Sure. My name is Mike Rugnetta. I am 31 years old. I am based in Brooklyn, New York. I am the writer and host of a YouTube show called Idea Channel, which is distributed by PBS Digital Studios. On Idea Channel, we apply philosophical and critical concepts to things in the popular culture canon. That's the sort of elevator pitch of it. And what that means is I try to use things that people may have an intimate familiarity with to discuss ideas or concepts that are generally considered either high-minded, abstract, and useless to sort of show how those high-minded, critical, or philosophical ideas have an application in everyday life and more often than not with stuff that you interact with, thinking that it's just entertainment. And I also make a podcast called Reasonably Sound, which is distributed by American Public Media, that is about the science, culture, and theory behind all things audio. So, you know, talking about everything from why you hate the sound of your own voice to the history of chiptunes.
On both of those shows that I make, I don't focus on videogames. I'm not talking about videogames every episode or even most episodes, but since I am very, very interested in the deeper meanings that we glean or the kind of deeper meanings about culture that are indicated by videogames, I tend to talk about them with a certain regularity, if not frequency, because, you know, like every other piece of culture, they are a mirror for how we view the world and how we operate within it.
You're an interesting guy to ask this question, too, because I wonder this and you're a lot more prolific with this kind of stuff: When do you feel like we are just over-intellectualizing our pop culture usage consumption? Like, what's the line?
I might say that it's more of a context than a line. One of the things that I get accused of a lot by people who don't like the things that I make is over-thinking things.
And this idea that, you know, "It's just a videogame! It's just a movie! It's just television! Why do you have to give it this deeper meaning?" And I think that what that is is that's a lot of people -- from my perspective that's a lot of people not realizing that the deeper meaning is actually there and we just tend in our normal course of entertainment or, like, watching something or interacting with something as entertainment, don't really consider that deeper meaning or don't give it that credence that it deserves. And I think that that's bound up in a lot of really complicated things like, "Can a message or an assumption or an idea be there if the creators didn't consciously put it there?" And I think the answer to that question is, "Yes."
Then this other idea of, "Okay, well, if that idea _is_there, is the creator saying that the idea is right or should be there?" And that's much more complicated. Or if an idea is there that the creator didn't intend, does that idea then somehow infect the brains of the people who are consuming the thing and make them behave in a way? And, again, that's another very complicated thing. I think that the context in which you can over-intellectualize something is when you do it because you know that people are gonna glom onto it and you know that they're gonna fight about it.
And I see that a lot in the press, especially "the blogosphere." You know, like, I had to stop reading Slate because when Slate picks a fight, Slate isn't picking a fight from a place of what I would call honest inquisitiveness. They're like, "Here's why this thing that this person said is bad and wrong and they should feel bad."
I'm like, all right. Okay. I get it. We need to make sure that we put our flag in the ground and say there are behaviors from public figures that we shouldn't tolerate and we should view certain actions as disgusting or poisonous. But if we really do want to talk about how these things are meaningful, why they're bad, the ways in which they affect the greater culture, I think we should do that. But when it comes from this place of just wanting to pick a fight, that raises the hair on the back of my neck. Like, I understand the value in getting mad and shouting. And I think that there's great use for it. But I think that a lot of time, think pieces can veer into this place of just righteous indignation.
You mentioned Slate, but looking into the videogame space, what are the types of conversations you feel like you see or you see repeated? Or what are the conversations you feel like you never really see around videogames?
So, I'm gonna be perfectly honest, which is that I don't really interact with videogame journalism that much.
I'm not out doing a lot of reading except when something comes to me over and over and over again, when people are like, "Oh my God. You have to. this is a thing that you have to read. I read a couple of things about Undertale after I played it. I read a couple things about Fallout 4 before I started playing it. And so, what do I see a lot of in games journalism? I don't know. You know? Not a whole lot. This is such an uninteresting answer.
I think that there was -- so I was on a podcast a couple months ago, and I asked the worst question I could have asked. Not the worst question, but a question that indicated how sort of isolated I am from so much of the conversation that happens around videogames online. This was the Justice Points podcast. I was like, "Is Gamergate still a thing? Are those people still around?"
And they were like, "Oh man, that just goes to show how you are a white dude who doesn't have to interact with so much of the conversation that is happening around these things."
So, I mean, those kinds of interactions are ones that highlight some of the fact that that conversation is clearly still happening and there's still a lot of conversation about, I would guess, “ethics in games journalism.”
Can I turn it on you? What are the things that you see a lot of?
I'm gonna answer the other question of the things that I wish I saw more of in a second, but I'm curious what your position is.
So, USA Today recently did a profile on me and this project where I asked them to please in their intro for me not to mention that this is not primarily focused on Gamergate. I neglected to also request that they not mention that in their headline.
Oh. Oh, wow.
Does that sound like what I told you I was doing?
No, that sounds like basically the opposite of what you told me you were doing.
[Laughs.] So, but I mention that by way of where these kinds of disconnects happen. It can be so easy to not feel or understand what is happening in or around videogames because this is a space that has tried very hard to retain that narrowness. But people and audiences and publications are all fickle and get tired of hearing about the same sort of things over and over.
This isn't exactly the same thing but my dad was just out in Pakistan teaching journalism at Northwestern's sister school there and his students were upset over the coverage of Paris because it's that awful in parts of Pakistan all the time but it isn't written about as much.
For videogames, I don't know. There's so much I feel isn't talked about, which is part of why I'm doing this. But it can even be a granular simple, thing, like, I was emailing with a developer friend about how you will never ever see a piece digging into how a game artist developed their aesthetic. You will rarely hear much about what's under the hood code-wise in games. It's hard to talk about systemic problems, and I think a lot of the stuff around videogames hopes if it ignores it or collectively agrees on, like, "no snitching," these things just don't exist. But how do you pick that apart and tell people and try to help fix it? Can it be fixed? I don't know. These are things I wonder about and I know, too, it's all a little too nuanced or granular or intense for people who just see these things in stores and don't think about them beyond that. But, like, I’m not at all upset or surprised that USA Today framed this how they did -- what other context does an audience “outside” of videogames have for this beyond that?
Right? It's like, I don't have to know about what's going on in Gamergate.
Like, I see it come up on Twitter every once in awhile and I'm like, "Oh, this is that small group of people still talking about this thing." But I don't think of it as being -- at least not from the perspective of games journalism, I don't think of it as being something that is continually broiling, which if my conversations with other people are any indication, it absolutely positively still is. Actually, I heard this week that in response to a lot of the things around Gamergate, Congress is attempting to pass a law to make it so that cross-state swatting is illegal, which it currently isn't. Or to criminalize it, essentially. Like, that, to me, was an indication there is a set of actions that I just am not aware of.
[Laughs.] On the other hand, it's so on the face insane that this is part of a routine conversation around consumer entertainment products.
Additionally, it gets difficult when -- and yeah the reality is we're two white dudes talking about it -- you're sort of made to feel silly or stupid for not knowing everything about what's going in.
Yeah, but, like, I'll also respond with the fact that when someone sends me a critical reaction to Fallout or when a couple people send me an article they're like -- like, I tweeted about playing the newest Batman game and a couple people were like, "Oh, are you playing the Batman game? Here's this really great piece about it." And they're on places, like, the Wall Street Journal or Forbes. And so, the mainstreamification -- right? Like, there's no question at this point, I don't think, that videogames and gaming -- separate from kind of console games, as gaming writ large -- is absolutely a force of popular culture. That is, it is a 100 percent mainstream thing. Playing videogames is like going to the movies or buying records from iTunes. It's just a thing that people do. And so, you know, I think that is something that I have noticed in the covering or coverage of games is that I now realize that I don't have to go to a games place. I don't have to go to the "gaming zone" on the internet to --
Like, I don't have to go to Kotaku or Kill Screen -- I mean, and I do. I like those websites. But I'm gonna read something from a major publisher on a major website from a major news source about a game and I'm gonna go, "Huh! That's an interesting take on that. This person has thought about games before!"
You know, as opposed it to being someone who's like, "Halo broke all the records again! What's the deal with videogames?”
Which I feel like was the main thing.
You still see that sometimes from places like that.
