Bio: Jesper Juulis the author of three books on videogames, starting with Half-Real back in 2005, followed by A Casual Revolution in 2010, and most recently The Art of Failure in 2013. He is currently a visiting assistant professor at the New York University Game Centre. And he joins me now to talk about all of the above. Hello, Jesper!
Now, before we get into things, I’d like to outline the format. Given that First Person Scholar is directed at games scholars, many people in our audience are going to be familiar with your work and so I’m going to take a different approach from the standard interview. Because, in a way, it’s like you and I have already talked; I’ve read your writing, I’ve listened to your interviews, and so what I’d like to do is ask you questions about the answers you’ve already given. Let’s start off with your most recent work.
The Art of Failure
FPS: In The Art of Failure, as well as in Half-Real and A Casual Revolution, I’m often wondering: Do games have to be fun to be successful?
JJ: Successful in a commercial sense?
FPS: Or even in a critical sense.
JJ: Well it’s an interesting question. The first problem is obviously the word “fun.” I’d like to start with relating an anecdote that I heard Marc Leblanc make . So Leblanc co-wrote this paper about “MDA,” the Mechanics, Dynamics and Aesthetics model (http://www.cs.northwestern.edu/~hunicke/MDA.pdf) and he talked about how it was a response to the fact that in early game design discussion, he’d experience that people would assume that anything you said about videogames should be universal and, if it wasn’t universal, it should be false. So, there was a tendency towards this idea of the one perfect game, and I think you could say the problem with the word “fun” was always that: it sounds like there is this thing, the one thing, this experience that you’re supposed to have from a good game and if you’re not having that experience it’s not working. And so that’s obviously false. But I do think we tend to use fun as this relation for all kinds of experiences some of which, in a way, might look what we traditionally think as fun (you might say smiling), and some of which don’t look like it at all. They look much more like pain or being uncomfortable or being unhappy. I definitely think this is not a, even in a commercial sense, I don’t think this kind of fun in a positive, happy sense is a necessity. But I think that the interesting thing is we probably associate the absence of fun with seriousness, and there are intuitive reasons for doing this. I do think there is a feeling that if you’re that supposed to do a serious game, not in an educational sense but one that deals with important themes, then that has to be not fun in some way. You can also see it similarly in stories; we do tend to assume that a good story is one that has an unhappy ending, and if it has a happy ending it is somehow shallow. So I do think we have these intuitive ideas of importantness being seriousness and earnestness, and frivolity being happiness, and I do think that that is obviously wrong, but that is the way we intuitively approach it.
FPS: In The Art of Failure you remark that: “Failure in games tells us that we are flawed and deficient. As such, video games are the art of failure, the singular art form that sets us up for failure and allows us to experience and experiment with failure.” And that reminded me of the Paolo Pedercini’s Flash-game Every Day The Same Dream. Have you played that?
FPS: For those that haven’t, you play a character that repeatedly goes through a rather mundane daily routine—you wake up, dress, drive to work, sit at a cubicle, repeat. But in a way, the fun & interesting aspects don’t start until you ‘fail’ the game, by choosing not to conform to the routine. How does a game like that look through the lens of the art of failure?
JJ: So obviously it’s one that kind of plays with our expectations for failure. A less serious example is in Knytt Stories, there’s a level called “Don’t Eat the Mushroom,” where, if you don’t eat the mushroom, nothing happens and everything interesting happens if you do eat the mushroom, which you’re not supposed to. I do think that there are a few different aspect to it. One is that there might be words signalling, from the game, that this is what you’re supposed to do and this is the goal that you can fail against. And in Every Day the Same Dream, that’s kind of a parody of traditional game design, and the kind of traditional-ness of the setting and graphical style goes hand-in-hand with that, and the reveal is one that is supposed to make you question both games and the kind of setting, the dreary drab life. But I think that might be a slightly different question than the question of what feels bad or pleasant for you as a player. Because I think that’s fundamentally mostly defined personally by what you’re trying to achieve. So even though you say that Every Day the Same Dream appears to be about conforming to this, and then obviously in a way intended to assess criteria of the game, is really to be doing what first seems like failing but that is almost success in a sense. But then, as a player if you knew that, if you failed to fail, you’d still be failing because you’d be failing against whatever you’re personally trying to achieve. And that goes for any sort of counter-playing in any game. The important thing is the goal that you are setting for yourself, rather than the official goal. And of course most of the time we are trying to follow the official goal, but when we’re not the important thing is what we’re trying to personally achieve.
