J.C. Herz is the CEO of Joystick Nation Inc., a consultancy which applies the principles of game design to the creation and reinvention of products and services. Prior to founding the company, J.C. was computer game design critic at the New York Times, and the author of two books, Joystick Nation: How Video Games Ate Our Quarters, Won Our Hearts, and Rewired Our Minds (Little, Brown: 1997) and Surfing On the Internet: A Nethead's Adventures Online (Little, Brown: 1995). She lives, works, and plays in lower Manhattan, and her favorite video game, after all these years, is Atari Missile Command.
tompeters.com asks J.C. Herz …
At the end of the preface you write, “This is my childhood and so my goals here are twofold: To trace the evolution of video games from blips to behemoths and to trace their radiation into our patterns of thought.” And I think you do that quite well in this book, but what prompted you to explore your past via video games?
JCH: I visited my parents and ended up digging into my old toy closet and found my Atari 2600, and I got hit with this wave of nostalgia because this was a favorite childhood toy and, in fact, one of the central axes of the house for the three kids in my family. It occurred to me that video games are the first medium that was born digital.
And I thought that this was really interesting, because here was an indigenous digital medium—and video games were twenty-five years old and I was twenty-five years old. The time seemed right. What I’ve done since then is completely immerse myself in this medium and try to draw out its implications, not just for the development of interactive media, but for marketing, for business purposes, how experiences are designed and should be designed, and what goes into the most compelling experiences that you can have with pixels. And I think that’s a very important thing to understand.
Now that I’m consulting, it’s like time-travel because there are questions and problems that have been asked and answered in the computer game industry that haven’t even occurred to the rest of the people who are working online.
Who are you consulting to, for instance?
JCH: Ericsson, General Motors, and I’m advising a number of Internet start-ups. I’m also consulting to a company called Hypercar, which creates enabling technologies for fuel-cell vehicles. Basically, big companies with big brands and little companies with no brands.
What I like about your book is that you’ve got some serious attitude in your writing, which is refreshing, but, for instance, on page 31 there’s this line: “Buy lots of ads, hire lobbyists, force your competitors to knuckle under, hire & fire, downsize, and watch your stock price soar,” which is a mock-CEO rant, yet the attitude there seems to be very anti-business—
JCH: I’m not anti-business, but I am anti do-things-the-way-they’ve-always-been-done, which is a big part of business culture, even now, in the era of constant flux and paying lip-service to all these new buzzwords. Comfort is a very important facet of business life, and people do what they’re comfortable with, and that’s the thing that I’m against because I think it leads to a lot of seriously unoriginal and innovation-stifling behaviors.
Hear! Hear! to that. You, as a young girl, were playing video games, but you make it clear—you have a chapter titled “Boys versus Girls”—that video games were not and still are not, to a great degree, geared toward women. Do you have brothers?
JCH: I have a younger brother, and I think if you look at the girls and women who are into video games and always have been, probably an overwhelming percentage of them have at least one brother.
So they’re drawn in through that male.
JCH: Right, it’s a social activity, and what can you do with a boy, particularly if you’re three years older than him? You know, a seven-year-old boy and a ten-year-old girl don’t have anything to say to each other except, “Do you want to play Breakout?”
Near the end of your book you discuss the military’s input into the world of video games and I had these visions of “Dr. Strangelove”…
JCH: The thing is, it has all come true. Truth is much stranger than fiction. This is why I don’t write novels. There is now a $45 million center at USC that is a joint effort between Hollywood and the Pentagon to explore technologies of mutual interest to the entertainment industry and the military. This is the reality. So, all of the two-hundred-frame-per-second-two-megapixel cameras that are running over there might end up shooting digital films for Hollywood or fixed onto tanks. This is the reality, and it’s only become more enmeshed since I wrote my book. I used to laughingly call that chapter of my book “the Oliver Stone chapter.”
The one about the military-entertainment complex?
JCH: But you know, the further you go, the deeper it gets. I wrote an article about what the military is doing with modeling and simulation. They’re trying to work with the computer game industry because the game industry has solved some technical problems that the military can’t quite hack yet. Doing a simulation with 100,000 simultaneous users is not something that the military has done. It’s something that EverQuest has done on Sony Online.
