All right. So, my full name is Pippin James Barr. I don't usually use my middle name except at cafes when they ask you for your name for the coffee cup and, like, nobody understands "Pippin.” So, rather than say that a thousand times I say, "James." It's my birthday today, so I am literally exactly 37 right now.
Oh, happy birthday. Thanks for doing this on your birthday.
I'm so inattentive to birthdays that it didn't even occur to me until today. It shows you what plans I have for my birthday.
I think that just means you're older than 21.
Yeah, that starts to fall around then. That's true.
I'm in Montreal in Canada.
I mean, the main reason at this point that I would be sitting here talking about videogames is I guess because I make them and maybe because -- I guess I talk or think about videogames a lot because I don't make popular videogames. I make videogames to think about videogames, most of the time. Which, obviously, that leads to thinking about them more.
But I also, for the last six or seven years I've also been teaching videogame stuff at universities. Mostly game design or programming and things like that. But, again, lots of talking and thinking. I mean, God, I did a PhD about videogames as well sometime ago now. I was mostly interested in how videogames communicate values to their players through their interfaces, because I was in a computer science department. So, that was kind of my angle.
So, yeah, I've thought about them academically, I wrote a book about videogames as well. I've done all kinds of videogames things. I wrote a sort of popularist book -- I mean, not totally unlike this project, except it was about the things rather than the people, like we were talking about before. Introducing people to videogames in a short book -- that's what I thought I was gonna be for a while, like, a critic. And yeah, starting teaching videogames and making them at the same time. That was kind of intertwined: the shame of not making videogames while teaching them.
I guess the most neutral thing to ask at the start here to give us a broad place to work from is what do you feel is the "state" of videogames and academia? It's odd in that it seems often staffed by people who don't necessarily have master's or PhD's, but rather by virtue of their being around doing a thing for a while they have taken up teaching it. I don't know how all academic fields emerge and if that's unusual, but do you know about that and how games conform or deviate from that history?
I've certainly spent plenty of time around videogames academia. Actually, I mean, most of my career so far has involved following my wife around. She's also an academic and she also studies videogames and she's sort of much more successful than me as an academic and for good reason. [Laughs.] But the first place we actually moved to was Copenhagen, which was kind of where games studies -- which I guess is the usual name for the academic study of games -- was born in some ways.
So, we ended up in the department where that happened after the fact. We weren't there at the birth of game studies, which was in the late '90s or early 2000's.
Yeah. It's a young field.
It's pretty young. It doesn't feel young anymore, I guess, because people have really piled in. It's very popular. I don't know if I think that it's true that people don't have PhD's. I think that happens quite a lot where you're seeing quite a few game developers come and teach at universities, like Brenda Romero or John Romero are both sorts of people who come in because they have huge expertise and I guess turn out to be good teachers as well. But lots of games, obviously, they cross a lot of disciplinary boundaries because they're kind of a medium and they don't have that kind of film studies thing where only film studies people are allowed to talk about films or something to that effect.
So you get communication studies people and you get literary theorists and you get computer scientists and they all kind of mix up into this thing called game studies, which has a thousand perspectives and maybe doesn't exist anymore. I don't know. I think game studies now probably -- I'm probably speaking out of turn -- but seems more kind of critical theory applied to videogames more than most things. But there's a lot more going on.
Yeah. I interviewed Jesse Schell last year.
I asked him this question: How do you feel academia and the industry overlap and communicate in the game industry? Does it seem on par with the way other industries and their academic --
I guess, to the extent that the answer is: not much.
Yeah. Like, I mean, I guess I don't think that Hollywood is knocking on the doors of famous film theorists to tell them how to make movies. I think one thing that does happen that at least goes in the direction from industry to academia in the sense that there are very smart people researching industry and doing qualitative research and going in there and finding out how people are doing what they do.
The other way it doesn't seem to me -- and, again, I could be totally wrong -- that there's a lot of uptake in the other direction.
But you don't think that's unusual.
I don't think so. It seems like you've got people who do the thing and then often they're not that interested in hearing what people who think about the thing think they should be doing, I guess. [Laughs.]
This is certainly something I've noticed as well. I've done my time as a critic as well, and you've reached a different conclusion in how to coexist with the space than me. It seems to me often in videogames, criticism is heard not as "I see the potential for you to better" and instead as a gut punch or a "you shouldn't even exist."
Or it's Zoidberg from Futurama: "You're bad and you should feel bad!"
Yeah, I agree with that. So, again, I'm not -- I feel weird, like, weighing in too much on criticism just because I tried to do it for a while and greatly enjoyed it but, yeah. This is probably a broader cultural thing than just games I'm guessing.
That criticism and perceived negative statements about anything that anybody makes, it's feeling less acceptable now maybe just culturally. I don't know if that's a generational thing or what that is. And not even that -- it's interesting that you say that: "I think that your thing could be better." I don't think I even have ever thought of it in such a positive way before.
That's really interesting when things aren't the way that you -- not even that you thought that they should be a different way but they don't work for you and exploring why that is is a really interesting exercise.
I feel like criticism in games is so odd because it's not like you're making cars or making movies. You're never going to be making the same game again. Like, once you're done with it maybe you'll do that privately but you wouldn't be releasing four versions of the same thing.
Of the exact same things, yeah.
Even if you do take it in that positive way of: "Here's where I see improvements," okay, well, what are they supposed to do with that?
