My name is Chris Melissinos. I am 46 and I reside in the Washington, D.C. area.
My goodness. I guess that I have always been “involved” in the games industry as it has been a been a lifelong pursuit, but my most recognizable work in the games industry was through my time as the chief gaming officer for Sun Microsystems and as the creator and curator of the "Art of Videogames" exhibit for the Smithsonian American Art Museum. All told, that’s, goodness, close to 20 years now I've been in and around the games industry professionally.
But, as I said, videogames have been part of my life for as long as I can remember.
Impossible to nail down any one particular area but professionally, it's as the chief gaming officer and as the creator and guest curator for “The Art of Videogames” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
I did want to ask a little bit more about your background before we got into the Smithsonian. You had won the ambassador award in 2013 from the Game Developers Choice Awards. For readers who aren't familiar with what that is, is that part of the Game Developer's Conference, or what was that part of?
The Game Developers Choice Awards is an award show that takes place each year at the Game Developers Conference. Award winners are selected by those people working with and creating video games. It’s a peer recognition award, much like the Oscars are for film.
Right. Well, wait, what does that make The Game Awards, then?
Oh, you mean The Game Awards that was created and run by Geoff Keighley? That is focused on awards given by both a jury and the public, more like the People’s Choice Awards. The Game Developers Choice Awards are basically the awards that are given by industry or people within the game industry to people in the games industry versus a more commercial or inclusion of a public vote.
Additionally, The Game Developers Choice Awards recognizes a variety of aspects that affect the video games industry and community. These awards include the Ambassador Award, The Seamus McNally Award, The Pioneer Award, and so on, in addition to best new game, best new studio, etc.
I mean, that was something I wanted to ask you about.
Being given an award that recognizes you as an ambassador, which speaks to your efforts in trying to reach across that divide I mentioned before -- people who feel they are inside or outside the audience for games. What is it you think they may not be aware of the way people "outside" videogames perceive it?
Well, I think, first and foremost, that videogames are still observed by many on a purely cursory level. Brushing off videogames as a trivial medium misses the point of this medium. Videogames, by their nature, require a greater amount of time that must be spent with them in order to fully understand their weight, their impact.
Additionally, I think there continues to be a lack of understanding regarding the technical requirements, the programming capabilities, the artistry that actually that goes into the creation of videogames. Whereas, people that are in the industry do understand, "Well, the reason that a game looks like X, Y, or Z is because of these limitations that we had in technology or in tools or in programmer understanding." I think it's easier for somebody looking externally at the craft of game development to say, "Well, the game should have been this or the game should have had more levels or the game should have had more art."
Well, okay, but the developer may say, "Yes, but those things are incredibly complex." And sometimes the expectation of game players, may not match the reality of the art of the game development. Right? And I think that's probably one of the biggest disconnects, just not understanding how extraordinarily complex making a modern videogame is and effectively communicating those challenges to the game-playing audience.
I did also want to ask you about Sun. Game companies are at this intersection where they're sort of tech companies but they're also production companies. How is a game company -- how is the way they work different from the way a tech company works?
In many ways, videogame companies, from a technology perspective, are very similar to other companies that utilize computers through which to communicate. They have similar development needs, production cycles, etc. But that’s where the similarities end for at the end of the day. Videogames are an artform that engages. The totality of the videogame is in the engagement and internalization of the game by the player.
And, while videogames rely on constantly improving technology, the success of the game does not entirely rely upon it. If a game uses a beautiful engine, displays beautiful graphics, but the gameplay is horrible it doesn't matter how pretty it is. Right?
And so unlike standard technologies like, let's say, app servers or even website development -- yes, website development may have a particular aesthetic that goes to it and it has a particular workflow that must be adhered to and guide people through the mechanics of that website, when they leave that site or leave that location, it's not a story that they're taking with them. It isn't part of culture that they are then appropriating or incorporating into other facets of media that they would consume.
Videogames are different as they are not solely about the technology that is used to present them. The technology is just a means to an end. It is just the canvas upon which the game designers and artists paint, it is the foundation through which they tell their stories. And if the stories don't hold together, if the gameplay doesn't hold together, it doesn't matter how good the technology is.
Internally at companies in both columns, what do they have similar as far as logistics or thought processes?
As I stated, they would have solve for some of the same things. They need to have technical competency. If we're building an online service it needs to be resilient, stable and scalable. Both types of companies need to provide excellent customer service, protect consumers personal information, etc. So all of the same technical underpinnings that any company would require in bringing a computer-based or software-based application, program, or service to market are the same. But on top of that, the game itself has to be able to hold together as a compelling game. If the game is no good, the technology underneath is of little consequence.
One of the biggest challenges that videogame companies face is that the manner in which videogames are developed and delivered to market is vastly different than other forms of media. So, I'll give you an example.
Let’s say that I am a company producing a television program. After we are done fiIming and editing the show, it’s ready to be distributed. I can take that same piece of video and transcode it into a variety of different formats, push it out to a multitude of end points without having to reflim that television program with a camera designed to take video for a six-inch mobile phone screen or refilm with another camera designed to take video for a 50-inch television or a television by Sony or a television by Visio, etc. It's one piece of content that happens to work across all of those platforms.
Which means you can many different screens, many different services that can be leveraged to create an economic pathway that allows a director to continue to create more television programming. Videogames do not enjoy the same opportunities as static content does in finding an audience across many devices for a single creative work. If I bring a game out for the PlayStation 4 and all of a sudden I decide I want it on the Wii U, I have to invest further money, resource, time, and effort into getting that product to that additional platform. If I then want to scale it down to a mobile phone, I have to invest additional time, money, and resources to make that available there. So, the economics in games are much more complex than other forms of media.
But, even with the distribution and execution challenges that videogames face, they are still the second most used form of entertainment in the U.S. Video is first, videogames are second. Even in second place, videogames generate the majority of the revenue for both the iOS App Store and the Google Play store. Overwhelmingly the majority of the revenue comes from games.
Videogames sit in this very weird place that no other form of media or art occupy.
A lot of these bigger American tech companies like HP or Xerox, I'm always curious to what extent is their culture informed by Japanese business culture. I don't know if you've ever gotten a sense of that or can speak to that, but I thought with some of your résumé you could field parts of that.