You have all these people in this medieval 3-D fantasy world, but the network platform that underlies it is one of the most technologically sophisticated pieces of code that exists on this planet for networked experiences, which is why the military is going to Sony, or, actually, why they’ve set up this center so that companies in the computer-game industry that don’t feel comfortable working with the Pentagon can have some neutral place to contribute knowledge.
It’s scary from my point of view because I’m old enough to be able to say “the military-industrial complex” as easily as I say “Mary Poppins,” so I read that chapter about how closely our armed forces and Hollywood are and I say, “Aha, they have been involved all the time.” Then you think back to the beginning of the Web as ARPANET, you realize the military actually has been involved in developing all this technology that we’re dealing with now.
JCH: Absolutely, the Internet started with DARPA. And in fact, the military people that I’ve talked to are more creative and open-minded than the vast majority of the corporate people that I’ve talked to, which is a shock. I just spoke at a conference at The Institute for Contemporary Art in London, and one of the other speakers was Dan Snyder, who coded the Marine version of Doom—really creative guy. He’s in the private sector now doing all kinds of modeling and simulation, and one of the things that he’s working on is an architectural tool that allows you to simulate military bases so that you can evaluate the security threat in terms of how far away the fences are from the buildings and the chances that a terrorist might be able to perpetrate some horror at any given point on that site.
So there’s a lot of interesting things going on, and one hopes that the large bulk of this activity moves from the real world of atoms where things are actually blown up to the world of bits where things are simulated so that lives can be saved.
Who is reading your book?
JCH: From my experience, a lot of people in the computer game industry, obviously, picked it up. A lot of people who are doing stuff on the Internet picked it up. And, curiously, a number of venture capitalists picked it up, which left me scratching my head because this was not my target audience. But I bump into people at conferences and it’s curious because a lot of them own my book, and that’s delightful, but I never would have predicted that so many people who are not either designers or Gen-Xers would be buying the books.
But in hindsight I think it does give a lot of insight into the emergence of media and also the generation that’s grown up with it. When I was a computer game critic at the New York Times, I received two kinds of email in response to those columns. One said: “Oh my God, you completely get it; this is my life.” The other said: “I finally understand my students; I finally understand my kid. Now I feel like I understand this stuff and can actually discuss it.”
And that was really rewarding because it’s no big deal, really, to communicate something—even to communicate it well to people who already basically know what you’re talking about—but to communicate something to a group of people for whom it is entirely unfamiliar, I think that’s an accomplishment and perhaps the one that I’m most proud of.
In a way I’m not that surprised that venture capitalists would pick it up, because they would be looking for something in that realm, but—
JCH: One of the things I’ve tried to do is create a critical language around interactivity. That was my basic mission at the New York Times. I wrote essays about design and the design of compelling interactivity, how that works and then how it’s marketed and how it fits into the larger popular culture and the business around it which is substantial. Few people realize that Pokemon alone is a $3 billion business. When I say that, people’s ears generally perk up.
Last year somebody turned me on to the game Half-Life. I thought, “Okay, I want to understand this.” I got totally involved in it, playing for three hours at a stretch. There’s something very compelling about it, but on the other hand it’s like somebody is yanking my chain and making me go through all these steps to try to figure out how to stay alive.
JCH: What “grownups” find most intimidating about computer games is that unlike television, they have a learning curve. The appealing thing about television is that it’s baby food. It’s all pre-chewed; all you have to do is swallow it. And that’s the opposite of a game, and that’s why people who play games are drawn to them. There’s a level of engagement there that is much stronger.
And I think that people who haven’t been brought up with it experience a degree of resistance because they feel like, “I don’t understand this, I’m not going to do this because I’ll look stupid.” That’s an adult reaction. Kids, when they start playing games, don’t know how to do it either, but the difference between a kid and an adult is that a kid is not afraid of failure. The kid screws up, he tries again. If an adult screws up, it’s suddenly a reflection on his identity.
And I think the barrier to learning a lot of technologically-oriented things is not cognitive—which is the argument, i.e., if you haven’t formed the neural pathways in childhood you’ll never understand—but is psychological. And it’s really interesting to work with people who don’t understand computer games but want to, because there’s a lot of psychological coaching that I have to do just to get them to feel okay about the fact that they don’t understand how to do everything immediately.
Who are you coaching?
JCH: Male and female marketing executives. If you’re trying to market something to a twenty-two-year-old, you better damn well understand this stuff. These executives don’t, but they want to, and it involves taking an hour or two, sometimes in the context of a consulting project, and just going through some of this stuff in an office with closed doors to make it more intelligible and less threatening.
