My name's Jerome McDonough, I'm an associate professor at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. How old am I this year? 52? Yeah. That's right. [Laughs.] Have to think about these things when you get to my age. It takes a minute to call them out and then you're sorry you did.
So, I could identify sort of three areas in which I've sort of crossed over into dealing with the games world. I got into personal computers back the mid-1980's, mainly for doing writing, but also hanging out with some people in the Bay Area then who were doing some computer games. So, I had some experience with some of the early 1980's computer games, including some that I think should probably get some more reputation in the field but haven't. Things like Thomas Disch’s Amnesia, which I think probably has the claim to be the first sandbox virtual world even though it was a text game. He basically recreated all of Manhattan below 110th street as part of the game. And The Colony, which was interesting because it was one of the earliest true 3D games, and told the story of a lone space ranger coming down on a planet where a research facility was located that was doing teleportation experiments when something went horribly wrong and aliens overran the base about five years before this game called Doom came along.
So, did that. Actually never really got into gaming after that much, but went to do my master's degree and then dissertation at Berkeley, the library school there, and ended up doing this work looking at how people construct identity online and got very interested in people's activities in first-generation multi-user VR spaces. So, before there was Second Life, there were things like Active Worlds and Alpha World, Worlds Chat, Black Sun Interactive, a variety of other first-generation 3D spaces.
And there were things like Active Worlds, where you could actually build your own virtual objects and architecture within the landscape. So, I did a lot of research talking to people about virtual spaces and trying to figure out what were they doing there. How do they present their identities in these spaces?
Graduated, ended up working the professional side of librarianship for a while, headed the digital library team at NYU and got into digital preservation efforts and then came here to join the faculty at Illinois. When I got here, my dean, John Unsworth, was just starting out this project on preservation of computer games and interactive fiction. Since he knew of my work in digital preservation at NYU, he wanted to know if I was interested in getting involved with this and I said, "Sure."
And that launched two major research projects that were focused on how do we preserve computer games and multi-user worlds and interactive fiction.
What is the ultimate goal with this preservation? I had a seen a video of you talking about trying to prevent things like a warped Edisongraph being made obsolete and unable to be played. How does that correlate to computer games?
So, because I work in the university environment, most of the preservation efforts that we're focused on here are preserving these things for scholarly use. But obviously, what you want for scholarly use is as much access to the original material as possible. One of the questions we were looking at in Preserving Virtual Worlds was actually what does that mean? What is access to the material? Does that mean access to the underlying code? Does that mean access to a playable instance of the game? Does that mean access to the various facets that went into the production of the game that would be lurking in a game company's archives somewhere? Does this mean access to records of actual gameplay? How do we define what scholars want? And, of course, the answer when you ask scholars that is, "Yes!"
All of the above.
How does that complicate the work that you're trying to do other than obviously making more of it?
Well, when you're a faculty member you love things like that because that means I now have my next research project. [Laughs.]
But that was of particular interest to me because in addition to preservation, one of my big research interests is metadata and how do we describe assets to make them more easy to retrieve and use.
And when you say, "Okay, we want the source code and we want the executable code and we want knowledge about an environment necessary to instantiate and run the executable code and we want background gameplay assets that report what people really did with this," suddenly we have this huge complex of knowledge. We don't have just one thing we want to preserve, we have this knowledge base. And that raises the question of how do you organize and make searchable and useful this complex set of material and not just the original game? And I've been carrying on with that research for a bit. It raises a lot of interesting questions, actually, about the sort of institutional arrangements we've made for preserving digital assets and whether our current configuration of institutions that preserve information are really best suited for trying to preserve things like games and other types of complex media.
If you look at the game world, you do see some work by libraries, archives, and museums to preserve things. But a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of game preservation work has actually been done by gamers, people who worked at game companies. People who have developed emulators generally don't come from the academic community. A lot of this has just been done by the fan community.
Are you just basically trying to preserve as much as possible? Do you have a master plan you're working from? What does your "to-do" list look like versus your "done" list?
Well, since I'm an academic and I don't actually run a library or an archive or a museum, I'm not actually trying to preserve anything. I'm trying to figure out how to preserve things.