Yeah, I guess so. But then, I guess you're not really writing it for -- well, I don't know who you're writing it for, but when I write about how I feel about games, again, it's more sort of trying to explain -- and this is something I've been worrying about more recently much more generally is just that I'm this incredible narcissist because I kind of just do everything for myself. So when I write something critical about -- like I wrote something about Firewatch recently. I wasn't just writing, "I don't like how the hands work in Firewatch." Like, I was interested in how they interacted with the narrative and so on.
But I was writing that absolutely for me. I'm just interested in what was it about that experience of shrieking at the television screen as I threw a photo of my wife onto the ground. There's that experience, which is it's funny and weird and irritating, but going deep into what was happening there felt like a good exercise for me. Not for the people who made Firewatch. They have their reasons for doing things and there's no doubt that they thought about it and I think did a bug fix for it as well in later versions.
Yeah. Do you feel like you don't see certain types of criticism in games? I know when we were emailing we touched on it briefly, but do you feel like you pay attention enough to be able to say that you never see certain types of things?
I guess I would have said I wasn't seeing more not negative but more critical criticism, I guess. But I feel like more recently maybe there has been a bit more of that stuff. But it definitely feels true that people get upset about it. It's seen as punching down or something, to criticize any smaller productions or personal games. I guess that is very hard to separate that from a personal attack maybe?
I always feel like people are still acting like we're back in the '80s because the attitude seems to stem from some place of, "Well, we can't talk poorly about this thing because we still want it to take off."
Yeah. We've gotta nurture it.
You can't prune the tiny little plant too hard or it's gonna die.
I don't know if that's true.
That's what it feels like.
Like, games are fine. They're gonna be --
I would have thought so and I would have thought that the people making them were probably sufficiently robust that they're not gonna fall apart because somebody -- like, even if someone writes a thing and they say that your game sucks, like, people say my games suck on Reddit all the time.
And that doesn't really bother me that much. But I'm not trying to make a living and I guess that's another part of all of this, that people are trying to scrape together lives based on this work and I guess bad words about your work can lead to all sorts of -- you don't get your Kickstarter or you don't get greenlit. There's a lot of brand management, I guess, that is pretty active for people these days.
Myself included. I often think of myself as maintaining some weird kind of alien brand around myself.
Oh yeah. We're both doing that. Our brands have interacted.
It's a comforting way of doing things because it's very impersonal. I may be from a different generation, but I don't really like being super personal and open in all of these public spaces.
Maybe that is a generational thing.
Yeah. Could be.
I don't really look for those kinds of things from those spaces, but it doesn't mean you can't or you shouldn't.
No, it seems like it's very rewarding for people and I'm excited for them. Yeah. Yeah.
You said that what you do see is there are certain types of introspection that's lacking in conversations around games. I interviewed someone last week who said something similar, that he would love to play Firewatch in May and not have people act like it came out decades ago.
[Laughs.] Yeah, that's interesting.
You went a little more granular and said that you can't even talk about qualities of older games.
Right. Yeah. Yeah, I mean, of the really older games.
How do you define --
For me, like, I feel like the lessons of Atari and things like that are -- they're not coming up a great deal. That said, I did actually happen to read somebody writing a blog post about Atari games just yesterday. But by and large, the idea of what was going on in those days and particularly just the fucking weirdness of it all.
I would agree, and then there's all this stuff that is just lost. But even when I have interviewed people who were at Atari, I get this sense that not only was it a long time ago.
Yes. Absolutely. It was.
But it was a long time ago and those lessons you're talking about regardless of how you're thinking of interpreting or studying up on it are mostly fuzzy for those who lived it.
With game criticism, though, there's a great deal of analysis coming from outside of game companies. But what about when we want to stop having these high-minded conversations at the bar about what we think all these games are, and what happens when we want to find out what the truth was and maybe even get to learn what the truth was?
Yeah, what was happening.
Yeah. So when you talk about things being really weird about Atari, what strikes you as really weird and still worth learning from?
I guess it seemed -- and part of this is something I'm definitely interested in is platform studies. So, there's a particularly good book about the Atari, which I guess is why -- I didn't have an Atari when it came out growing up. I think I got to videogames more around Sega Mega Drive times. That was what was big in New Zealand. So the platform studies thing is looking at how the underlying hardware influenced what got done on these systems. And I guess because a system like the Atari -- obviously, it was incredibly constrained in terms of what it was possible to represent on a screen and what sounds you could make and so on.
It's not a surprise that constraints breed creativity. And so, yeah, there are so many games for the Atari that barely make sense in such a good way. Some of them are unplayable, of course, but I just really liked the fact that people had pushed further away from what would seem like more obvious ideas.
Whereas now, obviously, because we've got things like Unity -- and there's still platform influence on the kinds of things that we produce, but we've got so much more freedom that maybe it's just a bit harder to think of something actually new to do because there isn't that thing to push on so forcefully. Yeah.
So, Atari. Like, I was playing -- what was I playing just before? Oh, Fast Food, which is not a very interesting game. But you're a mouth. Just the fact that you're a mouth is so nice. And, again, that's born of the kinds of resolutions that the Atari could muster. Like, you couldn't be a little person so you had to be this mouth like those wind-up teeth and there's just fast food flying across the screen and you're eating it and not eating pickles or whatever. It's ridiculous, but the fact that you get to be a mouth -- or even something like Pac-Man is also kind of like a mouth just seems really great. I feel like we don't see as much of that kind of thing anymore maybe because of those hardware and software constraints not pushing us anymore. Like, you can draw a whole person eating a burger now and so you don't think about, like, "What if I couldn't draw that? What if I had to represent that in some other way?"