Yeah, but it's not the -- like, I feel like five years ago when you saw a New York Times piece about videogames it was like, "Man! Lots of people sure do like GTA. We heard it's pretty violent, though." And then that was the end of it. Or there was no real -- or if there were critical reactions on The Economist or on The New York Times, I did not see them. They were pretty well hidden.
I don't know. And I wonder if this ties into this thing that you're saying. Like, people not knowing what they're talking about being confronted with the hoi polloi being like, [Blows raspberry.] "Well, you know, you're not one of us so here's the door. Get out." That's a reaction to -- I hate saying the word "mainstreamification" -- but is in someway a reaction to the fact that there are more people in the space now, it is a largely more acceptable thing to spend your time doing. People understand that it is not a deviant activity, that videogames are not synonymous with Doom or even GTA at this point. Like, GTA is kind of like the Hostel or Saw, to a certain degree, of videogames. And so people understand that's not for everybody and it may come with some sort of weird moral baggage, but it's not the '90s anymore where it's like, "Oh my God the fuckin' moral fabric is being destroyed and it's all because of rap music and videogames."
[Laughs.] That's an interesting entree into something you said you did want to talk about when we were emailing, which is that games should be less violent. But to clarify, you meant it in a non-prude way.
More just the fact that it's boring to be doing that all the time.
Yes. So this is the thing I wish people would have more conversations about.
We're doing it. We're doing it.
And I think that this is related to the idea -- one of the things I said earlier, which is this question of when some piece of media has an idea within it, whether or not that idea is there, placed there consciously by its creators, does it somehow infect the brains of the people who are playing it and sort of lodge itself in there and make them think that that idea is okay? And I think that in the '90s there was this great moral panic with violence in videogames and the thought was these games developers made these violent games, the kids are gonna play the violent games, it's gonna make kids violent, and then we're creating a legion of serial killers. We're making our kids psychopaths. I think we figured out that that's not the case.
All kinds of studies. It seems like the science says that games don't make people violent. And I think -- for me, that's not surprising. But, what games do is I think they can tend to normalize the idea of violence. They can just make violence a thing that's like, "Oh yeah." There are situations in which there are violence. And I think that that's a huge conversation about what that means for culture at large. And I think that a lot of people are having that conversation. And I think that that's a lot of what Anita Sarkeesian talks about with regards to sexism: "We're not saying that games cause people to be sexist. We're saying that games illustrate the fact that sexism is existent and possibly suggested as being acceptable in certain situations, which then perpetrates the normalization of sexism." It's like, "Oh, sexism just exists, so ha-ha! We'll put it in the game because it's a fact of life."
When it doesn't have to be.
Right. But you're saying the same is true of violence, but also that it's just boring because it's so commonplace there.
I think that there is a real complicated relationship, like there is with sexism, with violence in games, and that violence in games isn't necessarily going to make someone a violent person but that it can in certain situations. Say, violence is a sort of inextricable part of certain situations. So, when we show violence in these situations in games, we are just showing how the world is. And so I think it's interesting to ask whether or not the world is like that and then the secondary level of whether or not it has to be like that.
And what I'm saying is that I think there are a lot of people who are having that conversation and I think that that conversation is well-covered. And I think that I'm not the person to weigh in on that. I mean, I'm not the person to weigh in any of this. I have so many armchairs it's ridiculous.
What I'm saying is that is that one of the places where, "Okay, yeah, this is where violence is" is entertainment. And I think more than most places, it's videogames. And it's like, "When we need a mechanic to accomplish a certain number of things," the place that we go is shooting or fighting. And I think that we do that for all kinds of reasons. Like, it's effective. You put a gun in someone's hand, you put someone in a tank, you put someone in a fighter plane, you put them in a big metal suit that has guns on the arms -- they're powerful, they are in a position to be a hero, they can greatly affect the world around them. We have all of these really strong understandings about these things and it's exciting and it also provides customization and inspires gear lust. And so it hits all of these parts of our brains that we're like, "Yes. This is fun."
And I am 100 percent one of those people. You know, like, I play Fallout and I'm like, "Oh man. I'm gonna customize these guns. I am gonna spend 10 hours making this the best gun."
Yeah. Which, for people unfamiliar with that game, this is something you could reasonably and cumulatively do.
[Laughs.] It's very easy to spend an entire day customizing my gun.
These are not exaggerations.
And then I'm gonna go out with my brand new gun and I'm gonna shoot all of the raiders and I am gonna feel like I am doing good. That I am helping the game world and it's fun and it's satisfying.
But I think the question that is interesting to ask or the conversation that I don't see many people having is, like, "How do we make a AAA game, a big, big, big-budget huge massive game with writing and graphics and voice acting and all of the things that abandons that?" For me, the fact that that question is nearly impossible to answer, like, what does that game even look like, means that those kinds of games are a very specific -- you know, like we have sports games and we have driving games. But I think that those replace our understanding of why shooting is exciting and powerful with another, somewhat related understanding of why winning or beating the competition is interesting and exciting.
People typically age out of videogames, they stop buying them when they get older, or they move on from them and just buy them from their kids. Is that sort of why we're not seeing a lot of creative effort being extended here because videogames are kind of like "Weird" Al in a way where it's a thing that's meant for a specific age group?
You move on, but then when you move on, there's another crop of people the same age coming in and then they just keep buying the same games. It seems like it defies logic, right? Like, I talk to people who work on those games and they are completely stunned that people don't get tired of it.
Yeah. I mean, yeah. It's kind of like asking -- people don't get tired of romantic comedies. People don't get tired of The Expendables or Fast and Furious.
People don't get tired of sitcoms. And I think that there's a set of relationships between the parts and if you can figure out how to innovate while maintaining those relationships in a way that is consistently novel, then you don't have to interrogate the underlying format.
And I think, actually, not to continue harping on Fallout, but one of the things that I really like about Fallout is it's essentially half The Sims, which is the only major game that I think I can think of like, is the only one that's a massive, popular, well-known game where you just kinda, you live. Like, there's conflict but there's none of this competition. Not much that you can say is an analog for destruction in some way. Destroying the competition in some way.
And I think that actually makes Fallout 4 a significantly different game from a lot of the other ones. And, actually, Metal Gear Solid, too, you construct Mother Base. The construction of Mother Base is very much tied to defeating the opposition in some way.
It is tied into the story.
I mean, it's pretty integral into the story. Thinking back all the way into last month. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] Whereas, like, Fallout, if you wanted to, you could really just wander around the wastelands, pick up materials, put them in your backpack, go back to sanctuary and just, you know, like, build a house. Build your wasteland palace.
I wonder, you know, I think about when I first started being like, "Man, I'm kinda tired of shooting things" was Bioshock Infinite. That was the first game where I was like, "Okay." I could feel myself starting to age out, feeling like my tolerance for this is changing.
But I sorta felt the same way about cheeseburgers.
Where I'm like, you know, there's a point in my late twenties where I was like, "Mmm, I think maybe I just shouldn't eat a cheeseburger every two or three days.”
And so I think the aging out is an interesting and weird thing because you sort of realize how much of something is healthy for you _specifically_to consume. Not healthy for the general population. I'm not saying that people need to follow my media or food diet.
And I think that -- I don't know. I don't know how this connects to your larger point. I was going somewhere and then I lost it.
I was just talking about the notion of portions of the audience "aging out" creates a gap where there would be people asking for things to be --
Oh! That's right. So, you know, when I'm like, "Oh, I'm gonna stop with the cheeseburgers. Whatever." You have an empty hole in your diet and so you're like -- at least, my experience was like, "Well, I was eating the same thing for a lot of these meals everyday. Why not use this as an opportunity to try something new? Maybe I'll experiment and like sushi? Maybe I make Thai food? Maybe I learn to cook things that are difficult or hard to cook."
And so I think to a certain degree, the same thing happened to me with games after I just stopped playing Bioshock Infinite in the middle of the game and was like, "I don't have the patience for shooting soldiers anymore." That I was like, "Well, what's the deal with FTL? I heard that people like FTL?" Or, like, "What's the deal with Kentucky Route Zero? I wonder if that's something that fills that kind of hole in my appetite but after I'm done with it it doesn't make my eyes water because I've consumed so much salt."
