Okay, so, my name is Henry Lowood. I'm the curator for history of science and technology collections and also for the film and media collections at Stanford University in the library. My background is in the history of science and technology. I have a PhD from UC Berkeley in that field.
My other claim to fame having to do with games is that I've been a gamer practically my entire life playing board games, computer games, all sorts of things. Sports to some degree. That kind of dovetailed with my academic interests in a project that started in the year 2000 with Tim Lenoir, who was on the faculty here in the history department, called How They Got Game. That project's been the basis for a lot of both historical and preservation projects here at Stanford having to do with games and software and simulations and things like that.
Okay. Well, so, I don't know how much a part of Silicon Valley that you feel like you are, but being in Stanford and being in the area that you're in, this is a thing that I see people talking increasingly about: Are there aspects of Silicon Valley in any stripe that you feel is bleeding into videogames and the videogame industry that you feel maybe others aren't picking up on or they maybe haven't noticed yet?
Well, first, let me preface that by saying what I didn't mention when I introduced myself is the thing that I have been working on the 15 years before the game project that I started, How They Got Game project, and have also been working on since then in parallel with How They Got Game is the Silicon Valley archives, which are at Stanford and which I've been the lead curator for -- I don't even want to say how many years.
The last 10 or years I've been working Leslie Berlin here, the Bob Noyce biographer. So, Silicon Valley is also really firmly in my radar along with games.
Just professionally, the game project here emerged out of the Silicon Valley projects that we have been doing in the library and also with historians here on the faculty. I'm also interested in the history of Silicon Valley. I've written about it a little bit.
So, just through the things that were happening in the late '90s and the early 2000's with games, with military simulation, with several different areas kind of moved us naturally from Silicon Valley to the game industry and other kinds of software that I guess I would broadly put under the category of maybe something like entertainment software? Really broadly. So, I would even include something like Yahoo! or Google in some way underneath that even though it's more about information or culture or education, perhaps. That I do believe is one of the directions Silicon Valley has been moving in is that the base of -- you know, the early decades of Silicon Valley, which were more focused on engineering kinds of problems moved during the '90s into what we might crudely call the content or culture industries or, you know, they say entertainment.
The first company that went into that in a big was probably Ampex, which beginning of late '40s and early/late '50s, paced the recording industry, audio and video recording in North America and in the world really. Had a huge impact on things like broadcast sports, television news, all those sorts of things, but also produced some of the people who went on to start the game industry in Silicon Valley. Notably, Nolan Bushnell and Al Alcorn with Atari. So, that's a line in the development of Silicon Valley that is not part of the standard narrative of the history of Silicon Valley that goes through electronics to semiconductor electronics to the computer industry with the computer industry kind of merging in with this line in the late '70s as we start to see the Apple II, for example, which is a computer but can also be seen as basically a Breakout machine, you know, with Steve Wozniak as the author of Breakout and the designer of the Apple II. He very much was aware of games and of programmed games, all that kind of thing.
So, I think, yeah, that has only accelerated. Silicon Valley's impact, if I were to just sort of summarize it in a sentence, has gone from redefining the technologies of the world to redefining culture in many ways. The technologies that have been developed in Silicon Valley, but also the business approaches, the attitudes towards innovation, the attitude towards change, even. Even that fundamentally, all of those things have had an impact on entertainment, games, movies, television, sports, you name it. You go right down the line. So I think that's been a big theme and that certainly because it has been a big theme has been something that we've been very interested in looking at closely here from the documentation side. You know, gathering materials that document that history.
Yeah. This is something I'm going to ask a lot more about, as far as documentation. I'd be interested to hear you talk about business approaches. You mentioned business approaches coming over from Silicon Valley to the games world.
I think one narrative that's tempting to stick to and forget that there's more to is that as though the game industry came to America from Japan fully formed and that there was no interplay from other influences. Can you talk a little bit about the business influences you feel come distinctly from Silicon Valley and weren't grandfathered in from Japan, as it were?
Yeah, well, I think there are many, many things. [Pause.] One big early difference, which we could maybe summarize as a case by calling it Atari business culture versus Nintendo business culture. You know, if we were just to concentrate on the '70s and '80s. Atari was a company that quite explicitly defined itself as being organized around innovation. Making new things. Its competitive strategy was geared towards that: "We don't need to sue people because we're just gonna stay ahead of them. If they wanna copy us, fine. They'll be copying last year's game. We're gonna have something new by then." That really pervaded the company and if you talk to somebody like Al Alcorn and talk about the decline of Atari, a lot of their explanation for that had to do with Warner not understanding the innovation culture at Atari. You know, how much of that was about innovating and not so much about control of the product. They weren't so worried about controlling their IP or their technology. Certainly they were involved in litigation. I don't want to say they weren't. But their attitude was: If we keep making new things and whether it be hardware or games or whatever zone we might be, if we keep making new things and keep being successful at that, we're gonna stay ahead.
Contrast that with Nintendo, which, you know, from very early on was very much about controlling their technology, controlling their intellectual property, controlling the quality of their games. All of those sorts of things that was core to their business strategy and, indeed, the Atari era in the videogame industry after the more or less collapse of that.
Nintendo came in with this completely different model. What's really interesting to me is that if we look at the computer industry, the exact same thing was happening. The moment in the computer industry was, I would say, the transition from the open Apple II computer. Most computers of the early and late '70s, early '80s, were open. You know, they had open buses and things like that. The S-100 computers. And, of course, the Apple II. You could put a board in. You could do all sorts of things. The shift there was when the Macintosh was introduced, which was a completely closed system. Right?