Yeah. I couldn't speak to other companies that I haven't worked for or with. In my experience in working at Sun Microsystems, it was really defined by more than a West Coast culture. It was really early technology innovation culture. And in many respects, it was a global culture.
I think that in videogames, however, we tended to look towards Japan in terms of the kind of creativity or games that didn't look like the type of games that American developers had typically created. While this may have been the case in the 1980’s and 1990’s, today videogames carry a global culture.
While many games carry a regional culture, some transcend any identifiable culture to become something for everyone. I mean, look at Mario, for example.
I've heard of that.
Yeah, we've all heard of that! Super Mario Brothers set the standard for how side scrolling games would emerge. Would you say that Super Mario World feels like a game from Japan? It may have the sensibility of its creator, right? Shigeru Miyamoto. But it is not grounded in any one particular culture. It has a universal quality to it, even a universal language to it.
And so I think from a developer's perspective it isn't necessarily that we want to wholesale copy the stylistic notes that Japan based developers reflect in their games, it's, "We're going to look to the artists that are doing something unique and different." And those artists, now more than ever, are global.
Oh, and yes, Shigeru Miyamoto is a design God whose childlike wonder and approach would be revered regardless of his nationality.
Do you think it's an omnicultural thing, though, even before it's translated? Like, what beyond the text is universal other than it's intended to be consumed by multiple markets?
I think that because, for example, in a game like Super Mario Bros., the way the game unfolds, the mechanics of the game actually teaches the player without any text in terms of what to do. And it's done through this kind of experiential modality.
So when there's a single goomba coming towards you it's like, "Well, what happens if I touch this? Oh, I can't do that." And then I accidentally jump and you go, "Oh, this is how I'm to defeat enemies." When you accidentally hit the block above you -- I think it was Chris Kohler that actually pointed this out, that it's almost impossible to miss the first mushroom block because of the way the goomba in Mario is presented to the player, that the way it works that when you jump, you're going to hit that first block and a mushroom is going to come out. So it is universal in that it doesn't require any specific written or spoken language to teach the game’s mechanics. The mechanics present themselves through this universal language of gameplay that kind of transcends any language barrier.
And so that's where when I say it's universal it truly is. Anyone can participate equally in that experience regardless of your language. Now, when you get into really story-driven games, of course because it's art people are appropriating the things that they understand. So they're appropriating things from their culture that are more resonant with their particular tastes and worldview, the society in which they live, etc. It's reflective of the artist, not necessarily the_country_ that the artist comes from.
What did being Sun's chief gaming officer entail?
Oh my goodness, where to start? [Laughs.] At the time that I started proposing Sun Microsystems get involved in the videogames industry -- this is in late 1990's -- and what had happened was the world was just really kind of waking up to the power of connected PCs. Sun was very cutting edge -- one of the early employees at Sun, John Gage, had coined the term, "The network is the computer." Games were really nowhere on their radar, so I had to convince them.
I'm mainly saying this for readers, but this is Netscape era, right?
Exactly. I remember when they dropped a black-and-white monitor on my desk at Sun and I was using Mosaic, the precursor to Netscape, to surf the web. That's how far back I with this, right?
I remember Netscape, a lot of Java applets, and the thing that we were supposed to be impressed by were objects on reflective surfaces.
Oh, good lord. Yup. Absolutely.
So this is the era we're talking about.
Right. Or animation on a website: "Look! That banner animated!" Absolutely.
So I was at Sun at the time and I remember sitting and watching a presentation by Bill Joy and he was demonstrating a new technology called Jini. So, what Jini allowed you to do was to take any device, plug it into a network, and then every other device on the network could see it and use it without using drivers.
So, imagine plugging in a projector and then all of a sudden on your laptop computer pops up this alert that says, "This display of 640 by 480 with 16 million colors is now available for you to use." And when you would unplug the projector it would just go away. And literally, it was like magic. Right? We hadn't seen anything like this before happen and the potential to create these ad hoc networks that could come into being as needed and then kind of float away as you're done with them was amazing.
The first thought I had was, "If I could allow a developer to plug a PlayStation and a Sega Saturn into the same network, we could double their audience. We could create this second pathway for a piece of content to connect across the network. What if I could do that for three, four, five different platforms? And then offer game developers the ability to reach multiple audiences across multiple devices without the dependency of having to write for each specific device?"
And that was the genesis of my thought. And so I pursued that for two years inside of the company to no avail. To no avail. I just got so tired of pushing that I just went directly to Scott McNealy, the CEO of Sun, and said, "Why are we not doing this?" And after about a 40-minute conversation he said, "Okay, let me get back to you."
And three weeks after that point they moved me over to corporate to focus on video games for Sun Microsystems. The things that we were focused on were cross-platform technologies that allowed developers to write to a common, universal layer like Java and be able to get their games on multiple platforms without having to rewrite them, then allow them to connect to multiple platforms on the server side without having to worry about the connection.
And so we released a lot of technology that focused on mobile, that focused on server, and there were tons of products that came out -- I shouldn't say tons. There were enough products that came out and games that came out that utilized Java and Java is still in widespread use today both on the server side for online games but, look, you know, the biggest independent game in history, Minecraft? It's written entirely in Java.
You had mentioned Saturn and PlayStation. How receptive were those platform holders to your pitch and taking a look at it?
Well, that's an interesting one. By the time we got rolling on Java technology in videogames, Sega decided to get out of the hardware business. But before they had done so, Java had already been ported to the Sega Dreamcast. It was already in use in several different products, specifically for the web components of them. So games like _Daytona_and anything that was using the Planet Web web browser, which was the standard browser for the Dreamcast, had access to Java. By the time we had really pushed this concept forth, Sega had gotten out of the space and Sony was moving onto their next platform, the PlayStation 2.
Sun had actually announced with Sony that they were going to bring Java to the PlayStation 2. There was a big event at JavaOne in 2001, and was even covered by the show X-Play on TechTV. So, they were receptive to the concept but the problem was that it has to be more than a concept. It really needed very focused technology development to make these things happen. And we realized that in the console space, because of the nature of consoles, it was not gonna be the place where Java could be most effective or widely accepted. So, we shifted our position to focusing on mobile, PC, and server side technologies. And there, we had some wonderful success.
