Okay. So, my name is Margaret Heffernan. I currently reside in the UK. I work in the US and the UK.
And among the many things I've done, I've written a book called Willful Blindness, which looks at how companies full of smart people manage to make gigantic blunders. And in the course of writing that book, I became very interested in -- if you want to go right back to the beginning -- kind of how do we decide what we believe is true and what we believe is not true and what might be the working conditions that impede our judgment. And one of the things that clearly impedes our judgment is fatigue, stress, multitasking -- many of the things that in fact characterize today's working environment. And so I was really interested in: How bad can this get?
And that's what lead me to look at the class action suit which was brought against Electronic Arts some years ago because of their reliance on really extremely long intense working weeks of 70 to 80 hours per week. At least in academic circles it's well understood that bigger teams and longer hours doesn't necessarily yield greater productivity. But that news didn't seem to have reached Electronic Arts, and they were basically building schedules that assumed people were working in crunch mode, really, as a norm rather than as a crisis.
And that's what lead me into looking at the gaming industry in particular. Now, I should back up and say I spent eight years running software businesses in Boston, Massachusetts, so, the creation of software was not a new topic for me, but working people under these conditions -- that was definitely a revelation.
What's currently making the business world burn right now? What are the problems that you're focusing on currently?
Well, I hate to say this, but this whole issue around working hours and working conditions continues to be fairly critical.
I'd love to say that having brought a lot of attention to it, the problem had gone away but it really hasn't gone away. People still cling to this belief that more hours equals more output. There's just a gigantic amount of evidence that suggests otherwise. That continues to sadly be a critical issue.
I think more recently than that, I wrote a big book about competition doesn't deliver the way that we think it does. And in that respect, what has become clear is that creating very competitive environments for people to work in -- which many people would think that people were spurred to do their best work -- that appears not to work either.
And one of the things that we're seeing right now is that a lot of these systems and management processes that were established to make people more productive -- so things like annual appraisals and forced ranking -- those things are being dismantled because they turned out not only not to make people more productive but also to in fact inhibit productivity because they made people compete with the people that they were supposed to be collaborating with.
When it comes to really long hours and these sort of expectations, a developer in the game industry told me that you seldom see programmers working on more than two hardware generations and there is a revolving door where people come in young, really enthused, and then sort of get spit out, bitter and in their thirties.
Or maybe in their forties.
Do you see this in other industries? Or are there ways that industries can fix this if they want to? It seems like there's little interest in building talent with legacies.
I think that's a very interesting observation. The way I tend to think about it is it's not so much in terms of deliberately burning people out, which I think it's clear some companies do do.
But the failure certainly to nurture talent and also a kind of misguided belief that the way you keep teams of people really creative is to keep swapping them around all the time. There's this instinctive belief, because it's definitely not rational in the sense that there's no evidence to back it up, but there's an instinctive belief that if you want to keep a team thinking fresh, what you have to do is change its membership frequently.
Now, again, if you start studying this with any kind of rigor, what you discover is this is exactly wrong, that teams of people tend to become more productive over time. Partly because they build levels of trust which allow them to think more freely.
But still, we tend to think that what you want for maximum creativity is fresh blood. And if that were the case, then burning people out wouldn't really matter because you'd have to get rid of them anyway because they wouldn't be fresh anymore.
So whether you get them when they're old blood or new blood, it doesn't really matter anymore if you want to get rid of them.
Now, again -- [Laughs.] I have to say that all of this wrong. [Laughs.]
Which is to say that it's not drawn out by evidence. There is a ton of evidence that shows people actually get better at their art history over time and not work. So, I think it may tell us something about lack of patience, lack of faith, lack of investment in people, and I also think that it reveals a really fundamental flaw in our thinking about management, which is if you say, "Well, we'll just burn people out and replace them," what is the mental model that underlies that? It's a manufacturing model. It basically says that all work is like a factory. In a factory some of the pieces get worn out. You throw them out and get new ones.
I think that manufacturing mindset in the digital age is a pretty disastrous paradox.
Yeah, I mean you used the word "creativity," which -- something I've come to notice and accept about the game industry, and when I say that I mean the big companies and publishers. Budgets have gone up by a factor of 10 each hardware generation. It's in the tens of millions now. It would seem that would not be sustainable for the foreseeable future.
But I think that explains why I don't think that "creativity" is necessarily the goal at these companies. It's likely a lot of risk-averse presidents and CEOs trying to keep their people employed and with health insurance.
But to me the interesting thing about that is that might sound fine, but it is a creative field. But its labor force is largely invisible to its audience.
When I talk to people, they talk about big budget games as if they are a renewable resource just sort of bubbling up --
Oh, that's really interesting.
So, I mean, you talk about willful blindness in the game industry -- people forget that people are making these things.
[Laughs.] I'm sure that's right. I'm absolutely sure that's right.
Many people often forget that people make software.
Of all kinds.