It's so interesting to me that the launch of the Nintendo Entertainment System in North America and the launch of the Macintosh were so close together in time and basically they involved the same transition in business cultures.
Well, focusing back on the game industry, that contrast was a contrast between, I think, a North American culture led by Atari and a very different Japanese business culture that was introduced by Nintendo coupled by the fact that Nintendo, of course, could learn lessons from what had happened in the earlier videogame industry, what they perceived as failures. Mostly they perceived the failures as having to do with Atari failing to control its property and its technologies.
Yeah, that's what I was gonna ask about. How much of that controlling nature -- and maybe it's overstating or understating to say that Nintendo was tightfisted with its licenses in those early days. I mean, how much of that was Japanese business culture versus how much do you think was just being pragmatic business trying to revive an industry?
Well, I think -- I would be very reluctant to use a term like a Japanese business culture versus a North American business culture even though at the time we're talking about, there were many debates in the air making that comparison explicitly. I mean, semiconductor industry and other high-tech industries were going through what they perceived as a real crisis due to Japanese competition, Asian competition, all that. You know, so there's a lot of rhetoric like that in that historical time period. I'd be reluctant to do that.
I would say, however, that I do think there was Nintendo business culture that perhaps, due to Nintendo's success, became a more generalized Japanese business culture, with other companies act similarly. It's kind of interesting that Sega, which was the first to kind of launch itself against Nintendo with any kind of success, was sort of a hybrid North American-Japanese company anyway. Even in the beginning, right?
It did in part attack -- you know, it's a competition. It was in part based on the idea they were a more innovative company, the technology was superior, that kind of thing. Whether it was true or not, and by and large it was true, the argument was that the sort of image they were projecting of Sega was that they were a much more innovative company. Their platform would be more innovative, they could do games that were much faster and so forth as a result of that. In a way Sonic ends up being an icon of the business culture and all these things that Sega wanted to contrast in the way they did things as the sort of edgy, innovative way they did things as compared to Nintendo.
So, I think -- I guess it's an interesting question to wonder about something deeper than just Nintendo versus, say, Silicon Valley.
I'm both not versed enough in Japanese business history and just, I don't know, intuitively not inclined to jump to a generalization that there's something specifically Japanese about what Nintendo did.
Can you talk a little about the internet and videogames getting as old they are and older as they are and the rise of civilian historians? I guess this is the category I technically fall under, even though I have a background as a journalist. What do you notice as a historian, as a curator of history at Stanford, that tend to be blind spots or approaches that civilian historians make where they're not actually getting the full picture or that they're presenting an incomplete picture?
Okay, so, let's start by demarcating what we mean by "civilian historians." I would include that there's an old tradition of this sort of "gentleman historian," the person of leisure who has time to accumulate resources, documents, do archival research. You know, the well-educated person writing monographs about history. That's an old model.
There's journalists, there's fans, fan zines. There's participants. You know, people who actually did things that then later go back and write about what they did. There's something of a tradition of that in history of computing to some extent. A few people have done that with games. So, there's different kinds of amateur historians. There's also -- you know, I'm kinda jumping ahead a little bit here, but there's also a new twist to this topic of the last few years around topics like Gamergate where the professional academic game studies or the idea of history of games or things like that is considered sort of an inaccurate, illegitimate, however you wanna describe it, take on a history that is understood by far better by self-described gamers. You know, people who are in the culture as opposed to the academic who is seen as outside of the culture -- which kind of reverses the old way of thinking where the professional historian is kind of the insider and the "amateur" as outside.
This reverses that by saying the amateur, the player, is the insider and the academic is the outsider. So, that's kind of an interesting take on that. Anyway.
The main -- as someone who, through the MIT game history series and things like that, has tried to -- the Debugging Game History, the book that we put out, Raiford Guins through MIT Press, we've been trying to promote academic -- maybe scholarly is a better word -- history of games. I think if we think about that, the differences that come to mind -- the scholarly historian on the one hand versus the "amateur," if you want to call it that. I wish I had better words right now.
Like "aspiring" maybe?
Just to make it clear, we're not mocking someone's ambitions or their experience.
No, not mocking.
Yeah. We're just sort of saying --
Yeah, let's actually be very clear about that. Not mocking, and also both crediting non-scholarly historians for a lot of important work. I was just having lunch with Jon Peterson, who did the history of Dungeons & Dragons. I don't know if you know it, Playing at the World? A magnificent book. An amazing book. So, definitely not discrediting people who are not professional historians.
But at the same time, aware of the limitations of much of that work. The limitations that I would call out have to do with things like methodological awareness, self-awareness, understanding different ways of assessing evidence, different kinds of arguments that could be made. That's one whole big category. Another big category is use of documentation. You know, what counts as a document, what counts as an authority in that sense for a document. I think there's a lot of difference in the way that professional historians use documents and the non-professional historians use or don't use them. That's, by the way, one of the big problems with the whole Gamergate discussion is the complete disconnect in the appreciation of the ways in which people are using documentation and interpreting the evidence that's around for historical statements. That area has been the real centers of argument in the whole Gamergate discussion. You know, what counts as legitimate historical work? The different sides in that discussion just don't agree about that. They're not even in the same planet pretty much. So I think those are important differences.
Then, within the non-professional ranks, there are different ways of doing history. I mean, they all are different from professional history in different ways. [Laughs.] So, like, journalistic history might tend to emphasize a strong story in some ways. Somebody who was a practitioner who after the fact is writing about the history of work that they participated in might have interests in showing the importance of particular contributions and writing a story that way might have incredibly deep, resource-based, document-based for a particular aspect of the story and really focus on that to the exclusion of other things.
