Grinding to Valhalla

Interviewing the gamer with a thousand faces

Posts Tagged ‘Video games — Social aspects’

Reading the text: an interview with Bonnie Nardi

Posted by Randolph Carter on September 10, 2010

Bonnie Nardi is an anthropologist and a faculty member in the Department of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine.  In this interview we discuss several aspects of her book, My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft , ruminate on the upcoming Cataclysm expansion, and the difficulties involved in seperating gaming for pleasure and gaming for research.

Bonnie’s website

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Could you take a minute and explain what My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft is about—that one might not glean from the title, of course?

The book has two layers—anthropological description for those who don’t know why anyone would spend hours killing cartoon monsters, and a theoretical analysis of the power of software artifacts to define, channel, shape, and regulate human activity. In the context of a video game such as World of Warcraft, code is a resource for delivering and reproducing “active aesthetic experience.” I define active aesthetic experience as performative challenge/mastery + visually stimulating surroundings. (In the real world, think activities such as masquerade balls, Civil War reenactments, church choirs, hunting and fishing.) This focus on the positive agency of software contrasts with analyses that view code as constraining, limiting, regulatory, even fascistic—something to be hacked, cheated, worked around.

How do you think the book turned out in the end? Are you happy with the finished product?

Writers are never really “happy” with what they write. Once a piece is done, the writer becomes a reader of the work. Since writers are the most critical readers, we experience the inevitable flaws as glaring and embarrassing.

But on the plus side, I hoped the book would stimulate discussion. Here are two blogs that met that goal: John Carter McKnight’s blog and

The Internet changes the pace of academic writing by allowing some near-instant feedback.

Reviews in print publications take six months at least, and usually closer to a year. The new feedback cycle makes writing a more interesting and interactive experience. That’s a kind of happiness!

Will you continue to write about Azeroth or did you manage to say it all in your book?

There is much more to be said. The question is where to start. I’m working with students who are researching areas I will never get to on my own. I have a small pilot project studying parents who play WoW with their children with Aspergers. Learning about this group will be another way to analyze the agentic qualities of a software artifact. I am also inspired by the creative ways people meet their situations, how they use resources in unusual ways.

What I find particularly fascinating is that World of Warcraft was your first video game experience. Prior to this you viewed video gaming as a waste of time. Could you talk a little bit about this experience and how your views have since changed?

I started the research under the direction of my superego, and ended with my id! I sat down to play World of Warcraft only because I could tell from the way undergraduates were talking about WoW and other MMOGs that something was brewing. Since “social life on the Internet” is one of my areas of research, I had to find out what that something was. I never intended to become so immersed. Two things really hooked me: the visual beauty of World of Warcraft, and the platform it provided for challenging activity in a social setting. A pretty heady mix—visual impact, challenge, socializing.

My contrast set for popular culture is television which, in my opinion, lacks sophisticated visuals, challenge, and intense socializing of the kind that happens in raids. Television visuals used to be better but they’ve devolved to too many closeups of faces rather than more complex mises-en-scene. I love panning way out in WoW and having control over my camera. That’s a completely different experience than TV or film. I now see well-designed video games as superior entertainment. Which is not to say that I think all of them are prosocial, but many of them are. Probably the best ones are yet to be designed. With our longer life spans, we are going to need some cool stuff to do when we have all those postretirement years before us.

I would like to have been there when you first sat down to play. Talking about a steep learning curve. Were you playing alone or did you have any assistance?

The semantics of video games completely escaped me. I didn’t know that you kill monsters. Or that you click on spells to do so, or right click to use a weapon. I had to laboriously practice the a-w-d-s movement keys to get anywhere. I didn’t know how to talk to other players. I thought that what turned out to be buffs other players were giving me were cryptic error messages I had to decode. Learning to swim was a nightmare! Luckily my son was home from college when I first sat down and he helped me. After he left, I was on my own till about level 20. It was slow going. But by around level 10 I had really started to enjoy the game. I especially love the Darkshore area and spent a long time there, some of my best time in WoW.

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

Great question. I never entirely separate play and ethnographic observation. Though most of my play now is to keep up with the game and have fun, the research part of my brain has a single setting (“on”). So I notice things. At times research and play collide. A struggle may ensue—to perform a relevant game activity competently, and, at the same time, discern and record data pertinent to research issues.

For example, I had missed several raids during which raid leaders in my guild made the AVR addon a requirement. At a subsequent raid, as the encounter was about to begin, I realized I needed AVR. I had to scramble to logout, download the addon, customize it to the raid, and try to understand how it worked. While I was doing all this, I heard people talking in Vent about the addon’s features, how the addon helped the raid, and that it was disliked by Blizzard and would soon be disabled. Since I have been tracking player-corporate relations in the context of addons for several years, the raid’s dispositions toward the addon and toward Blizzard pushed the “that’s relevant to the research” meters to red alert! Vent conversations needed to be noted, as well the humorous misuses of the technology raiders were joking around with as they waited for me to get the addon working. Play and research collapsed into one another, the demands of each necessitating mental flips from the nuts and bolts of dealing with the addon as fast as possible so as not to keep the raid waiting, to excited attention to the research issues.

Playing WoW gets me thinking about things like that. Things that might have research value.

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

Here was a moment. I was questing in Darkshore, around level 10. Another player and I realized we were on the same quest. Suddenly, the player, in the form of a bear, dropped his disguise and turned into a handsome prince. Something buried deep inside me from childhood zapped out of its hiding place, and I felt I had come alive in a fairy tale. When we were girls, women of my generation believed that handsome princes would one day enter our lives. The “handsome prince”—actually a human male druid who was not in disguise, just bear form—embodied a powerful fairy tale allusion for me. My giddiness increased when the player gallantly asked if I would prefer that he tank or heal. I didn’t know what tanking was, but I knew I had some healing abilities, so, feeling very empowered, I said, “tank please.”

Being such a noob had its advantages in enabling me to see things that other players take for granted, and to have those poignant moments when the unconscious responds powerfully to an experience.

You spent a month researching WoW players in China for the book. What did you find particularly interesting about that experience?