Yeah. But I'm sure you know, if you know about Gamergate, that the audience for videogames can be pretty abusive and mean to -- even if it's not to the person responsible for the "mistake," just anyone they can get in their crosshairs. Is that unique to videogames?
I don't know.
Like, I think maybe politics is the only other field where that happens.
I think we've become pretty mean as a generation.
If you think about monstering on Twitter, for example, that's a kind of public discourse that shows a level of meanness. That certainly strikes me as a recent phenomenon.
Now, you have to avoid being too romantic about it. After all, in medieval Europe, you could get put in the stocks and that was pretty mean, too, right?
So human beings are cruel. We like to think that we're not or we like to think that we got better over time, but I think there is a fundamentally cruel aspect to human nature which we do like to ignore or at least think isn't us but history would suggest absolutely is us.
I think the difference is that now, with something like a videogame, you can reach so very many people and so it's not just that I'm being mean about your game or my next door neighbor is being mean about your game, I can now -- thanks also to social media -- I can monster and pull together a really large number of people, and the effect of our being mean about your game is much greater. And so I can create a very unpleasant mob quite easily, with much greater ease than ever before in history.
So it's easier to do, it's cheaper to do, its impact may be visible to more people for longer than ever before. So that's pretty tricky stuff because I may not really spend much time or effort thinking about its impact on you, I'm just kind of happy to do it and when I'm sick of it, I can walk away from it, I don't necessarily have to take any long-term responsibility for it, but if it's your game, then that's a very big deal to you. So I think we have the ability to be abusive with greater weight or impact for longer or more people than we've ever had before.
I talked to a psychologist for this project a few weeks ago and there is a theory that a lot of this stuff we see online is misfiring survival instincts. I don't know if you agree with that, but if that's true, then what are we really hunting and gathering when we're online?
[Laughs.] Well, I think your question is a very good one. I mean, that suggests that the sort of behavior you're seeing is a threat response. I just don't understand what the threat is. If the argument were true that it were about survival, then I would have to feel -- to be prompted into this action, I would have to feel that my survival was somehow at risk.
And I can't see what's at risk in these situations. So I'm not sure I buy that.
I mean, I think there's a really awkward thing that happens, which is when you see you might acquire a lot of notoriety by creating one of these digital mobs, then there is an attraction to do it that may be greater than the offense you purport to decry. So there may be more in it for me to be publicly horrible to you than there's ever been before.
In the past, if I said I didn't like your stuff, well, people might agree with me and they might not. But I didn't necessarily gain anything for my opinion.
Now, I may gain as much notoriety as you have. So I think that's a different -- I think you're into a different ball game, so to speak.
You think it's much more about identity than survival.
I think that's exactly the right word. Because I think that one of the problems that we haven't quite fessed up to is that now that I'm aware that I'm one of 7 billion people, many of whom are now online, I think that what the threat response is about is my sense that I'm absolutely meaningless.
And in that respect, creating notoriety for myself out of my unhappiness with you might reasonably described as a threat response.
What's missing here? Are we missing additional ways for people to reinforce their self-identity online beyond, like, posting selfies?
I think what's -- [Laughs.] That's a desperately unfashionable conclusion to come to. I think what's missing is a certain amount of humility and a lack of interest in difference. You know, that, actually the world does have 7 billion people in it and apart from the ecological burden, that doesn't mean I have less. I think what we're missing is my capacity to tolerate the fact that those other 7 billion people -- they matter just as much as I do. And their presence doesn't diminish me. In fact, it's what makes the world so interesting.
So I think what we've lost, in a way, is our sense that other people are just as important as I am.
Do you feel that? That people are measurably more mean online? Like, in videogames someone calling the SWAT team on someone else can be a routine prank, it's the new ordering 100 pizzas.
But is that something you feel or notice? Are people actually less nice to each other online? It's difficult to measure.
I think what I would say is something slightly different, which is I think it's much more about -- what I think of and write about as the rise of narcissism, which is there is a great deal of in our society, which puts enormous pressure on individuals.
Our whole education system is about individuals. Most of our rewards systems are about individuals. Most of our social structures these days are individual rather than communal. And I think the net effect of this is that it makes individuals start to think individualistically and that necessarily creates a much more narcissistic outlook. And there's a psychologist named Jean Twenge who has written about this at great length and much more eloquently than I'm wittering on about it. Her view is that because we put people under so much competitive pressure to succeed, to be beautiful, to be rich, to be talented, to have prizes, blah blah blah, and since most people fail this test, our threat response is basically either to attack or to cheat.
Now, I'm very interested in the argument that it makes you cheat because I think that explains a lot of the behaviors that I'm seeing. But, essentially, what she's saying is that in highly, highly competitive environments, if you can't succeed, as it were, the right way -- so if you can't win the game by playing by the rules, then you're gonna start trying to win the game any way you can because winning matters so much.
Now, you could argue -- and again, I'm not sure I would, because I think this is a little simplistic, but you could say that people who are very engrossed in videogames may have a propensity to measure themselves pretty much against quite competitive lines. And if that's the case, then you're dealing with a subset of people who are intrinsically pretty competitive characters. Then, their sense of threat might be greater than average, which might explain why you're seeing what you're seeing.
