I'll just give you a short snapshot of me. I have a day job as a college professor. I am an associate professor of game design at Northeastern University, which is located in Boston. That's my day job, and then I have what I refer to jokingly as a summer internship, as the co-founder and festival chair of IndieCade. For the last 10 years, I have spent summers in Los Angeles, where I have been overseeing the jurying process for our festival, which takes place in October. Currently, I’m working on some IndieCade special projects. I started working in the game industry in 1983. In the mid- to late-‘90s I started teaching. By the early 2000’s I was a full-fledged academic, at which point I thought it might not be a bad idea to get some kind of degree, so I got a PhD and went on to work at Georgia Tech, and now Northeastern. That is the brief snapshot of me, and how I got where I am.
I should also add that my game-industry experience, which is extensive, was not in the "mainstream" game industry, but actually in theme parks and museums. My perspective on games is very different from people who came up on either arcade or console side of things. At my first job, the studio was half women, and most of the management positions were held by women. This is in 1983. I have a very different perspective in terms of the culture of game creation that a lot of people are used to or expect.
That was actually one of the first things I wanted to ask you about. You said in your emails that your background is unconventional. I don't even know what the conventional background is for anything anymore in my field, or our overlapping fields, or any field for that matter. What seems to be the standard path in videogames that you see?
A lot of people, even the pioneers that I'm friends with who've been around a long time, have worked predominantly in the consumer game industry. This includes CD-ROMs, consoles, and PC games, and so forth. Part of what's unconventional about my background is that I've made games for other contexts since time immemorial. Back when I started in the early ‘80s, we were making what was then called “location-based entertainment,” which now means something completely different. At that time it meant you went someplace to be entertained.
There were a couple of products that people might be familiar with in that genre, like BattleTech for instance, and DisneyQuest, where you would essentially go to an entertainment center that would be on par with going to a bowling alley, or billiards parlor, only much more upscale, and much more high-tech. So I worked on indoor theme parks with interactive games as well as some interactive museum exhibits. These were not things to be sold at Walmart. They were destinations where people would go with friends and family.
The marketing construct for that industry was and still is very different from the videogame industry. The videogame industry imagined, and I say imagined, because I believe that it's not the accurate picture of what's really going on: They imagine that one person buys that game for themselves to play, and that's how they market their games, and how they decide what games they want to make. In the theme park and museum industries, the way it works is, typically one person, usually the mom, is purchasing an experience for the entire family.
The marketing construct for that audience is we want mom to think that everybody in the family, including her, is going to have a good time. As a result, we were inherently making games that were targeted to a very broad audience, and an intergenerational one as well. I worked on a VR project in 1993, for instance, where we were expecting that a grandmother, and her children, and their children, would be going to the venue together. The game was designed to appeal to all of them. That's what I was trained to do from the very beginning.
What's the disconnect between what you perceive the game industry imagines from what the reality is?
The game industry comes from a much more one-to-one relationship to who it thinks it's selling things to. You can tell a lot about what an industry thinks it's doing by its commercials. If you watch a commercial for, say, Disneyland, it’s all about the mom being happy because she's making everyone else happy. That is the narrative of a Disneyland commercial.
The narrative of a Gears of War commercial is a bunch of guys having a bro fest, playing some very aggressive masculine-esque game.
Now, the fact of the matter is that there are lots of women who play those games as well. You very rarely see them in the commercials, because of the culture and the way it's presented is very specific to this marketing construct.
When did that crystalize? I don't think it was really that rigid and defined in the ‘80s, but maybe my memory is foggy. But you used to see “older” people in game commercials, and also not just children.
I think there were a confluence of things that contributed to it. First of all, there's a whole trajectory of the game-industry narrative, the history of the game industry that is the arcade trajectory. I'm sure as you're doing this historical research, you'll start to see. There are several different paths that I teach my students about. Eventually, I really just ought to write a book about this because I have a very clear picture in my mind, this social networking diagram of the lineage of what games looks like. One subset of that path is arcades. Arcades from pretty much the beginning, were largely populated by guys. Usually young guys, like 13-year-old boys. In the 1990s, I met with an executive from Atari, and he literally said to me verbatim, "Our job is to take lunch money away from 13-year-old boys." That was his paradigm for his business. This was I think the vice president, somebody fairly high up in Atari.
This was in the context of his marketing director wanting him to meet me, because he thought they should be making more gender-inclusive games, and that was his response. Which was basically a “no we don’t care about girls.” I used to spend a lot of time in arcades in the ‘80s as part of my research for my job -- I would go and just hang out and watch people. What I always noticed, is that there would be girls in the arcades, but they wouldn't be playing games, and hence they would not be spending money.
That seemed like a missed opportunity to me.
The other interesting moment, which I’m planning at some point to write a book about, is what I like to call the Golden Age of multimedia. In the 1980s, we were mainly working on getting computers to just do stuff, right? Getting them to move pixels around on the screen in real time. One place where we went awry, I feel -- and I think it was a technical constraint, it couldn't really be avoided -- is that, the very, very first videogames, Spacewar!, Pong, even if you go back to Tennis for Two, the 1958 oscilloscope proto video game, were all multiplayer.
Historically, for thousands of years, up until computer games, pretty much all games were multiplayer. A single-serve game was not a thing. If you were playing Solitaire, it was because there wasn't anyone around to play cards with. Even the early TV-based systems, like the Magnavox Odyssey, where not based on the idea of: “Let's play with a computer by ourselves.” Then the arcade and pinball came in. That’s when we shifted to this model where it was primarily single-player. That's one whole set of things going on that I think are important.
