Grinding to Valhalla

Interviewing the gamer with a thousand faces

Archive for March, 2010

Reading the text: Ryan Van Cleave interview

Posted by Randolph Carter on March 24, 2010

Ryan Van Cleave is an accomplished poet, editor, freelance writer, and creative writing instructor. His forthcoming memoir Unplugged: My Journey into the Dark World of Video Game Addiction is due out June 1, 2010.  In this interview he discusses the book and why he wrote it, his own experience with game addiction, and what he sees as healthy and unhealthy gaming habits.

Ryan’s website | Unplugged blog

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Would you mind describing what your professional background happens to be?

I have an M.A. and Ph.D. in American literature from Florida State University. I was the Anastasia C. Hoffman Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin Madison, and the Jenny McKean Moore Writer-in-Washington at George Washington University. I also taught at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and Clemson University. Currently, I teach writing at Eckerd College and the Ringling College of Art & Design, in addition to working as a writing coach and addiction & recovery consultant (with an emphasis on digital media and video games).

You have a forthcoming book entitled Unplugged: My Journey into the Dark World of Video Game Addiction. Would you mind talking a little bit about the book and why you decided to write it?

I hope this book begins a lot of important conversations. Many gamers feel trapped by their love of games. Many parents are frustrated and feel guilty or ashamed over the unhealthy relationship their children have with video games. There’s even a term for spouses who’ve “lost” their partner to The World of Warcraft: “WOW Widow.” I recognize that we’re not all going to wake up tomorrow and just stop playing video games. That’s unrealistic and unnecessary. Video games provide some terrific and useful experiences for us. They teach us. They entertain us. They can be cathartic. They can improve memory and motor function. They can simulate unique experiences.

What concerns me, though, is how so many people are swept up into the dizzyingly compelling world of video games and they just go with it unthinkingly. There are ramifications beyond the time spent in front of a screen. These video games are doing something to us emotionally, socially, and intellectually. I’m including information about some of those things in this book to help wake people up about the true costs. If they then still choose to make an informed choice to play, great. Part of why I included Josh Schweitzer’s story in this book is to show that some people have a very successful life and still maintain a heavy gaming schedule. It can work. But even Josh admits he’s the rarity.

At some point you’ve said you hit rock bottom. How would you describe this time?

It’s where Unplugged starts—with me pretty much having surrendered everything important to me in order to keep playing video games. I talk about this experience a few different times in the book, but there’s no clear way to explain it beyond saying I was completely de-personed by games. The Ryan who was playing like his life depended on it wasn’t a Ryan I knew anymore.

And so what was the turnaround point for you and how did this come about?

The turnaround point came when I realized that I actually had to make a choice—keep my marriage, meaning my wife and two young daughters, or keep on gaming. I had a huge blow-up with my family and it suddenly became clear to me. It took some time to summon the courage to quit playing Warcraft (my particular video game poison). When I finally deleted it off my computer, I had withdrawal symptoms. Fever. Chills. Migraines. I felt an intense sense of loss, as if I was missing a limb. That’s the difference between addiction and just some video game splurging. The addicts can’t quit, even when the repercussions of the gaming are tremendously bad. And if they do manage to pull away (or have the game taken from them), they explode.

Just consider how important video games must’ve been to that 12-year-old boy in Bangkok who threw himself off a sixth floor veranda in 2009 after his parents took away his video games. And what about 17-year-old Daniel Petric, who shot both of his parents (killing his mother) because they wouldn’t let him play Halo 3? South Korea and China have called video game addiction their #1 social issue to face. These are just two of many examples of how deep of a hold video games have on some of us.

How serious is video game addiction?

A 2007 study by the AMA reports that close to 90% of American youngsters play video games and as many as 15% of them—more than 5 million kids—may be addicted (source: msnbc). And an April 2, 2007 Harris poll found that: “Nationally, 8.5% of youth gamers (ages 8 to 18) can be classified as pathologically or clinically ‘addicted’ to playing video games.” This is a $22 billion dollar a year industry we’re talking about, with expectations for that number to double by 2012. 247 U.S. colleges now have degrees in the creation of video games. That’s a lot of numbers, I realize. So what does this all mean? It means that whatever level the current problem actually is, it’s only going to get worse.

In the description of Unplugged, it says that you still have an ongoing battle to control the impulses to play video games. Do you still allow yourself to game some or is that not an option for you anymore?