FPS: The interesting thing about that game is that one of the things you can achieve is to throw yourself off of the building that you work at, as a sort of act of rebellion against it. So that’s embracing the sense of failure but you’re also succeeding because you’re not conforming in a certain respect.
FPS: In the book you talk about mood management theory, where we choose entertainment in part because we want to control our moods. We watch a thriller because we’re bored, or we watch a comedy because we want to laugh. And you say that the same holds true for games.
But while reading that section I couldn’t help but think of the ‘mood organ’ in Phillip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. This is a machine that can dictate your disposition at the touch of a button. And so in the book we hear about the option to dial 888: “the desire to watch TV, no matter what is on.” And in some registers, that’s the ideal structure of a game: the desire to play no matter the content. So, what I’m getting at, is that mood management theory applied to gaming seems to suggest that a Wii can function like a mood organ. But in the Do Androids Dream, the mood organ is a means of controlling your feelings, to make you essentially complacent. So, my question to you is: is mood management theory liberating or constraining when it comes to games? Or, put differently, is it something we should value or something we should be suspicious of?
JJ: That’s an interesting question and I see what you mean that in a way it can be perceived or understood as something that has a kind of dishonesty to it, or too much control or management. It’s a particular theory that seems to hold true at least part of the time for our media or media choices, that we do make these choices to influence future moods. And then of course there is also, even in comedy there might be a bit of predictability about it. And I’m just saying that even in games that’s it even stronger, and there is a gamble you perform.
If you want to play a game in order to succeed and you want to be happy from that, there is a gamble that that’s pretty concrete in games in terms of “I might lose,” and you might feel stuck in whatever you’re trying to do, you think “I’ll just play a StarCraft 2 match online and I’ll win against someone and I’ll feel better and invigorated in my work life.” That may not actually pan out that way, and in a way you’d be worse off than you were before. But it is interesting. It’s a very big human question to ask if it’s better or wrong of us to influence future moods in this instrumental way, or is there something liberating in this freedom to make our own choices regarding that. I guess it’s somewhat out of the scope of the book. I think it’s certainly something humans do and it cuts across fine art or popular art or theory. You might even read a particularly paper to feel smart or something. It’s more of a fact, it’s something we do all the time, and it’s hard to imagine us not doing that, not having that kind of planning ahead.
FPS: I think what I’m trying to angle at is that, I’m personally becoming more suspicious of games that are fine-tuning a formula that make you feel like you need to play and participate, and by tying the mood in which that formula–look at games like FarmVille or Angry Birds–it’s almost like they’re perfecting that mood organ that can make you feel that sense of joy but there’s no underlying challenge that is asking you to be more critical. At the Games Developers Conference a couple of weeks ago, Jane McGonigal touched on this when she said that one of the biggest barriers facing games right now is that sense of escapism that we still attach to games and that we look towards them as a means of escape, and I’m wondering how Mood Management Theory in relation to games and escapism, how those are interrelated within your work?
JJ: I guess, for the first part of that, I’m kind of skeptical of this idea that there are certain games that in way touch or manipulate our emotions or brain acts that other games are not; I’m not sure how you’d make that distinction. Obviously all games in some way cater to psychological needs in some way, or work in relation to how we work psychologically. No games are really outside of that. And escapism is such a broad thing that it’s almost impossible to actually make a clear call. One thing about Jane McGonigal, obviously, is that she works from this kind of positive psychology traditional which is very much about managing mood, using various devices and structures, so she’d be on board with that. I’m not sure the escapism question is not just a general question about art and culture; why do we do them even though it doesn’t seem to be strictly necessary for our immediate needs? At the same time, these are the things that we tend to value; they seem valuable because it’s something we can choose to do or not to do. When we decorate our homes with art or we play music, it also in a way makes us feel important or that our life has meaning, beyond stuffing our face with calories. So I think escapism is really a general criticism you might level at culture in general, so I think it’s too broad a stroke.