By the way, a lot of the early research on gender, and I'm not sure if some of this has been refuted, but there were some early research around gender where one of the things they would come up with, was little girls were not that into just tinkering around with computers for the sake of tinkering around with computers. They would want some reason to be tinkering around with computers. This comes from some of the work that was done at Purple Moon, when I worked for them in the ‘90s. Anyway, that's one thing. Suddenly you have these single-player games, so that changes it. Also, the Golden Age of multimedia.
The first E3, which I attended, was not a videogame convention. It was called the Electronic Entertainment Expo, because at that point videogames as we now know them were not the dominant paradigm. There were a lot of other things going on at that time. For instance, there was this thing called “interactive multimedia.” There was this thing called “interactive cinema.” People thought at one point that interactive entertainment was never going to have a foothold until you could have high-quality live action video. People were doing these cool experiments, like putting actors in a computer-generated world using blue screen, and you got things like Burn Cycle of Voyeur, which were amazing. One of the highest budget projects of the time was the Johnny Mnemonic CD-ROM.
Then were these weird niche things like golf, and sailing tutorials which must have been targeted to other executives. CDi had all these weird educational titles -- there was a photography CD, which was basically like Pokémon Snap, but with real video. It would tell you, "Your composition isn't good," or, "Your lighting isn't right," or whatever. This was also when Myst and Doom came out. So there was this amazing moment between 1993 and 1995 when all these things were happening at the same time. At this time, I was personally heavily involved in virtual reality. You've probably heard of that, it just got invented last year.
Yeah, for the first time. That's never been tried before.
I hear on the radio, "Oh, this brand new technology," and it drives me nuts. I worked on a VR game in 1993, called Virtual Adventures. It was created through a collaboration between, Iwerks Entertainment, a ride film company founded by the original technologists from the Disney Imagineering, and Evans & Sutherland, founded by Ivan Sutherland, who is actually the guy who invented virtual reality the first time! Their collaboration was what we at the time called the “military entertainment complex.” I’m making quotes with my fingers now.
I heard them.
This was the point at which the Cold War was essentially over, and there was all this technology that had been developed that we weren't really using. This wasn't the only partnership of this kind. The military contractors were trying to generate new business, and so they were partnering with entertainment companies. So Iwerks Entertainment and Evans & Sutherland got together, and they wanted to make a VR game. They auditioned a bunch of game designers to submit treatments. They gave some parameters, and I was approached because since they were theme park designers, they wanted to make a game that women would want to play.
At that time, the main thing that was going on in this space was BattleTech Centers, developed by Jordan Weisman, who went on to pioneer ARGs. BattleTech was a game where you get into an individual pod, and pretend to be a robot killing other robots. It was really fun, but not the most appealing game for women. When the VP Creative of Iwerks, Eddie Newquist, was trying to find people to audition for this game, a guy who I had met through my museum work recommended me, telling him: "This is the only person I know who could make a VR game that women would want to play." I was the only person who came up with an idea that wasn't combat-based. So they hired me, and brought me out to LA from New York to work on this project.
We designed it very, very carefully so that it would be high-tech, but at the same time friendly and approachable, and not intimidating. One of the bold innovations it introduced was the idea that all of the people were physically together in the same space playing a game. It was six people in a simulated submarine, competing with three other teams of six. If you go to a theme park with your friends and family, you want to playing together with them, not isolated in a box. That was actually a pretty big innovation at the time. We did it for two reasons: One, the social motivation; two, six people per very expensive high-end graphics computer was a big cost savings. The other thing we did was everybody had different controls, which was also radical at the time. The idea was that if grandma wants to play, let's give her something simple she can do that's not going to make her feel intimidated, and the more twitch-oriented controls can go to the kids, or whatever.
There were also all this fine art VR happening as well. Some of the biggest innovations were happening there.
So back to E3 and the game industry, there was this moment where you hadMyst and Doom, and basically the short answer to your questions is: Doom won. Even though everyone called Myst the Citizen Kane of the videogame industry. Nowadays, people say, “Where's the Citizen Kane of the video industry?” And I always say “It's Myst.” That's what they said about it in 1993.
Yeah, I've heard that said. A lot of these things people are saying, “Where is the blank of videogames?” Very often the answer is, “Actually it happened about 15 to 20 years ago.”
But, so, then, there’s the question: Did it lose? Maybe it wasn’t what the audience wanted? Maybe it wasn’t what the industry wanted the audience to want? Aren’t we seeing the same thing happening today?
Well that is an old argument: The audience didn’t want it. But that’s just a false assertion. Until The Sims came out, Myst was the best selling CD-ROM of all time. Of all time. That was 2001. For eight years it maintained its position as the best-selling CD-ROM, until it was overtaken by The Sims, another game that was popular with women, and which by the way almost didn’t game made. This is what drives me crazy. We get all these myths and these myths are just wrong. The fact that Myst is considered a failure is wrong. It was a huge commercial success.
This is not an easy question to answer, but why is the game industry so insecure?
I love that question. One of my IndieCade interns sent me a great article a while back about the fragility of masculinity in videogames. It’s a serious problem, and reflective of the larger issue of toxic masculinity and male ego frailty that has played out in the election.
Please send that my way, too.
What a great question. That’s a whole book in and of itself. I guess the first answer, the simplest answer is: “I don't know. It's pretty silly.” The second answer is: “I think part of it is just people like to do what's easy.” I have this joke I say sometimes, “People like to generalize.” I think that when people get very invested in a particular set of beliefs, they really don't care if any factual information, or scientific research, or even things before their very eyes refute their beliefs. I think there’s a lot of evidence in current events to support this theory.
They will make up stuff in order to endorse their own beliefs, even it their own beliefs are wrong. I recently had a awkward conversation with someone from a major studio. I kept pointing out to him that the beliefs that he was conveying to me were actually provably, statistically incorrect. Then he would make up a new belief to counter me, and support his position. It was kind of a pointless competition. He was not interested in “facts.”
