Henry Jenkins

Sure. So, Henry Jenkins, I'm a provost professor of communication journalism, cinematic arts, and education at the University of Southern California. And that title gives you some sense of the range of things that interest me. I'm overall driven to thinking about pop culture in many of its forms. I don't do sports, I don't do music, but other than that I really am interested in all forms of popular culture. Lately I've been focusing mostly on comics, but historically I've done a lot of work on film, television, internet, games, popular theater, and so forth.

Am I remembering correctly that you also had an interest in vaudeville at some point?

Yes, that was what I meant by interest in popular theater. For the new project on comics and stuff, I go back to popular forms of painting, scrapbooks, a lot of other things that probably fall between the cracks when we think about what pop culture is. So, my interest in games really flew out of my interest in popular culture, that I had played Pong when the first home machines came out, I'd done a little Atari, and then when the Atari company start bulldozing its titles into the Arizona desert, I kind of lost interest in Atari and didn't pay much attention to videogames until the Super Nintendo system. And we bought one for my son for Christmas. And I remember on Christmas morning playing Super Mario Bros. for the first time and just being blown away by how much progress had been made in games up until that point.

And I realized that games are a form of popular culture that you couldn't ignore, neglect, for very long. That they were gonna be more central to not only the lives of young people, but the culture at large. And that took me down a path—when I was out at MIT—that had me dealing with a variety of different kinds of aspects of games from the aesthetics of games—were games art?—to the moral and ethical issues around videogame violence, to gender in videogames, to creativity and serving underserved populations in games. I at one time or another dealt with all of those things. At the peak, I was helping to oversee two different labs at MIT. One called the Education Arcade that was dealing with games-based education, and the other called GAMBIT that was trying to experiment with new genres and forms of gameplay. We ran conferences at E3. I ran a column for Computer Games magazine. But when I left MIT to come to USC, I sort of closed that chapter in my life. My students periodically make me aware of things happening in games, but I turned my attention to pop culture and political communication on the one hand, and increasingly comic studies on the other.

So was it strictly a bandwidth issue or did you sense a feeling of fatigue or disinterest with games?

Well, not a total disinterest, but I had done what I felt like I could personally do with games and game studies. I was never a very good player. I was not the generation that grew up with videogames. So, I could do broad-strokes work on games and sort of help people connect things. They could ask me questions about games and connect it with broader trends in the culture compared to other forms of media and expression. But the more I was teaching grad students who grew up with games, the more it was clear that game studies was going to become evermore specific in focusing on particular game genres and particular titles, particular auteurs, particular gaming cultures. And my students were better equipped to do that kind of work than I was. So I started to see myself as having been a John the Baptist who paved the way for game studies but not someone who would occupy that space long-term. And impostor syndrome started to set in, that I just didn't know the games the way my students did anymore. And I'm happy to do what I could to support them, which is why I ended up running labs and raising money and so forth. But I had less and less to say about games because it just wasn't ultimately my medium. I can see that it matters, but I thought it was better served by people—and there's an explosion of them, a whole new generation of them—who really were deeply immersed in it in a way that I wasn't.

So you wound up pulling back, yeah. I'm guessing you have seen sort of the rise of videogames scholars? What I find interesting is it seems to me that senior media scholars on other media grew up in a different media paradigm, and games sort of have elbowed their way into pop culture much more recently—maybe even most pronounced within the last 10 years or so. But from an academic field, how do you sense that videogame studies still seems young or that it has a slightly less of a carapace than other media-scholar fields?

Well, I think part of what I love is what people call have called the new games journalism, which is maybe in game studies represented by the book series Well-Played, where games are seen not as tech that we master, but as experiences we have. And so what a good piece of games criticism in that model does is convey a particular experience of play: Not a universalized experience of playing that game, but your experience playing that game and what it illustrates about the possibility sets, the affordances that game offers. So the more detailed you can get in a particular experience of play, the more you can understand the game more generally. But it's not as if a literary scholar for the most part has sat down and said, "This is my experience of reading a book," and there really has been interest in the experiential dimension to the book.

The tendency is to abstract the book as a text that we can interpret and have some faith that in interpreting this text we're saying something that will be true inner-subjectively, that'd be true to anyone who reads the book. And film studies and then television studies and comic studies growing in part out of literary studies or art history does follow that same logic, where game studies doesn't necessarily. That games—you know, this was the part of the debate about games as narratives versus games as rule sets. And to a large degree, my side, the games with narrative side or games as media side lost to the group that was arguing that games were rule sets or were, more recently, play experiences. And I've come to believe that they'll probably more accurate in terms of what you have to account for if you're trying to really communicate why games matter as a medium.

I feel like part of that divide you're talking about or that binary is there's—like in the literary analysis, you know, you're talking about, in some cases, the creator's intent of the narrative versus, in games, it seems to be a bit of a mirror that blocks out the people who created it. You know, it's a player-focused field. I know you said it's been a couple of years since you've actively paid attention to it, but do you feel like there isn't enough of a voice from the creators when it comes to things like a broader understanding of narrative intent and things like that?

Well, I think there is such a voice. I think you have to read things like game developers' magazines where game designers have been very active in, say, doing post-mortems of their own games and describing what they set out to achieve, what they felt they failed to achieve. That stuff is a rich resource for doing kinds of traditional games criticism. Early on, particularly, a high number of game designers were themselves, heroes of their medium in the same way that, say, Sergei Eisenstein was a theorist of cinema or any number of other filmmakers have been practitioners, theorists of cinema, or Scott McCloud and Will Eisner have been theorists of comics. So I find when I was in game studies that if I gave a talk anywhere in the world that I had game designers showing up to hear me talk and think together about their medium in a way that when I talked about film somewhere, I usually didn't have filmmakers showing up, right? Or when I talk about television, I don't have television producers showing up. We were all involved in a moment of excitement about what this medium could do and the potential of breaking down those walls or creating a different set of relations to producers was part of what I found appealing about game studies. The danger, of course, as always in inter-academia is that they become more walled off from other people, which is kind of what happened to cinema studies where fans and filmmakers both got cut out of the conversation of cinema studies the more they become academic. And in some ways the price of admission to the university is denying other conversationalists that you might want to engage with otherwise. And it often requires a more academic prose that cuts you off from larger popular conversations. So I won't say that's the route game studies has gone down because I haven't been engaged with it, but it has always been a danger that that would be where game studies went.