Yeah, it's still strangely hard to say anything about violence. I keep wanting to bring it up over and over again but it doesn't feel like it's a popular thing to say that you think it's a problem.
Even the most neutral way I think you can put it is it gets boring.
Yeah. At a base level. But that's more disturbing, when it's just boring. I worry if you make the boring argument then you're buying out of any more ethical position.
I'm just saying at a fundamental level, the way to get someone to buy in is: Well, surely we can have different types of things, right?
Yes. Right, right, right. But we just get different types of violence. [Laughs.]
With all the advances in tech, something I wonder is: Why do we even need to have people in them at all? Why do they have to be about people? I think there's a similar fanning of: "Okay, as many different types of violence as we can show, that's how many types of people we want to show."
Who are we killing?
Why do you think we don't see fewer people in games? Why do we need to even have that?
I mean, wow, that's a really great thing to think about. I'm thinking about my own stuff, and I guess I always have people in pretty much everything. Implicitly, there are people. I guess it's "write what you know" to a certain extent. Like, that's just how we conceive of anything being interesting is that it would have to be interesting for a person to do it, maybe. I mean, that makes me think of the whole -- like, I don't if you've read Ian Bogost's book Alien Phenomenology, which I don't understand it in the slightest. It's a terrifying work of philosophy, but it's kind of about the idea that things other than humans have agency or some kind of -- it's very unclear. You could use the word "nebulous" a few times. Like, it's definitely in the nebulous category. But yeah, that idea that maybe you shouldn't be so human-centric in the way that you think about that the world is operating.
-- when you have things like that game I Am Bread or whatever, where you're a piece of toast, like, is that a game that's kind of non-human or is it still kind of human-y because you're still doing human-esque, game-y things?
You mean, like, crawling around and surviving?
Moving through the world, yeah. So maybe it's more an issue of living things. Like, could you have a game about being a coffee table or something like that? What would that be like?
It kind of breaks my mind a little bit to even -- I want to make a game about being a shelf. That's on my list.
Yeah, one of the things -- this is a bit of a tangential thing but it's related.
I like the idea of games at the moment doing things to you that you can't do anything about, I guess. I made a game ages ago where you live out the myth of Prometheus. So, you're chained to a rock and the eagle comes and pecks out your liver and you can't do anything because you're chained to a rock, except you can wriggle to knock off the eagle for a bit but it always comes back. There was something really powerful to me about that feeling of having something done to you instead of doing something to the world, which is the usual position of games.
I thought, yeah, being a shelf would be so frustrating. I don't know, people would keep putting things on you and as a shelf you can't move, but you are the shelf. I don't know completely know how I would convey this idea that you are the shelf, except to call the game You Are A Shelf or something, for instance.
But yeah, just that feeling of a different kind of agency or a non-agency in that case.
The last interview I did last year, I interviewed a developer in Seattle and she was talking about how it feels like in videogames the approach people are taking is to "solve genres."
Yeah, to achieve the most perfect version of a thing.
Versus, like, we're talking about: "I want to make a game where you're a shelf." There's a million questions with that. You mentioned brand management, and certainly that mitigates the types of risks that you make, but I think it's not difficult to come up with these interesting ideas and isn't that more exciting for people to want to make those? For me, it doesn't even often feel like people are making the games that they want to make.
I think definitely lots of people aren't. Blame capitalism, right?
Which you always do.
That might be the third time this week.
[Laughs.] Exactly. And it was right every time.
For people who don't follow games, what are we talking about here? Can you break that down?
Well, it's a bit weird because I haven't had this experience because I have kind of gone out of my way not to interface with games as a commodity.
But it seems pretty clear to me that if you're trying to make a living, you're definitely not gonna just make the thing that you want to make because there's no way really that other people are gonna give you money, or not enough money to have made your time worthwhile, I guess. I assume. Maybe there are probably exceptions for that, but by and large that's true for art probably generally, I guess. That's also not the market that games exist in right now. I guess artists do have more of a shot at just doing stuff that they think is interesting, and if they catch on then they can make a living. But of course, most artists totally don't.
That's also true.
But in games, I guess, we're more in the movie-making kind of world and you do have to -- and more so, I guess, because with games you're supposed to be thinking about player experience and the idea that there's this person on the other end of the game that's actually going to interact with it that maybe you're more inclined to think of it in that consumer-y way from the beginning.
Yeah, and so, how could you just do exactly what you think is hilarious or brave or whatever and also want somebody to pay you for it. It's a big risk to do that, anyway. Most people --
But you've had this thought before, that people aren't really necessarily making the things they really want to? It's not a new thought that I put in your head?
Well, it seems natural to me that that would be the case.
But you don't think it's unusual?
You think it's any creative field?
Yeah. Yeah. And -- I don't know. Like, I don't know if I would extend this to some other thing beyond commerce that would lead that to happen. Maybe people aren't making things they want to make because they don't know what they want to make? I guess that's getting kind of weird --
No, I was going to go the architect way.
The architect way?
You can only be an architect if someone hires you to be an architect. It's not like you're going to around making all the buildings you want to make.
[Laughs.] I guess in a digital world you kind of can do that if you wanted to.
And then I guess the other thing is: Do you want an audience? Because, again if you want to make a game and if you even want anyone to fuckin' play it, you probably need to tailor it a bit. And this is where brand management maybe starts to come in as well, I guess.