I'm not going to ask you to name names, but can you name specifics of the beliefs?
Yes. The first belief was that the majority of people playing videogames are young males. This is actually not right. The ESA has actually produced an annual report that demonstrates that this is not correct. There have been numerous academic studies done, this is probably just wrong. In fact, the fastest growing demographic in the game industry continues to be middle-aged women. This has been going on for the last six or seven years. When a mainstream game comes out that women like, it sells like hotcakes. The example of the Sims I mentioned earlier is a prime example of that.
What's the warped explanation for that?
I said to him, “I see where you're going with this, but it's actually not mathematically correct.”
Then he says, "Well, it's really the will of the game, the aspirations of the game developers. These are the games they want to make."
I told him "That's funny you should mention that, because there was an indie developer at our E3 booth, whose day job is Gears of War. He was getting increasingly depressed by his day job, and so he decided to make this beautiful, lyrical, teleological, exploratory, independent game that is everything in every way the antithesis the of Gears of War." He basically told me he made it to save his soul.
Now, I assume there is no way that his studio would let him make that game. That's why he had Kickstarter and do it on his own. And there are many individual AAA developers are moving into the indie space precisely for this reason, even whole studios like Double Fine and Harmonix, that are starting to do their own thing.
This is always the great irony of a lot of this is. The folks who have the most money, have come around to painting themselves as victims.
Oh my God, that's so true. This is America's rhetoric right now.
I am aware.
The people who have all the power, and all the money, and all of the airtime, have made up a story that they're the victim. It's unbelievable. You hit on something, and an answer to your initial question that's spot-on. I think that the insecurity of the videogame industry is actually reflective of a larger cultural pattern that we're seeing right now. Which is, frankly, the white male supremacy, and I mean that both in terms of the theology of it, and also the reality of it, is being eroded in every way. This is the basis of the Tea Party. There was a quote a couple of years of ago from some Tea Party guy that, “We're running out of angry white men to keep our movement alive.”
I think the fear you mentioned earlier is because, demographically, white guys are going away. California has now more Hispanic people in it than white people. We're done, which is fine. That's the way it should be, in my opinion. I think that's what this anxiety is. It’s people digging in their heels. It’'s like a little boy who has to share his toys with somebody else. This anxiety that some factions of "gamers" have, that their games are going to be taken away. Which is ridiculous. We both walked around E3.
The anxiety that first-person shooters are going to be somehow eradicated is ridiculous. I see no indication. At the IndieCade E3 Showcase, we were across from the booth for, I don't know, Total Annihilation of War 7, or whatever, and Rainbow Six 7, or whatever it was. This an imaginary problem. We're not losing that "traditional" game industry. It’s the same people that are freaking out about the Confederate flag. Except that that is going to go away.
These games aren't going anywhere, they're not, so calm the fuck down. Nobody is going to take your big fat digital gun out of your hand. It's fine. Just go back into your basement and leave everybody alone. I also know that there are game developers who work in industry, who were very frustrated by it. I know white men, some of whom are self-proclaimed social justice warriors, who have either walked away from that game industry, or have found a way to have their own creative freedom within it. Whether it's having their own studios, taking a successful mainstream studio indie, or in some cases abandoning the industry for academia. I don't know if you're tackling this? But we've been these pretty big names in the videogame industry saying, "Hey, I think I'm going to go be an academic now." It’s wonderful for us and for the students.
Yeah, I've noticed that. I’ve also noticed this is a narrative that is slowly emerging in the enthusiast media. It was initially spun as some sort of cheerleading bullshit about being independent, as if it was a safer and purer path to walk somehow. It’s about choices, and I think the game industry is like any industry. Your day job may not really be fulfilling or who you really want to be.
I would say that I think most people's day jobs are that stifling, though, where they're that close to the thing they want to be doing, and yet so far away.
I have friends who work in the mainstream game industry, and the heartbreak that they feel on a daily basis is that they're really smart, they're working in really sophisticated technology, and all they’re being asked to do is make bigger guns, louder explosions, and boob jiggle. I'm sure there are plenty of people who love that, but not the people I know.
The reason that they're doing it is because that's where the money is. That's where you can get paid to do cool high-tech things, if that's what you're into. Unfortunately, it propagates itself, right?
And the conventional wisdom is that it’s all boys and all they want to do is shoot. Frankly, not all boys want to do that, and some boys want to do that and other things. These things aren’t mutually exclusive. I have these wonderful nephews who are all gamers. They range in age from 22 to 33, something like that. One of them, he played a lot of racing and sports games, and action games likeGoldenEye, but he fell in love with Flower. I remember him asking me about it, the first time he heard about it. And his brothers would tease him about it. But you can like different things. You know what I mean? The human brain is capable of liking different things. Yes, you can love Gears of War, and you can also love Flower. That's totally viable.
When I was speaking to the industry guy at E3 I mentioned earlier, I also mentioned Journey. He said "Well, that didn't sell." And I said, "Actually,Journey is the best-selling PSN game to date." Again with the facts.
Why don't these people do their homework? They just make shit up. If you really are a business person, make a spreadsheet and add the numbers up. You're neglecting half of the population. I've been on this soapbox for about a decade about Baby Boomers. Baby boomers are the biggest demographic in America: They have the most disposable income, and the most free time. Why isn't anyone making games for them? The people who are, like Zynga, are making a fortune. What does that tell you?
To hop back, you said you were talking to someone from Atari. Basically I think your party line was, “I can help you maybe take lunch money from girls as well.” Why was his response no?
I have no idea. It was just stupid, it was dumb. Because look at the toy industry. Look how much money the toy industry makes off of girls.