FPS: When I read your work I’m often wondering if, in your view, playing games is inherently valuable. Following your argument in Casual Revolution, it seems like learning to play any game is intrinsically good. And I definitely sympathize with that position because games have often suffered from the stigma that as a form, it’s not a real element in our culture and it’s often dismissed. But the cynic in me looks at the number of hours logged into FarmVille and Angry Birds, and I’m wondering if there’s a distinction to be made here, say, between teaching someone to read and teaching someone the value of challenging themselves through what they choose to read?
JJ: …When I say it’s about failure, that obviously implies that it’s really about learning, as many people, such as James Paul Gee has argued. Again it’s about how to make the general case. It’s one of those things, I do think that I have an experience with games that is deeply meaningful, it’s almost always interesting to learn to play new games and improve, there is always something fundamentally satisfying about that. But on the other hand I’m also skeptical about making that too broad, or a too self-assured argument. In a way it’s kind of easy to make this argument that games are art, games are good for us, games need to have profound insights, and prepare us to do well at work and school. But in way I think that’s very easy to make this argument, it’s almost too easy. And even if you did a study and proved beyond all reasonable doubt that clearly if you make kids play Halo or Everyday the same Dream, this leads to improving their average over 5 years, even that wouldn’t be enjoyable because then games would lose some of the game-for-game’s sake that they have already. I’m worried because in way it is kind of tempting to make these arguments about how good games are for you, but I’m skeptical and very weary of doing that.
FPS: Should we be more critical of games that tap into the desire to play but don’t challenge us to question that desire?
JJ: Yeah, it’s a good question. There are some kinds of game that deal with that in interesting ways. Even though by now it’s an old, controversial example, I do think that Bioshock (the first one), does something interesting about the whole following orders element of games. I guess I always waiver between being a snob and being inclusive in these terms, because I do like the idea that there is a large variety of interesting experiences to be had and I don’t want to be a judge for what is good and bad, and in other situations I do want to be a snob. So for example, I’m not sure it’s Farmville as much as it’s Role-Playing Games, if you want to be critical of a particular genre. So the whole idea of the resource gathering and skill managing of the character you’re controlling, in a way is a little weird because it’s not you, it’s a character, it’s an external character, and it might feel like you’re improving but it’s just the character. I think that is probably the argument I’m most sympathetic to.
Even Angry Birds, in that case, is much better than World of Warcraft, as a game, because it’s eventually about learning. On the other hand, I do enjoy a game like Mass Effect; there’s some kinds of things you can get out of that because in way it’s more a controlled experience. Even though it seems like you’re doing something unique by levelling up your character, it’s also something that is sort of guaranteed over time, it’s a particular way of structuring your experience. It’s complicated between what you like and what you can make an argument for. I think, as I discussed in the book, there is a temptation to have some thing that you like and then to construct some sort of theoretical argument for why that is the right thing and why everybody else is wrong. I think one should always be a little worried about doing that. But then the good news is that there usually tends to be some kind of hole in the argument. In my experience, regardless of what kind of argument you’re trying to construct, you always end up spending some time playing something that doesn’t fit the argument. That’s also what’s interesting about theorising about games: there’s always a gap between what you intuitively seem to be picking up and then the kind of arguments you make around it. There’s always a hole or gap between those two that forces you to keep thinking.
FPS: As a follow-up to that question, I’m particularly interested in the tendency in games scholarship to essentialize some aspect of videogames. It seems like for a number of years scholars have been looking for the quintessential element that makes a game a game. Is it the rules? Is it the narrative? Is it the player? I’ve found that the answer really depends on the sample of games being drawn from. To the point that it’s difficult to separate a theory of games from the games played to develop that theory. So, given the sometimes radical differences between genres, can the term game itself really apply to all titles and still be a useful concept?
JJ: I think the term essentialism in a way is a sound critical move, but also prevents us from asking certain questions. For example, one question I’m interested in is, do the things that we call games have anything in common? And I do think the answer, by and large, is yes. But I think you can only ask that question if you’re not afraid of getting a yes answer. The idea of essentialism is that you should always answer no, and in a way it’s a way to not answer questions that are pretty interesting. But of course it’s true that games are a pretty wide field. I do think there’s a reason why we tend to use the word game, and I do think they have certain kinds of rule structures and goal-directedness that they have in common, and a certain sense of what I call negotiable consequences, which is tied to the idea of things being voluntary and being presented or understood as being non-essential or not important, in the way that eating or going to work is. There are a lot of different experiences and different games build on this in a variety of different ways.