Do you think that's harmful at all? It's so nebulous to talk about an entire medium, but is it harming a medium where you have an ecosystem like that? Does it just mean certain things are less frequent? Like, how does that actually affect it?
Like, it seems like it's at such a level because it's hard to say whether there's a good or a bad. There's just a way, I guess, that things are currently and that it will shift, I guess, with time as well presumably.
Yeah, is it harmful? I don't know. I guess I would like it if people made the things that they wanted to make and preferably weirder things, but there's enough people making games now that there's plenty of weird stuff being made. It's not like it's a wasteland. And I don't play as much of it as I ought to. The other side of all of this is, yeah, that audience of people who want to play games and what they're ready for.
Which is a whole other thing, a literacy kind of thing.
Vulture wrote a piece about you a few years ago. Does that ring a bell at all?
Yeah, that sounds reasonable. I can't remember if it was flattering or not.
Well, I'll leave that up to you to conclude since they were writing about you. It said you were making the videogame world reflect the art world. I don't know if you've crossed that off your to-do list yet.
I haven't. I'm making an [Marina] Abramovic method game right now, actually. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] I think this is one of the things being clawed at in games criticism, is looking for examples in other mediums for types of things that games can do. Do you think it's silly to task one medium with being another, even though it's reasonable?
No, yeah, I think that's totally fair. Especially looking at -- I mean, thinking about Marina, looking at the performing arts is a really obvious place to go just because playing a game is so much like performance. But, yeah, there are all of these other ways of making art that have been around the block and it seems worth looking at what they do and how they do it. And I guess, like, film has traditionally been the one that maybe has had the biggest influence but might also be the least interesting one.
How so? I would agree.
Why? I wanted to leave it at that as a finalistic kind of thing.
[Laughs.] I think it's maybe because it's too obvious.
It's maybe too obvious and it's one of the artforms that is obviously totally non-interactive, except in the academic sense of interpretation. That's such a huge gap that it's hard to bridge. But in terms of visual aesthetics, we could still learn a lot more from film and the ways that things are done with staging and so on. That's all very relevant.
Although, when you've got a maniac player on the camera controls, you can't have everything you want. But that's a really interesting thing as well: How do you address that as a potential? And, yeah, that's why you should draw on these other artforms. Not just because you can transplant a beautiful pan from film into a game, but because when you try and create a similar effect or feeling to that panning effect that you saw in movie X, that you can't just take it and paste it in. You have to think about how that interacts with how games are and that leads you to probably find out a lot more than you would if you didn't reach outwards as well.
I think this is the first time in a year and some change of me doing this to bring it up, but the whole "are games art?" thing --
-- your phrasing for this is that, "It's usually framed very dumbly." Can you dissect why you feel that's a dumb thing to discuss? And for people reading this who don't know much about videogames, this is a thing that was a hotly debated thing for a long time.
It is. I don't think it's dumb to discuss the question of how are games art? Well, the word "art" is so meaningless except as a label for a particular type of activity and how it fits into society.
But, I mean, if games are a medium -- like, I read something recently where I started to wonder if I was being cavalier by saying, "Obviously, games are a medium." But they're something like a medium where you can express lots of different things in lots of different ways. It's not a question of whether games are art it's a question of whether a specific game should be considered an artwork or not and you could -- if Tron 2.0 or whatever is not art because it's a blockbuster movie but Citizen Kane is art because it's a different kind of movie, then I guess you can have some games are art and some games aren't.
And maybe having that conversation about why you should be able to say that is an interesting conversation to have as well.
I mean, it's indicative of the types of binary conversations that happen around videogames a lot.
I do something fairly unusual with this project, which is I try to get a lot of people who don't ever talk about games to talk about them. I don't know if people "inside" of videogames realize how nuanced and convoluted this stuff can seem when all they see are commercials on TV or whatever's in the App Store.
And so, you mention that you feel there's plenty of really crazy, weird, creative stuff going on in games. The thing I always wonder about is how do those types of things, how can they reach a broader audience of people who aren't the one percent of the one percent of people who really into this stuff? It's compartmentalized.
It totally is. But, I mean, I guess the nihilist in me is like, "You probably can't, because most of those people won't be interested in them."
Well, it's just like everything else --
You're saying it's like prog rock or --
Yeah. Hardly anybody gives a shit about contemporary performance art. Plenty of people think that it's idiotic or insulting that it should even exist. Not plenty of people, most people. Or they don't care.
And then you have, obviously, a much smaller group of people who are fascinated by it and is it one those "so it has always been" kind of things? Like, should everybody be playing Porpentine's games? Or is it okay if not everybody does?
Well, the creator may want more people to play it.
Yeah. Absolutely. To some extent, we all want the biggest audience possible.
Some people do.
Like, I guess I do but I'm not sure completely why. Like, it probably starts creeping back to capitalism again.
As my job depends on it in some ways.
This is an odd segue, but I did want to ask about the Seinfeld thing -- I'm not sure what you would technically call it because it's not really Seinfeld but it is.
It's not officially Seinfeld. It's Seinfeldian.
I think it's an unexpected example of the sort of thing we're talking about, because it's a game for a "non-games" audience. I think you can even deconstruct whether it is a game, as some people might. Not in that sniffing derisive dismissive way, but just in terms of trying to understand it: "Is it a joke? Is it a game? What is it?"
You can certainly explain it yourself but --
It's a terrible web game, sort of from the '90s.