In other words, so, the simple way of putting this is just to say: These are pretty fragile egos, and whether or not boy or boy, do they strike back? In other words: You found yourself a hyper-sensitive market.
I sort of just get a sense from last year that the game industry is sort of afraid of its own audience. It's sort of stuck in this position of -- not that it's that easy or this simple that there's two sides, but: They risk offending or alienating people who think games are supposed to be a certain way. And some of these people, when offended or alienated, as we know, will make death or rape or bomb threats over consumer entertainment products. This might be overstating the actual commercial influence a very loud minority has online, but something I have been able to extract in this project is that as Gamergate was getting to its most intense, a couple of people at very big game companies toldme they didn't feel work was the appropriate place to talk about it. So nobody talked about it.
Mmm. That's very interesting.
Well, so I think what interests me about that is when I was running my software company in the states, one of the many things that happened in the era, if you like, was the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
And one of the things that really puzzled me about that scandal which otherwise actually wasn't that interesting, to be honest.
[Laughs.] No. It happens everyday.
Yeah. Yeah. So, we have another sex scandal. Who knew? Right?
But one of the things that was really interesting to me about it was I observed that nobody in my company ever -- I never heard anybody talking about that at work. And what sort of struck me as odd is that in the UK, where I used to run a company, people would definitely have talked about it. So it made me think, "Well, why is nobody talking about this?"
And the conclusion, for better or worse, that I came to was that they were so afraid that they would disagree with each other, that it was easier not to talk about it. And I think, in a strange way, this brings me back to what we were talking about before, which is I think as much as we really wanted this not to be the case, that what the Internet has done quite unintentionally is instead of broadening people's horizons, it's narrowed them.
It's allowed us to find people who are tremendously like ourselves and cling to them. And when I say this was not what we intended, you know, originally in the early days -- she said sounding like an ancient lady -- but in the early days what we thought was, "Isn't this cool? I'm gonna be able to collaborate with people in Brazil and Russia and Spain and all over the world, people that I've never met. And I'm gonna have access to Peruvian poetry and music from Ghana and my whole life is gonna be so much richer than it was."
And of course, theoretically and technically that's true. But what we discovered was that that wasn't how people use the Internet. What people did was they used it to find people just like themselves. So the people who loved Ghanaian music got together and the people who love Brazilian poetry stuck together. And instead of broadening their tastes, they narrowed their tastes.
And, of course, what this does is it makes our tastes not just more narrow, but it makes us as people more planish, more convinced that we're right, less interested in people who disagree with us.
And what we've seen is that far from broadening our thinking, it's paralyzed our thinking.
And you can see this is dramatically represented in the paralyzation of American politics at the moment.
Which, people are not anymore looking for diversity. They're looking for echo chambers.
And they're finding them more easily than ever. And when they find those echo chambers, their views become more insular, not less. And I think so much in the gaming world is a form of community building, so what you're finding is more people who think the same way, making each other more extreme.
Yeah. But you wrote about some of that in your book, Willful Blindness, which, I guess was 2011, right?
So your mind hasn't changed about that, but what comes to mind is you wrote about Pandora and a lot of different ways that technology could ostensibly broaden our horizon, but it's not good at doing that. Like, you used the example, I think, that you may like bands like Goo Goo Dolls and also Chopin, but it's not gonna recommend one from the other category based on the other.
So, what does that say about us and what we expect from technology? Are we just being lazy with our use of technology? Because isn't it our fault that we're narrowing, right?
Well, it is kind of our fault but I think it's also human nature, which is we tend to like people who are like us. And we always have. So this is why, for example, we have always been attracted to people who look like ourselves.
We're overwhelmingly likely to choose as our life partners people of the same height, eye color, hair color, body shape, all that kind of thing. And if you think of it from an evolutionary perspective it makes perfect sense, which is there was more safety in that kind of affinity.
So I don't think the denominant in and of itself is brand new. I think what's just been incredibly disappointing is the technology we hoped would disrupt that ended up confirming it and exacerbating it.
But I think, too, what happens is -- I don't know if either of these things are on your radar, but I look at things like curved televisions or the fact that we're bringing back virtual reality once again.
Like, I think another thing not being said is consumers have gotten really bad at demanding actual innovation.
Yup. Yeah. I think that's right.
It was really interesting, I was at Google the other day and I was talking to a young engineer there.
And I don't know quite how or why, but we found ourselves talking about virtual reality and he was saying, "Oh, you know, maybe this time!"
And I said to him, "Has it ever occurred you people just don't want it?" [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] Did you actually say that to him?
Yeah. And basically his response was, "But they ought to!" [Laughs.]
But I don't think it works that way.
No, it doesn't work that way.
Basically, it's saying, "If we think it's a good idea then sooner or later we will succeed in shoving it down people's throats."
So what can people in the videogame audience try to learn from that? Or what are ways they can demand innovation? Because people say this thing in game circles that they're going to "vote with their dollars," or in other words, just not buy something.
