Interview – Jeff Watson

Narrative, Games, and Reality

Jeff Watson is an artist, designer, researcher, and Assistant Professor of Interactive Media and Games at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. His work investigates how game design, pervasive computing, and social media can enable new forms of storytelling, participation, and learning.


Kent Aardse: Hello, Jeff. Many thanks for taking the time to answer some questions for First Person Scholar. Before we get to the meat and potatoes, why don’t you take a moment to tell us about yourself — how you got into academia, where you’re from, etc.

Jeff Watson: Hey Kent, great to be here. I’m a fan.

I took a fairly indirect route to the academy. I’ve always been an avid player and maker of games, but the trajectory that brought me to where I am now began in the film industry, where I worked on movie sets and did a brief stint as the membership coordinator at a film co-op (LIFT) in Toronto. I also attended the Canadian Film Centre’s screenwriting program, after which I managed to land some work as a screenwriter and story editor. Along the way, I found myself getting more excited about the storytelling possibilities latent in the web and other kinds of new media than I was in classical narrative cinema. This led me into alternate reality games, transmedia storytelling, game design, and the rest of it. Around 2008, I heard about an interdisciplinary theory-practice PhD program at the USC School of Cinematic Arts that seemed to be flexible enough to contain all my interests. I finished my work there in 2012, stayed on for a year as a post-doc, and then took up a position in Toronto in the Digital Futures program at OCADU. After teaching there for a year, I was lured back to USC where I restarted my tenure clock to become an assistant professor in the Interactive Media and Games Division.

KA: Your work with Reality Ends Here (your dissertation and the game which accompanied it) can easily be lumped into the category of Alternate Reality Games, a genre of gameplay that places players in real-world locations, often searching for clues or solving various other puzzles. In a sense, the game-world is sewn onto the real-world, as opposed to more traditional games like tabletop and video gaming, where there is a somewhat sequestered space for gameplay to occur within.

JW: Yep, that’s true. I’m glad you say “somewhat sequestered,” though, as it’s important to remember that all games are engaged in various kinds of commerce with the “real world.”

KA: You distinguish your work from other ARGs in many ways, though. One, you create games which tend to eschew the top-down narrative delivery system utilized in many big-budgets ARGs, instead “empowering participants to tell their own stories and construct their environments from the ‘bottom up’” (20). Can you discuss this style of game design — its affordances and restrictions — and how you deal with the many different outcomes that can occur in leaving narrative in the players’ hands?

JW: Well this is a big question! I think part of it comes down to what we mean by “narrative.” In terms of actually making a narrative, I would say if you want to come out of a process of any kind with a narrative that looks and feels and works like, say, the kinds of densely-constructed and vetted narratives we might find in TV series or novels or movies, then probably the best way to do that would be to do it the way it’s been done historically — that is, with a single writer or team of carefully-chosen co-writers (à la the “writer’s room” familiar to anyone who has worked in episodic TV) working within the context of a larger production unit. Put differently, you’re probably not going to be able to crowdsource Game of Thrones or Moby Dick, and I certainly wouldn’t advise you to try, at least not without playing Fiasco first.

I like to think of my narrative work as being more like designing sports than making movies. Sports are a really useful touchpoint for me — especially in the contexts of discussions around games and narrative, which, and I think this is changing now, have traditionally been very focused on single-player experiences, RPGs, and the indexical or representational capabilities of the videogame. Jerome Bruner has this very useful concept of “narrative accrual,” which he describes in his paper, “The Narrative Construction of Reality,” and which captures what excites me about what goes on in sports (and many other games) vis-à-vis narrative, for both players and for fans. In an individual game of, say, hockey, there’s a story that emerges from the first drop of the puck, and this story shapes how players play the game. This is how you get stuff like momentum swings and goalies that freak out and let in a string of bad goals. And then that narrative material feeds into other things, like the real lives of the players, the history of the team, or the broader story of a community, and you get these big networks of narrative linking one game to another, one season to another, and so forth.

If you really think about it, a game like hockey is a narrative machine — most powerfully for its players, but also for fans and other observers: just do a Google News search for “hockey,” and you can see how much raw story gets pumped out of the game every day. Crucially, and this is the Bruner bit, all of this narrative accrues in various ways — it adds up over time. And in the case of sports, which I find super interesting, elements of this narrative system ultimately distill down into the rules of the game itself in the manner of other structures derived from narrative accrual, like jurisprudence, which Bruner uses as a key example. Provocatively, this makes me think of games, especially games like sports, as highly compressed forms of narrative — an encrypted form of narrative, as it were, to complement the classic embedded/emergent dyad. By the way, for those who don’t pay attention to sports per se, another example here might be a game like EVE Online (which, I would argue, is a kind of sport), which provides not a story to follow, but rather opportunities for its players to take action, define themselves within the system, and ultimately generate a multitude of stories large and small, public and private.

What we might call the “traditional” ARG tells a story through the nonlinear deployment of content instances across multiple contexts. For example, the creators of an ARG might invent a series of linked puzzles or challenges that, once solved or overcome, will unlock the next set of puzzles and challenges, all of which will carry bits and pieces of a narrative that ultimately comes to some sort of climax and resolution. While such activities certainly involve a lot of interaction and light- to medium-grade participation, there’s still a central authority akin to the writer’s room that’s processing player interaction and pushing out new content. As soon as the creators run out of money and time — after all, this is a very labor- and capital-intensive kind of operation, which is why the preponderance of such games are bankrolled by large studios — the players run out of things to do, and that’s it for the game. If you think of a sport, there’s no writer’s room or central authority required for the game to be played. Even without a structure like a league, you can still play games like hockey or football and you will emerge from those games with stories about what happened — and those stories will inform subsequent situations of play in various ways: for you, for your fellow players, and for anyone who is watching or otherwise tied to you or your fellow players. This is what I mean when I talk about environments and narratives being constructed from the “bottom up.” To loop it back to ARGs, the question might be, what would an ARG look like if it was designed first and foremost to seed the construction of narrative rather than to deploy a temporally-bounded curated story?