I have a strange relationship with video games today. I recently got a job teaching at the Ringling College of Art & Design, where 90% of my students either want to work for Pixar or make video games (often both). Even more ironic, when I had a hard time covering my bills this past summer, I got a freelance job—making video games for a major social networking site. In this economy, beggars simply can’t be choosers. So though I only play occasionally as a way to research how other games operate, I’m very much in the trenches, so to speak, with the video game industry. But as I’m designing each new game and considering options in which the game requires players to interact with it, I’m on the lookout for opportunities for ways to discourage marathon gaming sessions and to encourage non-game activities. Games like Eco Tycoon: Project Green, Machinarium, World of Goo, Between, and Hush give me hope. Those are the type of alternative gaming experiences I’m interested in supporting. A straight hack-and-slash dungeon crawl or WWIII first-person shooter? That’s not enough for me, though it certainly would’ve been a decade or so back.

What has your gaming experience been like (board games, pen & paper RPGs, console & computer games, etc.)?

I’ve always been interested in gaming. D&D from age eight until mid-teens, console systems during that same time (and far beyond it), and along the way I started playing computer games. I was maybe 20 or so before I started really getting into PC games. They weren’t as exciting back then—it took them a while to compete with the quality of good console games. Now? It’s no contest—even the Xbox 360, Wii, and PS3 don’t really compare to the size and scope of some of the better computer games. The best games are so powerful, so immersive, that in many ways they are a better experience than seeing blockbuster movies.

You have been quoted as saying, “The three things I remember most clearly? The Challenger Explosion. 9/11. My first video game.” What was this video game and how would you describe the experience?

We had an Atari when I was little, so 01 Combat was my first game. My dad won the system as a prize for being a top salesman for Amoco that year. My brother and I played the heck out of that Atari, wearing through a number of joysticks each year. A friend of mine had an Odyssey system and I used to sneak over to his house at night to play with him far past our bedtimes. For some nine-year-old kids who previously thought that being a delinquent meant stealing an Oreo when your parents were watching “Hee Haw” in the other room, this was pretty exciting stuff.

What do you see as unhealthy gaming habits?

That’s easy. Anytime video gaming starts to interfere with one’s regular life. You know someone’s in trouble if they start to exhibit the following:

  • Experiencing euphoria while playing
  • Craving more time to play
  • Neglecting important responsibilities in order to play
  • Feeling empty and irritable when not playing
  • Lying to parents about how much time is spent playing
  • Headaches/migraines
  • Eating irregularities (skipping meals)
  • Inability to sleep (or even dreaming about playing)

What then do you see as healthy gaming habits?

Having a healthy relationship with video games means that if you have a girlfriend as amazingly beautiful as Kim Sears, you don’t play Call of Duty and video tennis for seven hours a day. British tennis stud Andy Sears clearly had his priorities all wrong.

Healthy gaming habits include keeping up with non-gaming things like work, friends, hygiene. People’s lives work best when there’s balance. Too much of any one thing—video games, drinking, sex, chocolate, even exercise—can end up really decreasing the quality of your life. Having a good perspective (which sadly only tends to come with a lot of years of mistakes behind you) will help a lot.

Check out Unplugged and see if you find yourself understanding what I was going through. I put it all in there, so many ugly moments that it’s hard for me to read or even talk about. If looking at that book is like looking in a mirror, you need to get some help. My book has resources, but the internet does too. Don’t let it get any further out of hand.

And if it’s not you but someone you know, get involved before there’s another Andy Murray, Daniel Petric, or Shawn Woolley on our hands. This is a social issue, not just a personal one. That means we’ve all got something (someone?) at stake.

What advice would you have to offer those who are raising children in these times where video games are so prevalent?

Get educated about video games and video game addiction. Part of the problem is that parents aren’t the experts—younger people are. It’s easy to disguise overindulgence from parents who don’t know a byte from a brownie. Learn about the games. Learn some of the lingo. Most importantly, though, talk to your kids. If you have an ongoing relationship with them, you’re much more likely to know what’s going on in their lives. Ignorance is no longer an acceptable state of parenting, no matter how much we want to park out kids in front of TVs and video games (the “other parents”).

What do you want people to take away from reading Unplugged?

Ryan Van cleave

I’d like people to take away three key ideas from Unplugged. (1) Video game addiction is real. Yes, not everyone who plays will develop it, but those who do are as helpless as if they had a dependence on drugs, drinking, or gambling. Video game addiction is a disempowering state of existence that’s only made worse when people laugh it off or simply say, “Just quit!” That strikes me as about as useful as the “Just Say No to Drugs!” campaign. (2) You can end the addiction. I did it. Others have too. But it takes serious effort and help from friends and family. If you don’t have a team effort in getting past this, you’ll probably find yourself logging back in before long, feeling worse than ever that you couldn’t break free on your own. (3) It’s not your fault. Too few people are seriously talking about video game addiction. It’s not taken seriously enough, and people come to these games unprepared for the powerful experiences that are provided. It’s a wonder more people aren’t hooked.

The biggest reason I’m an educator is to help young people reexamine the world they live in and reevaluate their relationship to it. If my book provokes some of the same reactions in a reader, I’ll consider Unplugged a resounding success no matter who picks it up or why.

