You are known as a game designer, a writer, a critic, a researcher, a professor. You have an intense presence and activity in the field of independent gaming, although you come from the field of comparative literature. What attracted you the most into the gaming realm? Were you a gamer yourself, since a kid?
It’s not so big a shift as it may seem. I grew up with the microcomputer, like everybody who grew up I the 1970s or 1980s. I didn’t have them at home right away, but we always did at school, and at friends’ houses. And I learned LOGO and then BASIC, and played the Atari and the Intellivison and so forth. So, from an early age, I had a strong relationship with and interest in computing, and in videogames. But then, I was always also interested in other things: books and art in particular, and later philosophy. Eventually I took degrees in philosophy and comparative literature, but I started out in university in computer science. Then the 1990s tech boom happened, and I worked in the technology, advertising, entertainment, and gaming industries most of the way through undergraduate and all the way through graduate school. Games were (and remain) my attempt to bridge the worlds of computing and culture, of machines and ideas. Unlike most other kinds of software, games have the greatest similarity to other forms of cultural creativity, but then they also have something different: a toe dipped in the conceit of rationalism, of mathematics, of science.
The gaming field has definitely changed and expanded a lot though the last years. Your recent book “How to do things with videogames” offers a great insight into the different fields games nowadays intersect with. “Games are models of experience” you write. But how do things change when our life experiences look more and more like game experiences? Could they become more pleasurable, as gamification supporters would argue? Could we become addicted to certain life practices just like we may have become addicted to games?
Perhaps one of the differences between the gamification perspective and the games-as-medium perspective (which is what I offer in How to do things with videogames) has to do with the amount of overlap between games and world. The gamifiers want to make life “better”-or at least more structured and game-like-thinking that games offer a better or more efficient or more predictable model for behavior. But I feel just the opposite: games offer a place we can go to experience the weird differences between the world and models of it. In the past I’ve called this a crisis, a “simulation fever” or “simsickness” that the game imposes by temporarily formalizing and accounting for reality. This approach can apply to a variety of domains-in the book I cover art, advertising, music, politics, pornography, relaxation, transit and many more. But perhaps we don’t really want our life experiences to be more like game experiences. Perhaps we’re mistaken about that. What if we are, and we build that world anyway?
The social web is probably one of the terrains where gamification has become more apparent. By counting numbers of friends, likes, comments, following our newsfeed board and joining social games like Farmville, we become -consciously or unconsciously- the new social gamers of our times. Your Cow Clicker project was a humorous critique towards gamification’s strategies. People were invited to simply click on cow every six hours and they would earn more… clicks. This beautiful irony was however unexpectedly received as a social game! Thousands of people around the world were clicking and clicking.What does this say for today’s emerging social gamer?
For one, it says that you can’t choose your successes. But it may also suggest that I underestimated the game, that it was in fact possible to create this crisis zone that is Cow Clicker, and through that strange apparatus to ask questions about the current moment of numerical socialization. But then, perhaps it also suggests that everyone’s a sucker, or that the human will is weak, or that we’ve so surrounded ourselves with compulsions that one is just as good as any other-it doesn’t really matter what “content” they present. Or maybe it means all these things and more all wrapped into one.
Clicking like liking, friending, following, checking in places. But for whom? Are we getting addicted to new forms of immaterial labour through games and their mechanics?
One of the facets of our contemporary media environment is immaterial labor, the fact that we have become the “product” for companies like Facebook and Google, and we work for them for free, without even knowing. There’s an increasing acknowlegement of that fact, thanks to books like Siva Vaidhyanathan’s The Googlization of Everything. But another aspect, one we notice even less, perhaps, is that we’re now living in an ecology of compulsions. Email, Google, Facebook, TwitterŠ we’ve inadvertently constructed and amplified a media environment in which we are conditioned to return, habitually. There’s always something to see, and something to miss if we’re not there to notice. We tend to talk about “addiction” rather than compulsion, but the later is perhaps more accurate: ours is a world of urges and drives, but also of obligations, of pressures, of duress. One can no longer choose not to participate.
