The Bat Segundo Show: Tom Bissell, Part One

Tom Bissell appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #449. He is most recently the author of Magic Hours. This is the first of a two-part conversation. The first part establishes Bissell’s peripatetic history and gets into his recent shift into video games. The second part gets into some entirely unanticipated truths about the relationship between life and words in 2012, among many other subjects, and can be listened to here.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Making the unanticipated five year wait count for something.

Author: Tom Bissell

Subjects Discussed: Living a peripatetic vocational existence, how receiving fellowships and jobs influence the city you live in, Ghostbusters references, moving and books, the joys of New York City, Bissell’s interest in recreations (film, video games, and photography), Grand Theft Auto, Uzbekistan, John Jeremiah Sullivan, Chuck Lorre, the restrictions of celebrity profiles, getting fired from My Little Pony, David Foster Wallace’s nonfiction, getting fired and removed from video game projects, writing for video games, why Bissell can’t quit video games (despite his best efforts), video game script formats, how screenplays and comic book scripts found their way into bookstores, Alan Moore’s meticulous description, communicating with level designers, attempting to form paragraphs within Excel spreadsheets, the dignified advantages of a screenplay over a video game script, the joys of playing builds, the ephemeral nature of video games, Baldur’s Gate II‘s enhanced edition, splitting duties between video game writing and nonfiction writing, Planescape: Torment, Sam Anderson’s article on “stupid games,” the addictive nature of games and smartphones, when video games suck significant portions of your time, Pac-Man’s strange perseverance, how graphical enhancement creates unanticipated obsolescence, trying to watch VHS tapes in a DVD age, the epic poem’s lifespan, when forms of communication stop being useful, downloadable content, grinding and monetization, Tribes: Ascend, finding artistic integrity within a money-making medium, Emily Dickinson, Jonathan Blow, and false impressions about teaching.


Correspondent: Let’s start with the first sentence of this book. I think it’s a pretty telling notion that the author’s note is: “The first essay in this collection was written by a 25-year-old assistant editor living in New York City and the last was written by a 37-year-old assistant professor of English living in Portland, Oregon.” Now this is interesting because you are now no longer living in Portland, Oregon. You are now no longer an assistant professor. I read an interview you did with Owen King and I learned that, in fact, your video game script writing is also in this tetchy peripatetic vocational mode. So my question to you is, well, what do you think accounts for this existence? Were the early roots basically set down with this whole aborted Peace Corps stint? I mean, what of this? What do you think accounts for this constant travel on your end?

Bissell: I guess — I lived in New York City for nine years with a couple stints away. One in which I spent seven months living in Vietnam. I spent a summer in the Canadian Arctic. So I’d live in New York City and then go to places and spend time there. And then I won the American Academy of Arts and Letters Rome Prize, which is a great thing. But it also kind of wrecked my life in some very curious way. I mean, I don’t want to say that to give the impression that I’m not hugely grateful and it’s not an amazing prize. But from there, I wound up moving out of New York without ever really meaning to. And then I lived in Rome for a while. And then I got this fellowship. Then I moved to Vegas. And then I decided that I wanted to move to Estonia. And then that didn’t go well. And then I decided, “Oh, I need to get a job.” So I got a job as a professor at a time where it was really hard to get them. So then when I was offered this thing, I was like, “Oh god. Gotta take it. Gotta take it.” You know, economic downturn. Apocalypse coming. Cats and dogs living together. You know. That’s a Ghostbusters reference.

Correspondent: Of course. I got it.

Bissell: (laughs) For the audience.

Correspondent: Well, unlike William Atherton, you do have a penis. (laughs) I’m sorry.

Bissell: You’ve just doubled down on my Ghostbusters reference. So I moved to Portland thinking that this was where I was going to be for a while. And for various reasons, it just didn’t take. So I recognized that this was a chaotic last few years that I had as a person and as a writer. It hadn’t felt that chaotic. Every step that I’ve taken has kind of been, well, this is obviously what I have to do. But looked at objectively, I mean, I can’t believe I’ve written anything. Considering the amount of places. Moving. As I get older, I just get more and more books. So my girlfriend and I just moved to Los Angeles. And the movers, when they greeted us, they were like very hostile right away.

Correspondent: Hostile.

Bissell: Why were these guys so mad at me?

Correspondent: Books? (laughs)

Bissell: (laughs) Yeah. Because of the books.