And it's a parody of another Twitter account as well.
This is maybe not the most conventional of a game being made drawing influence from another medium. I don't know your entire résumé, but what do you feel are the sorts of things that got discussed in making that game that typically wouldn't get discussed among people who only make games?
Well, yeah, that's a very interesting question. I mean, that was a really weird collaboration. He's unmasked himself since in that New York Times article, so I think it's all totally above board to talk about it as him as a real person as well as a Twitter account.
To call him Jason?
Yeah, that's his name.
Yeah, that was super-weird because he first -- he approached me as himself, as a real person, about making a game. He was particularly interested in something that could go viral, basically. That was his objective from the beginning, which is a really interesting place to come from. It's not something I've ever done before or understand how to do.
So, for me, that was pretty unique. And I guess that there clearly are people in games who would be thinking about their projects with that as a starting point. But yeah, that's a weird place to begin from. Like, "We want this to be incredibly popular. What's it gonna be?"
You might think it but you wouldn't say it, day one.
Yeah. So, but that was totally explicit, which is great. And then we kind of designed the game in character? So, he was being @Seinfeld200 via email and we had this whole exchange. I think it's online somewhere, or maybe we didn't put it online because it was distracting by the time we got to the end. Yeah, it's that character talking to me as me being the straight person to his madness. So, process-wise, that's completely bizarre because I was designing with that person. We were trying to -- because, as a game, it's like nothing I normally do at all. But that was kind of the point. We wanted it to be kind of crappy because that's part of the aesthetic of that character, is getting everything wrong, but somehow that extended to my creation of the game which is really weird. That's not what I would do on my own.
How do you mean?
Well, I guess if I was making a game about "The Junior Mint," I would not have made that game.
Again, this is brand stuff. Like, it needed to look like a game that would come out of the mind of @Seinfeld2000. And so we were thinking the whole time about, like, "How can we make this ridiculous and seem like a web game from Seinfeldian times?" So it was very dated and just not very good on purpose.
Which is great because it had all sorts of physics bugs and so on that I personally just couldn't fix, but everything worked out fine.
And, yeah, trying to fill it with things that would help its viralness, I guess, like Miley Cyrus swinging by on her ball on a chain thing and the sound effects. And obviously the big coup and the reason that it went probably went viral at all being Ezra Koenig from Vampire Weekend doing his little a cappella humming of the Seinfeld theme, which was basically the reason -- if you look at the coverage of that game, 90 percent is, "Oh my God, this guy hummed this thing. Play the game!" It was a perfect study of exactly the kinds of things, I guess, that Jason was interested in personally in terms of creating things that people gravitate towards and parodying a particular aspect of culture. And I really feel like I was along for the ride on their way in. He was the brains behind that whole thing.
Do you feel like design-wise -- and obviously it's filtered through a character and you were at a character's whims via email -- different types of design things were rethought or scrutinized that otherwise wouldn't when it's a bunch of game people making a game?
I think that the big thing was this real willingness for it not be very good. It was really, really built in and that was very liberating because, like I said, that's not -- not that I'm saying that my games are good, but I try and make them work and make sense and be quite cohesive. And the objective with that game was to at least have the appearance of not being very good.
And so, yeah, when we were talking about things that we could do, it was all about what would look ridiculous, like the patient sliding back and forth and oversized hands and all sorts of things where if you were really trying to make a "good" game you wouldn't do a lot of those things. You'd try and find better solutions. But we could be very slapdash and -- I guess we were able to find the process really funny throughout, which was, again, maybe not so usual except for certain kinds of games.
Well, without generalizing too much, but when you or anyone really looks at videogames, they're very serious.
A lot of them, yeah. There are some exceptions.
They're either very serious or they're very grim or they're very violent. Like, there are certain colors that you rarely see and certain moods you never see. You would be of the age to remember that it wasn't always that way, right?
It wasn't like games were ever out and out hilarious or funny but there used to be --
-- a lightness, yeah.
And again, it's not like every game coming out is grim men in a dusty courtyard of someplace with a gun. Yeah, but it is an overwhelming aesthetic. And even lots of indie games, like, there's a lot of people taking themselves very seriously.
Maybe this is a respectability thing and "are games art?" coming through again. Like, games are already so trivialized -- it feels like they're so trivialized by the broader culture that we have to prove how not silly they are for a few more years before we can do whatever we want or something or all the old people die and then suddenly we'll have this big coming out party. That's the dream, right?
Yes. That's also a very videogame way of thinking: The right people have to die and then you win.
Yeah. I guess that's gonna happen.
Maybe. I maintain, we could wait five or 15 years or we could try to do that now?
I'm also of the opinion we can do whatever whenever.
I might be pretty weak on this just because I'm typical of a lot of people in that because I spend all my time making games I barely read about them or play them. I don't know, I feel like I do see -- maybe because I get most of my links to writing via Twitter and I guess I follow specific people I feel like I see a real diversity of coverage. But that's probably not reflective of what's really out there. It's not like I go to Kotaku everyday and see what's up.
The only site that I guess I would actually go to is Offworld, which does have a whole bunch of different perspectives.
Yeah. Well, it's not around anymore.
Yeah. It's a book now.
Yeah, a Kickstarter. Again, capitalism.
Yeah. So, I don't know. I guess in my little bubble it seems like there's lots of representation of different kinds of ideas. But I'm sure that that's totally not representative of the larger environment.
Why did you decide to stop doing criticism or to back away from it?