And I wonder whether or not the gaming ecosystem has responded that way, that there is a constant stable of people -- though they may always be different people -- who love cheeseburgers and love Forza games and Call of Duty -- but that there's always this input and output of people who are coming from or going to the consistently growing, and I think consistently more interesting indie game or small game or different game communities.
You had said, yeah, "There has to be a spot between pervasive, constant combat and a JRPG."
That's the way you had put it. But I think it's just like, at least games from the industry, the people with the most money, it does certainly seem like they have to hedge a lot of bets. And that's part of where I started with this whole thing, wondering about what message that sends.
When we're talking about the industry sending messages to the consumer being like, "This is what games are!" Who is the industry? Is that, like, Activision and Bethesda and Konami?
Yes. That's who I'm referring to. That's not the entire industry, but it is the companies with the most money and power and authority. That's the nebulous "thing" of the industry.
I mean, and there's a level of self-preservation there and I think that you see it in a lot of the other entertainment industries as well. They have to really manage the idea of what their thing is so that people will continue to understand it and be not only interested in it but comfortable with it, right? I think you see this a lot in pop music and in movies as well. It's like, you have to innovate within this really weird space of: People want things that aren't exactly the same as the thing that came before them, but, man, people are also really uncomfortable with change.
And so, you know, maybe it is almost an evolution by random natural selection kind of situation where it's like videogames will look completely different, but it's because every single game that's being made this year has 1/10,000th of one percent sort of fundamental difference in the underlying assumptions of what an "industry game" can be. I don't know?
So you're talking about a sort of Chinese water torture approach to innovation?
[Laughs.] You make a dent in the monolith, yeah, over the course of 10,000 years.
But it is true, that even when something crops up that at first seems like it is going to be drastically different, like even No Man's Sky, which has been lauded in The New York Times for all the amazing math in it and how it's going to be able to generate this amazing amounts of worlds.
It's an endless universe. You can explore a countless number of planets. You can land on them. And you can shoot a gun at the stuff that's there.
I think that, yeah. I think that's absolutely the case.
I'm not trying to get you to say anything about that game and obviously it's not out yet.
Do you feel like this is a concession that has to be made for games that are so outrageously crazy different?
[Laughs.] It's like, you have to have this mechanic where you're shooting because people just will be confused?
Yeah, we need to have that gun crutch.
I think that's a really good question. For questions like this, I always go back to Chris Franklin's video -- you know Errant Signal?
Yeah. He backs this site on my Patreon.
Yeah. So, he did this really great video that's, like, one of my favorite YouTube videos that I reference way too much and at this point Chris is probably like, "Mike needs to shut up. He needs to stop bringing up this video."
But he talks about other people talking about videogames as a spatial simulation, and that for all of the things that spatial simulations can model and can show, which is essentially the world as we understand and imagine it, there's actually a fairly limited set of things that you can do to interact with that world. And for a million reasons -- power, the fact that it's easy to understand -- shooting has become the de facto way to interact with that world.
And so the question is not necessarily whether or not -- or I guess there's two different questions. It's whether or not, one, violence factors into our cultural understanding etc., etc. more or more than it normally would because of that fact but also, man, what are games even just good at doing? So it's kind of a technological/mechanical question.
Yeah. But it's also a human-based --
-- and maybe it's not self-obsessed but only because it's human making games. I guess if we were making games for cats all along, games would be way different.
Games would be based on smell, I would guess?
Lots of haptic feedback.
So they'd be slightly different is what we're saying.
[Laughs.] Well, you're making a game and you're making this huge game that all of the press is lauding the fact that you can explore and there's an endless number of things to explore and the universe is so big and so complete that you start to actually wonder at what point it begins to prove the simulation argument.
But, at the end of the day it's a game and people are gonna want to be able to affect the world in some way. And this just gets back to the larger question of -- I think it is difficult both from a creator and an audience perspective to imagine what those games are that don't affect the world in that spatial-shooting style because it's just -- it is both a reflex, like you said maybe a crutch, but also familiar and comfortable, it makes you feel powerful, it's a good way to communicate status, it's a good way to make people have to deal with resources, it's a good way to work in skill. And so finding a mechanic that allows you to interact with and influence the world that does all of those things that we look for in games but isn't "you put a gun in the player's hands" or "you put a gun in the avatar's hands." It's a complicated design problem and, like, I don't want to forgive fully the, "Well, it's hard to solve, so better not even bother."
But just to say that I totally get it. I just -- it would have been nice if No Man's Sky was the game that was, "And also, you don't shoot anything. We figured out another way." Like, "Man, we built an entire universe and we managed to avoid 100 percent any indications of colonialization."
Like, how awesome would that be? I would be really excited about that.
Yeah. I mean, are you curious about that game?
I am. Yeah, I was just gonna say, which is not to say that I'm not excited about No Man's Sky. I'm super-excited about it. I feel like this conversation is always me being like, "Here is this thing that I think is bad and wrong, but also when I look inside myself I recognize that I am fully implicated in the problems that I am describing.”
It's like, "Let he who is without ideology throw the first copy of [Jacque] Lacan's Écrits." Like, I can't.
Maybe that's more to do with the machine that I've built with this thing.
No, I think it's absolutely part of the culture of culture, really. It would irresponsible of me to claim that I somehow stand outside of all of the criticisms that I make. I am fully an implicated part of it and am 100 percent onboard to admit my hypocrisy in being like, "Well, you know, let's question the foundations of all of this stuff." But then also, "Man, that looks fresh all."
[Laughs.] "Day one purchase."
[Laughs.] Yeah, exactly. I mean, yeah.
Yeah, no, but I want to make it clear that's not the dynamic. I'm not trying to make people feel that way.
Sure. No, no, no. Yeah. You are not implicated in that. [Laughs.] I mean, I think about -- and I think we've actually talked about this, that I will sit down and I will actually play Fallout 4 and I will be upset at the fact that the only way that I can interact with the world is by shooting bullets at things. But at the same time, I have a great time shooting bullets at things. It's certain games, like BioShock Infinite, which we talked about, that I think go an extra step that make me feel so uncomfortable that I will stop playing them. And that mostly has to do with, I realized, shooting, like, really faithfully modeled human adversaries, which I'm made doubly uncomfortable by if they are soldiers.
That game has come up a lot in the last year and a half. For me, on a personal level, I got to a point early on where first I was like, "Wow, that's pretty crazy how you jam your hook into that dude's face."
And then you're, like, ripping out your rotator cuff all over the place. And then I got into a room in that game where it was a dead soldier on top of a box and he had a chocolate bar in his pockets. I just stared at my TV and I turned my TV off.
Then I texted our friend Davis and I said to him, "Hey, do you want the new BioShock?" And I mailed it to him. [Laughs.]
Yeah. I think I had a really similar -- in part of the game there is a whole scene where you battle soldiers in a Museum of Natural History-style diorama explaining the Battle of Wounded Knee and I was like, "I can't do this anymore." This is either so edgy for the sake of, "Look, we're trying to make points about history but we don't really know how." Or, it is just so totally tone deaf that I'm like -- I feel implicated in a way that makes me the person feel bad beyond, like, "Oh, no, your character is supposed to be kind of a bad guy and you're supposed to question who the good guy really is because in the end it turns out that you were the oppressor the whole time, it's just blah blah blah blah blah.”
But at the same time, it makes me, the person using the controller, having to take these actions, not feel excused by those actions.
Like, it makes the world of the game feel like it is either feeding into or responding in some non-critical way to a larger cultural conversation that should be had but it is not doing it in a way that I like. [Laughs.]
You did also say you wanted to talk about what you thought "gaming" could accomplish if it wasn't allowed to depict violence.
Yeah, I mean, it's sort of an interesting thought experiment. Like, if you had the budget to make Mass Effect but the people who made Mass Effect -- I think "not allowed to depict violence" is not the best way to put it.
It's like, "What does Mass Effect look like if the people who make Mass Effect all sat down on day three and they were like, 'You know what? We're gonna take all this money. We're gonna take all of this development time that we have and all of these grand ideas about the inter-relationships between characters, politics, bureaucracy, cosmology, space travel, and we're gonna just delete all of the stuff that involves blaster rifles and pistols and stuff.'"
