Grinding to Valhalla

Interviewing the gamer with a thousand faces

Reading the text: Rusel DeMaria interview

Posted by Randolph Carter on November 24, 2009

Rusel DeMaria, founder of Prima’s strategy guide division and a strategy guide veteran in his own right, is now Assistant Director for David Perry’s Game Consultants. An advocate of positive impact games, Rusel talks about his book Reset: Changing the Way We Look at Video Games and delves a bit into his own gaming past and shares some of his optimism for the future of video games.

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Could you take a minute and explain what your book Reset: Changing the Way We Look at Video Games is about?

Reset was the result of many years of thinking and discussing the potential of games to teach and inspire people while remaining true to their entertainment and marketing goals. I first started thinking about this conscious approach to game design in the mid 1990s when I was working on a game set in the French Resistance. I realized that I could create a game that modeled the tension, the action and the conflict of that time, and it could be a totally killer game, complete with assassination missions, escort missions, espionage and sabotage. There was plenty of action and strategy in the game design I came up with. However, I also realized that the game could teach. It could teach history in a variety of ways, and I worked with two French historians and interviewed several survivors of the Resistance in developing the game. I also realized that the game could model the danger and tension of being in an environment occupied by a relentless and brutal enemy, where the slightest misstep could end in death or imprisonment, and yet you had to reach out and find and recruit people to the cause. This was a very human element to the game I came up with.

After designing my Resistance game, I realized that a game designer could look more deeply into the structure of the game and create elements that could in some way enrich the player, above and beyond the entertainment value of the game.

Now I also want to make it clear that I had already been inspired by other great designers. Games like SimCity and Civilization were great models for me, as were the series of “games with consequences” from Peter Molyneux. Various financial games, starting with the old Blue Chip games like Millionaire and culminating with more recent games like Zoo Tycoon also inspired my thinking.

So I want to be clear that I didn’t invent anything new in Reset, but I tried to introduce it as a conscious design element – that you could add content that teaches, models, simulates or in some way inspires people just the way you would add Easter Eggs and other bonus elements to a game. It’s a design mindset more than any one method or technology.

Why did you decide to write this book?

Back in the late 1990s I had become passionate about the idea of what I now call “positive impact games,” but that I was calling “games for change” back then. I had done a couple of roundtables at GDC, and the turnout was decent, including some experienced game veterans who supported the idea. However, I didn’t know how to make that interest grow into something tangible, and ultimately I gave up on promoting the idea.

Then, a few years back Will Wright wrote me and told me I should check out the new Serious Games initiatives, including one called Games for Change. I went to some of the conferences put on by the serious games people and realized that, while we had a lot in common, and I was inspired by their work, we also were looking at the subject from different perspectives. Many of the people fueling the Serious Games development were academics who were exploring ways to use game technology to accomplish specific goals. In contrast, I wanted to design, and to inspire others to design, mainstream games that contained elements that accomplished similar goals, but with the fun and the marketability as the first order of business.

So, I wanted to have a way to codify and promote my ideas, and being a book writer, I naturally decided it was time to put it down on pages and see if I could inspire people that way.

What audience did you have in mind when writing this?

At first, I wrote the entire book with industry professionals and gamers, parents, educators and politicians in mind. In other words, gamers and non-gamers. After reviewing the first version of the book, my publisher and I decided that it was not possible to write to both audiences in the same book. Non-gamers would not be interested in (or would not follow) the level of detail that gamers and designers would expect, and gamers would find the information needed to reach non-gamers to be insufficient or rudimentary. So I completely rewrote the book with non-gamers in mind, as we decided that we wanted to reach that audience with the message, not only the fact that games had a positive potential, but how and why that could be implemented. In the end, I did my best to deconstruct games in terms of theories of learning and play.

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

Of course, I am a gamer. I played my first video game in 1967 (Spacewar!) and once home consoles hit the market in the early 1970s, I began playing and have never stopped.