One of the most interesting aspects of video game play in China is that much of it takes place in Internet cafes, or wang ba. In that context, we cannot speak in simple ways of “virtual” experience—people are sitting right next to each other, eating and drinking, laughing and talking as they play. The game is the shared object around which face to face activity is oriented. And yet the game extends beyond the wang ba; there are players who are not co-located and, of course, the virtual world of the game itself. So it’s a complex blended reality.

Another interesting aspect of Chinese play was the reluctance of male players to play female characters. A guy playing a girl is a cliché in North America, but in China it is considered distasteful. Guys who play girls are called “ladyboys”—a derisive term invoking transvestism. Some Chinese male players talked longingly about female Night Elves, but found the pushback from other players too much. There seemed to be fewer female players than in North America (maybe on the order of 10 percent vs 20 per cent here although I don’t have hard numbers). The girls played female characters, just like here, and they told me that they were sometimes accused of being ladyboys! They shrugged it off.

The cultural difference regarding character gender choice is a cautionary tale about overgeneralizing from our own experience or from a limited sample. Chinese players are about half the WoW base—what they do is central to characterizing WoW play.

You’ve also done specific research into why Americans go to much greater lengths to modify World of Warcraft whereas the Chinese rarely do. Can you explain this disparity?

Chinese modders are actually very active, but they focus on localization rather than the creation of original mods. There are several reasons why. First, and rather amazingly I think, there was no modding in China before WoW. There were illegal bots, but no player culture of legitimate modding with proper channels of access such as the Addons Folder. In the U.S., modding culture goes back to the development of Spacewar! in 1961 by MIT students on a DEC PDP-1. There’s a lot of history to take into account in examining these disparities.

Second, Chinese modders have many fewer resources than American modders. Americans are in regular contact with Blizzard through an official modding forum. A Blizzard employee, Slouken, has been instrumental in establishing cordial relations between Blizzard and modders. There is no Chinese Slouken and no official Chinese modding forum. WoW in China is distributed by a Chinese company, not by Blizzard, as per an arrangement with the Chinese government. At the time of the research the company was called The9. (It’s now NetEase.) The student with whom I conducted the research is a native speaker of Chinese, and we sent The9 an email asking about mods. The9 replied: “Mods are not provided by our officials. On the official website is merely a url [linking to mod compilation sites BigFoot and WoWShell] which is there to prevent players from downloading mods with trojans.” End of story! Check out the lively discussions on the Blizzard modding forums to see the huge difference in access to Blizzard and the information and help they provide American modders (and the English-speaking European modders who also read the forum).

Third, there are yet more resources for American modders, including forums beyond Blizzard’s and an actual textbook. A comprehensive book on modding was published by a mainstream press: World of Warcraft Programming: A Guide and Reference for Creating WoW Addons (Wiley, 2008, 1056 pages!, 3.2 pounds!). And there’s BlizzCon where modders meet face to face annually. They talk, compare notes, get to know each other, have a good time. Chinese modders have none of these advantages.

Chinese modding communities have done three things very well. They created thriving online communities—something new to most Chinese modders who were not conversant with what we think of as standard netiquette. They made available a good selection of mods to Chinese players through localization, enhancing play experience in the most efficient way possible—by taking existing code and making it work for Chinese gamers. And, they established a learning culture. Slowly Chinese modders are gaining better technical skills and a sense of how to work as a community. The learning environment in Chinese IM chatrooms and forums is expressed by showing respect for experienced modders who are addressed with the honorific Da, meaning “big,” “big brother,” or “boss.” One of our interviewees, a skilled modder said, “Yes, in CWDG [a Chinese modding site], I have many students.”

I think it is impressive that the Chinese modding community has produced and made available more than a thousand mods for Chinese players of World of Warcraft. Despite the lack of interaction with Blizzard, and the other resources and history American modders enjoy, Chinese modders have been pioneers in reshaping digital culture in China.

Aside from WoW, have you ventured into any other online games or do you have any plans to?

I am planning to look at some indie games. I’d like to see a different side of gaming, something that must be dramatically different than the world’s most profitable game.

Have you managed to persuade any of your peers, family or friends to play WoW?

Yes! My family has a small guild and we play WoW together and have a lot of fun.

Are you looking forward to Cataclysm and all of the changes it will bring forth?

I have played a little of the Cataclysm beta, and wrote a few blogs posts that are linked on the University of Michigan Press site for my book.

I loved the Goblin starting area—it’s brilliant—but I was sad about what has been done to Darkshore, and that there will be no versions of WoW with the old Darkshore. The rated battlegrounds may be the sleeper. I am not really a pvp player, but find battlegrounds to be a lot of fun. I might even collect some pvp gear if the level of play improves, and I expect it will add a new dimension to guild life as people organize teams.

Granted, I still hold to a rather nostalgic view of WoW, but with every expansion I’ve felt Blizzard has distanced itself from what made Azeroth so beautiful and immersive and have given more of an amusement park spin to the world. Not only that but I feel there is an increasing level of goofiness to the game that’s becoming harder and harder to ignore. My friends tell me to lighten up and enjoy the ride. Something tells me Cataclysm won’t allay these fears. Would you have anything to say to this other than “Lighten up, RC.”?

Bonnie Nardi

I can guarantee that you won’t like the Goblin starting area; it’s unabashedly an amusement park. It’s just done so well I was smitten. But I agree that the goofiness quotient has increased dramatically in WoW, although encounters like the Lich King are pretty epic. It’s a hard fight, and one that demands from players the kind of study, focus, and coordination that have always impressed me about WoW and what players bring to it.

WoW is a game, and if it doesn’t light you up, then it’s not play! Time to move on to whatever else is out there that affords the beauty and immersivness that were part of the original WoW for you.

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

I’ve probably written more than you bargained for, so thanks very much for this opportunity to connect with your readers!

Thank you, Bonnie.


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Reading the text: J. Patrick Williams interview

Posted by Randolph Carter on January 15, 2010

J. Patrick Williams is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and coeditor of the books Gaming as Culture: Essays on Reality, Identity and Experience in Fantasy Games and The Players’ Realm: Studies on the Culture of Video Games and Gaming.  Here he talks about his experience working on Gaming as Culture, the challenges an ethnographer faces when doing video game research, his personal views on video games as well as his own background in gaming.

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Would you mind explaining what you do for a living?

I am Assistant Professor of Sociology at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, where I do research and teach in the areas of social psychology, culture, and new media.

