I first met Heather Chaplin through a friend, though we did not instantly become close. For a long while she was, in my mind, “that cool, good-lookin’ girl who is into video games.” This is not to say I walk around equating moral worth or coolness with good looks; it is merely in recognition of the fact that cool, good-lookin’, girl, and video games do not often find themselves in the same sentence with the same referent. Video games began as a form intended for children and young people. Over the last forty years, games have grown up in many ways. They are smarter, more sophisticated, and more absorbing than ever, but they still suffer from the origins of their nativity, both in terms of their affect and in how they are perceived. Playing a lot of games is rarely viewed as a productive way for adults to spend time. (But then, reading a lot of novels was once attacked as a similarly frivolous waste.) I long wondered when someone would come along to treat the emerging art form of games with the respect, and skepticism, it deserved. Then I read Heather’s book Smartbomb: The Quest for Art, Entertainment, and Big Bucks in the Videogame Revolution, and realized that here, finally, was the book I had been waiting for. Rigorous, funny, and endlessly insightful, Smartbomb is, in my mind, one of the best books on the subject ever written.
Since then, we have talked much about games and gamed together. Heather’s view of games is intellectual and organic, critical and appreciative, smart and wise. In addition, she once wrote a piece about video-game addiction that began and ended with a case study of one T. Bissell. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, GQ, and Details, and she contributes often to All Things Considered. She is currently working on a book about women and their rising economic status that Hyperion will publish in 2010. She insists there is nothing in it about games; I say, We’ll see. This conversation was enabled by the wonderful people at Skype, with Heather talking from her beautiful apartment in Brooklyn, New York, and me from my apartment in Tallinn, Estonia.
TOM BISSELL: My great question for you, Heather Chaplin—one of the handful of people I actually like to read on video games—is why you feel this compulsion to write about something that—as you once admitted, flooring me—you don’t even enjoy playing.
HEATHER CHAPLIN: I got into it for a couple reasons. One is the person I was married to at the time snuck a PlayStation 2 into the house in 2000 and I was completely, completely horrified. I just couldn’t imagine why any halfway-intelligent person would want to play video games. I would hear these sounds—which I now know to be FIFA Soccer—coming out of his office and I’d be like, “What is going on in there?” And I’d be really horrified. And so that kind of piqued my curiosity.
TB: That shame of being caught by your girlfriend is so analogous to getting caught masturbating.
HC: And then, you know, the other thing that came into my mind when I started thinking about the subject was something my father used to say that I now know comes from anthropology: “Show me the games of your children, and I’ll show you the next hundred years.” He had taken me to a new games festival when I was a kid where we had to, like, push a big ball around a field with other people to learn about cooperation as opposed to competition. So I sort of understood that games were teaching tools, and that games are used to instill the skill sets in children the culture wants them to have as adults. And then in 2000, I started looking at this new medium— video games—and thinking, Well, these things are telegraphing to us what the future will be like, what people will be like, so this is actually really, really important. If someone had told me eight years ago that I’d spend the next eight years thinking and writing and talking about video games, I would have laughed in their faces. But honestly, it’s exciting—it feels like writing about film at the turn of the last century, or TV in the ’30s, before people really understood it as a medium. So I guess it’s generally my interest in the future that keeps me hanging around. I don’t know, do you think I’m weird?
TB: Our taste in games is very, very different.
HC: So, what’s your background? How did you get in?
TB: I’ve basically played video games as long as I can remember. But there have been lulls. I had stayed away from games for a few years in the mid-1990s, until I bought a PlayStation. and Resident Evil. I’d heard nothing about the game; this was pre-Internet, or pre-Internet in my life, at least. This game blew my fucking mind. I had never seen anything like it. And it was terrifying. I was with my friend Mike, and we got so scared at one point that we had to turn the machine off. It was four in the morning. I just put the controller down and I turned to him and I said: “I refuse to play anymore.” He’s like: “I’m not playing.”
