jenkinsh.jpg [NOTE: We at GameSetWatch have asked AlistairW of the excellent Little Mathletics weblog to come on board as a co-editor and conduct a number of interviews with diverse personalities exclusively for GSW - from dojin authors to game industry figures. This is the first in his 'GameSetInterview' series, a tremendously lengthy but equally fascinating talk with MIT's Henry Jenkins.]

Henry Jenkins is the Director of Comparative Media Studies Program and Full Professor of Literature at MIT. He has authored and edited 11 books, and has been studying videogames as media text since the early 90s from various perspectives, including the effects of interactive media on behaviour, which lead to his testifying before Congress following the Columbine High School massacre.

He has been described by Cory Doctorow of Boing Boing as "one of us: a geek, a fan, a popcult packrat" while Will Wright commented that "Henry Jenkins offers crucial insight into an unexpected and unforeseen future". His reseach is currently focused on "media convergence", the theory that the users of contemporary media combine muliple sources for an overall richer experience. His book on the subject, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, goes on sale in August.

Click through for the extended entry...

What is your history with videogames?

I played Pong when it first hit the market. I spent some time with early Atari and text-based adventure games. But then I zoned out on games for a while so that I could focus on my graduate studies. When I emerged on the other side, doctorate in hand, I was astonished at what had happened to the medium. Like Rip Van Winkle, I had slept through the collapse and re-emergence of the games industry. I rediscovered games when we bought my son an NES for Christmas. I remember plugging it into the set on Christmas morning, cranking up Super Mario Brothers, and feeling like we had just entered another realm of reality. If games had changed this much over the past decade, I thought to myself, then what would happen in the coming decades. So I became one of the first Humanities-based games scholars in the world and have been studying games, alongside a range of other media, pretty steadily over the past sixteen years.

Over this time, I’ve been involved in many different aspects of games culture. I’ve done consulting work and workshops for a number of different games companies—from Purple Moon to Electronic Arts. I’ve testified before the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee after Columbine and contributed to a number of amicus briefs designed to defend the rights of gamers. I’ve helped to lead a major research effort focused on games and education, a project which involves prototyping and testing games. I write a monthly column on games and game theory for Computer Games Magazine.

Has the industry progressed in the way you thought it would?

Nothing ever progresses in the way one first imagines because the most innovative possibilities are often the most counter-intuitive. I foresaw games as becoming more and more central to the entertainment sector, more integrated into the worlds of film and television. I think we can say that this has happened in dramatic ways—from the very complex ways that Enter the Matrix connects with the other materials in that franchise to the use of alternative reality games to promote Lost and Doctor Who or the recent announcement of a game for adult women focused around Desperate Housewives. I imagined games becoming a richer and more sophisticated storytelling medium—as we can see through the steady progression of the Final Fantasy series. I imagined more and more sophisticated interfaces—as might be seen from Guitar Hero or the new Wii. I imagined the emergence of game designers as auteurs—as is certainly borne out by the visionary work still being done in games by Shigeru Miyamoto or Will Wright. I would not have imagined or predicted the extraordinary expansiveness of game environments as borne out by Grand Theft Auto 3 or Animal Crossing.

I would not have predicted, despite my fascination with participatory culture, the unleashing of user generated content which has occurred across the games space—all of the skins, mods, and machinima that is being produced and the ways that some core companies have embraced that grassroots expression. I would not have imagined the huge growth of networked and multiplayer games or the emergence of alternative and augmented reality gaming or the rapid growth of mobile gaming.

I know you’ve been very interested in alternative reality games – what is it about them that interests you, and do you see them growing in popularity?

In my new book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, I am very interested in the coming together of three core ideas: Convergence, Participatory Culture, and Collective Intelligence. I use convergence not in the usual sense as a technological process—the bringing together of all media systems through some integrated black box—but in a broader cultural sense—describing a world where every story, image, sound, brand, and relationship gets played out across the broadest possible number of media channels. By participatory culture, I mean the power of everyday people to take media in their own hands. I argue that at the present time everyone seems to agree that our media scape is going to allow for greater participation from consumers (witness the push in games towards user generated content, for example) but that the big struggles right now are over the terms of participation—who sets limits on what companies or consumers can do and how can we as consumers take advantage of the power of networked computing to challenge the terms being set by corporate interests.