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Reading the text: Janice Hardy interview

Posted by Randolph Carter on March 11, 2010

Janice Hardy is a fantasy writer and the author of the young adult fantasy novels The Shifter and the forthcoming Blue Fire (due out in October). She also happens to be a rather enthusiastic gamer whose credentials would put most gamers to shame. In this interview she talks about her writing, her gaming, how she balances the two, and recounts a most excellent story from her days in EverQuest. 

Janice’s website: http://www.janicehardy.com/ 

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Could you explain what your novel The Shifter is about? 

Nya is a fifteen-year-old war orphan with a secret. She has the ability to heal people by shifting pain from person to person. She tries to hide this ability, because if the enemy forces occupying her city ever find out, they’ll use her as a weapon against her own people. But when her younger sister, Tali, disappears from her apprenticeship at the Healer’s League, it turns out Nya’s shifting ability is the only weapon she has to save her. 

And this is the first in a planned trilogy? Where are you in the writing process for the rest of the series? 

It’s is the first book of a trilogy. Book two, Blue Fire, is done and galleys will be sent out shortly. I’ve just hit the halfway mark in book three, which has no title yet. 

Would you mind describing what the process was like in getting the book published? 

Remarkably smooth, to be honest. If I hadn’t had three other books I failed to get an agent for, I’d think this business was easy (grin). I wrote and polished the book over about a 9-11 month period, then researched agents, wrote my query letter, and sent out eight the first batch. I planned to send more if I received no bites, but I had four requests for the full manuscript. Three of those agents made me offers of representation (a huge thrill, but a hard choice) and I picked one, the fabulous Kristin Nelson. She had me do some revisions, and I rewrote the ending twice more before she started submitting it to publishers.That was about the end of May, and I had nibbles from editors that first week. There were two that were duking it out, so to speak, and we sold all three books June 26 to Balzer & Bray/HarperCollins. Once I sold it, the real fun began. I have an amazing editor in Donna Bray, and we did a few more rounds of edits before she was satisfied. It’s the same book it always was, but the story was so much deeper and richer. Six months later, it hit the shelves. (which was about 15 months from the day I sold it.) It was a wild ride for sure, and a bit of a dream situation. 

Are you or have you ever been a gamer? What has your gaming experience been like (board games, pen & paper RPGs, console & computer games, etc.)? 

I’m a huge gamer. Board games, card games, pen & paper, PC, consoles, you name it. I like all kinds of games, but I’m especially fond of city builders like Civilization (I just finished Tropic 3 actually), and sneak’em ups, like Thief and Splinter Cell. And RPGs of course. Fable, Overlord, Fallout, Morrowwind. Stuff like that. 

Have you ever ventured into online worlds? If so, please explain what that experience has been like. 

I got sucked into the original EverQuest when it first came out, solely to help my husband and a friend of ours get some extra money. (Remember how hard it was to buy anything in the lower levels?) I had so much fun playing I had to get my own account. Been hooked ever since. I’ve played both EQs, Anarchy Online, Dark Age of Camelot, City of Heroes, City of Villains, World of Warcraft, dabbled some in Horizons, Lord of the Rings Online, and a few others I can’t remember the names of. I try just about everything that comes out. 

Considering the healing abilities of your main character Nya, do you tend to play healer classes in MMOs? 

Oh, neat question. I always have a healer at some point, but only once has that started out as my first character. I lean toward the utility classes, like bards, enchanters, druids, or pet classes like warlocks and necromancers. One thing you’ll rarely see my playing are straight melee classes. I hate chasing after mobs to hit them (grin). 

Many of the authors I’ve interviewed view gaming as a potential threat to their productivity as a writer. As someone who games, how have you managed to reconcile these two activities in your life? 

I played way too much EQ when it first came out, so I know how games can practically take over your life. After that experience, it’s been a lot easier to walk away from the games and not get so wrapped up in them. I approach it now as a fun diversion, not something I need to play every day or immerse myself in. I avoid the big guilds in MMOs so I’m not drawn into raiding, which is where so much of the time sink comes in. I don’t buy new games I’ve been dying for if I’m on deadline so I’m, not tempted. I also have a gamer husband, and he’s really good about bopping me on the head if I’m playing when I should be writing. It’s a lot easier to split the two when you have someone waiting for your next book, though. It becomes your job, and as much as you might want to, you can’t really blow off work to play games all the time. 

As someone who obviously appreciates the written word and the art of narrative, do you tend to read the quest text and immerse yourself as much as possible into the story of the game you are playing? 

I know I should say I read every word, but I actually don’t. (grin). I get immersed in the stand alone games, since the story usually has clues you need to play and the experience is more affected by your actions and choices. But the MMOs I just click through to get to the quest most times.I like the stories behind them and do read some, but the gameplay is what I’m after in those. 