Correspondent: Yeah, I know. Having moved many times myself, that’s always the pain in the ass right there.

Bissell: Yeah, man. For the first time in my life, for the first time in my life, I was like, “Yeah, I think Kindles might make sense.”

Correspondent: Because you might move next year.

Bissell: Because I might move. So now, if I had my druthers, I would live in New York City again.

Correspondent: But you live in L.A. right now.

Bissell: We live in L.A.

Correspondent: How long do you think that will last?

Bissell: I’m determined to live there for at least several years. And we’ll see. We’ll see.

Correspondent: But the peripatetic picaresque instinct might actually seize you again? Is this something you can entirely tame? Do you think?

Bissell: I can’t. Because, like I said, New York is the only place that’s ever never stopped boring me. And I get bored in places. And then I want to be somewhere else. And New York is really the one city that I never got sick of. Just even going back here, walking around, it’s just the most amazing place. And every neighborhood — and I’m sounding like just a hackneyed New York-loving cliche monger right now. But every neighborhood you walk through is interesting and there’s just — you never get tired here. You never get tired of it.

Correspondent: Well, let’s look at this from another point of view through the writing. In this book, you have “Escanaba’s Magic Hour,” which demonstrates how the re-creation of this real world on film leads to some problems. Because there are these stiff regulatory pronouncements upon the Escanabans. Is that how I would say it? Escanabans?

Bissell: Escanabans.

Correspondent: Okay. Fantastic. Don’t want to be rebuked by a local. (laughs)

Bissell: Escanabianite.

Correspondent: Yes! Exactly. It’s interesting that you ended up talking with Herzog when you did. Because Rescue Dawn — is that not a re-creation of a quasi-re-creation? Then you also, of course, pieced together details from your family of this photo in The Father of All Things. And then, if we go ahead and factor in your stints in Uzbekistan, the trip to Vietnam, being embedded with the Marines in 2005, much of this also involves some effort on your part to try and find a relationship with the real world. Now, with video games, much of your time, I would say, is spent working on fictitious worlds. You know, you describe the world of Grand Theft Auto IV at the end of Extra Lives: “as real as Liberty City seems, you have no hope of even figuratively living within it.” So I have to ask you about this. If Edmund Wilson said that the human imagination has already come to conceive the possibility of recreating human society, how does your imagination work? Why these efforts to take stabs at re-creation over the years? That’s a rather enormous question. But I wanted to see if we could roll the ball.

Bissell: No, no. And this is where I think you’re really onto something. I think some people — the conventionally-minded readers — would look at my interest in something like Grand Theft Auto, having started off as a travel writer to “real” places, would look at this as a kind of alarming drop in quality control on my part. But I’m really interested in travel, both literal and figurative. Right? And I’d like to think my books — and this is something I’ve consciously tried to create in my books — is a sense of realities within realities. And that photo thing that you mentioned, which is at the beginning of The Father of All Things, which is this book I wrote about my dad and my relationship, and his relationship to Vietnam, and a generational relationship to war that we both had a different version of that — and I took this photo and basically jammed a 100 page section out of just looking at this photo. And I don’t think that’s terribly different from my interest in video games in a weird way. I don’t think it’s that different from planting yourself in a place like Uzbekistan, which I didn’t really have any right to write about, you know.

Correspondent: Do you still feel that now?

Bissell: Yeah. Yeah. You know, as a nonfiction writer who’s — I’m not an expert on anything. I’m just interested in a bunch of stuff. And sometimes those interests fade.

Correspondent: But aren’t those interests enough? Isn’t that curiosity the ultimate drive that causes you to recreate in some sense?

Bissell: I hope so. Yeah. So this idea of loving worlds both real and virtual. And my favorite is I think the driving thing behind my entire goal as a writer. And I think my interest in games is finding yourself in this densely created place that human beings have populated with detail and incident, and then just running out there and finding out what’s ther4e for you. Now it may be pathetic from a certain perspective, that I’ve gone from traveling to places like Vietnam and Uzbekistan to serving these digital worlds. But I try not to think of it that way. Because I think — like what John [Jeremiah] Sullivan’s piece about Michael Jackson said — anything that is is real. And I really believe that. Because he was talking about people who had criticized Michael Jackson’s new face. No. “Anything that is is natural.” And that, I think, is a really wonderful insight. And I think it’s true. Anything that is is natural.

