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John Romero: Video games are the ultimate art

As the virtual world increasingly becomes as vivid as the real one, the video games industry is poised to transform entertainment, education and social relations. We talk about this with legendary game designer and programmer, John Romero.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: John Romero, award-winning game designer, programmer, I'd say, a legend. Welcome. Great to have you on our show today. Hi. 

John Romero: Hi. Thanks for having me here. 

SS: Right. So, the video game money-wise seems to be the king of entertainment. I mean, it's outselling everything — music, movie industries — in America at least in recent years. Yet, the general public's view of video games still seems to be as time-wasters for geeks. Why is that? I mean, are we missing something important behind the stereotype?

JR: I'd say that's probably just older people who think that because everybody who has a phone is playing games on it usually. You know, you can see everybody around you like playing around, doing some stuff on their phone. You know, the mobile industry is massive for a reason. That's because people are playing games on their phones. And the funny thing is anybody who thinks that games are a waste of energy –do they play baseball, or watch baseball or watch football or basketball? You know, any of those sports, those are games. Do they play chess, checkers? Do they play board games, cards, you know, you name it. They're all games, people do play games. I don't know of many people who don't play some form of game.

SS: Yeah, but, you know, you're absolutely right that that's the stereotype of the older people who have this opinion. But I guess I can do a review because I had this conversation with my grandma before I was getting ready for the interview. And she thinks like, yeah, of course, we play games, because I had the exact same argument, she loves to play chess. She thinks it's the best thing for her brain. I was like, ‘Well, what was the difference?’ She was like, ‘Well, chess kind of like develops my brain and makes it elastic, and when you're glued to your phone, it makes you dumb.’ I didn't know what to say to her, to be honest. Do you have something to say to her?

JR: It all depends on what you're doing on your phone. You know, if what you're doing on your phone doesn't require you to think much, then maybe you just be like, ‘Oh, it's just passive consumption of media,’ you know, versus people who are playing games having to make strategic decisions constantly or trying to solve a puzzle, like thinking mathematically. There's so many games that require all different kinds of thinking that are not just passive media consumption, which is like TikTok and YouTube and stuff like that. But that also, I wouldn’t say, is making people dumb. It's just, you know, how do you choose to spend your time? If you choose to spend your time entertaining yourself how do you want to entertain yourself? Well, you can watch YouTube, you can play a game, you can read, you can do whatever you want, it’s your time. However you want to spend it is kind of up to you. So people all make different choices with how they spend their time.

SS: I mean, the age of an average gamer is not 16 anymore, I completely agree, it's actually closer to 35. How has that happened? Once again, the stereotype is adults are supposed to have stuff to do, why do they have time to sit around and play games on their phones or whatever?

JR: Well, the games have such a high production value nowadays that they're becoming attractive to people who looked at like, you know... TV as being a valid form of entertainment, a valid form of something that they should put their valuable attention towards. And when the production values of games got really high quality over the past, say, 15 years, and also games becoming more mainstream. The designs not being made solely for super experts in games but the mass casual audience who have a lower literacy than people who are like hardcore shooter players, you know, hidden object games, adventure games, story-based narrative games, simple puzzle games, that kind of stuff, everybody can play those things, and they're really fun. When you're watching a show on TV, you're watching a story, you know, it's like, well, you can play a narrative game instead if you want, and actually control yourself in the game instead of passively watching it. So I think the new designs of games have attracted more of a mass audience to games. And that's why the age level goes up. Like they're the ones actually with all the money, right? You're buying games for the kids who are under 18. The ones with the money are actually the older demographic. And when I was making Facebook games, the number one demographic on Facebook was a 43-year-old women, that was who people needed to make games for because they're the ones who are on Facebook and they're socializing, they're connecting with people. And they want to play games where they can socialize and connect with their friends or other people and gain any kind of advantage or something extra in the game through that. And that's why Facebook games got so big, it was through the demographic that was playing games.

SS: You know, I'm thinking like the entertainment of Hollywood, it follows a certain formula, right? You as a spectator are drawn into the narrative where you empathise with the heroes, they go through some trouble, they get through it, the film delivers a catharsis in the end, it's like a straight-line experience. And then it's kind of like no matter what, you feel good at the end. With video games, it's different. It works differently. What is the source of pleasure there? What ‘hot buttons’ of our psychology do they push?

JR: All different games push all different kinds of buttons because they're not the same. None of these games are the same. There are a lot of games that people love, that are story-based games that have crazy imaginative environments that are telling a really unique story through the environment. And at the end, you're crying because it's just... What a story! Totally different than a shooter where you know, everybody's jumping out of a plane parachuting down at some crazy speed, to just land in an environment and start mowing each other down and grabbing gear out of houses that are all over the place. Completely different games that give people completely different, I guess, entertainment, you know, like some people like a certain type of entertainment and there's a huge amount of genres out there that are always pushing the boundaries that the people who are into something, they have a game for them already. If you can't find the game out there that you're interested in look at Indie games, because that's where all of the imagination and the experimentation is taking place. And the best parts of those games are being pulled into mainstream. But yeah, everything is out there, you just got to look for it. There's a lot of people who, you know, anyone that thinks a specific way about games, like negatively about them hasn't explored what's actually out there in games. And I think they would be really amazed when they did look, and just look at like the best or whatever games of 2021 and look through the list and just watch some videos on YouTube, they'll be like, ‘oh, wow, I really want to play that’ because you only know when you actually watch the videos and like kind of go a little bit deeper or even are exposed to the idea of something that you've never heard of before. So it's really, discoverability, as always, it’s the number one thing out there.