But what that sort of is forgetting is that someone else's dollars are just gonna take their place. It doesn't really mean they're gonna be heard.
No, I think that's right. I mean, I think it's really interesting that many, many people who are really significant and serious artists did have a high expectation and hope that the videogame industry would be the artform -- and I think there are many people who still think that it could be -- but that it's been kind of, I don't know, disrupted, or at least distracted by the easier, cheaper ways to make money. And, you know, I think that people who really love the industry find that incredibly disappointing.
And I think the only alternative is to say, "Well, if you really still believe in that, then you have to go off and prove that it's right."
But it's the same thing as the Google engineer where, again, virtual reality is being pointed to as, "This is gonna fix everything."
It's sort of like outsourcing the human responsibility for creativity to hardware.
I think that's right. And I think, you know, if we've learned anything, and we may well not have, right? [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] Correct, correct.
It should be that nothing fixes everything. That the only "fix" is to keep working at it and the only "fix" is about diversity, not homogeneity. And there isn't gonna be one fix for any of these things. And one reason we have such deeply crappy political system at the moment is because we keep thinking that there are going to be quick fixes, but there aren't.
We have to fall out of love with oversimplification.
What's that gonna take?
Oh God. Who knows.
I don't see that taking hold. Maybe in some pockets. But by and large? No. But I hope so.
Well, I hope so, too, but we're probably gonna have to screw up more than we already have first.
[Laughs.] That's probably true.
So, I'm curious as it pertains to human-created systems, rather than hardware, of game companies. How do you perceive through their orthodoxy that they create systems that bury talent from, pardon the cliche, out of the box thinkers?
Well, I think most companies that I know well suffer from many, many misapprehensions about what talent is, what it looks like, how it behaves, how you identify it.
I think we still have a lot of very romantic ideas about talent as a sort of unique, God-given aptitude that a few people have and most people don't have. I think that's almost entirely wrong. I think some people are better at some stuff than others, but I think what really interests me at the moment is the degree to which actually almost everybody is creative unless or until you stop them.
And I think in businesses, we're often quite good at stopping them.
So, you know, I don't think we have any kind of creativity shortage. I think we have a shortage about what creativity looks like and feels like and needs. And a lot of other things that I think is really interesting -- there's a beautiful article written some years ago about Bell Labs and what made Bell Labs so exceptional, and people like to think, "Oh, it must've been that somehow they got all the best people. They somehow had this unique ability to choose the super-talented and unfortunately, the magic algorithm got lost but it's still out there and if you could just find it, then you'd know how to identify a super-talented person and hire them."
And I don't think there's anything that I've read that suggests that that mythology is true. But it doesn't stop people believing it.
I think that, actually, almost everybody has a capacity for creativity and it's really pretty much the job of companies and investors and people whose business it is to get the best out of people. But most of them don't have the patience. They just hope they can find the superstars.
I mean, I don't know how much you pay attention to the game industry and its output, but it does seem to indicate from its output that creativity does not seem to necessarily be the goal. In fact, there's this conservatism where you would think people would get tired of the same thing over and over, but they don't. And because things stay so narrow from the industry, kids get hooked when they're young and then age out for any number of reasons.
Nothing changes. And so it's kind of this cycle that keeps repeating, but what's weird is why are these employee at this workforce that is often forgotten -- what are the things you perceive in software, which you know of game companies, that keeps those employees from actually pushing to do something different?
Well, I think what's really extraordinary is the degree to which a lot of people want something better but they don't feel that they have the capacity in themselves to create the thing that they want. And it's interesting. I did a speaking engagement in London yesterday, and it was basically full of quite young people saying, "I hear what you're saying Margaret, but what can I do if my boss isn't interested in my ideas. What can I do?"
And I said, "Well, you know, first of all, how hard have you tried?"
"Well, you know, he's not asking for my ideas."
"Well, no, he won't ask for your ideas. Why would he ask for your ideas if you're not trying to do something with them."
So, what I observe is this sort of stalemate which is bosses say to me, "My people don't have any ideas." And their people say to me, "My boss isn't interested in anything I have to offer.”
So this is, as they say, a failure of communication. [Laughs.]
It's the failure of the boss not to ask, but it's also the failure of the employee to risk talking about what really matters to them.
And there's, I would say, a huge amount in our educational system that has a lot to answer for in the sense that it doesn't really teach anything meaningful about risk taking or coming up with our answers. What it teaches us is that there's a right answer for everything and the successful people are the ones who guess it first. But that's second guessing, which is a really different thing from actual creativity.
Yeah. I mean, I see a lot of reluctance in the game industry to talk a lot of basic things. Obviously in a situation like EA Spouses, it was a fuse that was lit. It was a pretty long fuse and then it exploded.
But I was at E3, the big trade convention for the game industry, this past summer.
And I was talking to someone who was working on one of the most popular game series and we're sitting outside as the show is ending, they're tearing down all the giant banners around the Los Angeles Convention Center, and we had this conversation about, like, why is nobody talking about a union in the game industry?