You had told me when I saw you last that you felt that the generation who grew up playing Mario Bros., I think the way you put it literally, "hasn't infiltrated academia." As I understand it, academic game studies sort of grew up as a bit of a latchkey kid without much supervision. Maybe you don't have a sense of it, but in terms of finding a path outside of those walls that you're talking about, where do videogame studies fit in? [Laughs.] Is there not a ton of people there? Is it struggling to connect more broadly? Or is it more of a purist area still?

Well, I think what I was talking about was this tension between the culture of games and the culture of books. I do think that games players have found some space in academia as defined around higher education and scholarship. Where we know statistically is that the generation that grew up playing Mario Bros. isn't the generation teaching our kids in school. So, when we're looking at high school and elementary school level, the teachers as a class is a group least likely to play videogames of almost any professional group because they grew up defining their identity in relation to book culture and often in opposition to game culture. I think university, somehow gamers have survived and started to infiltrate the universities. I certainly know of any number of the gamer generation that I taught or that I followed closely a decade ago are now getting tenure at major universities and publishing books and journals persist around—there has been some degree of institutionalization and stabilization around around games as an academic field, but it straddles. It's an interdisciplinary field, in much the same that comics studies was, and television studies is still to a large degree. I think film studies may be unique among the studies of popular culture that was able to carve out a space for itself, that there are now departments of film studies or cinema studies or you know, whatnot. Usually there's an additive process where it's cinema and television studies or cinema and media studies. Sometimes games fit into that. Sometimes they're in learning and library science. Sometimes they're situated in the business school, sometimes they're situated in visual studies. I mean, we can point to any computer-science department. All of them have some space in relation to games, and there isn't yet a discipline of game studies that has its own home base in university. There are very few universities that have games studies departments in the way they might have cinema studies departments. There are, however, journals and professional conferences. You know, other kinds of markings of an academic discipline.

Is there still a stigma around being an academic and a fan? I know you've written in the past many years back about "coming out" as a fan. Has the world changed since then or is there still sort of skepticism with overlapping in that way or admitting that you're having that overlap?

Well, I think we have to say where in the world we're talking about. I mean there is fan or fandom studies as another interdisciplinary field that has achieved many markings of academic success: book series, its own academic conferences, its own academic journals. Much of which is run by people who are themselves fans and see that bridging of fan and academic as a productive way of situating their work. Not everyone who's doing fandom studies would call themselves a fan, and there's a heated debate in fandom studies about that label "acafan" that I use to describe myself. Some people love it, some people hate it. It's a generative discussion still. But that definitely exists. But that doesn't mean that, say, a student at a university which has no tradition of fandom studies will meet faculty who knows the field exists, be greeted receptively, will get the encouragement and access to the resources they need. It doesn't mean that someone applying to a general communication or media program will necessarily be embraced if they define what fandom studies is. And certainly in many countries around the world, there's not a tradition yet of fandom studies.

I got invited a few years ago to give a talk in Indonesia because some civil scholars there were finding the senior figures in their field unreceptive to the kinds of work they were doing. And they invited me in as a senior figure in media studies to explain the pedigree of that work and why it was important. And I've done that in a number of other national contexts. So, outside the U.S. or Anglo-American world, not so much. Outside certain established spaces that have traditionally had scholars doing fandom work, it's a mixed bag. I certainly see plenty of signs even here at USC: It can be an issue when someone's applying for admission that people see work in fandom studies as more narrow than they might see work in some other subfields of communication research.

That was something I was curious about. Maybe not necessarily the origins of these stigmas, but whether these types of stigmas, whether talking about the business of taking videogames seriously or taking fandom seriously: Does that feel like more of an Eastern thing? Is that more of a Western thing? Is that a Western thing that has been imported from elsewhere? That's a super-broad question, but maybe I'll just leave it there. Do you have a thought?

Well, I think it has to do with cultural hierarchies and how they're constructed, right? So Pierre Bourdieu , if he was with us still, would probably have lots about it, because when he describes cultural capital, he talks about contemplative distance as having a particular elite value, as being the "bourgeois aesthetic" as he describes it, and sets that off from what he calls the "popular aesthetic," which is about getting into the middle of the game. And he literally, I think uses the term "getting into the middle of the game" at one point in his writing. For him it's the difference between a golf, tennis, polo where you watch quietly and football, whether the American or European version of football, where people shout and yell and charge the field and so forth. One represents a kind of elite distance contemplation and the other an immersive, active, emotional engagement with the work.

So that maps into media just as readily as it does sports or just as readily does any other art. So, media that we feel passion for is media that's often distrusted within the academic space, which tends to value media that we have to learn things in order to appreciate it—that require intellectual engagement, rather than emotional engagement. That's not a natural part of our everyday life. So far as videogames are things we actively participate in that create great strong emotional attachments and feelings that are part of the everyday life of everyday people, they have a different level of cultural status than, say, Shakespeare or opera or symphonies, poetry, or things that seem to be removed from that. And so, lots of the forms that I've invested in are forms of culture that are I call and one of my pieces, "culture that sticks to our skin." Culture that's part of us. Culture that we feel intimate with or we're actively engaged with as opposed to culture that we hold at a distance.

And so yeah, I think a lot of the stigma comes from being academic. That is, entering the world of the mind and carrying with us our passions, our emotional attachments, that that's our bodily feeling. That those are things that academics often are invited to deny when they do work, when they focus their work. So serious work in academia is work that's abstracted from the world of our senses. Since the world of high theory is seen as morally superior to close analysis, thus a close analysis of an art movie or literary classic is seen as superior to close analysis of a pop culture. All of this stuff goes hand in hand with the anxieties we have in the academy about the relations between mind and body.

Well, when you have given talks abroad outside of the Anglo-American world, what types of stigmas seem to exist outside of those worlds that we don't have here, associated either with fandom in general or if there's anything specific to gaming you might remember?