I’ve seen a 44-year-old female marketing executive having a blast with Quake III.
I love Half-Life, but it is really scary. There are these ugly monsters that attack you and rip you to shreds and make these awful screeching sounds. Creepy.
JCH: Think about that. You had an emotional experience in digital media. How many people who run web sites of any sort can say that their sites inspire or provoke an emotional response? Not many. That’s what you’re shooting for, ultimately. There’s enough product information on the Internet. What there isn’t enough of is emotionally compelling experiences, and that’s the name of the game going forward, because people don’t have a lot of time. They want the big Wow!, and Flash graphics that jump up and down ain’t going to cut it. The novelty of that has worn off now and sites have to provide something significant and something persistent.
And that’s another thing that online games are doing that no one else is doing; when you go into a world like EverQuest or Ultima Online, it’s a place where things happen even when you’re gone. So, people feel an incentive to come back because they want to see what happened while they were away. That’s a very strong thing. Ideas like persistence, ideas like history, context—context is everything going forward. It’s not about content, it’s not even about the ability to make a transaction, it’s about the context in which you have an experience and the relationship created between you and the person or the company providing that experience.
I think for an older person the problem right now is the length of that learning curve.
JCH: Yeah, but there’s a lot of games that don’t involve that kind of twitch-action. Half-Life is a first-person shooter. That’s a very well-established genre, and it’s probably the most action-oriented of the games out there, but there are other types, like real-time strategy games, which are basically like Risk on steroids and acid. And it involves planning and it involves resource management and strategy as opposed to tactics.
And it might be set in some sci-fi universe or it might be set into a historical universe like Microsoft’s Age of Empires II, which is one of the greatest educational experiences I’ve ever had, because you have the Goths and the Franks and the ancient Arabs all vying for dominance in a medieval world, and you learn about the technologies that made the progress of society possible; different kinds of ploughs all of a sudden make it possible for people to farm more efficiently so that they have more resources.
You’re talking about CD-ROMs that are being played on a computer?
JCH: They’re on CD-ROMs but you can also play them online, and that’s a very important point. A lot of these games are fun to play on a computer, but the reason people keep playing them is that they can play against humans on the Internet and anyone who plays any kind of game, be it a first-person shooter or a real-time strategy game will tell you that human opponents are much more interesting than computer-generated opponents.
And there are some interesting dynamics that come out of that. For instance, in a lot of these real-time strategy games—like Age of Empires—there are seven factions in a complete game, seven players, and if people get on the Internet and there aren’t seven people available, the computer will supply the others. And, generally what happens is that the human opponents will ally with each other, gang up and kill the computer opponents before they compete against each other.
JCH: Because there’s something about mammals uniting against machines that drives the dynamics of that experience. It is such an interesting Petri dish and observatory for human behavior, because in playing games humans are the most human in their behavior; of any activity on the Internet, games are the ones that bring out the humanity in players. You really sense the presence of people and not just anonymous users.
We’ll end up doing studies of people based on how they play games?
JCH: Well, people are already writing dissertations on the social dynamics of massive multi-player online worlds. Because what do you have? Three hundred thousand people suddenly—you have a society forming and rules emerging and all kinds of customs and behaviors. If you want to be an anthropologist now, the most exciting work that you can do is in EverQuest.
Now, what is the line on EverQuest?
JCH: It’s a massive multi-player online game that is run on Sony Online. It’s a role-playing game, so you start with a character that has no gear and no powers, and by exploring the world and going on adventures you build up your character. That’s the fundamental dynamic of all the role-playing games. But, in this world, it’s not just you, it’s you and the people you find who you decide you want to form relationships with. There are guilds—and so it takes some aspects of online community that we already understand and raises them to a new level.
People who are both in this game email each other to say when they’re going to be there, and they form relationships; they help each other out. The game is structured to encourage that, and I think that this is an important point for business people in general; this is one of the generalizable lessons: you have to think about the structure of the experience, you have to think about what you’re doing in terms of the game design of it. What are the rules, what are the resources, and what are the rewards? I mean, these are basic principles of game design.
So, if you look at your web site as something that has rules—you have to do this before you do that—you start to get into some basic principles of information architecture. What are the resources that are available to the player, what are the rewards, and what do they get? And I think to even temporarily conceive of the “user” as the “player” is a useful exercise because it completely focuses you on “What is that person getting out of it?”