The videogame industry is shockingly successful considering that it's niche market. But think about this: The best selling videogame of all time is Tetris, which has sold somewhere around $140-$150 million copies worldwide. By comparison, Monopoly has sold around $250 million copies worldwide. We really should be generating double the revenue that we are now.
You said something to me at E3 that I thought I would ask you last but it feels germane here. I asked about insecurity before, and you said on the floor to me you felt that the game industry is unable to be embarrassed. I’m sure you remember that.
I don’t know if that’s something you say a lot, but I’ve been thinking about that the last two weeks. Then on Monday I had breakfast with a friend and we were talking about it. This is someone who doesn’t care about videogames. He just said, “What does that really mean? Something that can’t embarrassed doesn’t have a sense of self. It doesn’t have an identity.”
So what does that mean about the videogame industry?
I think that it's a very interesting point you make. I wasn't really thinking through the deep and profound implications on one’s very humanity. I’m not religious, but embarrassment is the first emotion that humans feel in the Bible. It's a defining characteristic of humans, which is a sense of self-consciousness, and a sense of shame. Without which, you can't really be a person. In fact, the inability to be embarrassed is a defining characteristic of people who are psychopathic.
That's what I told him.
Yes, so we're on the same page there. Not being embarrassed by your behavior is scary, because it means you can't function in society. I want to say something else, if I may digress a moment.
Now, I know the videogame industry suffers from profound cinema envy. I want to say a few things about the film industry, because it relates back to the email that you sent me that greased the wheel to this conversation. If you look at the film industry, in the 1970’s, there emerged this idea of the action blockbuster.
Action blockbusters are targeted to more or less the same people, although weirdly, a much broader audience than videogames. When we started IndieCade, the videogame industry was a lot like the film industry of the 1930s. Everybody was owned by a studio. Back in those days, filmmakers didn't even get credit for their work half the time. You had to do what the studio said, and they had certain categories of films that were made, based on marketing constructs.
There was a whole subgenre of films even before the rise of independent films in the ‘50s and ‘60s called the B-movie. My grandfather and my grandmother both worked at MGM in the ‘30s, so I'm very familiar with this. The B-movie was a smaller budget film that was targeted to the matinee crowd, primarily women. Most of Frank Capra’s movies fall into this category.
Then as the film industry matured, arguably it might have de-matured in some ways. You went through this period in the ‘50s and ‘60s which brought the rise of indie films, along with the French New Wave etc. etc. Everyone talks about Easy Rider as paradigmatic of that moment. So the film industry, despite its problems with employment diversity, has a much more diverse audience ecosystem. Yes, you have your Star Wars and your Jurassic Worlds, but you also have your Mementos, your Billy Elliots and your Fences. Know what I mean?
There is this interesting diversification going on in television at the moment, fueled by more production outlets. You have Glee, you have Transparent.
These things can exist, and they're commercially successful because the film industry, as stupid as it is, knows that there's a diverse audience, and they could diversify even more than they do. They do have a sense that grandma goes to the movies, and a bunch of women go out to the movies together, and families go out to the movies, and so they make a lot of different movies for a lot of different audiences.
By contrast, if you look at the big game studio system, by and large they're mostly just making action movies, with the possible exception of some of the Japanese studios. Maybe Nintendo goes off that model sometimes, and every once in awhile EA will do something different. Usually kicking and screaming, because what always happens is that somebody tries to do something different, and they get shot down, and they just keep trying.
You made the point asking how is it that Intel is the company taking the lead on this? How is that?
Yes it’s very interesting. Intel does have that sense of shame, but in a weird way it's kind of misplaced. They did something incredibly stupid, and they are paying for arguably the most expensive mea culpa in videogame history. But they're not the really ones who should be ashamed of themselves, they are not the ones responsible. This is what drives me crazy. The people who should be putting the $200 million into this, are people like Microsoft Xbox. Because the Xbox is a breeding ground for misogyny. That is the place where this culture has been fomenting. I frequently invoke Leigh Alexander: “If you fail to curate a culture, you’re responsible for what spawns in the vacuum.”
So where are the companies who nurtured this toxic culture? Where's Microsoft? Where's Blizzard? Where's Activision? Those people have said nothing. They have not apologized, they have not put up the $200 million fund for diversity. This is what's infuriating me: The very people that should be beating their chest, and saying they're sorry, and trying to fix this fucked up situation, have done and said nothing.
That's why I'm doing this. That was the main thing I was trying to figure out last year, is, “Why is no one saying anything?” Then, when somebody did say something, I think it was one of the media sites. They took a hard line, and they said, “Harassment is bad.”
Yeah, but can I just tell you something?
Harassment is bad, but we don't want to do anything about it. We have no community moderation. I worked on PlayStation Home, and I don't want to knock Sony, because they're now IndieCade's biggest sponsor, and we love them, and they're great to indies. But they couldn't care less about harassment. Their own players called PlayStation Home a sexual harassment stimulator. Their own players. When I proposed very, very simple software fixes, not even hiring more people, but just, "Hey, if you did this, and this, and this, this would be less of a problem." "Oh, no we don't want to do that. There aren’t enough women here to make that something we should put money into." And why do you think they’re not coming to Home in the first place? So some companies are willing to talk about their commitments to diversity, but for the most part, they are not not willing to do anything about it. If you say it's a crime to kill people, and you don't prosecute them for doing it, they're going to do it.
Do you think the game industry learns --
-- from it's mistakes?
Next question. [Laughs.]
You can write that with the cutoff the way I said it.
Yeah, I will. Sometimes I ask that question, and sometimes I just get some mealy mouthed stuff, where people ask me, like, “How do you define ‘mistakes’?”
I think there was one person who came up with a pretty good answer, who was like, "Well, I think if a company just fucks up after three releases, they can't find traction. Then they start reassessing or go bankrupt." It sounds like what you're saying, though is there's just not a fire under anyone's anything.
