FOLLOWING ARE UNEDITED TRANSCRIPTS FROM "COMPUTER AND VIDEO GAMES COM E OF AGE, A NATIONAL CONFERENCE TO EXPLORE THE CURRENT STATE OF AN EMERGING ENTERTAINMENT MEDIUM," HOSTED BY THE PROGRAM IN COMPARATIVE MEDIA STUDIES AT THE MASSACHUSETTS INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY ON THURSDAY, 10 FEBRUARY AND FRIDAY, 11 FEBRUARY 2000. WE ARE IN THE PROCESS OF EDITING THESE TRANSCRIPTS AND WILL REPLACE EACH ONE AS THE REFINED VERSION BECOMES AVAILABLE.
THESE TRANSCRIPTS ARE THE PROPERTY OF COMPARATIVE MEDIA STUDIES AND A RE PROTECTED UNDER INTERNATIONAL COPYRIGHT LAWS. QUESTIONS ABOUT THIS DOCUMENT SHOULD BE ADDRESSED TO HENRY JENKINS OR ALEX CHISHOLM. THANK YOU.
FRIDAY, 11 FEBRUARY 2000
MAN: We're running 15 minutes behind where we were supposed to be but we'll stay pretty much on that speed, we hope, for the rest of the afternoon. For those of you just arriving the panelists were given a set of questions that are on page ten of your brochure. And they may or may not be relevant to your understanding of what goes on but I encourage you to flip to that. I also remind you that the transcript of this event will be on the mediaintransition.mit.edu site as soon after this event as we can get there. And hopefully you will find it interesting to review what's been said and you should encourage friends who couldn't come to follow it there. This panel is on Games as Popular Culture. And I think we can all agree that games are popular culture. But what are the implications of that? In what way are they alike or different from existing popular culture? What kinds of communities have centered around games? Those are the kind of core question this panel will take up. We're going to begin with Ted Friedman. Ted Friedman recently received his doctorate in literature from Duke University. He's currently revising his dissertation, Electric Dreams: Computer Culture and the Utopian Sphere, for publication. He's published two essays on the dynamics of computer simulation games. Civilization and Its Discontents appears in the collection On a Silver Platter, edited by Greg Smith, one of our other speakers here. And Making Sense of Software: Computer Games and Interactive Textuality appears in the collection Cybersociety. He's also contributed to the journals Critical Studies in Mass Communication and Communication Research. And as a freelance media critic has written for Spin, Vibe, The Source, Details and Blender.
FRIEDMAN: I guess I wanted to take a particular spin on this topic. We've talked a lot, I guess, already at this conference comparing video games and computer games to film, music, other popular genres that have emerged over the last 100 years, popular music. What I wanted to talk about was more specifically the world of the discourse about video games and computer games and look at how that compares to the development of film criticism and rock criticism in the past as other emerging genres. And I guess I want to spin a little off what Henry said yesterday when he talked about a dialogue that developed in the discussion of film between film makers on one hand and academics and intellectuals writing about film on the other hand. And the productivity of those coming together somewhere. What I wanted to say is that I think the place where they come together and what I think has the most influence in the end on how people think about a popular medium. And talk about it and make sense of it in their lives is at the level of everyday criticism. And in film I think the most critical figures would be public intellectuals, critics who wrote for large audiences and influenced other critics. Like James Agee writing in The Nation. And especially Pauline Kael beginning in the 1950s and 1960s and the many film critics down to today who were influenced by her. And rock criticism is another example where I think in some ways it's more interesting because there was very little academic discussion of rock and roll. And what happened was a rock critic discourse came in to fill that void. And so in the 1960s you saw the development of the first rock fanzines, magazines like Crawdaddy and Cream and ultimately Rolling Stone. And the emergence of rock critical voices like Greil Marcus and Lester Bangs. And I think again what's so important about developing that kind of critical dialogue is to begin to develop a vocabulary, a shared way of making sense of why these things are important to people and how they can begin to compare different genres, compare different cultural products. And a broader vocabulary to explain the ways in which people find them compelling. What was interesting as I started to think about this is that I don't think that video game criticism has developed in exactly the way as we think about film criticism and rock criticism. And I think there are some pros and some cons to the different way that video game reviews have developed as a genre. So what I wanted to do very briefly, and I planned on not speaking for very long because I wanted to open up a discussion about this, is how I think video game criticism has emerged as a form instead. First of all I want to talk about the pros about the way people write and talk and debate about video games today. And I'm thinking of the range of media from the way the designers talk about video games at some conferences like this, but mostly how they're written about in video game magazines, online in discussions. And I think what's so amazing about the discourse of video game and the computer game world is how broad that discussion is. It's amazing if you go to a typical news stand there will be at least a half a dozen, maybe closer to a dozen, different video game and computer game magazines. From Next Generation, PC Gamer, Electronic Gaming Monthly, all of this discussion, each of these magazines having dozens of reviews about specific computer games. It's really striking if you compare that to the amount of publication and discussion on your news stand about even film or television. Similarly, the many web sites devoted to computer game reviews. The many books, of course, starting with your basic walk through game guides. Which often, I think, function as a kind of meta commentary on the games. Especially the better ones that often there may be limitations placed on what an authorized guide can do. But often the unauthorized guides to a game, like Final Fantasy 7 is a great example. There's a great unauthorized guide that sort of acts as a kind of ongoing critical commentary about what works in the game, what doesn't work in the game. I think that's a really valuable form of criticism. It's the equivalent to a good DVD that would have a director's or critic's commentary on it as you're watching it. Why has gaming developed such a broad dialogue, a broad discourse? I think something that was pointed out yesterday actually, that computer gaming is itself a kind of critical activity. In the sense that you play the game over and over until you figure it out. You're always trying to make sense of it in a way that you may not if you just watch a movie once for an hour and a half and two hours and