In What Are You Playing This Weekend? we discuss gaming and such with prominent figures in the pop-culture arena. We always start with the same question.
Steven Johnson is the author of several books that cover a dizzying array of topics, including Where Good Ideas Come From, The Ghost Map, and Everything Bad Is Good For You, in which he argues, among other things, the positive influence of TV and video games. Johnson’s new book, Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age, makes the case that the internet offers unprecedented opportunity for decentralized, peer-networked solutions to once-intractable problems. The Gameological Society talked with Johnson about how his latest thesis applies to gaming.
The Gameological Society: What are you playing this weekend?
Steven Johnson: Well, I’m on book tour, so there’s very little play. When I get home, I will no doubt be watching my children—who are obsessed with Uncharted 2, or Uncharted 3, I guess—on the PlayStation. Which I might join them a little bit for. Book tour tends to suck up all your spare fun time.
Gameological: Is it a different experience for you, playing games with your kids? As opposed to gaming before they were around?
Johnson: The coolest thing that we had for a while there—they haven’t been playing it as much—we had this great thing going which one of these days I want to write about. We both were playing kind of separately that game Dawn Of Discovery. It’s a beautiful game that simulates a 14th-century trading empire. It’s a classic simulation, very complicated, with lots of variables. One of the things that’s so powerful about it as an intellectual exercise is that you have to think on all these different scales and from all these different perspectives. So you have to think like a city planner, an admiral, a spice merchant, some industrialist type who is building an iron mine, and this is what they’re doing for fun, building this little trading empire.
Gameological: Sounds educational.
Johnson: Well, what was interesting is that I was playing my version of it, and then my two older boys were kind of playing in parallel, in a separate world. And you could basically choose to build an incredibly militaristic empire where you attack all the other islands and take over their goods. Or you can be a peaceful capitalist and trade with all these other countries. So I would take this nice peaceful route, and my boys, being nine-year-old boys, would build up these vast navies, and then they’d get attacked and their fleets would burn down, and then they would be out of money. It was a case study in literally the cost of war. Look guys, at how much money I’m accumulating, and you guys are totally bankrupt.
Gameological: So I guess ruinous warmongering isn’t included in the Everything Bad Is Good For You umbrella.
Johnson: When I wrote Everything Bad is Good For You, my children were very young. I used to joke that I would write a sequel when they were teenagers called You Know What I Said Last Time? We kind of started dividing up their game time into games that are challenging in the ways that I was writing about, and the games that are less challenging. You have a certain amount of time you can spend playing games, but it can’t be all first-person shooters. You have to have some Minecraft, or Dawn Of Discovery, or some kind of world-building game that is part of your time. It’s not that they’re educational games in the traditional sense—it’s not like they’re learning algebra or anything. But I think it’s a good thing for parents to think about with their kids, dividing up genres of games.
Gameological: In your new book, you talk a lot about decentralized creation, kind of a constellation of independent nodes that come together to make these great things. How is this applicable to gaming, in your opinion?
Johnson: There are kind of two things there. The first is that the small shop games that are showing up because of the tablets and the phones where it’s so easy to develop the little app and have it take off, and that’s good to see because there is more diversity in the game creation community and more experimentation, and it’s not just like Madden 2014, you know? That’s part of the argument of the book, that you want to have more decentralized sources of creation.
But the other thing is the Minecraft phenomenon, which I don’t fully understand, but there’s this kind of sense of this whole alternate reality being built collectively. In Minecraft, by starting with something very simple, with these elemental, literal building blocks—and then you open it up and let people fashion more and more complex things out of that. I feel like it’s going to end up like Wikipedia. This really simple-input kind of collaborative editing thing, and 10 years later, you have the most comprehensive encyclopedia known to man.
Gameological: I’m terrified that one day Minecraft reality will swallow real reality.
Johnson: It’s amazing. It’s one of these examples I try to celebrate in this new book. Frankly, starting with the internet, where people who got together and are really contributing their labor and their ideas—with defining how the internet should work without trying to own those ideas, or patent those ideas. In this kind of open, vast collaboration creating these huge epic things that change the world. If we’re having this conversation 40 years ago, all these things that we now take for granted—whether it’s Wikipedia, whether it’s something like the web, or something like open source software—40 years ago, the whole idea of this kind of collaboration would sound like the most ridiculous fantasy. Like something that someone would’ve been talking about in a commune in northern California. Now we can look at them, and we can say, hey, actually this works. This kind of collaboration actually built stuff. It’s a very cool time to be thinking about these things.
Gameological: In the book, you also have a section on the ramifications of Kickstarter. Is crowdfunding the future of game development?
Johnson: I think we will see more and more. Here’s another really great dimension that I actually didn’t talk about in the book—it comes from Wikipedia—that I think is going to be increasingly commonplace. So, the “stub” in Wikipedia. That’s a huge part of how Wikipedia works. Not just people writing entries, but pointing out what should have an entry. There’s a hole here we need to fill, and by identifying the hole a bunch of people will come and fill it. In the Kickstarter model, there’s a little bit of that. Someone says, I’m a creative person—I’m a game designer, or a musician, and I’ve got this stub of a project that I think the world should have, and I need $10,000 or a million dollars to finish it. Help me reach my goal.
Just having that mechanism has been amazing, the success of it. It’s this kind of miraculous thing that shouldn’t work in practice but somehow does. The next step, maybe there’s a process whereby the peer network of ordinary folks can propose things that should exist in the world, and then that kind of request triggers game designers to come and build it and then they get funding from the crowd as well. So you have a totally different kind of mechanism, like the crowd is saying this is what we want, somebody build this, and then people kind of compete to get the right to build it, and then they get funds from future buyers of it, and then it gets built. The whole process is kind of bottom up all the way through.
Gameological: Maybe I can finally get that Mortal Kombat-style fighting game pitting bloodthirsty Victorian poet against bloodthirsty Victorian poet off the ground.
Johnson: The other thing about gamers is that the line between being a game player and a game creator is so much blurrier when compared to people who watch movies. Ninety-nine percent of the people who watch movies have no ambition to make their own movie. Lots of gamers are tinkerers, though, and they build mods and there’s something about the nature of a game that’s interactive. There are a lot of armchair game-designer expertise in that community that could be unlocked if you gave people the right button for it.
And now, we put the question to you. Tell us what you’ve been playing lately, and which games—video or otherwise—are on your playlist for the weekend.