Well, I mean, for example, in Japan, the otaku comes with its own particular social pathologies, right? The otaku are seen as socially isolated. In some ways it's the same stereotype of the fan, but it's amped up because it's connected to mental illnesses there where people want to stay in their house and never leave, which is a more widespread mental illness in Japan than in the United States. Even the first generation of writers on otaku studies perpetuated many of those stereotypes and the negative feelings. There's a level of shame in the writing of otaku studies that's very, very different from the writing of fandom studies in the U.S. or in the U.K. Fandom studies was from the first asserting a claim that what we're doing is valuable, whereas to some degree otaku studies have sought to explain from within the pathology how people got this sick. I think that's a very different feeling.

In Indonesia, the problem is that this is a country that doesn't generate a lot of its own popular culture. The pop culture is something that's transported from outside, that's translated from somewhere else. There certainly are traditions of Indonesian horror film, for example, but they have their own negative stigma attached to it. But to be a scholar who's obsessed with pop culture, as opposed to say traditional folk culture in Indonesia, is to be someone who is too Westernized, right? Too invested in the globalization trends that are going to destroy local culture. Indonesia, like many smaller countries around the world, like, well, less economically developed countries around the world, is invested in protecting its borders against forms of cultural expression that may corrupt its traditions.

So those are two very different debates elsewhere around the world. In Europe, an investment in high culture is even more pronounced in the U.S., but also we see the anxiety about Americanization. In Latin America, it may be anxieties about capitalism versus Marxism, right. And so to commercial dimensions that are popular that really get emphasized in the kind of bread and circus argument about this is Western capitalism imposing itself on socialist economies.

Hmm. Something I've been wondering about and you may not know if you haven't been paying close attention to games in the last few years, but you may have a sense of it from when you did: Are there ways that you sense either as a culture or as a medium or as an industry, that videogames are still grappling with or trying to resist stigmas that they've had on them from say, the '80s and '90s?

Yeah, in a variety of ways. You mentioned Gamergate, and I think that the way to read Gamergate in relation those '80s and '90s debates. So many of the groups that were opposed to videogame violence and I ended up debating with were mother-based groups. They were, you know, mothers against videogame violence, the Lion And The Lamb Foundation. These were—the critics of games spoke as mothers. So not surprisingly, the generation that grew up fighting mothers for the right to play have a chip on their shoulder about the potential feminization of videogames. The misogyny that Gamergate represents is an entrenched response to those mothers who spoke out against videogames in the '80s now translated to another generation of women who are simply fighting for their own right to play or fighting for their right to creatively participate in the games industry.

So the feminist criticisms, say, gender tropes in games—Anita Sarkeesian's work—may well get read through a lens that were shaped by feminist maternal critics of videogames, even though her goals are totally different from that. And that may be why this fear of taking away our games comes out so loudly from some of the Gamergate crowd. Now, the game industry is caught between its desire to appeal to its traditional base—existing consumers—and its various efforts to reach out to new consumer groups. That's been a tension for games regardless of Gamergate, but I think Gamergate brought this particularly to the fore because what were being attacked as "not games" were forms of expression that attracted women, that were involved in minorities, that reflected the push for game-based education. All kinds of things get bundled into that "not real games" bucket by Gamergate critics. And so they were pushing back against the games industry's attempt to diversify its market and diversify its content. It's an incredibly conservative force on what videogames can do or what they could be. And in that sense it's also a reflection of the debates I was still seeing in the '90s and early 2000s as experimental games were emerging, as the girls' game movement took shape, as educational-based games were being introduced in the market. All of the things were being called "not games" by at least some sectors of the games industry and some sectors of games players who were very invested in policing the boundaries of what games could be.

Well, another repetition that I know you personally are familiar with or involved with was—we just had a Trump-era version of blaming videogames for violence. Did that feel any different to you than what you experienced, you know, on the Donahue show or anything else from a few decades ago? Does that seem somehow different today?

The language coming out of Trump didn't seem very different, but then we've already established that Trump's worldview is 40 or 50 years out of date from most of the rest of the country right across the board: His ideas on gender, his ideas on race, his ideas on sexuality, on global relations. So we should not be shocked that he has ideas about videogames that have long been discredited. He just lives in his own world, and that world is largely a thing of the past— although he appeals to the retrograde tendencies within the culture more generally. What was striking at this time is how little traction he got with that argument compared to the traction the Clintons got after Columbine. Right? This is a long tactic of the National Rifle Association and various political leaders to displace anxieties about guns to anxieties about games and use it to distract the media, and the media has generally followed that direction and it didn't really follow that direction this time. The Parkland kids gave them a much better story to follow, a much more vivid embodiment of what young people are actually like today: One that really shows their mastery of all forms of media expression, their active use rather than their passive consumption. And I think that became the story and displaced any attempt to blame videogames on what had happened.

Well, depending on the day, I'm either fascinated by or preoccupied by the inability that games have to join sort of bigger national conversations. I think with the games thing, I think you're absolutely right. I think I saw an obligatory wave of media stories, either disproving or saying we've already come to a consensus and we've disproved what he had said. I'd seen some pieces that went a little further and got into some of the toxic culture in games. But, for example, just immediately preceding that, what I was wondering about is just why games were not part of the #MeToo moment. I don't know that you necessarily have an answer to that, but do you have any thoughts sort of about why games seem to be blocked from these bigger, wider spread moments?

Well, I don't know. I mean, I think in some ways the Gamergate debate anticipates #MeToo. Right?

Yeah.

This was women calling out the harassment they received from other players, the harassment they received within the games industry. It was ahead of #MeToo, but #MeToo has not generally—you're right. It's focused on filmmakers, television personalities, journalists, now authors with Junot Diaz. But not so much game designers. But I think that's a status that the games happy to pass up.

Oh yes, I would agree.

You know, the game designers may be guilty of the same things, but it's going to take the media a while to filter down to that. Maybe the more interesting symptom is what gets included in something like Entertainment Weekly or Pop Culture Happy Hour, or these spaces that try to claim to cover the entirety of pop culture—neither of which has any coverage of games whatsoever. Every so often Pop Culture Happy Hour will cover comics, generally in relation to film or television. Every so often EW will have something on comics, and every so often something on games, but they have never established a regular section on games in the way that they have a regular section on television. And I think that's interesting given the numbers of money raised by film, television, and games: Games, by most accounts—I haven't seen the latest numbers—often makes more money than either of the other two media.