I mean, partly, it's just I felt I didn't have time even though that's not true.
Well, I think people discount how much time it takes to soak these things up and think about them and write about them. And if you want to get money for it --
Oh my God, trying to get money for it.
That's a different thing, if you want to interface with capitalism in that way. I don't know. Yeah. It's pretty aligned with starting to make games, but there was a good period where I was making games and writing about making games. Which, basically, I spend everyday that I'm not doing that more now because I think it's a good perspective to have out there. So maybe that's something I feel like I don't see as much is people who make games writing intelligently about what they're doing beyond -- it's not tutorials or marketing but just thinking about why they did things or what was difficult or behind the scenes things. Robert Yang, I think, is a really good example of somebody who writes very interesting things about the actual process of making the game and why he did what he did and why the games turned out that way. I guess I aspire to doing more of that. I've done it in the past and I thought it was interesting. And again, narcissist that I am, that's why I would write about these things.
[Laughs.] I don't know if it's always narcissism. I think it's just that you're trying to figure it out.
It's a feeling out process.
So, I guess I don't want to be the person who's like, "Oh, it's been a while since I wrote on this blog." But my objective is to be back into that. I just drifted away because it's hard.
Something else that fits along the lines of what we've been talking about is there's been a rise of videogames in museums integrated in any number of ways.
I have certainly heard of you and your work before we were put on a Twitter thread together with Liz Ryerson, but Liz was tweeting about this rise of videogames in museums and I think it's an interesting thing to think about whether -- it's hard to tell which is lending legitimacy to which?
It's definitely symbiotic. Yeah.
Yeah. I don't want you to declare a winner --
-- but what are your thoughts or things you've noticed about games starting to show up in museums?
I guess like museums are probably winning, if I had to guess.
I think that them being able to at least claim -- I think it's been pretty unsuccessful in the actuality of what it looks like. At least I get to say that they're engaging with this culture and you can have a big videogames show and people will come to your museum whether it's good or not or interesting or not or fair to games or not.
People kind of resist but if there was one in Montreal right now I would have gone to it just because you want to see how that gets done. And younger people want to see a medium that is such a huge part of their lives represented in those kinds of cultural institutions. So, it works for museums in terms of getting people through the door.
Do you think videogames are getting a short shrift in their representation?
Oh really? That's an interesting conversation.
And then the Smithsonian had read my interview with the Library of Congress saying, "You just wait until we talk, and we're gonna tell you!"
It's nice they're invested to that level of a street fight. That's great.
[Laughs.] See, that is a videogame I would play, the Smithsonian versus the Library of Congress.
But I think what the Library of Congress was asserting was that -- and maybe you don't run into this so much with your work and what you read -- there's a certain gated quality to knowledge about games and information about games. The Smithsonian took the position of, "Oh, well, we have videogames in a museum. They're in the Smithsonian. That's a huge victory for videogames."
Yeah, that's a big deal.
But the Library of Congress' point is that there's a lot of information that just isn't there that is knowable but they're not allowed to have it.
Not allowed to have it? You mean the information of what's behind the scenes?
Yeah, exactly. In the way that game companies are, it's proprietary information and NDA'ed and they don't for whatever reason want to let it out into the public.
So I would posit, okay, it's in the Smithsonian, but it's not as informative as it could be.
No. It's a pretty minimal step. And I guess that's why I would say that the museums are winning in that they can do that and get vast media attention having done anything -- the games themselves, it's not that interesting to pop a game in a museum and say, "There you go: Consider this." Because games, I guess they don't really lend themselves all that well to that situation in the first place. Isolated in the white cube or something, they lose a lot of how they mean things and how are thought of as being experienced and what they were made for.
I had an interesting conversation with Mattie Brice about this where she -- we were talking about exhibiting work and how would we want some of our games to be exhibited. It's never, like: I want a controller sticking out of a wall and a TV screen where somebody stands there for two seconds and then moves on because that's not how a game feels interesting.
She said -- I mean, I don't want to steal her thunder because I think she was gonna put that online at some point. Maybe she has.
It'll be a few months before this goes up. You can tell me and we can take it out later if not.
She was talking about -- I'm currently blanking on the name of her most famous game, but the one where you're going to the cafe and you're walking through the streets and it's made in RPG Maker. But that game, she thought of this idea where it would be exhibited where you sat on a couch playing the game but there was somebody sitting next to you who would kind of be judging you and judging how you play the game like a real person. I thought that was -- that sort of thing obviously is blurring into the world of performance art as well.
Arguably, a lot of videogame culture is like that now. I mean, it always was, but a lot of it does exist now where you're streaming it and there are people, I guess, judging you is one way to describe it or think of it.
But that isn't presented as part of the -- it is part of the performance, but that's like saying the seat in the movie theater is part of the movie.
Right. Right, right, right. Yeah, I really like the idea of games being in those spaces because I think that they can be -- but it seems like it's a long way from that working. I curated a games -- exhibition is the wrong sort of word, but I don't know what it was. We had a bunch of games at this event called Arcade 11 here in Montreal.
Is that the thing a couple weeks ago?
Yeah, fairly recently.