Correspondent: Yeah. But I’m wondering if, when you’re writing about something like a sitcom television producer, as you do in this book, and you have to hit the tropes of “Okay, here we are at the rehearsal stage,” “here we are with the joke writers trying to revise the joke so that it gets the biggest laugh for the audience” — what is interesting is the whole incident with the luncheonette at the beginning. The hard work. The failure at the beginning. Getting fired from My Little Pony. Those are very human moments. And it almost seems to me that you — particularly a guy like you, who is very much interested in the complex details of any world — it must be difficult to find a way to sandwich those moments into a profile along these lines when, in fact, you also have to meet the need of an audience who wants to know additional sordid details. Behind-the-scenes stuff.

Bissell: About Charlie Sheen.

Correspondent: Exactly.

Bissell: (laughs)

Correspondent: I mean, how do you negotiate the human in an essay like that when it would seem to me, if that is a goal of yours, to be more difficult than, say, going into ravaged terrain and seeing a disappearing sea or seeing that there are no remnants of a military campaign from decades before. You know what I mean?

Bissell: Well, this is the one thing that I think [David Foster] Wallace did so well in his essays. Which is he turned the act of noticing things into a kind of a narrative in and of itself. That the mere cataloging of things becomes the story in a weird sort of way. And I’ve never done this to the degree that he did it. But when you read these Wallace pieces, like about David Lynch or about talk radio, he’s always more interested in the cameraman or the baton twirlers. You know, he’s always interested in the freakshow qualities of the places he goes. And if you’re profiling a hit sitcom producer, you can’t do that. You can’t talk to the joke writer as much as you perhaps want to. Chuck Lorre, the subject of the piece, has to be the focus. So it took a long time to get those My Little Pony details out of him.

Correspondent: (laughs) How long did you have to work him? Did you have to grill him to get the My Little Pony details?

Bissell: Kind of. Yeah. Because it took him a long time to open up. And if there’s anything I can say about writing profiles, which writing celebrity profiles, I mean, why even bother? They’re too canny to really open up to you. And their publicists are all on everyone’s backs. And there’s all this quid pro quo that goes on with that kind of a piece. It’s not even writing. It’s like alien anthropology, right? But someone like Chuck Lorre, who has a publicist, but I think the idea of self-protection is much less pronounced as a technician type creator, right? Celebrity type creators are — I just can’t imagine ever being interested in writing about a person like that. So Chuck Lorre, you have all this access to the ins and outs of a fringe television job that he just happened to basically become the most successful sitcom producer of the modern age. It’s really interesting. But within that journey, there are all the arcana of how one goes about becoming a successful sitcom writer. And the fact that he got fired from My Little Pony was to me — I’m glad you latched onto that. Because that was the most interesting detail in that piece to me.

Correspondent: That from such a humiliation comes the great success.

(Photo: Trisha Miller)

The Bat Segundo Show #449: Tom Bissell, Part One (Download MP3)

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Ocean Marketing: The Dramatic Reading

It began, as most forms of Internet frontier justice do, with a post that spurred outrage. Ocean Marketing, a firm that had promised to deliver an Avenger game controller before the Christmas holidays, failed to live up to its pledge. People did not get their controllers. There was an email exchange whereby aggrieved parties attempted to seek restitution with Ocean Marketing. But Ocean Marketing, failing to comprehend one time-honored maxim (‘The Customer is Always Right”), decided to get huffy about rectifying its mistakes, with the company’s representative becoming mind-numbingly arrogant when it came to the power of memes and the potential for serious screwups to create viral PR nightmares. The result was a public outcry and subsequent investigation that revealed even more astonishing sins, including plagiarism and phony charities.

In other words, the whole Ocean Marketing mess quickly became a veritable rabbit hole: a fascinating and time-consuming parable on how a representative’s poor conduct revealed a company’s true disgrace buried not especially deep beneath the dirt.

Others have done a commendable job of following this ongoing story. So in an effort to provide the appropriate journalistic context, I have performed several dramatic readings of the more snottier Ocean Marketing emails. I hope that my performances have appropriately represented the smarmy and self-serving behavior which galvanized this mighty electric storm. (Please note that I have replaced all instances of “LOL” with suitably melodramatic laughter.)