By collective intelligence, I mean the ability of large scale virtual communities, such as fan discussion lists, to achieve more collectively and collaboratively than they can achieve as individuals through their ability to pool knowledge. The concept of collective intelligence describes a world where nobody knows everything, everybody knows something, and what any individual member knows is accessible on demand to the group as a whole. The blogger and science fiction author Cory Doctorow describes this structure as an adhoc-cracy, distinguishing it from the fixed structures of a bureaucracy.

Okay, so that’s a long introduction but I hope it already starts to suggest what interests me about alternative reality games. Alternative reality games operate across all three of these spaces. First, they are informational scavenger hunts which disperse information across a broad range of different media channels. This goes back to the pioneering work which Neil Young did for Majestic, arguably one of the earliest and most influential examples of this practice. Second, they encourage players to create new media tools which they can use to process and communicate information. And third, they can only be solved by people working together as teams and tapping the power of social networks to solve problems. So Alternative reality games are, in a sense, the perfect illustration of all of the principles which I see shaping the media landscape at the present time. Perhaps even more interestingly, researchers like Jane McGonigal are arguing that people are moving from solving imaginary problems in alternative reality games to applying their collective intelligence to confronting real world challenges—looking for information about the Washington sniper, trying to track campaign finances. I believe right now we are acquiring skill and knowledge through our play which we will employ in more “serious” or purposeful ways later, but the speed with which these principles get integrated into education, government, activism, and even the military or religion is staggering.

So, yes, I think we are going to be seeing more alternative reality games. The movement is gaining momentum, though there is still not a fully developed business model for thinking about how to build on this trend yet, and so it is likely to remain in the hands of marketers on the one hand and amateurs on the other.

Do you consider yourself a gamer?

This is a challenging question. I’ve played games off and on across most of my adult life. My own tastes run towards casual games—I don’t have long periods of time to play games (not and do everything else my job requires) and I am not particularly well coordinated so I don’t end up getting to play as many hardcore titles as I might like. I try to make a point of spending some time with most of the more innovative or controversial titles to hit the market. I often get to talk directly with the designers about what they were trying to achieve. And sometimes I end up paying students to walk me through levels of a game so I can get a clear sense of what’s going on. I am not sure that makes me a gamer—but then, there are an awful lot of people like me who consume games alongside a range of other media rather than seeing them as the most important medium in their lives.

Which designers and which games have impressed you recently?

Like every other gamer and game critic on the planet, I suspect, the game that I most eagerly anticipate is Spore, which promises to be the triumph of the creative designer over the lethargy of a sluggish and increasingly formulaic games industry. Everything I read about Spore seems more impressive—it is stretching what we think of as games in every direction at the same time and knowing Will, he’s still got a few tricks up his sleeves that nobody has heard about yet. In terms of recent games on the market, I was very impressed by the character design interface on City of Heroes—as a comics fan, I can attest that they compressed down into basic building blocks the entire history of the superhero genre, creating a tool which allows every player to generate a multitude of different characters which never the less fit coherently into the world of the game. That’s a brilliant accomplishment.

In terms of imaginative game play, I would, again like most gamers I know, point us towards Katamari Damacy and Psychonauts. Both create radically different kinds of game play experiences and help to free games from that morbid preoccupation with photorealism. And for sheer fun factor, we’ve been having a blast playing with Guitar Hero in our departmental offices—it seems to really breakdown the wall between people and brings out everyone’s inner rocker. And if you want to see game design which stretches the envelope, you should always keep an eye on what Eric Zimmerman and the folks at GameLab are doing. They keep creating some of the most interesting casual games on the market and every game they make forces me to think about the medium in new ways.

Do you mean rethink in the sense that they’re doing things with casual games you didn’t possible?