KA: Further, you have chosen to name your work Environmental Game Design. Why this distinction from ARGs, and what does the emphasis on environment mean for your game design process?

JW: These days I’m more partial to the term, “situation design,” but I think ultimately “environmental game design” is a subset of situation design, so it’s still a valid term of art. When I talk about environment, I’m talking about not just the physical environment, but also the psychological and digital overlays that shape how we think about and act within the spaces we inhabit. Obviously Situationism is a key touchstone here, as is Erving Goffman and his concept of dramaturgical analysis — that is, the practice of analyzing places to understand the dramatic “rules” that govern how people behave when they’re in them. For me, I like emphasizing environment over alteriority, as I don’t think the kinds of games I’m interested in are so much about layering an ersatz fantasy world atop the real world, but rather more about simply creating new opportunities for playfully reinventing and reimagining the world itself. We make our own realities. Everything that steps out of the bounds of what we have inherited is automatically an “alternate” reality — a different way of behaving that can have transformative effects on our lived environment.

KA: You’ve given papers and presentations on Doing Shit With Games. This seems to tie into the environmental game design philosophy. Is this one of your main focal points in game design? We often hear from people like Jane McGonigal that so many people are playing games, and that they are so rhetorically powerful. Where do you see this “serious” game movement heading, and what to you are the rhetorical advantages in using games instead of other forms of persuasive media?

JW: I’m teaching a class at USC this semester called “Documentary and Activist Games,” and we’re wrestling with these questions now. It’s obvious that games have enormous rhetorical power. However, I think that in addition to that capacity, games also offer artists, activists, policy-makers, and other kinds of shit-disturbers opportunities to do things that other kinds of media simply cannot. Let’s face it, your rhetorical options are many. For all the vaunted capabilities games are said to have that allow us to explore an issue systemically or to persuade through experience and process, I think persuasion is only a part of what games can offer in terms of transformative potential. Unlike the cinema, say, games are a “do” medium. This is at the heart of the procedural rhetoric idea and goes back to John Dewey, Seymour Papert, and others with respect to learning theory: we learn by doing, and so by designing things for people to do in the form of challenges for them to overcome and decisions for them to make, game designers are also necessarily designing things for them to learn, even if all they’re learning (which it never is, by the way) is “how to play the game.”

But the other thing, and it sounds kind of obvious to say it but for whatever reason it gets forgotten sometimes, is that we don’t just learn by doing, we do by doing. That is, because games are a medium in which the artwork doesn’t really exist unless the player is playing, and because playing is a thing that you do — an action that you take, intellectually, bodily, socially — games have this huge capacity to disrupt the ways we engage with the world, and not just because of the arguments they make. At bottom, games are methods for channeling and structuring various kinds of desire through the creation of opportunities to act. When you play a game, you do something, and whatever it is you do — from sitting in front of a console to running around in a city; from building an imaginary empire to forging real-world relationships — has an impact on you and the world around you. Remembering this surfaces a very powerful affordance for activist or “serious” games, and also points to why we ought to examine all this as critically as possible, as we should always do with any practice that has the potential to shape human behavior and facilitate (or de-facilitate) specific kinds of action. Put simply, while it’s important to think about what games say, it’s equally or even more important to consider what it is that they — and their players — do.

KA: Here you wrote a very provocative piece on gamification, one that seems to fall in line with that of Ian Bogost’s gamification is bullshit post. The crux is that when corporations turn to gamification to bolster productivity, they are essentially creating compliant employees forced to output more for no real benefit. Is this, perhaps, too broad a generalization of gamification? Can you see it as being used in any beneficial ways? Why such a large-scale buy-in of corporations all at once, all moving towards this type of reward system?

JW: I won’t repeat the article you linked to here, as it sums up what I have to say on this pretty thoroughly, but I will add this: I’m interested in the disruptive and creative capabilities of games. I would love to see an example of gamification that isn’t about compliance, surveillance, efficiency, and/or skill or information delivery. If you have such an example handy, I’d love to hear about it! That said, I think if such an example exists (which it probably does), I would challenge the creators on their decision to call whatever it is that they’re doing “gamification.” Why not just call it a game? When we take out the Monopoly board at the cottage, are we “gamifying” the cottage? Why the need to make it sound like some kind of spray or sauce you can just pour over the context where it takes place? I feel like it might have something to do with making the work sound more official, corporate, or scientific — and less “gamey.” We shouldn’t give into those kinds of impulses.

KA: Finally, youve started the Situation Lab at the Ontario College of Art and Design University. Can you tell us about the lab and its goals?

JW: The Situation Lab is co-located between USC and OCADU, which is pretty unusual for a research lab these days. Stuart Candy, a professor at the Strategic Foresight and Innovation program at OCADU, and I founded it last year to house our design research, which, broadly speaking, takes place “where narrative, play, and space come together to shape the world.” We’ve released a little imagination game called The Thing From the Future that was at IndieCade this year and has received some press from the Discovery Channel, Fast Company, The Long Now Foundation, and a few others. We also ran a big collaborative production game in partnership with the USC Worldbuilding Media Lab that involved around 300 people playing together to build a fictional world at this year’s Science of Fiction conference in Los Angeles. We’ll be taking that experience to the Berlin Film Festival this February. We’re always looking for exciting collaborations and students, so anyone interested in the lab should definitely reach out to us!

KA: Thank you so much for your time.

JW: Thanks, Kent!