Grinding to Valhalla

Interviewing the gamer with a thousand faces

Reading the text: Jesper Juul interview

Posted by Randolph Carter on February 25, 2010

 Jesper Juul is a theorist in video game studies and author of Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds as well as A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games and Their Players. Here he talks about his second book, why he thinks casual games are saving video games from cultural ghettoization and why he thinks this is happens to be an exciting time to be a video game player.

Author’s blog: The Ludologist

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Would you please explain what you happen to do for a living?

I’m currently a visiting professor at the New York University game center. Which is to say that my primary occupation for the last many years has been as a video game theorist. I spend my time teaching video games theory and video game design, and my mission in life is to make sure that video games are taken seriously. Seriously, in the way that we tend to take literature or cinema seriously. This is not to say that video games are the same as these other art forms, but that video games are sufficiently important that it is important to think about how they work, how they develop, and where they may go in the future.

How would you describe your book A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games and Their Players to someone who has never heard of it?

A Casual Revolution tells the story of a specific moment in the history of video games: that moment around 2005-7, where suddenly the Nintendo Wii took off, music games took off, browser games took off, downloadable casual games took off. The moment where video games broke out of their box and it became accepted that basically anyone could be a video game player; that video games weren’t just for young men.

I tell that story in a few different ways: I talk about how solitaire became the most popular digital game, I talk about how we always play new games using the strategies of games we played before, I look at the design of Wii games and music games, I examine the history of matching tile games, and I talk about how the industry traditionally was very reluctant to acknowledge that there might be another audience out there. Theoretically, the book builds a way of understanding how players aren’t simply “casual” or “hardcore” but that rather we may change over time due to life circumstances such as getting a job, having kids, or retiring.

So why did you write this book and who was it written for?

The book was really born out of my own curiosity about why video games suddenly seem to be played by everybody. I’ve played video games most of my life, and it always saddened me that it was so hard to convince non-players that video games were worthwhile. When things turned around with little casual games, the Wii and music games, I became curious why that was: what was different in these games? Why had the status of video games changed? The book really is my personal journey towards finding out what happened with video games in those last few years.

I’m an academic at heart, but I’ve tried to write a book that is generally readable. This means that I focus a lot on the stories of individual players or developers, and then I introduce readers to ways of thinking and understanding about the stories I’ve told. So really it’s a book for anyone who is interested in thinking about video games, their status in culture, the design of video games, and the differences between different players. I wouldn’t call it a casual book, but it’s certainly meant to be accessible and interesting to read.

Would you mind talking about the kinds of research that went into writing it?

Academics will often focus on either game design or players, but I wanted to write about how some game designs reach certain players as well as how players can sometimes take a game and make all kind of different things out of it. So therefore I did two kinds of research: I ran a survey at the Gamezebo website where I ask players what they played on when, their age, and how their playing habits had changed over time. And then I did in-depth interviews with some of them. The other kind of research consisted of looking at the design of the games we typically call “casual”. I looked at how matching tile games have developed historically and how they have been reviewed, and I used some interface design theory to understand why Guitar Hero or Wii sports will reach such broad audiences.

Forgive me for stealing one of the questions you have on your blog, The Ludologist , but I’d very much like to hear your thoughts on it: Are casual games saving video games from cultural ghettoization, or are they preventing video games from dealing with serious themes?

I think that casual games fundamentally are saving video games from cultural ghettoization because they just reach a broader audience, and they make it harder for opportunist politicians to claim that video games are something horrible that should be banned. They also save video games by showing that video games can be many different things, not just big budget productions sold in boxes at retail. I will say though that some distribution channels for casual games are very conservative, and make it very hard for developers to create innovative or edgy content. One developer I quote in the book mentions a casual game portal who said that they didn’t wanted to sell a product that could potentially offend anyone. But outside such distribution channels, I do think that things are looking good and that we are seeing more innovative content than we used to do.

Are you pleased with the way the book turned out?

I’m pretty happy. In the very beginning when I started writing, I perhaps hoped that I could make a single big theory about the difference between casual and hardcore, but it very quickly became clear that the data showed that the life circumstances of people is a huge influence on their playing habits, so that angle became much more interesting to follow and the book became more story-driven.

In that way, it is very different from my first book, Half-Real, which presented a single big theory of all video games. The new book is much more focused on the stories of players, developers, and games.

Would you mind giving us a brief overview of your gaming background?

I first started playing games on my Commodore 64 back in the early 1980s. (I grew up in Denmark which wasn’t a big console nation at the time.) This was realistically a time of rampant piracy, so I had access to most of the games that came out for that platform, and I spend huge amounts of time trying out new games with my friends. After that, I switched to the Amiga and got into games such as Lemmings and so on. Then I was a PC gamer for a while, and then I started playing much more console games. I probably like most kinds of games, but I always want to find something new that I haven’t seen before.

What is your take on MMOs? Are you a particular fan? What has your experience with them been like?

I played EverQuest and World of Warcraft, but it really isn’t my thing to have several level 70 characters and so on. I always want to try new games, so MMOs just aren’t that great for me because they take so much time. Once I’ve seen the basic mechanics of such a game, I’m not particularly fascinated with the idea of spending 100 hours to see what content they will throw at me afterwards.

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

I certainly have games that I need to play for specific research purposes, and I have games that I play to keep up with what’s happening. Then I have games that are guilty pleasures, but they often end up in the research anyway: the fact that I’d consider a game irrelevant to my research may mean that I need to think about my research in a different way!

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

Most of my writing has been about video games, so it’s hard to pick the two apart. I would say that my experience programming video games has meant a lot for my work habits in terms of structuring what I’m doing. Lately I have tried to use some of the motivating factors from video games in my writing: I will divide a writing task into a large number of subcomponents such as “fix the transition between section two and three”, “make outro more interesting”, or “introduce theory up front”. Then I know what to do, and then I can tick off my todo list quickly, giving me that “ah, yes, ding!” rush that you also get from playing video games. In effect, I am trying to make writing as satisfying as playing video games.

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

If you want to write academically about video games, you should think about what you are bringing to the table; do you have a background in a specific discipline that hasn’t been applied to video games? If so, you should think about how that can be useful, and how to demonstrate that your background is useful and relevant to everybody else. Then you should read what’s been written before. There’s probably 20 books and 50 papers you need to read, but set aside the time for that (and perhaps learn speed reading). There’s nothing worse than people who haven’t even bothered to use Google scholar to see what’s already been written. Find something that’s interesting or unresolved and figure out what your personal take is on it. Then build your argument using sound theory so you can convince everybody else.

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

Photo credit: Jesper Lagerberg

I think it’s an exciting time to play video games and to think about video games. Just a few years ago, it seemed that we knew when video games were: they were products sold in boxes providing 10 to 40 hour experiences. Now, with casual games, with digital distribution, with art games, with indie games, with cell phone games, we have an explosion of game forms. It’s always great to try something that completely disproves all of your assumptions. I think it’s important to seek out those kinds of experiences.

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