We actually released three important pieces of technology to the games industry. There were Java bindings for OpenGL, for high performance graphics, called JOGL. Java bindings for audio called OpenAL. And then there was Jinput, that allowed you to plug in controllers and these sorts of things and be able to use them across a wide variety of platforms. And those made their way out into the community through javagaming.org, which is the website that I founded back in 2000. And it still stands today as the largest community of Java game developers on the web. It's also where I first got to meet Markus [Persson], Notch, right? Who created _Minecraft, and watched him build his expertise in Java over the years until he finally released Minecraft.
This thing you're talking about with consoles and the lack of receptiveness, is it more a thing of circumstances or do you think it's indicative of consoles being risk-averse?
I actually don't think it's either. I think it's that consoles by their nature don't -- how do I put this? They are not the most malleable of platforms.
Because they're designed to be closed box systems. That's the advantage of consoles. I can release it once and whether it's a year old or five years old, as a developer I know that this game is going to work on every single one of them that are sold.
Yeah. It's still gonna work on every machine.
Exactly. So, anytime you introduce some technology that could force some instability or something that's unknown -- remember, these boxes continue to become more and more complex. The amount of unknowns just grow exponentially. So it is really about -- I think you're correct, it is about being a bit risk-averse. It's about making sure that: Look, we have a hardened and tested pathway for developers to be able to quickly get their games done and minimize the amount of issues that they can have along the way.
So, tell me about how you came to be involved with the Smithsonian.
Sure. So, back in 2009 I believe it was, I was invited to the Smithsonian for an event called Smithsonian 2.0 and it was an event held by Wayne Clough, who had just come over to run the Smithsonian -- the entire Smithsonian organization, which is an organization of about 13 different museums and a variety of different media components. It's a massive, massive organization. So I was one of about 20 industry technologists that were invited in to talk to the museum and to the curators about how to best utilize technology to have a better rapport with patrons that would come into the museum. I was participating in my capacity as the chief evangelist for Sun Microsystems, which is the position I held for the final two years at the company. So, it wasn't just evangelizing games, it was evangelizing the importance of technology and how we use it to better society and education and all sorts of things.
And I got in there and started having a conversation with a few people, specifically in the art-museum side and it turns out that they had a real interest in understanding videogames: "We hear a lot more about these things and we're doing some things with an alternate reality game that this woman Georgina Goodlander had been building." Georgina wound up being my counterpart at the museum to help me with the exhibition.
And they said, "So what about videogames?" And they brought me in after that event to come back and have a 30-minute meeting with the head of the American Art Museum, Elizabeth Broun, and it turned into a three-hour discussion.
So, we spent about the next six months discussing how videogames truly are an artform and why should we even consider their examination as works of art, these sorts of things.
And after about six months of constantly phoning in and spreading the story and continuing to answer questions and present it, I was able to finally convince them that videogames were worthy of examination as an artform.
What were some of their reservations or what was making them reluctant?
Oh, sure. Of course. It's, "Well, wait a minute!" The standard line is, "This is for 13-year-old antisocial boys, right? Isn't that what videogames are?" And so what I try to remind people of is that videogames were the first time that computers had ever made their way into American households. The first appropriation of computer technology into our lives came in the form of videogames. And they were gifted to a generation that grew up with these first very simple, very anemic, but incredible machines.
And I happen to be part of that generation, the generation that I call the "bit baby" generation because we're the first ones with them. And what I remember so vividly as a kid, learning to program and having these machines was that this is a world and a universe that I could control. Now, when you're a child, you have very little control or agency over any of the things that you're required to do in your life. You're told what to eat, when to go to bed, what clothes you're gonna wear, when you have to be in school, all of these things.
But inside the videogame, inside the computer, I could choose to be whomever I wanted to be. If I chose to apply myself to the understanding of these machines, I could type into existence the stories I wanted to tell and the experiences that I wanted to have. It was empowerment.
So, those kids that grew up in the '70s and '80s and started playing games never stopped. And for the very first time in the history of videogames, we now have people who grew up playing games raising kids on a diet of these games and electronic entertainment. For the first time in American households, we have two generations of gamers under the same roof. In some cases, three generations. Give it another generation or two forward and videogames will be as prevalent as any other form of entertainment and in fact more prevalent than most.
What were their reservations? Was it anything beyond thinking they were for kids and didn't merit looking at?
That was basically it?
No, no. The other piece was, "Well, wait a minute. When we're looking at these videogames, shouldn't we be focusing on artists who draw inspiration from videogames and create new forms of art to reinterpret those?"
And the reason that I suspect that some have this perspective is because those artists were creating their artwork in very traditional forms that were understood. They would either paint or they would sculpt versus looking at a videogame and not realizing that the 3D models in the game are every bit as sculpted as a sculpture in real life. That the matte paintings that go into games originate in oil on canvas type of paintings in an art studio. That narration and orchestration and character arcs and illustration -- all of these things that we look at as traditional forms of art combine to create something bigger inside the videogame.
So, it was a matter of teasing those pieces apart and having them understand that all of the things that they're looking for and trying to throw their arms around from an artform perspective are inside of these videogames. And so my response to their statement was, "I understand your perspective but to me that's the equivalent of asking an abstract artist to paint the Mona Lisa and replace it in the Louvre for the original. So how could the original work that inspired this new artwork be less important than the artwork it inspired?"
I've noticed, too, that many of these exhibits will feature commercially released games but tend not to include artists who explore the medium for making art. Like, Cory Arcangel and Nicholas O'Brien. Do you have any insight into why that is?
Sure, because I think that to only focus on that side for games as art misses the point.
It's that the work that a Cory Arcangel is doing, where it's his own commentary on videogames, right? How is the message that Cory is submitting through his artwork more important than the work of Hideo Kojima, or his messages about anti-war and the failure of diplomacy, through his Metal Gear games?
How is somebody who is a "traditional artist," how is their voice or their story or their work more valuable than the work that inspires them?
Oh, I don't know if it's more. Why does it have to be an either/or?
No, no, it doesn't have to be either/or. You're absolutely right. But, in the case of this exhibition, it was about accessibility of the artwork. It's about finding the content and the art that the public, that general society had appropriated into their living rooms and may not have realized that what they were engaging with was artwork.
What have you done in your career that made you feel qualified to step up and say, "Okay, Smithsonian, I got this?"
That's a great question.
I have no formal training in -- I have no art-history background.
Well, this is what's going to be true for a lot of people and things in videogame history, in that it has been away from the scrutiny of mainstream society. So anyone who's going to step up and do something trying to legitimize it or bridge a gap, how could you have been trained for it?