then move on. Literary critics sometimes make a distinction between broad reading and deep reading. Between reading widely enough, dozens or hundreds of books on various topics and a tradition that's older and that's less common today of deep reading. When a family may have had a dozen books on the bookshelf and you might read the Bible or Little Women over and over again and develop a deeper immersion in the book and a deeper engagement with it. I think it's that kind of reading strategy that's closer to what happens to people playing computer games. And that, I think, can lead to an ability to create a more critical engagement with it. And the other thing is because in computer games there's a culture of sharing information and trying to solve the game. And obviously that's what creates the market for a lot of the tips in magazines and all the computer game guides. Another thing that I think is really a productive thing about the way computer game magazines and a lot of writing about computer games works is that it's engaged with the industry in a way that means the fans of the game know something about how the games are produced. A magazine like Next Generation will have interviews with executives, with developers. And so as opposed to what's happened at times in discussions of the film industry or the music industry, where they may be a vague sense of the money people out there who just value commerce over art, in the discussion about computer games there can be a more sophisticated understanding of the economics of the industry and how that affects the kinds of games people play. And I think again, that can give people, begin to develop a better sense of how they're gaming and how the world of gaming fits into American culture. So those are some of the things I think are really strong about the way people talk about and write about computer games today in popular culture. The cons, I think, I think the biggest problem in reviewing a computer game, looking at the many reviews in these kinds of magazines and having done a little of this myself, I should say my experience comes both from trying to write about computer games academically but also being a rock critic for years and doing some reviews of computer games also. And seeing what are just the differences in the forms of having to write critically about a game. And I think the most difficult thing is just the likelihood of a more limited focus where the emphasis is like in a computer game review you're likely to start with how the game is played, then explain how you might win the game. And often that can take quite a while, as we've all discussed. Because the paradigms, the formats, for computer games are changing so quickly it may take quite a while to explain how a game works. And it's very difficult to develop a language to verbally explain how an interface is designed. By the time you get through that, then how you would go about winning the game and then whether you like the game or not. I think it's rare in most reviews of computer games to see much of an attempt to develop a more extensive discussion. I think the strength of what's developed in film reviews and music reviews is critics who were able to develop a language that could talk about both the aesthetics of a particular movie, a particular record, and its larger social context and social implications. And I think that's harder to do in a computer game review and hasn't been done as much. If you compare something like one of the best computer game magazines, like Next Generation, to a music magazine like Spin, I think the reviews that appear in Next Generation are likely to be useful and informative but rarely does the critic have the opportunity to develop a richer, an attempt to understand in a broader context the way the games work. So I just want to wrap this up by saying I think that in the past in other intersections of academia and mainstream culture it's been a difficult mix at times. Film criticism is something that sort of emerged in between, in part out of, I think, the failure at various times for academics writing either canonizing certain classic movies at the expense of popular movies or later of developing a specialized film language to directly engage and reach a broader audience. And out of that a different form of film criticism emerged. In rock criticism you had a case where the academy was largely ignoring rock and roll and other kinds of critics stepped in. I hope that things like this conference can help all of us work together to begin to develop a language to make better sense of these things. And I think some of the people who are speaking here today and [UNINTELLIGIBLE] work at places like New York Times are the beginnings of an attempt. So that I don't see why five or ten years from now you wouldn't pick up a magazine or a newspaper and just presume that next to the movie reviews and the TV reviews you'd see the computer game reviews. And that the critics would feel the same freedom to write not just about what the game is, whether it's good or bad, whether it wins, built the broader questions we've been talking about about how the game is put together, how it functions and then what its broader social consequences are.
MAN: Why don't I let JC respond [OVERLAPPING VOICES].
HERZ: -- make a brief comment before Chris. And I think really it's a matter of context. And the first thing is that I can say this because you also write for popular press. But nothing in popular culture ever happens because academia is ignoring something. It just doesn't register at all. Whether academics take something or not it's good for the critical discourse but the fact that a 16 year old is reading a review of something has nothing to do with what's going on in the ivory tower. On the other side, I think that you're right in terms of the way that reviews are written is in most, in most magazines it's very highly technical. It's more of a manual, a how-to. More like a car review really than a film review. And that's because games actually are mechanisms and there are levers and pulleys and you have to figure out to work the thing. But also it's because those reviews are taking place in the context of a group of specialized magazines whose function is to serve information to gamers about games and how to get through them. Whereas if you take the little that has been done, I mean I've written a column for the last two years in the Times but also people doing stuff in Newsweek, a lot of places for a mainstream audience. And if you take the game into that context often you do find that it's less about how do you get through the game. Because they're not writing for gamers. And it's more about the pop cultural significance of Laura Croft or whatever. Something that people who don't play games will find some interest in reading. So I think it's really a matter of pushing the coverage of games into the mainstream press rather than trying to redefine what they mean in a specialist magazine. Because the people who read the specialist are always, they're going to want to know like what's behind the door on the 17th level.