SS: Do you think there is a place for genuine non-commercial art in video games? And can a video game that is trying to do art be massively successful?

JR: Well, it's funny because the definition of video games as art is been around for a long time. And I truly believe that games are like the ultimate art medium. It's not like a single painter painting something or a single person creating something. It's a group of people that have to do very intricate, different intricate jobs at a really high level to create an experience that is not guaranteed to be interesting. And it takes a lot of time to actually make something interesting out of all of these people and ideas and expertise. And shipping a game is extremely hard to do, you know. And that is an art form, there is an art to coming up with those designs, there's an art to like even programming any of that stuff, you know, programmers do not have a template where like, ‘Oh, I have to take a life away for this thing, or this character is going to double jump over here.’ The way that you program that is always solved in a completely different way for every programmer who's going to write it. So it's like an artist who's thinking about like, what they're going to put on the canvas right now and how they're going to put on the canvas, and how they're going to move their arm when they do it. It's exactly the same way that programmers and artists work in video games, they got to solve this problem in the way that their medium allows. And they have to do it extremely creatively and in a way that produces a really great result. And at the end of it, you have this big game. You know, some games nowadays are made from thousands of people working together, like 3500 people working on a game together at multiple companies. And when it comes out, you know, it looks great. It's like saying a movie isn't art, you know, and you look at the credits list of a movie, that's like a major movie, everybody loves it, there are hundreds if not thousands of people listed in the credits for half an hour or an hour of scrolling credits. Those people are creating art, you know, it is artistic to put the stuff together. It is not guaranteed to be good. It is hard to do. And a lot of people like living in these spaces that we create, because to them, there's a connection like when people stand in front of a painting and they try and feel a connection and they're trying to get it. You get it when you're in a game, you feel that connection. I know people who have lived in worlds that I've created, they've gotten married, they've met together in these worlds and they’ve got kids and everything in these worlds because to them it’s as real as the real world.

SS: I mean, you’re really just asking for me to ask the following question about living in a real world and a virtual one – I mean, the big part of the video game appeal is that they make you feel that you're better at game life that you're at real life, right? You master the game, then you beat it level after level, and it's clear what's good and what's not and you get better and then you win. I mean, it is much easier than in life, really. Even if it's true, that one is better at a game than in life, do you think that it is more therapeutic for people or is it like kind of running away from real-world problems to solve?

JR: Well, you know, playing a game is like an escape, you know, it's like, you're going to escape into another reality and for a lot of people, that is the reality that they love more than their actual reality, or, you know, if they like their actual reality even more, maybe they're not playing games that much. But you know, having alternate realities to experience or even live in, like, say, World of Warcraft as an idea, especially during a pandemic, where you couldn't go anywhere, in these game worlds, you can go everywhere. You know, choose the game that you want, any open-world game, choose it, and you are now on a vacation, in a place where you're like, flying helicopters or you're on beaches, you're in a city driving whatever car you want, you name it. These are getaways, they're vacations, they are giving you opportunities to do something that you will never, ever be able to do in real life. If you've ever played an instance or raid in World of Warcraft, where you're working with 25 other people to try to take down massive characters that you will never see in real life ever and do it in a choreographed way that you have to learn. And if somebody doesn't do it right, the entire 25-group of people will all basically have to start over, because somebody failed in their job, and how everybody has to depend on each other. These are teaching a lot of things, it’s teaching teamwork, it’s teaching people how to do a lot of things that may relate in the real world in some ways, but on the whole, it's just this great place to be, that lets you do things you could never do, and experience things that you could never experience. And we are very close right now to being able to actually talk to AI characters in a game, and have those characters reply back in ways that no two people will hear in a game. I could ask an AI something about [something that] has nothing to do with the game. But I can ask an AI character or something. And they'll respond to me and they'll answer me with a response that no one else will probably get when they play the game. And that's what AI and machine learning is starting to do in games now where you're actually able to play with characters sidekicks and talk to them like you would talk to anybody that you're on an adventure with, and have an actual conversation and get information. And you know, when that starts happening, and that starts getting really good, then you'll see how many people are actually living in games when they feel closer to the people and the AIs in the games than they do in real life. But you know, that's on its way right now.

SS: What do you think about the education aspect and potential of video games? For instance, I read that way back when the federal budget balancing committee had an idea about developing a game that will teach Americans how to balance the federal budget. I mean, does that even sound like fun? In general, do you think that video games can really carry a meaningful educational weight, or trying to do that kind of takes a whole point out of them, which is fun?