I don't know if you were there when they gave Anita Sarkeesian the ambassador award a couple of years ago, at the award ceremony. Were you there, did you see?
I was sitting in the back as I always do.
There was this camera pan across the faces in the audience as she was being given the award. Pretty much everyone had this collective “deer in the headlights” expression. They were stunned, just sitting there with their jaws hanging open. It was amazing to me, because it was so clear how clueless everybody was. Then last year Nathan Vella of Capybara was the host of the indie awards. I have to take my hat off to him. It really, frankly, took a lot of balls to get up in front of that audience to say what he said. It was basically just, "Hey guys, this is fucked up and we need to stop it." Again, the same reaction. Initially nobody got up and clapped, or did anything. Then I was like, really, you're just sitting there like, "Oh, we don't care." There was thousands of people sitting there.
Yeah, I was there.
Is it just the byproduct of stuff in videogames being so siloed for so long? There’s this notion and attitude about videogames that hearkens back to the ‘80s and Nintendo at least, where it’s still treated like it’s for kids. It wants to be treated as niche, like you said. But it’s also not nearly as mainstream as it thinks it is, but is still pretty big. But this sort of stuff we’re talking about deserves equal billing because it’s the reality of the situation.
Yeah, it is. You have to understand there's a whole machine. People don't remember this because everyone is now too young to remember, but the the whole purpose of E3 was to raise moneyto fight censorship. Most people I deal with were not even born when the first E3 happened, let alone when I started making games. There's a ginormous machine that is an alliance of all those studios, and the job of the ESA is to maintain and protect the status quo.
During the same E3, I talked to someone who worked on Halo 5 and he asked me why nobody is talking publicly about unionization in videogames.
Oh my God, please, please God yes. That's a whole other issue.
My question is, if my memory of the guild is correct for writers in Hollywood, wasn't that just at the time the top five earners in Hollywood at that point, who got together and were like, "We can see an advantage to this for us and for everyone who earns less than us, so we should try to do this?" Has that ever been attempted, or am I just misremembering?
Yes, it's been attempted several times by the very same people that have done it in the film industry. For many years, the Writers Guild, as well as the Directors Guild as well, have been trying. I went through this when I was working in the theme park industry. The problem is that employers have to be a signatories. If you're in the Writers Guild, you're only allowed to work for Writers Guild signatories. That means essentially clients who have signed onto the deal. The problem is, no game company, and no theme park company, and no company that isn't forced to, will sign on. I couldn’t have join the union even if I had wanted to because I would not have been able to work since my clients weren’t part of the union deal.
The game industry has done everything they can to prevent it from happening. Because then they would have to follow labor laws, which they don't do, including their horrible treatment of women and minorities. They should be following labor laws anyway, but again there is no one watching to enforce that. The lack of unionization in the game industry is definitely a contributing factor to the problems. Because, the employment practices can go on unfettered, and the workaholic crunch culture of the game industry is considered to be one of the biggest deterrents to women.
What seems weird to you about the way the industry works?
I think I said some of it already. What really seems the weirdest to me is that people make all of these assertions based on this conventional wisdom that is provably scientifically false. You look up and you say, "The sky is blue," and they go, "No it's not, it's green." You go, "But I can prove that it's blue," and they go, "Well, it's kind of a blueish green."
It's just the fact that it's a fact-free environment. They don't care about reality. Corporations in general in America don't care about ethics or morals of any kind, and they don't have to. The videogame industry is particularly egregious. The fact that they treat their employees so badly, and the fact that they lack shame for their culpability in a creating a culture of misogyny, is totally dysfunctional.
Also too, is I find I don't even know what's “normal” in the industry when it comes to, well much of anything, but when it comes to NDAs. That's been my impression from my side of things, is people can't really talk to the press, unless it's in the context of promoting a product. Also they're just not free to talk to -- I've heard this from some people -- they've signed NDAs that forbade them from even talking to family or friends about what they’re working on.
Oh, wow, when I first started in 1983, I was given a NDA to sign. I'd never seen one, nobody had. This was a whole new idea. Disney and some of the entertainment companies had had them for years, but it wasn’t as commonplace as it is now. I had to sign this NDA, and I could not talk to anyone, anyone about what I did. I could not tell my friends, I could not tell my family, and I was trying to make these interactive games, and wasn't like I could say, "I'm making interactive games." It wasn't a thing in 1983, so it was impossible. We eventually we made some prototypes, and I was able to invite some of my friends over to play test them. It was amazing, because it was the first time anyone really knew what I was doing. All my friends thought I was working on some secret military project. Then they came, and they were like, "Oh, this is totally not what we thought." I was like, "Well, I couldn't tell you what I did. I'm not allowed."
Is it just you come in at a younger age, and the culture is just like that, where you don't even second guess it or think it's weird?
Well it’s pretty much standard now. That first contract also said they basically they owned every thought I had all the time. If I had an idea in the shower in the morning, they owned it. That's very common in a lot of these companies. It's a problem for people that want to do stuff independently, although increasingly, I think developers are signing contracts to give them a little more leeway. I actually know people who have refused to take jobs due to that kind of clause in the contract.
Something else you wanted to talk about was about the importance of academia.
Sorry it got so buried, these conversations always twist and go where they want or need to.
This has been great. I love this conversation.
Thank you, I'm glad.
You compared film being transformed by film school in the ‘50s and ‘60s. You said a lot of PS4 games actually started off as masters thesis projects. Yet, there is still this divide of -- well I have my perception of it, but how do you perceive the divide of academia's place as being apart from the game industry?
My biggest frustration with this is that, once again, people just don't want to talk about it. Including some of the graduates. There are all these documentaries coming out about indie developers. There was this one Us and the Game Industry, I don't know if you saw that.
