Grinding to Valhalla

Interviewing the gamer with a thousand faces

Reading the text: Matt Barton

Posted by Randolph Carter on October 1, 2009

dungeons & desktops2What do you do for a living?

I am an assistant professor in the English department of St. Cloud State University in St. Cloud, Minnesota. My teaching duties include writing, rhetoric, teaching, and technology.

How would you describe your book Dungeons and Desktops: The History of Computer Role-Playing Games to someone who has never heard of it?

I think the title pretty much says it all. It’s not for everyone, but I think anyone who really enjoys computer role-playing games (Ultima, Pool of Radiance, Fallout, Oblivion, etc.) could get into it. I have always loved CRPGs, and wanted to explore the genre and let people know about the great diversity of what’s out there. My guess is that no one who reads this book will have played all the games I cover, so while part of the thrill is the “oh! I’ve played that!” feeling, another part is discovering new games. I also wanted to point out what was innovative or different about each game, and give developers ideas about what it takes to make a truly outstanding CRPG.

I can’t imagine how much research went into writing the book. What was this process like for you? How long did it take and how did you manage to come out the other end sane?

Hehe, well, I didn’t find the research frustrating at all. I learned a lot more about the games I loved, and a lot about games I had never heard of before. The only real frustration was trying to get some of the older games to work properly in Vista, particularly when dealing with early CD-ROM games.

Are you pleased with the way the book turned out?

Yes, I am pleased with the production and quite proud of my work. I think every author probably has a few notions about what he or she should have done differently, but I think overall it turned out well.

What audience did you have in mind when writing the book?

I thought primarily about myself and what kind of book I’d like to read on the topic. I figured there were other people out there like me, who for whatever reason wanted to read about CRPGs. What I found out was that people who love my book are quite diverse–women, senior citizens, and even children from many different countries have emailed to tell me how much they like the book. I also hear from game developers who wanted to write their own CRPGs and were inspired by my book. Usually people tell me that they enjoy the book because I am telling a part of their own life story–regardless of background, people tend to remember the impact that certain games had on their development.

Would you mind talking a little bit about Armchair Arcade and how that came about?

That site was founded in September 2003 and originally intended as an online magazine and forum. We did quite well, getting lots of coverage on Slashdot and other popular blogs and news sites. Eventually we morphed into a blog format, and are now getting more interested in video. I think the main appeal of the site is that even though our topic is gaming, we always treat the subject and our audience with maturity and respect. We use our real names and aren’t afraid to go into great technical detail on the topics we cover. We’re also “hardcore” in that we know our stuff inside and out.

You’ve also been creating a series of Matt Chat videos on YouTube about retrogaming. How’s that coming along?

I’m having lots of fun with my Matt Chat videos. Although I have been a writer since I was old enough to reach a keyboard, video has given me new ways to communicate. It’s quite nice to be able to show something happening on screen rather than just put it into text. I enjoy both media, but for some things video just seems a better way to go. I also really enjoy all the comments I get on my videos and all the great gamers I’ve met there. YouTube is home a great community of retrogamers.

In your infinite spare time it appears you are also in the process of filming a documentary based on your book Vintage Games. Could you describe this project for us?

vintage gamesSure. The movie (currently being called “Gameplay,” though that could change) grew out of the book. Lux Digital Pictures had been wanting to do a games movie based on a book. Luckily, they decided Vintage Games was the closest to what they had in mind for the script, and they hired Bill and I to write and produce the film. We’ve filmed interviews for it at the Game Developer Conference and are currently recording tons and tons and TONS of game footage. It’s been lots of fun, and I can’t wait to hear reactions from the gamer community as well as the general public.

I’m almost afraid to ask, but would you mind giving us a brief overview of your gaming background?

My dad was an avid gamer and would hold me up so I could push the fire button while he navigated us through Sinistar and Omega Race. Later on, we got a Commodore Vic 20, and I spent a lot of time on that before upgrading to the C-64. My family and I played many, many games, such as Gorf, MULE, Elite, and Monopoly. Later on, we got an Amiga, and of course I played greats like Defender of the Crown. I didn’t do much console gaming during my childhood, unless I was over at a friend’s house. Nowadays, I try to keep a hand in everything, constantly exposing myself to as many different games and platforms as possible.

At your peak how much gaming did you do? How about now?

If I have a good CRPG or strategy game, I can start in the morning and play until the wee hours of the next. I never get tired of gaming. Unfortunately, not many games are that compelling, so I’m lucky if I can play them for an hour or so before getting bored and trying something else.

Are you a particular fan of MMOs? What has your experience with them been like?

I played World of Warcraft very heavily until about a year ago, but finally burned out. MMOs (and MUDs, if you remember those) can be two things at once: The most fun you can have, and the least. What really makes the difference are the people you’re playing with. Sadly, I ended up dealing mostly with unpleasant people or others who took the game a bit too seriously (as in treating it like an unpaid job rather than a game). Eventually the single player content begins to get old, and then it’s probably a good time to move on to something else. I do plan on trying out the new Bioware MMO when it comes out.

How would you say video games have influenced you as a teacher? How about as a writer?

I think they have helped with both. James Paul Gee and Steve Johnson both have good books out that talk about the learning potential of games. Games can make you an excellent manager and problem solver. Whereas in sports you may overcome a problem by working out more, games challenge you to think in different ways. I value both, of course, but I think games really get a bad rap. I see them as sports for the mind. The best ones can touch you as deeply and meaningfully (if not more so) than a great novel or film.

Would you have any words of advice for aspiring writers wanting to publish articles or books on video games?

My advice to all writers is to read as much as you can, focusing on your chosen genre. Study the way sentences, paragraphs, and chapters are put together and try to imitate what works (while avoiding what doesn’t). However, the bigger picture here is the market. It’s very hard (at the present time) to convince a publisher that a book about games will have an audience. The big challenge is making sure there is a ready market for your book and that you really have the time and energy to see it through.

I always suggest getting in touch with a publisher or editor before actually writing a book. They may not make you any promises, but at least you’ll get some sense of whether your idea is feasible before wasting a great deal of time and energy on a book that won’t sell.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with this gamer audience?

Again, the most important thing about game development or book writing is that it involves other people. Finding a good community of like-minded individuals, whether online or in person, is an important first step towards attaining your goal. If you want to be a game developer, start going to conferences and making friends with actual developers. The same goes for books. You can also get involved in online communities, such as YouTube or any of the hundreds of game sites out there. If you are writing on a good forum everyday about games, you’re likely making valuable friends and developing your writing skills at the same time. It’s a win-win!

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One Response to “Reading the text: Matt Barton”

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