You are coeditor for the book Gaming as Culture. How would you describe the book? Why was it put together and who was it written for?

Gaming as Culture was intended to provide a serious, in-depth look at the culture of contemporary gaming. I’m a sociologist and social psychologist and so I had a clear interest in a certain way of studying games, but I was quite open-minded about what the book might end up looking like. I actually have a diverse intellectual background—I earned an undergraduate degree in anthropology, two graduate degrees in sociology, and also completed doctoral coursework in cultural studies in education. So when I decided to edit a book on gaming, I knew that there would be many different ways to approach games academically: anthropology, business, cultural studies, education, geography, media studies, psychology, sociology, and so on…each of these disciplines has scholars who have scholarly interests in games. At the same time, what constitutes “games” is equally as broad, and I had that in mind from the beginning as well.

The book’s existence is a tribute to the camaraderie that exists within the breadth of the games community. In 2003 I had just started as a visiting assistant professor at the University of Georgia and my wife had just started the doctoral program in linguistics there. One weekend I accompanied her to a linguistics graduate student party. As the night progressed I found myself standing around a campfire talking to my future friends and co-editors, Sean Hendricks and Keith Winkler. Sean had a PhD in linguistics and ran a media lab in the education college; Keith had an MBA and had just begun working on an MA in linguistics. We quickly discovered our shared love for games and began discussing all sorts of games we’d played previously: including D&D, Magic, and arcade and console games. I also remember lamenting how I never read any research on games and how it seemed like an untapped area of social-science research. What I was thinking was that gaming is oftentimes a very important part of people’s lives…so why weren’t scholars publishing much research on it? A week later I had spent a lot of time in the office scouring databases for games research and found that, except for a few monographs, there was little/nothing out there to serve as a resource for scholars interested in doing games research. I guess this gets at the second part of your question—why it was written and who it was written for. I wanted to give something to gamers who were interested in seeing their leisure pursuits from an academic perspective. I also wanted to legitimize games as a object of study for scholars and simultaneously to give something to students who might become tomorrow’s games scholars.

Are you pleased with the way it turned out?

It was my first experience as a book editor and certainly nearly six years after having started the project, I would do things a bit differently, but overall I am happy with the result (as are my co-editors). With Sean’s interest in education and linguistics, Keith having a background in business, and my own studies in sociology, anthropology and cultural studies, we wanted to spread the word widely to see what kind of breadth we could capture. We made sure to clarify from the beginning that we were interested in what we called “fantasy games” scholarship so that we wouldn’t receive submissions on “mainstream” games like poker or Monopoly. We specified role-playing, collectible, and video games….games through which individuals entered a fantasy world of play. Even in something like Magic the Gathering, there is an underlying assumption that players enact the roles of battling wizards. We found that to be the most important criterion for inclusion.

When the closing date for proposals arrived, I was a bit surprised at how many scholars were actively doing videogame studies specifically versus other types of games. We had more than fifty submissions and in this regard were forced to be very picky; there just wasn’t room to include so many papers. It was also apparent that all the papers not related to video games, as well as many of the videogame papers, were qualitative and micro-oriented. That’s why the subtitle of the book ended up being “reality, identity and experience in fantasy games.” That highlights the type of studies presented in the book.

If you had a chance to work on a newly revised edition, what additional topics would you like to see covered?

All of the studies in Gaming as Culture were North American, though it was not my intent to produce something only about North American gaming. What I found when reviewing all of the submissions was that the European scholars seemed to be focusing on video games. That’s not an accurate representation of fantasy games research, but it’s what I had to work with at the time. I remember one of the first reviews of book criticized it for not including Nordic studies of role-playing games. But no Nordic studies were submitted for consideration…. If I were to work on a revised edition, I would spend more time seeking out contributors from around the world in order to better represent the field.

The other shortfall I would try to address is the range of substantive topics. For some genres, like LARPing, we didn’t receive any submissions. I would like to stretch out in order to include a wider variety of game genres.

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

My mother was active in taking my brother and me to the library regularly as kids, and he and I both became pretty avid fantasy readers. By the age of twelve I was tearing through all of Ursula LeGuin’s and Anne McCaffrey’s books, as well as struggling with Tolkien’s prose. Fantasy books led me to fantasy games, and I had a group of friends that tried to make sense of Dungeons and Dragons without any real contact with an adult gaming community. I also got into painting D&D miniatures in the early 1980s, but had some problems with religious elements in my family who saw D&D as irreverent if not just plain evil. I moved away from games in the mid-1980s, but came back to them in the late-1990s while working on my Master’s degree in sociology. My next-door neighbor came over to introduce himself right after I had moved to this rural Appalachian town. He saw my Wheel of Time books and asked me whether I played Magic. I had heard of it but not played before. Twenty minutes in to his tutorial I was hooked. He got me into community and competitive play and I ended up doing research on a local network of Magic players (which you can see in my research chapter in the book). The next year (1997) when it came time for me to choose my MA thesis topic, he had just bought Ultima Online and I was fascinated by the idea of an online gameworld. I proposed to do an ethnographic study of UO but the proposal was rejected…there just wasn’t faculty support for doing that kind of research at that time/place. Looking back I really think it’s a shame because that study would have been ahead of the wave, so to speak, in the sociological study of online games.

Since then I’ve played pretty actively. I burned out on Magic and moved to Mage Knight around 2003 and invested just in time to watch it crash and burn. The next game from there was the card game Anachronism, which also crashed. I miss both of those games a lot and still play them whenever I get a chance. Now I spend most game-related time playing World of Warcraft, though thanks to eBay I’ve collected several playsets of Anachronism and try to pull people into playing it.

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

It’s hard to talk about peaks, because they’re different for different games. The first really heavy involvement I had was playing Diablo II. I had a few top-level characters and even got into farming items to sell on eBay. For Mage Knight and Anachronism I got into tournament play, so I was playing a couple of times a week at Tyche’s in Athens, GA, plus a couple of additional evenings a week building armies and decks. After I moved to Arkansas in 2006 (Mage Knight was dead by then) I ran tournaments for two groups of Anachronism players…so yea I was playing a couple of days a week for several hours plus prep time. I guess right now is another kind of peak because I’m raiding end-game content in WoW on two characters, which keeps me busy. The first two years playing WoW I literally played one night a week and that was it. But once I got into end-game content I found guilds necessary and thus there was a step-up in commitment in order to get to see the content at all. I probably play 15 hours a week currently—some weeks less depending on work and family life.