FRIEDMAN: I would just say I guess I would stand up a little for academia in saying that I don't think the influences are often direct. But if you think of something, even like the development of rock criticism as something that I said took place in the vacuum, it is true that the people who put together Rolling Stone were students who were American studies majors at, I think, UC Berkeley, if I remember right. Who, if you look at the early writing of rockers, you can see that these were people who were taking a lot of the ideas that they'd taken in their literature classes, American studies classes, and just through that influence of their academic education were beginning to try to develop a language around that. In addition, some of the rock critics who emerged subsequently were people who dual roles as both academics and rock critics. Critics like Simon Furth who were very influential both in a popular discourse and an academic discourse. So I think academics have to think about in what ways they have influence, in what ways they can try to have an influence on more popular discourses. But I think that there are ways, not always the most obvious ones, where they do intersect. The other thing, I guess I could have made a more explicit distinction between two kinds of discussion, the kinds that go on in the popular press to people who may not be gamers and then the kind of discussions that go on in game magazines themselves. I guess what I was thinking in regard to the latter one that it strikes me that whereas in rock and roll you have a really vibrant culture of fanzines, of argument and debate about bands that usually, I think, takes a broader social consequence end. While I think you have a lot of vibrant discussion about video games that are often creative constructions in themselves in the context of things like new Quake levels or other things in which the fans become creators in themselves, it does strike me that there isn't the same. For some reason, although I think gamers have the same kind of investment in their games that a fan of a band has in rock and roll, I think it comes out in the discussion somewhat differently. And I think one of the reasons why game fans don't talk in a broader critical language about games is because they have difficulty even coming up with a language and a context to begin to do that. So I was thinking, for example, if you read about discussions of computer games that use 3D acceleration, in a magazine like Next Generation you'll hear the term realistic thrown around. You know, this is great because this new technology allows an even greater level of realism. But what is being realistically depicted may be a gigantic monster that you're supposed to shoot down in a first person shooter. Until we can begin to have a dialogue and begin to develop more subtlety in saying what exactly do we mean by realism, what different kinds of realism are there, are there terms we can use to talk more precisely about that. I think that's something that I think any fan, any gamer, can take part in that discussion and as that discussion spreads I think it will be a stronger fan community who have a better ability to think about the games they're using, enjoy the games and ultimately influence the games that are designed in the future.
MAN: I have a question follow-up. I actually review games for Next Generation so [LAUGHTER].
FRIEDMAN: I'm sorry. I didn't mean to bash on that at all.
MAN: No, I appreciate the plug. But to follow up why there isn't a critical theory of game development, I write for both press and for online. And there's a finite amount of space in press so you can't get into really long extensive 1,500, 2,000 word reviews of these games. But there is an infinite amount of space online. So I have plenty of room to write a critical analysis of the sims, for example. But I get tremendous hostility from the readers when I start talking about we need a hermeneutics of game criticism. You know, we need to develop something, move beyond the [UNINTELLIGIBLE] theory of film criticism. That doesn't even work in film. Let's not even start it in game criticism. [UNINTELLIGIBLE] very angry e-mails from gamers saying you're just draining it of all the fun. And there's this real hostility. I don't get anybody saying yeah, you go, man, we need to read more [UNINTELLIGIBLE] kind of thing. [LAUGHTER] But I do get a lot of people saying oh, my god, shut up. So that's one defense of why there is no vocabulary of game criticism yet.
HERZ: And I mean it could happen. It would be horrible if what happens to game criticism is what happens to jazz criticism. Where people with PhDs just end up jerking off over some artist who lived 40 years ago. I mean the vitality of games is actually, the pop nature of them is such that they are completely about the experience rather than about the analysis of the experience. And that's fantastic. That's what pop culture is.
FRIEDMAN: I agree. I think at its best, I guess that's why I was thinking of models of my own critical heros, somebody like Pauline Kael or Lester Bangs were people who, I think, added so much to the reader's enjoyment of culture. And that's what the best criticism tries to do. I guess the other interesting question, I guess I don't have a good answer for it, is why there in some ways may be more resistance among gamers than there were to the audiences for these other things. I guess Pauline Kael, for example, wrote for a somewhat different audience, the New Yorker, and had her influence. That was a case where to some extent I think her influence trickled down as other writers began to take up some of the sensibilities that she was championing. But a magazine like Rolling Stone in the 1970s managed to develop a kind of critical vocabulary that maybe if they'd had e-mail in those days they would have lots of fans writing in and complaining about that. But I guess I wonder if there is something specific to the culture of gaming that makes it a little harder or if it's just a, gaming is also still, as everybody has been saying, new enough that we just haven't established a language yet that everybody can talk with a frame of reference and comment so they don't feel alienated by vocabulary and [OVERLAPPING VOICES].
HERZ: One last thing before Chris. I mean the big difference ultimately is that rock and movies fit into a very well established thing that we know how to do which is tell a story about a person. There's a guy up there in leather pants, there's somebody with a black beret. It's all human centric. And that's kind of what [UNINTELLIGIBLE] theory does basically is it gives a story that you can tell about a person. Whereas computer games, you're telling a story about an object which is a totally different kind of story. That's why it's like car reviews. Here's the object. There aren't faces. There shouldn't necessarily be. Because I think that in a lot of cases with the film stuff it's our imposing the story about oh, here's a director when there's lots of people. But that's what makes it so hard is you're discussing objects. And it's harder to do that critically.