That's right. You had mentioned that before, that EW is a good barometer for sort of seeing what the mainstream sees or doesn't see. So, I mean as coming to coming at it from a journalist's perspective—is it naive? Like what is sort of the best way to sort of—or maybe it's not even about journalism. Who do you think is in the best position then to broaden the understanding of and to decipher these streams of microculture? In my case it's games, but obviously you pay attention to other things that are not a part of those types of shows, either.

I mean, I think the blogosphere and the podcast sphere, is where we're gonna see this stuff first. And we're definitely seeing good coverage of games in both of those sectors. If you think about the current generation of television critics who have a deeper, more passioned engagement with television as a media—I think about someone like Maureen Ryan, who worked for Huffington Post and Variety, and I don't know where she's working right now. But Mo came out to him out of this blog that did recaps and critiques of television shows for a decade or so. There's a whole generation of writers who came out of that who are now doing really good television criticism, right? And they came out of fandom, and they came out of these experimental digital spaces, and gradually they've made their way into the dominant publications of our period. And television looks different today. Television criticism has a different status today as a result of that.

We're seeing those same kinds of spaces grow up around games and comics. We're seeing fans become journalists. And so, not only am I seeing different kinds of reporting on fandom, but I'm seeing The Dot and The Mary Sue and some of these other spaces—iO9—covering fans from a fan perspective, more and more. We're starting to see young adult novels written by fans about the experience of growing up as a fan to tell very different narratives than we would've seen a decade or two back. So I think games are gonna have to go through that same process, and maybe games and comics are both working their way through the system at about the same pace right now in terms of developing indigenous critics who then need to be hired by more mainstream publications in order to get the full impact of the shift and thinking.

Are those mainstream publications—I mean, another overlap with this, too, is sort of the state of the media being in doubt maybe more than it's been before. Are these mainstream publications still as powerful beacons or do they have as powerful spotlights as they did pre-modern internet as they had in the '90s?

Well, I think it's an interesting question. We are seeing some reverse movements towards these critics from staying in the blogosphere, the podcast realm, and making their own revenue streams there allow them to support themselves without going to the mainstream. And as newspapers are shedding pages and shedding staff, there may be less opportunities for the kind of mainstreaming process I'm describing to take place. We're even seeing that with television.

Television is, as I said, the stalking horse for all of this. We're seeing certain writers move away from print, back to the digital as their dominant platform again and going in alone or then they're going in and tied to publications, which maps onto other trends that are affecting the new generation of journalists coming into the world. So, I don't know. I still think there's a power to being heard in those mainstream publications that we may see now as the legacy media but used to be the dominant media of our time. I think they still are the shared media that more people look at, even if we also read more niche media that reflects our particular interests.

So the question of what has status in those shared media versus what has status and niche media still matters to people. If we're gonna have a conversation with other people, it's still got to be on the basis of stuff that we all share. Now, as a Facebook user, I can share things on my social media and create some of my own publications. But I think that's different from showing up at a cocktail party where everyone sort of knows what's covered in mainstream news and they still may have a sense in my social circle of what was in EW this week.

Another factor in this type of equation you mentioned was a contemporary phenomenon, the advent of TV show runner as a celebrity into itself. Which I thought was a really good point, but I'm fuzzy on because it just seemed to happen organically as I grew up. But how did that happen? Was it just certain TV shows hit a certain critical mass that people were naturally curious? Or was there some other way that people behind these shows became known quantities and media darlings?

Well, I think that we can trace its origins as far back as the '60s, right? Whether we're talking about—well, the '70s with Norman Lear would be an example of a showrunner/producer who became a brand. We can think about something like The Making Of Star Trek book that made Gene Roddenberry a household man. Those two things, there's a kind of branding that starts to take place around a limited number of showrunners: Grant Tinker, Steven Bochco, so forth. These become kinds of brands that people recognize. And the status rises as I think when someone like David Lynch produces Twin Peaks, and you can't deny that Twin Peaks is tied to authorship, right? That you have a cinema auteur lending their credibility to television as a medium, and it's hard to discuss Twin Peaks without talking about David Lynch.

And from that point forward, then you start to see HBO and then the streaming platforms, Showtime, all of these things distinguish themselves by having quality television, which frequently meant authored television, which meant that they then had to put forward the author—this author's biography—and give a pedigree to the shows they produce. And in some cases they were filmmakers who crossed over to television. Steven Soderbergh comes to mind. They might also be a television people who emerged and just became famous on their own on terms. So, Shonda Rhimes for example, would be someone who emerges from television itself and develops a reputation. But that process then has to be taken up by critics and fans as a way of describing their relationship to television content. And I think that generation of television critics I'm talking about who really paid attention to who made television as well as understanding the particulars of television as a medium, they paved the way for a particular way of thinking about television that we use now more and more in the era of peak television or the era of much good television, as people have called it. The sense of sorting out the pieces when there's so much television being produced.

So, we started to see some of that with game designers. By the early 2000s, Will Wright or Peter Molyneux or Sid Meier, you know, others started to develop that kind of authorial status. You started to see things like American McGee's Alice, where the game designer's name was before the title in the way Frank Capra's or Hitchcock's films or Walt Disney's film had that sort of status. I don't—I'm not paying enough attention, but I don't hear nearly as much discussion of game designers as authors now than we were hearing for awhile. But I don't know if that's true or not.

You're saying you have a sense that it's declined somewhat?

My perception is it's declined, but I'm not immersed enough to really know.

Well, I would agree. I mean, it's accurate. And the thing with the designers you had mentioned that I think about is they're all of that same generation, and there has been some concern I have heard in my interviews of where are more of these names going to come from in the next generation? I think in general in media there's more fascination with how much money individuals are making, either playing games or creating them, but less on who they are and what they have to say. [Laughs.]

Yeah. Even in the journalism world, the notion of an author seems central to the notion of cultural status and respectability. So, film became an art when the auteur theory gave us a language to talk about film authorship. Television is becoming an art when we recognize the showrunner. Comics become art when certain graphic-novel creators like Art Spiegelman become household names. And games may only become an art when we have game designers whose names are recognized and discussed within the journalistic world.