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

I’ve played Diablo II, WoW, Guild Wars, D&D Online, and looked at a few others, here and there, including a little beta testing. I’ve really enjoyed WoW…it’s become the game for me. Actually I admit to struggling sometimes not to play. Even when I have other things to do, I tell myself “well, just do the fishing daily quest” or “just jump on and make a new epic gem.” Then I blink and I’ve been on for an hour when I really meant it to be on for ten minutes.

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

Yes! But then again, I don’t know that they need to be separated. As an ethnographer, I do my best work when spending a lot of time immersed in the everyday life of whatever culture/social group I am studying. That is how an ethnographer learns to develop an insider’s perspective on things. I think this question forces me to expand my answer to the previous question: my “gaming” self and my “social psychologist” self battle sometimes over definitions of MMOs and their role in (my)everyday life.

As an ethnographer/social psychologist, I’ve focused my research on the significance of games in everyday life while working past what I consider narrowly-defined concepts like “addiction.” The videogame-addiction literature is extensive these days, but most of it relies on experimental designs or surveys, neither of which do much to improve our understanding of what MMOs mean to the people playing them. The “Internet Addiction Questionnaire,” used by researchers to decide whether someone is addicted to the internet, is a great example of what I dislike about psychological science today. It has been used to measure gaming addiction as well. Now if you take a look at the original questionnaire, it had eight questions to answer. If you answered “yes” to five or more, you were an addict. Some scholars will say “it’s been tested; you can see statistical significance between respondents’ answers and their reported behaviors….” But I suggest taking the survey and replacing the word “internet” or “game” with “wife,” “boyfriend,” or “child.” Suddenly you’re answering 7-out-of-8 or 8-out-of-8 with “yes.” But it’s silly to think that I’m addicted to my daughter or wife just because I think about them or want to spend more time with them.

Now back to your question: I see problematic behaviors associated with videogame play, just as with many other parts of life. As a social psychologist I recognize that I play too much sometimes or that I get too involved in the day-to-day life of the gameworld. My “gaming” self gets pleasure out of playing for hours at a time—I’ve got friends online to catch up with, or to help with quests, achievements….whatever. My “social psychologist” self recognizes that my playtime negatively impacts other parts of my life to some extent. So right now I’m working on making sense of my and people’s motivations for playing MMOs vis-à-vis the immersive aspects of game design. Bringing my “gaming” self and “ethnographer/social psychologist” self back together for mutual benefit, I’m doing a two-year project to study the concepts of motivation and immersion in MMOs.

On your website you mention MMOs “have the potential for new forms of learning among young people and adults alike.” Would you mind expanding on this idea a bit?

I don’t see games as separate from everyday life. A lot of people do…they see games as an escape, a way to take a break, or whatever. But even leisure is important—what we do for fun impacts the rest of our lives and vice versa. The same goes for learning: learning is something we do all the time, not just in school. Our schooling effects other parts of our lives, just as what we do outside school effects what we do in school. So I want to constant keep that idea out in the open….games, internet (or whatever) are integral parts of our selves. Sherry Turkle’s book Second Self gave a lot of examples of how people learned to develop aspects of themselves through their internet use. Today, I think James Gee does the best job describing this in a way that almost anyone can understand. He shows how playing videogames is a form of learning. Playing on the playground teaches kids basic social norms about reciprocity, friendship, status, inequality, and so on. They learn informally through doing. MMOs are social spaces where people do all these as well. So the point in what I wrote has to do with recognizing games as an important part of people’s everyday lives that has consequences not only for how we learn about the world, but what we learn as well.

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

I have tried various ways of importing games into my sociology courses, oftentimes in small ways to help illuminate certain points. I use “serious” flash games as think pieces sometimes, but would love to spend an entire semester having students study a specific MMO and deploying their sociological knowledge to make sense of what they see going on. Games have also helped me as a professor outside the classroom, mainly in terms of service. I’ve served as the faculty advisor for student gaming associations at two universities, and actually started such a group at another university as a way of helping people who love games get to know each other. Going to university is a big moment for teenagers, and I have found that helping them get in touch with other students who share similar interests helps them settle into university life, sparks some of their creativity, gives them a social venue in which to de-stress, and provides a peer group for support. I’ve always seen games as a wonderful resource for bringing people together. As for writing, I can’t think of any effects video games have had to be honest. /shrug

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

I think my first piece of advice would be: be serious about your research; learn about methods and theory and how to use both to your advantage. As a reviewer for several sociology journals, I get sent manuscripts on games to review and I end up rejecting most of them because the author’s “gaming” self overshadowed their “academic” self. In other words, they wrote about games because they love them, but not necessarily because they had something important to say about the empirical world or theory or method in their discipline (which is what academic journals publish).

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

Having a baby that’s just a couple of weeks old makes it hard to be coherent in an interview about games right now. I hope I made enough sense that you and the readers will find something I’ve said useful. And thank you for taking the time to put this resource together. I’ve already gotten some good insight by reading your interviews with other people!

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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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Reading the text: T. L. Taylor interview

Posted by Randolph Carter on October 22, 2009

T. L. Taylor is associate professor in the Center for Computer Games Research at the IT University of Copenhagen. In this interview she discusses her book Play Between Worlds, the current research she is conducting for a forthcoming book about professional computer gaming, and gets into her own gaming background and why she is particularly drawn to MMOs.

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Author’s website:

Please explain what your profession happens to be.

I’m a sociologist by training and have spent most of my research life focusing on virtual environments and computer games. I’m associate professor at the IT University in Copenhagen where I am fortunate enough to be a part of a research group solely dedicated to the study of computer games.

play between worldsHow would you describe your book Play Between Worlds: Exploring Online Game Culture to someone who has never heard of it?

The book is the product of quite a few years of ethnographic research in the massively multiplayer online game EverQuest (one of the earliest games of that genre). It covers a number of topics like socialization in these games, gender, the intense play of powergamers, and issues around the creative production of game culture by not only designers but players themselves. My hope with the book was both that it explained some things about the specific game of EQ (and the genre), but as importantly connected those up to larger conversations we have about things like gender, cultural production, the relationship between work & play, the blurred boundary between offline and online life, and the active role of users (players). For me games are not only interesting as artifacts in and of themselves, but the way they circulate and participate in our broader culture and conversations.