You know, so, fans might be writing history as an homage, as an appreciation of something where they feel it's important to focus on aspects that awake a kind of nostalgia about games. You know, I'm just reading an amateur history of the FIFA football series, EA's series. That history, which has some useful things in it, however about one-third of the book I would say is devoted to the music tracks and the history of that and which songs were in there. Which, you know, I don't want to pick on anybody but that's not really a historical topic unless there's some kind of argument you want to make about the way that might have affected the game or the development of the game or the reception of the game or whatever.
Are these all licensed tracks?
In the game? Yeah. There's a culture around that. Electronic Arts very smartly some years ago already, not with EA, but you see with this other games as well, mostly sports games has developed a whole part of the company that's about curating tracks of music together as a kind of soundtrack for games where, in effect, the music chosen for the game becomes part of the whole launch experience of the game, you know, to see what music they've chosen. In some cases, some artists and some songs even have become popular through the game.
So, yeah, I mean, that's an important part of the culture and, yes, it's important to write about that, but if you're writing a general history of the FIFA series, I wouldn't think you would have to say that much about the music soundtrack when there's so much else to write about.
In a way, that's an unfair criticism because this is somebody writing out of that fan perspective for fan readers and for them it's an absolutely legitimate part of the writing to awake that kind of nostalgia for some aspect of the game that they've all experienced, that they all know about, they all appreciate. The idea of being reminded that FIFA '98 or, whatever, FIFA '05 had a particular song in it and there was some little story that could be told around that is important. But it's not necessarily -- it's just not historical writing at that point. It's a different kind of writing, but under the auspices of being historical writing.
So, I think there are both differences between professional historical writers and other kinds of historical writers and there are differences among both of those camps. That not every -- you know, journalistic history is probably not gonna look like a fan history, but they're each gonna be different from professional historical writing in different ways.
Yeah, they're all pieces of the puzzle, I suppose, right?
Yeah. Again, to not sound disparaging intentionally, I've learned something from all of the above. I will learn something that I can use just in terms of documentation -- leads to follow, names of people, the authorial voice of the person writing that history telling me that something was important might in itself be important. In a sense, it's almost like a primary source. To them, they're writing the history of something else. It could be that that writing and that appreciation of a particular moment or a particular aspect of a game, let's say, is significant to me as a piece of historical evidence about the culture of the game. So, I'm not disparaging of that at all, but I do think they're different and I do think that historical work in games studies has been underrepresented. It does have something to contribute to scholarly game studies. So, some work needs to be done to get that train out of the station and encourage more scholarly historical work. There's no shortage of fan work or journalistic histories. In many cases the only histories we have of particular companies or games are in those categories.
When they're also deserving, in addition to those treatments, they're also deserving of a scholarly treatment as well.
So, what aspects of game history do you feel is not being documented? Are there things we've already lost?
[Laughs.] Almost everything. We probably know the most, at this point, about business and high-level development history of games. We have sort of a timeline. We know what some of the major significant moments and titles and that sort of thing were. There's quite a bit of work coming out in the next year or has just come out about Atari, for example. So we can understand that particular company, Nintendo, pretty well.
What we have very, very few studies of are things like the detailed development history of games, the structure, the sort of technical history of games. How technologies that are deeply embedded in the structure of games came to be, how they're developed, how they shape what games end up being as an artifact and the capabilities of games, the affordances they have for players.
We have some really great writing on players and player cultures, particularly for online games. Among online games, especially for first-person shooters and massively multiplayer games and virtual worlds. So, we have some zones that have been covered pretty well for players, and then for other kinds of games just almost nothing. Other than T.L. Taylor's work, there's been very little done on things like esports and the Twitch phenomenon and all of those kinds of things. It's very uneven, and in some cases it's a vast wasteland as far as historical game studies. I think that's gonna change quickly over the next decade because there's a new -- it's the second generation of game scholars is being produced right now. The first generation of game scholars weren't game scholars.
They were people trained in other disciplines.
We're just seeing now, really, in the last couple of years and now looking forward we're gonna see many, many more people emerging from graduate schools having done dissertations on some aspect of the history of games or the culture of games being hired in different kinds of departments but being hired to teach that, to continue to do that, to continue to write and do research about that.
So, it's gonna change pretty soon but right now? I'd love to be thinking about what my PhD would be about because there would be so many topics.
The other thing you asked about, what's been lost? That has to do, at this point, more with documentation, with things that you might argue that if all the documentation that was available 10 or 20 years ago had been accompanied by somebody writing about a topic at that time, they might've had a better chance to write a thorough history than today. Now, an example of that, something I've been looking at recently, just looking at the culture of Quake movies and you have the engagement of Quake players with Quake as sort of a technological platform. So, we're talking about 20 years ago. 1996. I've been in and out of this topic for a while and I can see doing something in 2016 on just tracking some of my old notes, my old links, things like that. There are many sources that were available to me 10 years ago that are no longer available to me, and I'm talking about things mostly that were put on websites.
Likewise, I'm finding that in trying to contact people who were doing things who were 20 years old at the time, who are 40 now, maybe don't really remember that much and that haven't kept email, haven't kept video captures and things like that. So, there is going to be a problem with writing the history of games in periods. Especially during which more and more of the documentation was kept online. These kinds of things I just mentioned don't so much effect somebody working on Atari. There are some good paper-based collections, archival collections here at Stanford, at the Strong Museum in New York, private collections that people have that really give you a lot of documentation to look at if you're working on Atari. It's interesting that you can work on a topic from the 1970's with a better documentation base than you can on the topic from the 1990's. I think, you know, the 1990's -- Internet Archive didn't get started until the late '90s. It took a while for Internet Archive to deal with relatively complex web pages. Some of the web pages that were developed, the websites that were developed around Quake, games like that in the '90s, were really big collections of things and many often distributing software and tools and demo movies and all kinds of stuff. A lot of that stuff, the Internet Archive wasn't really picking in the early days of their crawling and all that. So, when FilePlanet and some of these big sites go away, they take a lot with them. That's a big issue. That That means -- you know, it's not the first time in the history of the world that documentation has been lacking about a subject or has been destroyed or lost or whatever. Historians deal with that, but it will definitely be a problem for some parts of game history more than it will be for other parts.