You know, for a while I worked for a couple of years with Electronic Arts running these creative leaders workshops, which were part of EA's efforts to build a generation of game designers as authors who were creative experimenters within the form and were part of the prestige that EA was claiming for itself. But what I saw with EA was the more it brought up other games companies, the less invested it was in creating name designers because in some ways it was developing almost monopolistic power within the games industry. And so EA became the brand they wanted to promote far more, or the boutique studios they acquired with the names they wanted to promote more than the game authors per se. That wasn't in concert of gaming getting that cultural respectability that a lot of the game insiders I talked to wanted to have.

I mean, it's dissonant because you look at games and certainly even today, and I think even 10 years ago, they're technically very impressive. I think it's surprising from inside the games world to realize how they may be coming across to people who don't care about games, that they still don't care. And so I often wonder: Is it just a byproduct? Like, are games still not "good enough" to merit this type of attention or is it partially a factor of there aren't enough olive branches to people who didn't grow up playing games or reaching out to people who choose not to play games? It seems to me it would be easier for games to be part of these bigger conversations if they made people care somehow. But I don't know how much of that is actually games' fault.

Well, to some degree I felt like games were maturing technically and formally faster than they were maturing in terms of their content or meaning. Right? So, as we think about what makes something an art form that the general public engages with and knows it has to engage with, whether it cares about that medium or not, the content axis is always as important or more important than the formal axis. So there's no question that games are good enough formally. They are pushing the technology, right? And that's always the way game industry defends itself against these charges. But this is where the games violence stigma sticks is the sense that, well, they're still shooting galleries that have grown into something that's aesthetically beautiful, but that there is a depth of meaning behind them that people who are not gamers recognize—

I don't know if those are questions that they're willing to examine if, as you already cited, they are as lucrative at least as they brag that they are. Because you can look at that either as tremendous bragging rights but it's also you have that much to potentially lose.

Yeah, I mean, so people used to call cinema the toy that grew up because it started with motion toys and arcade machines and became an artform fairly rapidly. You can say that games are a toy that's never grown up, right. That it remains a toy because play mechanics dominate the aesthetic concerns of the best designers and the industry itself. So, I remember in one of our EA workshops, Bing Gordon said, "You have to understand 'genre' has no meaning in our industry." And I thought that's really interesting. And I realized that we were talking about somewhat different things when we talked about genre. It's not that games don't have genres, right? We can say racing games versus shooting games. But those genres are defined around play mechanics but not content.

And Bing's point was that a Western setting or a science-fiction setting are just things that are layered on top of the play mechanics for them. They're equivalent of making a chess board for Star Trek characters versus knights and castles. Chess doesn't change. It's still chess no matter what kind of thing you make the characters look like on the chess forward? You're playing the same game. There is a layer of meaning to chess that matters, but it doesn't change when you change the skin. And games seem to have stayed on that level.

Whereas I think the general public, it matters that we're looking at a game where people are just blowing each other's heads off. They don't see a play mechanic there. They see content. And that matters whether they can tell a story or create an experience that asks questions about violence, as opposed to just reproducing violence. That's how we can justify a Scorsese or a Tarantino as not just being violent entertainment in the abstract, but as meaningful art that speaks to our culture's relationship to violence. So that's what I keep looking for from games and just not seeing, and at a certain point it was after Rockstar released Bully and we had the "Hot Coffee" scandal and some other things that I just lost faith that the game industry had any real investment in pushing to that next level. That it was going to grow aesthetically, but it was not gonna grow in terms of its meanings and investments. I think that's the stuff you have to do to become something that critics at large or the public at large that isn't playing games will engage with as a meaningful contribution to the culture.

Based on the questions I've been asking you, does it sound like much has changed?

No, it sounds like you're asking about the same things we were thinking about a decade ago, and that's discouraging because the game industry likes to believe that it was rapidly advancing compared to other media, that it was growing up faster. And I think, you know, we used to say, "Well, let's use film as a stalking point. We're now at the point of, you know, DW Griffith's Intolerance. Now we're at the point of Battleship Potemkin." We're now in the era of Citizen Kane if we look at the actual age of games.Cinema, by the time it was 40 years old as an industry, it was producing major work that we still care about today by all these axes of content. And meaning that I'm talking about. And yes, Citizen Kane was an incredible technological and formal accomplishment, but it also asks deep questions about power and wealth in America. And I don't know what contemporary game is doing the latter.

Hmm. You may not know—I know that you said in the past that you feel like you were an apologist for games. I'm sure you may see commercials for games. Based on what you see of things that are new or things that you know your students have told you about—you say I'm asking some of the same questions you were wondering about 10 years ago, but content-wise, does anything surprise you or sound different?

The biggest shifts that I've seen—this is not something one sees in commercials—it's the growth of the indie-game movement, and that's where both formal experimentation and experimentation with meaning exist. So, that my USC colleague Tracy Fullerton developed Walden as a game, you know, based on Thoreau's book suggests something rather different. It's sort of the fulfillment of Eisenstein's ambition, that you can translate these works of deep philosophical impact into something that takes full advantage of their medium. The sad thing the indie games like the indie films have very limited resources and even more limited distribution. The public doesn't see these games. They're demonstrating that games could be different than they mostly are in the commercial mainstream, but they're not having the impact for the most part on the market. I mean, every so often something like Portal breaks through, or there are games that have done it, but it's not as if in the indie-film movement is making its way into mainstream releases at this point. Otherwise, the case is made for games that are outstanding and viewed by the industry as outstanding are still mostly technical cases. What can we get games to do, which has to do with programming. Or what do games look like, which has to do with visualization tools. But not what do games get us to think about.

I think there's an irony here because I think outside of the content of games, there is an element of this—and you had touched on it as far as ways that Gamergate sort of foreshadowed #MeToo. Are there other ways that you feel games have foreshadowed, things that have happened in culture but maybe you haven't seen others articulate it or that games are even aware that they foreshadowed?

