Originally appearing in 24:7 in December 1997, this interview with video games theorist JC Herz presents some startling prescience from the (then) young New Yorker, and some early ideas around game theory that have since become common notions. After publishing ‘Joystick Nation’, Herz went gone on to write for Wired and the New York Times and was a founding member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ ‘Task Force on Game Technologies’. According to a recent conference bio, she now devotes her time to exploring “massively multiplayer systems that leverage social network effects”.
J.C. HERZ : IMMORTAL COMBAT
First published in 24:7, 1997
The first thing that strikes you about 26 year old New Yorker J.C. Herz is just how much she loves to be thought of as “one of the kids”. In Herz’s universe, adults are just plain dumb, they suck big time and they’re as patronising as hell. But the kids are alright, they’re united in full on, thumb-numbing video game play – the day-glo word of competitive electronica is the thread that bonds them altogether. It doesn’t really matter how she sees herself – J.C. is witty and articulate and has a vast library of knowledge rammed in her cranium, the likes of which would have most of Mensa bowing out in deference to her genius.
In the U.K. to promote her latest volume of cyber theory, ‘Joystick Nation – How Videogames Ate Our Quarters, Won Our Hearts, and Rewired Our Minds’, J.C. has a genuine love of all things British and is quick to point out the debt the world owes to our home grown game boys. “There’s a generation of unbelievably talented video game designers in the UK because this is the land where cheap computers never died. In the States, computers were cheap in the Seventies and then suddenly they became these really fast, powerful, expensive monster machines whereas in the UK there were cheap computers everywhere, so a kid could get his hands on one and start tinkering around and, 10-15 years later, you have a generation of great games designers. There is tons and tons of new media activity here and it’s really exciting.”
The flavour of Joystick Nation is one of positivity – its mission is to reclaim game culture back from the abyss of jealous parents and spaced-out psychologists looking for an easy buck. There’s nothing malicious or brain-fryingly detrimental about video games – in fact J.C. asserts that the reality is quite the opposite.
“I think that one of the great things about kids and computers (whether it’s video game consoles or PCs), is that they teach themslves. You put a kid in front of a computer and he’ll just play around with it and after four hours he’ll be better at it than you are. Kids are very curious and very open and they don’t have a lot of the mental obstacles that adults have about learning. This happens in a big way with video games because you have a set of a problems to be solved, obstacles to be overcome, in a very rapid fashion. And kids have to create a strategy for solving those problems – that’s the game.
“Adults have this misconception that even fast paced games are purely twitch-response scenarios. Yes, you have to respond quickly, but there is actually a large amount of strategy involved in these games. There’s more strategy in a game like Tomb Raider than there is in Monopoly or Chequers. Adults freak out and for some reason perceive these games as brainless, but the mental energy being generated by these children would blow the circuits of most adults.”
According to J.C., the mental obstacles that adults are prone deep are wired deep into the canals of our brain, and in fact – as we grow older – those obstacles become larger and more stubborn.
“Children like things which are mentally stimulating, and video games are just about the most mentally stimulating thing that a kid can get his hands on. In fact, they are probably the most mentally stimulating thing that an adult can get his hands on (without going in for pharmaceuticals), but most adults can’t handle that much mental stimulation. They are too used to their cognotive routines – they are too comfortable with them – they don’t want them disturbed.
“What video games do is throw a completely new set of problems at you and you are supposed to solve them. Adults aren’t that comfortable with change – they aren’t comfortable with things that are new. All day long they work at their jobs, and they solve the same problems over and over – and the problems of having to solve new ones is just horrifying. For an adult change is frightening, but for a child change is fun.”
Ask J.C. what her favourite game is and she gets a little misty-eyed: “Missile Command for the Atari System” because “it is the ultimate Reagan-era fantasy apocalpyse game. There’s this moment right before it ends where the missiles are raining down and you know you’re about to lose and the world’s about to explode and it’s totally euphoric. You’re not just playing with colour and light, you’re playing with the concept of death – and I was really fascinated by that, because I could just press restart and bring myself back to life. I think that’s really the ultimate kind of thrill.” Ah, the thrill of apocalypse – we know it well…
Ask her which one she would love to have invented and she gives a split-second response: Tetris (“it shows you how powerful the simple ideas can be”). But isn’t Tetris the exception that proves the rule? It is undeniably a powerfully addictive game – I knew I had to stop playing it on my Game Boy when I started seeing block-like formations in my bathroom tiles, but isn’t every other game just a new version of a handful of old archetypes?