So, for people who read this and maybe this is the first of these interviews that they're gonna read and maybe they don't have much of a window on videogames. Maybe all they know about videogames is people shouting and shooting at each other online or maybe they know what Angry Birds is -- not asking this in an accusatory way, but why does this sort of work matter? What does it help? How does it help people?
Well, the help first and foremost I would say is getting to a better historical understanding of the culture of the late 20th/early 21st century, which I don't think you can do without looking at a bundle of topics that include computer networks, computation, the web, games, simulations, you know, hypermedia, a lot of together. Games are a very important part of that. What I'm saying is there, just to be clear, the first reason to study the history of digital games along with those other things is not the history of digital games. The first reason to study is because you're interested in the culture of the late 20th century/early 21st century. You want to know how we got to be the way we are.
If you want to understand -- I would argue if you want to understand how we could have a presidential campaign like the one we're having right now, where I'm sure millions of people across the country are updating their Twitter feeds or FiveThirtyEight or something like that by the minute just to keep track of what might have been said or revealed or people yelling at each other there -- just an amazing transition, if you could go back in a time capsule just 20 years to see how elections were run then to place then.
What changed us? How did various kinds of communications, media, digital media get to have the cultural hold that they have now? You have to look at the history of the last 30 years through the lens of these different new digital media. We have to document that. The game part of it probably doesn't tell you as much about the presidential campaign. Maybe that's more social media, internet, web, so forth. But transformations in education, training in a whole bunch of fields, entertainment, leisure time, all kinds of topics that really take up a lot of the cultural time of a civilization. A lot of that has been affected by digital games in particular, and we need to figure that out. We need to understand what happened. We need to understand how these changes took place. I think that's the main -- for me, that's the main reason for doing history of digital games. It's like, sure, I'm a fan. I've been a player all my life. There's games I like. I play games for recreation, all of that. Hey, that's great that that happens to dovetail with this, but it's not the reason for doing the history and trying to save as much of the documentation for future historians as possible. It's a bigger perspective than that. We're trying to understand deeper changes than simply why a particular game was popular. It's trying to understand the underlying changes that I've just described and I think that's pretty important.
So, I mean, I've interviewed a couple of other academics, game academics, I'm sure they're names you'd recognize or know, like Jesse Schell.
You know, I asked a little bit about sort of the relationship between games academia and games industry just as far as does it seem comparable to other industries? I know in some ways the purpose of academia is to be distinct and separate from industry. Can you talk a little bit about -- what do you notice about the relationship in games between academia and industry and do you feel it's comparable to other industries?
So, most people I think who do game studies just as an academic hire or something like that, and one of the first questions you're gonna hear people ask is, "Is it a critical game studies position or a production or game-design position?" So, game studies has these two faces. One is the critical, historical, analytical side and the other is the engineering, training, preparing people to go into the industry, that kind of thing. Some programs have been much more focused on that. I would say it's fair to say at something like Carnegie Mellon, for example, which is a great program and one of the first big game studies program. They've been mostly focused on bachelor's and master's curricula that prepare people for work in the industry, right? It's pretty much like maybe some engineering schools would for other industries. So, that's one division in that question.
I think -- I'm on the critical studies side, but I'm gonna answer your question from the point of view of the production side because I think there's some really interesting changes going on there. We just a few days ago had a visit from a former student of mine here, a guy named Doug Wilson, who's a very well known indie game designer, also has a PhD in game studies from the IT University in Copenhagen. He was talking about this shift that he sees, which I agree with, and I think the shift colors the game industry but also colors what happens in academic game studies from the big AAA-rated games, where teams of 200 people and more working on them, you know, the EAs of the world, the Activisions of the world to a much more spread out, diversified, small company, indie kind of feeling with a lot of game development -- of course and mobile games, for the most part, fit that a little bit better and talking about how in curriculum planning, the idea that you might have before about how these kind of things translate, you might have had before that the culminating experience in a final year of preparation at a university might be a big team-based projects. You know, like a three-quarter, two-semester project that results in the development of a game with 10 students working on it so you get that team-building and artists working with programmers where, "I'm gonna have this role and that person's gonna have a different role." That could shift to a curriculum where it's more about very agile development, where you as an individual, rather than working in teams, you learn how to design games very quickly in many different modes so you learn how to 10 different quickly developed games by yourself over a period of time. You know, the way you study games would be different. If you're just thinking as, "I'm gonna be a programmer, I'm gonna be an artist," your way of studying games might be very different from someone who's thinking, "I need to learn as many different tools, I need to understand indie-game development, mobile game, all sorts of different things together." You would probably go about the studies very differently.
That's, of course, related to the impact of indie games, which is a part of the game culture that's changing. I think that's also somewhat related even to topics like Gamergate, where before the game culture was maybe defined by a few really big titles that everybody played together, certainly that was true when I was talking before about the mid-'90s. Doom was a game where you could say, "Hey, people are interested in first-person shooters, a big part of the PC game culture? They're all playing the same game. They all have the same understanding of what it means to be playing the 'in' game at point in time." Whereas today, many more people are playing different kinds of games. That's led to diversity in the face of players as well as the way the games look. So, this is a change that tracks from the games that are being produced through the culture and eventually we see that it's affecting the way curricula would be designed to produce the people who make the games.