And then someone is like, "Yeah, but are we just gonna make a JRPG?"
And then someone was like, "No! We're not! We're definitely not!"
And then they try to solve the problem of: How do you make something that's for an audience that's going to spend hundreds of hours with this game but they're not gonna put on a space suit and shoot at aliens?
And man, I just don't know.
Why do we have to wait the 10,000 years for the monolith?
I mean, the people working at game companies are there right now. But the way that the industry is set up is, like many other entertainment industries, and the people with the most money are taking the least creative risks. And the independent games you're talking about are looked to by the industry as taking the biggest risks, both with their lives and also their games.
Yeah. And I think the other thing -- the reason the risk exists, or one of the reasons, is this idea of not just, "Well, if you're not gonna do those things, what things will you do?" It's also a mutually arrived at from both the top-down and the bottom-up -- as far as producers and consumers -- idea of what "gaming" is. And I feel like that's a thing that's also being protected. Like, not just the idea of what a game is, but the idea of what "gaming" itself as a pursuit is. Because when you hear people talk about games that rely on conversation or puzzle-solving or world-building you have a lot of people saying, "Well, that's not a game. You're not gaming." Or people saying, like, "Well, you're not a gamer." You know, all these statistics about how younger and middle-aged women are now the largest demographic of gamers because they play things like Threes or what is it? Two Dots? And then people respond to that being like, "Um, well, okay, like, they may be playing games, but those people are not gamers.”
And so I think that part of the struggle is, like, I sit here and I try to imagine what a AAA game looks like, what a Mass Effect without all of those things looks like, and it's really difficult to have that thought and maintain this highly protected idea of what gaming is. It feels like you're then doing something else. But, like, when you dig even deeper, it starts to make perfect sense that Mass Effect as a framework also can contain other game ideas like Katamari Damacy or Papers, Please or even to a certain degree, like, Monument Valley. That like, those things could exist perfectly inside of the Mass Effect world, just rendered in such a way that they make sense alongside Shepherd. But it's such a weird leap to go to that place because it starts to feel like a different thing, and when it starts to feel like a different thing you're like, "Oh, that's risky. How do we both make this a product that people will understand and continue to be the thing that they self-identify by?" Because that's the other really huge important part of massive pieces of media.
You were saying, and for a lot of people I talk to on this, though, there's still a stigma around playing games or even the word "gamer." I don't know if it's useful here to read back what you said in your email, but --
So, on Idea Channel I stopped using the word "gamer" because it got way too loaded.
[Laughs.] I tend to avoid using it myself here.
That's why I was just gonna quote your email. So that's still a thing, right? There is still a stigma around it, right?
I think so.
Yeah, I think so.
But people seem to not see that or they act like --
I think it's so interesting and weird that there is a distinction between "gamer" and "person who plays games.”
Right. They seem like they would be the same thing, but somehow they are not.
Right. When I say that on Idea Channel, when I say, "Person who plays games" or "People who play games," people point it out and they're like, "Oh yeah, it's actually probably better for you to say that and not 'gamer.'"
But, like -- when you then get into the conversations around gaming being normalized or the surprising things about people who play games coming from the popular press and they innocently say things like, "The largest contingent of gamers in the practice is younger women," people are like, "Ugh, those aren't gamers!" You know, I think that's where the complication is, because there's competing ideas about what seems like should be dictionary definition of the word and, man, the baggage it has.
How would you describe this baggage to people who aren't aware there would be a distinction being made here?
Yeah, sure. I'm trying to think of -- [Pause.] Hold on one second. I'm going to Google something. [Pause.] What I wanted to do was figure out the moment where I decided on Idea Channel, at least, to stop using the word "gamer” and to say instead "people who play games."
And I don't know exactly when it was and I'm not gonna spend the time --
No. You had mentioned that was a thing you did.
Yeah. And I think it was around the Leigh Alexander, "Gamers don't have to be your audience, gamers are dead, etc., etc." and then all of the resulting -- you know, hate, really, that came after that and then eventually morphed into Gamergate.
So the hate you're talking about, and maybe I can thread the needle here a bit, too.
Because that gets into really fuzzy and then also intentionally slippery rhetoric around it. Like, I feel like that was sort of -- because I talk to people for this, too, who there's sort of a denial of an admission that the term has been co-opted or embraced to mean multiple things. Almost like how being an American, how that means something very different to lots of very different people.
But, for gamers -- the hate that I saw was acting like it was telling people that they weren't part to be part of the culture, but I think it was more behavior from certain people that wanted there to be a certain light shined upon, but then there was a denial that people who call themselves that engage in that kind of behavior.
Like, really --
I'm trying to be as diplomatic as possible.
Yeah, yeah. Yeah. The way that it comes down to it for me is it has a lot do with my personal experience and it has a lot to do with what I think it takes to be inviting to people who want to talk about the things that they like and the things that they do. Which is, if we're talking about this through the lens of Idea Channel, that's always what Idea Channel is trying to do: It's trying to respect subjectivities and understand what it is about something that people enjoy and why that makes those things and the actions associated with them important.
And so there was a point at which either someone pointed a finger and said, "This group of people are gamers and I don't like them for this reason," or a group of people pointed at themselves and said, "We are gamers and that sets apart from other people who play games for these reasons." Whatever it is, there was a point at which, I felt as someone who plays a lot of games -- I play a lot of videogames. I've been on vacation for two weeks and I think that I've mostly played videogames. I've read and played Dark Souls, Stephen's Sausage Roll, and Hyper Light Drifter, and that's what I'm doing with my time.
But regardless of the hundred hours that I've spent looking at my computer screen, looking at my television screen, because of the public conversation that has happened around gamers, both someone from the outside saying, "This is what gamers are," or people from the in-group saying, "We are gamers and this is what we are," I began to feel like I was not a gamer, but I am rather someone who plays games.
And I think it's hard for me to say what the exact baggage is both for me and for a larger group of people. because, I think, if there's a thing that I learned switching on Idea Channel from saying "gamer" to "people who play games," is that people said when I started doing it, "Oh yeah, that's probably not a bad idea." But I think that now, at least, just from a purely, almost semiotic perspective, I don't feel I can even say the word "gamer" without channeling in some way Gamergate or making an oblique reference to it. So, it's like, "Why even bother?"
And I think, also, I think actually "people who play games" is more inclusive. That I think of Molly, who spends so much time playing -- her game of choice right now is Disco Zoo. She spends so much time playing Disco Zoo and, like, she loves it and she's so invested in it and she's, as far as I can tell, really good at it. I've never played it. But, you know, she seems like she's doing a real bang-up job running this disco zoo.
But I don't think she would call herself a gamer.
She is someone who plays games. And so I think by saying "people who plays games, person who plays games," or, "us, the people who play games," it is a lot more inclusive. And that is something that's important for me, which is to make sure that I'm speaking in a way and also thinking in a way that is as inclusive as it can be.
"People" is about as inclusive as you can be. That's what I did when I started this. I mean, I started with categories: people who played games, people who make games. And then I wanted to broaden out from there and now it's just people I want to talk to, and the categories are gone. It’s just people.
This is a thing that I've actually -- I just gave a talk a couple weeks ago about this very thing from a different perspective, which is our predilection to want to call people "audiences" or "users" or "viewers" or "readers," and it fundamentally instrumentalizes these people based upon the thing that they bring to you.
When, really, they're people. They're just people.
And this is another thing that, like, actually around the time that I stopped using the word "gamer" in Idea Channel, I stopped using users, audience, viewers, and I try really hard now to just say "people." People who use websites. People who go to Tumblr. You know what I mean? They're not Tumblr users. They're just people who go to Tumblr.
Yeah. Are you saying it's dehumanizing?
I think it has the potential to be.
Yeah, I think so too. And it has an impact on creators, too. For journalists, it's reductive to say you're writing to algorithms, but I do feel there has been a growing sense that editors are forgetting, "Okay, how do we make it interesting for not only a group of people, but also an individual?"
And then don't focus test who that individual is, but remember that all this is going to end up on a person's device or computer in their own time.
Whatever. I think we're on the same page as far as being thoughtful and considerate of that and don't want to just pat ourselves on the back.