Generally one could say that you, as a game designer, were never really following standard game mechanics and dynamics format for your works. Your newsgames, anti-advergames, political and educational games are not about winning but rather about processes, ‘procedural rhetorics’ as you have defined it. Could you explain this to Neural? T
he overall idea in my work is that games are capable of producing a variety of effects. Some of those effects are persuasion (Fatworld), some are frustration (Disaffected!), some are journalism (Points of Entry), some are education (Stone City) some are critique (Jetset), some are lingering (A Slow Year). If we think of a videogame as a model world in which we can play some interactive role in context, then the kinds of models and roles and worlds are enormous in type, and the possible aesthetic effects of those roles are even larger.
And what do you think is distinctive about indie games? Do they address to a different group of players ?
I’m not certain that “indie games” means much, but I don’t know that it’s the fault of indie game makers or players. The very idea of “independent” media may be increasingly complicated by the facility with which art of any kind can be made and disseminated. So in that respect, games diversified after indie film and indie music had already become somewhat obsolete terms. “Independent” used to mean “independently financed,” that is to say, unburdened by the lowest-common-denominator corporate demands of big business, and therefore able to tackle themes, styles, audiences or other approaches that would otherwise have been impossible. By contrast, today in games, “indie” has come to signify its own aesthetic and community. So, games like Super Meat Boy and Fez and VVVVVV may be interesting and appealing and lovely, but very little about them is “impossible” in the commercial industry (even if all of these games were also independently financed). In that sense, “indie” has come to refer to a style, I think, instead of a sensibility. That’s fine, and it may even suggest a new audience. But I’m not sure it’s as radical a domain as many players and creators think it is.
You have also developed very interesting games for the Atari VCS. “A Slow Year” is a chapbook of game poems the player is invited to observe , while the “Guru meditation” is a slow yogi game. These are games with no strategy and no action; they are works demanding our concentration and attention. Do you see a potential form of counter-power in these games? Is slow gaming a notion similar to slow reading or slow eating which have appeared as an attempt to disrupt the increasing speed of our everyday life?
Guru Meditation and A Slow Year were each made to explore very specific ideas, which were inspired by external factors. In the first case, it was the obscure Amiga Joyboard peripheral and a story, perhaps apocryphal, about how the early Amiga OS programmers attempted to calm themselves with it during long compiles. And in the second case, it was the experience I felt programming the Atari itself, which brought to mind the poetic tradition of Imagism, naturalism, and a kind of contrapuntal response to environmental “non-games” like those of Tale of Tales. Certainly one can connect these themes to movements like slow eating, but one could also just take them as the games that they are. I’m not very interested in thinking of my work as resistant or contrarian, working against some power structure or economic regime. I’m bored by this kind of predictable oppositionalism, which is so commonplace, so banal, that it can’t possibly be political anyway.
Do you think that we are in an urge for game ethics?
I think people want earnestness. They deserve it. They want objects and experiences that are purposeful, that exist for good reason, and that treat them honestly and respectfully. That deserve to exist in the world. That are doing more than just trying to get their money or their attention or their data. So, there’s ethics in the sense of, what does a game represent, and how does it help us ask questions about our lives and the world? And there’s much to be done there. But there’s also ethics in the sense of, how does a game try to exist in the world, what is it trying to accomplish, and how earnest is it in those efforts I know there’s a trend today to think of gamers as these magical beings that accomplish superhuman acts merely by harnessing the mystical power of games. But I’m much more circumspect about this. The future I dream of is not one a utopia in which games facilitate a society of play, but a normal world, an ordinary world, in which games help us become more comfortable and tolerant of uncomfortable and intolerable complexity. Life is made of rusty gears and out of bright plastic toys. Do we really want to give either one up for the other?