So, the people who actually preserve things, you'd want to talk to people like Jason Scott at the Internet Archive and all the work he has been doing in trying to get a lot of older games -- particularly things that are in the unknown IP status -- and try to rescue those before they vanish completely and work with the mass emulator community so this stuff can be made available online.
I have my own list of things that I would like to see preserved, but that's stuff that -- until such day as I'm actually running an archive, that's just my opinion among many millions of them.
What's the sort of stuff you'd like to see preserved personally?
The longer stuff goes the harder it is to preserve it. I mean, digital assets like games are rather innately difficult to preserve in the first place. There are some things from the earliest history of games I'd like to see preserved just because that really was the emergence of a brand new type of media. I mean, computer games and computer art generally are, to my mind, the first really new major media category that's come along since television came along.
Having documentation of the early stages of what went on in the gaming industry is like having early documentation of what went on at the beginning of the Renaissance with painting. The more of this stuff we can collect and save, the better.
I know you mentioned you and your community work in tandem or concert with people who play games and are really passionate about documenting aspects of them. Does the work you're doing necessitate cooperation from game companies that are still around? Like, I know there was that thing recently where the ESA was saying preservation was hacking and were discouraging that. But are companies helpful when you try to do this sort of work or do you hit a brick wall when you need to contact a game company?
Actually, companies are often very helpful and the developers in companies in particular. When you come to these people and say, "We think what you're doing is art. In fact, you're doing amazing art. You're doing the first new artform that people have seen in awhile. This stuff needs to be preserved." They take that as a fairly big compliment. [Laughs.] And I think rightfully so. And they're interested in this stuff, or they wouldn't be working in the industry. They do want to see it preserved.
The problem that they and we have -- and one of the reasons why ESA takes the dim view of the whole preservation thing is how do you that within the bounds of existing intellectual property rights and intellectual property rights agreements? So, one of our case studies for Preserving Virtual Worlds was looking at Second Life_and the GA I had working for me at the time, Rob Olendorf, spent a lot of time looking at can we actually preserve islands in_Second Life as third parties and how far can we get with that while actually adhering to Linden Labs’ terms of service. And the answer was, sadly, not very far. Not because it's not technically possible to preserve a lot. It's not that difficult to write a bot that will troll through a Second Life island and capture all of the geometry and the various image files that go into overlaying the geometry. But that's about as far as you can get. You can't get at the underlying scripts and you can't even get the geometry and the textures unless you've got the agreement of the people who created it in the first place.
So we actually tried the "let's contact everybody responsible for creating stuff in an island" and did that for several islands just to see what sort of response rate we could get. And our best-case response rate was 10 percent.
How many people is that?
That was on one of the islands that actually had a few more builders and many, so that was about, I think, 120 builders. We got 12 people. So, you ask yourself, "Is it worth preserving 10 percent of a Second Life island?" And you go, "Hmm, no." We came to the conclusion that the only people who can legally preserve Second Life is Linden Lab, under the legal infrastructure they've set up. We had some talks, actually, preliminary talks with Microsoft about trying to preserve some of the Halo material and, again, this just hits the IP wall of, "Well, even if we can give you permission for this, we can't give you permission on any of the music because that still belongs to the orchestra that created the music for us."
This is not actually a game-specific problem. I don't know if you're a big PBS fan, but there was a major documentary on the civil rights movement called Eyes on the Prize done a couple years ago. And I think it took them, like, 20 years to actually rebroadcast or issue it on DVD because when they first made it, they only negotiated one-time broadcast rights.
They had to go and renegotiate rights with every person who contributed media to that documentary. That includes "Happy Birthday." And it includes photos from the Martin Luther King estate. They have all these people they had to go and renegotiate rights agreements with to be able to re-release it into DVD.
Complex media involves complex ownership and that makes preservation really painful. We'd love to do this in a way that the ESA would smile and nod at, but it's very difficult to do.
What is the value of worlds that are designed as consumer products? What is the value we can glean today? What is the value you think future generations can glean?
We tend to think of these as just amusement without realizing how much of the world that we deal with today actually is focused on amusement. There is a huge population of game users in the United States. If you look at the actual statistics on who is using and playing computer games, including online games, they're really astounding. You can't have a good understanding of a lot of what's going on in modern society without being able to examine the media of the day, and computer games are now one of the major forms of media that people consume.