Would you mind sharing an interesting and/or amusing story from your gaming past? 

Oh, there are so many. Let’s see. One of my favorites is back in the old EQ days. This was very early on, possibly a week or two after launch. I was hunting in West Commons with my husband and a friend when we found Befallen, which was an undead dungeon. We were terrified since we had no idea what was inside, but we ventured in anyway. We explored some on the first floor, and found a well that went clear down to the third floor, which had level 30 monsters in it. (Bear in mind we were maybe level 10 at this point) Naturally, silly me backs into the well, falls all the way down, and dies. 

For those that never played EQ, death was a big deal. If you couldn’t get back your body, you lost all your gear, and gear was hard to come by. We’d pooled out money to buy a Mino Axe for me, and by golly that axe was on my body! I couldn’t lose it. (This is so laughable now, but back then this was a real quandary). I know what you’re saying, why didn’t we just ask a higher level player to go down and get it? Because at this point, the highest level person on the server was 20. There was no one who could have gone down there and survived. 

I was so upset about “losing everything I owned”, so my brave cleric hubby handed us all his gear and jumped down into the well, using a spell to protect him form the fall. He hoped to grab the axe and gate out before the ghouls got him. He tried three times before he gave up and declared my body lost forever. To this day I still count that as one of the sweetest things he’s ever done for me. I think he knew if my first gaming experience was bad, he’d never get me back into it. When I got high enough level, I went back and killed every undead in the whole place as payback. 

Would you say your gaming experience has had any effect on you as a writer? 

I’m not sure, because gaming is so different from writing. But gaming does teach you to think on your feet and come up with creative ways to solve problems, and that does translate when you’re plotting, so it might be keeping my creative skills sharp. Plotting has always come naturally to me, and I’m rarely at a loss as to what my characters will do next. Gaming could certainly have played a role in that. 

Would you say there is grind involved in the writing process? 

There can be, when a scene or chapter is being unruly. Most of time it’s a lot of fun. I am working on a chapter now that’s just been a pain. I know I’ll get through it and it’ll be fine when it’s done, but every sentence is a struggle. It’s taking longer than usual due to that, so I have to force myself to sit down and just write my way through it. (and this interview is being a lovely distraction from that, so yay!) Days like this, definitely a grind. Luckily, those are few and far between. 

By contrast, what would you say is one of the most rewarding things about being a writer? 

For me, it’s the entertainment value. I love telling stories, and when someone says they loved my story or a character I get all warm and fuzzy inside. I know how much I love my favorite authors and books, and hearing I was able to bring that to someone else is the best. In fact, I was at a book signing last week, and the sweetest little girl told me she wanted to be a writer too, and that I was an inspiration to her. How can you not totally love that? 

When do you find time to write? 

I’m a morning person, so I write from about 7-8am to noon most days. If I’m on deadline I write almost every day, but if not, I prefer to write a few days, then take a day or two off. I get a little burnt if I write every single day with no breaks. 

How do you tend to escape these days? 

Janice Hardy

Books, movies, TV, games. A lot of that involves friends as well, and we’ll have the gang over for game night or movie night. And I have been known to waste an entire day trying to beat Civilization Revolution (PS3) on Deity mode. A cultural win is the only one I’ve managed so far. But I refuse to give up! 

You wake up to a world where The Shifter has been made into an RPG. What character would you play and why? 

Ooo, fun. I’d think I’d play Jeatar, because I already know Nya’s story, and he’s the most mysterious of the other characters. 

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

Let’s see… Blue Fire comes out October 5, 2010. That’s probably good to know. The Shifter is out now in hardcover, and the paperback is due out this fall, probably September sometime. I also have a novellete out in the upcoming anthology, Eight Against Reality, which is full of great science fiction, fantasy and horror stories. And if anyone knows how to get the murloc sounds from WoW as my ring tone, let me know.

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Reading the text: Nicola Whitton interview

Posted by Randolph Carter on March 10, 2010

Nicola Whitton is a research fellow at the Education and Social Research Institute at Manchester Metropolitan University. Here she discusses her book, Learning with Digital Games, talks a little bit about her own experience with video games, and why her current favorite game happens to be peek-a-boo. 

Nicola’s blog: Play Think Learn

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Would you mind explaining what you do for a living? 

I work as a Research Fellow at Manchester Metropolitan University. The job is a mixture of designing and managing projects, working with people from academia and industry, and lots of reading and writing. My main focus is researching computer games for learning and I’m very lucky to have a job that is flexible and lets me explore the questions that interest me. 

How would you describe your book Learning with Digital Games: A Practical Guide to Engaging Students in Higher Education to someone unfamiliar with it? 

It’s a guide, aimed at anyone interested in education, to how computer games – and the principles that they embody – can be used to enhance learning. It’s split into three main sections, looking at the theoretical perspective, the practical implications, and the technical aspects. 