How did you come to write this particular book?

I was actually nearing the end my dissertation in 1999 and had heard some people in a virtual world I was in mention this new game, EverQuest. I got kind of curious so wanted to check it out, mostly as a distraction from work. But once I got there I realized there were some very familiar themes. It was a virtual environment, there were avatars running around, and there was real-time interaction with other people. These were all things I had studied quite a bit up to that point, both in MUDs and early graphical virtual worlds. But then in addition there was this game-layer to it and I found that really engaging and it provided some new angles to what was happening there. Something about running around as this crazy little gnome necromancer just hooked me and I ended up undertaking a multi-year study of the space.

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

I generally do ethnography in my work – that is, a kind of approach whereby you really come to live alongside members of a community as a way of understanding that world and their practices – and so I basically approached EQ that way as well. What that meant practically speaking is playing hours and hours of the game over years (and across several characters eventually), interviewing people both in the game and offline, attending a fan faire, being involved a lot with related websites (reading forums, comics, guild boards, etc). Basically doing all the things many players themselves do, but with an added layer of documenting, formalizing, reflecting and analyzing.

Are you pleased with the way the book turned out?

For the most part yeah but, of course, you always see glaring gaps in your own work. I would say the piece that is most missing from the book that I wish I had been able to dive into was more around structured raiding. EQ, and specifically EQ players, really innovated this aspect of play and in retrospect I wish I had had more data on that angle. Things like guild structures, loot systems, and practices around raiding have really taken hold in MMOGs in a way I don’t think I fully anticipated back when I was doing that research. So if I could go back and revise any part of the book, it would be adding more to that angle. I think the historical aspect of the growth of the genre is particularly fascinating.

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

Unlike many folks I know, our family did not have a home computer or any kind of digital gaming system when I was growing up in the ’70s and ’80s. Games for me were always board games, which my family played a lot growing up. When arcades hit I was a pre-teen so I did definitely made my rounds there, where my favorite game was Tempest (I still can’t resist playing if I stumble across an old machine). I didn’t game much in my teenage and early adult years aside an occasional board game. In 1990 though I started getting into the BBS scene courtesy of a PC with a modem at work – talk about lucky! – and discovered a number of games. When I got to grad school I spent a lot of time that first year (1991) in the computer lab doing email and reading Usenet. Somehow I stumbled into a group where someone was recounting a trip they took to meet all their MUD friends offline. I distinctly remember asking friends, “Do you know what a MUD is?” and being met with quizzical looks. I finally figured it out (courtesy of Usenet again) and was so intrigued I started avidly exploring those early text-based worlds. When I finally got my own computer things took off for me even more with them but I also started to play all kinds of puzzle and random CD rom games (though I distinctly remember finishing Loom on my first Mac back then).

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

When I was doing EQ I could spend six hours or more a day without much thought. I can still sock that much time away on whatever MMOG I am playing, especially on the weekends. These days though I divide my time across a few platforms. Being on a PC with an MMOG is still usually top of my list, but now I also spend a fair amount of time on my iPhone gaming while I commute and on my XBox playing a variety of oddball games.

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

I’m assuming you perhaps mean, at least in part, something like when gaming moves from pleasure to work? This is a tricky question, perhaps because I think that often when we are playing for leisure it can be hard work too (I’m thinking now about when you had to do a lot of prep for raiding, or going over and over a puzzle trying to solve it even when it is frustrating). But beyond that tension I think all gamers confront in their everyday play, yeah, it is always a methodological issue to move between being very present in the gaming moment but also operating with that reflective or critical researcher cap on. Ethnographers have always had to mediate that to some degree and I think in the case of us doing that kind of work in games, we have all kinds of tricks of the trade we use to help negotiate our experience (screenshots, fieldnotes, audio memos to ourselves, etc.). It of course becomes even trickier when you can’t simply be a fly on the wall observing, but actually are integral to play (as in a raid or party for example). I think what often happens just as much to me is that I start playing something and then realize in the midst that there is actually a pretty interesting research angle to follow. So from a research perspective you are always having to be on your toes and make adjustments as you go, trying to be attuned to issues beyond any specific play moment.

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

I am. I’ve always been drawn to multiplayer spaces, mostly starting with MUDs. The combination of embodiment, worldness, other people, and achievement is very compelling to me. I try to check out as many as I can, though perhaps unsurprisingly find it hard to give more than one my full attention. At this point being in one feels pretty second nature to me.

What MMOs are you currently playing?

I’m actually picking up Aion tonight since I’ve been hearing about it and of the last batch of releases have tried out Champions Online and Warhammer Online . Mostly WoW occupies my time when I am in an MMOG these days however. I know there are a ton of researchers who continue to do work in the game (it has become a bit of a joke I think, aka “WoW studies” instead of “game studies”) but I’m still puzzling out the role and implications of player-produced mods (and their relationship with the formal game) so despite perhaps being a bit of a cliche, it still holds some interest for me.

It appears you are writing another book on professional computer gaming. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

Yeah, sure thing. Because of my work on powergamers in MMOGs I was thinking a fair amount of people who play in ways that can look to outsiders like work. When I stumbled upon the pro-gaming scene back in 2003 it perhaps unsurprisingly caught my eye. I went to my first match back then (the Danish national World Cyber Game finals) and was pretty amazed. I had anticipated meeting and interviewing players but what became apparent really quickly was that there were a ton of other people involved to make the pro/e-sports scene happen including managers, referees, admins, and coaches. Eventually I met broadcasters and league owners and I began to feel that there was a lot more to the scene that what usually gets written up in popular news articles where we generally only hear a kind of “Wow! Here is a young guy playing computer games for money!” type of story. So while the gamers themselves still form a core part of the story I want to tell, I’m actually really interested in showing the larger scope – from a more sociological angle – of what is happening in attempts to professionalize computer gaming. It’s a very different type of research project than my past work (in that I am not doing in-game ethnography) but I’m exciting about the themes the domain let’s me address including the boundary line between work and play, considering the notion of sport in light of computer gaming, the role of gender in games, spectatorship and commercialization, tracking emerging professionalization (including refs and broadcasters), and a formalization of the activity of play.