I have seen it, yeah.
It infuriated me, because throughout the entire film there were all of these people who went to USC. Somebody even had a USC hat on in one of the scenes. They were at the homes of people I know, people who went there and work there. It was bizarre. Yet, no mention was made throughout the entire film about the role of academia in general or USC specifically. But USC has been incredibly influential. Most people don't know that that game company’s deal with Sony was basically engineered by their teacher, Tracy Fullerton. Nobody wants to talk about it, the press doesn't want to talk about it. Even the founders don’t really want to admit it. But the press prefers the “lone genius being discovered” narrative.
The press know about this. The people who made that film know that all those people went to USC. It was their choice to leave that very important little tidbit of information out of the story. It’s a very important part of the story that's being deliberately erased from history. Tracy is probably the pinnacle of this, but it's going on throughout the country.
Tracy, by the way, is another case of an industry refugees like myself ending up in academia. She and I basically both hopped ship around the same time. She was coming out of “interactive television,” another thing I put air quotes around. She basically got burned. She churned through two interactive television startups, and then was like, "Screw it, I like to teach," and she started working at USC. We were both adjunct professors there at the same time. That's where I originally met her. Then I was asked to come in and help build a curriculum for the master’s program, based on the classes that we had in place already, and she was part of that process along with other faculty. Then she picked it up and made it what it is today.
We both decided to make a shift around the same time. For me, I wanted to have a little more creative freedom. I was also writing, and starting to think more intellectually about games. I published The Interactive Book in 1997, and I was getting invited to give talks at conferences, and then I was being asked to teach.
I can rattle off a bunch of PSN games that were master thesis projects.
Sure, go ahead.
Unfinished Swan, Machinarium, Rune, And Yet it Moves, The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom, Ibb & Obb. The list goes on. I should just make a blog post somewhere. I don't really have a blog, but I should just make a blog post: Here are the 100 games you never knew were master thesis projects.
Doug Wilson, who made Johann Sebastian Joust, which became part of Sportsfriends,was in a PhD program in Copenhagen, which is how he joined the Copenhagen Game Collective. They had a number of games in IndieCade as a group, and then he went out on his own and did Joust. But another team that came out of Academia.
It's funny you mentioned Us and the Game Industry, that's a lesser known game documentary. I don't know what your opinion is of Indie Game: The Movie, which is the typical one most people think about. That hit at an interesting time. It hit around 2008, 2009, which I know is around the time that you started IndieCade, right?
Yeah, the first IndieCade was in 2008.
That was an interesting and odd year for videogames. It was an important year for the economy, and yet I feel like the videogame industry doesn’t acknowledge that 2008 happened in that regard. But what do you think of that year as a dividing line for where the industry is today?
Tell me what do you think 2008 means?
Well, I can tell you what I was doing in 2008. I was an editor for The Onion then. I was running --
For The Onion. Ah, that explains so much.
I love The Onion.
What does that explain?
Just your sense of humor and your sensitivity. But I love The Onion, so kudos to you.
Oh, well, thank you! I was there and I helped start their games section and I used to cover games not being made by the major companies. It was stuff you’d find on message boards and whatever nascent social media was around back then. There wasn’t as much stuff as there is today. I don’t know if there was more variety of stuff, but I remember it being a thing you could more easily wrap your head around and track. What’s coming out and what’s coming up felt smaller and less overwhelming. It also wasn’t as filled with as much friction and divisiveness as I see now. I don’t know if you see that same friction from your vantage point.
It’s just what happens naturally in any space where you have success stories and there are people who feel they are more deserving of the success that someone else has. It’s harder to get noticed and I think there were people poised to be fairly big before that movie hit and have since receded to the background. There’s just a lot of hurt feelings no one really talks about, but also the whole economic collapse on top of it.
That's interesting. I've never seen that film. Which I'm embarrassed to say. Because, really, I should.
I held off for a number of years because some of my friends were in it and I wanted to avoid -- I just wanted to honestly be like, "I haven't seen it yet."
Well, 2008, I'll tell you a couple of things that were going on for me, and for us collectively at the time, by which I mean the IndieCade founders. A couple of things happened in that little window of time that were very significant.
Stephanie approached me sometime in 2005, so we’ve been working together for over a decade, which is amazing. A mutual friend of ours, Janine Fron, who had worked for Stephanie at USC, was working with her on the original idea. She brought me in, and Stephanie had seen an exhibition I co-curated at UC Irvine focusing on art games. We went to a couple of E3s together, and the idea evolved over time with input from a lot of different people.
A couple of other things were happening. Indie games were a growing part of GDC, and there was this Slamdance Game Festival, which was also becoming very successful. Then the Slamdance Festival hit this big snag. I don't know if you know this whole story, but it revolved around the game Super Columbine Massacre.
The Super Columbine Massacre scandal, debacle, whatever you want to call it, set the stage for IndieCade in a couple of ways. For those who don’t know what happened, Super Columbine Massacre RPG! was a game where players took the role of the killers in the Columbine murder spree. The game was accepted into Slamdance, but the president decided to pull it because it was too controversial. As a result many of the other games as well as sponsors pulled out.
IndieCade hadn’t even run a festival yet, but we made a very clear statement that we were going to respect the decisions of our jurors, and that we did not intend to censor the games based on perceived controversy. Which is something we've stuck with. Sam Roberts, who is now our festival director, was working the game festival director for Slamdance at the time. He saw the writing on the wall, and approached us, because he everybody was starting to abandon ship in protest of the censorship of Super Columbine Massacre. He saw us coming down the road, and went, "Oh, I think I'm going to jump on that one instead." Which was great. He’d already had cemented a reputation for himself. Everybody in the indie scene loved him. We met him and immediately it was magic. The three of us, it was like when a rock band forms.