Why did you decide to write this particular book? 

For me, one of the big problems with game-based learning is that it’s beyond the means of most educators to develop the ideal game for a given situation. While I believe that games can present amazing learning environments that engage people in creative problem-solving, exploration and discovery, this is dependent on having the right game. The book aims to address this issue by looking at ways in which educators can both exploit the benefits of games in teaching and make developing or adapting games a possibility for a novice. 

Are you pleased with the way the book turned out? 

Pretty much, although I haven’t seen any sales figures yet… I ended up writing it in six months, which meant that I really had to focus. I think that if I’d had more time I’d have liked to put more in, particularly more case studies and research literature, but then without a strict deadline it would probably never have been finished at all. 

What audience did you have in mind when writing it? 

A range of people, but essentially someone who might not have a high level of technical skill or confidence. Teachers, lecturers, learning technologists, educational developers, learning designers, students. Anyone interested in computer games and learning, really. 

Could you please explain what your own background in gaming has been like? 

Mainly as a player. My first experience with computer games was when I was around five years old and my father used to take me to play games to the computer at his work – an Apple II – at weekends. The ones I remember best were Lemonade Stand (which I still attribute to a later interest in economics) and Little Brick Out (but sadly no similar enthusiasm for knocking down walls emerged). 

When I got my own Spectrum I became much more interested in adventure games, such as The Hobbit and Knight Time, and spent a lot of time using The Quill to develop my own games. It’s really this early love of adventure games, which continues to this day, that made me think that there was potential for learning there and to decide to carry out research in this field. 

As someone who has done extensive research on gaming, do you find it difficult at times to separate gaming for pleasure and gaming for research? 

Not really, because I don’t think I do separate them. For me, playfulness is an essential approach to work as well as leisure, so I tend to try and integrate a good measure of game-playing into my research. Likewise, while I might play a game for fun I am always, at the back of my mind, considering its potential for learning. 

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

As a teacher, in two ways. First, by instilling a sense of fun and humour, coupled with a lateral way of looking at problems, inspired by games such as the Monkey Island series (of which I am a huge fan). Secondly, by highlighting the importance of context and motivation in learning through the use of meaningful goals with real purpose within the game or narrative context. 

I’m not sure that games have influenced me directly as a writer (other than as a subject to write about). I’ve always been interested in writing (and reading) fiction, as well as playing games, and my favourite stories involve mysteries or puzzles (I love a good detective novel or a tale with a really surprising secret). So I suppose that my tastes in fiction very much mirror my tastes in games. 

Specifically, what potential do you see for using MMOs in the field of education? 

I’m not sure that I would necessarily want to use them as they exist when designed solely for entertainment, because there are issues of access, cost, and appropriateness. However, I think that there’s an awful lot that we can learn from looking at the types of collaborative and problem-solving processes that go on in multi-user gaming environments, for example in terms of group work, team roles and mentoring. 

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

I like them, in short doses. I’m essentially a solitary gamer so they aren’t something I play a great deal. When I was at university in the early 1990s I used to play the local MUD (but it was really an excuse for meeting people and going to the pub) and more recently I’ve been playing Guild Wars but I don’t really have the time to put in to get the most out of it. 

What games (not necessarily MMOs) are you currently playing? 

Nicola Whitton

Since I have a five-month-old daughter most of the games I’m currently playing are of the peek-a-boo variety. I’m also getting more into casual games, such as hidden object and strategy games, which fit in with my more time-limited lifestyle (and don’t require your brain to be on top form). 

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

Just a thank you for reading this far, and a request to get in touch or have a look at my blog if they would like to know more about my work.

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Reading the text: Jon Cogburn and Mark Silcox interview

Posted by Randolph Carter on March 3, 2010

Philosophy enthusiasts Jon Cogburn and Mark Silcox discuss their book Philosophy Through Video Games, their gaming backgrounds, and talk about their latest project involving Dungeons & Dragons, while refuting video game naysayers and tackling a rather serious hypothetical question along the way.

Jon’s blog | Philosophy of Video Games site

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Could you take a minute and explain what your book Philosophy Through Video Games is about and what you were hoping to accomplish with it?

The book explores a set of distinctively philosophical issues that arise naturally when one starts to seriously think about this new art form. Has what it means to be a self changed in a world of avatars? What do kinesthetically realistic games such as the Wii provides tell us about the nature of perception? Is there something morally degrading about role-playing bad people? What does it mean for a game to have a “God’s eye view” or to incorporate ethics? Should the radical interactivity of some video games change our view of the nature of artworks? What does the attempt to do “artificial intelligence” in video games tell us about the academic paradigm that predates these games? Does spending a lot of time playing games represent a failure to engage in meaningful human activity, or is it a paradigmatic example of such activity?