If you want to understand this culture, I don't think it's really possible to understand Western culture without an understanding of the complexities and nature of the computer gaming industry and the products they're producing.
Well, I think there are a lot of people who get along just fine in Western culture without paying attention to videogames. But what can people learn about us through that lens of just, say, videogames?
You can learn a lot about standard tropes of how we characterize the world. You can learn about what constitutes something that would become popular. You understand how we divide up things into genres. There's a lot of interesting work to be done looking at how we characterize things like race and gender in games. There is just all this material in games that's a reflection of our current culture and how we understand the world. So, it's an interesting artistic record of how our culture makes sense of things.
And also, a record at some level of how people want to use games to have influence in the world. You look at things like America's Army. Okay, that's interesting, the fact that the United States military would start using computer games both as a promotional tool and a recruiting tool.
Another way to think about this, to my mind, is maybe a different sort of comparison. With the recent destruction of the Temple of Baal in Syria and the questions it is raising about historical site preservation, do you and your colleagues see yourselves as doing the same sort of work?
Well, not exactly the same. We have the advantage that the types of cultural materials we’re seeking to preserve were mass produced by the thousands or in some cases millions. Games are difficult to preserve, but they’re also difficult to completely and utterly eradicate. But at some level, yes, there’s a basic similarity. Historic architecture like the Temple of Baal and computer games are both reflections, and records, of a particular culture at a particular time, and preserving these things help us remember how we thought about the world as a culture, and we think it’s important to preserve a record of that.
You mentioned before that you studied a lot about forming of identities online. I asked you a little about this before, but do you have data at all on what were the identities of people who play videogames before they became so internet-connected? Do you have any knowledge on how that has shifted with the internet becoming more mainstream?
We don't have a lot of data. We do have some. But one of the things to keep in mind is it really wasn't that long from the birth of the computer-game industry -- and I'm gonna separate that from the console industry for a second -- and things actually being online.
When did you first start picking up computer games in any significant way?
I mean, in the '80s.
Right. At which point, the ARPANET had been around --
For a couple of decades, yeah.
For a couple of decades and the first thing I did when I got on the computer in San Francisco in the mid-'80s was sign up for a WELL account, and there were already all kinds of BBS systems out there where people were exchanging games in legally questionable fashion. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] Some things never change.
Yes. So, that's another thing we can look at, is this constant tension between people who want to sell games as a commercial product and people who are going and breaking copy-protection measures. Somewhere around on the web I found once -- do you remember the 1980's computer game, Starflight?
It was a space-exploration game, I think from Electronic Arts, that had multiple alien races with different personality profiles that you could interact with. And it had, as a copy-protection measure, this double wheel with windows cut in it and occasionally you would have to go and move the secret decoder wheel to a certain position to get a code to enter it into the game.
Yeah, I remember LucasArts games had a similar wheel, as well.
That goes in hand with the things you were talking about needing to preserve. You do hear about some developers releasing things on Bit Torrent, or they release alternate versions that you can't win to thwart piracy.
Right. I can give you one really nightmarish example that drove us crazy on the project.
I would love to hear it.
Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? used as a copy-protection measure a World Encyclopedia that you had to go look up things on a particular page, "Look for this number word on this number line on this page and enter it to continue." Problem was we knew the encyclopedia but we didn't know which version. And all these old copies of the game that we could find on the second-hand market, none of them had the encyclopedia with it. So we had to do this massive hunt to try to track down which edition of that World Encyclopedia that's actually the exact correct edition to be able to use Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? It took one of my research assistants, I think, a couple of months to actually track down a copy of that encyclopedia so we could play the game. [Laughs.]
What did you guys do to celebrate?
We started looking for a working copy of MS-Windows 3.11 and a computer with a 5 ¼” floppy so we could actually fire up the game.
[Laughs.] That's crazy. You think about piracy in videogames, but you don't really think about piracy in educational games.
Yeah. It's not something that comes up that often, you know, we're weird researchers trying to play this game from 20 years ago and we're going, "Wait. Where is the included documentation? Oh, we are so screwed here."