I chose the games, I was the curator, which makes it sound very highfalutin. It's hard to present a videogame to a crowd of people who are gonna pass through rather than the usual experience of having it in your home and experiencing it that way. And I picked games that I thought would work in that context because they were usually multiplayer and things like that. But that's not most games and I guess I would like it if it were possible to work out ways of displaying other games, especially single-player stuff, in a museum context that would help people kind of get it or see a larger meaning to the game. I've had this feeling that it would be really interesting to reproduce a domestic setting in the museum space as a way of -- sort of a little bit like Mattie's couch, but I was thinking more installation-y where you entered and you go into a bedroom and there's a game on the computer in there and you play it and that that would help people understand a little bit more about what it feels like to encounter these things if they're not gonna play them themselves at home.
For people who don't follow games, whether we call it a medium or an art or whatever, what do you feel are types of explorations that are possible that you just couldn't do in another form?
Usually the big call to arms is interactivity, I guess. But that's bigger than games, of course. But for the moment, games largely have that mantle of being the interactive artform. That's why I still call all of my stuff games even though -- I mean, a lot of it probably doesn't pass muster as really being a game. But there's a nice Trojan horse effect that if you call something a game people are a bit more likely to try it even if it's not remotely fun or anything close to that.
[Laughs.] You had mentioned in your email, too, that what the function of that word even is. But it sounds like you've embraced it as -- you said a Trojan horse.
Yeah. That's what gets -- I post a game in the Reddit WebGames forum. They turn out to have a horrible experience most of the time, but they still played it and they encountered that thing.
Which, I like to think is good for them. It's like cod liver oil or something.
And some of them are quite upset afterwards, "This wasn't fun! This wasn't really a game. What's the point of this?"
So, to a certain extent, I guess what I was really trying to communicate missed them completely but at least they took a look at it and "game" gets you that in a way that "interactive art" or something totally wouldn't. Like, I don't think those people would be interested in looking at something with a different label.
I think that's one way to think about it, but I also just wonder if they look for games to mean more than they might a book or a TV show.
Is there a certain intensity to that, you feel? Like, why does a game need to have a point? Isn't it a game, and it distracted you or got you out of your head for a little bit? Isn't that also the point?
Yeah, I agree with that. I don't think it would be more so than other media except that maybe weirdly games are just kind of in the ascendancy right now in terms of being the dominant art form, which is so weird to think that that's come to pass. But it does seem to be the case, that they're bigger than movies and obviously everything's bigger than books. So, they're bigger than books and bigger than every other thing, TV or whatever, even though it doesn't feel that way when you look at representations of culture right now. But they are.
God, somebody should get on that, though.
Seriously, is that not there? Well, maybe you and I should discuss doing that later on.
Um, I would be open to doing that. [Laughs.]
That would be fantastic.
We'll talk about that.
Yeah, but do people expect too much? People get excited and there's definitely -- I'm always cautious about thinking that things are new because there's always gonna be the argument that things have always been that way. But maybe blockbuster culture has gotten a lot bigger over the last decades, I guess.
I don't know. I was listening to an interview with the director of The Exorcist today, who was talking about how Star Wars was a paradigm shift like the transition from silent film to sound or black and white to color because it brought in the concept of the blockbuster movie in that movies since then have been trying to remake Star Wars over and over again. Obviously including very literally the most recent Star Wars.
But, yeah, that maybe that's the cultural thing of this whole mess of hype around the new thing coming out and even indies are obviously trying to reproduce that as well and insert capitalism here.
And maybe the expectations of those kinds of expectations of, like, people being very excited and invested in media franchises and so on.
Yeah, I think that maybe we don't have enough data.
Like, okay, let's say they are expecting too much. But who are these people and what's going on in their lives and what's gone wrong in their lives and what do games mean to them that they don't mean to other people?
Yeah. They haven't really been around for that long.
I mean, Star Wars is an interesting example because before Star Wars, if I know my stuff correctly, people were saying that sci-fi doesn't sell.
Right. Yeah, yeah.
Is that right?
I think so. People didn't think Star Wars was gonna be what it was. Yeah.
That's all so weird. And yeah, before Star Wars, the idea of these huge movies that is now commonplace --
Oh, it's reported on in the news.
It's treated as very important.
While it's still coming soon or this summer or three summers from now or -- it's incredible. Have you seen that Marvel blueprint of the extension of the franchises into, like, 2020 and 2030? It's amazing.
Yeah, no, this morning I finished transcribing an interview I did with a comics writer contrasting games culture and comics culture. I asked him how he feels that impacts the types of stories that people want to tell when they know what the blockbusters are going to be for the next six, seven years.
I mean, isn't that crazy to think?
And how long ago is Star Wars? It wasn't that long ago.
It was '77.
It was within our lifetime, or within some people who are still alive's lifetime.
[Laughs.] The last Star Wars generation.
Well, they're trying to do a victory lap of another trilogy.
They're going to.
That's a modern phenomenon, but the whole "videogames are bigger than Hollywood," it's like, well, but they're not reporting what Call of Duty sold.
No, when the media do, it's as a kind of novelty. But it hasn't reached that penetration. I don't know why that is. That's quite a weird -- I guess because film at least had this history of being taken seriously by the media at one point. And still are, some films. Whereas games, I guess, has just never had that and maybe -- I don't know how they're supposed to break through. Comics are in the same situation, I guess.
Well, they have all the same problems.
Yeah, and the workforce problems. Does that aspect of game culture, Gamergate, does that surprise you that it's something that has taken hold? Is that something you remember seeing seeds for when you were growing up with videogames?
I guess not. I guess I didn't notice, but I am also straight, white, middle class, male, etc.