Each game that comes out of GameLab asks us to think about the fundamentals of game design. Eric Zimmerman is an important game theorist apart from his role as a game designer. So, he uses his games to ask questions about the nature of the medium. Some of his games—Loop for example—are trying to see how to simplify the interface of games—it’s a game which can be played without a single mouse click. Others—such as Sissyfight 2000—explore the social dynamics between game players. Still others—such as Arcadia—focus on the perceptual challenges of multitasking and resource management, suggesting how much better we are at playing games today than when the first arcade games emerged. And still others—such as Diner Dash—introduce totally new play dynamics into the form. Yes, each stretches what we mean by a casual game, but each also asks us to think about what we mean by a game, period. It is interesting that Zimmerman is now working with James Paul Gee and the MacArthur Foundation to try to develop some templates and tool sets to allow kids to design their own games as part of learning about the design process. I can’t wait to see what they come up with.

Do you think there is a demographic toward which videogames are aimed, and how do you think this affects the quality of output by the industry?

Let’s be clear: games are the product of a media industry. All industries know who their consumers are. Games are made with particular consumers in mind. Right now, the core of the games industry is male; most are somewhere in their teens and twenties. This is the group which is best served by the games already on the market. They buy the most games; they spend the most time playing games; they are the hardcore gamers. The percentage of women who fall into that group is growing year by year but women, as a whole, spend less time playing games than men and buy fewer titles for their own consumption. (I add this last qualification because some statistics show women buy more games than men.

These statistics are misleading because they include mothers who buy presents for their kids.) The problem is that the core demographic for games is saturated. Most young men who want to play games are already playing games. They will upgrade their systems from time to time. They will buy new titles. But the pattern is set and the companies are finding themselves competing for the same consumers. The growth is going to come by expanding that market. Right now, the highest areas for expansion include female players, older players, and casual players, and this is where more and more energy is getting directed within the games industry. This is all the more case because Electronic Arts is now the 800 pound gorilla which dominates the hardcore gamer market and so any newer companies need to swerve around it to try to find another niche market for their products.

Mind you, now even Electronic Arts have come out and said that they are going to focus more on new and original IP. Do think the industry is realising that it needs to pull itself out of the creative slump that seems to be threatening it?

It remains to be seen what they really mean by that. I’ve been hearing that song from E.A. for some years now but it’s proven harder to realize innovative and original intellectual properties than one might have imagined. There are certainly signs that E.A. may be getting its act together. I have a great deal of respect for a number of key folks at that company—Neil Young, Danny Bilson, Arcadia Kim, Doug Church, Bing Gordon, Will Wright, and many others. It’s never been a question of having one of the best talent pools in the industry. It has been a matter of giving those creators enough room to do their best work and a willingness to take a risk on games which don’t look like what’s already on the market. The problem is that as game budgets have pushed higher and higher, the whole industry is becoming risk adverse. And unfortunately, consumers are not only letting them get away with this but they become risk adverse themselves. They don’t necessarily support the most creative and original games on the market. They line up to buy new instalments of the same franchises. They want to make sure that the new games have the same features they’ve enjoyed in old games. They are often hostile to things that don’t look like games to them. I can be critical of the big game companies for not breaking the mold but when they do, consumers often aren’t there to support experimentation and innovation.

Do you think the solution to this is a case of original and creative games being marketed better, or (as you’ve supported before) do we need a “Gaming Oscars”?

Certainly, better marketing of creative games, rather than marketing departments in effect stifling innovation by weighing in on creative decisions prematurely, would be a big step forward. Certainly, the industry needs to provide some awards which recognize risk-taking and innovation rather than commercial success. The Oscars work because they create greater public visibility for films which might otherwise escape the attention of the average filmgoer. They provide a huge boost each year to the top nominees. But the games industry tends to give its top awards to games which are already commercial successes and often seems to value those things which are already prized by the hardcore gaming community. That’s in part because game designers design games they want to play and there is not enough diversity within their own community to allow for a diverse range of aesthetic experiences to emerge.

I think we need to find some incentives to promote independent and experimental game work. I place my own hopes in the long term contributions of games studies on reshaping the games marketplace. I don’t mean this in the usual sense—that is, university trained designers breaking the mold. This may or may not happen. But if we look at the rise of film studies, we can see something else happen—that as more and more students take one or two film courses in their undergraduate career, we are seeing a growing awareness of independent films and documentaries and there is greater interest in experimental elements being integrated into the mainstream of the film industry. Film studies may do more in encouraging a more critical consumer of cinema than in training film industry employees. And the same will happen for games as games studies classes emerge as part of the undergraduate curriculum.