With identity, as gaming has gotten more mainstream and especially online gaming in the way we think of it in the modern sense, how has people's formation of identities in those games changed or shifted?
To my eyes as someone who's admittedly not a big gamer, I think one of the things that's been interesting to watch as a shift is at least a slightly growing level of sophistication with regards to understanding of both the internet and CMC and identity formation within these things.
We look back today at the old cartoon on the internet, "Nobody knows you're a dog" and go, "Ha!"
You know, actually, today? We kinda do.
[Laughs.] How many of us are actually dogs?
More than you think, I suspect.
In the early days you had people who were really into using a lot of the online space just as role-playing and playing with identity. These days, sure, that goes on but everyone knows that's going on. And people understand that the online world and the offline world actually aren't completely disconnected.
There were researchers at the time, like professor Lori Kendall, who pointed out that our understanding of these online worlds as completely separate spaces actually isn't true. And I think that understanding has now penetrated to a larger audience.
There are people who understand that, "Yeah, I'm playing this character in World of Warcraft." The people know that's a character and in my day job I'm actually an attorney general working for the state of California. [Laughs.]
I mean, do you have any insights into the overall feelings of entitlement from parts of the audience for videogames as far as just the very specific requests they have or the anger they have over the way a game "should" be or what game "should" come out? Do you have any insight into the general trajectory of that over the years?
That, not so much I'm afraid.
A lot of those sorts of conversations obviously happen directly with the gaming companies and unless you're very active in a particular gaming community space, that you're not gonna see.
Do you have data on the various reasons why these worlds you are trying to preserve die off or fall away? Or any information along those lines that surprised you while you've been investigating it?
Things that surprised us in terms of why games fade away. The things that didn't surprise us -- so, obviously, just hardware architecture changes over time. This is a problem for every type of media and games are software and software is incredibly hardware-architecture dependent. One of the unique things about computer games as an artform is game companies love pushing the envelope of hardware as far as they can possibly push it. They want to be able to do effects and things onscreen that nobody else has done before.
They're the first people to go and break out any sort of optimization on a video card. They will play any trick they can to go and improve performance, which makes them even more hardware dependent. So, it's very, very difficult to get the stuff up and running on modern equipment. The code is very specific to one architecture.
One of the things that did surprise me is just how difficult it was to get everything working on even a fairly recent game. Our colleagues at RIT on the project did some experiments with trying to bring the original DOS-based Doom up under emulation and they tried, like, 32 different configurations of different emulators and different DOS-based operating systems, different virtual machines to see what they could get to work, and the thing that absolutely kept killing them over and over again? Sound. They could get the interaction, they could get the screen stuff working on pretty much most of the platforms, but sound only worked correctly on two of them. You know, that was back in the day of Sound Blaster cards and when I brought up one of the early DOS games here on the computer that we had running under emulation, the first thing that happens when you load up the game is it starts asking you what IRQs did you set your Sound Blaster card to use?
Remember setting those jumpers on that card back in the day?
I'm remembering Dr. Sbaitso. Do you remember that?
I don't remember that one.
Dr. Sbaitso was a text-to-speech program, like a lighthearted therapy emulator.
You typed about yourself to it and it would slowly incorporate things you said about yourself into the questions it would ask you about later. So, yes, I do remember those days of Doom and Dr. Sbaitso.
Yeah. So, it's that level of hardware dependence. Emulators can't account for every weird piece of hardware that somebody has come up with over the years. So, you can get, like, 70, 80, 90 percent of the game working right but when something like sound isn't working right, it's just a major interference with the experience.
What's inevitably lost in translation when you no longer have a user base that shaped a game that other people will be visiting?
That's another thing that we talked about quite a bit and that's one of those aspects of gaming that is just, "How do you preserve this?" You and I probably both remember going to video arcades and putting a quarter on the screen to go and line up for next use of the game.
Nobody that I teach as undergraduates or even most of my graduate students have any idea what that's about.
The entire culture of how old video parlors used to operate, they've never experienced. They've seen some of the older games because those have stayed alive. But there's that experience around, say, video-parlor behavior or death matches in Quake and death matches in Doom back when they added multi-user capabilities that are aspects of gaming that we just don't have great records of. There's some, but that's the stuff that's really tricky to grab. It's not part of the formal documentation of the game, but it's really critical to understanding the games in the future.