FRIEDMAN: I'd just like the record to bear the fact that the first reference [UNINTELLIGIBLE] at the conference was made by a Next Generation reporter and not by an academic. [OVERLAPPING VOICES]
COLER: Chris Coler again. [OVERLAPPING VOICES] As a video game reviewer I want to interject a comment that my colleague from Next Generation touched on. When people are reading video game reviews these are people that have a finite amount of money to spend with a seemingly infinite amount of games out there. And they don't want to hear about how games fit into social contexts and they don't want to hear about how this game is going to affect humanity as a whole. They want to hear should I spend my $50 on this game or this game or this game or this game. So they want to hear how the game plays.
HERZ: If they're reading a game magazine.
COLER: Yes, if they're reading a game magazine. The magazine that I write for is not part of the mainstream games media. It's actually a magazine about animation and comics that also has video game reviews. But what I'm able to do then is I have, instead of having to write a capsule review, like most video game magazines do, I'm able to go on 500, 600 words about a game while still fairly short. That gives me a little more opportunity to break free from this is the game, this is how you win it, and go a little deeper. But that's not why I wanted to say something. I wanted to say something because I'm also, since I was 13 actually, a video game fanzine editor. And having been involved in, and yes, there is a video game fan community, yes, we do talk to each other about video games. We do write about video games, we do have a dialogue. Maybe it's not as apparent but there exists this video game fan base that is talking to each other. I mean that is where I really get to open up and really, I mean if you want to see developing or looking at games in their social context look at video game fanzines and look at even fan web sites that are writing about it to a lesser degree. Because it's out there. We're talking and we're going beyond what the game magazines are talking about.
HERZ: I think that's actually one of the big differences is in the 60s and the 70s there weren't as many magazines and it was easier to get one onto a news stand. So you could have all these new kinds of magazines displayed where everybody knew they existed. Whereas now, I know the fanzine for culture for video games, there's not hundreds, there's thousands. There may be tens of thousands of these little centers and dots of discussion. And it's largely invisible to people who aren't part of the culture because it's not out there on a news stand where you can see it.
MAN: Do you have anything you want to add, Ted?
FRIEDMAN: No, I think that's great. I think the development of those fanzines is a sign of something that I think needs to happen and I guess I just hope that that becomes, as I think happened to a large extent with film and music, that that becomes a groundswell that eventually changes large numbers of readers' expectations and interests in how they think about games.
MAN: Professional magazines now seem to be going deeper with more critical articles than they ever have. [OVERLAPPING VOICES] started out with things like Nintendo Power and the early Electronic Gaming Monthly it was like OK, here's a section on games that are coming out, here's the games that are already out and the magazine is done. Now they are going deeper because they're realizing that gamers are more intelligent. They just don't want to be spoon fed information. They want to be critical, they want to think about this in a larger context. But that's still a little ways off before you actually have magazines coming out that are a lot of this rather than bits and pieces.
FRIEDMAN: I was thinking about that. I think Henry mentioned yesterday Next Generation and I was thinking of one article in particular on new genre bending games that appeared a couple of months ago in that publication. And it struck me that genre in particular is an area where there has been more of a developed fan and game industry discourse. And I think part of the reason for that is because it's a, as well as a critical tool it's also a marketing tool. So because there's more of an industry interest in saying what's the difference between an adventure game and a strategy game and a simulation game, that's developed in the gamer press as well. So I think that's one area in which there has been more of a discussion. The one limitation of that is something that I think is also a limitation of a lot of the gamer press, which is that there's such a close connection between, as I said before, I think one strength of the gaming press is often the awareness of the industry. The danger of that, it becomes so close that the promotion or the boosterism limits the ability to have more of a critical distance.
HERZ: I think the reason everybody mentions Next, though, is that Next is a design oriented magazine. It's very specialized. It's not even, I wish it were one of the magazines that had the biggest circulation but it isn't. And it's got a very special place in that it bridges the people who actually design the games, if you're a game designer you may or may not read Computer Gaming World but you'll read Next because design is a big issue in Next. And on the other hand the players who are really interested in design. So it's much closer to like a discourse than what everything else is out there. I think it's almost the exception that proves the rule.
FRIEDMAN: But I do think different publications have served that role at different times. I think Computer Gaming World is somewhat different from the magazine it was in the 1980s before it was bought from Ziff-Davis. And from my memory reading that publication in the 80s that was somewhere where canons of computer games were beginning to be formed. I think they were one of the first publications to publish a monthly list of the greatest computer games of all time and to talk about genre divisions. So I think this is a dialogue that's developed and then moved from publications. I guess all I'm suggesting is there's a lot of potential there and it seems to me its in some stage somewhat before the full blown emergence of a genre, film criticism or rock criticism [OVERLAPPING VOICES].
HERZ: Maybe if video games do their job the video game magazines will become irrelevant. Because you don't go to a magazine rack and buy a movie world magazine necessarily because movies are everywhere. They're common currency. It's expected that if you discuss popular culture, what's happening in the world, movies will be a part of that. I mean one of the things that I've been very fortunate to be able to do is write essays about computer games in the New York Times. And everybody writes about them. If the only people reading about computer games are the people who are willing to pay $3 for a magazine about them then essentially this medium is a long way from where it needs to be. And it needs to be like People magazine, video games. Common currency medium.