“I think that virtual sports really is a new thing – bringing the body into the virtual relam. Virtual reality will not come via goggles – goggles are a bust. They make you seasick and they make you look stupid. But standing in front of a fifty inch screen ski-ing, and having the interface being your feet and your knees – that’s virtual reality. That’s new. I’ve played Top Skater and I’ve played Alpine Racer and, cruising down those ski-slopes in cyberspace, you get that shoosh feeling. They are like interactive Disney rides – it kind of has to be that way becuase the home consoles have got so good that you can’t really trump them with visuals anymore. You’re going to have to trump them with motion.”
As the Atari Generation grows older and wiser, the minimalist white dot aesthetic of ‘Ping-Pong’ has been replaced with the vastly more spohisticated 3D virtual landscapes of Myst and Tomb Raider. That’s not to say, however, that game play is much improved on its skeletal ancestors.
“With the old vector games like Battlezone or Asteroids, they have the beauty of great minimalist art,” claims J.C., “It’s just the sheer, pure idea of something that you’re dealing with and it’s pretty gorgeous in a way. The better the tools get, the greater the temptation is for writers to get lazy and create something which plays in a really, unoriginal boring fashion but is visually dazzling. Whereas in a lot of the old games, the standard of games play was arguably higher and that’s why those games hold up. In a way it’s like pop songs. With a lot of those older games, the actual game design is brilliant – it’s just that the graphics suck, because technologically we didn’t have the tools to create these cinematic spectacles. You couldn’t dazzle people with visuals.”
Now blessed with a canon of personalities from tubby Mario to space-babe Lara Croft, the games industry has always been quick to cash in on the cult of the celebrity – something that J.C. finds both predictable and bewildering.
“Essentially we are back to the 1930s studio system where stars were entirely crafted and entirely controlled by studios. But the video game characters are not going to demand $20million for their next game and they’re not going to go and tear up hotel rooms or develop a serious drug habit – they are going to do exactly what they are told to do. We’re back to Max Headroom who is the grand-daddy of all these characters, because there you have this virtual guy based on a real human being, but he’s within the control of the network. This was all fortold on British television fifteen years ago and in fact Lara Croft is the bride of Max Headroom. One of these days you’re going to be playing Tomb Raider Seven and Lara is going to turn around and peel off her face and there will be Max…
“I think the Lara Croft phenomenon is interesting because it encapsulates all the factors that are populating modern video games. You have action adventure, you have cool chick that guys love to look at – and then you have the added twist that Lara is created by a British company and here we have Cool Britannia. All wrapped in one neat little package – technology, entertainment, Britishness – she’s the sixth Spice Girl. She’s Cyber Spice.
Maybe JC has a point – but let’s take the analogy one stage further, let’s pull all of the Spice Girls together into one amalgam, and what do you have? All of Lara’s attributes rolled out into five separate girls, her DNA split into single-channel stereotypes – Posh, Sporty, Scary, Baby and, erm, Ginger (surely we can see something of the flame-haired Norse warrior in Miss Croft?).
“People are so besotted with her and one of the things that I’m not sure they realise is that they fall in love with this character, but Lara is packaging. She’s beautiful packaging designed to sell software. And people are falling in love with packaging. They are falling in love with a marketing ploy. It gives a new presepctive to games packaging. Maybe if Bill Gates looked like Lara Croft he’d have fewer problems with the Justice Department. We wouldn’t have the image of some scary nerd sitting behind a desk in Washington – it would be some buxom, kick-ass chick taking over the world and trampling the opposition under her stiletto boot. ”
And as if that wasn’t a disturbing image to take away from this session, here’s J.C.’s final (and altogether quite likely) prediction for the future of online communities: “In the States, the fastest growing group of people online are of retirement age – because once they get over that basic technophobia, you can’t prise them away from the screen. They have nothing else to do but stay at home all day and chat in their little coffee clubs on America On-line. If you get things which are geared for older people, in five or ten years that’ll be a huge market, because we’re all getting older”. Lara Croft – Pension Raider – coming to a retirement home near you soon.