Ocean Marketing: Dramatic Reading #1 (Download MP3)

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Ocean Marketing: Dramatic Reading #2 (Download MP3)

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Ocean Marketing: Dramatic Reading #3 (Download MP3)

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Jane McGonigal’s Mind is Broken

Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken, landing with a Gladwellian thud of wily reductionism and indolent thinking, is the most irresponsible nonfiction book I am likely to read this year. This remarkably callow book, professing to be new in approach but merely retreading exhausted notions, offers the shaky premise that, because reality is difficult, video games exist to pick up the slack. Perhaps a foolish belief in games as magic beans for a hypothetical beanstalk (McGonigal is curiously obsessed with enormity throughout her book) is similar to a foolish belief in alien abduction, Scientology, fundamentalist religion, vaccines triggering autism, or the Loch Ness Monster. That’s really the only conclusion I can draw. Because McGonigal cannot make the case that a weekend of Halo 3 is any more purposeful than a weekend in Cabo San Lucas drinking margaritas and banging the brainless.

In the McGonigalian view, failure has to be “fun” and embarrassment needs to be “happy.” Fiero, an Italian adjective for being proud that was used as an epithet by Petrarch, is “the most primal rush we can experience” and, paragraphs later, “one of the most powerful neurochemical highs we can experience.” And if we can get our loved ones playing a virtual game called Chore Wars (instead of simply being adult and doing our housework), “our friends and family will define fiero moments for us every day.” Hang on a minute. Is it altogether healthy to forge relationships around inherent smugness? Isn’t this a bit Ayn Randian? Or, dare I say it, Riefenstahlian? “Through my optimism,” once said Leni Riefenstahl, “I naturally prefer and capture the beauty of life.”

In McGonigal’s world, one cannot simply go for a run. One needs to have an obnoxious Nike+ mini avatar (Nike’s answer to Clippy?) accompanying the exercise — a cuddly animated little bastard who smiles and trash talks for “vicarious reinforcement.” Except that vicarious reinforcement, popularized by a Canadian shrink named Albert Bandura, involves learning about behavioral consequences by observing other people (that would be those flesh-and-blood, carbon-based life forms called humans: your friends, family, enticing strangers, and so forth, all decidedly not computer-animated and all decidedly not a narcissistic reproduction of you). McGonigal’s elastic application fails to explain why a virtual creature sponsored by a multibillion dollar corporation interested in getting people running (and thus buying more shoes) is better at conveying behavioral consequences than flesh-and-blood friends (who like to run, generally out of an interest that has little to do with money). And I can guarantee McGonigal that a childish avatar isn’t going to make me run anytime soon. I do walk (ideally) five miles a day, three times a week. And it’s because I enjoy being attuned with the very reality that McGonigal claims is broken. The people you stop and talk with, the sights you observe, the friends you walk with. And so forth.

Different people have different approaches. One would think that McGonigal, having a PhD, would understand this basic truism. But then McGonigal, a New Geek type who wishes to cram her unlived perspective down our throats, really doesn’t grasp psychology very well. She quotes Maslow without comprehension and then writes, “Games are showing us exactly what we want out of life: more satisfying work, better hope of success, stronger social connectivity, and the chance to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.” But what McGonigal missed in Motivation was Maslow’s assurance that those who are self-actualized have “an unusual ability to detect the spurious, the fake, and the dishonest in personality, and, in general, to judge people correctly and efficiency” and that this efficiency in relation to reality “extended to many other areas in life.” Presumably, that would include video games. In other words, Maslow urged us not to put the cart before the horse, whereas McGonigal sees the video game as a crass cure-all.

These are only just a few indications that Reality is Broken is nothing less than the product of a consummate quack. Consider the book’s numerous “Fix” insets, offering “helpful” summaries of how we can fix the “broken” reality around us. These seem more designed for a self-help audience than anything even half-approaching scholarship:

FIX #6: EPIC SCALE — Compared with games, reality is trivial. Games make us a part of something bigger and give epic meaning to our actions.

I’m not sure what kind of drug experience McGonigal has had, but swap “games” for “mescaline” and you start to see the problem.

McGonigal uses the word “addictive” as a positive modifier. “What makes Tetris so addictive,” McGonigal writes, “is the intensity of the feedback it provides.” Wait a minute. Isn’t intensity a problem if we’re trying to contend with a mad influx of feedback? Later in the book: “By providing a goal-oriented, feedback-rich, obstacle-intensive environment for dancing, [Top Secret Dance Off, McGonigal’s project] makes dancing more motivating, fun, and addictive.” There’s a variation of “intense” and “feedback” again. Still, no clear answers on the “addictive” question. And isn’t it a bit self-serving and highly disingenuous to write in general marketing terms about your own game project? “Of course, we’ve also developed many external shortcuts to triggering our hardwired happiness systems: addictive drugs and alcohol….But none of these methods are sustainable or effective in the long term.” Wait a minute! If you’re applying “addictive” to something that isn’t sustainable, then is it safe to say that video games might prove just as unsustainable or ineffectual in the long term?