Thinking about games changed our views on all of these issues, and we wanted to put our thoughts into book form. Some of it is more focused on our understanding of games more narrowly, but we also ended up defending what we think are some new philosophical positions.

How did the book come about?

Well here’s part of the first draft of the book’s preface, which we ended up taking out because it had way, way, too much pathos.

The name of the game was Scramble. When you pumped your quarter into the machine, a fat little spaceship began to troll along a side-scrolling screen, dropping bombs and shooting missiles over an irregular landscape the color of a rotten peach. The game was not exactly rich in narrative content–basically, you just kept shooting and dropping bombs until your fuel ran out or you crashed. And it was very, very difficult. Even a reasonably well-coordinated twelve-year-old could burn through a whole roll of quarters in less than an hour. But its strange, indefatigable allure drew one of the present book’s authors through the freezing streets of his hometown in Canada, across fields of snow to the (terrible) local pizza joint two or three night a week with his best friend in tow, for an embarrassingly long phase of his early adolescence.

The other author of the book still remembers the first time he saw Space Invaders, when the craze for this game was first sweeping through North America in the 1970’s. At the time, he was suffering from the effects of severe and hitherto undiagnosed dyslexia, which (combined with lack of co-ordination) caused him to have difficulties performing some of the most basic everyday tasks, like tying his shoes and finding his way around. He recalls spending hours staring at the game over his older brother’s shoulder, just watching the soothing left-to-right and right-to-left movements of the little aliens as they fulfilled their mission of destruction, and thinking in a way that he could not have expressed at the time that there was something deeply correct about what he was seeing.

So that was phase one. Phase two was how much we loved logic in graduate school. Neither of us is good enough at logic to prove any original theorems, but the manner in which computability theory allowed one to prove things about the limits of what could be proven in given systems struck us both as one of the great achievements of civilization. Phase three was what we did besides just playing games to not think about our dissertations. We both played lots of games. This was an exciting period, with the Nintendo 64 changing everything with consoles and really good first person shooters and god games coming out on computers. Further time wasting strategies included Jon type-setting his dissertation in Tex, the typesetting program used in lots of scientific publications. He got pretty obsessed with it and started thinking about the nature of programming. While this was going on, Mark got deeply involved in interactive fiction, even running part of a Canadian web portal dedicated to the art-form. This led Mark to actually work on the teams designing Earth and Beyond and Aidyn Chronicles. The final stage was actually post-dissertation, during a period even worse, when both were non-tenure-track contingent labor (Mark at Auburn, Jon at LSU) making twenty five thousand a year before taxes, medical, and retirement, all with no job security whatsoever. We would meet every year at the Alabama Philosophical Society meeting and give papers and talk philosophy non-stop. At this point the game stuff, logic, and more general philosophy (we also publish in metaphysics, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, and epistemology) all started to come together, and we found that the things we did to avoid philosophy also became the subject of philosophy.

Who would you say it is written for?

Any literate, thoughtful person who loves video games, or who suspects (rightly!) that they have cultural significance.

Or really just about anybody who has ever gotten any pleasure from either fantasy or gaming, and wants to get a better understanding of their nature.

Playing the devil’s advocate, how would you answer the naysayer who tells you that video games are just that, games, and there’s really nothing to experience beyond something on an entertainment level?

The final chapter of our book is to some extent an explicit attempt to answer this naysayer, though the deck is a bit stacked, since anyone who has read through the previous six chapters already agrees with us.

Philosophers have developed all sorts of different views about what it is that makes us essentially human: Hume- the ability to rationally assess the most efficient ways to achieve ends, Kant- the ability to bind oneself to rational norms, including the rationality of ends themselves, Hegel and the existentialists- the ability to creatively instantiate a new essence. Our fundamental conviction is that any such philosophical theory that leaves out either collaborative story-telling or game-playing massively mis-describes the essence of humanity.

So we do not think that Saint Paul’s maxim, “When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things” applies to video games or fantasy more generally. Supposing that it does is a recipe for inhumanity.

You both are obviously fans of video games. Would you mind discussing your own gaming backgrounds (board games, pen & paper RPGs, console & computer games, etc.)?

Jon Cogburn

Both of us have pretty laughably generic back-stories in this regard. We were both suburban geeks desperately bored by most of what public education had to offer and tortured by the hegemony of what Charles Bukowski calls “unoriginal, macho energy.” We still are! We found salvation in RPGs (Dungeons and Dragons for Jon, Top Secret for Mark), science fiction, and fantasy literature. We still do!

The one significant difference between us is the way that we actually play games. Jon likes to spend hours really mastering all the strategic and tactical nuances of very deep PC games like those of the Elder Scrolls, Civilization and Total War series’. Mark’s first great love is 1990s point-and-click adventure games such as Myst and Broken Sword, and these days he usually has three or four games from different genres on the go at any one time, only a few of which he ever gets around to finishing.