Huh. [Pause.] No. Yeah, but it's hard to nail them down without kind of a precise connection of causality. Certainly people have devoted the ways certain aspects of visual aesthetic move from games to film or certain kinds of intensify action moves from games into film. Surprisingly, literal translation of games to cinema have generally failed. But films that evoke game aesthetics, you know, The Matrix and now Run Lola Run used to be the classic examples there, have been much more successful doing things within cinema that we might've not imagined if games didn't exist, right? And I think there's been a persistence of that. And I don't mean that in a negative sense that are, yes, now, once we get to the point where half of the Marvel extended cinematic universe movies of digital effects and even the characters, they are like game characters who are indestructible and who's always constantly moving across space and the emphasis is on their capacities for action as much as their internal emotional states or motivations. All of which has a lot to say about what games influenced the culture. But I think in a broader sense that we probably would not have those movies if people didn't grow up with games, and we certainly wouldn't have the 30 minutes final battle sequences of those movies where it is just let's duke it out. You know, compared to playing a two-hour final boss battle in a videogame, that 30 minutes seems accelerated and abbreviated.

Something I had been thinking about along those lines too is whether there are ways—you look at a digitally connected game that lets you play with other people or be exposed to other people's behavior being similar to or maybe even possibly a forerunner to the modern digital social network. I think people had always been saying that the gamers are toxic and that they exhibit a lot of bad behavior or very abusive to other people, online strangers. And yet this is a thing that has become synonymous with platforms like Twitter and Facebook. And so, I wonder if games were allowed to have been bigger parts of national conversations, would we have had a more respectful internet today?

It's an interesting one, and it's hard to know for sure, but I think there's definitely, definitely a possibility that—you know, [my assistant] Jocelyn gave me that article you wanted me to look at [https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2018/04/an-apology-for-the-internet-from-the-people-who-built-it.html], and I think it describes a particular cycle that social media has gone through and suggests there are many different factors that contributed to that cycle. But I don't think it's inevitable either then or now. I don't think it was inevitable and I don't think it's irreversible. And I think choice points along the way, how culture shapes the user base plays a role on our ability to imagine other possibilities for that medium plays a role. I think what struck me in that article was how deterministic a lot of the language was, that these digital spokespeople were using the same languages of addiction, manipulation, mind control, and so forth that critics of theirs would have used in another moment of time. In the same way that, say, a William Faulkner working for cinema held his medium in contempt for the same way that other intellectuals held it in contempt. So that language troubled me in that description. It's not—

Do you have examples of the language or a certain phrase or something that struck you?

Look for that language of, literally, mind control and addiction and manipulation. That that language runs through it. Surveillance is literally true, right? In the sense that we are being watched and data's being collected on us, but the idea that media control us, whether that we control the choices we make in our relationship to media, that's the bias I'm talking about that runs through that piece that I found troubling. There's no question that the choices companies make about what use scenarios to support, what affordances to build in, what business models to make the decisions around, what algorithms to route content through, those are all things that do have an impact on how people use that medium.

But I think that's different from saying those determine how people think and feel or that they shape the cultural norms that emerge on those platforms. Not just the internet companies have a lot to answer for. We have a lot to answer for from the choices we made and the internet companies, algorithms don't fully exclude some of the uses that are also growing that I think are very important. Someone like Jaron Lanier talks about it every time we get a #MeToo, or a Black Lives Matter, that we see the emergence of the KKK and white supremacist movements. There's truth to that. My colleague Sarah Banet-Weiser has a book on popular feminism and popular misogyny that's about to come out where she argues that the use of both the platform support had enabled both and that that's why there's an endless battle around gender in digital culture is that both have been empowered by the internet. But it's not that the internet produces white supremacy and therefore destroys the capacity of Black Lives Matter, that what Black Lives Matter has done in calling attention to racialized police violence hasn't gone away. It's had an enormous impact on the belief structure of mainstream American society and it's shifted the conversation about race in a reputable way. I don't think we can say white supremacy has done the same. The internet has made white supremacy visible. It's enabled the regrouping of white supremacists for a final battle against some of the demographic changes that are taking place in America. But I— no matter how I look at it, Black Lives Matter comes on out on top of that, and #MeToo comes out on top of the misogynistic backlash on it. I think it's having very material effects. The dreamers and their use of new media changed a conversation. The Parkland kids are changing the conversation in ways that the counter forces have not done anywhere near as effectively.

So I don't think that's a product of the internet. It's a product of cultural and political trends that would exist outside the internet that people have drawn themselves towards. So coming back, then, to the question about gamers, I would say that gamers—as long as gamers were adolescent male, a culture of verbal abuse, which has always been part of how men boys become men in American culture, was almost inevitable. That as long as we had social media platforms where people weren't accountable for their comments necessarily or where as long as we were giving people access to the tools of cultural expression in circulation who never had access to them before we were likely to see those tools be used irresponsibly. But I had always imagined that we would see norms emerge that weren't pushed back on that and pushed toward greater civility and greater social maturity because that's what the society needed and that's what the society wanted. And I think what I underestimated was the ability of business models of companies to sustain that in the face of social outrage over some of that behavior. And I've thought about technology determining our behavior that's about corporations being nonresponsive to the discussions that are taking place in their consumer base.

And so, Gamergate would be an example of that, right?

Exactly. Gamergate is the gamers growing up and continuing to occupy spaces and have access to tools which they could use to harass individuals in a public way that those people wouldn't have access to otherwise. So they are embracing tools that empower them to say whatever they want, and yet they have a poverty of imagination and thinking through how those tools could be used differently. And as long as major media companies make money off of that culture of harassment, that culture would persist. But it's not as if there hasn't been massive pushback on Gamergate from other groups who were pushing for other norms of expression and not the normalization of harassment culture.

I've talked to people who worked in the Japanese game industry and they have given me the impression that Gamergate was very much specifically a Western phenomenon and that on top of that, it's a digital Western phenomenon. It was interesting, going back and rereading some of your earlier books, one of which mentions a letter-writing campaigns with representation in Star Trek. Are we just quicker to immediately go to rage over whatever we we'd call these tensions? It also comes down to just the desire for representation, right? But I don't recall there being a letter-writing campaign around videogames in the way that there was in Star Trek. I'm just curious why that is.

Well, they wouldn't use letters today. But I would say that the use of social media to support Timeless, the show that get canceled and brought back because of popular demand four days later, that looks like an accelerated version of the Star Trek letter-writing campaign. It's a different medium but the same use. And if anything, those letter-writing campaigns are even more effective today than they were before. So I think my question is whether Gamergate is really representative of the culture at large. My colleague Billy Proctor has been looking at fan response to Star Wars, and it feels like this toxic masculinity storyline inflates certain fairly small practices in small groups of people in the fandom and makes them symptomatic of a national trend when they may well not be. That it will find the most outrageous content on a subreddit and make it public, and in the process they amplify those voices in the process of reporting them and may in disproportion pull them out of a context where there are lots of other people having responsible, civic-minded discussions around the same subject matter, which isn't charged by misogyny and racism.