Yeah. It's a real tough exercise in --
Well, if you're not in that practice, you don't just don't even realize that you're glossing over it.
Yeah. Totally. And I think people get really excited about imaging their audiences complexly, but they find it either daunting or think it's impossible to consider the individuals who comprise their audience complexly.
So, this is a weird transition but I did want to ask you briefly about James Franco.
[Laughs.] I don't know how much time you had to poke into that --
I mean, I read the whole Jerry Saltz interview and it was incredible.
It'll be interesting to see how we can thread this back to games, but just as far as people and how we want our categories and we want other people to stay within their categories and we sometimes police when they go from one category to another. I mean, for every Keanu Reeves there's a Jeff Bridges where there's someone who's "allowed" to be an actor and also a musician and something else.
Why do you think that is, that some people get to graduate from one mental category to another, but someone like James Franco is given a ton of shit for it?
[Laughs.] That's a really good question. I agree to a certain degree with Jerry Saltz's proclamation that if there is a thing that you are centrally known for, it's hard for you to wade into other things and not have your main persona or pursuit or whatever you want to call it be inextricable from the meaning of the new thing. That part of the content of your additional excursion is your history. And I think some people are really good at parlaying that and taking advantage of it as opposed to working against it.
And I think a lot of the complaints about James Franco -- some of which I think are warranted and some of which I think are unfair -- are that he is, like, way too ostentatious in his performance of, "Look at me, I'm doing something different. I'm not just an actor."
And I think reading the interview with Jerry Saltz, you hear him talk about the moment that he realized that he was working against his history as an actor and it was up to him to actually embrace it, but that that doesn't mean that he was just being an actor in art pieces.
It took him a while to understand that he could be an artist who acts in things when he is also an actor who acts in big budget movies. And I think that, you know -- I mean, I can't predict alternate universes. I can't say what's going on in the universe adjacent to ours, but I would believe the speculation that had he realized that sooner, it would have been easier for the public and maybe the art critical world to have bought in.
How do you see parallels to that dynamic in videogames? Do you see it?
I think that the -- I don't have too much of a knowledge of people who are transgressing boundaries in that way. But the thing that applies, I think, is at the front of their conversation they talked about -- Jerry Saltz talked about that the way art world protects itself and that he feels he has to buy into that to a certain degree. That the art world is -- I forget the word that he used -- but he put it in a really great way. That essentially the art world is this almost insular thing and that it is very protected and it polices itself and he feels that's necessary to a certain degree and that he as a critic has to buy into that because this is the world that he works and lives in and then James Franco calls him out for being one of the biggest or one of the most noticeable police officers of the world.
And I think that you see that in most industries. Even in industries like the art world, like the downtown performance world. Like, stuff that is classically considered strange or adventurous or experimental. You still have these groups of people and people with status all managing the shape of the community and of the industry, I think, because they feel like they have to because there's economic incentive to do so because even audiences that are tolerant or accepting of change and challenge still only do that within a certain framework of tolerance.
And I think that's, to me, the thing that echoed our conversation about games, that it's another way of stating this larger idea of how do you innovate within expectation and economic requirements in such a way that you can still call the community and the pursuit one thing, and that's a really hard problem to solve.
I mean, it's the larger, really great question of everybody wants to know what is a thing. What is art? What is a game?
And the conversation that Jerry Saltz and James Franco had is really about not what is art but what is an artist. And pending the answer to that question is what that person makes viable as artwork. That it might be artwork, but it's a question of its viability. And I think that you see that question echoed constantly in the games world. Like, what is a game? What are AAA games? What is a Twine game? What do you have to know or be able to do in order call yourself a game designer or a game studio or publisher or games journalist? And so, you know, I think the parallels are all of those ones. Which is, it's a very very general conversation that happens in every industry.
I think about this a lot, with regards to music. I actually tend not to think about it a lot with regards to videogames.
I feel like it's a thing people talk about a lot without really labeling that that's what they're talking about.
Yeah. So, for me, someone who has good taste in music is a person who understands what they like and also understands what other people like and can understand what about a particular piece of music or band or act or something is desirable and can then turn that information into either recommendation or insight.
And so I think that when we talk about something like games and we talk about taste in games, there's this weird thing that has happened because of what -- I don't know if you would describe it as a schism? But games are more than one thing. Games are now mobile games. Games are indie games. Games are AAA games. Games are tabletop games.
And so to say that -- for me, for, like, you know, the hip guy living in Brooklyn who is, like, playing Life is Strange with his girlfriend in between playing Fallout 4 for 12 hours at a time. For me, someone who has great taste in games is someone who's gonna be, like, "Hey, have you played Downwell yet? It seems like something you would really like.”
But I think that for a whole other group of people, someone who has good taste in games is someone who understands why the newest Batman game fell short of what it was attempting to do, which I think -- sometimes that's the same person, but I feel like a lot of times it's two different kinds of people.
Does that make sense? I don't know if this is making sense.
No. Yeah. It does. I feel like in games, though, what I see is the opposite of other "nerd" circles, which is there an elitism around the things that are the most mainstream. But I never see a sneering scoff from people who are into the super-obscure stuff. I don't know if you've waded enough into games to see that. Have you ever detected that or picked up on that?
Where someone's like, "Oh, you haven't logged a thousand hours playing Receiver? Do you even game?"
I've never heard that.
Uh, no. No. Whereas, like, for music -- [Laughs.] I consider myself knowledgeable about obscure music and sometimes going into the record store, even I'm like, "Oh man, these guys are so much cooler than me."
Uh, yeah. That's true. That is true. I wonder -- why is that? Is that because that is a group of people who have been trained to think of themselves as lower status because of the sort of aggression that seems inherent in games as popularly considered?
It's much more present in music.
Or in comic books?
Yeah. Yeah. Like, you would be scoffed at if all you knew was Superman or Batman. I would think, based off my comics friends. But they all know better than to talk to me about comics.
I'm not privy it is whatever it is they're saying.
[Laughs.] Yeah. That's really interesting. Yeah. I wonder. [Pause.] Because I think there's also the degree to which the capital "G" gamer, and here this is, like, high speculation -- like, what's the relationship between that identification, or maybe I'm just asking you this question: Is there a relationship between that identification and the idea of being a connoisseur? Like, if your gaming diet is all of the AAA titles or almost all AAA titles and, you know, like, the things on Steam that are independently released but hugely popular and getting all of the indie gamer love, right, do you think of yourself as a connoisseur? Because, I think, that factors into a lot of comic books and that definitely factors into being a fan of particular kinds of music. You have this sense of, "Oh yes. I know where the quality is. Like, I know how to identify what about these entries fits into my area of expertise."
I think back on Mario, for example, like, it was companies who had to prop up what we ostensibly call this industry. But they were not the first people to be making games. There were a lot of people in the '70s and '80s going to Radio Shack, dropping off their little baggies with diskettes them. But those are kind of forgotten relics. The kind of gaming we're talking about somehow is assumed to have only started with Pac-Man or Mario.
But it's weird that that's dripped into taste or awareness, is just whatever it is companies release.
Yeah. And, right, if we go into the sociological -- the things that you like are just meant to communicate what kind of values that you have, or the things that you like are meant to communicate your values and solidify your relationships to people who like the same things. So the idea is that you identify something about either the group of people, the thing itself, or the combination of the two that you want to be true about yourself, and so you then develop, justify, and then defend your taste in that thing so that you can sort of fully advertise and experience that wonderful in-group feeling.
[Laughs.] Delicious. And so, you know, I don't know. It seems like the conversation or one question to have is what is it -- is there a difference between the thing that's being communicated by people who are who have a certain taste in indie games or smaller games versus people who play, you know, mostly Call of Duty or Destiny and Halo. I would guess that they might be more related than we want to admit, but I'm not sure.
Off the top of my head, yeah, I would say so too.
Yeah, like, I gotta go sit down and think about this for a little while.
It's just that the games themselves mean very different things, and ask you as a player to orient or conduct yourself in such different ways that that's where the disconnect is, but that the actual relationship to the group and the relationship to the thing is maybe pretty similar? I don't know. There's a big economic aspect to this, too.