TB: And I remember how interesting that was. I’d been scared in the movies before, but I had never been so scared by something I was interacting with. I then realized that the idea of interactive storytelling, of atmospheric immersion, had gotten to a point that was truly compelling.
HC: I think your story is actually really typical. Not that you are ordinary or anything. We grew up with the very first generation of video games—we all had Odysseys or Ataris at home, and then the industry crashed in 1983, and we outgrew those consoles, and there wasn’t anything else out there that compelling. By the time the first Nintendo system came out in ’85, we were a little old. Then the PlayStation arrived with its more adult kind of games, and it rehooked guys like you. The next generation, they grew up with the Nintendo and then just flowed a lot more seamlessly into more adult fare. But let me ask you something—what do you think it is about games, as opposed to all the other mediums you engage with, that draws you in and that you find so compelling?
TB: Let me explain my answer first by saying that only in the last year and a half, with games like Gears of War and Oblivion and continuing on with BioShock and Grand Theft Auto IV, have I become not embarrassed by my enthusiasm for games.
TB: And before that, it was always something sort of furtive, something I had to apologize for. I was in Paris recently, at this dinner with this bunch of French writers and intellectuals, and Grand Theft Auto IV came up. The ads for it were all over the city. One of the people there brought up the fact that one of the creators of GTA was on the French NPR, and he was talking about the game as an art form. She just started scoffing. And I instantly jumped in to say: “Actually, that’s true!” The resultant generational despair was unmistakable.
HC: Yeah. I often talk about fear and loathing of a new medium. If you haven’t engaged with video games ever, or since Pong, it is a little bit hard to understand what it is that’s so compelling to an intelligent, mature adult. But all you have to do is really spend a little bit of time with the games that are coming out these days, and you realize that in terms of craftsmanship, art, and creating something compelling, games are certainly on par with anything Hollywood puts out. When you look at the roundup of the best games, year after year they’re certainly on par with anything that’s being nominated for an Oscar—in the sense that they kind of achieved excellence in their medium. Now, maybe that’s not saying much. As you know, I’m often critical of the mainstream game industry for being stifled in terms of creativity and pushing boundaries. I find the most interesting work happening in games not coming from the center but coming from the new independent game scene. I don’t find a lot of those games you just mentioned that interesting. And see, for me, I may not be a gamer, but I’m very interested in the state of our culture—I think culture is the glue that holds society together, it’s our shared stories and experiences— and I worry whether games, which are rapidly becoming a dominant form of media, are really giving people rich and meaningful experiences. I don’t want to live in a culture dominated by flaccid, juvenile male fantasies.
II. “SEMI-NOTED WRITER DROPS DEAD IN APARTMENT; XBOX 360 STILL ON.”
TB: Let me issue my own reservations. You know that I’m a huge Gears of War fan.
TB: As much as I love that game, it’s not emotionally…
TB: No, it’s not. All the pleasure of the game is completely tactile, completely experiential, all bound up in how it feels while you’re playing it. The mechanic of the game is to me what makes it so wonderful.
TB: Take a game like Mass Effect—which is an elaborate, massive, role-playing/third-person shooter, with a hugely involving story that can spin out in a fairly large number of directions. Also, a game that I love. I put in eighty hours on it. But it is, in terms of emotional enrichment, essentially a pretty good science-fiction novel. And so the absolute height of the video-game achievement right now is a fairly good genre novel or action film.
HC: Listen, this actually is getting to the heart of the problem. There are two things going on here. One: The guys at the top of the mainstream game industry now are guys who are themselves hard-core gamers. In my experience, they grew up programming on their computers, not reading, or seeing tons of movies, or anything else. They were able to experience something and express something through their computers that you and I probably got through writing and reading. And basically, they don’t have that many reference points that aren’t video games, or other parts of geek culture, like science fiction and comic books. So they’re drawing from a pretty small pool of inspiration. They’re not part of a larger cultural dialogue. It’s more a bunch of guys producing games for other guys. And the other thing is it just may be that being emotionally enriching is simply not what games are good at, at least right now.