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

This is a really interesting question. I’d have to think more about the writing, though I can say that big writing projects (and indeed research) are often very puzzle-like in that you are piecing things together, watching for patterns, trying to advance to some kind of end point/goal via the argument and narrative. I’m actually drafting an article now about ethnography as play so I’ve been thinking about the ways that research practice often mirrors what I’ve experienced in online games. As for teaching, since coming to the ITU the bulk of my teaching is actually on computer games so that is a pretty big shift just in the domain of courses I handle. In the past I would often include a week or two in a media or internet studies class and often work on convincing the students there was some value to looking at these spaces. Now my challenge is often getting gamers to think more broadly, and critically, about play and its role in culture. And at a concrete level, well, I have to admit I was introduced to WoW way back when it launched by my students where we played together for awhile on a PvP server 😉

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

Personally I really enjoy reading work that tries to tackle some niche not yet explored and also one that makes it clear why it matters and what is at stake for us as readers understanding what is being described & analyzed. Within academia there is a real growing legitimacy for game studies so I think folks working within that area have some good publication venues out there now, including place like The MIT Press and journals like Games & Culture or Game Studies.

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

I’d just say that for me, game culture is what is created not just by the boxed product itself but also by all the conversations and debates and in-depth analysis fans and critics do outside the game. In that regard your project is a great contribution to not only understanding games but producing game culture itself. So thanks a bunch for the invitation to chat with you and your readers. Folks are also very welcome to visit my website to read some of my work on games and virtual worlds if they are interested.

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Reading the text: Brad King

Posted by Randolph Carter on October 6, 2009

An interview with Brad King, co-author of Dungeons and Dreamers: the Rise of Computer Game Culture: From Geek to Chic, who talks about the book, plans for a 2nd edition, and what advice he has for our future storytellers.

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dungeons and dreamers2Author’s websites:

Brad King  |  The Cult of Me  |  Dungeons and Dreamers

Could you take a minute and explain what your book Dungeons and Dreamers is about?

The book traces the history of online computer game worlds back to its origin with the paper game, Dungeons & Dragons; however, we chose to follow that history through its social connections. For game players, that’s a pretty obvious connection. We play, regardless of the medium, to be with other people. To make friends. To share interests. To challenge and achieve. To explore.

It was important for us to tell the stories of the threads of game developers like Richard Garriott, Richard Bartle, John Carmack as well as the people who played their games.

So it’s really more a book about how these communities developed through game worlds as much as it’s a story about how these game worlds came to be.

Why did you write this book?

John and I had been covering digital media and entertainment for a few years (he at Cnet and me at Wired). The idea of digital communities was something that was pretty obvious to us. But we hadn’t written much about gaming. So we hatched this idea one evening, scribbling notes on bar napkins. I don’t think either of us really knew that we’d hit on something that evening until the end of the night when we realized how long we’d been scribbling.

We started working on the book’s outline when McGraw-Hill, out of the blue, contacted us about writing a book on video games.

Since we’d already put a fair amount of work into the proposal, it seemed like we’d hit a narrative thread that other folks were starting to think about.

So away we went.

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

Our process was really unlike any I’ve ever heard before. As I mentioned, we hashed out the basic idea of the book and then dove head first into reporting it without having a publisher in mind. We just knew we wanted to write this.

That reporting began to seep into my writing at Wired and John’s writing at Cnet. We were lucky enough to have a platform that is pretty widely read. So when we each began to write about the subject, I think it probably got some folks in the publishing world thinking about it.

About a month or two after we’d started working up a book proposal, McGraw-Hill contacted us. Since we had a near-completed proposal, the process moved pretty quickly from there.

I think we completed the whole project in about 14 months from our first conversation to the completion of the manuscript to publishing.

It appears you’re working on a 2nd edition of the book. How will the 2nd edition be different and do you have any idea on the release date?

The cool think about our contract with McGraw-Hill — and it’s cool because both John and I agreed that we wouldn’t write the book for anyone if we gave up our copyright — was the right’s reversion. Once the book went out of print, we got the copyright back.

So, we contacted our friend Dr. Drew Davidson, who runs Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center (made famous by the late Dr. Randy Pausch’s “The Last Lecture”), who said he was interested in publishing an updated version of the book (which is now 6 years old).

We’re slowly plowing through four new chapters and hope — and I stress hope — to have that done by the year’s end.

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

I haven’t been a gamer in some time. I still tinker around with new games when they come out but frankly my work keeps me far too busy to actually play with any regularity anymore. I can’t say I’m entirely disappointed by that although I certainly miss having time to relax and play.

Like so many other people of my generation, I started playing old computer games (M.U.L.E. anyone?) and Dungeons and Dragons sometime around 1984. I just gravitated to the storytelling aspects with these. I’ve never understood board games, per se. I find them mostly boring. But the idea of telling stories, playing stories, discovering stories…that, I loved. I still love.

And if I had time, or if I had an offer, I’d love to write and play Alternate Reality Games. I am fascinated by this emerging story/game form (we don’t really have a word for whether these are stories or games). It’s the best of both world for me.

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

Oh, I’ve spent a lot of time in Second Life (where I did some teaching) and a bit in places like There, World of War Craft, Ultima Online and myriad other places. I can’t say I’ve ever really set up shop and played for long periods of time. But I certainly keep my accounts open in certain places and troll around.

We live in a digitized, virtualized environment today. It’s impossible to escape the effects. Whether it’s a series of feeds (twitter, friendfeed, youtube, ect) aggregated into one place so you can hold virtual conversations across multiple networks or game worlds, we’re surrounded by the metaverse.

If you think of online worlds in that manner, which I do, I am always connected to real life and cyber space. My Netbook and smart phone are with me everywhere and I’m oftentimes logged in while I’m awake. It creates a very interesting experience within the real world as I feel more connected than the people who I am interacting with in real space because my world is so much bigger.

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

I don’t think my gaming has had a direct effect on my writing. They are completely separate skill sets. Writing is a craft that takes years to hone. Gaming is the same. But my baseball playing certainly didn’t make me a better writer. And my writing certainly didn’t help me hit a slider.