JR: There's a lot of ways that games can teach education. It's such a huge topic, it's such a huge area that is now starting to grow. Games and even VR is being used to help people in therapy, you know, burn victims or people that are trying to recover from strokes. There are so many types of games that can educate. There are no mainstream big games that educate like a supplement to going to school like, like, say, a game where you're focusing on doing something that's really fun. And one of the fun things that you can do in the game is something that is actually exposing you to math concepts that actually makes you feel like, ‘Oh, I like to solve these things, these are really fun.’ And the fact that you were actually able to solve those things as a kid when you're, let's say, playing this game, the way that you're solving them makes you think in a certain pattern. And when you're in school, and you're in math class, and you encounter this type of problem, but you've solved it in a different way with a different representation in a game and you're solving it in real life and you're like, ‘Oh, this is like that game! Oh, this is cool, I know how to do this already.’ And so, as a kid, you feel like, ‘this game is really useful to me, I didn't even know that I could do this, and now with this math, they’re teaching me how to do this.’ And you'll answer it, and you'll like it. And now, because you have exposed kids to math concepts in the game that makes it easier for them to learn math in real life, you now have somebody who might be on the path through a STEM career at some point where math is a gateway to success. And you might have somebody who is really interested in it now because it's not hard or scary anymore. And so games as for education – there's a lot of promise for that. That's the way to get kids excited about games and education together when they don't even know that they're being educated. But they like... You know, a history, a history game, or a narrative game about history, where a kid is playing a narrative game, and they didn't know that they were just learning this thing from history, and that they know the whole thing because they remember the story because it was so engaging. So yeah, education in games is gonna be a huge thing in the future.

SS: You know, there's a movement in the performance arts that is playing with interactivity, immersive theatre, role-playing, real-life quests – it seems like some people are really trying to put video games elements into other mediums into real life. Is this kind of video game influence on other aspects of our lives going to actually grow? And if yes, in what forms? What do you think?

JR: Yeah, I mean, it's called gamification. And there's a lot of that happening. Because there are a lot of opportunities to make things that may be mundane more fun. Like even shopping, going shopping somewhere, you know, a lot of retailers are trying to figure out how can they gamify the shopping experience that is not just a simple reward, coupon-type of thing? How can they make it a game that gets people to come back over and over again? And how do we get them to download our app on their phone and use it in the store to maybe hunt down stuff? You know, or like turn the retail space into part of the game that's on the app, and, and make their store like something that people will remember because they did this experience in their store and they want to go back and do it again? There's a lot of ways that, you know, businesses are trying to figure out how to gamify things that have never been gamified before because people are so used to playing games, that it's easier for them to get into than it would have been 20 years ago.

SS: Here’s like a reverse question. What, do you think, will video games never be able to do to the consumer? Is there an experience that you think a video game cannot deliver by design?

JR: I don't know about that. You know, like, if somebody is blind, maybe you know, games not gonna let them see, I don't think, maybe there's a way that somebody can figure that out in the future. But really, I think the games can do basically anything, especially when they're paired with a real-world technology, a real-world device. You know, like, our phones are the one thing reaching into the real world from a computer or a console or whatever, or the internet. But games can do basically anything that people want to do. People are always thinking of new ways of engaging people in a new world or in a new activity. So I can't really think of anything that people would want to do that a game can't deliver, you know, whether it's virtual or it's tied with real-world stuff.

SS: I've heard that artificial intelligence is being developed that will actually learn not only how to be a game-changer, but how to design games themselves. Do you think that's a viable way forward for video games? And, you know, will that put people like you out of business eventually?

JR: There's a lot of work on using AI and machine learning to create parts of games. And the nice thing about it is that basically means maybe the dev team isn't as big because there's AI that's doing the bulk of the work. But also, the AI doesn't know what to do if someone's not telling them what to do. If there's an AI that people are using to, let's say, generate level designs, there's an AI that's used to generate level designs and there's a seed that you feed to it to learn a certain type of level design. So everyone's game isn't the same, because if games become the same no one's going want to use that AI anymore, right? Because it's like, ‘Oh, it's using the AI that generates these levels, I've done this game.’ So there has to be differentiation, if you're going to use an AI, that means that you have to teach it in a certain way, that means you have to have something that's really different to teach. And those are not going to be done by other AIs, they have to be done by a person who has a vision for a game, and a place that you want the game to take place in, and those things will need to be done by designers. And there could be at some point, instead of a team of people building these levels, you have a team of people building the teaching tools for the AI to generate the amazing stuff. Because in the future, if you're going to play a game that people are going to jump into it, and they're going to see a brand new level every time that they jump into the game, you're going to need a team of people who are not building levels, but they building AI teaching data to feed to the engine that then generates these levels. So there's always somebody that's going to have to be on a dev team using these advanced tools to get the output that they're looking for. So it's not like you'll be replacing level designers as level designers will probably step up and become AI designers and so there'll be new jobs for people to do.

SS: John, thank you so much for this wonderful insight into the world of video games. It's been a delight talking to you. 

JR: Cool, thanks. It's been fun.

SS: Good luck with everything. Thanks a lot.

JR: Thanks.

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