In more recent things, like not-games, which people are very conflicted about, and even people who defend them as games because they’re, like the example of Proteus, is clearly an attempt at making something that is different from the things we tend to call games. The designers for some reason have been very disturbed by people saying it isn’t a game, even though it’s clearly to be a not-game, and even though it still wins lots of prizes. I think it’s important to talk about whether these things have something in common, what we expect or what we label something a game, but also it’s something that evolves over time. So when SimCity came out there was a big sense that it wasn’t a game. These days, I think, people, in general, don’t have a lot of issues with naming it a game. So clearly, the kind of term game is including has become broader during the last 20 years.
FPS: Yeah. Although, I think, embedded in that question is also, sort of, when we look on the essential aspects of a game, it really harkens back to the ludology versus narratology and what’s the real substructure that other things are built around.
And that really brings me to your talk in Half-Real, because you put forth the notion that the rules are more real than the narrative. And I just wondered, what does it mean to say that something is only “half-real?”
JJ: I’m using this in a particular technical sense, so real doesn’t mean whether things can exist, or what they mean–whether they mean something to us or not, or whether they have cultural significance or not; what it refers to is—it concerns this question of reference world. So you have a game rule, something that structures how we relate to this world, but an official narrative is something that refers to a fictional world that we imagine. And those are just two different references–a game and a story have two different references. So one is like the actual, physical world, and the other reference world is a kind of magic world in which the game takes place. So that’s what it means, that game rules are real in that sense. A lot of people confuse it, read the rules to be more important, to be the only important things, but that’s not what it means.
FPS: Okay. But if you’re a modder, or a you’re a cheater, or hacker, the rules can be just as much a fiction as the narrative, in a certain respect. Is that fair?
JJ: Well, I wouldn’t say fiction; it’s more like a particular kind of effect that you can get around.
JJ: That you can make your own. Rules may also still be malleable, or they might be an effect, considering that you can play by different rulesets. In addition the rules are built in a certain way. Both the official rules, and those you’ve hacked, rules are still the concern of this world: what can you do, what are you supposed to do, what relation do you have with the computer.
FPS: Okay, so it’s kind of…
JJ: By fiction, you’re using fiction in the sense that it’s not necessary, that it’s not an eternal sort of effect, but this is a slightly different word from how I’m using it. The way I use fiction really refers to the imaginary player imagining a particular world.
FPS: Right. I guess I’m trying to get at that fiction in the sense that it’s a variable that we keep constant by believing in it or playing along with it, which the rules of a game system can be just as flexible in that respect as the narrative.
JJ: Fiction is slightly different in my account.
FPS: Okay. Fair enough. So what’s the value, then, in using that term, real, and saying that it’s more “real?” Can you clarify what that brings to the discussion that you’re putting forward here?
JJ: Sure. It raises this question of what we’re doing when we play games. Games do have this weird tendency for us to talk about the fictional content as if it was real. “I ran someone over in my car.” We talk about it as if it happened, even though it didn’t happen. And so, fiction is a way of explaining what that is. It’s not that there is a world inside our game, but it’s more that the game makes you think of a particular world in which this happens. Then you can talk about how this relates to the rule system. Then, of course, fiction is also meant as an alternative term to narrative—there’s a way of dodging the inherent difficulty in the story or narrative / game debate, because narrative has a lot of different meanings, one of them being a fictional world, one of them being a string, a fixed sequence of events.
That created a lot of confusion, where people wanted to talk about games and narratives. How can you have a game that’s narrative, when the game has to be interactive, a narrative has to be non-interactive and so on. And fiction, in the sense I’m using it, its power on others is much more the concept, which relates to the playground, and play, and all kinds of imagining. So it also ties more closely into imaginary play. I know on your site, you had an article on Kendall Walton recently. I was actually using him for my original PhD thesis to discuss fiction, but I ended up removing him for the book. So he used to be there.
FPS: In your latest book, you mention three elements in games, that each represent a political ideal: skill, chance, and labor, and with skill you draw the parallel with a meritocracy. I think that’s a great point, especially in respect to the casual revolution. I wonder if you could expand on that connection between skill and meritocracy, but in the context of casual games.