That said, the gaming certainly helped me meet new people, helped me understand the metaverse, helped me connect with new cultures and places. All of which inform my life as a human. Which, of course, makes me a writer better able to understand the human condition better. I think.

Speaking of gaming, how do you tend to escape these days?

Escape? I am not even sure I know what that means. Most of my days toggle between teaching college, grading, writing, reporting and creating media. Ask around, I have very little down time which is exactly how I like it. Because I deal with emerging media and technologies, my work is pretty much my fun.

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

Read. Often. The most disheartening aspect of teaching writers and storytellers occurs the first few days of class. I ask them to tell me the last 3 books they’ve read. Few, if any, can ever give me that list.

And I have, in all my years, never met a good storyteller — digital or text-based — who doesn’t read. Voraciously. Who doesn’t watch movies. Who doesn’t interact with stories on a daily basis.

This isn’t something that just happens. This is a skill that needs to be developed. So read!

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Reading the text: Ethan Gilsdorf

Posted by Randolph Carter on August 24, 2009

fantasy freaks and gaming geeks

Author website:

Ethan Gilsdorf’s book “Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks:
An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms” comes out September 1 from The Lyons Press. After playing Dungeons & Dragons religiously in the 1970s and 1980s, Gilsdorf went on to become a poet, teacher, and journalist. In the U.S. and in Paris, he’s worked as a freelance correspondent, guidebook writer, and film and restaurant reviewer. Now based in Somerville, Massachusetts, his travel, arts, and pop culture stories appear regularly in the New York Times, Boston Globe, and Christian Science Monitor, and have been published in other magazines and newspapers including National Geographic Traveler, Psychology Today, and the Washington Post. He has also been a guest on talk radio as a fantasy and escapism expert. He does not own elf ears, but he has kept all his old D&D gear, and has been known to host a Lord of the Rings party or two.

Could you please explain what Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks is about?

Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks is combination travelogue, pop culture analysis, and memoir. The book is an exploration and celebration of fantasy and gaming subcultures — what they are, who are these game-players and fantasy fans, and what explains the irresistible appeal of these fantastic adventures.

It’s also a personal quest. I’m a gamer from the 1970s and 1980s but left behind those games when I went off to college. Years and years passed. Around when I turned 40, I discovered my old D&D and other RPG gear in a box in my parents’ basement. I spent hours looking at my yellowed character sheets, brown paper-covered DMs Guide and Monster Manual and three-ring binders of rules and map. But D&D was associated in my mind with a difficult childhood: my mom became gravely ill when I was 12, and I now think I partly used D&D as an “escape” from that pain.

I was inspired to set off on a journey through my old hobby and see how fantasy and gaming had changed, and what new fantasy worlds now existed. I wanted to know what attracted serious gamers today, particularly adults, into fantasy worlds, and for what reasons, whether healthy, unhealthy, or in between.

So, why this book?

This book is particularly relevant now. Fantasy is much, much more acceptable as an activity now, compared to when I played as a teenager way back when. Now, tens of millions of people around the globe turn away from the “real” world to inhabit others. Cosplay, collectibles, action figures, comic book conventions, Renaissance fairs, live-action role-playing games (LARPs) — all this stuff is huge. The online game World of Warcraft (WoW) has twelve million users worldwide. “Geek” is no longer a four-letter word.

People — parents, teachers, also have questions about how safe it is to immerse yourself in these fantasy worlds. There are concerns about addiction and abuse. Are we all “escaping” and if so, why?

The final answer to this question: I met a lot of folks (mostly men) who, like me, had come back to gaming after a long hiatus. They had played as teens or in their 20s and then life (work, spouses, children) got in the way. I was curious to see how older gamers had re-integrated gaming into their lives.

ffgg_insideWould you mind describing what your own gaming background was like (board games, pen & paper RPGs, console & computer games, etc.)?

I grew up in a family that played a lot of family board games and card games. We also played outdoors a lot, and had lots of time and space and nature for imaginative play. I discovered D&D in 1979, when I was 12. I played D&D every week for five or six years. At the same time, I played lots of TSR-produced RPG spin-offs. I really loved Gamma World, Boot Hill, Top Secret. I dabbled in war games and simulation games like Avalon Hill’s Stalingrad and TSR’s Risk-like Divine Right. But the WW II scenarios never really captured my imagination. I really liked the SF and fantasy milieus, in particular the Tolkien-esque worlds. Home PC games were their infancy when I was a teen, but I do remember playing MUDs like Adventure (or was it Dungeon?) on my friend Bill’s dad’s terminal hooked into the mainframe at the University of New Hampshire. In the era of Defender, Galaga, PacMan and Centipede, I blew a ton of quarters on console games. My all time favorite is Robotron. I missed the wave of Doom and Quake — by then I had stopped gaming altogether. Only in the past year, as research for my book, did I try MMOs like WoW.

What was the process like in getting it (the book) published?

Hard. I have been a working, full-time freelance journalist for almost ten years, writing on arts, travel and pop culture. My interest in fantasy worlds and gaming came creeping back in 2001-2003 when Lord of the Rings came out. I was living in Paris at the time and began to write articles on Rings and Tolkien, on assignment for places like the Washington Post and Boston Globe. I was already subconsciously exploring fantasy again. But I didn’t think it would become a book. When I moved to Boston 5 years ago, I kept writing on these topics, met an agent (at the wonderful writing school where I teach, Grub Street Inc.) and she expressed interest in a memoir/pop culture/travelogue. I fleshed the ideas out into a book proposal. She sold it to my publisher. The odds are stacked against any writer. I say it took me 20 years to write this book. I’ve been writing seriously since 1989, at least.

What kind of research went into writing this book?

Once I got my (very modest) advance from my publisher, I set out to explore every aspect of fantasy and gaming and fandom that I could squeeze in. I wanted my “quest” to begin in my geeky teenage past and end in our online gaming future. I set out to investigate and participate in as many facets of this phenomenon as possible. I questioned Tolkien scholars and medievalists. I talked to grown men who built hobbit holes and spoke Elvish, and to grown women who played Warcraft and EverQuest. I camped with 12,000 medieval re-enactors for a week. I went to a WoW tournament, and I played MMOs. I joined a LARP for a weekend. I hung out at conventions like Dragon*Con and gaming stores. I tried to meet Gary Gygax and Peter Jackson (just missing Gygax; he died before my trip to Wisconsin). I crisscrossed America, the world, and other worlds—from Boston to England, New Zealand to France, and Planet Earth to the realm of Aggramar.I was not afraid to wear costumes!