That's right. That's the point, is that my training comes from fact that I remember. I remember what it was like to grow up with those anemic machines and have to go ahead and use my imagination to fill in the gaps. So I knew that the three blocks onscreen here were really this car that I was driving or the fantastic “gameplay concept” illustrations that were depicted in the magazines or the story books that came with the earliest games.
It's being around the process of game development. It's about talking to and understanding the point of view from the designers and the developers and their struggles with technology to make the stories that they wanted to create. It's about teasing those bits out of the work and helping people to find connection to the important statements that are trying to be made in some cases. And so, it helps people find a different point of connection, to look at games differently. Do I have any formal training? No. The only training I have is that I've been immersed in the technology, culture and profession for my whole life.
And I understand what they meant to me and for many kids like me growing up with them. And my goal was to be able to help illuminate some of that thinking and allow people to find it within themselves and go, "I thought I was the only one!" Right? It's like, "No, you're not the only one! We were all there!"
Did you have meetings with the Smithsonian where they laid out what they're looking for in an exhibit and the rigorous internal checks or questions they feel they have to answer for any inclusion or addition to any of their collections? I'm basically curious to hear about times or instances where their knowledge or wisdom from other branches of the museum popped up for videogames, the sorts of questions or challenges you remember them raising to you. What do you remember?
Because this was an exhibition, which is a limited engagement and not an addition to their collection, we had more freedom to explore the space. Additionally, the museum placed their trust in that I would strikethe balance between the message and the needs of the museum. This trust was formed over months of dialog and very frank conversations. There were very little challenges to what we wanted to build.
From our email thread, I was re-reading it before we spoke and I may be mis-remembering but we had talked a little bit about MoMA and the approach they took.
You had said someone got it wrong, and I wasn't sure if you were talking about them or something they said. Could you clarify?
Oh, sure. Absolutely.
So, one of the comments -- Paola Antonelli and those folks at the MoMA, they had reached out to me, along with several of us kind of in this space to say, "Hey, this is a whole new medium for us and it's not a medium that we have typically dealt in. Do we even have the right mix of games in here? Are we looking at this correctly?"
And so I and I imagine others like me in the games industry -- historians, and these sorts of things -- provided some of that guidance and commentary to the MoMA. But one of the things that they said in the piece that you directed me to was that the approach that we took was a crowdsourced approach where the public got to decide what was going to be in here, what was going to be in the Smithsonian's exhibition.
And that's not entirely true.
Well, your process, if I'm remembering correctly was internally you had selected 240 titles and then you did have a vote. Is that correct?
Yeah. We did have a vote. Absolutely. Absolutely.
But, this is the reason for doing so and why it's different than -- it's not a popularity contest that won. This is the difference.
In the structure of the Art of Videogames exhibition, the core narrative is that there are three voices in videogames. The first is the voice of the designer or the author. They have a story they want to tell and they chose the medium through which to tell it. And they hold together their authoritative voice. Even though videogames are interactive, a designer or storyteller starts you where you they want to start you and they will end you where they want to end you. And so, even though you get to make these small choices along the way that personalizes the artwork for the individual, the authority of the author is retained.
And it's the only medium that allows for that to occur. Right? Have you seen The Force Awakens yet?
I'm not gonna spoil anything.
When you go and sit down and see it you'll say, "Remember when this happened?" I will say, "Yup! I remember when that happened." And you and I will have the same cadence of experience.
In videogames, we can take entirely different paths and start at the same beginning and arrive at the same conclusion. The second voice is that of the mechanics of games. When you and I were talking about Super Mario Bros., how is this universal? Because it doesn't require any specific language through which to teach the universal concepts. Right? It's, "How do I move? How fast does Mario move if I hold down the button? What happens when I jump? What happens I hold it longer?" It is literally the mechanical voice of the game that dictates how you are to engage it.
The third voice is that of the player themselves. It's in the playing of the game that the art emerges because for you and I, going through Final Fantasy VII, we may have different affinities to different characters and may take something different away from it. Even though it's the same game, you and I are coming at it from two different positions.
Okay. In order to hold true to those three tenets, I could not have picked -- my 80 games would have been Chris' favorite picks over the past 40 years, right? But that would not hold true to the third tenet. If we're really holding true that these games allow for that personal expression, then I want to make sure that we are also representing the expression of people who love games as much as I do.
So, what I did was instead of picking 80, we picked 240.
And we allowed people to pick one of three games within each sub-genre for each platform.
So, regardless of which games won I would still be able to tell exactly the same narrative that I had in mind. Exactly the same narrative that I set out. So it wasn't a popularity contest. It was about allowing people to participate in the expression of which games were most important for us collectively. And they're not the first ones, by the way, to kind of misunderstand this. I've had several reporters write to me and go, "Oh yeah, it was like in American Idol." No. It was not at all a popularity contest.
In fact, some of the games that people expected to win didn't even show up.
NPR called it a People's Choice Awards and they said it felt generic. Which I'm sure you saw.
Oh, absolutely. But that's okay.
I'm not looking to start something between the Smithsonian and NPR.
Listen, man. Right now I'm staring at a stack of one, two, three, four -- six books of all the PR that was done around that time. I have no problem with people saying it was a bit shallow and it should have been deeper because this is the first time we've had videogames on this stage. You can't come running into culture kind of swinging and flailing and expect to be heard.
What we wanted to be able to do was to present these things that people are familiar with and say, "Did you understand that what you were engaging with when you played MissileCommand is actually one man's interpretation of the United States' position during the Cold War?"
Right? So, you can't do that unless you are respectful of the material and the people that are coming to see it.
Maybe this will sound like an obtuse or absurd question, but for people reading this who maybe have never played a videogame, why does any of this matter? Why preserve videogames in a museum? Why?
Sure. We could say that for any piece of art: Why?
But the answer is because playing games are part of what makes us human. We have been playing games and we know that we as human beings have been playing games since the beginning of our recorded history. Playing games is one way that we pass on tradition and we communicate our history, it's how we find competition, it's how we find new forms of expression, and videogames are a natural output of technology meeting that very old -- among the oldest -- traditions that we have as a species.