JJ: … I say in the book that there really are a number of different ideals of what fairness is, both in games, and politically. And people will always tend to call a particular brand of it fairness. The idea of casual games people have criticized a lot because this idea of accessibility can, at least at a distance, seem like everybody can win, everybody can get ahead. In a way, it’s much more complicated than that. Even a classic magic target game like Bejeweled can be actually really challenging very soon, actually. It’s not really the case that videogames called casual are easy, as they may be very skill-based. Conversely, role-playing games are quite easy, in terms that it’s mostly a time commitment. I think it’s more that things like casual games and Facebook games are divided, or criticized, because people assume that they don’t require skill. And that is bad, because it’s actually much more complicated than that. A lot of them require skills, and a lot of more traditional games don’t require skill. But of course, it’s also a bit of question of what sort of experience you desire is. If you think about it purely as a kind of enjoyment, there is something to be said about games where you’re almost guaranteed to get anywhere, by putting in some time. There’s something really enjoyable about that. It’s a particular kind of fairness. I won’t say that one is the better one. Intuitively we think that there’s something wrong with just rewarding time in it, but at the same time, it’s also a particular kind of experience, especially in a story-driven RPG, because it’s something that propels you through the content in a particular way.
FPS: I think there’s an interesting point there, too, in terms of those games where, essentially, you pay not to play. You can spend x amount of dollars, and get this far ahead. And in the context of a meritocracy, the idea that you can pay to not develop those skills is a great commentary, especially on certain political and economic systems as well.
JJ: Yes, but then, of course, it’s not that time is money. But in some situations, there might be a kind of equivalence between them. And certainly, I think– (laughs)–at times, I joke that there should be an executive version of certain long single player games. It’s the idea that most people that play games have long periods of boredom in the middle sometimes, because the kind of model where you pay for a game that really doesn’t encourage developers to put much time into the development. It encourages more time in the beginning and possibly the ending, as some journalists write about. And so, why not have a version where they can play ahead, to skip the boring bits, essentially?
JJ: And in a way, that’s what would feed a player in, sometimes. And it’s not a bad kind of structure. Why not?
FPS: Yes, absolutely.
FPS: I just have another set of question, sort of more on education and your methodology. As an educator, how do you find teaching game studies, and are there any things that have surprised you in your time teaching game studies to your students?
JJ: It’s something I’ve been teaching for a while, more than ten years at least. The important thing is to make it clear to students why a particular discussion was important at the time. A lot of it is set-up, explaining why a particular discussion occurred, and what the kind of games that came out were at the time. It’s a question of story-telling. I think the thing that’s changed—if you’re asking what surprised me—it’s how quickly culture moves on from something like the situation that led to the whole narrative debate. We can’t… this is at a time where I have to have them read about Janet Murray, then I have to talk about the whole thing about CD-ROMs, full-motion video, and how this is a hard thing in the 1990s, and talk about the dream of virtual reality and how this was really the forefront of how people were thinking.
And how all this is kind of played with the incident, which is sometimes described as being 3-D, whatever that is supposed to mean. It’s how to say that the title Hamlet on the Holodeck, the future of narrative in cyberspace, was a kind of interesting juxtaposition, like, oh my God, there’s computers and technology for these various cultural things. It’s so amazing. And in a way, the surprise has been how you can see that, in every year, that it just becomes more and more distant. Teaching is often about explaining why a particular discussion played out at a particular moment in time, and why it was so important, or felt so important. And I think that’s pretty important, when you teach game studies.
FPS: You seem to favor—and this is more on the methodology side of things—a quantitative, empirical approach.
JJ: I do.
FPS: So what roles should empirical analyses have in game studies, and what can they add, but also, what are their limits, as well?
JJ: So the limits of empirical approaches?
FPS: Yeah. Within the context of game studies, how much explanatory work can they do for us?