MAN: On that note I apologize again to people waiting in line. I will try to get your questions after the next participant. But we need to keep things moving alone. Christopher Weaver is the chief technical officer of ZeniMax, an interactive software engineering and consulting firm based in Rockville, Maryland. Weaver was formerly chief engineer of the Congressional Subcommittee on Communications, Vice President of Science and Technology for National Cable Television Association and directed the Office of Technology Forecasting for the American Broadcasting Company. Weaver participated in some of the earliest commercial developments in interactive cable and multimedia. He holds graduate degrees in computer science and Japanese from Westland University and in engineering from MIT. A former associate of the Architectural Machine Group and a fellow in the MIT communications and policy program, Weaver was appointed a fellow of the Robotics Simulation Laboratory at Carnegie Mellon in 1995. [OVERLAPPING VOICES]
WEAVER: Let's start out with something multimedia because I read the question a little differently. Doesn't mean I read it wrong, I hope. But I'm not a reviewer of games. I've had my games reviewed. By the way, some of you are probably asking why is this old fart here. I happened to be at one time in my life strange enough to create a company called Bethesda Softworks. And Bethesda Softworks is now, and I tell you this, it's an unfortunate statement but Bethesda Softworks is now the oldest private computer entertainment software company in America. That's any of the major publishers. We started in 1986 with a game called Gridiron which some of you may or may not remember because it was on the [UNINTELLIGIBLE] and Atari ST. [APPLAUSE] I love coming back to MIT. [LAUGHTER] Gridiron was really not played by a lot of people who are probably in this room, except maybe there are a few, but we still get requests for it all the time. And it formed some of the basis and the design for Madden football, just in case you're interested in where they developed. And the reason that it had any kind of relevance was the story behind it that is so, I think, typical of the computer games industry. So it's probably worth telling you the brief story. And most of what we do here, as far as I'm concerned, is an oral history anyway. The whole iterative routine of trying to tell a story and get a reaction is what we're really looking for. Because if you can theoretically come away from a conference with one or two crystalline ideas in your head you probably are way ahead of the game. I mean I don't know about you but I listen to most of the stuff that goes on in my life, and maybe it's just because I'm getting older, but I don't sift as well as I used to. And I'm thinking, what was the point? My friend and fellow engineer in an engineering research company when we were doing cable communications and telcom engineering came to me and he said I've got a little time on my hands, would you mind if I created a computer game? Said sure, why not. Had nothing better to do for him at the time. Said what do you want to do? He was a football aficionado so he decided that he was going to create a football game. He was a really good engineer and he knew a hell of a lot about football. His physics wasn't too good, though. Luckily, I knew a good amount about physics but I had not the foggiest idea about anything that had to do with football. But we brought it together and something interesting happened. Which was previously, as some of you older game players know, most of the games, especially sports games that have gone on, have been derived upon statistical lookup tables. So that if theoretically introduced a certain set of variables you would go to a lookup table and you'd get a result that was for all intents and purposes preordained. See, I didn't play sports games. And I just asked my friend who knew a lot about football. That seems really kind of stupid. I mean if you're going to play this don't you want it to be as infinitely variable as possible. Basically football is played in the physics world so why don't we just build a physics engine and then we'll bound it by man made rules. And you can tell me what the rules are. And that's what we did. And at the time we didn't know that we were creating the seminal work upon which virtually every other sports game would come, which was a physics based engine. I would love to tell you that we had the foresight, that I sat down one day and I woke up and I said my god, going to build a sports game, it's going to be physics based engines and it's going to completely redirect the culture of the video game industry. [LAUGHTER] It just happened. And I've been in this industry for a long time and I've seen them come and go. And I've seen virtually every one of our competitors, who are really mostly colleagues, because when you're in multimedia just like you're in computer games, and I've been in multimedia since 1975, there are very few of you. And you generally know one another. For better or worse. And I think the person who said it best was not too long there was a Camden technology conference in Canada and I walked up to Allen Kay who was going to give a talk and I just stood. And in the 70s and 80s my hair was a little longer. 'Fros were in and sort of like that. And Allen looked and did a doubletake. And I said Allen, it's Chris Weaver. And he looked, he said my god, do you believe we're still alive? [LAUGHTER] And it was the perfect comment. We have a tendency to talk about, and I'm going to try and stay on point here, Henry, we have tendency to try and talk about culture and video games. We lambaste academics or applaud academics, or lambaste the engineers. Damn engineers. The truth of the matter is that so much of this is done for reasons that are not expected. Games are made because there's a sense of passion among people who want to make a particular game. And games are unmade because there's a loss of passion. And this culturally does inject itself in very strange ways. And one of the things I thought would be useful for you is to hear a few of the empiric case studies, if you will, of some of the ways that our software over the past years have been used by people who are totally outside what you would consider the normal demographic. We created after Gridiron a game called Wayne Gretzky Hockey. We were into the sports thing. We had the physics engine, we knew how to do that. And of course, I figured that I'd finally get my father once and for all. Because my brother and I provided an endless source of amusement to my father, because my father, who was born in Brooklyn and bred a Brooklyn Dodger and all those other things, if he was ever in a mood where he was feeling a little depressed and wanted a little amusement he would say to my brother and me, quick, how many people on a baseball team. We'd go uh, um, six? What is it? Eight. You'd basically just go up or down till he said right. But he was laughing while he did it. The interesting thing is that by the time this ended up I knew more about hockey and football than he did. Anyway so we created Wayne Gretzky hockey and it was an extremely successful game. And at one point it was the best selling sports game, as was Gridiron, in the world. And a fascinating thing happened, which was that my buddy didn't understand anything about hockey. He knew a lot about football. And I've already given you my pedigree about how much about hockey I knew. So we went to the local