Are either of you particular fans of MMOs? What has your experience with these been like?
 
 
 

 

We’ve both spent some time in the MMO trenches (Azeroth mostly), but don’t have the deep love for them that we do for non MMOs. World of Warcraft just involves too much slogging through for either of our tastes. And what you do doesn’t really affect the world narrative. As soon as you complete a mission, the world resets for somebody else to do the same mission. Games where the world is affected in non-trivial ways, such as Eve Online take such an incredible sink of time that obligations in “the real world” have prohibited us from engaging in them. We discuss some of these issues, actually defending the game, in our contribution to Cuddy and Nordlinger’s World of Warcraft and Philosophy anthology.

At some point in the future there will be a fantasy based MMO where you can craft interesting narratives for your character and also feel like you are affecting the history of the shared game world. At that point we hope to be able to jointly sink a month of summer into obsessive playing of it.

I’d like to pose a question rephrased from your book. Can playing an MMO lead to greater self-consciousness? I’m afraid I’ve played a few that have lead to greater unconsciousness.

We were pretty bummed out when Peter Ludlow’s attempt to make an MMO in Second Life foundered in 2004. One of the things in our hopper is to examine what’s been happening since then (starting here).  We think that in the long run that user generated content will produce evolutionary feedback mechanisms to create something that is in the same universe as being as cool as D&D.

What’s the connection between your work on philosophy of video games and your current book project with Dungeons and Dragons?

In two of the chapters of Philosophy Through Video Games we found ourselves contrasting video games with D&D. The first is in Chapter 1, where we discuss the rationality of identifying with one’s on-line personas and avatars (e.g. “I killed a dragon last night”). There we noted how a Dungeon Master systematically helps players craft a character. This is really obvious when there is a pervasive mismatch between the player’s basic personality traits and his character’s. If a really impulsive person is supposed to be playing a character with high wisdom, then the Dungeon Master has to fill in the story and present choices in all sorts of ways to help the impulsive person role play a wise person. Video games really can’t do this.

The second discussion of D&D is in Chapter 6, on artificial intelligence, where we characterize human (and arguably animal as well) intelligence in terms of flexible adaptive richness, the ability to respond rationally to new problems and challenges in novel ways. The “frame problem” in artificial intelligence is just the name for the vast difficulty in getting mechanical agents to manifest flexible adaptive richness. Weirdly, as games get more immersive and sandboxy, this lack becomes all the more apparent. The latest installment of the Elder Scrolls franchise has thousands non player characters, each with unique faces and facial expressions in reaction to your character. They all do recognizably human things. But if you play enough you start to notice that they always do the exact same things over and over again, have the same conversations with one another, etc. And sometimes in your interactions with them you can exploit the fact that they are so non-flexible. For example, if your character is in the gladiatorial arena and can jump high enough and shoot a bow well enough (and possesses magic arrows in the higher challenges), you can just jump up on a parapet and kill opponents by shooting arrows at them. Instead of trying to jump up after you or running for shelter, your opponents just attack the stone column over and over again with their weapons.

This would not happen in D&D because a human intelligence is running the world and controlling the NPCs.

As we finished the book we kept thinking of other philosophical issues with D&D. How is magic different from just a different kind of science? Is it? What does the alignment system teach us about philosophical ethics, and vice versa? What happens when you take an aesthetic theory such as Kendall Walton’s that foregrounds role playing (in accounting for traditional art forms) and apply it to actual role playing games. What about narrative ethics and an artform that should be considered collaborative narrative? Or should it? What happens to the ludology/narratology debate when applied to Dungeons and Dragons? Is Dungeons and Dragons morally compromising because players role play violence? Such questions proliferate.

Instead of writing another book, we decided to try to edit an anthology. We’ve separately written some papers, are getting other philosophers to contribute, and are in the process of pitching it to a press right now.

We’ve also both separately joined tabletop games, something we hadn’t done in years. We’re big fans of 4th Edition.

Do you ever find that your philosopher’s mind gets in the way of your enjoyment of a game?

No! We’re both really dedicated to the thought that one of the primary good-making features of a work of art is that one can lose oneself in that work. And we take this talk in an entirely literal way! The pleasure of theorizing about art comes after the fact, when you are not engaged.

The major sin of aesthetic modernism is collapsing these two moments, thinking art should be “challenging” in a way that precludes losing oneself in it. It’s easy to go to the opposite extreme, as many like to do nowadays, and say that great art should always be “accessible” – i.e. shouldn’t require any serious thought or belief-revision at all. We certainly don’t believe that either. But we do think that one lamentable effect that the modernists had on western ideas about art was to give pleasure a bad rap. The American philosopher W.V. Quine once said that “learning is learning to have fun.” If he’s right about this, then it surely must be possible to learn a lot more from Robin Hobb or Brian Ruckley (and we read both!) than one ever could from Finnegan’s Wake.