And that's kind of -- I believe it, but on the other hand, there does seem to be a lot of reluctance to talk about a lot of really basic things. But, going back to the point about Gamergate and companies not feeling like it's the place to talk about it -- how can a business culture ever change if people are reluctant to ever talk about much beyond crunch or "safe" problems?
Well, I think what's interesting is most people are very reluctant to talk about anything that matters.
[Laughs.] I have noticed.
[Laughs.] They're so afraid they're gonna end up on the wrong side of the fashion curve. They're so afraid of what people might think of them. And of course, the sad truth is that people aren't gonna think about them at all if they don't talk about the things that matter to them. But in Willful Blindness, I quote this assumption statistic that says 85 percent of people at work have issues and concerns at work that they don't articulate. So, that's a lot of silence. That's a lot of fear.
And I think that what I observe is that most people have a big desire to be successful. They think being successful is doing the right thing. They devote a huge amount of their cognitive capacity to try to figure out what the right thing is. And none of that is creative thinking.
They're just following the leader or trying to guess what the leader is going to do then.
So, I think it comes back to this sense that people feel under enormous competitive pressure and more so now than ever because they're being told jobs are disappearing, they're part of a lost generation, that if they don't get on the housing ladder they're gonna be living with their parents for the rest of their lives. So all of this constitutes a significant threat to most individuals. And what they're doing in response to that threat is trying to do whatever they observe is a new definition of success.
And of course the horrible irony of that is if everybody's doing that, it's the most dangerous strategy they could possibly adopt. And people in the games industry should understand that, right, because that's almost a games algorithm in itself.
Yeah. So, I mean, how does one fight the cyclical layoff culture of the game industry maybe without resorting to strong-arm tactics like unions?
Well, I guess because I haven't worked in the game industry, it's hard for me to say. But what I would say is that I think the only way to confront this kind of problem is to give up caring about fitting in and care more about standing out. And is that a risk? Yeah, of course it is. But actually, doing the same as everybody else is a risk, too. It may not feel as dangerous, but it is as risky.
And the other thing I say to a lot of people, because I can sound a little intemperate at times, is you're only gonna live once. So if you really don't like what you see, you better fix it.
This is your job. And you can complain about it, or you can change it.
And that's the only choice you have. And I'm the sort of person who would just much rather try to change it because even if I fail, at least I can say I tried.
And saying, "Well, I don't like it but I'm not gonna do anything about it," well, who wants to talk to that person?
I think the questions that you're raising are really serious issues. It's about, "What kind of a world do I want to live in and do I want a part in making it?" And if I decide that, "No, I'm too afraid to," well, that's fine, just don't expect the world to change for you.
Because it won't.
Right. No. I would agree. And it likely would not surprise you to learn that when I started this project in January, I was told by someone in the industry that no one would ever talk to me. Obviously I ended up proving them wrong.
But I do think, too, but not to turn a blind eye on my neck of the woods in journalism, but I do think that a lot of these business practices in the game industry been allowed to take hold because of a lack of journalism. Because of the notion that games are just for kids.
But how can you tell decades later whether damage has been done by a lack of journalistic scrutiny or mainstream attention that goes beyond marketing? Like, how can you tell? How can I tell? [Laughs.] How can people reading this tell?
I think the hard answer is you can't.
But what you do know for certain is if you do nothing, nothing will change.
And this is a central argument in Willful Blindness, to the effect that if you try to change something, there are no guarantees that you will succeed. But if you don't try, there is a guarantee that nothing will change.
So you have to decide which is the bigger risk. And in my own life, I've always felt, "Well, if I know nothing will happen if I do nothing, that's unacceptable. So what the hell, I might as well try whatever I can think of."
I'm curious, too, do you remember the big piece about Amazon a couple months ago?
Yeah. And so, I did reach out to one of the writers of that piece -- she's on maternity leave right now, and I do want to talk to her for this. But if you want to make an impact on a thing we refer nebulously to as an industry, do you know whether articles like that, do they really impact Amazon? Like, do you think Amazon really cares if anyone boycotts them?
Yes, I think Amazon absolutely does care.
And it cares for two reasons: One is because, yes, people will boycott them and are they gonna miss a customer or two? No. But they definitely want all of those customers. And the other reason it makes an impact is because even Jeff Bezos cares what people think about him.
You may think, "Well, why should he? He's got more money than God, who cares."
But people like to be well thought of. And they like not to be thought of as rapists and pillagers. So, I think that sort of thing really does make a difference. And it's not necessarily that you will see the difference because they're gonna start changing everything they've ever done before. But it may mean that certain decisions that were pending are now not pending. It may be that certain ideas that had traction now don't have traction.
And nobody's ever gonna come out with their hands up saying, "Oh my God, you were right. I was wrong."