TB: I do think that there’s something to be said for a semi-hackneyed game idea done really, really well. But then I like games where I run around shooting people.
HC: Well, let’s poke into that a little more. What do you think it is about the shooters that so appeals to you, seriously?
TB: Well, here’s the funny thing: I’m not that into Halo, and I realized that one of the reasons I’m not that into Halo, which is an undeniably great game—and this is going to sound horrifying—is because the things you’re killing aren’t humanoid enough.
TB: There’s something about that that becomes somewhat stomach-turning after a while. Please realize I don’t like all shooters; in fact, some of them really irritate me. But Call of Duty 4 is almost a perfect game. Derivative, but perfect. What is really interesting is that it kills your character off in the middle of the game. I’d never seen a game do that before. That said, I’m kind of getting over shooters. What I loved about Grand Theft Auto IV, for instance, was how absorbing its story was. When I got GTA IV I played it for almost thirty hours straight. I thought there was going to be an AP news story: semi- noted writer drops dead in apartment; xbox 360 still on.
HC: I’m interested in shooters—they’re certainly the most maligned of all video-game genres. But I think for all the wrong reasons. There’s no study in the world that shows a causal link between playing shooters and an increased desire to create real violence. Trust me, the military uses these games as training tools, and they have studied the things, and there’s no link. What the shooters do transmit, though, is they get you familiar with weapons, and they are good at teaching squad-based tactics— like setting up a kill zone and flushing out a building, things that you kind of wonder, Why are we teaching our kids these things? What is such knowledge useful for? Oh—being in the military. That scares me.
TB: Here’s an interesting story. I was embedded with the Marines in Iraq in 2005. I was going on patrol with these guys, these MPs, driving outside the wire, around the base, stopping cars, driving through villages, etc. So I’m in Humvees with guys sitting in their fifty-cal turrets, pointing guns at people pretty regularly. Then we’d go back to their billet and they’d turn on the Play Station 2 and we’d play Desert Storm II: Back to Baghdad, in which you’re driving around in a Humvee with someone manning the fifty-cal turret—odd, to say the least. I don’t think playing those games made those guys want to kill Iraqis any more than they already did or did not want to kill Iraqis. The more I thought about it, though, the more I wondered if the difference between that and, say, being Wilfred Owen in World War I, getting mustard-gassed in the trenches, and then going off to read The Iliad, was maybe not so great. Obviously, they’re different in all sorts of ways, but what I mean is the emotional necessity of finding something martial with which to relax your mind when you’re already deeply engaged in a martial pursuit.
HC: Maybe there’s something relaxing about playing at war instead of being at it. Although I also wonder if it’s just the opposite—if the games just keep you pumped up and ready to be at war twenty-four hours a day. And to go back to the “show me the games of your children, and I’ll show you the next hundred years” thing, you could rationally look around and say we’re moving into an increasingly militarized society. I mean, the army advertises in gaming magazines like crazy and shows up at first person shooter competitions. This colonel I interviewed once broke down for me exactly what video games foster above all else—the ability, amid a sea of chaos, to discern, in seconds, what’s important and what’s not. That’s the reason so many grown-ups feel only fear when they look at a video-game screen—there’s so much going on and they don’t know how to begin to make that kind of instantaneous decision. But any modern-day kid can see the same screen and know immediately what he’s supposed to do and how—no matter how much chaos there appears to be. That’s a good skill for a soldier to have. It also sounds like a pretty good skill for any twenty-first-century citizen to have, considering the amount of information with which we’re surrounded and how fast it flies.
III. THE LUDIC CENTURY
TB: I’ll tell you about my worry, which is totally apart from all that. I’m worried people aren’t going to read books anymore.
HC: Well, you only have so much time in a day.