I'm answering your question from the side that I actually know the least about, so it makes it easy for me to talk about.
On the critical, analytical side it's a little different in that there have not been big programs yet. There's no dominant program on that side of it yet. Like, Carnegie Mellon was turning out a lot of students for a while. I think they probably still are. So, in a given year probably 20 or 30 or more students from there might be hired by EA in one swoop. There's no comparable dominant program churning out as many people on the critical, historical, analytical side.
Part of that is because that's more of a PhD-driven thing than a bachelor's and master's degree-driven thing. You know, there are a bunch of different reasons for that, but it's still in formation. It's still -- there isn't a dominant way to do it where you can say, "Oh, you know, I want to start a new program and do it like University X did it." There isn't a university that has produced a thing that other people could copy yet for those kinds of critical studies of games.
I'm wondering, maybe from either end of that dynamic, you said you could or couldn't speak to -- I'm just curious because I feel like I've never read about this and I assume this is something your circles might track a little more tightly and with more eagle eyes. I feel like I've never seen a Miyamoto or a Carmack or a Molyneux or even a Bleszinski sort of talk about having an awareness of the research that's done in games academia. Have you ever heard or seen a figure like that talking about the work that your world does?
Oh yeah. There are a few. John Romero, Steve Meretzky, Warren Spector, Frank Lantz, who is actually --
Spector was, Lantz is, if you're talking about people who crossed over into academia and stayed there.
Yeah, right. In addition --
Romero, too, actually --
Yeah, you just took the words out of my mouth. So, the point I was making initially was they're all interested in what's going on and in conversations with that.
Then the next thing is so much so that they've all spent time on it in academic situations. Now, generally, just because of their careers and the way they've developed, these guys have been more involved in the game-design side of the curricula. However, Frank Lantz and Warren Spector have also written -- I've seen them give talks that are essentially, I would say, as good as other talks I've seen given by thoroughly trained PhDs. Spector is all but -- he was a graduate student in media studies. So, there's kind of an interest in working with universities to help train students in game design but then there's also have been contributions to critical game studies from people of that ilk as well. I'm certainly leaving out -- I know I'm leaving out people who have also done really interesting work. But, yeah, there are -- the other thing you're seeing now, the guy I mentioned before, Doug Wilson is a good example of that -- young PhDs who are getting PhDs but not leaving game design behind.
Maybe the one slightly older person, although from my perspective he's young, who exemplifies that might be Ian Bogost.
So, there is crossover. There's plenty of crossover. I'd say there's more crossover, strangely -- you know, you think of games studies as having nothing to do with and being as far from the academy as possible, the difficulties people have getting game-studies curricula into universities and all of that as being a frivolous subject. That story is not entirely true, but that's something that I'm sure a lot of people believe. But actually, there has been a lot of contact over the years. You know, GDC, there have been academic summits for a long time. Some of it's around training the workforce for games of the game industry, but some of it has been more academic work.
I had interviewed Dave Gibson over at the Library of Congress and he told me about some of the pushback he had gotten from game industry in supplying material and being cooperative. I asked him this question about recent changes in copyright law and I guess it doesn't impact them much because they are the government because they're gonna be fine, either way. [Laughs.]
But I know a lot was written in games media about what a big deal the copyright law changes were. I guess I'm curious from your end, is there more you think academia could do to push in ways against copyright getting in the way of the work you're trying to do?
Or is that not really a factor?
Certainly law faculty could be and have been -- so, Center for Internet and Society at Stanford, the Berkman Center at Harvard, have been very involved in copyright issues. You know, Creative Commons was basically an academic thing, right? At the beginning.
That said, the academic impact can only go so far, and until there's changes in the copyright law and practice itself, it's gonna continue to be a big problem just because the way the DMCA was put together, the process for gaining exemptions, all of that kind of stuff testifies to the fact, I'm pretty sure it is a fact, that there was absolutely no consideration of the impact of the law on preservation, archives, history, things like that. It just wasn't on their radar at all, and as a result whether the consequences were anticipated or unanticipated, they very often make it very difficult to do the work that needs to be done unless you take the position that, say, the Internet Archive has taken of very aggressively taking managed risks. They know what they're doing as far as how far they can go and what their strategies are for handling different situations that come up, but most institutions don't have that culture like the Internet Archive. There are certain things that as a result of that culture, the Internet Archive really can't do.
It's just -- it would be so much easier for us if somebody came along with a magic wand that could just change -- to me, it's a simple thing. I'll give you one example. I don't know why the law is the way it is, but if you take the exemption process, and what that is is if you want to do something that contradicts the copyright law, you can apply for an exemption. So, let's say in taking a real-world example, some years ago we wanted to be able to circumvent certain kinds of copy-protection mechanisms for historical preservation purposes, okay? You want to make copies even though it's not set up to let you do that, and to do that you would have to essentially break a copy-protection thing, which is an explicit violation. But you can get an exemption, and we did get an exemption. The Internet Archive took the lead and we worked with them on that at Stanford. Got an exemption. The thing is, the exemptions only last for three years. Then you have to renew them and renew them and renew them ad infinitum. It's a lot of work to get an exemption. It's not a court, exactly, but the process is like that and you pretty much need, the cases I know about, you pretty much need lawyers to do it and all of that. To get the effort together once or even twice, it's a big deal, but it's doable. If something hurts enough, you're gonna make that effort to get an exemption. But you're not gonna do it every three years forever.