What do you find students are surprised about from games from the past?
Well, given the students that I teach range from mid-twenties to forties for the most part, the entire notion of a command-line game is alien to them. Most of my students just don't remember interacting with computers at a time when you didn't have point-and-click graphic user interfaces available. So, even the notion of an early text-based game like Amnesia or the original Hitchhiker's Guide game, all the early interactive fiction pieces are just kind of like, "You play the game by just typing words at this? Okay."
And you describe something like Adventure on old UNIX systems, they're just like, "And this really owned the internet of the day?" And it's like, "Yes, no, this was something everybody played. Trust me."
So it's just hard for them to make that sort of cultural adjustment to thinking about computing on a very different platform. There's also a little bit of surprise for some of them on just how far graphics have come in a fairly limited amount of time. You show them 8-bit Atari games and they're just like, "Wow, this is from the 1980's and not the 1960's?" [Laughs.]
A lot of them really are stunned by how rapidly the technology has evolved, and it has just come immensely far if you look at the visuals that a game like Crysis has been able to produce even five years ago versus what we knew in the late 1980's, early 1990's. That's a stunning improvement in the quality of visual imagery.
You said you don't really play anymore. That's something else I look at with this. You talk about worlds dying off and a contributing factor to that as well is people losing interest. Why did you lose interest in playing games?
Grad school basically killed the notion of my ever having fun.
[Laughs.] I've heard about this.
It does that to a lot of people. You follow that up with getting into a tenure-track job and fun just goes straight out the window.
My guess is games are still fun for you, but they're more fun to look at through this lens.
Yeah. It's interesting to see what the technology has done and how people use it.
But, yeah, I've just never been a huge one on games actually. I experimented with them in the '80s and thought, "Okay, this is kind of intriguing. Some of the logic puzzles are sort of okay." But I'm not one who likes intellectual puzzles solely for the sake of solving intellectual puzzles and I've never been a big point-and-shoot type of gamer.
So, I prefer my logical puzzles on things I'm doing research on.
So, looking at the games from the point of view as a researcher, yes, that's intriguing, but there's not that much that actually interests me as something to do for fun.
Yeah. What's your perception or feelings about where games are today? Do they seem limited to you in any way?
The gaming industry has evolved to the point not quite as bad as Hollywood, but definitely in the same direction. They've identified genres that sell well and they're all desperate to make money to stay in business which leads to a certain conservatism in terms of new genres.
You're starting to see some breaking down around the edges, but, you know, we have shoot 'em ups of various kinds. We have various flavors of Grand Theft Auto and Saint's Row. We have various flavors of science-fiction-based games. Getting something truly new into the market, I think it's difficult.
How do you think academia has impacted the game industry?
Well, I do wonder sometimes on particularly the massive multi-user games, World of Warcraft, probably, being the biggest example of this, someday I expect to go into World of Warcraft or Halo and ask, "Okay, how many of you people around here are game researchers?" and see every hand go up. [Laughs.]
How many graduate students are there out there studying online worlds? I just kind of wonder whether we're having more of an impact on the population of games than perhaps we suspect sometimes.
Are there dreams of future scholars or historians revisiting an MMO populated with super-intelligent bots to recreate the approximate feelings of what it's like today?
We talked about that with Second Life and the conclusion we came to was, you know, you can't really do that very well. And so, if I have preserved a Second Life, well, even if I've got all of the legal clearances, so I can do what Linden Lab has full access to: I grab the full database, I grab the full server set of software, networking utilities, everything you need to substantiate the entire set of islands and have them useful -- well, I have the neutron bombed version of the world. I've got a lot of pretty architecture and no people left.
And that's interesting for a digital virtual archaeologist, perhaps, in you can learn things about the culture that created these things from studying the archaeology.
But you don't have records of what people did. And capturing that additional information about what people were doing in these worlds, what was going on, what activities were people doing, capturing some of the real interactions is crucial if people are gonna understand this stuff.
That obviously raises interesting privacy issues all over the place.