JJ: Well, realistically, I come from a very traditional humanities background. So every time I do something with numbers, or anything empirical, I can imagine my old professors shaking their heads in disapproval—that’s not the kind of thing that they’d want. I just think that’s a different kind of questions that ask, require, different kind of ways for answering them. In our field, as opposed to stuff I discuss, it’s a quite open, sort of “straight-up,” analysis. Whereas, in Casual Revolution, it goes on much more about questions and attitudes about different player groups, for example—the attitudes of the players themselves to the different types of games. This is just not something you can answer analytically. It’s a question that just has to have some kind of empirical data in it. And then in the new book, I refer to some of these studies I did on different kinds of theory, which is quantitative studies.
I did a few different kinds of studies, and I often find them quite frustrating. It’s a classic sort of problem, because once you have the numbers, what does that show you? To answer that particular question, you often end up with the graphs and error bars and calculations that seem statistically significant, but then you find out that there was a different question that actually comes before this one, so you didn’t find that answer, and you’re dealing with a different question. So I think it really depends in quantitative methods, I think can be quite frustrating because of that, to show correlation between the things but not necessarily reveal anything about how the things work.
FPS: What are your thoughts on current game scholarship? Are we missing anything right now? And where should we go from here?
JJ: Good question. There is always a tendency to deal with things that follow a particular model. The reason why Shadow of the Colossus was so popular was that it catered toward a particular kind of textual analysis. The reason why World of Warcraft was so popular at the beginning too was that it catered well to the social science approach. And all of that is good, but I think that the challenge is always trying to talk about good games that don’t necessarily fit any particular model well. I do think there are gaps. People aren’t writing a lot about free-to-play, for example. Very little has been written about free-to-play, but it’s a really huge thing that’s happening right now. Some stuff has been written on independent games, but I think nothing I think in proportion to how important it is to changing distribution models. It’s really a challenge to pay attention to what’s happening, what’s being said. Games are very important in different ways, but finding out how you talk about something either way just fits obviously with a particular method.
JJ: The problem is always method lines. Everything—you always see things from the method that you use it.
FPS: Right. And I think that gets back to our earlier talk about how the theory of games you wind up developing is inseparable from the games you use to develop that theory and it’s very much–
FPS: –to a degree, it’s confirmation bias. You’re looking for the things that validate your theory. And that’s kind of what the publication we’re working on now, at First Person Scholar, is to try and focus—and I’m sure you can sympathize with this as a ludologist—to focus on play and gameplay first and then extend out to other areas, if those connections are there. Personally, it seems that there is that tendency to come with your own method and then look for the evidence that supports it.
JJ: Another way to put it is that you only get so much thought so if you think that everything that you’re writing, you’re lucky that you chose the right method, then probably something’s wrong.
FPS: (laughs) Fair enough. That’s a good point.
FPS: One last question to wrap this up: I’m keenly interested in asking this of game scholars, developers, anybody. It’s a really simple question. What can games do? What’s their potential? What’s the upper limit on the roles games can play in our lives?
JJ: Well, games can do a lot of things. It’s very hard to put boundaries around this. In my latest book, I discuss games as a kind of laboratory for dealing with your personal relations to failure and overcoming failure. And hopefully, writing the book has made me both a better player and a worker, if you will. I do think games are a good way of judging how you are dealing with setbacks and researchers are trying to figure out if there might be emotions that we use in games that might be of use elsewhere. So I do think that there is a kind of potential or a kind of useful experimentation. In a broader sense, games have already won, actually. That wasn’t the case ten years ago. But now, more than 50% of the population actually plays digital games. And it’s mostly after cellphones came around to games. There isn’t any particular reason why not everybody would play digital games. It’s clear that things like tablets are becoming distribution models channels for what seems to be boardgames, facilitated into videogame form. By that kind of breadth, it does seems like that digital games have already won.
FPS: Is that a good thing, though?
JJ: (laughs) I think it’s good.
FPS: Because in a way, that also means that there is a much larger market to be tapped into from a marketing and business perspective as well.
JJ: Another way of putting it would be it’s not just videogames which have won, it’s that games continue to win. The computer or the tablet is just another game platform, tech that’s come after cards or boardgames or wargames. It’s not that different. For a time, it seemed that there was something about computers that meant that only a certain portion of the population would play games with them. All right, that wasn’t the case. It does seem to be playing out—I guess I tend to be a realist in the sense that I understand that things take time. Academically, it’s been going very well in terms of getting programs and publications and you’re getting that kind of going, so that’s been positive. The real change of the last ten years has been the rise of… let’s call them independent games or experimental games, at least. I do see that, ten years ago, most people wouldn’t have been able to recognize something like an independent game. It would just look like a bad game.