Right? So, when we look at videogames, the point here is we can't dismiss them on their surface. It's very easy to look at a videogame on the surface and be dismissive of it without truly understanding the message behind it. And I think that the most important thing -- well, I shouldn't say the most important thing. _One_of the most important things about videogames is that they truly represent an alternate universe that sits behind glass. We can't be in it, but we can affect it. There's no other medium that allows us to do this. None.
Here's the thing I'm curious about. You do run into tension or resistance not so much the old, "Are they art?" but just, how deep are you allowed to go as a fan or as a writer or as any sort of outside entity? David at the Library of Congress who connected us -- he told me that he felt like in the preservation work they're doing, that game companies don't really consider their output to be culture. What are your thoughts on that?
What is deemed art by a society may not be deemed as art by the artist. Likewise, there are many people out there that claim to be artists that produce work that society has no interest in whatsoever. It would not hold up as art. There are other works that come out that when people say, "This is art!" and the artist says, "I had no idea I was making art!"
In many ways, the appropriation of content and art into culture is beyond the control of the artist that created it. You may not think you're creating something that the world will hold in high regard, but the fact that a piece may speak so deeply to a significant portion of society, that they deem it to be art, is what matters.
I mean, do you have writers and media or the audience trying to intellectualize things that -- I think what David was talking more about was just game companies wouldn't cooperate with the Library of Congress.
Sure. So the question is did we run into similar situations?
And by the way, I know David, right? And I know about the struggles for them and the work that he's done.
Here's what it is. Look, I speak to a maturation that is required on behalf of the industry itself. Look, because a lot of these things or enough of this work was done as commercial work, a lot of times the people that were typically running those organizations may not have viewed their work as having value beyond the revenue that it generated.
Now, here's the old saying, that all art is commercial art, right? I always like to point out that without The Saturday Evening Post, you don't have Norman Rockwell as an American institution. And you can't argue that because it's how he became known, right? Just because art may have the ability to create revenue or to be commercialized doesn't take away any of the value of it as art.
But, to that point, many companies, especially earlier on, didn't understand that there may be this cultural significance or value to what was created. This isn't unique to videogames, though. Go back and look at television, look at all of the Johnny Carson tapes that had been recorded over by the network, right? Because it was cheaper for them to reuse that tape than it was to go ahead and purchase new ones. And so sometimes when we have a medium that comes into existence like this and it comes in as rapidly as it has. I mean, videogames are only 40 years young, approximately. we don't necessarily understand the longer term implications or the longer term cultural significance of it. And that adjustment takes place over time.
Totally, but here we're talking about game companies and how they're behaving in the 21st century, not only the 20th century. Why hasn't this shifted if places like the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress are now alleging they are legitimate?
Because videogames are a highly complex artform that, sometimes, requires significant money for them to come into existence. So, while the vast majority of videogames are expected to generate revenue, that does not put them at odds with them also being works of art.
One area that we see the artistic examination of videogames is in the independent game development community. Games like Inside, That Dragon, Cancer, Life is Strange, or Gone Home push the boundaries of narrative games and reflect both the game designer’s intent and the morality of the players themselves. Or, games like The Last of Us that many in the industry hold up as an example of AAA-produced art.
Additionally, more and more game developers are cataloging their work, producing supplemental materials, like The Art of Journey, and going to great lengths to preserve their work for future examination. In fact, Blizzard, at one time, had an honest to goodness librarian on staff tending to the entirety of the World of Warcraft universe.
We are still a young medium. We are still learning how to preserve and protect our culture and heritage.
You were talking about Super Mario Bros. I always point to the Wii collection for the 25th anniversary where it had a CD that came with it that one-second tracks on it from different sound effects and it had a supplemental booklet. But the booklet just had interviews with Miyamoto where we just got, like, one sentence per topic from him. It is odd that we're however many years into the lifetime of the medium and still a lot of basic things about even basic creative choices are a complete mystery and a lot of expertise is just gated. We'll never know. And that's not something a museum can necessarily break through and do.
That's right. And I'll tell you what: When we take a look at the value of this, there's a game out right now that takes place during World War I. I'm forgetting the name of it. I was playing it on the PlayStation 4 and it's an absolutely beautiful game that's 2D, side-scrolling kind of game and it's puzzle-based.
There's not a lot of World War I games. If you had said World War II, I wouldn't have had a clue.
Throw a stone, right? So I was sitting down in our family room playing it when it was released on PlayStation 4 and I was going through the game, reading the materials it presented, and was fascinated that the scenarios that they were describing in there were based on facts and historical documents. They worked with these historical societies to preserve something. And I was so moved by this story of the son going off and then the father having to go off and find him during wartime. It was incredibly moving. Now, you can dismiss it on the surface and say, "Eh, it's a puzzle game! And it just so happens to use some real world facts and historical facts about the era in which it's set. That's a neat game." You could also say, "My goodness, look at what men and women that were engaged in this conflict had to endure. Look at the sacrifices that men and women had to make and look at the personal choice that was taken from them." You can completely dissect it that way as well. It's such a new medium that we're still trying to understand it and discover it and figure out what it is.
So, for my part, what I want them to do -- and I think we achieved it -- is to help leave the questions, to hold these games up and say, "Beyond what you see on their surface lies humanity. Lies the the people and their stories and their lifetime of experiences and these things they wanted to tell. They sit within this construct."
So, this is not just a side-scrolling puzzle game. This is conveying through that medium different facets of war and the impact that it had on different people at different stations within that time frame. I think that's extraordinary. It's absolutely extraordinary. I don't know any other medium that allows you to have some agency in unpacking that message and understanding how those things played out. Even people sitting in the same room observing it will all take away something a little bit different for themselves.
There was a comment from MoMA in my interview, I asked him what it will take for videogames to be seen as culturally legitimate or as a viable form of expression. He gave me what I think is very much a museum curator's answer which is that it's just a matter of time. I think when you're sitting in a place like MoMA, shifts in culture tends to collect like twigs in a river.
Given that you said your background is not being a museum curator, what more do you think it will take than the sheer passage of time? You did mention multiple generations living in the same house and we'll get to a point where it'll be there, but other than the passage of time what do you think it will take?
Well, it's funny because I share that same perspective. In fact, I even finish the lecture that I typically do at the museum openings with, "It just takes time."
This is something that time tends to solve.
What is that time filled with?
I could make the argument that we're already there. That we're already there. So let's dissect it, then.