Would you say the research you did was “work?”

It rarely felt like work. But being a journalist and constantly asking questions, taking notes, videos and pictures, can be grueling. I wanted to participate in these games and activities as much as possible, but I could not often immerse myself fully because I was so busy observing and analyzing, too.

What exposure have you had with online worlds? Was it all for research or have you actually played for fun?

As I said, I used to play primitive MUDs like “Dungeon” and “Adventure,” was a serious coin-op video game player, and dabbled in some pretty rudimentary games for my home PC on IMB and Apples. But I had never played an MMOs. I had avoided them in recent years because I was worried about getting sucked in. I was worried about the time suck. Me getting back into MMOs like WoW was initially “research,” but I enjoyed the experience, getting my toes wet again. But I wouldn’t say I was hooked.

Of all the people you crossed paths with in your research, would you say there was one or two who deserved to be crowned king or queen of the geeks?

I met a couple named Elyse and Mike from Milwaukee, who I profile in my chapter called “Geeks in Love.” These two have the perfect geek relationship: she’s into the SCA and D&D and calligraphy and period baking, he’s into horror and SF and building reproductions of props from his favorite movies like 2001 and War of the Worlds. Mike is really a talented artist. Their house is a shrine to geekdom. It’s full of collectible tchotchkes from a bunch of fandom universes. They were very cool and I spent the weekend with them.

After everything you did and all the conclusions you’ve drawn from your research, would you ethan gilsdorfconsider yourself a geek today?

Yes, definitely. That’s a theme of the book: Embracing my geekhood. In high school I was shunned, and made to feel ashamed for not being a jock, or not being popular, or not having a girlfriend. But “geek” means something different to me now. It means I’m passionate about what I love, be it Tolkien, or Peter Jackson’s movies, or special effects, or the history of gaming. I feel comfortable identifying with the “geek” name again. I made T-shirts for my book launch and book tour with the slogan “GEEK PRIDE” and a red d20 on them. And I wore that shirt proudly at Gen Con this year.

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

Yes, definitely. I think the D&D rules system taught me the value of specificity and being concrete and filling my writing with details. All those vocabulary words in the DM’s guide: harlot! halberd! theocracy! adamantine! vorpal! I think all writers are, to an extent, world builders, even if they aren’t genre writers. Playing D&D made me read the dictionary, learn about Norse mythology, Tolkien. It also taught about storytelling. Like Tolkien and C.S. Lewis’s archaic literary clubs, we sat around (not drinking beer or smoking pipes, but still), telling each other stories in the dark. D&D stretched my mind. Imagination, storytelling, curiosity. All good and necessary tools for the writer — no matter the genre or style.

Would you say there is grind in the writing process?

Yes, there can be a grind, both in completing a single project like a long article or book, and the grind of the career-building, too. Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks was written under a tight deadline: most of the chapters were composed in nine months, and I was researching, traveling and writing all at the same time. I needed to knock out about two chapters a month, 4,000-6,000 words per chapter. There were times when I was exhausted, depleted, and sometimes, despairing. In terms of the “grind” of the career, I tell my writing students (I also teach writing) that few get to write a book and even fewer get to have one published. Unless you are brilliant or exceptionally lucky, you have to be patient. You have to put in the time, work your way up the ladder of your writing career in incremental steps. Levels, if you will. No one expects to perform a cello recital within a year after picking up the instrument. Same with writing. You need to remember writing is an art and a craft, but it’s also a lot of work. I call it “AIC” — “Ass In Chair.” Putting in the time. It’s going to be two or three years minimum before you get to be any good, and five or ten years before you see any progress as a published writer. It took me 20 years of work in a variety of genres before I published this book, my first book: this one, Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks.

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

I started out as a fiction and screenwriter in college, then moved on to poetry, then to journalism. In each case, all I wanted was to do good work and have an audience. For me as a non-fiction writer, I find joy in connecting with my readers. Getting an email or a letter saying, “Hey, that article or poem really moved me or connected with me. It made me think about such and such from my own life.” That’s what writers live for. I hope folks who read Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks will contact me to tell me what they think. I hope it connects with gamers, old and young. I think it will strike a chord with those who are into gaming and want to hear others explain why they got into gaming, and those who have someone who games in their lives — a spouse or child — but they don’t get what the appeal of fantasy is all about. I think my book will help explain why fantasy and gaming is so important to so many people.

ethan gilsdorf2Would you have any words of advice for the would-be-writers out there?

Persistence. Patience. Faith. Find good and honest readers (other than your spouse, parents and friends) who can give you useful feedback. Develop a thick skin so you don’t take criticism personally and get used to rejection. You’ll encounter a lot of it. Writing is highly, highly competitive and only getting more so.

Your website is quite impressive. I would think anyone who is reading this interview would enjoy checking it out. Would you mind talking a little bit about it?

Thanks. I did the website myself using an online site builder service called, which has basic templates that you can customize. Even a non-web savvy guy like me can make a goof-looking site. I’m not a techie but can do some basic HTML if necessary. I got the graphic designer at my publisher to make me a banner. He’s a great artist named Bret Kerr (who also designed my book jacket, see his portfolio here).  I shot and edited a promotional video myself. I’m adding stuff all the time.

So, if you had it to do all over again, would you do anything different as far as your gaming and geekness are concerned?

I wish I had been less cautious and ambivalent about gaming in my 20s and 30s and had embraced gaming and fantasy instead of shunning it. I wish I had returned to gaming earlier.

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

I’m launching a contest on my website that I’m excited about. It’s called the Great Geek Giveaway! and I want folks to share their geekiest secret, freakiest fandom moment, most embarrassing gaming gaffe. Folks can submit a brief essay, photo or video and win cool prizes. More info here.

And one final question, when was the last time you rolled a 20-sided dice?

I was at Gen Con this August and rolled a d20 a lot that weekend. I also loved dipping my hands into the bins of dice at dice vendors on the exhibition floor! Something quite pleasing about that. Sort of like scooping up a dragon’s hoard of treasure. I have a couple d20s on my desk and I play with them every so often. It’s a way to connect with my gaming past.


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