirty years ago.
The problem that's the biggest one, as far as I can tell, is the need for proprioception in VR. If you ever get a chance where you can walk around and move inside the virtual world with your feet, it's a whole different deal.
You can do that with Valve's thing.
You can? Are they on a treadmill?
No. I had the same reaction. I walked in, set my bag down and my jacket and they're like, "You're gonna have to move that." And I was like, "What do you mean?"
Oh, cool. I'm glad to hear that.
And that's part of the sense of immersion, which I have written about a lot. And the sense of presence, I'm convinced, has to do with the ability to have both hands, with the ability to have gaze-tracking coming from your head and motion-tracking coming from your pelvis or your heart. So you need to take those two things apart from each other so you've got real body flexibility. And if those things aren't present, you're not getting the whole nut.
And I'm hoping they'll do that. I don't know how Halo will look in that way. But the other thing about it as you know, and I know, it's that when you get to the, "Oh my God" place with it, that's where you want to be. Right?
It doesn't need content in terms of specific actions or game mechanics. It needs to be an environment with affordances for a lot of play, open play, creative play. I think it's the case that you actually degrade VR the more you formalize mechanics.
Something I'm trying to figure out is: Okay, we can move around the space, but are VR games just going to be like bottle episodes on TV shows, where we're stuck in the same room the whole time?
We did virtual portals that would call to you from the next world, and if you stuck your head in there you would go through this transition that lasted about five seconds. People got really anxious in the transitions.
So, we gave them sound from the coming world, took down the sound from the world they were leaving, and let them look at their hands -- which almost everybody wanted to do. They wanted to make sure they were okay. Once people got okay with the portals, then you could go anywhere, we built three connected worlds. And to solve for people feeling disembodied, we actually in our design, made them get into a body. And the bodies that were available were animals. So, you knew you were in a body because you had different senses and different locomotion. We had a crow that you could fly by flapping your arms.
That's so cool.
It's a funny experience for me because I'm running around BANFF, randomly assaulting people, "Okay, how do you fly in your dreams?" And I'm getting all these weird answers, like, people are doing hydrofoil things and they're doing Superman jump-up with a fist, and I was just distraught at the end of it. I just thought, "There's no convention." And all of a sudden, I said, "Flapping wings, flapping wings, flapping wings." Every little kid knows that if you're flapping your wings you're a bird, you're flying, right? So that's what we did. [Laughs.] And I had to test the damn thing -- they had to build a memory into the system so that it would know that that's the bottom of a flap and that's the top a flap and then therefore that's the velocity of a flap and there's actually a flap going on. Which wasn't easy.
So they built the affordances, and of course I was the test monkey and I got in there and the first time I used it, these three, hugely muscular flaps got me about six inches off the ground. So the next time I used it, one flap took me all the way out of the world and could see all these little bubbled VR worlds down there that I was way up above in cyberspace.
So, by the end of the process I had these terrific muscles under my arms because I had been flapping so much. But we got it right. We got it right. That probably was the most popular thing in the game, was to be the crow and fly down the waterfall or taunt the fish or whatever.
But the point of doing that was -- at least in those days, when we interviewed people, especially men were would say they were having an out-of-body experience. And women would say, generally, they were taking their body into a new world.
We wanted everyone to have that sense of being embodied in a new world. And we knew that just letting them walk in as who they were wasn't going to do it because there was no convention around it, so we forced the issue.
What do you think that says about the way men think versus the way women think?
[Laughs.] I don't know. And I made generalizations that are overlapping, Gaussian distributions, and I don't mean to totalize. But I think that airplane games and flying games, maybe, if you're sitting at a console? That's just what we got: "out of body" experience. So, it was a really interesting, small sample, but a really interesting gender hiccup.
We wired it so we were using what's called a Convolvotron. It does three-dimensional sound so that things -- the sound of something stays where it is even when you turn your head, you're not carrying it on your head, it's over there. And we were able to create a version of that that made it sound like there was a voice emanating from the center of your head. [Laughs.] That was my character. I was the goddess.
[Laughs.] Very humble of you.