But things that could have happened now perhaps can't happen because everybody's gonna be thinking, "Wow, if anybody gets wind of this, it's going to look like that article was true." And since they've been trying very hard to persuade everybody that it wasn't true, the things that confirm it are gonna have much more difficulty getting through Amazon's approval processes.
Here's the problem that some people might think videogames have: I would love to write an article like that, but most mainstream outlets don't care about videogames in that sort of way. If they do care, it's in a very, very narrow way.
And so it's sort of stuck in the situation that it built. And I don't know if it's a ton of crazy business practices, but I talk to a lot of very miserable people who have no outlet or way of changing anything. And these are very skilled people with the ability to program and they're very creative and they're still invisible.
I spoke to someone else earlier this year who's been in the industry a long time and she told me that the game industry cannot be shamed.
I think it's Maslow, like, something that can't be shamed doesn't have an identity. What does that mean about an industry?
That's very interesting. I wonder if there's ever been another industry where people thought that was true. Maybe the tobacco industry?
Maybe the porn industry?
Oftentimes in doing this, videogames and porn end up strange bedfellows, if you will. Like, I interviewed the Pew Research Group and they told me two areas they really don't pay as much attention to in terms of people's usage on the Internet is videogames and pornography.
Did they say why?
I think it stems from some of the social desirability.
They do pay attention to videogames, and are trying to get better, but one area they told me they're lacking data on is adults and videogames.
And, well, I'm not really asking you, well, how can I shame the game industry, but in a way I guess I sort of am.
So, what are these statistics? Is it all kids? I didn't think it was.
No. It's not. In fact the other day I was told the average age of a person who plays videogames is 37.
Okay. So last time I checked, that wasn't a kid. [Laughs.]
I don't think so. [Laughs.]
That's really interesting.
How much revenue in videogames comes from things like licensing rights and things like? Is that still a big revenue line or not?
I don't know the specific number, but I'm sure it's a lot. I mean, the videogame industry likes to say that it's "bigger than Hollywood."
But the way that they measure the revenue is weird because they include hardware and Hollywood does not include sales of cameras and --
So it gets a little weird sometimes when you try to get down to the numbers because a lot of that is not public, either.
Yeah. Because, of course, one classic way to make people start caring about something is to start tracking down who's making money out of it. And they'll care if they feel that the reputation of the industry is being jeopardized by the way that the industry is being run.
So that's not actually users and people who love games, but it is a way of exerting pressure.
Like, I'll give you an example. I interviewed someone who worked at Rockstar games. They make the Grand Theft Auto series.
I may take some of the details out of this transcript to make it fuzzier about who I'm talking about here.
But this is a very, very, very big game company.
Yeah, I know.
They rarely do interviews. They never do interviews.
And I found a person who used to work for them, in fact, quit, moved across the country, changed industries, has no interest in games anymore, and we posted the interview. They posted it on Facebook. Within hours Rockstar was upset. They wanted the interview to be pulled down but would not talk to me directly. And I said, "If they can write a post explaining why the interview is damaging, I'll be happy to take it down." Because I didn't want to get this person in trouble.
This is a bit of what you said before, where their communications broke down and I heard nothing.
That means that you're onto something. That and don't stop. Because you chose two things, which are important. One is that you're onto something and the other is that people do care how they're being thought of.
So, as painful as it might be, it means you have to keep going.
[Laughs.] I mean, I'm here talking to you, aren't I?
But I think that's really encouraging because actually had they not done anything, if they really didn't care, that would be much more worrying. And, of course, they do care because their whole business was nearly wrecked by a crazy Christian.
Yes. Yeah. Yeah.
So, of course they care, or the public perception of their industry cares.
People have a very fundamental need to think well of themselves. And even if you can't explain what the advantage to that self-regard is, they have a really passionate need to have it. It's virtually impossible for the human psyche to sit comfortably with the notion that it's bad. So, it matters a lot whether people think you're in a scuzzy business or not.
Well, to shift gears because we have been talking a lot about what confounds me about the Internet and the entertainment business world, I am curious what confounds you about the Internet and social media, what you see on your end of the computers here.
Well, I think, as we said earlier I'm really disappointed that it's concentrated bias rather than diffuse them.
I think that's incredibly disappointing and I wish I knew how to fix it and I don't. And I know lots of people who have come up with serendipity algorithms and stuff like that, but it doesn't really -- it doesn't really fix the problem. So that concerns me.
Overuse of social media still concerns me, but it's kind of interesting because I'm not sure that it's as absolute as people say it is and then I'm very struck watching my kids, that they kind of get over it. They get very obsessed by it and then they get over it.
I think, to me, and I'm joining an elite club of 5 billion people, the big, big concern is what is the data that people are collecting, who owns it, and where is it going?
And the radical lack of transparency in the industry. And, you know, for my money, if I were going to campaign about something which I think matters hugely, that would probably be where I would be focusing my attention because I think the lack of transparency, the reliance on people's stupidity or lack of attention span so that they're not gonna think about it, their ignorance about how the technology works and what their cell phones are actually doing all day -- I think is really shocking.