Is there a way to make consumers more aware of the innovative product out there?

This is where game critics come in. Think about how people become aware of new and innovative work in other media—film, say, or music. It has historically been because there were powerful, imaginative, and intelligent critics who took on the responsibility to educate the public about the emergence of something creative, fresh, and original. So, in cinema, someone like The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael, taught us to look at various international cinemas intelligently and developed a following of people who would take a look at anything she recommended. There are not yet game critics who reliably serve that function. Indeed, most game critics are a conservative force on innovation, raking designers over the coals if they break too far from expected features of certain well-designer genres. This is one reason why I have started writing a monthly column about games for Computer Games magazine, to model a form of criticism which embraces innovation and diversity.

Today, user-recommendations are also emerging as a powerful force helping people identify new forms of expression in other areas. For example, MySpace plays an important role in introducing young consumers to new music groups and most bands now see it as valuable to give away samples of their work on line in hopes of tapping the networking power of MySpace. We need to be thinking about how consumers might take up a similar role in response to the most creative new games—becoming viral marketers not simply of mainstream titles but of independent and experimental work in games. There are certainly a few blogs which are starting to play this role in the serious games space but I haven’t seen the same energy put behind experimental games. There is talk underway right now, however, to develop an independent games festival similar to the role which Sundance plays for the independent cinema—a place where discriminating consumers and independent artists can meet and talk about the future of the medium and see cutting edge work.

Do you think the current questioning of whether or not games are art hurts or helps the output?

The debate about whether games are art matters on several levels. First, it matters on the level of public policy. I recently was in a debate with a state legislator who wanted to restrict access to M rated titles because he felt violent games led to real world violence. I argued otherwise. His response was to say that his view should dominate either way. “If I’m right, then I’ve protected kids from the threat of youth violence. If you’re right, all I’ve done is insured some kids spend more time playing outside. No harm either way.” For this argument to hold, we have to assume that games have no positive cultural contributions to make, that they are commodities, like cigarettes, and not artworks. Try to imagine someone making a similar claim about books or cinema at this point. So, the fight to see games as art is a fight to protect games from censorship and mindless regulation.

It is also a fight to help game designers gain greater creative freedom from the marketing forces in their own companies, to gain a toehold for innovation within games. Players don’t have to care about whether games are art if they don’t care that every new game looks just like the games that were produced and sold to them last year. There has to be someone out there championing innovation and diversity within the games industry; otherwise, the economic forces will lead towards more and more franchise titles and more and more formulaic games. It doesn’t matter whether there are games in the Museum of Modern Art. It does matter whether the best game designers are given enough room to push the limits of games as a medium and whether or not there are people out there who are willing to support risk-taking and experimentation within the medium.

What about the claim that games lead to violent behaviour? Does this have any basis in serious study?

The more time I spend on this question, the more complicated it turns out to be. It starts with the amplification effect which takes place: the best researchers are making much more modest claims than most of the public realizes and this is because of the over-inflated rhetoric of our moral reformers and culture warriors. Hillary Clinton, for example, argues that games represent “a kind of contagion...a silent epidemic threatening long-term public health damage to many, many children and therefore society.” I don’t think you are going to find much evidence to support those kinds of sweeping moral judgements. The rate of youth violence continues to decline in this country. You are going to be hard pressed to find many serious researchers who think games in and of themselves will turn a normal kid into a psycho-killer. In fact, what is being argued by the most reliable critics is that games constitute a risk factor—one among many—which may impact kids already at risk due to much more overarching problems (mental illness, histories of domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, poverty, access to weapons through the home, proximity to street gangs, etc.) There are very legitimate concerns which I and others have raised about the research methodologies being used to study media violence, but at the end of the day, even read at face value, the evidence is not there to support the kind of huge claims which Clinton and other games critics are making. If I were to distil down my own core assumptions here, they boil down to two basic claims:

1. Media’s influence is most powerful when it reaffirms our existing structures of beliefs and behavoirs, least powerful when it seeks to change them. At the end of the day, we are shaped much more by the immediate influences on our lives—our schools, our families, our neighborhoods—than we are by what we see on television or experience in a game. Games can have negative influences— just as any other media can—by perpetuating negative stereotypes which are already deeply rooted in our culture or by re-enforcing existing and socially destructive attitudes. For that reason, I am concerned about Rockstar releasing a game called Bully in the context of a school culture which often re-enforces bullying behavoir or about the mods that got released after 9/11 which had people taking pot shots at “terrorists” in turbans who pop up from behind the counter in their local Qwickie Mart.