I want to talk a little bit about nerd culture, broad as that is.
Does it even mean anything to be a "nerd" anymore? I think of things like Ernie Cline and how people get up in arms over his books. I haven't read them, but based on reputation alone, they seem to be a literary equivalent of Family Guy with thin references and not much that's deeper. I don't even really have a strong opinion myself, but there seems to be a lot of disdain and a feeling when things like that get popular and get out there, it waters down or cheapens the culture.
From what I understand, and it's differing degrees from the first two novels, but that it's essentially like '80s and '90s pastiche. That it's essentially a novel put together from, yeah, not only nerd trivia density but the importance of getting the reference.
[Laughs.] Yes. Have you seen or felt or even thought about how the notion of being a nerd has changed? Does it matter?
[Laughs.] Yeah, I think that there is -- I would have proudly identified in high school as a nerd and not a particular kind of nerd. Just a nerd. And I think that's one big difference between then and now, which is that now you are a specific kind of nerd. And I think that the idea of being a general nerd still exists, but there is a kind of taxonomy of nerdiness. I think now it is acceptable for you to be a nerd, or if not acceptable, then maybe even expected that you are a nerd to a certain degree for at least a couple things and that I think -- I see this is a direct response to what the '90s was like; in the '90s, especially with the prevalence of grunge, it wasn't cool to like anything. You were not allowed to advertise any kind of outward affect. It was just that everything was even keel, unless it was sadness.
You could be sad. You could be morose. But, like, being excited about stuff wasn't cool because "cool" means packing it all in. You're cool. Calm and collected.
But that gets exhausting. And is I think boring. And so I think that we see the rise of nerd culture being essentially a celebrated return to a level of almost normality, of being able to effusively like things. Being able to identify a thing that you find interesting and that you want to know more about and you want to tell other people and get them excited about it, too.
I'm a big fan of the Green Brothers, and I don't know if it was both of them or if it was just John [who had said], "The great thing about being a nerd is that you don't have to be embarrassed about what you like." And I do think that that's true. I like that definition and that's how I tend to think about it. And I think that when most people say, "Oh man, yeah. I mean, I'm like a big football nerd." Fifteen, 20 years ago that would've made no sense. That was a conflict in terms.
But now, I think you understand that that means that, like, you don't just watch football: You understand more about what football is than your average football consumer and you find something interesting or fulfilling or engaging about the relationship between details about football.
And I think the big question is, like: If we're all nerds, then aren't none of us nerds?
I think we are all nerds and the way that we talk about it is that we're not all nerds for the same thing. We just understand that we have different interests and it can be fun to be excited about those interests.
It's funny, too, because I think your mentioning of "being able to like things," like, exploring that is what lead into hipsterdom. Which, like nerds, I don't think hipsters even really exist anymore either. Like we saw an over-correction from the '90s and grunge -- which feels correct, I would agree with you -- into both ironically liking things and also just aggressively and passionately and honestly liking things that, like you said, would not traditionally be associated with "nerd-dom." So what does that mean about where you think we are going, if we all are nerds, but there are still some "bad" or "bully" nerds?
If we are all nerds now, but there are "bad" nerds or "bully" nerds, what do you feel that means about where we are going? You can take your crystal ball out.
[Laughs.] It's a really good question. I think -- so, to go from your first point, the presence and prevalence and popularity of irony and its brothers or cousins: sarcasm; everyone's favorite, satire --
Can I just tell you, as someone who started their career at The Onion --
Like, I'm sorry.
I'm so over internet snark and having infected so much of the internet with it.
But at the same time, The Onion is the standard bearer for how to create earnest meaning from irony, sarcasm, and satire.
But I feel like the takeaways have been dejected snark -- well, you know. You see the same internet as me.
Yeah. I'm picking up what you're putting down. You feel like The Onion has in some way fanned a flame that it was attempting to put out. Or was, like, started an additional flame. Yeah, I think that that has contributed to a larger sort of almost rhetorical problem of assuming no one is communicating earnest experiences online. And I think especially in comment sections and increasingly on Twitter, people don't assume that you're communicating earnestly. And there's already a problem with communicating earnestly online. It's why we invented the smiley, it's why emoticons came about: it's to increase the bandwidth of a very narrow bandwidth -- text-only communication.
But that only goes so far and there are certain things that that's not good at. And so I think that, one, is a sort of thing that I think of as a widespread problem. And I do think that it's a problem that it seems like most people assume most other people on the internet are not communicating earnest experiences. And I think that that goes down to even things like "lol." When someone writes "lol," we do not actually think that they have laughed out loud. And I think that that is interesting and maybe important to question why and then to think about how that has maybe creeped its way up the rhetorical practice of communicating online.
As far as what has kind of happened to nerd-dom and how this relates to hipsterdom, you know, like I think -- you had said hipsters kind of don't really exist anymore. And I think it's just an effect off we got bored of making fun of them.
This also, for me, goes back to The Onion. I was at A.V. Club and we used to sell T-shirts that said, "hipster d-bag."
And by the time I realized a few years later, "Oh, they were kinda right." Like, that stopped being a thing.
Yeah. I think that insofar as a hipster is someone who has borrowed cultural signals from cultures to which they do not belong in order to accessorize with them and then possibly develop an earnest interest in those things as a result of their accessorizing then we are all implicated.
I feel like that has just shifted to people liking stuff. And it shouldn't matter why they like it and what they're getting out of it.
And maybe it's not that simple to be universal about.
You know, there's an aesthetic dislike of hipsters and then there is an emotional dislike of hipsters. And I think that a lot of the markings of stereotypical hipsterdom -- the curly mustache, the tucked-in plaid shirt with high-waisted pants and suspenders with work boots from a company in the Midwest in a state that you've never been to -- those are things that people find aesthetically just irritating and then an emotional dislike after you've sort of conceptualized what it must be about that person that lead them to make those decisions to dress that way.
We got a little sidetracked here, but can you take your crystal ball out on the whole “bad” nerds or “bully” nerds, and what that seems to say about where we are heading? Would you mind?
"People... people will... assert their status based on what they love!"
I mean, I wanna get all gushy about how great it is to be a nerd and everything. And how it’s always been good to have a group of people who shared interests with me, and who were interested in the same things and those things are all. It's all stuff that we understood to not be popular in the mainstream sense of the word. Having your community is great, and being able to be effusive about your love of something is rad, especially if not many other people you know love it.
But like -- there have always been really shit nerds who sorta, like, transgress the idea of all that. Who wanna judge people for what they like, or who wanna say the things other people are into aren't "actually" nerdy things and the way I think of it -- and maybe this is super inappropriate; I've never said this out loud I dont think -- is sorta like how kids who were hit as kids are more likely to hit their kids? There's just -- there are people who are going to propagate the violence thats been perpetrated upon them because though they may consciously recognize its damaging, to a certain degree it's maybe -- all they know. It's one of a very few strategies they have for dealing with a situation that looks a certain way and its definitely a way to asset status, which is something the stereotypical nerd lacks. So it makes sense.
So, I mean, hopefully where we're headed is an ever more inclusive "nerd community."Whatever that means. Where we learn -- and I think we are, just like with "gamers" -- where we learn that these words are so vague and broad as to be nearly useless on one level. But on another level, if we are all accepting people, accepting of the attitude and excitement that underlies whatever varied interests fit under these labels, that provides so many opportunities for learning about the world, the media landscape, broadening our experiences, social interactions. All that stuff is so important, and I think more important than excluding folks because their particular brand of nerdery is wrong.
Of course if someone is, in fact, an asshole, that's another story.
Y’know I think -- I think people forget that in the end, really these labels are about finding people we can identify with and spend time with and connect over something about and it's just -- it is easier or maybe just feels better to exclude people. I hope that's NOT where we're headed. But, y'know -- the last couple years?
I have heard some things.
And, so, I rarely ask people to discuss individuals or point fingers or to talk about specific people. We talked about James Franco, but I wonder if you have any strong feelings about Chris Hardwick and sort of the whole Nerdist empire and how that's impacted "nerd-dom?"
That's a really good question. You know, actually, I have not really thought about that very much. I think Chris Hardwick seems to me like a very, very, very hard-working man. Chris seems to me to be someone who is very earnest and has a lot of responsibilities.