Of course, I grew up playing card games and board games, as I grew up in a time when video games did not exist. However, I have played on nearly all the console systems to date, and have lived through the history of PC games. I still play games on consoles, PC and now iPhone. I can’t really tell you how many games I’ve played, but it’s a lot, and of course, I written several dozen strategy guides in which I was even more deeply immersed in those games than normal.

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

Of course I have. I played turn-based online worlds on the Fido networks in the 1980s, and began playing MMOs when Meridian 59 first appeared. I played pretty much every MMO for years, at least until WoW, though today I can’t keep up with them. I still try to get a look at the new online games when I get a chance, but I don’t have time to get sucked in completely anymore.

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

That’s a bit of a strange question. Everything I do in my life has an effect on me as a writer, and given the thousands of hours I’ve played games, there’s no doubt that they’ve affected me. Of course, most of my published writing has been in the game field, certainly in the past 20 years or so, meaning that games have been the central theme of my writing. But if I were writing fiction again, I know that games I’ve played would inspire some of my thoughts. However, if I write about politics or self-help, for instance, I probably wouldn’t draw to heavily on my game experiences.

Speaking of gaming, are you still a gamer these days? If so, what do you enjoy playing?

Because of time issues, I mostly play iPhone games, though I am also checking out several of the Facebook and casual games that come out. Sometimes I only spend enough time to understand the basic structure and design elements of a game. Other times I get sucked in and play the game until I’ve pretty much maxxed out my experience of it.

How else do you tend to escape these days?

Besides games, I practice tai chi, watch movies and take walks in forests. Sometimes I also climb trees, but not so much recently.

Would you have any words of advice for the would-be-writers out there?

Write. (As my mentor Theodore Sturgeon used to say, “A writer will write in the dirt with a sharp stick if nothing else is available.” He also used to say “Ask the next question.” That was his motto, and a great one for a writer.)

As someone who is no stranger to writing strategy guides for video games, there’s something I’ve often wondered about the authors. Do you basically play the game to death, backwards and forwards, learning and experiencing everything you possibly can so that you can write as detailed a guide as possible, or does the company making the game often help out with the content or at least allowing the author access to tools and information that make life easier for the author?

It varies. Sometimes I’ve had to completely master a game and figure out all its secrets. Often I did that with other players of exceptional skills. Sometimes I did it on my own. More often than not, these days, you get a lot of help from the company, which is necessary in getting the strat guide on the market the day the game releases. In the old days, when I first started Prima’s strategy guide division, there was no fixed deadline for the book, though we tried to come as close as possible to the release date. But there were no rules for strategy guides then. Now there are all kinds of expectations, and the art of writing them has evolved considerably. Back in the early 1990s, I was very experimental, trying different formats and approaches to strat guides, including writing them as novels in which the hints and clues for completing the game were embedded in the writing, or in which the story of the game was expanded, as I did in both the X-Wing and TIE Fighter strat guides. I don’t think anyone tries those techniques now, nor do they have time for too much extra work.

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

Continue to expect the game industry to evolve, and as a gamer or designer, continue to push the genre to go further, not only technically, but in terms of meaning and relevance to our lives. Think of the evolution of movies, which very quickly began to tackle the most critical moments of our times and to create commentary on the human condition. Today, there are movies for all kinds of purposes, and many of them are pure fluff, but there are many movies that touch us, make us think or document what’s going on in the world for all to see. Games can do that, too, and with the extra power of giving us choice over our actions and a chance to see different consequences to different decisions.

I was recently present when Clint Hocking was being interviewed, and the interviewer mentioned how uncomfortable he was playing Far Cry 2, where he was essentially playing the bad people in an African setting. Hocking’s answer? “Good. You should feel uncomfortable.” This is a brilliant example of using a great game to make someone think and feel and question a real issue in the world. There are a lot of ways to add value to our gaming experience. I can’t think of all of them. I’m hoping a new generation of game designers will level up our industry to become more powerful and more relevant to our lives, to our society, and to the world as a whole. It’s always fun to blow things up or cut down a mob of enemies, but we can do more, and I think it’s a requirement of our future growth.

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