What eventually tips its hand? Is it when the majority of people in society do this activity? They do. We know that 70 percent of the people in the United States play video games on a regular basis. The majority already does. Is it when we have gender equality in terms of people that play? We do. Half the people that play games are women. And the single largest group of game players online are women over 35.
There are more people playing over the age of 50 than there under the age of 18. We know this. So what is it? Is it popularity? Okay, we already know that. Is it multi-generational? Absolutely. In some ways, they may have slipped under people's notice? Right.
Right? But what I find incredibly encouraging is the number of parents I see playing with their kids. The stories I hear about people being able to, through nostalgia, kind of bring back some of these older games, reintroduce them to their children and find this point of connection that they never had before -- and I've observed this firsthand by just going to the museum exhibition and watching people.
Sometimes I'd go downtown to see how the exhibition was doing, how people were acting, and what's happening there. And I can tell you that, consistently, it was not little kids coming in here that were freaking out. It were people in their thirties. Consistently. Literally, people coming in and going, "Oh my God! I remember when my grandfather bought this for me. I remember why this game was so important."
I saw this mother who was playing Pac-Man and she started bawling after playing it. I said, "What's wrong?"
She goes, "I used to play this with my brother and he had passed away and it brings back all these memories of playing this with him and blah blah blah."
I mean, the connection that people have to this artwork -- it's hard to kind of put your finger on it and say, "Well, this is what tipped it and this is when this happened." I think in many ways, it already has. It's just been slowly kind of building over time. And again, as it becomes -- and it already has become -- acceptable in society to play games, we will eventually shuffle off the rest of the stereotypes about gamers.
You would hope. Right? Here's the reality: When we talk about, "Well, there are jocks that watch sports." And people go, "Okay, I have this mentality about jocks." Okay, well, that's not really true. My friends aren't jocks. I'm a sports guy and my friends certainly are. Right? It's not those guys versus them -- it's all of us. Everybody is a gamer. Right? It's just that we have to find the games that people want to play. And the great thing is that democratization of information and commoditization of technology means that there are more games for more people across more genres across more devices than at any other point in human history.
I hear people say something like what you just said a lot, a sort of victory battle cry that, “Videogames have won. Everybody is a gamer.” I’m never quite sure what that means -- what have videogames won? And if they won, then what lost?
It’s not that videogames have necessarily won anything. This mass adoption just makes the possibility space for what videogames can become that much more exciting. Because they are not dismissed as readily as before, because more people are engaging than before, means we have a larger number of people to engage with. If videogames have won anything it's that they are no longer marginalized by incorrect stereotypes. Videogames, like games throughout history, are a legitimate and welcomed form of expression and activity.
What are your thoughts on the dichotomy and tension between games wanting to have the legitimacy of the art label but none of the other higher, critical aspects that come when a thing is recognized as a piece or generator of culture?
I never said that videogames wanted to achieve this label. But, as I have stated before, sometimes labeling a particular work may be beyond the control or even desire of the artist who created it. As for games that strive to be “art games”, they welcome the deep critique comes with that territory. I would look to games by Jason Rohrer, who makes arthouse games like Passage and Between.
As for games that intend to have a broader audience, again, I don’t think most game developers or artists have a problem with a critique of their work. The problem arises when the critique is grounded in a fundamental lack of understanding of what the game is actually about, or the critic has not invested the time to actually play through the game to examine the message, or they approached it in a very pedestrian sort of way and never look beyond their own bias. If we are to truly examine and critique these works, they demand the same attention that other artforms do but have not been entirely afforded to videogames.
And what about the fact that many women or other groups of people still aren’t being treated well just for wanting to be around videogames?
That is something that the industry is making strides to address. More diversity in the workplace, better representation of different genders, cultures and points of view, etc. Likewise, media critics are actively pursuing that same change with dialog and shining light on what they feel is oppressive or needs better representation.
So if that's all true, why is it we still tension and anger over who videogames are for and who should be making them and who should be consuming them?
Because it's lazy. Right? It's easy. You go, "Oh, well, this thing must have happened because of that?" Well, life's a lot more complex than that. Right?
Listen -- correct me if I'm wrong but this is where this line of questioning typically goes, but you're not because obviously you play them and understand these things. But I would get, "The violence in videogames." Just like all movies are not The Godfather, not all videogames are violent.
And by the way, The Godfather's, what, No. 1 or No. 2 on the top movies in American culture? Okay. And you can look at a movie like The Godfather and say, "Well, it's a completely violent movie." Or you can look at The Godfather and say, "This is about passing of generations. This is about a family in turmoil and strife. This is about the unraveling of a culture that had lasted for so long." So on and so forth. So you can take so many positions on it. Same with games.
As a parent, I don't let my kids play those sorta things because there's so many great videogame experiences to have as a family that won’t have adult-oriented or objectionable content. Right?
Aside from being put into museums, how do you think videogames can bridge the gap to popular knowledge and appreciation?
Because videogames tend to break down things that are very complex into formats that we can easily and willingly digest them.
No, no, no, no. But I mean but aside from putting them into museums, how can you get people to see and understand that?
Oh. Well, again, as I say often is that people need to talk to their children. Talk to their friends around them that are playing videogames. I have this conversation quite often where people say to me -- once they find out what my background is and they find out my role in Java and all that stuff they go, "Oh my, Minecraft! They don't do anything but play Minecraft! How do we get them to stop playing Minecraft?"
So my response is, "Have you ever sat down and asked them to show you what they built?"
"Yeah, well, just looks like they built a tower."
"Ask them what they built. Ask them why they built it. Have them show you their process and I guarantee you they will talk your head off for hours."
And it's absolutely true because, again, it's easy to dismiss it on its surface and say, "Well, it's just a game. They just built a tower." Videogames demand and should demand our respect and our attention because they are not something you can understand by looking at them on the surface or on a passing glance. By their nature, they are interactive, and that means we have to apply time to it to understand them. We don't necessarily have to do the same thing with video because it's an encapsulated experience that progresses linearly and when it starts it starts and when it ends it ends.
Now, you can go back and watch the same two and a half hours over and over and over again and continue to dissect everything that's in that one particular window, that one particular frame of reference that a movie or content provides. Games don't have any of those limitations. And so it requires more of us. It just does. It requires more effort to understand them.