TB: In the last couple years I’ve been spending all my spare time playing video games. And a lot of really remarkable games have been coming out, from all the ones we’ve mentioned to things like Rock Band and Assassin’s Creed. I realized at one point that I would rather be playing these games than going to the movies. I would rather play these games than go out. And then I realized at one point that I’d rather play these games than even… read a book. This was becoming a problem. I had way too many games. I’m an adult, I don’t have a family, I have lots of disposable income as far as a single guy goes, because the only things I really spend money on are books, video games, and travel. So I quit playing. I’ve been off games for about ten weeks now.
HC: Ten weeks? I saw you playing Rock Band not four weeks ago.
TB: That was a one-night exception. The upshot, at any rate, is that I’ve read more books in the last two months than I read in the previous ten months.
HC: So let me ask you this, Tom. So what? So what you don’t read anymore, why does it matter?
TB: Because I love to read, and also because reading a really great novel is just going to be a deeper emotional experience than playing a really great game—at least right now, at this point in games’ development. A really great novel is going to interest you with its insight into human activity, it’s going to stimulate your brain in terms of originality and striking-ness of its metaphors and language, it’s going to put ethical and emotional quandaries in front of you that have no good answer. I think very good literature does all of those things by definition. Really good games don’t really do anything close to that.
HC: Video games are good at fostering problem solving, but they’re not so good at fostering human empathy or a deeper understanding of the human condition. Novels are about psychological empathy; games simply are not. And if games are telegraphing something about the future, maybe that tells us that psychological empathy, concern with the human condition, is not going to be that important in the twenty-first century.
TB: That’s a scary, scary thought.
HC: God, do I just sound like a terrible doomsday machine?
TB: I kind of feel in some ways that video games have allowed me to not ever have really grown up.
HC: How so? What do you mean?
TB: I’m not married. I don’t have any kids. I do what I want. I have a life without a lot of responsibility.
HC: So you mean that if you weren’t playing video games, you would be off finding a wife.
TB: That’s a little bit too pat. What I’m trying to say is that I wonder if there’s not some subterranean connection between the lifestyle I have and the fact that I like games as much as I do.
HC: Well, I definitely think there’s a sense out there that, like, leisure-time activities are a right. And sometimes I worry that everyone is so busy playing that no one is paying attention to the real work to be done, you know, like civic engagement. The game designer Eric Zimmerman talks about the “Ludic Century”—that we’re entering an age of play, basically. I definitely think that the central paradigm through which people look at their lives is no longer going to be one based on a linear narrative, but rather it’ll be more of a game paradigm.
TB: [Laughing] Achievement points: get married!
HC: Right, exactly. But seriously, the idea of this being an age of play is intriguing. Play is considered the wellspring of creativity; play is problem solving in experimental ways. Being a gamer inherently means understanding how systems work—and literacy experts increasingly believe systems thinking is going to be an important part of being literate in the twentieth century. Take global warming—that’s a great example of a dynamic system, actually—we’re over here in America running our SUVs, which is causing x to happen, which causes y, and it ends up that the polar bears’ ice caps are melting. So there’s this argument out there that Zimmerman and others are making that approaching the world through a perspective of play, as a gamer, may actually allow us to solve some of the big problems facing us. The MacArthur foundation is actually putting a lot of money into this idea. They’re funding a school that’s based around game design, with the idea that if playing games introduces you to systems thinking, then making games makes you systems-literate.
TB: In the end of Grand Theft Auto IV, you have to make this pretty horrible decision, and the thing I like about it is no matter what decision you make, your life gets fucked up, and someone you care about in the game dies. People who say the game glorifies crime haven’t really played it. Hardly anyone in the game who you get narratively attached to comes out all right at the end. So you have to make this terrible choice as Niko, the game’s anti hero, and I remember being incredibly tense while the scene was unfolding. I wanted to do the right thing because I cared about Niko the character. That is a very strange form of identification.
HC: Why is it so strange?