Well, yeah. It was a moderator job. I was just there to help people who were having trouble or to suggest things. But mostly I kept my mouth shut.
Well, two guys came into the thing one day and they had both taken on their animal bodies and they could see each other and they said, "Now what do we do? Do we fight? Do we shoot each other? Do we kill each other?" And I said, " look around, try to play"" The Goddess could be scary, like Sigourney Weaver scolding you.
I suggested that they play with these little things that we call voice holders that you could leave snippets of your voice in or fly to a portal and see a new -- they had no idea what they could do. And once I started coaching them, they stayed in there longer than anybody. But their first question was, "What do we do now? Do I kill you? Do I shoot you?"
I see that as kind of heartbreaking in a way. But also kind of fun to boss them around until they got their heads together and figured out they could have some fun. [Laughs.]
Do you still play videogames? Do you get excited about stuff coming out?
I don't play nearly as much as I used to. I play things that are new and exciting, like Never Alone, that I got very jazzed about. I play a lot of Twine games because I'm interested in the community that's making them. Generally speaking, I don't play nearly as much as I used to, though. When I started at Atari, I was an addict. My favorite was Star Raiders. It was a shooter! Man!
So, you can take all my liberalism with a grain of salt: My favorite game is still Star Raiders. [Laughs.]
I had a guy at Atari tell me that Pac-Man was popular with girls because it was about an eating disorder. [Laughs.]
I'm making a face. You can't see it.
[Laughs.] Anyway, yeah. I don't play as much as I used to. I play to stay current when I can.
Frankly, there's not much out there that I love. I nibble at Warcraft, but I have a very busy life and I play the games I know my students are playing, at least enough to understand what they are.
Does anything that your students bring to you surprise you, pleasantly or otherwise?
I must say that Lord of the Rings Online surprised me, although that didn't come from a student. That came from a friend when I was working on my book. I think generally what surprises me over and over is the elaborate gestures and movements you have to make with the controller that are now conventional and like walking to people who play these games all the time. I still have to ask myself: "Okay, what did that guy tell me I could do to jump?" [Laughs.]
I mean, it used to just be one button. What's funny is things are subtly going cyclical from some perspectives: Last year after a talk about touch controls at GDC, I was thinking about how iPhones or whatever basically also have two buttons a la NES controllers. Or just one, not counting the home button.
Well, and there's so much you can do with that. I have a woman friend who just did a piece called Walk-In Theater. It's an app. If you have an iPad, it's worth buying. It's like $4. But she's using everything: the accelerometer, etc., in the iPad so that you can actually, by tilting the thing, move around the space with multiple screens inside the space and have things happening on them. And it's also a really good tool for planning an exhibition or doing architecture for looking at things from different perspectives. But it's the best example I've seen of total UI with very little sweat in the learning curve.
Yeah, I do.
What do you notice, as far as trends of what they cover or don't cover?
Well, I haven't seen too much coverage of Gamergate, except for that one article that got so much shit. I'm trying to remember where I read it.
On The Escapist?
I don't read you, so. I'll start reading you. But Gamasutra has gotten a little smarter in terms of what they published, but it's all still advertising. I mean --
Everyone's in marketing.
Yeah. It's marketing. I don't see much journalism going on. Do you have suggestions for me besides your site?
I will put it to you this way, which will likely make me sound like a huge snob in print: I think we're having a good conversation, and I created this site because there really is no other place for something like this to happen.
Yeah, right? Exactly. That's why I made Purple Moon. I was just fucking sick of 27 years of boy games.
What I was sick of was writers explaining to me about things that they had no way of knowing anything about and being so sure that there was no way they were wrong or another way for things to be looked at.
Whereas, my feeling is: "Well, I'm probably wrong about everything. I just want to listen."
That's not to say there isn't not anything good. It's just most of the things that are good are still marketing.
Yeah. That's what I get. I'm exquisitely allergic to it.
So what does all this matter? What does it matter if bigger videogames are not so creative and it's harder to find things that actually are? Is all this hurting anyone?