I don't see that as a negative. I see that as a positive. And we're already starting to see videogames be used in extraordinarily positive ways. Look at what videogames are being used for today: to better understand attention deficit or multitasking in the elderly, to help children better understand the importance of maintaining medicinal cadence and breathing techniques when taking cancer-treatment medication because it helps with the absorption of the medicine. Teaching children advanced mathematics through things like Dragonbox. Have you seen Dragonbox?
So, Dragonbox is a game that is played on the iPad and it teaches algebra. We'll have to double-check these facts but I believe this is the way it worked is in playing the same game, I think they took fourth graders and high-school students and they had to play through the same game scenarios and at the end of this 90 minutes, both groups were given three algebraic problems to solve and both of them could solve it with the same proficiency.
But we're just learning to understand these things. But, again, it's like, I go back and say it's because games are able to break down really complex scary things into pleasurable experience. Look, we are creatures of pleasure. Right? We will constantly seek pleasure over most anything else. Think about it this way: We complain about the price of gas going up and we complain about the price of food going up and this and that, but when it comes time to spend extra money on theater tickets or stuff we want to see, we rationalize it 55 different ways. Right? Nobody waits outside for the newest big screen TV, but you get lines around the block for iPhones and for PlayStation 4s.
Right? Because it's pleasure. Right?
This goes back to -- we'll take this out of videogames but more into the tech world. Years and years ago, I used to do consulting as a side job as a kid in college trying to make a couple of bucks. I was working with this architectural firm that was run by a very nice woman and her husband. And this is going back -- I forget the name of the cards but they were specific network cards with specific software just to be able to transfer files. And we were running them over phone lines. So this is how crazy this period of time was. [Laughs.]
So I go in and I set up this network, you know, five nodes in an office, printers, and all these things. And the woman who runs this architectural firm is scared to death to touch the computer. Scared to death. Brilliant woman. Scared to death.
So I'm like, "Okay, well, this is the spreadsheet that you're gonna use to keep track of everything."
"Oh, I can't do this I can't do this I can't do this."
Her and her husband were both avid golfers. So, I got in my car with her and we drove to Soft Warehouse, which was CompUSA before it was CompUSA, and we picked up a golf game. We brought it back to the office, and I had her walk through installing the game, starting it up, playing it, and everything else. And in about an hour we shut it down. She's like, "Oh, it's so great! The golfing is so good!"
I said, "Here's what you learned how to do: You learned how to create a directory, you learned how to navigate to it, you learned how to install software, you learned how to execute it, you learned how to make decisions in menus. Bink bink bink bink bink." She had no idea that what I had just done was taught her how to operate any of the software that she wanted to on her computer. Never had to have that conversation with her again.
Because I was able to use a game, it allowed her to overcome her fear and she was able to learn very rapidly the things she needed to operate her business. These are the same things we're going to continue to find uses for with games. Because they resonate with us and because they're edutainment, they can break down scary things into pieces that people can understand. How extraordinary is that? Right? What an amazing tool that we now have at our disposal. That it not just allows for the most amazing range of expression ever possible in human history but to teach and to break down barriers and to break down language and these sorts of things. It's awesome.
We talked a little bit about the media, but how well has your work with the Smithsonian been received by other archivists?
It's been received very well.
From Henry Lowood to Frank Cifaldi and to Dave and to the folks at The Strong -- because the community is very small, we tend to participate on some of the same panels at conferences and we have discussions about this stuff. They see it as No. 1 a good effort to bring forth videogames as an artform in American culture, to highlight some of this work, but also to help legitimize. Right? To help bring the stamp of legitimacy.
I will tell you, I have one of the artists who worked on Warcraft attended the museum opening and he came up to Georgina, the woman that I worked with at the museum, and said, "Listen, I just wanted to let you all know how appreciative I am that my work is in here." He said, "Look, I'm a classically trained artist. I have trained and studied all over the world, but I chose videogames as my medium because of how much videogames mean to me. So never before would I have thought my work would ever be in the Smithsonian, let alone my work on Warcraft."
And he said, "You have no idea what this means to me and my colleagues as artists to be legitimized this way." And that's what we're able to do and I even say in the opening remarks that is presented to visitors upon entering the exhibition, is that through the cultural lens of the museum we enable videogames to be examined as an artform. And so, in that regard, look, it's not the most comprehensive thing because I would never be able to tell the story to as many people as I would need to if I were to go in and create this massively deep exposition on, let's say, Will Wright and his process and all those things. You'd lose people in the narrative. What you need to do is touch them in a relevant manner that allows them to understand what they've been doing is bigger than what they thought.
You see it as a starting point.
It is a starting point. It's no where near the end.
But what's wonderful is the acceptance it's received by the public -- even people who are critical of it recognize its significance in terms of where it was and the breadth that it covered. Even if they have problems with it -- because you're never gonna please everybody and I'm fine with that. [Laughs.] Just like, look, I've spent a lot of time at the museum and I feel like I've gotten this master's program under my belt in terms of the art world and working with museums.
I mean, I’ve spent a lot of time in front of Jackson Pollock. It's like, "I get it. But does it move me? Not at all." But,did Shadow of the Colossus make me cry? Absolutely. To me, observing Pollock's work, I can respect it and I understand why it's held up as art. But it doesn't speak to me nearly as deeply as the games that I've chose to bring into my life.
You know what? I have one quick exercise for you, if I may.
Do you remember the first videogame system you had at home?
Uh, yeah. You know what, it was an Atari VCS.
Do you have any siblings you used to play it with or cousins or friends?
I have an older brother.
Awesome. Where was the VCS in your house? And you said VCS, right?
Which, by the way, congratulations, because most people call it the 2600 and that's not what it was. It was the VCS. So good man. It was the Video Computer System. And where was it located?
[Laughs.] That's the one with the wood panel, right?
Yeah. That's the one we had. It was in an upstairs spare room that was sort of like, "Okay, you kids can make as huge of a mess as you want." [Laughs.]
Do you remember where it was in the room? Was it on the floor? Was it on top of the TV? Where'd you have it?
I think it was on top of the TV next to the VCR because the VCR was top-loading.
Awesome. Do you remember where you sat when you played it?
Either on the floor right in front of it or there was a bed sort of across the room. But I'm pretty sure if I'm being honest it was on the floor as close to the TV as possible.
Awesome. Do you remember what the floor looked like in there?
It was just wood. Maybe some rugs. [Laughs.]
Do you remember all the same detail for your favorite book, album, or movie?