McGonigal can complain about the “moral debates over the addictive quality of games” all she wants (and, as a gamer who severely limits his gaming time precisely because of these addictive qualities, I’m likely to be on her side on this point), but if she doesn’t possess the smarts or the courage to be transparent about the medium’s more harmful aspects, then her mind is clearly broken and her book contributes nothing to a meaningful debate on whether or not video games are art, whether or not video games have real-world applications, and so forth.

Just how roseate is McGonigal? Rather tellingly, you won’t find “addiction,” “psychological disorder,” “failure,” “violence,” “aggression,” or “binge gaming” listed in the index. (You won’t find “emotion” either, but you will find “emotional activation.” Such is the programmer’s disease.) McGonigal is too much of a terrified doe to confront the very reality she wishes to condemn. That reality, for those who haven’t been paying attention (presumably McGonigal included) involves a Korean couple who proved so irresponsible that they let their child die while they played World of Warcraft. Or how about the South Korean teen who died from exhaustion after a twelve hour gaming binge? What about the mother who shook her three-month-old son to death because he had the temerity to interrupt a game of Farmville? Video games didn’t kill these children, but they certainly contributed. Given such stories, it is intellectually irresponsible for McGonigal to stick with the California sunshine that video games are a foolproof cure for the mind. I like raisins, but I wouldn’t be arrogant or foolish enough to suggest that everybody can find peace and harmony and “fiero” (“Boo yah, motherfucker, how you like me now! I ate me some raisins!”) by eating raisins. McGonigal’s myopic view is particularly troubling, since her book comes not long after Tom Bissell showed us the other side of the token in Game Over, writing bravely about his deadly cocaine-fueled descent into Grand Theft Auto IV.

“What the world needs now are more epic wins,” writes McGonigal in typical Pollyanna mode, “opportunities for ordinary people to do extraordinary things — like change or save someone’s life — every day.” By nearly every philosophical standard, this statement is laughable. A Grand Theft Auto IV player may very well find pride in biking up the highest virtual mountain from the city (as McGonigal cites). While this alleviates boredom and occupies time, is this really comparable with saving a person’s life? McGonigal brings up Joe Edelman’s Groundcrew, which McGonigal describes as “a wish panel for real people.” But in an interview with McGonigal, Edelman reveals that this represents little more than entitlement and narcissistic wish fulfillment:

A woman was at a dance rehearsal in a basement somewhere in Boston. She was completely exhausted, she couldn’t leave rehearsal, and she was dying for a latte so she could keep dancing. That’s the wish she posted on Groundcrew: “Help, I need a latte.”

Note the laughably hyperbolic language Edelman uses here. “Completely exhausted” instead of “tired.” “Dying” instead of “wanting.” “A latte so she could keep dancing.” Ever hear of water? Any real thinker would cut through this redolent nonsense, or at least question it. Then there’s the preposterous petit-bourgeoisie “help” — a word that I usually associate with someone in the process of being mugged or in need of spare change — that springs from these desires. And, Edelman continues, when some guy in Boston orders the latte, he walks into the basement and declares, “I have a latte!” “as if it were the most important thing in the world.”

McGonigal concedes, “Okay, so getting someone a latte isn’t exactly the most world-changing effort you could make,” before offering the one-sentence paragraph: “Or is it?” One rapidly understands that McGonigal, like a common newspaper hack about to be cut loose by the last editor willing to understand her, is trying to cram quotes into her thesis, rather than letting a thesis emerge naturally from her results.

“The normal way of getting a latte is a cold, economic exchange,” continues Edelman. “But this latte was different. This latte was love. This is about inventing a different way, a better way, of getting what we need, every day.”

The beer I had last night was lust. And the morning coffee is redemption. Please. Instead of challenging this statement (which reads more like marketing copy), or getting Edelman to expand upon what he means, McGonigal closes this section of the chapter. The latte, in McGonigal’s words, “perfectly represents the new kind of epic win.”