So, it's built into that system that exemptions, no matter how logical or helpful they would be, how little they impact the industry from a money-making perspective, no matter what, you're never gonna get a permanent exemption unless the law if fundamentally changed. So, if it changes so that maybe the exemptions were -- if the option at the copyright office, it could even be three years or permanent or something. By the way, most of the exemptions I've seen have been from academic institutions, from libraries, from universities. You know, the things like being able to make copies or certain uses for the classroom, checking out materials for educational purposes, things like that that seem like a benefit to society to be able to do, but it's a consequence of the way the law was written that they are literally a violation. So, I would argue that often with these exemptions, it would be beneficial to society as a whole, not just to the requester, of the person or institution requesting the exemption, to just say, "Hey, this is something that we could just leave open forever or we could revisit in 25 years instead of having this permanent three-year renewal cycle, which is ridiculous."
The things like that, to me it's clear, it's logical. I could be completely wrong 'cause I don't know about the political process around DMCA, but if somebody had brought that up I bet -- it doesn't seem like it would have been a big deal to have a provision to have it just be different in the way I just outlined, but for whatever reason that's not the case and now we're stuck with it.
This may have been last time we talked, so, sorry to make you repeat yourself, but with the stuff we're trying to preserve, or you're trying to preserve, or others are trying to preserve, are we losing daylight in a way with things on magnetic tape or floppy disks that are sitting on shelves that haven't been found? Are these disks going to be dying while this copyright stuff sorts itself out? Is this a problem? Or am I overstating it?
Well, to some extent, data will be lost, for sure. Data has already been lost. The extent is not totally known and we're still learning about that. I'm just making a gross generalization, but in the last few years there have been several digital archive projects carried out by, in some cases, groups of libraries or archives or, in our case, we did a project with the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Maryland with our software collection. Generally speaking, it's turning out that -- and we're just discovering, contrary to early work that was done, the older media seem to be doing better than expected and the newer media seem to be doing worse than expected.
Interesting. Is there a planned obsolescence effect there, or?
There's different things. You know, some of it is just things were marketed incorrectly or different choices that were made about the media that turned out to have consequences. So, you know, CD, DVD turns out to be a pretty terrible archiving format, especially when you're burning your own personal data onto it.
[Laughs.] What if you put the gold Sharpie on the inner rim? Doesn't that help somehow?
Well, there's some things --
I'm kidding, but I'm sure you remember that.
Yeah, I know.
But the question is a good one. There are in fact things that people could have done to make it a better medium but nobody did them. The low-hanging fruit thing on that is that -- you probably remember that whenever you wrote to a CD-ROM, you had the option of doing error-checking, right?
Except that really slowed it down. That made it take a lot longer, generally. So, most people didn't do it. Some studies I've read in the last few years that have looked at burned CDs, burned DVDs, that kind of thing, are finding that probably one of the reasons for the low half-life of the data on those discs is that in many cases that disc was never viable. In other words, it was dead on arrival. It was stillborn, in effect. When it was written, it was written badly. There was no error-checking on it. You just put the DVD away or the CD away, 10 years later you look at it and say, "Oh my God, it went bad!" But, actually, the data was possibly never correctly burned on there. So, you know, things like that. It also turns out that -- in addition to that media format doing badly, the floppies turned out to have not been so bad. I'm sure some of that had to do with the lower density of the information on them, some of it had to do with the technology, some of it had to do with the fact that 3.5" diskettes are physically protected pretty well, you know?
A hard case around them and all that.
So, we've been able to get, in our project with NIST, we've got a pretty surprisingly good recovery rate from floppies, audio cassettes even, and the numbers were lower for CD, DVD, and that's in line with other studies that have been done. Again, you remember earlier this came up, it looks like the '70s and '80s might be in better shape in some ways than the '90s and the 2000's. I think just in this case, because of media choices, then you factor in the cloud and what happens to all the data on the web and so forth, it gets to be quite complicated. And so, as a result of all those things, of course, quite a bit will be lost.
I'm glad you mentioned the '70s and '80s 'cause I was planning on asking about those decades. I had asked you a question about criticism or writing about games and you had told me a little bit about zine culture around board games in the '70s and '80s.
That's something I know, honestly, nothing about. What are components of that coverage that we just don't seem to have anymore?
Well, what hasn't been written about very much but there's been a little bit of writing -- somebody like James Dunnigan, has written about this, that board wargamers and board gamers of other ilks, like, well, I guess diplomacy is kind of a board game, but also the Dungeons & Dragons crowd in the later '70s and so on, were generally pretty well-educated, pretty literate people and also were, in many cases, interacting with lots of students who were playing these kinds of games and simulation societies like there were at MIT and other places, the military, and all of that. And so, it was a pretty well-educated group. Indeed, to play a, let's say, a reasonably complex war game from the 1970's, you had to read a pretty complicated set of rules, understand them, manipulate charts and read and understand abstractly presented information on counters and play on maps and understand how the map influenced what you were gonna do and all that. So, pretty well-educated people.
So, the zines that developed out of that group tended to be quite literate almost from the beginning, from the founding of the early zines and then the first sort of commercial -- I would still call them zines, but magazines like The General or Strategy & Tactics. As a result of that, I think the expectations about discussion of the games at an analytical level led to a very strong review culture in those magazines. The standard for game reviewing for board wargames in the 1970's was very high. There were some very good, very provocative writers for some very good magazines, and the writing was surprisingly mature within that tradition. I think because many of the players were a little bit older, in this case it's relative. We're talking about people in their twenties and thirties as opposed to teenagers. So, that was probably close to being a golden age for game reviews. The level of writing was that high. That's something that was kind of lost as with the more intense commercialization of games accrued through digital games, videogames. The idea of the game review became something more focused on the acquisition decision, you know, "Is this a good game or not?"