[Laughs.] He's like an eight-year-old boy on the honor roll and a paper route.
I don't know if you've followed his whole career, but he was on Singled Out.
Yeah, he was the host on Singled Out with Jenny McCarthy.
He had an alcohol problem, he turned himself around, he wrote a productivity book. What I wonder about specifically and this is not an accusation per se, but the things that he champions as being part of nerd-dom is -- like, there's nothing nerdy about Dungeons & Dragons anymore. There's nothing nerdy about sci-fi anymore. I don't know if there's even really anything nerdy about The Walking Dead.
And I do think that there's a value to community but around all the hard work that he does, there is a lot of selling stuff.
Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I see what you're saying. Yeah, I think that you can implicate Nerdist in the growing commercialization of what in the '90s and early 2000's we would have called nerd culture before its -- here's the word I really don't want to say -- mainstreamification. Yeah. Like, I can see it but I think it's also -- we get back to the conversation between Jerry Saltz and James Franco, the conversation about what is a game and what is a game designer? You know, it's a complicated thing to place, like, actual blame on someone or something for because the incentives are baked into the way that we think about success and fun and entertainment and industry. It's kinda like a symptom of a much larger problem -- or not even problem. A much larger characteristic of the world that --
Are we talking about capitalism again?
[Laughs.] I don't think we're ever not. [Laughs.]
It's come up a few times in these lately and there's always this moment where it's like, "Hmm, well, what would that giant system be?"
[Laughs.] At this point it's not even really a giant system. It's just the way that people think the world is and does work. Like, it's almost at this point hilariously overstating it to be like, "Well, capitalism..." Because with so many people it's not even really capitalism. It's just, "Well, the way we think about the world and our place in it." [Laughs.]
That's why I was like, "Well, I'll just say it." But do you think -- is there a damage that's been done or is there a thing that needs to be counter-balanced? It seems inevitable that things will get co-opted. And I don't want to think that it's all negative, but is there something here that needs balancing?
I mean, the problem -- "the problem." [Laughs.] So, here's how we're gonna solve everything that's wrong! [Laughs.] Uh, no.
I think that you are never going to avoid having niche things that inspire emotional investments from growing in popularity, possibly to the point where they transgress some original mandate for themselves. You know? It's like punk-rock, nerd culture, metal culture -- really, it's part of what happens and that when something stays niche, it's almost always because it is at its heart something that refuses mainstream appeal. Like, I listen to a lot of noise music and one of my friends said to me recently, "You have, definitionally, the coolest taste in music because it is impossible for the thing that you like to grow in popularity because it is by definition a thing that people don't like."
And he said, "The thing that frustrates me the most about it is that you would probably think it was great if the thing that you listen to that I find unlistenable grew in popularity because it would be easy for you to see them and they would be more successful."
And I'm like, "Yeah, of course!" It would be great if weird noise bands started playing at like, Madison -- not Madison Square Garden because then I probably wouldn't be able to actually get tickets. But if they started playing at Bowery Ballroom or something that has wider appeal that affords them greater financial success so that they can do more of the same thing.
And my friend was very frustrated. He's like, "Yeah, that is cool. That's cool that you don't care about it. It's all about the thing."
And I think that for the most part it's just hard for a lot of niche cultures to sit in that place. Especially if they inspire devotion from others.
And then, when you look at the incentives for growth, like more ticket sales, the ability to make more records, the ability to merchandise more freely. You know, you would think someone was crazy for being like, "Eh, I don't. Nah. I'll refuse the dollars. I mean, you know, whatever."
What would James Franco do? That's the question.
He would be a fucking movie star!
He would be a goddamn millionaire before he -- yeah, whatever. I don't need to complain about James Franco. But you see what I'm saying. And I think that the other big thing to counterbalance is I think we always need to work at understanding and finding an agreement -- and I mean, even like an old-school liberalism-style agreement, which is, "If we disagree with one another, we can still work towards the overall goal that the thing has. Like, we understand what the bigger goal is."
Which is that as something like nerd culture grows to -- I completely lost my train of thought.
I feel like a lot of the rest our conversation has been, "Oh, why don't we all agree?" But I think it's actually a good thing.
Because it gets to be more multifaceted and it's like, "You don't have to like the things that I like. I don't have to like the things you like. That's why we should talk to each other and you'll find some stuff that you didn't know you would."
Yeah. I think really what you're honing in on is something like the gatekeeper conversation, maybe. It's like, as nerd culture grows, we have to be cognizant of the fact that it does bring a lot of people joy and it may bring them joy in a way that is different from the way it brings us joy but that, like, don't fucking shit on someone's bliss, man.
Like, I had a guy in the Idea Channel comments say that it's impossible to be a cocktail nerd. You just cannot be a cocktail nerd. That is a conflict of terms because nerd culture is the stuff that you liked and you got beat up for it and liquor is what the people who beat you up drank and it was the thing that identified them as not nerds and the fact that you didn't drink identified you as a nerd and you just can't be a cocktail nerd. And I think what we're doing is we're realizing that nerdery is an action and not a set of commercially produced things.
I think for a lot of people that's weird.
I think what he's describing partly is being a cocktail martyr.
'Cause, for me, I don't equate getting beat up as part of the rich culture of --
-- and that's fine. People are allowed to have their own definitions.
But there's tons of snobs in the liquor and the wine world.
It's because we are snobs.
[Laughs.] And I think it's a question of understanding exactly what you just said, which is these people have their own experiences and it doesn't necessarily diminish the purpose of the action.
It's like, punk-rock is an action. Noise music is an action. Record collecting is an action. Comic-book collecting is an action. Like, being a _Walking Dead_fan is an action. And it's like, you have to learn to separate all of these things from the product and the expectations you have about their product and all these weird ideas about "purity" and people get messed up on dictionary definitions and what it is is it's about people doing stuff.
I brought up Cline specifically before because I saw a lot of people get upset on the internet -- if you can imagine that.
[Laughs.] I am shocked!
[Laughs.] Well, I saw people get upset about how his books intercommunicate or mis-frame or not properly displaying the depths of the nerd experience, but having not read the books myself I feel silly asking you about it, and it was also on that website you said you had stopped reading so it might not be worth even poking at further.
I mean, I'm curious if you can sort of -- was it a complaint that nerdery consists entirely in just getting the reference?
The subhead was "Ernest Cline's Armada is everything wrong with gaming culture wrapped up in one soon-to-be-best-selling novel."
That sounds like a Slate headline.
I think the thing I wonder more is just, why can't we on the internet just decide, "You know? This is kind of a benign thing and rather than eviscerate, I'll just not elevate it by acknowledging it."
Because you gotta defeat the opponent. That makes you feel powerful. Advertising dislike of something -- it's like, if advertising your love of something makes you feel great and powerful, then advertising your dislike of something makes you feel_like a god_!
[Laughs.] I'm glad you brought up the sports thing because you had mentioned in our emails that even sports is a little bit more progressive than videogames as far as understanding people will have different levels of involvement. You said, "Generally, sports fans have accepted there are many levels of involvement and they're all worthwhile ways of looking at things."
Yeah, I mean, I'm gonna be completely honest right now.
Possibly this is a bad idea, but I'm gonna be totally honest. [Laughs.]
I appreciate it.
So, like, I sometimes I'll go to a baseball game. The end. That's my honesty. No.
Sometimes I go to a baseball game and, like, I like baseball. I understand baseball. I can explain the way baseball works to people who don't know. I even know some of the more complicated things about how baseball works. Like, I don't have great and pervasive knowledge, but I know who I like, I know how things work, and I have a good time.
And I never go to a baseball game and I feel like I don't belong. I go to baseball games and I sit down next to people who have no idea what's going on and are just there to drink in the sun. Good for them. That's awesome. And then on the other side of me are people who know every single thing about everything that's happening in the entire league. They take it very seriously. They may as well have, like, Excel open, the amount of understanding that they have and are creating while watching the game. And then in front of me are people who know who their team is, know they like their team, know why they like their team, know roughly what the stats are, and take the sport very seriously.
So, they're very invested but not on an intellectual level but on an emotional level. Which is not to say that the people who are invested intellectually are not invested emotionally, it's just not what they're advertising outwardly.