So, I mean, obviously I think that's skewed to me the whole time. Actually, I was reading -- do you know Line Hollis? She writes these really hilarious -- she plays old Sierra games and she generally kind of hates them, which is fantastic because I loved them. The old Sierra games, it's kind of my go-to thing for nostalgia, and especially Police Quest 1 and 2. She played Police Quest 2 and said that she's never hated a game more than Police Quest 2. But she pointed out all of the stuff about how kind of gross it was in its representation of women and racial things, of the kinds of things the hero does very nonchalantly on and on. It's this really problematic game, and so is the first one for similar reasons. I sure as hell didn't notice that when I was playing it. I loved those.
So, yeah, I think it's been around. Lots of people are so up in arms about preserving it, and that's something I don't quite get.
You mentioned there can be a quality to videogames where they can be mindless. Maybe you remember saying that, maybe not.
For people who don't really follow videogames, can you explain that? Because I think most people still think videogames are mindless. You read those things about someone completely disconnecting from the world around them and they're tapping buttons but gone. What does being "mindless" mean to you?
I mean, I probably will be experiencing it later this evening when I tune back into Fallout 4, which I really don't like it, actually.
I've been getting surprised reactions from a lot of people around me when I say that I don't like it.
Wow. Interesting. I would love to read that.
It's the same thing: It's kind of boring?
But you do it, clearing these buildings that have people and just killing them and crawling around. I don't know what you think of yourself doing in stealth mode, but I always feel like I'm crawling around on my knees, which seems really bizarre.
You're carrying way too much.
Yeah. It's that wonderful game loop that people are busy designing to make it juicy and exciting and addictive. And it is. It totally works because I find it insanely boring but I keep doing it hour after hour.
I think it's similar -- I don't know if it's a different kind of mindless than when you go to Amazon or Netflix and you're just spending all of your time looking for something to watch.
Browsing as an activity. That could be related to scrolling on Facebook or something.
I feel like a lot of our interacting with screens is turning into, like, you're a casino and not supposed to pay attention to the clock.
Little red market telling you new things that happened.
And sometimes it's totally what you want. Especially if I feel a bit depressed or stressed about my life, then it's not the worst thing to sink into blowing up people's heads for a while. Well, videogame violence aside for the moment, it is dull, though.
I feel like that's something that's gotten shaved off the perception of what it means to be someone who plays videogames, in that these time loops are ways to distract ourselves from times when we're depressed or when we can't connect with other people for whatever reason.
Like, just as easily as you can have an album that helped you get over a breakup, I can think of times in my life where a game or two games total have gotten me through a really horrible breakup.
Like, when people ask, "What's the point?" I would never ask what the point of a videogame is or expect the point to be to help me get over a girlfriend. I would never expect that.
[Laughs.] No one's going to ask for that, yeah. Although, again, that is quite a great idea for a game -- at least an advertising idea for a game.
But it's not purely pejorative, no.
But everybody talks about their media consumption as if it's always meant to be very smart and educational or something. But of course, hardly any of it is.
Well, that's something else. There has also been a strong rise of higher minded, intellectual analysis of videogames. Do you ever get a feeling -- it's no different from these pieces you see on Buzzfeed about "What Game of Thrones Teaches Us About Whatever."
Do you ever feel like when you read this stuff about videogames, is it ever overreaching? Is it saying things that --
Yeah, The Emperor's New Clothes kind of thing. I don't know. It depends on what you think that the critic is meant to be doing. If they're meant to be uncovering what the person who made the game was doing, then I guess, yeah. For sure. Sometimes they're finding things that in a sense aren't there.
Like, I actually had that experience in a very positive way with Eveline, which was the most recent game I made. It's about writing and being a novelist/short story writer and you end up -- you're actually writing work by James Joyce, a short story called "Eveline." And this person, Richard Goodness, he wrote this really great blog post about it. He's someone who's studied modern literature and he actually was reading the meaning of the short stories themselves. The short story "Eveline" and I also include a reference to Moby Dick as being kind of about the game or that the game was reflected in those literary works. Maybe there's some tiny chance I was smart enough to think of that subconsciously, but it was not remotely part of the plan. But the way that he wrote about it it's like, "Wow, yeah. That's there. As an interpretation, that's legitimate." So, he was wrong in the sense that if his job is meant to be to work out what I was doing, he got that wrong.
But if the job of the critic is to use the game as a way to talk about things, then he got it super right in a really interesting way.
Yeah, either taking issue with or challenging your review or sometimes legitimately asking, "Okay, what can we actually learn from this?"
Oh wow, yeah.
But I will go from asking you knowable things to unknowable things: What do you think videogames have accomplished?
Have accomplished? Wow. I mean, I'm glad that they exist. I guess mostly for selfish reasons. I've always been a person who has made things since I was a kid. That's not that surprising because when you're a kid, kids make stuff just naturally. So, I used to draw and I became a writer of terrible teenage poetry and then I kept going. That's the ultimate test of your poetiness is: Can you get beyond the death poetry of your teenage years? And I did.
And then I wanted to be a novelist and I've always been very driven towards making stuff as central -- I'm sure this is true for you, as well -- to what I think of myself as being as a person. But when I started making videogames, it was a very eerie clicking together of all of the things that I felt like I cared about worked in this medium in a way that hadn't been working in any other medium.
So, I guess from my very personal experience, I feel like they've accomplished what videogames accomplishes: They feel like they are different from other ways of expressing yourself and being that medium is a huge accomplishment, I guess, because it's presumably allowing a lot of people to say things that they couldn't have said otherwise.