And it's funny, you know, this call, because I was thinking the other day: Is there a book to be done on people who built the Internet and now wish they hadn't? [Laughs.]
How do they feel about it? Are they glad we did this in the end? Would the world have been better off without it? And of course the answer is it doesn't really matter. Pandora's box is open, we've done it now.
But I think in the same way that some scientists came to regret working on the atom bomb, I think some people have a certain concern that perhaps what was done in the creation of technology for very good reasons turned out not to deliver what we hoped for.
I don't know if you saw or heard, and I can send you the link, but the man who ended up inventing pop-up ads recanted. He apologized to the world. He did feel incredibly guilty. There was sort of the typical Internet mob thing where people were saying he should have been killed and all these other things people easily say.
But if you stop and think about it, pop-up ads are largely non-existent now.
When is the last time you saw one?
Yeah. Yeah. They went away because people hated them. But I think what bugs me about data is that unlike the pop-up ad, I can't see the data that's being collected.
Most people have no idea that data is being collected on where they are, what they're doing from their cell phones all day long. They have no idea.
They think the battery just runs down because batteries run down. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] Even though they had nothing open.
Yeah. So, I think the lack of transparency coupled with total ignorance around technology is really terrifying. And I don't use that word very lightly.
But there are a bunch of my peers who do a nice show called The Secret Life of Your Cell Phone, which explains to a lay audience what your cell phone is up to all day.
And, I mean, it's a really nice piece of public entertainment. It's very, very well-informed. But what always amazes me is the degree to which most people in the audience had no clue what was going on.
I mean, they just have no idea. Their phone company isn't telling them. Apple isn't telling them. Google isn't telling them. Nobody's telling them. And so they've signed up for something they didn't know they signed up for.
This is broad but kind of related: Why are we so bad at talking about systemic problems? Like, I see often on the Internet, we love to label people as racists and to try to excommunicate them.
I do think some of that makes people be more of what they were, but why are those our defaults and why are we so bad at being able to discuss systemic problems rather than just put them in the stocks again, if you will?
Well, cognitively, doubt is more expensive than certainty. So, what that means in terms of experience is that it's much more fun to be certain than to listen to the doubts that we have.
So, we're lazy.
Confidently espousing views for which I have no data backup is much more interesting and to smoke people than doing the research. So, in that circumstance, and bearing in mind that most people are tired, over-worked, and anxious, why on earth would they choose the harder path? And you know, maybe there's a different question to be asked which is why is it that actually people do choose to go that different path? I mean, I'm really grateful they do, but why do they? What are the rewards of that?
Because clearly many people do.
Yeah. This is also pretty broad, but what are ways you think games could be used to develop better cultures?
Well, I think in theory you could use games for just about anything.
I think they're such a tremendously engaging medium. I think what's required -- and you know this better than I do -- is to let creativity just actually do it and say, "No, we're not gonna do another old shoot 'em up, we're gonna do something more fun this time."
But I think, you know, there might be another answer to this question, too, which is that maybe you need to find or design or invent radically cheaper ways to make games. So, you know, what has sort of been the salvation, if you think of the industry, is that it is feasible to make good quality movies for a really quite small amount of money. And, you know, that's what allows the independent sector to survive and to stay fresh and creative. So, maybe you just have to follow the economic bubble.
What's happening in videogames is the people with the most money are wanting to take the least creative risks and the people who are independent or marginalized with the least money are being looked to to take the biggest creative risks.
Yeah, and that's exactly the same as in the movie business and in the TV business and in pharmaceuticals and even in some forms of technology.
So, this is a bit like sending a young man off to war, right? You always want to send off a young man because we thought they were too stupid to be afraid. And we do exactly the same thing with creativity, which is we hope that the big risks will be taken by young, romantic fools who are too stupid to know what to be afraid of.
How does that play out in the pharmaceutical world?
Well, actually, the way it plays out is to a significant degree now, a huge amount of the innovation, which Big Pharma had given up on, is coming from start-ups because they're the only people who care to do something new and different.
So, I mean, all of this that we're saying, is it just capitalism run amok?
Well, a lot of it is and a lot of it probably Adam Smith wouldn't recognize.
It's also about the abuse of power, there's people with huge amounts of power using it to preserve the status quo rather than to challenge it, which is what Adam Smith hoped it would do.
Right. So, when you were looking into EA -- I know you mentioned you had a background in the software industry, but what were the things that were surprising to you when you were digging into the game industry with a little more detail?
I think what surprised me was -- because it is different in this respect from other media businesses that I'm familiar with -- the failure to recognize talent and how you actually treat people has quite a big impact on what you're able to do. So, if you think of the analogy in between, say, the games business and movies, people do understand in the movie business that you have to look after your talent, and that's why they pay stupid money for it.
I was amazed that the games industry doesn't do that. It doesn't even think of doing it, as far as I can see. And it may, of course, pride itself on not falling for some of the stupid things that the movie business does. But I'm surprised that there's so little insight or knowledge, really, about the importance of talent.