You’re consulting with people, helping them with their web sites that are basically information sites, but saying, “Take the rules of these online games which present you with this fabulous experience and apply those to this site even if you’re not playing role-playing games here.”
JCH: Right. And so the first argument is, “Oh, these games are so technologically sophisticated and we don’t have the resources,” but it’s not about technological sophistication, it’s not about 3-D, it’s about experience design. Some of the most satisfying games can happen in 2-D. They’re completely simple but they have great rules. Backgammon is a game with really great rules, and you don’t have to do it in 3-D. And the soul of it is interaction; what kind of interactions happen in this game? What’s possible and where do the stakes go up? If two players play backgammon, the better player will always win because it’s not about the dice, it’s about your ability to evaluate risk and your ability to evaluate somebody else’s risk tolerance.
How many hours a week do you spend playing video games?
JCH: Less than I used to. When I was writing my Times column, I spent ten to twenty hours a week playing, but not as a player, more as a critic. Now that I don’t play games anymore as a critic I actually enjoy them more; I play them more just to play.
The final chapter of your book discusses simulations such as SimCity and SimAnt and real world simulations like budgeting programs. You discuss how you plug something in for a certain variable, and that action, that information, has a result. One might feel that she is in control of the simulation, but your final phrase is, “It’s good to know who’s making up the rules,” by which you mean the underlying assumptions that govern outcomes. There’s a certain kind of sinister tone to your statement, though. Is it a warning to gamers of the world?
JCH: I think it is a warning. I think that the power of our technology—particularly as computers get faster and memory gets cheaper—is to provide verisimilitude to a fictional experience. All of a sudden, everything has great resolution and it’s possible to imagine that this is very much like the real world. But the thing that you have to remember is that it’s a designed world, that any system you go into has been designed and that there is intentionality in there, that people want you to have a certain kind of experience.
And if you go into someplace like Disneyland or Disneyworld, it’s very obvious that the place has been designed in a certain way to a certain end, and when you walk into it you agree to those rules, as it were, and you have that experience. But when you walk into something like a budget simulation generated by the GOP or the Democratic party, it’s not immediately obvious because you can’t see the gears and pulleys behind the data, how that particular world is skewed—and they all are.
If you get into any kind of game the thing that you have to be cognizant of is, “What are the rules here and who’s making them up?” And I think that applies not just to games that you play online but any game, in the sense that business is a game: You have to be cognizant of the rules and who makes them up.
But when people are playing a computer simulation, do they think of the computer as a neutral entity?
JCH: Yes. Because in order to immerse yourself in the experience you have to forget the technology that makes it possible. You are not thinking, at this moment, about the technology in a telephone or all of the switchers and routers that convert the electronic signals in New York into a message that gets to your ear. So you’re completely unaware of this and that’s why you can immerse yourself in this conversation.
Because the Web is so slow, however, people are aware of the technology. They’re aware that a web page is loading, which is why there are very few immersive Web experiences. People online are constantly being reminded about the technology and about the means by which this experience is created.
When we get to the point where you don’t even know that you’re going on the Web, when you’re actually having an experience through the medium rather than of the medium, then you start to get into the real important and compelling stuff. And that’s what games have already done. You’ll notice that there aren’t any games sold in stores that take place through a browser.
If you play a game online, whether it’s Half-life or Everquest or any of the games that you can buy now, they all connect directly to the Internet. They’re going to the same ISPs, they’re taking the same routes to the same places, but they don’t happen in a window that has “Forward,” “Back,” and “My Favorites.” And that’s important because people tend to consider the Web and the browser to be synonymous, but it ain’t necessarily so. Look at ICQ.
JCH: That’s the instant messaging company that was bought by AOL. That’s not Web. It’s an Internet experience; it’s a network experience. Network experience doesn’t necessarily mean the Internet; it might be a mobile phone, it might be a television. It might be something on your computer screen that doesn’t take place in a browser. And I think that people are very hung up on the browser. But again, this is conventional thinking, this is, “Do it the way that it’s always been done,” and it leads to innovation-stifling behaviors.
So the browser itself is a barrier?
JCH: There’s a game coming out called Black & White this Christmas which is going to be one of the top-selling games, designed by a genius named Peter Molyneaux. If you want to interact with other players, you go to this castle and in one of the rooms you interact with other people on the Internet who are all on their computers in the same room of the same castle in their world.