Noël Carroll’s books The Philosophy of Horror and The Philosophy of Mass Art showed how one could responsibly theorize about popular art while respecting that art as art. He has pretty devastating critiques of the theories of art that sought to valorize “challenging” modern art and condemn everything else.

We’d go further. Much modern art that professors write about strikes us as not challenging at all, but rather catastrophically simple-minded. Much of this stuff is admired on account of being crudely self-reflexive, and commenting either on the history of the genre or upon itself in a way that really doesn’t shed much light at all. Think of Andy Warhol’s lousy Brillo box, which has probably generated at least ten thousand pages of insufferably tedious commentary from philosophers and art historians. And a lot of the rest of it is just calculated to piss off the bourgeoisie, either by flouting their moral values or by just being plain unenjoyable. Try reading one of Samuel Beckett’s novels for an example of this sort of thing. We have a few of our own complaints about the bourgeoisie, but we think there’s more to being avant-garde than just biting the hand that feeds you.

You wake up to a world where you are the head of a company developing a video game. You have unlimited funds and resources available to you. What kind of game would you make?

Well, as noted earlier Mark worked on the teams that built Aidyn Chronicles and Earth and Beyond. But of course he didn’t have unlimited funds and resources (his parents’ basement would have been fixed up much nicer if he had).

If we had unlimited resources we’d set up a research center on emergent narrative. In Stephen King’s book on writing he talks about early “chose your own adventure” type books and how computationally explosive they are, requiring gigantic texts for the reader to have any real choice in things. Later on people marketed games to help with the writing process. These games consisted in a set of overlapping wheels where each configuration corresponded to an event that could happen in the narrative. We think that both of these were really the first computer games (predating the digital computer by centuries in the first case and decades in the second). We’d hire Chris Crawford to run this end of the business (assuming he was on the market) and encourage him to acquire a staff of brilliant but obedient programmer-munchkins.

Mark Silcox

If you think of the digital computer as the continuation of machines that help users create narrative, then an awful lot is suggested for future academic study and game development. First, game development needs to be tied to current work in computational linguistics. Users should be able to type and speak in natural language and have this affect game content in non-trivial ways. Remember Zork? The linguistic interface was really revolutionary at the time, so much so that we think of it as the third wave (after chose your own adventure and write a novel aids) in this kind of thing. Well since Zork a lot has happened in both theoretical and computational linguistics, but there is no major research center to tie those things to games (or to computationally implement some of the work in theoretical linguistics involving lexical decomposition for verb phrases, for that matter). We should start with simple games where users say things like “Go to the store Francine” and the computer represents Francine doing this. Not because “go to the store” is a preprogrammed command, but because the computer takes advantage of the linguistic rules that put together “go” “to” “the” and “store” to build a visually accessible representation. This is vastly harder than one might think, but we think the building blocks are there. David Dowty showed how to marry lexical decomposition to a compositional semantics that recursively hooks up natural language with a formal language, and current decompositional work by Levin, Jackendoff, Pustejovsky and others is just waiting to be modeled along Dowty’s lines. This decompositional work on verb and prepositional phrases lends itself very well to graphical representations, so once you put it and Dowy’s approach together all you would need is to go from the decomposed formal language sentence to a graphical representation.

After getting good protocols for compositionally generating on-the-fly graphical representations of basic natural language sentences, we would up the ante and try to incorporate expert-system type AI such as Cycorp into the protocols. The final results should lend themselves to all sorts of ways that users and computers together can generate new narratives, movies, and games on the fly.

Finally, if we really did have unlimited resources, we probably wouldn’t release any “games” per se at all. Instead, we’d provide the world with a vast panoply of computationally rich, easily learnable open-source game engines for different genres of interactive art and entertainment. We’d try to do for gamers what YouTube has done for amateur filmmakers, or what the blogosphere has done for political journalism, or what The Ramones did for bored American teenagers who wanted to rock out. We might bring about the collapse of western capitalism as the result, but that’s OK – we’d have bigger fish to fry.

We think within the next two or three hundred years, assuming we don’t enter a new dark age, something like this will happen. We don’t think we will lead the charge though. As philosophers we jealously guard our ability to think and write about whatever we want to whenever we want to. Trying to run a research center robs you of this. You spend most of your time writing grant applications for tasks other people have already chosen. Then there is an awful lot of paperwork just on the personnel side of things.

But if someone reading this wants to give us a few tens of millions of dollars, we would be willing to do some heavy lifting.

Any last parting words you’d like to leave us with?

Life is tragic, history merciless, and whole societies often collectively make very stupid choices. We do not think that games and fantasy more generally are merely a juvenile escape from the human condition and all of the unneeded stupidity, corruption, and resulting civilizational detritus. But they are that too, thank God.

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