I think there's a group of people that are being hurt by it. Yeah. It's hurting some people. I mean, it has established a culture in which Gamergate is possible. That's hurting a lot of people.
And it's also part of that missed opportunity argument that's so hard to make. People say that when -- I go back to an image during the second Iraq War when What's This Guy was saying we dropped a bomb. And the talk about how videogames had trained these guys to be like like childhood -- no, that's Scott Carr movie that just came out that everybody boycotted. I'm sorry, I'm 64. About kids being trained.
So, that bothered me, and it continues to bother me. Not just because I think we're training warriors. That's the least of it. I think we're creating worlds in which civility doesn't exist and can't be modeled, then, by the people in those worlds. And so that feeds into the general incivility and alienation from other people that we see around this in the world to a certain extent.
I don't know if congress plays videogames, but it wouldn't surprise me. [Laughs.]
I know they're aware of Mortal Kombat.
[Laughs.] Yeah, right. [Laughs.]
Which is coming out again soon!
Oh God. I wrote in the first two Barbie to Mortal Kombat books -- I don't know if there's another book or not, but that'd be fun.
Yeah, so. I can remember back when I first played Star Raiders, back in 1980, I said, "Where is the negotiate button?" I can only shoot this guy. That's all that's available to me. Well, you know, when a little kid or an innocent plays a game like that and there is no negotiate button, that means the guy who designed that game left a big, open door where ethics go.
And ethical ideas will fall into that kid's head whether you put them there or not. In fact, if you didn't put them there -- if you didn't consider, "Should there be a way to negotiate?," you're still responsible for what falls into that kid's head as normative behavior as the way to solve a problem. And that's non-trivial.
So, it seems to me that it changes how we think about relating to people in the world. It can. If you're utterly addicted and have no life.
But generally speaking, I don't think there's anything intrinsically wrong with games as media. It's as if the movies only did war movies or something, you know? Where there was no alternative to that. You'd grow up feeling differently about the world than you probably do. So that bothers me. And it bothers me where we have huge public spaces where there's no monitoring of abuse and there's no modeling of self-restraint. No intentional modeling of civility.
I often wonder: People say to, well, like me, that games get into people's heads and change the way they think about the world, "Okay, if that's true, let us now go build a massively multiplayer game that is a civil republic. That models civility for everybody. Let's see if that spread the other way." [Laughs.]
I'm really serious about that. We end up with a very binary view of the world. We're in danger of that unless we're also playing, you know, equal amounts of time in the park where you have to share toys and looking at leaves in the forest. Otherwise, you just get this bizarre world view that's just the worst thing for an adolescent brain.
And to tie it together, I used to think it was silly, the notion that videogames teaches people to do violent things. That it can make them do that. Until I tried virtual reality. I had an incredibly disorienting experience getting my land legs back to normal reality. It took some time.
I thought, "You know, maybe videogames to some people are like this. Maybe just the people I've always known, we're made of different or 'stronger' stuff than other people." I think my conclusion to that, as it is with this project is, "I don't know. But maybe?"
I don't know. But maybe.
I do think it's incredibly powerful and important medium and I'm devoted to helping educate -- learning with kids or people who are thinking of getting into this field. "Wait! Stop! Don't forget that there are these things that are important and can be made entertaining."
You just can't walk into like some kind of amoral scum and expect to feel good about yourself. I'm here to tell you. You will hear my voice: You are scum if you do this. [Laughs.]
We have a responsibility. We are making culture when we make games. You need to think about that. That's a big responsibility. And I don't mean to sound like, "Oh, we have to go and make boring shit or do homework or whatever." We're making modes of possibility and what people think of.
And, honestly, we're making people's memories.
I think there's something to all the stuff we talk about not changing and the fact that most people grow out of games. It can't be a coincidence.
No. It can't.
But I do know that the mind of a 12- or 15-year-old is just about as malleable as it gets. So, you really want to watch it and think clearly about it. And also think about how much of reality are you reflecting? Are you doing a good job? [Laughs.]
I don't know. But maybe.
Maybe. It could be so much more powerful. I cling to it because there's so much potential.