JJ: During that period of time, even big publishers like Sony are trying to play up, “Oh, we have independent games too.” There is a much broader appreciation of the fact that you can have games that come in different shapes and sizes, and different aesthetics that try to express new things. It’s not only a technological execution thing, it’s also a sophistication of the audience, that a lot of players would be able to understand that there is such a thing that is short form for these different aesthetics and different genres, and have a way of talking about that, or understanding that. And the sophistication—if you assume that’s a good thing—I assume that’s a good thing—of games comes from that. That there’s an approach you can take that’s more deep, or more interesting or more meaningful kind of experiences than… previous games.
Games that toy with expectations for what a game should be. Where games are going is not necessarily a technological thing, not even necessarily game design per say, but there is a kind of discourse, an understanding that you can do strange things with games that may be new things, may be new kinds of experiences. And it rises with critical discourse. There’s an appreciation of experiments now, games that try to say and do things. That’s definitely the good news, where games are going.
FPS: I guess that connects back to our earlier question about, you know, essentially, the literacy to play games is there. And I think that that means we should be more critical of games that don’t necessarily push that don’t push that literacy into new areas. I’m kind of getting at games that are sort of Call of Duty-line of games, that seem part of a series that they found their formula, and they’re happy with seeing just how that plays out. But I find historically we—game scholars—haven’t been that critical of that iterative approach, of games in a series, and I find that a lot of articles and essays and books, even, that I don’t find are critical enough of how that’s playing out. That, they’re, in a sense, almost pandering to the audiences. And I wonder if that’s something you see as well, or if that’s another issue.
JJ: This goes back to the“being a snob or being inclusive” question–
JJ: I mean, I’ve been known to play games like Battlefield personally. But I can also explain why I think they’re bad games. I’m a bit torn on this one. I see that, in a way, they’re not interesting games, that there is something to be said about hundred million dollar titles that do exactly what every other game used to do. At GDC, Chris Hecker had this wonderful rant, (http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/189654/), this video of a Playstation 4 press conference explaining all the amazing things it can do—this platform where there’s just these guys running around shooting, running side-to-side… what? I’ve seen this a million times before. It’s a weird juxtaposition of this promise to make change. That’s obviously kind of depressing, mostly depressing in a hundred million dollar game. But it also depends on what you think games should be, and I think there is a range. Should every game entirely attempt to reinvent games, or is it okay to have something that’s more like a crossword puzzle? Which isn’t an attempt to reinvent crossword puzzles, just that the next Call of Duty or Battlefield is your Sunday paper crossword puzzles. So that’s what it is. It’s not illegitimate to do that; there’s something okay about that kind of stuff. It’s interesting. But it’s sad when a game costs a hundred million dollars, there’s incredible claims for how new it is, and it isn’t—just some crossword.
FPS: Yes, I think that’s what I’m getting at, that the game reviewers and, to a degree, the scholars—I don’t feel that they exert enough pressure as they should on games that are doing that. And I know that we don’t have much of an influence, but I feel that that’s the starting point, to be a little more critical, now that we have this sort of literacy. Following the casual revolution, people are familiar with how to play games; now let’s keep pushing the envelop—and I think that that speaks to that as well.
JJ: I do think these days that there is a lot of hobby criticism of big-budget shooters. Then again, does it actually matter if sales don’t change? Well, probably not all that much, and even big shooters are trying to put interesting moral quandaries inside them. It’s not really something that’s quite as successful as they were hoping. We tend to write very little about military shooters, the same way we didn’t write about sport games. It’s just a little bit of writing that’s come out recently on sports games. There’s a sort of conference kind of aspect, to stick to what we know to write about, or the games we like, and it’s hard to talk about other games. You would hope that there would be more game criticism tied to game studies, more open to calling out the kind of bullshit of similar games that claim to be, but they’re not.
FPS: All right. So thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us. It’s much appreciated. And hopefully, if you get the chance to come up to Waterloo at some point, we’d love to hear you speak. That would be a real treat for us.
JJ: That would be great. This was a good discussion.
FPS: Thanks so much. Take care.
JJ: Take care.