“Epic” is another modifier that McGonigal likes a great deal. She’s fond of bringing up meaningless achievements, such as the fact that, on April 2009, Halo 3 players scored 10 billion kills against the Covenant. “Ten billion kills wasn’t an incidental achievement, stumbled onto blindly by the gaming masses,” writes McGonigal. “Halo players made a concerted effort to get there.” You may as well jump up and down over the 30,000 Americans who killed themselves last year. Weren’t their suicides also “a concerted effort to get there?” Should we celebrate the fact that several trillion cigarette butts litter the streets worldwide every year? Simply the pollution is worthwhile because of its “epic” results. Bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better. And on the subject of Halo, McGonigal also praises the Halo Museum of Humanity — a startlingly convincing shrine that provides “epic context for heroic action.” What McGonigal calls “epic context,” I call “slick marketing.” And I’ll even go further. Soviet propaganda posters certainly carry an allure, but we also know that the distinctive style was calculated to get citizens to believe in bad things.

McGonigal’s stunning lack of vision stretches into a soul-sucking need for constant self-affirmation:

Giving talks is exhausting, even when I enjoy it, I explained. It would be energizing to see some +1s pop up right on top of my Powerpoint slides as I worked my way through the deck.

There it is again: the word “exhausting” used in relation to a privileged life. You know what’s exhausting? Digging ditches for eight hours. Delivering UPS packages in a blizzard without a break. But let’s cut Calamity Jane a little slack. Positive reinforcement is certainly a good thing. But what McGonigal seems to be asking for here is nothing but positive reinforcement. After telling a SXSW crowd about desiring a “plus-one intellect for every smart thing I said during this talk,” she is flooded with emails. Some guy named Clay Johnson creates But of course, there’s no way to cap the praise or even offer a self-correcting -1. And what we end up having is a delusional McGonigal: “So far, I’m up to +25 innovation, because I asked my colleagues to plusoneme when I do something innovative at work.” Which leads one to ask why McGonigal requires all this cheerleading, or whether the +1s might actually be interfering with innovation. After all, doesn’t innovation sometimes come from presenting unpopular ideas? Doesn’t innovation sometimes come from challenging the status quo? Indeed, might not some personal discovery emerge by confronting reality and using it to enrich one’s life? The timorous McGonigal resorts to her precious little toys to find a “better” life.

“In the end, what makes a Foursquare social life better than your regular social life is the simple fact that to do well in Foursquare, you have to enjoy yourself more.” Note the assumption that living through Foursquare is better before the fact! The user just has to enjoy herself! McGonigal hasn’t considered privacy, much less how one’s appreciation and approach might change if one is angling to become the mayor of some dive bar. And her overbearing suppositions — which are the apotheosis of geek douchery — stand in sharp contrast to the dérive‘s possibilities:

In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there….the dérive includes both this letting-go and its necessary contradiction: the domination of psychogeographical variations by the knowledge and calculation of their possibilities. In this latter regard, ecological science, despite the narrow social space to which it limits itself, provides psychogeography with abundant data.

That “calculation of their possibilities” doesn’t involve technology at all. It’s the noggin taking in details and finding a magical way to take in the seemingly commonplace. But now Guy Debord’s “abundant data” is tabulated through Foursquare. The metrics Foursquare tabulates is “just data, a way to quantify what you’re already doing. What really makes Foursquare engaging is the challenge and reward system built around the data.” In other words, McGonigal leaves nothing to non-objective, non-metric possibility. The machine takes care of everything and it computes data around a highly limited social construct.

In order to turn a group of strangers into a community, you have to follow two basic steps: first, cultivate a shared interest among strangers and, second, give them the opportunity and means to interact with each other around that interest.

Aside from the fact that one doesn’t need a video game to create this type of needlessly limited community (why should people “interact”around a singular interest?), this is a troubling Kinsey-like approach to socialization. As anyone who has ever attended a science fiction convention knows, a common interest doesn’t necessarily ensure a lasting social bond. But don’t tell that to McGonigal, who confuses this grouping with communitas, “a powerful sense of togetherness, solidarity, and social connection. And it protects against loneliness and alienation.” Let’s see how well communitas worked out during the Blessed Sacrament procession, courtesy of Michael J. Sallnow’s Contesting the Sacred:

During the Blessing Sacrament procession, therefore, space becomes highly contested, as Hospitallers and pilgrims jockey for position. Since the brancardiers are heavily outnumbered, they rely on persuasion and their official status to defend the space which has been marked out by their senior officials. As the ceremony approaches its climax, the boundary between sick and healthy pilgrims becomes ever more difficult to maintain, as the faithful press forward to catch sight of the Host and of the clergy following the priest conferring the blessing. Such moments of intense religious fervour dramatically illustrate the uneasy co-existence of communitas and status, of solidarity and self-interest, which is so characteristic of the cult as a whole.