But a lot of the gaming community is actually capturing this type of material and posting it online, so, we have had discussions about, "Okay, if you really want to preserve background knowledge on these games, somebody has to be grabbing their copy of Heritrix and doing some very targeted web crawls of gamer-community sites to capture this ancillary material that shows what actually was going on in the world."
How will future generations be able to tell the difference between what in this communication you’re talking about actually mattered versus stuff that was meant to be far more ephemeral and disposable? How are we sure we’re going to be remembered for the things that we thought actually mattered to us?
I think we need to be careful about assuming that because something is ephemeral, it’s not important. “Two steps more in that direction and you’ll fall off a cliff” is an ephemeral message, but pretty important at the time. And if you’re trying to understand a culture, knowing what they consider_unimportant_is as critical as knowing what they considered important. As to how future generations will be able to tell, you need a sufficiently large collection of cultural material for people to get a feel for how people think.
Are there any "holy grail"-type sets of information or games or worlds you wish you could find out more about but it just seems to be evasive?
[Pause.] One of the things we noticed when we looked over the larger game space of early games was that there's a whole class of early games that are what we in the library world refer to as "orphan works." I don't know if you know the expression.
Is it like abandonware?
Essentially, yes, an orphan work is one where we know it must be in copyright but we don't know who owns the copyright and we have no idea who to contact to get permission to do something with it.
So, there are actually a number of books that fall into this category. Books published in the 20th century by small presses that went out of business. And we have no idea what sort of escrow arrangements were made on the intellectual property rights for those books. The author is dead. We can't find any estate for the author. This came up with the whole Google Books digitization process: "Okay, we'd love to negotiate for rights to put this online, but nobody knows who the rights holder really is anymore."
There's a lot of early games that were developed by small companies that did one successful game and then tried a second game that wasn't so successful and promptly went out of business, and nobody knows who owns the IP on this stuff. I'm not so worried, actually, about the future knowing about the World of Warcrafts. I'm not so worried about the future knowing about Second Life. There's enough published research literature on these massive multi-user games so that I suspect the future will know about them.
But I actually do worry about people -- we will get a skewed view of gaming history because a lot of the smaller game companies that are doing interesting things, this stuff may vanish without a trace. They don't have the distribution that the huge game companies have. There aren't as many copies out there littering the world that someone's gonna lay their hands on and store on a shelf to have it come out 20 years later when an archivist wants to find a copy.
I do worry about, sort of, the history of this art being misrepresented just because there's a class of material that we found we weren't able to save.
Do you feel the perception of the history is already skewed in some way?
Yeah. I think it is. [Pause.] If I go and ask you about what were the really, really important early game consoles, what's the first game console that comes to mind?
Probably most people would say Nintendo or Atari, right?
I was going to say, even though I know there were other ones -- yes, I remember the Odyssey.
Right. So, there are the things that got commercial prominence, sure. Everybody knows about them. And when you think about the early gaming industry, you think about those. The Vectrex system. Fascinating piece of technology. Weird, but fascinating. Trying to do true 3D multi-color at that time and making it work? That's an impressive technological achievement and none of the students I teach have ever heard of this thing.
When a new medium is emerging, I don't think you really know that it's gonna take hold.
Right. Yeah. I can't exactly blame people -- even libraries and archivists back in the 1980's for not collecting all this stuff obsessively. Who knew? [Laughs.]
And it's not like the early games industry had huge market distribution. I mean, you look at Sierra On-Line back in the early days, they're distributing stuff sold in Ziploc bags at your local Egghead Software.
Yes. Or Radio Shack.
Exactly. It's not got the distribution that a major novel from the time had. Let's put it that way.
We touched on it a little already, but what is skewed by that stuff being forgotten?
It means we don't have historical perspective on some of this stuff and we don't actually have information that you might want for doing scholarly analysis. So, I've got friends who work in digital humanities and one of the things that you might do as a humanities scholar is look at the evolution of a genre over time. There are an awful lot of people who think Doom was the original space-ranger game. And they don't know about The Colony or some of the other things that were games before that that fall along the same theme.
So you don't see this evolution of stuff over time if you lose stuff, if you've got this big hole in the early game industry. The other thing that a lot of humanities scholars have been focused on is sort of the intertwining of tools of creation and what's created and trying to understand how software and hardware available shapes the creative process.