The IGF at GDC was this interesting case, because even though it’s a great indie festival, and they always have wonderful things there, it's still run by the game industry to some extent. It still has a very game industry-focused sensibility, for which it was getting critiqued around that time. Very rightfully so. In fact, one of the first games we showed was a game that got rejected by IGF, Tracy Fullerton's collaboration with Bill Viola, The Night Journey. After it was rejected, some people wrote about how this was an indicator of the threshold for innovation in the IGF. I think at the time they just didn’t know what to do with a game made by a college professor and a video artist. But it got into IndieCade, and the award jury even made up a special award for it because they said: "This needs some kind of award, and we don't have one that fits for it."
So we were we were building the IndieCade culture against the backdrop of those two pivotal events. The rise and fall of Slamdance, what we saw as the industry-centered focus of the IGF. And I think Sam joining the team was also a turning point for us.
The IGF was a little competitive with us when we first came on the scene, but I actually think that it’s been good for them and pushed them to be more innovative. Now they have the Nuovo Award, which showcases the type of work we have been showing at IndieCade since the start.
Our first festival was amazing, we showed Dark Room Sex Game by Copenhagen Game Collective, The Graveyard by Tale of Tales, The Night Journey, Unfinished Swan, Jason Rohrer’s Gravitation, Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble, And Yet It Moves, Machinarium, The Misadventures of PB Winterbottom, Mark Essen’s FLYWRENCH, Ibb & Obb, Julian Oliver’s Levelhead. A bunch of stuff that has since gone on to get a lot of acclaim, in a little tiny gallery with about 30 people.
The other thing that happened right at that moment that's very significant? When we started IndieCade, the idea that an indie game could get published on a console was almost inconceivable.
Yes. I moderated a panel back in Chicago about the summer of Xbox Live Arcade. I was just going through my old Google Docs and found my topics of discussion at the time for it. It feels like 30 years ago but we talked about what a huge deal this was at the time.
One of the things we featured at IndieCade 2008 was a preview of Flower. Jenova came up and showed it. The Winterbottom guys ended up getting a publishing deal with xBox from as a result of being in that first IndieCade. That was the seed being planted. And now there actually is a pipeline for indie games to make it to a mainstream audience and even be published on a console. I completely agree with you about 2008. It was magical. I don't think it's on people's radar as a pivotal moment, but I think it really was.
Fast forward to three years ago and I saw Unfinished Swan in the Sony tent at IndieCade. I was like, "Do you guys know that that was in the first IndieCade?" They didn't even know, and they're our biggest sponsor now. They weren't involved with us the first year. All of these games that have been in IndieCade over the years are now starting to show up on console platforms. To me, this is a sign of hope.
Back in the early days, II used to ask: Where is Miramax, where is the Lighthouse Films of the videogame industry? That's what's starting to happen now. Sony PSN is the Miramax of games. They're the ones that are embracing these new voices. They started with the whole thatgamecompany deal, which was unprecedented at the time. Now, I have some former Georgia Tech students who were at E3 showing their upcoming game. Their company is called The Stork Burnt Down and they made this bizarre game for their Global Game Jam called Home Improvisation, which is this crazy IKEA furniture-building game.
I know about that game, yeah.
They came to IndieCade East to show their game in the show and tell. I introduced them to Sony, and the Sony guy said, "Okay, well, if you want to make this on the PlayStation, we'll send you a PlayStation dev kit." Now, that is insane. To think about that in 2008, if you wanted a PlayStation dev kit, you had to pay Sony $100,000 to get one. Now, they'll just send them if they think your game has commercial potential. They're really smart, because they're like, "Hey, we don't even have to pay for this. They'll make it, we'll give them most of the money on the backend, we have no risk, because we're just sending them a box." It's quite brilliant actually. Home Improvisation ended up as a Morpheus launch title. Sony is really smart, because they're making it very easy for indie developers now to publish on their platform. As onerous as their platform is to deal with, they're making it as easy as possible, giving devs a lot of creative freedom, and reasonably good financial deals.
But it’s very smart, because they can spend bazillions of dollars on all of these blockbuster games and produce a flopt. Instead, for a very low up-front investment, they can support an indie game that might do well. I’ve been talking about this for years. At E3 I was commenting to people: "You know, all of the games in this booth could be made for a hundredth of the budget of the booth next to us. All of them combined.”
I don’t understand why, as a business person, you invest a lot of money in over-saturated market, where you're competing with everyone else for exactly the same audience, when you could take a fraction of that, take a much smaller risk, and have something like Journey, which is a huge commercial success. I just don't get it. Then meanwhile, studios pour all this money into potential blockbusters that never even ever get published. Being risk-averse is just not very smart.
Yeah, I don't know. I wrote this in an article recently about this very thing. I said sometimes not taking risks is the riskiest move of all.
I think E3 this year was, they were in its making efforts to show that they're trying. But it’s very feeble.
I have to say on the gender side, I see a little inkling of hope. I was so thrilled to walk into the show floor and see the giant poster of Faith from Mirror’s Edge. I thought "Okay, we're getting somewhere here." The new Tomb Raider game is supposed to be great in that respect. I guess Assassin’s Creed is getting it's shit together, and having women characters in their games again, after getting all that blowback from Assassin’s Creed Unity.
Yeah, I also saw that Charles Dickens is going to be available as DLC, which is something I think he would have really appreciated.
Charles Dickens, in a game?
In Assassin’s Creed.
As a character?
Oh, how cool is that.
I just thought it was a ridiculous thing that, because he infamously got paid by the word, and so you have to pay a little bit more to get him into the game. I thought it was funny, but probably not what they were intending.