No. But I don't really have favorites in any genre honestly, but I definitely remember listening to vinyl records as a kid downstairs in that same house all the time. Reading books in the backyard under a big tree. But should I be worried I don't know all these details?
No. The reason you don't is because of what I said before, that videogames -- they represent an alternate universe. They shouldn't exist. But they do. And they exist through a very small point of view. They exist in a space that you can't touch. But you can affect it and it can communicate the result of that to you. There is no other form of media we have that allows that to occur. None.
And that's why it's so powerful, because it's more than just the game itself. It is everything about the experience that kind of wraps itself up in your memory of those things. Where you were, who you were with, your physical place, etc. All of these things were present as you peered into and participated in an alternate universe.
To flip the exercise back on you, why do you think it is then that people lose interest in them or age out of them? Why do you think that happens, then?
I think there are a variety of reasons: other things get in the way. Because as I said before, video games demand more of you than other forms of art. It doesn't really require any effort to watch a movie. But games do require effort, they do require your attention, they do require your examination. And so we may not have as much of that time to devote to those things as other things that we may deem more important.
However, what I find more often than not is that people that stop playing them get reintroduced to similar experiences they had when they were kids and the flame is just as bright, they become just as passionate about those games -- about the games from their golden era as Paul Barnett likes to say. And we never lose that love, right? You just may not have been able to devote the same time to it, which is why the rise of mobile gaming served society so well because now here is the ability to go in and quickly play these things in periods of micro boredom and just kind of touch that place again, touch that place in your heart again of, "Man, I remember when this was so much fun and oh my goodness I used to love spending time doing it."
But life gets in the way sometime. As a parent, what I find is that most of the games that I play now, I play with my kids. And that's where my next golden age -- again as Paul Barnett would say. Paul Barnett was a producer at Electronic Arts. My golden age has shifted from when I was a kid programming on my VIC-20 to being in college and playing with my friends to now in my forties playing with my kids. It's not that I or anybody else for plays them for any significant period of time stopped loving them. We just changed the way we interact with them. It doesn't mean that they don't have importance. Right? It's just that they demand more of us.
I know that you were touring the exhibit and the tour ends in two months, right?
Yeah. Yeah. It's opening down in Miami on the 21st, I believe, of January.
I'm curious how you feel tracking from the beginning to the end of that tour, how do you think games and people's attitudes about them have changed over that course of time? That's about two years, right?
Right. So, we started touring this in 2012 and I think that, by and large, games continue to be more widely accepted. We don't typically hear any more of the flashpoints of controversy that, "Oh, it must be games that did it." A lot of that has subsided because I think that it's been proven over and over again that games are a permanent part of our culture, our collective global culture. They offer more than what we first felt they offered or believed them to be and because those voices are becoming more diminished as the voices of people who understand the medium grow stronger.
So, I only see that continuing in that regard. But, you know, I'll give you a good example of the type of resistance or questions that I've experienced. And actually there's only one that I have, in all of the openings that I've gone to and all the lectures I've done, this one very well-meaning mother at a museum and I was giving a tour to about 50 people and she said, "Well, you know, these games, they're ruining my kids' lives and they're not doing good in school and I can't get them to shut the games off. What do I do about that?"
I'm like, "Well, every family is different and you have to kind of figure out where that balance is and so on and so forth."
"Yes, but it's just wasting time and it's just bad things they're learning to do."
Which I felt was odd that she was saying all of this while coming to the exhibition. And I said, "Again, every family is different and so on and so forth."
And then she said, "What will they ever become if all they do is play videogames?"
And I said, "Well, you're standing talking to me in this exhibition." I said, "I've been doing this since I was a child, too."
And then she looked around, shook my hand, said, "Thank you very much" and walked right out. Because -- it was one of these things of, "All I see is them wasting their time" versus them saying, "Well, wait a minute: Maybe there's something more here."
So, I think by and large the attitudes have changed. I think people recognize that videogames are, again, a permanent part of our culture, that there's so many more experiences and stories to be told through them, and that's only going to get better and better and better the further we go. I think VR and AR are gonna help accelerate that even further.
What do you think videogames have accomplished?
What have videogames accomplished? Videogames have given people the ability to see beyond their neighborhood. Videogames have allowed people to experience different points of view, allowed them to internalize different messages, take the position of other people, cultures, and experiences in a way that they've never had the opportunity to do across any other medium.
I think videogames have opened people's eyes to the -- well, how do I? Let me think about this one second. [Pause.] You know, suffice to say that without videogames, computers would not be as prevalent in society in the manner in which they have become prevalent as they are today. They just would not exist the way they are today. Videogames are the reason that people are able to bring computers into their lives and computer technology into their lives.
It's -- Ralph Baer actually said it best. He said, and I'm paraphrasing here, that for anybody to think that computers did not come into home -- he basically said people that think computers came into the home in anyway other than videogames must have recently arrived from another planet. Like, he's basically saying: Look, the reason computers are in our lives are because of games. And I absolutely believe that. Absolutely believe it. Because we were the first children that were given computers and those first computers were Pong machines.
And Atari VCSes and Colecovisions and Intellvisions and Amstrads and Fairchild Channel Fs and all of these. They were wondrous toys that had this massive possibility behind it. It was something we didn't understand, but we were willing to play and we were willing to discover them. And when the first computers made their way into the home, the Commodore VIC-20s of the world -- which, I'm sitting here right now, you can hear me. [Taps keyboard.] That's my my VIC-20 that I'm banging on right there.
[Laughs.] I believe you.
With three kilobytes of RAM available to me, in 3k we had to create these worlds. It was what fostered a love of technology, a passion to create stories within their spaces that allowed technology to take root in society. It's -- you know, I think basically, and somewhere in here is the answer is that computers and videogames allow us to see ourselves reflected in experiences we create in them. That's truly what it is. We see ourselves reflected in the games we choose to play, in the stories we want to be a part of, in the games we create. And videogames allow us to share that with the broader world and allow them to find connection to those same stories and those same experiences. That's what it's given the world. To have those experiences and see the point of view.
It's the most expressive, and I believe the most important art form we've ever had at our disposal. We just haven't figured out how to harness it entirely yet. I don't think we ever will completely harness its ability. It's something that will continue to grow and shift and change over time. But it's so amazing to be here at the beginning. The possibilities are endless. We don't know where the top end is. It's just getting started.