There’s a tremendous difference between buying a homeless man a meal (a tangible and immediate reward) and playing Free Rice — a game whereby the user answers questions (a virtual and unseen reward), with the promise of rice being delivered to a starving nation. I bring this up because, with Free Rice, McGonigal is willing to concede that “the grains are rice aren’t coming from the players — they’re coming from a small number of advertisers who agree to pay the cost of ten grains of bulk rice for every correct-answer page view.” Had McGonigal applied this rightfully skeptical eye towards games that are created with similar free market goals, then her book might have become an invaluable investigation on how games can extend beyond their present capitalistic concerns.

Jane McGonigal’s mind is broken. She is no more concerned with an honest approach to social change than a sleazy salesman who hopes you will buy his Ford Lariat. The Lariat will only get you ten miles to the gallon, but the salesman assures you that the experience is epic and will leave you with a feeling of fiero — unlike the Pontiac model.

UPDATE: Shortly after I posted a link to this essay to Twitter, Jane McGonigal responded (in a now deleted tweet) as follows.

I reiterate my tweet. I will happily challenge Ms. McGonigal to a public debate about her book. And because I’m so sad, I also welcome Ms. McGonigal’s lengthy refutation of my points — that is, if she has the guts or the chops.

UPDATE 2: To provide yet another example on how McGonigal’s idealism gets in the way of comprehending the available data, one can look no further than a recent “debate” in the Wall Street Journal. On January 25, 2011, McGonigal cited a recent Pediatrics study, claiming:

The study, conducted by the National Institute of Education in Singapore, found that gamers who played on average 30 hours a week or more were more likely to experience negative real-life impacts from their gaming, such as increased social anxiety or decreased school performance. But for gamers playing 20 or fewer hours a week, no such problems occurred. Once again, these results suggest that there is a fairly clear distinction between gaming enough to fuel our real lives and gaming so much that it interferes with real life.

But if one reads the PDF, one finds something altogether different:

Most researchers have assumed that would be similar to pathological gambling. The parallel seems justifiable, because both are assumed to be behavioral addictions that begin as entertainment that can stimulate emotional responses and dopamine release. People gamble or play video games for many reasons, including relaxation, competence, autonomy, and escape from daily concerns. Playing can produce “flow” states, in which the player is focused, has a sense of control, may lose a sense of time and place, and finds playing intrinsically rewarding. Playing is not pathologically initially but becomes pathological for some individuals when the activity becomes dysfunctional, harming the individual’s social, occupational, family, school, occupational, family, school, and psychological functioning.(Emphasis added.)

The study rightfully points out that its purpose is not to answer this debate, but “to provide new data that may be useful.” And the purpose of this essay is to point out that, if McGonigal were a responsible or a flexible thinker, she would take greater care with a word like “addiction” and address the scientific fact that pathological behavior emerges from video games (about 9% of gamers are pathological, according to the Pediatrics study), while simultaneously pointing to the benefits. A nuanced and adult approach offers a fairly clear distinction between a self-help huckster and a genuine thinker.

Sandkings Indeed

A free trial creature creator from Spore has been released. The creatures here are too cutesy to be considered for practical battle concerns. There is a paucity of dangerous teeth and minatory claws. Is a ruthless and self-serving alien creature who will have some life form for lunch too much to ask from Maxis? Is there no possibility here of a dangerous ecosystem?

I suppose we’ll have to wait for the final game in September before these evil possibilities — a la George R. R. Martin’s “Sandkings” — make their presence known. (That’s the thing about games from Maxis. They tend to turn very nice people into savage sadists.) Nevertheless, this free trial is dangerous. I have created a creature with about twelve limbs and a very large head. I have tried to sully its Disneyification, but to no avail. I am now leaving the house so that I can actually get some work done. But if you’re interested in this, i09 has nabbed Austin Grossman to reveal his thoughts on all this.