So I don't mean that we shouldn't have covered Gamergate, 'cause there were real lives at stake and real harassment taking place and it really was symptomatic of mob violence. But we may over-cover some of these things now in the wake of Gamergate, which leads us to believe our culture is more hostile and aggressive than it really is. In the same way that a decade or two ago researchers found that most people thought the crime rate in their neighborhood was much higher than it really was because they took every representation of crime on television as standing in for a larger group, when television news tended to report almost every crime in those communities. So we amplify the news coverage and saw it as representative of something bigger than it was.

I don't even know if there is a best, but what are maybe the smartest ways for a subculture to learn from a thing like Gamergate and how to telegraph and communicate that lessons have been learned? Because I've interviewed many people who work at AAA game companies and have worked on Call Of Duty who told me about just what it was like day-to-day during Gamergate. And I think there certainly was a sense of what you were saying, of either not feeling it was as dire as it seemed to be elsewhere or I think a literal quote from someone I interviewed was: "Oh, I don't care." I don't know that those are necessarily the best reaction to it. But this is something I'm wondering four or five years later: Is Gamergate over? Has it just sort of ossified into the culture? Can you point to lessons from it? Or do these things not really work that way?

Well, I think we are seeing—I mean, we do see persistence of misogyny in various fan nooks and crannies. I've been corresponding with a reporter on comics right now, and comics is undergoing its own kind of Gamergate moment around—the trolls are attacking mainstream publishers and artists and stores. And there's a lot of, you know, bad stuff happening in the comics world. Or we could talk about Sad Puppies in the science-fiction world as a sort of outgrowth or mirror effects of Gamergate. But I'd also look at something called RaceFail, which took place in science-fiction fandom eight, nine years ago, which was an online discussion on race in science-fiction that got talked through to the bitter end. It didn't result in necessarily the kinds of harassments and physical threats and rape threats and the other stuff that surrounds Gamergate and resulted in the creation of publishing houses that deal with stories by science-fiction writers of color. It seems to have shifted how people vote on Hugo Awards. In some ways, Sad Puppies was a response to the opening up to minority artists that RaceFail helped to create, and RaceFail won that battle. Or the group that emerged from RaceFail that won that battle, if you look at the nominees now, when you look at the winners coming out of Hugo awards, Sad Puppies is no more.

So that's a story that looks rather different than the devastation that Gamergate left in its path. And we have to decide why were science-fiction fans able to talk this through and why were science-fiction writers able to talk this through and create new structures to support minority expression and gamers aren't able to have a discussion which fully embraced female participation in the gaming world. And I don't have the answer to that. That's the question I would be asking and exploring, and I think RaceFail would be the counterexample I might look at.

I mean, I think it might have something to do with just what we had mentioned before with how much is on the line and either a mistrust or a fear that the games industry has of its own audience. Certainly Gamergate is an example of that, where you say the wrong thing—I think they have had just decades of experience of that of, you know, don't deliver on a promise of what's going to be in a product and you're going to hear about it and you're going to get a lot of pushback and you're gonna get a lot of vitriol. I think it's just the difference was Gamergate was the audience putting itself on trial and then it's spreading elsewhere. I feel like I'm in a good position with, doing this last few years with these interviews, but I feel like the games industry feels like it's in a no-win position. It's also similarly grateful, though paranoid, about the rise of streamers and its players becoming even better advocates for its products. That it's almost best served served being an invisible, sort of silent partner. Even though they are the center, ostensibly. So, it's weird. [Laughs.]

Yeah. Yeah. It's weird. The games industry, in some ways, is far more advanced in, say, policies toward IP and maybe willingness to allow modding and some of those practices that think ahead of the rest of the industry and its interface with its fan base. And in some ways it's more retrograde, and the Gamergate brings out that retrograde side of it, I think.

Well, I just got a few more here for you. I appreciate your making the time, again. Are there ways that you've been surprised that games haven't crossed over in a mainstream sense or maybe ways that they had, and then disconnected and receded?

Now, this is where—in some ways, I'm oddly situated with this question because now I mostly see games when they do cross over into the mainstream and have no idea what's not crossing. But I'm struck by how rarely I see them in my news feeds or how rarely they crop up on the podcast and critical blogs I engage with. My students bring them to my attention, but because they're gamers. But you can occupy a space in the cultural mainstream in the United States and not think about games for months on end. It's just that's how invisible they are to most Americans. I mean most Americans of a certain age. My 60th birthday is coming up, so I am not the gamer generation, but that sense of—for people in their fifties and sixties games aren't on the radar at all most of the time. And there could be economic value, given the idea of cultural growth that we've had a decade or so back. We hoped that they would be more central to the culture than they have become.

Now, this is where—in some ways, I'm oddly situated with this question because now I mostly see games when they do cross over into the mainstream and have no idea what's not crossing. But I'm struck by how rarely I see them in my news feeds or how rarely they crop up on the podcast and critical blogs I engage with. My students bring them to my attention, but because they're gamers. But you can occupy a space in the cultural mainstream in the United States and not think about games for months on end. It's just that's how invisible they are to most Americans. I mean most Americans of a certain age. My 60th birthday is coming up, so I am not the gamer generation, but that sense of—for people in their fifties and sixties games aren't on the radar at all most of the time. And there could be economic value, given the idea of cultural growth that we've had a decade or so back. We hoped that they would be more central to the culture than they have become.

Well, according to games, they are.

It depends on what we mean by "games." My wife plays games on her phone all day long. Right? I don't anymore. I don't play phone games at all. But mobile games, casual games— women is where the highest growth area has been and that's probably the games I see the most, although I don't pay that much attention anymore to what games she's playing on her phone. It's just the background to many of our interactions. But that's the point at which games start to penetrate into the culture of people my age.

Yeah. So you said that you tend to notice the ways that they do crossover. From a content perspective, what do you seem to notice? What seems to be really important for videogames to have or to broadcast that that's what they have?