Washington Capitols hockey team. Please imagine, if you will, getting an audience with the chief coach, Brian Murray, of the Capitols professional NHL hockey team. You have a couple of engineers and computer geeks who walk in with a little computer. Actually a pretty large computer. And we said we want to make a hockey game, we think hockey is really cool. [LAUGHTER] Anybody who knows any professional hockey players, you know that we're either very stupid or very brave. I think at the moment we were stupid. But luckily Murray was in a good mood. He said I don't know much about computers but maybe there's somebody on the team that's interested in games or something. There happened to be a wonderful guy named Larry Murphy who is no longer with the Caps but some of you who follow the NHL know where Larry is, and he's got one of the longest records in NHL history. And he is a great human being and a great hockey player. And he took us under his wing and he taught us hockey for about a year. And I don't mean hockey as in you have a stick and you have pucks. I'm talking about trying to model hockey, which is an extremely fast and complex game. There is nothing more difficult to simulate than hockey in sports. I'm sure that some of you will get up and probably start arguing about, probably not baseball, maybe football. But we'll talk about it later, why, we can go into the interstitial elements, hockey is very difficult to model properly. But the more important thing was we created something cultural that we never expected. Larry would bring in various hockey players who played certain positions and we would ask them questions. Questions that they had never thought about in their lives before. Here you have lots of hockey players who grow up in Canada and they're farm kids. They're basically really good at what they do. And it's like breathing, they don't think about it. And here you have a couple of geeks who are asking them questions like when you're at the point and you see that you've got a wing guard over there what do you do? Why? And they look at you like why are you asking me this? [LAUGHTER] But a very interesting thing happened. We listened. We listened very carefully. We were good students. We went to every damn hockey game because Murray told the guys in the upstairs office and they thought hey, this is cute, maybe it's good for press. So we'll give them free passes. This is what I mean about life doesn't work the way you think it works when you're not living it. So we got passes to every one of the games and we went. The first two games we went to, we didn't know how you were supposed to go to hockey games. So we were very respectful. We went in ties and jackets and [LAUGHTER]. And we were sitting there in the bleachers, whatever the rows are, whatever the hell it's called, and we had our books. We had our notebooks and we were writing down religiously, OK, right does this, center does that. And this woman who was with hot dogs and the banner, at the break she came over to us and she said excuse me, you guys from the FBI or something? [LAUGHTER] I noticed that you're making a lot of notes and you don't seem to be enjoying yourself. [LAUGHTER] Anyway, that's the way that Gretzky Hockey got made. But here's the interesting thing that happened that actually had some cultural effect. We created a modifying tool to edit plays. And we had modeled the behavior of many of the characteristics of this particular team very accurately. How accurately? We fudged things. We modeled it reasonably accurately. And Brian Murray started becoming more and more interested because the Washington Post did a story and the front office was now happy because they got press, what nice guys they are. You know, because they asked us. Yes, they were very nice to you. Brian Murray said let me see this thing. So we brought it down and we showed it to the entire team. And an interesting thing happened. You know the John Madden Xs and Os that he does this thing, by the way? We basically created that with players in 2D. Remember, this was 1987. Real time 3D modeling this kind of stuff was not doable. In fact, today it's not really doable but that's a different issue. You have to spend too much time doing the wrong thing and you basically have to give up something and what they do procedurally is they give up most of the physics. But that's just my little take. [LAUGHTER] Anyway the interesting thing that happened was that what these guys was not a video game. They saw a tool. And all of a sudden Murray and some of his guys go we'll take Rod Langely out and put Steve Leach in. We had modeled every one of these players according to the criteria of what defines a hockey player. That sounds kind of grand. But remember, we were trying to model behaviors so we were forced to make certain decisions about what constituted a hockey player to a computer. And we did it with the help of some of those coaches like a Doug Carpenter and Brian Murray and a lot of these guys who were long time players and coaches. And Roy Defleur [SP?]. Any of you know the older players? Bobby Orr, just to use, he was a great guy too. They told us what made players to them. And we came up with criteria such as stamina, hands, puck shooting ability, agility, power, things such as that. When we changed the players for the coaches the same basic plays started turning out differently. So then we started executing new offensive plays, new defensive plays, and putting in farm team draft picks that they were thinking of bringing up from the farms into the league. And running them for the coaches. This was very exciting for us but the coaches started thinking about their players in an entirely different way. In fact, two of them came to us and asked if we would make a tool for the NHL to start utilizing, to get players and see how players were going to do against other players. We declined. And the reason we declined is we said to them at a certain point guys, this is only a game. [LAUGHTER] You can't do that. It's like farm team players and they've been doing this all their lives and they want to be brought up to the majors and just because I overslept that night and the physics engine had this much of a problem it's no reason [LAUGHTER]. But the social implication of it was that they did in fact use this, they ultimately did not use it as a tool because we implored them not to. They were amused by it but they were taking it a little too seriously. But what they did do is that the NHL people who were the scouts started going out into the field. And previously what they had done is they wrote these long narratives about players. But the narratives followed no sense of construct. So that those people who were interpreting were different from those people who had written it. And the interpretations were dependent upon the semantics.
[END OF SIDE A]
[BEGINNING OF SIDE B]
WEAVER: -- ability in hands. What they called hands, in terms of the ability to lift the puck or direct it where you want it. Power, agility. And that's the way that two NHL teams redefined their player picks from scouts so that they could interpret them on an accurate basis. I've got lots of other examples in terms of case studies.
MAN: I think we're going to have to cut it.
WEAVER: You want that one example or what? [OVERLAPPING VOICES]
MAN: We're running long.
WEAVER: But the point is that the cultural effect, even though minor there, was very real. And if I get a chance I'll tell you a couple of the other ones that are even bigger.