The Video Game as Art

In 2005, film critic Roger Ebert ruffled a few feathers when he suggested that because video games require player choices, games are therefore an inferior medium:

To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers. That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.

bioshock.jpgI can certainly agree with Ebert that video games are, for the most part, showcases for the latest gaming engines, primarily designed so that the individual will drop hundreds of dollars for a next-generation console system or a needlessly expensive video card that will be outdated in a few years (only to be replaced by yet another). We are now in the nickelodeon days, although, as the Wii demonstrates, the game controllers are getting more interesting. But this multi-billion dollar industry is less concerned with the human experience than it should be. It has come close with the Civilization games and the Sims offerings, and may come even closer with Will Wright’s much delayed Spore, an ambitious god game that permits the player to develop a cell and then control the natural development of this cell into a species, and then further manage the species as it plunges into space exploration. I’ve lost many hours feeling an ignoble cathartic thrill when fragging a junior-high schooler who, like me, should probably be reading a book. But I can justify my shameful vicarious pleasure by knowing that this is a medium that has yet to produce a Battleship Potemkin or a Birth of a Nation.

To suggest, however, that the video game will never find the same gravitas as cinema is to fall prey to same prejudicial thinking with which intellectuals once castigated cinema in the early 20th century. Let’s not forget that it took the motion picture around thirty years of technological developments before it was considered more than a gaudy amusement. And we have only just passed the 30th anniversary of the Atari 2600.

This New York Times article from September 7, 1913 suggests that the then primitive motion picture was, like the contemporary video game, very much about delivering spectacle to a mass audience. George Kleine, one of the key people who established the film industry in the United states and who had just made a cinematic adaptation of Quo Vadis? with a cast of 3,000 people (then an unprecedented number), is quoted in an eerily comparable manner about the future of the medium”

“I have plans for the future which make everything I have done so far seem to be mere child’s play. The educational end has not begun. Motion pictures will not supplant books in the public schools, according to my opinion, but they will revolutionize our educational system. Instead of being bored, the child will enjoy learning by object lessons conveyed by the use of moving pictures.”

ffever.jpgReplace “motion pictures” with “video games” and you essentially have what’s reflected in this 2002 BBC News article, in which a study reveals that games are not a substitute for books, but a way to help children learn. And if, like me, you grew up playing Fraction Fever (the ROM is here, if you’re an emulator geek) or any of the other Spinnaker titles, perhaps there is some credence to these theories.

There is also this commentary from the 1913 article:

There are many pictures being thrown upon the screen every day which, although not really harmful, possess no merit. Some are positively ridiculous, and portray scenes both unnatural and unreal. It is not to be expected, however, that with the demand for films exceeding the supply every production should be perfect.

It seems to me that Ebert’s Grumpy Old Man routine was published in newspapers a century before. The medium is the only thing that’s different.


Jason Rohrer’s surprisingly touching game, Passage, freely available for download and released a few months ago, quite easily destroys Ebert’s thesis that the video game is incapable of poetry. Rohrer achieves a unique poetry both in limiting the player’s perspective to a 100×16 window and through the deceptively simple manner that he has designed this game for the player. Play the game once and you will follow a strapping young man from left to right. He finds a woman along the way. A pixelated heart soon follows. As the man advances further along this horizontal tableau, he (and his sweetheart) begins to age. He goes bald. As he continues to age, his position on the axis shifts further to the right. Near the end of his life, he is hobbling. Then a tombstone crops up. The End.

Or is it?

The game isn’t limited to left-to-right movement. Play the game again, press the down arrow. and you will find yourself exploring a maze below the top, collecting many stars and stumbling for a way out. But with this simple design, Rohrer has done something very interesting. If you choose to fall in love with your sweetheart, the two of you can only explore certain areas. Because with your partner in tow, you collectively take up a wider space and can only fit into specific territory. If you choose to go through this life solo, then you’ll be able to collect many of the stars denied you and your sweetheart, but you may get lost in the maze and be unable to find your way back to where your sweetheart waits.

If Passage is not quite the video game’s answer to The Waste Land, Rohrer’s poetic game demonstrates that independent developers can in fact use the form in favor of human experience. Rohrer’s lo-fi approach is a welcome response to high-end graphical tentpole operations. I found myself thinking of all the choices I had made over the course of my life and wondered how I would have turned up if I had made slightly different decisions. Contra Ebert, I did indeed find the experience to make me more curious and empathetic about the human condition. (And this would appear to have been Mr. Rohrer’s objective.) This was something that no amount of fragging had inspired.

If all this sounds fishy, well, the game simply has to be played. Like any work of art, it is something better experienced than talked about. And it requires that superannuated naysayers keep open minds.