You know, "Should I buy it?"
More of the sort of previews, the web of course had the impact of, in many cases, cutting down the length of reviews. So, there's this commonly stated lament about the state of game reviews. Gamergate was sparked by disagreements about game reviews and assertions about what a game review is and what governs the objectivity of a game review, you know. It's very strange to me in light of the high standard that was set by game reviews for board games in the 1970's where actually it was the subjectivity of game reviews that made them so good and so interesting, right?
[Laughs.] I think "objective review" is a bit of an oxymoron anyway.
Yeah, but in a nutshell, if you were trying to understand what the initial battle was about in the Gamergate controversy, objectivity of reviews is kind of -- you as a journalist just saying, journalists and eventually scholars got dragged into it, have to objective in a certain way.
That was driving the rhetoric of at least one side of that. Yeah, it is an oxymoron. You want an opinion. You want a take on the game. You want somebody to say something interesting out of their own experience that informs your experience. You don't wanna just have something that's gonna be somebody, as we very often are, reduced to a number. You know, "It's a three out of five stars so, yeah, I won't buy it. If it had gotten four stars I would buy it."
That's not very interesting. I think the authorial voice, the kind of writing that was really important in zine culture, at least for board wargames, there was a guy named Jack Radey who was an about Marxist, also game designer, he wrote -- you know, there were particular magazines, he wrote a column for it, he often reviewed games. It was the kind of thing where you would open it up and look and see if he had written something in that issue and you went right there and you read it front to end, the long article that he produced. You didn't miss it. People talked about it. There were other reviewers who had different reputations for really informing you about a game or maybe another person might be more gossipy or another -- like this guy Radey that I mentioned -- might take a more critical point of view in a political sense. There were voices like that in that culture. They were in dialog with developers. There were disputes that were driven by the interaction between these players and writers and then the developers, some of which were just amazing. There was one in the magazine Strategy & Tactics that ended up being a forum with five or six contributors which was basically, and this was 1970 plus or minus one or two years, about the game designer as n-word, you know?
Just about stereotypes and ideas about what a game designer is for wargames. You know, that's getting to be pretty intense kind of discussion about the nature of game design. You know, the whole realism versus playability discussion, that was driven through these magazines and all of that as a very long discussion around that.
Modding culture, by the way -- this is an aside, this isn't the same as the reviewing and the kind of articles I've been talking about, but there was also a very active game-revision kind of culture with board games that's pretty easy to do. So that do-it-yourself sort of part of it where players begin to contribute happened a lot in the board games at the time, and the magazines were a way of moving from being just a player to a higher level in the career of a gamer of writing some articles or reviews and getting involved in a way that's gonna eventually lead to you even designing games. I know a bunch of people that did that. So, it was a culture that, to me, I don't want to be just nostalgic about it, I want to say that it shows the grow that game journalism, game writing can have in a game culture.
I think we're looking -- you know, many people, scholars, players, developers, are looking for that right now. We see a few attempts to develop magazines like that nowadays because there's just a hole there. There isn't a culture like that right now around games. It's missing.
Right, well. [Laughs.] I went off and started my own thing 'cause there's no where I can go to write --
Granted this is sort of open-ended reporting that I'm doing, but even just trying to place articles right now from any of it, the culture is just not there. I mean, that's not why I asked to talk to you but it's funny because I hadn't thought about it this way. You know, you said it got "severely commercialized," videogames.
It's funny because I didn't think about it in quite this way. It's funny that as it got more commercialized it became less mainstream in some ways. You were saying that you're waiting for mainstream journalists to write about games in an informative way.
So I'm not asking you to repeat yourself, per se, but what are the types of things you feel like you don't read about games but you do see from other places that write about other mediums?
Especially entertainment mediums. I know you mentioned movie industries in India and Nigeria, if I'm remembering correctly.
Well, yeah, what I was talking about before was more like the insider culture. You know, those kind of zines where you had a very rich insider culture of people that could develop their understanding of games through really good writing. The question you're asking me now is more about writers who aren't necessarily on the inside, wouldn't necessarily consider themselves insiders to the culture writing about the lived lives in games and around games much as -- you know, right now for example at Stanford, we have several people in the film and media faculty who write about film in the context of specific cultures: South Asia and the Indian film industry. One of our faculty here has written a history of Nollywood, which is the Nigerian film industry -- obviously that name comes in contradistinction to Bollywood in India. Those are -- we wouldn't talk about Bollywood, Nollywood, Hollywood as being the same culture. It would be -- if we write about one or the other, we would want to know more about the ways in which production and consumption of films in these different countries happens, we would learn about differences, we would learn a lot about history, not just of the film industries or the content of the films but about those countries more generally and their cultures. I don't see that much along those lines with respect to games. It's amazing to me how much how writing about games generally feels like it's almost independent of geographical or cultural rootedness.
Yes, people write about Japanese games. Sure, we understand there's a Japanese game culture, but there hasn't been a lot written about -- you know, the question you asked me almost in the beginning, where you said, "Do you think the difference between Nintendo and Atari could have something to do with Japanese business culture and North American business culture?" I don't know -- I can't tell you. I'm not the person that has written about that, but I can't tell you who has.