MAN: We had some people lined up on the mikes.
MAN: Just to get back to the general issue of games and popular culture, I think that you set yourself up for a disappointment right off the bat by modeling the games' critical view on film or rock and roll because you're neglecting the completely new technology that embraces the games audience. When you talk about gamers, yeah, they're reading reviews that are functional in games magazines but in terms of social commentary and criticism, they don't need you to write it. They have message boards, they have news groups, they have e-mail lists, they have online communities where that discussion happens unassisted by a professional writer. But somebody will simply pose a question and it will generate sometimes thousands of replies from a variety of people who are touched by the topic. So I think that you may be off center by thinking that simply the lack of existence of a strong games culture in the New York Times is reflective that it doesn't exist.
HERZ: That's not what I said. I said that the mass population is not aware of the culture because they don't see it. And I didn't say anything about whether or not that culture is valid. I think it's totally valid. But the situation is such that it's easy for somebody who isn't part of the culture to say it doesn't exist. Because it's invisible. And I think that it's great that that's happening and it should happen and it should grow and it should flourish. But I also think that computer games do deserve to be covered and thought about intelligently in the same places that other media that other media, in the same places that art and music and architecture are thought about.
MAN: My point is that that information exist for coverage. You seem to be saying that it's not covered in the New York Times because that information isn't there or the discussion isn't there, that it's not reaching the --
HERZ: That's not what I said. Because it, first of all, is covered in the New York Times because I've been covering it. The thing that I said is that it's easy for like Joe Public, know nothing about computer games, or Joe Academic, to say oh, but there's nothing going on because that culture exists on its own terms and hasn't really been evangelizing itself, not that it should, to the mainstream and greater population.
FRIEDMAN: I would agree that, as I tried to say, that I think there's a great and vibrant culture of gamers engaging each other in all sorts of forums, in zines, on the web, in other forms of cultural production, like the thing we saw last night, the first person shooter shooting Mickey Mouse. What I do I think, and I guess maybe my goal is just to say this is where I think, to the extent that part of this conference is talking about from the academic side and the critical side what critics and academics can add to that discussion, is I think, and I think what the designers have been saying at these panels as well, is that we can help produce a vocabulary that will enrich everybody's discussion. That what I see in what I follow, and I read a lot of news groups and I keep tabs on this stuff and I'm a gamer as well and I'm checking in on everything from commentary to get help on being stuck in my own games I'm playing, is that there are some logjams where a concept like realism, or a concept like violence, we run out of language to talk about. My point is I think what critical discussion at all level, including academics and journalists and fans, can do is help us come up with more ways to make sense of those things and create a richer dialogue.
MAN: I'm wondering if there is something about games that make criticism of them, or reviews of them, more difficult to do perhaps than film.
HERZ: I think you're right.
MAN: And the reason I observe this is something that several people have mentioned up here. On the one hand I spend a lot of time in San Francisco and the Chronicle now reviews games and those reviews tend to be pretty lousy in the sense of lack of knowledge of the history of games and not being able to put games into context at all. And then on the other hand, most of the major game magazines review games in such a way that if you were a beginning gamer you would not really have any idea as to whether or not you'd like this game. In fact, if you would like this game it almost always will get a bad review because an experienced gamer wouldn't like it. And so there seems to be some peculiar problem that maybe has to do with the nature of the gaming experience and how involving it is or something else that makes them very hard to review.
HERZ: Partly it's what I said before about talking about an object versus talking about a person. It's easy to tell the story of a person. But writing about games is really much more like writing about architecture. Which is another difficult thing to do. You have to have an understanding about architecture and how do you really write in an interesting way about a building? And then the other thing, and I think that also goes to the last question, is that games are an aficionado culture in terms of what's written about them. And all of the people, the fans, the fanzines, all of the online stuff, that's all great. Don't get me wrong. I love that. But that needs to be transcended. Because everybody in this room watches movies, goes to films or rents them. You don't consider yourself as part of your identity to be a filmgoer. Oh, yes, I'm a filmgoer, I read filmgoing magazines. [LAUGHTER] And if games are really going to kick out the jams, that basically needs to end as the relevant place for discussion because it's just like oh, I saw a movie the other day, yeah, I played this game. The idea that the people who play games are a self defined community of people who designate themselves as gamers, that shows the limitations of where we are right now, not the potential of where we are. We need to basically kick down that wall.
MAN: With that said let me introduce formally JC who is already well into the conversation [LAUGHTER] and seems more than ready to kick down walls. But JC Herz is the author of Joystick Nation: How Video Games Ate Our Quarters, Won Our Hearts and Rewired Our Minds, a history of video games and their impact on popular culture. Herz is producing a television documentary on the history of video games for PBS and writes a weekly column, Game Theory, for the New York Times. She also appears as a guest commentator on CNN & Company. Take it away.
HERZ: I think since I've kicked down the wall into this panel that the most graceful thing for me to do would be actually to let Chris tell another one of his stories [LAUGHTER] because I actually want to hear it. So if you could please, I really want to hear the bigger and better, non traditional uses of your games. So take it away.