And that gets around a lot of the clutter that you have to experience because everyone’s pushing ads at you on the Internet. It’s very pure. This designer wanted people to stay within the experience which he had designed—which is exactly what any brand wants. You definitely want to control the experience to that extent, or at least not to be compromised by other kinds of experience that you don’t control. And it’s possible. It’s not a technological challenge; it’s a design challenge and it’s a challenge to think differently.
It’s architecture, in the end. You design the buildings, you build the buildings, you completely control the environment that someone experiences while they’re in that building. What they do there is up to them. There are certain basic rules, in this case, the laws of physics; you can’t fly up to the ceiling. In the computer game world those are arbitrary, but you control the experience, as an architect, of a beautiful building which makes it a beautiful experience.
If you’re talking about designing experiences and the game people have already been doing this for five years, but the rest of the world just hasn’t taken them seriously—it is time to take them seriously.
JCH: I think it’s a language. I think that even if you’re not providing an “entertainment” product, if you’re providing a different kind of product, it’s still useful to think of what you’re doing in terms of rules, resources, and rewards. Because having to determine where the payoff is—which is something that game designers have to do constantly—they have to schedule the rewards in the world so that people keep going through the experience.
Having to identify where the payoff is for the customer is really important because all of a sudden you think, “Okay, the initial payoff is when the person sees the packaging because we’re going to design the packaging in such a way as seeing it provides this kind of visual payoff.” And then when they open it and take the thing out there’s this other payoff, and when they use the product there’s another payoff. And then, in the ongoing relationship that they have through registering the product, getting into the web site—where are the payoffs? And scheduling those—that’s a very useful way to think and that’s a game design point of view.
So will this be known as the three Rs of experience: rules, resources, and rewards?
It’s a good phrase.
JCH: I have a system of communicating the principles of game design that makes it relatively easy for people who are unfamiliar with it to understand what’s going on.
But this is the challenging thing, right? Technology is changing so fast, the media is changing so fast that even quite intelligent people are at a loss. And I don’t view my clients as lacking in intelligence, I view them as lacking in a certain kind of knowledge. And what I try to do is create a bridge between the kind of knowledge they have and the kind of knowledge they need. And that’s a relatively difficult thing to do initially, but then once you’ve come up with that system—you tweak it and you keep tweaking it and eventually it works pretty well.
Favorite Web sites?
www.onion.com The Onion is my homepage right now—that’s a guilty secret. It’s just nice to see something on the Web that’s not taking itself too seriously. It also strikes me as one of those things that works really well in multiple media. I mean, what do you really want to experience on a PalmPilot? War and Peace? No way. You want some silly article on politics.
www.siegelgale.com It’s a little cheesy to plug the people who booked me into the CRAVE Conference, but I think siegelgale rocks and I think their website is amazing.
www.joysticknation.com/mixer This is my art project for the season. It’s called “The Mixer.” You’ll understand what it’s about when you go there.
www.16color.com A good example of how a simple thing can be successful with no marketing. It’s called “Sixteen Color Cinema.” It’s an animation tool that allows someone with zero art skills to create a cartoon that looks like it came out of Colecovision. I think it’s a good example of user-created content and how to do it right, because most sites that generate user-created content are so awful; the quality level is so low because the experience isn’t structured correctly. The rules aren’t there for good, standard content. But a lot of tool design is about structuring the experience in such a way that the things produced are of high quality. And if you can produce a really good tool you’re going to raise the standard of what’s made. And “Sixteen Color Cinema,” as simple as it is, is a good example of that.
JCH: Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, which I reread at least once a year because it’s very provocative intellectually and deep without taking itself too seriously.
Are you working on a book?
JCH: I’m thinking of putting together a book, basically drawing together the stuff I’ve been thinking about for the last year about context and design, but I think that has to bake for a while longer before I’m ready to take it out of the oven.
www.nytimes.com/library/tech/reference/indexgametheory.html, the New York Times web site featuring J.C.’s articles (you’ll have to register at the site to get access to the articles)
Quake II: www.quake3arena.com/
Ultima Online: www.uo.com/
Age of Empires II: www.microsoft.com/games/empires/
Diablo II: www.planetdiablo.com/diablo2/
The Onion: www.onion.com/
The Mixer: www.joysticknation.com/mixer/
16 Color Cinema: www.16color.com/