I mean, I'm curious, too, when you have a thing like Gamergate and whether you want to -- whatever you believe about the actual threat it poses to people who are on the receiving end, an avalanche of digital threats, I do think it is a form of psychic pain and it is very traumatizing, and against that backdrop, you have an industry being non-responsive, you have a media focused on the space because no place else will not really saying much, I mean, what message do you think that sends to the audience and the labor force where no one really says or does anything?
Well, I think it says that some people take their report cards from the market and not from anything else. So, as long as I'm making enough money, do I really care what people say about me?
And, it's but pretty true that some people do and some people don't. And there are many, many people in business who do believe that your top line tells you whether you're doing a good job or not. And if that's the only thing that you believe, then nothing else is really gonna make an impact.
But I do think that if you want to change this, you have to attack it from all angles and recognize that it's a very non-linear process in the sense that you're going to hack away, hack away, and it'll feel like nothing changes and then somehow, something will break. And it's incredibly hard to predict what or when that will be.
Are you talking about for me and this project or for people in the industry?
[Laughs.] That's accurate so far.
The idea that you'll be able to plan it tactically like a battle and defeat the enemy according to a plan is historically not true. You're gonna throw everything you have at it and sooner or later it will crack.
And I think you simply have to have that faith. I mean, if you read Willful Blindness, you know about Gayla Benefield waging her campaign against asbestos in Libby, Montana for 25 years.
Yeah. When people thought she was crazy and they would cross to go to the other side of the street if they saw her coming?
We've been talking a lot about the game industry and lingering effects from how it was structured when it was new. What was your field like when it was new? Was it going through the same sorts of growing pains?
This is really hard to remember accurately. I certainly recall vigorous debate about, "Do we like this? Do we not like this? Is it good or bad? Is this what we want the Internet to be?" A lot of debate.
A lot of, "Are chatrooms just idiots talking to themselves?"
"If we let anyone in the world publish web pages, isn't it just going to be garbage?"
And a lot of debate about, "Are there ways you can steer it? Should you steer it? Can you steer it?"
Or is this just what a thousand flowers bloom?"
So I think the fact that there was that debate was really fantastic. And I think, what I'm hearing from you is your frustration is there isn't very much of that. And I certainly feel very frustrated that there isn't enough debate about privacy and what's being done with our data.
I'm horrified. And I'm horrified that there's quite a bit of debate in Europe and not nearly enough and even less in the US.
So, I think that in the early days that there was a sense that we're building this and we want to build something we're proud of and my sense now is, "Well, it's here and we're just using it. It's not ours. It's sort of always been here."
So I think that's the big difference. And I think, also, when I was running a software company, nobody went into this stuff for the money. And I know that sounds really romantic, but it's absolutely true. And probably by the naughties, by the turn of the century, people started jumping on the bandwagon because there was money to be made.
But I would say before that, that people who were drawn to it were drawn to it because it was difficult, because it was new, because there were no footprints in the sand, because it was a gigantic adventure. And I think to a significant degree, what I see now is people are drawn to it because it's the biggest cash register they've ever seen.
Which is especially ironic because a lot of the hacker culture --
-- stems from the hippie culture.
So. Just as you said 37 is not a kid, I do not think it is the sixties anymore. [Laughs.]
Normally I ask in these interviews, I ask people what they think videogames have accomplished. I didn't really ask you a lot about it, but based on this conversation and our emails beforehand, I'm gonna guess you pay attention only cursorily?
Yeah, that's probably fair.
But I have to say, my hunch is that I don't think they have yet achieved their potential. I still think they have the potential to be a serious artform. And when I say serious artform, I don't mean that that means grimly serious, but that it's an artform that will create delight and wonder and enlightenment.
So I don't think, as it were, the game's over yet.
I just don't think we're there yet.
I would agree. It's interesting asking people that question, too, because oftentimes they'll come right out of the gate with a very firm positive or a very firm negative, or they'll say nothing and a moment of silence, but people do have a sense of wanting to balance what they're saying so they remember to include as many of the negatives that are going on right now.
It's been an interesting question to ask because as I'm sure you can tell: A lot of my questions don't even have answers.
Yeah. Well, I think the other thing is, too, that most people have a poor sense of history. And what they don't remember is that when the printing press was first invented, there were a lot of books published that were complete garbage.
We don't remember those anymore 'cause they're not around anymore.
Time is an extraordinary editor.
It sort of erases all the garbage. And there were a lot of pictures printed that nobody wants to look at anymore. And there were a lot of gramophone records that were printed when the gramophone record first came out that nobody listens to anymore. And so time has taken away most of the dross and left us with an image that, "Wow, wasn't Guttenberg lucky? He lived in an age when all the books that were worth printing were printed?" [Laughs.]
And that's the varnish of history.
And so if you take a very different time frame and you think, "Well, let's imagine thinking about somebody studying the history of the game industry 200 and 300 years from now, what are the games that are gonna stand out as the things that really started to define the form?"
'Cause all the imitators and the crap in between will get lost. We can't see yet.