MAN: [UNINTELLIGIBLE] [LAUGHTER]
WEAVER: As Charlie were setting up in the country store, had our feet up on the cracker barrel, you know [LAUGHTER]. Fellow comes down, right in the middle of town, stops one of them big cars, says I want to go to Burlington. I looked at Charlie, Charlie looked at me, looked at the fellow, said we've no objection. [LAUGHTER] I saw you sleeping in the back. I want to tell you about Mildred. Because Mildred is totally off skewed from any demographic of which we were aware. We created a role playing series called the Elder Scrolls. The first of the Elder Scrolls was Arena. It was a classic role playing game. And we were not known for doing role playing. We were known for doing sports and some action. And Arena set some people on their ear, proving that we could in fact do role playing. And we followed Arena with a game called Daggerfall. Daggerfall was interesting in the sense that Daggerfall had roughly 750,000 characters and a land mass the size of Great Britain and it took place in somewhere between the 11th to the 14th centuries. We took license. It was in another world called Tamreal [SP?]. You don't know it so you don't know the rules. [LAUGHTER] I mean when Origin says we create worlds they may have trademarked the comment but they sure as hell didn't trademark what we do. Anyway there was an interesting thing about Daggerfall. Daggerfall was so large, and I could tell you stories about there's a huge amount of heuristic programming and there's a reasonable amount of artificial intelligence. It's limited by the computers and some other issues. But for the time the interaction was rather novel. What was also novel was the way the characters interacted with one another. And we assumed, as the designers, the creators of the world, that the inhabitants in the world that we created and the users who would interact with those inhabitants were going to follow our rules. Mistake number one. A very interesting thing happened. Even though there was a back story and I won't bore you with it, you know, you won something, you put the pieces together and [UNINTELLIGIBLE] and you won. The land mass was so large and we had taken such pains to model things accurately within a physics world that streams changed their gurgling over time and birds will randomly fly. And there was no demand or expectation for that which you were going to be required to do at the start. If you wanted to be an itinerant priest you could. You could just walk Tamreal for literally years because it was that big. If you wanted to be a knight or a mythic character or a goth or you wanted to be a magician you could be any of those. You could be a thief if you chose to be a thief. And Senator Lieberman notwithstanding, the interesting social morality of, in this case Daggerfall, which I might add was on one of the ten most wanted list by our illustrious Mr. Lieberman, but that's a different story, isn't it, Doug? [LAUGHTER] If you ever want to know about suing senators and congressmen, ask me, I'll tell you. But an interesting thing happened, and yes, JC, I will get to it. We started getting letters. The first letter we got was from this woman named Mildred who was 79 years old. Mildred had osteo arthritis. Severe osteo arthritis and she lived in an old age home. She had been a world traveler when she was younger. She loved going on cruises, she loved exploring the world. And somebody in her family had given her Daggerfall and said here, grandma, try this. And grandma not only tried it, grandma fell in love with it. And the reason was that we had created a world in which there was no absolute expectation that you had to do anything. If you chose to walk the world and to simply interact with interesting people with whom you happened to come upon, that could be your world. And what she wrote us about was how she and a number of the other people in this home had been turned onto this game where they basically chose to be things like priests or they had some slight magical stamina to give them the ability to walk and do things. But they didn't arm themselves and they didn't strengthen themselves and they weren't interested in slinging magical amulets at one another. They wanted to explore the world. And that's what they did. We thought initially this is one very sweet old lady. Then we started getting other letters. We got so many letters from people who were over the age of 65 that we created a whole separate category in a file cabinet to look carefully at what these people were telling us. Because clearly what they were doing with our game was something we had never intended as the designers and yet were totally blown away of their interest. Mildred wrote us, I think, five or six letters. And in one of her letters she told us, and mind you, of course she was probably lonely and she wanted to write a letter, but nevertheless she knew so much about Daggerfall. You know, I went to the elfin cottage and I turned left and walked down the road and I came upon the most wonderful brook and I sat there for an hour and I watched the fish occasionally jump out of the water and the birds fly by. [LAUGHTER] I want to tell you something, it was an eye opener to us. It was a part of culture we had never before given serious consideration. And we do now. Our next version of this, something called Merwin, will in fact take this into account. They have changed forever the way we are looking at some of the games that we're creating. We are designers. We will build the playground and we will supply you the tools. And we will not tell you all the rules. We will no longer make all the rules. They've changed what we do in our game. And hopefully we will change the way that they use it. Because elderly people do in fact, I think, was it Geoffrey Goldstein who said yesterday the business about the 70 or 80 year old women that were playing super Tetrus. You know, I got a higher score than you did, Mabel. [LAUGHTER] I loved it. I thought it was so apt. It is so true. We are such little stinkers because we think that we know it. And the truth of the matter is we don't. The only issue is whether or not we come to terms with how little we know and we look out in terms of our user base and we try and reflect in them the way that they'll attempt to use what we're doing. And the reason that it's useful to bring up the case study is that Mildred and her 5,000 friends, that's our estimate based upon what we've gotten in terms of registration cards. The number of registration cards we get is usually a ten to one factor. We have over 600 registration cards from people over the age of 65. They're playing those role playing games. They are becoming computer literate. When that generation dies off and our generation comes up, our generation, just like my son could not imagine what would the world be like without Internet and color television, I don't remember a world that started with color television. And my father doesn't remember a world that started with radio. And we have to take that into account and remember that. Because ultimately that is the sociology. The rest of it is just talk.
MAN: Unfortunately, I bear the burdens of making the rules. And with that in mind we need to break this panel. We only have about five minutes to change speakers. However, in that time I'd like to ask that people who are sitting on the stairs and in the back fill in the rows. Fire marshals also make rules and aren't going to be happy about us letting you sit in the aisle. So if people could move in, stretch a little bit, and if the next set of panelists could come up here. Thank you.
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