2. There is no such thing as media violence—at least as it is often discussed. We should not be talking about violence as some monolithic category as if it was all fundamentally the same stuff and as if there was no cultural value in being able to represent violence. I’ve just gotten through teaching a class where we looked at a broad range of violent works and tried to tease out what kinds of stories they told about violence, what kinds of attitudes they adopted towards violence, and what kinds of meaning these images and stories about violence had in different cultural and historical contexts. We found stories of violence cropping up in every artform and in every human society. We need art to speak to us about the nature of trauma and loss or of human aggression because these are core aspects of our lives. So, the idea that we should get rid of media violence is absurd and unthinking. What we want to do is to make sure that our media violence is meaningful and that it encourages some degree of reflection on the place of violence in human societies. We achieve neither by seeking to regulate or ban violent representations. We can achieve both by having open and honest conversations about the place of violence within our culture, conversations which include the broadest possible range of voices—not simply media reformers and experimental psychologists but also criminologists, cultural critics, anthropologists, and creative artists.

Do you see games studies becoming more widespread?

We’ve seen dramatic increases in the number of games studies classes in recent years—not simply in the United States but around the world. A decade or so ago, most of my students at MIT wanted to become filmmakers. Today, an increasing percentage want to be game designers and these includes most of the more creative and intelligent members of any given class. We are seeing even smaller colleges teach at least one course in games the same way twenty years ago they were starting to offer film appreciation classes. I’d predict that in another decade many undergraduates will take at least one course in games as part of the mix of their undergraduate education. This more educated consumer population is going to be more demanding and more open to innovation and diversity.

Following up on that, where do you see the industry going in the next few years?

There are some disturbing trends right now which warrant close attention by anyone concerned about the future of games. On the one hand, there is growing pressure mounting to regulate games content and the games industry is still offering the wrong response to that pressure. This goes back to what I said about art. The response to reform movements can’t be simply “hey, we aren’t as bad as you think we are.” There has to be an affirmative case for games and that involves thinking more seriously about games as art and games as educational resources. Otherwise, games are going to be seen more as commodities than as forms of human expression and they are going to be read as social nuisances and not as adding value to the society.

So, one negative scenario would be that games become tightly regulated and many of the current mature game titles or their equivalent get taken off the market. This is a very real possibility and gamers who aren’t paying attention to the public policy debates and are not writing letters to their political leaders on these issues are going to be blind-sided when this happens. Equally concerning to me, however, has been the rapid consolidation of the games industry into the hands of a small number of massive publishers who are flexing their corporate biceps by driving up the development costs of games and insisting that the only games which consumers will buy are blockbuster titles. This has the potential of pushing smaller games publishers out of the market and further narrowing the range of games consumers can play. In this case, the solution may come by the diversification of the games industry. That is, smaller companies in such a context will have no choice but to pursue options which don’t look very much like what Electronic Arts is producing.

They will move towards casual and serious games; they will move towards games for women; they will explore alternative and augmented reality games; they will tap games for special markets—religious games, say, or games for people with disabilities; they will push games in unexpected directions. One key factor here may be the ability to distribute games online rather than shipping them to stores. Right now, a small number of retailers have a stranglehold on the games market and they expect a game to sell massive numbers of units or it is removed quickly from their shelves. This makes it much harder for some of these newer forms of games to survive. But if we can get to digital games distribution as the industry standard, these smaller games companies can last longer and can target more specialized market segments. In such a world, the power of consumers as grassroots intermediaries to spread the word and the power of game critics and scholars to educate the audience become vital factors helping to diversify the current games medium.