It is funny. Anyway, I do see a little bit of improvement. I saw more women at E3 this year. And GDC there were lines in the women's restroom. Unbelievable. I was shocked, and overjoyed. I tweeted it. I never tweet.
I know, I didn't even think you were on Twitter.
I am hiding on Twitter, and I pop my head up every once in awhile, because the IndieCade social media team makes me. Every once in awhile if I have something to plug, I just put my game up when I got into Come Out and Play. Normally I just keep my head down, because Twitter is the devil’s playground.
Even so, everything at E3 has a number after it. They're just spending more and more money to make higher resolution versions of Doom. Really that's all it is. Nobody is coming up with any new ideas. They say they're innovating, and their idea of innovating is making different weapons.
How would you like to see that space get more creative? What would that look like in a very pragmatic sense?
If the videogame industry actually took a little bit of a lead from the film industry, and I hate to say that because the film industry is hideous in many ways. Especially the gender thing. There's this huge civil liberties case right now going on about gender discrimination in directing and producing.
Regarding the gender issues, if somebody said to me, "You know what, you're right. We're wrong, we're going to hire you to be the CEO of EA. What would you do differently?" Just taking a stab at that, hypothetically, as there's no ways this is ever going to happen, so I can say whatever I want.
So let's just say a headhunter who called me up like, "Look, we like your ideas. Come fix it." What I would do is I would say, look, there's plenty of room for these games, and we can keep making them, a few popular franchises that seem to have legs. Then let’s take the other umpteen billion dollars that we have, which is just going to making more polygons for the same games, and instead, let’s diversify. We’ll make some kids games, and some casual games. We’ll hire some female game designers, producers and marketers. The biggest trend in IndieCade right now is multiplayer single screen, essentially local multiplayer games. They are really hard to jury, but the party game is coming back.
But I think what they're speaking to is what I talked about in the beginning. The idea of the single-player game as aberration of history. People want to play games together. I were running a big game studio, I would say, "Let's make a whole division devoted entirely to local multiplayer games." What can people do together on the same screen in their living room? I would look at alternative genres like Adventure Games. These are huge in the indie scene. Let's bring that genre back. They’re actually much cheaper to make. Look at Gone Home. I was just playing Lumino City, which was at E3. Telltale, and Tale of Tales have been making these types of games for years. This genre has been underdeveloped. There's a huge area that we could work with in that space. And adventure games are popular with kids, women and baby boomers as well.
Then there are just quirky games, like you probably saw Wattam in our booth at E3, the new [Keita] Takahashi game. Playful games, experimental games, sandbox games. I'm so sick of people using the term sandbox in this ridiculous and completely meaningless way. Basically when people say that Grand Theft Auto is a sandbox, I'm like, "How? I don't see it." A sandbox is a place you can explore, and you can try new things. Minecraft is a sandbox, Grand Theft Auto is not a sandbox. But we should have more sandbox games. That's what Wattam really is, and I would love to see more games like that. Look at how successful Minecraft has been. It’s the third best-selling game after Tetris, and Wii Sports. That should tell you something. There’s a huge untapped market here. I would love to see more short play games. Why must you spend 40 hours playing a videogame? You can play Journey all the way through in two hours. This is brilliant. It's so much cheaper to make a 2-hour game than a 40-hour game, and it may be a quarter the price, but you still are making a much larger profit.
Forget about all this high poly-graphic stuff. That's been overdone. Let's work on making more nuanced aesthetics. Journey, which is really what they are calling “Triple Indie,” was actually high budget compared to a lot of indie games. But that money went into the sand. It’s a more nuanced aesthetic than the mainstream obsession with “realism,” which never really fulfills its promise anyway. I want to see more games like Little Big Planet. That's a sandbox, and again, a top seller for Sony. It’s such a waste really, of technology, of creativity, and of intellect, that we're not making more Little Big Planets, and more Katamari Damacy, and more Sims. Where's the next Sims?
It's almost like you're saying, “Where is the sense of fun?”
Yes, where is the sense of fun? Years ago, I did some consulting for Walt Disney Imagineering. They have more money than God, and they use it to innovate. Frankly, they're building around these commercial properties, and propagating the Disney theme, or whatever, but they use it to innovate, to expand their audience. Why not, if you have all this money, which these guys do, why not do something interesting with it? You have all these smart, creative people, all you’re doing by asking them to remake the same game over and over again is rotting their brains. [Laughs.]
I remember one of my best students at Georgia Tech went on to get a job at EA, every game student’s dream. He comes back to talk to the class, and what he's been doing is designing brawling levels for Dante's Inferno. I wanted to cry, because I was like, "First of all, that's probably the worst adaptation of a game ever made." Oh, and there are so many other adaptations you could do, right? Where is the Downton Abbey of videogame? The most popular television show in America.
When I talking to this guy from the studio I mentioned earlier, I said, "You know, I just heard on the news that the Women's World Cup of soccer has had a 120 percent increase in viewership from the last time. Where is the Women's World Cup videogame?" He said, "Oh,FIFA, they just put women in the FIFA games." There was a girls’ basketball board game made by Parker Brothers in 1906. Where is the girls’ basketball videogame? It doesn't take a genius to realize that girls are playing soccer all over the world, and all of a sudden you're going to have all these new customers that you didn't have before, who might even go out and buy a PlayStation, just so they can play the Women's World Cup Soccer game.
These are the blinders that people have on because they're just not paying attention to what's happening in the real world.
They play too many videogames, maybe.
I think that may be true of some of my students when the first get to school. I have to train them out of that.
No, but I mean, you're right in a way. Because to me, the biggest encumbrance to the human mind in general is getting too married to what you perceive as your expertise. They think they know what they're doing, and so they just keep doing it over and over again. My philosophy is to take risks. I look where the lemmings are running and run the opposite direction. I’ve done pretty well with that approach so far.