European -- we know there's European game scenes, we know there's developed games that are developed in different parts of the world, we know people live lives around those games to some extent, the impact of games on them in different countries is probably different. It's like -- I mean, it just doesn't even really register in the literature at all. I think journalists could do a lot to change that, just to start thinking about experiences, lived lives that people have, and how games figure into that, how maybe what we get from -- you know, we've gotten the last few years about the lifestyle of people working at a company like EA, we've had all this stuff about crunch mode and you can't have a family and you burn out when you're 30, is that an international thing or is it different in another country? Are there other kinds of cultures? What is it like to be a game programmer in Japan? Many, many, many -- I mean, I could go just down the line with all kinds of questions. I think we need to have just more stories about the way games are lived, in a sense, for want of a better word, in different cultures. There's very little attention to that.
If you heard me laugh, it's a laugh of recognition. It's a difficult thing to register and so abstract. I can feel that question dissipate as I try to refer back to it.
But, yeah, it's a thing where I often wonder, "Well, am I just not researching in the right places? Do I not know the right things to Google? Can I not find the right people to ask?" It's a question asked of an unexpected tangent up top, but it's sincere in that I legitimately don't know. [Laughs.]
And I legitimately don't know who to ask but I will continue to ask other people.
It's certainly -- historical game studies would help. There are some, in fact, in our MIT series, there's some studies coming out now that do talk about specific cultural historical national contexts in games.
So, you know, there's one book about gaming behind the Iron Curtain, another about Australia and New Zealand. So, boy, we need a lot more of that. Again, this is something where it might take the eye of someone who's not embedded inside game culture, somebody who just has a more -- the snapshot they take of the times has a much wider shot, takes in more things to write about this.
I don't think you can get to these kinds of topics just from inside games. By the way, again, going way back early in the conversation, the issue about how did we get to where we are? What impact did digital media have on us as a world?
It might be that the writers who end up putting that together will have to come from outside a very narrow view of game studies. You know, they'll have to be people who have a much wider perspective on things.
Is it a naive pursuit, this kind of thing I'm doing of trying to gather a lot of these different stories under the notion that if presented properly, this could help games break through in a different way? To help them pay attention in a way? We've mentioned this in the course of the last hour or so, as games became more commercial, there was less mainstream scrutiny, and there used to be a certain type of scrutiny and that's going away.
Maybe less specifically about this project, but are we just tilting at windmill until a certain foundation is formed? Maybe you feel much more connected to people having an understanding and an appreciation of it. I spend a lot of my time sending out interview requests and hoping people understand what I mean. [Laughs.]
Well, I think -- I don't think what I'm saying is negative for your project. I think it's actually positive, but I do think maybe what I'm saying is that the most positive outlet for the results of the project wouldn't necessarily be to feed into the insider game culture, to sort of bring the lesson to them, but to see if there's a way to bring it to a more general readership. I'm kinda thinking of, you know, like a book like a chestnut like Soul of a New Machine, Tracy Kidder's book kind of introduced people who had no contact whatsoever with the computer industry at that time to a lot of -- really gave them the feeling that they understood much better what people in that industry were trying to do and how they were actually doing it.
So, maybe, I guess, what I'm sort of recommending is you don't think of this as something that ends up in a game magazine or something like that but rather would be aimed a much more general readership so that that readership can get an appreciation, even if they don't play very many games -- there aren't that many people that play no games.
When somebody says, "Oh, I don't play games at all," you spend five minutes with them and you find out, "Yeah, you play games, you're just not thinking of that as a game."
Some kind of game. You know, not necessarily digital. Just to kind of make them see how games, digital games in particular, in concert with other things that are changing the world over the last 20, 30 years, have helped to explain the world that we're in now from a historical perspective. It doesn't even have to be a historical perspective in your case because you don't have to say, "I'm doing history." You can be very presentist about it, which is to say, "This is part of the explanation for the way things are now."
Not necessarily frame it as, "I'm gonna explain to you how the game industry developed or why this is a popular game." Rather, it's more of an explanation of why we're all learning in a certain way or getting our information about the news of the presidential election in a certain way or arguing with people in a certain way or making friends in a certain way. You know, all of those things, maybe that's what you're after and not so much explaining why World of Warcraft has 10 million subscribers.
[Laughs.] That's absolutely correct. That's a little bit of my goal. Okay, well, let me ask you an equally abstract final --
[Laughs.] Yeah, "final" question that's gonna take three hours to answer. Okay. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] Well, if you've read these before, you've seen this question, which is intentionally broad and vague and abstract: What do you think videogames have accomplished?
[Pause.] Oh, wow. [Pause.] That is very broad in that stripe, isn't it?
It is, I warned you. [Laughs.]
Well, I guess if you put a gun to my head and said I have to answer that question, generally, I way that I think of myself is that I don't like to answer questions like that because I'm much more about details of making things sort of complicated, not giving big answers to things because the big answers leave out a lot.
But, if you put a gun to my head, I think I would say the main thing games have accomplished without the video, necessarily, in front of that, is over the course of my lifetime, games have gone from being something you did to divert yourself from the world in small chunks of time to something you do as part of your engagement with the world sometimes involving large chunks of time. So, you know, you could even compress more by saying games have made themselves relevant in a very different way. They've become more important. That's probably the biggest change. Nobody -- you know, when we talk about games today, we include a lot more things than would've been included in the '70s, let's say. People weren't talking very much about telling a story through a game, you know, games as a narrative medium or the idea of learning through a game was limited to just a very few disciplines. There wasn't a whole heck of a lot stuff going on then where people would just sort of talk casually and agree that they knew what the other person was talking about. Today, it's just no big deal to talk about games are a narrative medium, games are as big as film, we learn from games, we gamify our business, you know, all those sorts of things. Nobody would have talked like that. That's what's really changed about games, that people will talk that way in mixed polite company and not get hooted out of the room. [Laughs.]