TB: Because you are him, kind of. It’s your decision, but he has all the familiarity of a fictional character. He says things you don’t say, he goes places you don’t necessarily decide to go, and so he is fictional, but he is also you. And so it creates this really interesting duality that you identify with these video-game characters in a way that I think is narratively unprecedented.
HC: You know what I liked in Grand Theft Auto IV was the characterization of Niko. With a video game you have limited resources to how you can get characterization across. You don’t have the omnipotent voice saying, “He’s this kind of guy, he’s that kind of guy.” But there’s this game mechanic in GTA IV that I just love that tells you so much about Niko. It’s the way you carjack—the motion with which Niko throws somebody out of a car is totally different than how the main character in San Andreas did it. With Niko, it’s slow, there’s no real pleasure involved—you just get the feeling it’s something he has to do. And that is such a great characterization. That is a video game doing a really good job of drawing a character.
TB: That’s art.
HC: Yeah, that’s art—exactly, exactly.
TB: Well, how’s this for weird? My favorite thing in GTA IV was to go to the top of the Empire State Building and jump off it. Over and over… I guess I just like fake killing myself. What I love about the game is the wonderful sense that the guys who designed it didn’t necessarily intend for any of these things to happen. They just created a physical world in which you’re allowed to do all these things. I always defend GTA in those terms: it’s not what it asks you to do; it’s what it allows you to do.
TB: Josh Ortega is the writer for Gears of War 2, and he told me he doesn’t even like to think of these things as games. He said he imagined that games right now are at the same place a certain form of music was at in the late 1970s. Imagine, he said, walking through the Bronx, and overhearing some strange form of music. It sounds kind of like disco, kind of sounds like reggae, and these dudes are doing something really weird with turntables, but they didn’t really have a name for it yet.
HC: That’s the problem; everyone knows that video games is the worst term ever, but it’s hard to come up with a new term that isn’t just jargon, or academic. I’m not going to start calling games “Spaces in Which Interesting Behavior Emerged.” I tend to think of them as worlds. I think that games, what we now call video games, are increasingly going to be digital worlds that we spend time in.
TB: Can we talk about stuff like Second Life and World of Warcraft? The other kinds of social games that are big with the kids right now?
HC: Second Life is an experiment in virtual worlds. I think that’s how it’ll be remembered. The only people that are left in Second Life are the people there for the sex play and the do-gooders, who, smartly, use it as a way to make geographical distances disappear—you know, holding “camps” for disadvantaged youth or broadcasting meetings. But ultimately, I don’t think people are going to spend time in virtual places just for the sake of being in a virtual space.
TB: Let’s talk about World of Warcraft.
HC: I could tell you what I think it is that appeals to people about virtual-world games—it’s the idea that it’s a meritocracy. You go in there and you’re not judged by what you look like or what class you are or what you do for a living. It doesn’t matter if you’re butt-ugly. Everyone starts from square one. And your status in the game is determined by what you achieve. Period. That’s why players hate when other players buy a character—you know, there’s a secondary market for characters, people buy and sell well-developed characters. And there are all these stories of the gamers throwing things at them and refusing to run missions with them when they enter the virtual world, and I think that that stems from this idea of “Well, that person didn’t earn their place.” MMO [Massively Multiplayer Online] players are really into what’s fair. Have you ever tried World of Warcraft?
TB: I feel strange looking down my nose at MMO players when I like the shooter, the most stereotypical and uninnovative genre of all. I’d like to think I see the shooter genre pretty clear-sightedly. In other words, I have self-awareness about why the shooter appeals to me, whereas WoW people, when they start talking about how they can’t go out on Friday night because their friends are rely ing on them to raid some camp in Farfordlagen, well, that’s just nuts.
HC: Have you ever tried World of Warcraft?
TB: I don’t want to go near that shit.
HC: Because it’s lame, or because you’ll be sucked in and we’ll never hear from you again?
TB: Both things could be equally true. Let me say that I have met a lot of WoW players, and they’re all good people. I also have to say that the portrait of the WoW guy in your book is the most moving and quietly distress.