And so I can sit there in that situation and I can be like, "All right! I know where my place is in this thing."
But, like, I stopped going to PAX East because I don't feel like I belong there. Like, Penny Arcade in general -- don't feel like that's for me. They make me uncomfortable. Going to Penny Arcade Expo is like, I'm like, "Okay, I really feel like an outsider. Like, I like these games. I like playing these games. But being here, I don't know where I go." And I feel like my opinions about both the organization, the way that the event is run, and about the thing that the convention is about immediately make me question whether or not I should be there. Like, I don't feel like there's a space for me.
How do you mean?
To clarify, I'm not asking for you to fire shots.
I mean, clearly, doing a project like this -- you don't do something like this unless you've sort of felt a little in the margins of this stuff yourself.
It's so odd to grow up with this stuff and although you have that in common you don't feel like you fit in at all. How does that feeling manifest for you at this stuff?
I think it's just, like -- so, like, I really like talking about the way media works and the way people relate to media. And I have lots of really specific ideas about those things. And I find part of the joy of interacting with media then talking critically about it with people who have also done that. And I see that as part and parcel with the consumption of media. You're not doing an extra thing. And you're not doing a thing that defeats your enjoyment of it. You are both enhancing your enjoyment of it and completing the process of the media by having this critical reaction to it and by talking with people about it.
And I don't just mean beyond, like, "Man, like, that was good," or, "That was bad," or, "This section was slow." Sort of like a deeper level of, "What is this? How does this work? What does this mean? How do we as a community relate to this?" And, like, being at a lot of gaming conferences, I feel like I have to watch what I say because I will get in trouble or I will say something that will "out" me as someone who is not aligned with what I perceive -- and perhaps perceive incorrectly -- to be the kind of party line of something like PAX. And, man, it's like being cool. It's not advertising any kind of affect. I get exhausted not turning to someone and being like, "Hey, so, critical reaction to the second Borderlands? Loved it, maybe possibly something -- insert slightly critical statement here." Like, I would never do that at a convention like that because I would be afraid that I would get -- I don't know. That I would cause trouble for myself.
I think it's a question of -- I like having conversations with people. I like having heated conversations with people.
I don't like arguing. I have no interest in arguing. I have no interest in fighting with people. I have interest in me having one truth, someone else having another truth, and us walking towards one another until we get what might be another truth directly in the middle of us.
I don't have an interest in using my truth to bash pieces off of someone else's truth. And so that is, I think, the main thing that stops me from interacting with what, again, perhaps I incorrectly perceive as the community and cultural standpoint in places like that because I'm like, "Well, I wanna talk critically about these things but I really don't wanna fight with someone."
And unfortunately, it's like, a lot of times those people are looking for a fight. They're like, "Well, if you can't fight, then your opinions aren't right or good because they can't stand against being challenged." And it's like, "Well, there's a difference between challenging something and fighting me." Again, yeah, I just get exhausted.
But, to go back to your baseball example, though there’s still that strata of baseball nerds who will scoff and dismiss “casuals” taking up room on the bleachers or whatever. But I feel like they don’t take it to the extreme we’ve seen people passionately into videogames go, with the whole, “I’m gonna rape you and your mother.”
This is a crazy idea or thought, but do you think any of that intensity from that underlying question that used to be debated much more in games about whether they're art? Like, people feel like they're defending art and the first amendment?
I mean, I think I'm definitely not equipped to say how nasty the sports fandom can get 'cause I just simply don't travel in it. Yeah, from the outside, it seems like when people get upset about sports things, they're like, "Fuck your team. Your team is the worst." And maybe they'll throw a "faggot" in there for good measure. And whether or not there is the level of vitriol, I don't know. I've certainly never heard of one sports fan swatting another sports fan. That does not mean that it hasn't happened. I just haven't heard about it.
As far as the other question about whether or not I feel like people who get very upset about the state of games ostensibly wanting to protect the artform I have the distinct sense that that is not the case.
You think it's something else.
I do think it's something else. I think that it is a fundamentally self-oriented position. That is what it seems to me. It always has struck me that that rage and set of actions that come along with it is deeply rooted in something that person feels about themselves and not videogames, and that videogames might be the pathway or the conduit to that feeling, but that it is at its base something about how they feel the world does or should work.
I think a lot of these people who are upset about -- like, a lot of Gamergaters to me seem like people who fundamentally think of the world as a place where, like, challenge and abuse, disagreement, argument -- like, those things are just part of the world. That's what living life is. It's interacting with those things. And so, for them to then swarm Sarah Nyberg or Brianna Wu -- the one or two times they figured out that I said something that they don't like, but I don't get it nearly as bad as anyone else. To them, when those people are upset or confounded, that's where this response of, "You can't even take it when someone disagrees with you, huh? This is just what the world is like." Etc., etc. I think that's where that comes from because for them, whatever world they live in, that is true. It is true that they are confronted with challenge, abuse, disagreement, argument over and over and over again. And so I think there is a fundamental disconnect in the way a lot of people just think the world works or think what socializing or interaction is.
Because I can never seem to -- for all of the talk that many of the higher level Gamergaters do about wanting to have calm and reasoned discussions, wanting to "debate" -- they love the word "debate" -- I've never actually seen it happen. I've only ever seen shouting and a kind of rules-based one-upmanship to figure out who best will "win" the argument.
And I'm starting to think that it's because of a lower level idea about what it means to even have these kinds of conversations.
You said, as far as the ecosystem in general, it would be kind of nice if people stopped wanting games to be one thing and stopped wanting people who play games to be one thing. But I think we've already touched on that a little bit.
Also, at the risk of really looking down upon the people from my throne -- [Laughs.] I feel there is a specific and very vocal minority of people who both want games to be one thing and want the people who play games to be one thing, or want there to be clear linguistic lines drawn so that when we call people "gamers" we know exactly what we're referring to. This is a group of people who is highly “rational” and they want to make sure that when you're describing their group of people, you're appropriately describing them and using the right words to do so. I just think that that is the opposite of what the reality of the situation is and one of the most beautiful things about the internet right now is we are realizing that gamers are different kinds of people. And I think that's amazing.
I think if we can get past this idea that a gamer is this angry basement dude, you know, the terrible stupid stereotype -- that what the internet has done is it has shown us that this monolithic social group that we had such a clear idea of five or six years ago. Now we’re like, "Oh no, that is a wide and massive rainbow of people and they're all super-different."
And so if "gaming" is the test case, then it makes me really hopeful -- if it does work out, which, I'll be an optimist. I hope it does. That we can understand. We can come to a collective understanding that these differing subjectivities within this media space are not only existent but also good and also, like, important for the future of the industry. And if it works out that way, that means that it can happen in other places, too, and we might not even know where those places are yet.
I have such great hope for that being the case. And I think that can be part of a larger conversation about games as these massive, popular, monied economic successes -- that are not one thing. And the people who play those things aren't one thing.
What do you think videogames have accomplished?
So, when I was in college -- I went to art school -- the big thing that was happening was interactivity. This was just as affordable micro-controllers were a thing. You know, when I was in college, YouTube wasn't a thing yet. And I remember thinking, "Oh. I get this. I can do this. I just figure out how I can make art like a videogame, except without the videogame part." And so that was one of my guiding ideas while in college.
And I think now, what we realized videogames have done is they have shown people how they can live inside of an artwork or have agency inside of an artwork in a way that they don't normally think of artworks allowing them.
And I think a lot of people see artworks as such this other external thing. They don't allow themselves to be invited into a painting or a sculpture or even a performance that happens in actual space. But there's a sort of world and privacy that comes with a lot of games that invites people in and they understand that they can have this amazing aesthetic experience that they might not otherwise and that might very very different from the aesthetic experience they have with film or television or music.
I think games have also allowed us to sort of understand what our technology is good for. There's kind of a wider promise of creation, working together, again, aesthetic experience, portability, quality, so many questions about quality that games and gaming have kind of outlined or have challenged or supported in parallel -- that I think the history of the iPhone is also the history of mobile gaming. You know, the history of at-home entertainment is also the history of gaming. And I think that those two things are -- we don't have one without the other.