Well, games crossover when they're already tied to mainstream storylines. So, Star Wars games are more likely to be visible. That's a given. Games crossover when they get made into films or television, rarely television shows. And usually then disappear again because those vehicles don't really succeed on their own firms and their other media. Games crossover when something like Pokémon GO comes out that is so radically new that people are talking about it and playing it, and that's a game that did. My brother and sister-in-law play that game. He's only four years younger than me. So, it's a good example of where games crossover into people, you know, more people and their lives at this point. Games crossover when they become the center of major controversies. Although, as we've the games violence has largely receded and I haven't seen particular titles hit hot buttons quite the way that, say, Rockstar Games did a decade ago.

Does it seem like games are evolving towards anything? I don't want to present a binary, if either that they're evolving or stagnating. Maybe they're doing a third thing or all three.

That's what I can't tell because I'm literally not paying that much attention anymore. I don't know. The evolution could take place and I'd be completely blindsided by it. But I'm not seeing any signs of moving from Cro-Magnon to neanderthal.

Yeah, yeah.

Right. That's a level of evolution I've seen at this point as far as I'm concerned. [Laughs.]

Well, so given that, what are the typical ways you hear people overstating the importance or influence of games?

Well, I think we don't overstate it when we're saying that it's a key socializing tool for young people today. It is central to the culture of my students in a way that it's peripheral to my generation's culture. And so if you're writing as a thirtysomething, you live in a world where games are as important as any other media, and you may spend as much or more time playing games as you do with any other media. But if you live in a world where you're in your fifties and sixties, that's simply not the case. So, if you're a publisher of a magazine like EW who's likely in your fifties or sixties, you're not paying attention to that medium at all because it doesn't matter in your world and in your life.

So, the confusion comes when we try to look at those cultures together as one thing, as opposed to recognizing the generational differences in the cultures we're talking about. I'm not saying that the culture of people in their fifties and sixties is more important than the culture of people in their twenties and thirties. I don't think that at all. I think the power and wealth still resides in people in their fifties and sixties, so in that sense they have the ability to define what matters in the culture in a different way than people in their twenties and thirties have. They have the ability to declare avocado toast silly, as opposed to successful dish. [Laughs.] Right? They have the power to define the millennial generation by eating avocado toast, which is a trivialization of all of the other cultural changes that are going on in their lives. [Laughs.] So that power still rests in the older generation. So I don't that the power and importance of games is exaggerated so much as both groups confused their experiences for the culture of the whole.

What's an importance do you think that games doesn't understand it has taken on for people outside of it?

Well, I think its role as a social bridging tool is really important. In the same way that, say, the people in their fifties and sixties might think of golf or softball league as something you did that brought a group together. Today those functions are played more often by games, and I think people get together to play games in the way that they might've once gotten together to watch a television show or to listen to an album that just dropped or to go to a movie together, right? That's a particular importance of games that doesn't rest on the maturity of the medium so much as a social centrality of the medium. And as that becomes a habit, a lifestyle for people, that's where some of the generational divide falls. So I think that's a crucial part of what's not understood.

There's a tendency still I think for people in their fifties and sixties to see games as socially isolating. And the experience of someone in their twenties and thirties is quite the opposite. It's cultural capital, it's a social-bridging tool, it's shared activities, it's a shared experience. They'll talk about having grown up playing a particular videogame the same way my generation will talk about having grown up watching a particular TV show. And all of that social stuff is the center of why games matter in contemporary culture. Leave aside how much money is made and the size of the industry and all of that. I get all of those arguments. But to me the most compelling one is not aesthetic and it's not economic, it's social.

There's another interesting vector on the way games can be isolating that you mentioned last fall in your office, abouw games lacking iconography in political change. I'm just curious: How did you start noticing that? What do you think it means other than—you know, the old joke about how apolitical gamers stereotypically are or were. But why does it not seem to have broken through in that arena?

I don't know the answer to that yet. I mean, since we talked, we've done more and more of these workshops around the country talking and getting people to think about the future. And we don't intentionally insert pop culture into those workshops, but we listen for it and we can certainly see references to Star Trek among older generations or Harry Potter and Hunger Games among younger generations. Certain stories just emerge. We're certainly seeing Black Panther become a shared reference point across all generations. That impact has been huge when we think about political change. I don't think I've ever seen a reference to a videogame in any of the workshops I've done. And that's, that's really interesting to me, but I don't—and it may be because many of our things are skewing older or in some cases we're working cross-generationally and young people know that those game references won't be understood by the older people. But even when we have a mostly young group, we don't see videogames referenced in the way that these other pop-culture texts are.

It's interesting, because it's hard to notice things you hadn't noticed. But since you mentioned it to me, I had been keeping an eye out for it—I think it was September or something when we met up? So it's been however many months since then and I haven't seen a single instance of it since then. I don't know the answer to it either, but I can confirm it as well. [Laughs.]

At a point when different forms of pop culture are becoming central to our political discourse, videogames are not that interesting. I don't have an explanation, but that's interesting.

That's okay. Well, I can at least confirm it as well, still. And that's an interesting lead-in to what will be my last question for you, which is intentionally broad and I ask everyone I speak to this: What do you feel videogames have accomplished?

Oh, I think they contributed to a push toward a more participatory culture. Games encouraged a sort of worship, for a particular period of time, of interactivity. But I've always been less interested in interactivity that's hardwired into the technologists than I am to the participation that grows up around the technology. And in that sense I'm more interested in, at moments in time, with the development of the guild structure in World of Warcraft, the kinds of byproducts that fans created around—that stems down to something like Minecraft today, that sense of "we can take the building blocks our culture gives them and redesign them, remix them, remake them, and build something new together." It's not that we wouldn't have had that without games. Certainly fan culture gets you there. Certainly other aspects of the internet —Etsy gets you there. Lots of other things gets you in that direction, remix and hip-hop and techno and so forth. But I think games have been maybe the most important force toward a more participatory culture for the largest number of people. That I think more people have learned to think about technology as something they participate in, that they engage in larger communities through, that they can remake and redesign, do different things, than any other project that's come out. And that's probably not what most gamers would point to as their big success. But I think it is maybe their biggest success.

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