You know, if you look at some of the interesting work that's been done on platform studies looking at -- you know, Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost's work looking at Atari, some of the work that's been done on the Commodore 64 -- if we don't have these early games done on different platforms, you're losing the opportunity to study how platforms influence game creation and have stuff available for comparative study. So, it just leaves this knowledge hole and there's interesting research that could be done but we can't because we're missing part of history.
What have you noticed about the evolution or splintering of cultures in game worlds?
I am probably the wrong person to ask because I've veered away from doing cultural study on gaming communities. A lot of my recent work has been on the hardware-software, "how do we keep the bits alive?" sort of issues.
You mentioned wading through a lot of web logs and people talking about games. This is maybe more of a cultural question, but have you seen the way people's misconceptions about videogames, how that has shifted over the years?
You do see that. One of the areas where I've noticed this happening a lot is sort of policy discussions. You remember the horrifying game scares of the 1990's and, "Oh my God these things are going to turn all of our children into violent killers."
I do remember that. Are your students shocked that this happened?
They're a little shocked that it happened. The older ones do remember it. But you don't hear that so much anymore. You don't, you know, have congressional committees investigating whether World of Warcraft users are all going to start running down the street with axes one day. [Laughs.]
So I think there has been a certain cultural evolution there just because games have become so widespread, we don't see the sort of mass panics and media scares about "what are these nerds unleashing upon society?"
What do you think are the stigmas around videogames presently?
You still do see stuff about game addiction along with internet addiction. So, you know, the people who basically lose their families because they're buried in World of Warcraft or Halo for too many hours. You do see that. These sort of modern cautionary moral tales. So that hasn't gone away. In fact, you see a little bit more of that than you used to.
Is there a way you'd like to see the medium or the industry change?
I'm always in favor of allowing smaller players to have freedom to do stuff in the field. It's just a question of is it really something I can envision policy arrangements that will allow this to happen easier? And the answer is really no. The problem with the game industry now is the production levels have become so high. That's another way they have become like Hollywood. One of the things I have shown students in class -- and this actually has surprised them -- is just go onto MobyGames and look at the credit list for a game from the early 1990's and then look at the credit list for one of the Halo games.
For one of the Halo games, you're talking hundreds and hundreds of developers, voice actors, orchestra people -- it's got the number of people you would expect on a medium-sized movie shoot. It's just a huge staff. You can't do that sort of thing without significant amounts of capital involved, and I think that's another reason why we see less creative stuff. So, it would be nice if there was some way for the small-documentary filmmaker equivalent in the gaming world to actually be able to produce stuff cheaper and easier. So, it would be nice to see tools that made it easier for small development shops to do interesting and creative stuff fast and at a lower cost. That's something, though, that I'm not sure how you make that work. Somebody's gotta decide that's a market space they wanna pursue as a software developer and targeting small developers is always sort of a risky proposition.
What do you think videogames have accomplished?
That is a big question.
In many ways, I think they've filled a spot in American culture that in some ways television has no longer filled. It used to be in the days of broadcast television with only the three major networks, everybody's watching the same thing. And that provided a common cultural touchstone for people to talk about. With the fragmenting of cable television, that doesn't happen so much, although you do have various subgroups that are all watching the same thing.
You've got your science-fiction fans who these days are all watching Humans or Mr. Robot, but there's more diffusion of different types of culture. But, there's a huge number of World of Warcraft players. There's a huge number of Halo players. They actually, I think, are starting to provide a mass cultural touchstone in a way that television doesn't quite as much anymore. So, there's something that people talk about and share as common culture. In many cases, much more so than people share media interests around television or movies.
So, at that level, they're sort of an interesting unifying entity in contemporary culture. They also, in an odd way, allow space for people to interact across age boundaries and class boundaries and race and gender boundaries that really doesn't happen as often in society. So, you've got -- you know, 60-year-old people in World of Warcraft going on quests with teenagers and interacting with them and talking with them, which would not happen in other spaces those people inhabit. So, there is at least some level of breaking down of social boundaries or allowing some communication across standard social boundaries that you wouldn't find elsewhere.