Doctorow Mario: a conversation about videogames

In futuristic videogame narrative, there seem to be two branches: you have the grimy post-apocalyptic vision of games like Fallout 3, and on the other hand you have the future with gleaming spaceships whose surfaces look sanitary enough to eat off, the idealism of The Jetsons where every problem has been solved by technology. Do you think it’s a question of a spectrum of pessimism at one end and optimism or utopianism at the other?

I think at their best, apocalypses are warnings, utopias are aspirations, and that’s what kind of cultural software writers are trying to install when they do this. At their worst apocalypses are what have been called ‘cosy apocalypses’ by British science fiction critics. They’re disasters where all the plebs, the people who don’t pick up after their dogs, have died, leaving only the square-jawed and brave behind and enough villains for them to practice their bravery on. It’s like, it was horrible and traumatic to see all those dead people in the streets, but there’s no time for that now, let’s get on with things… rebuild a world better than the one we’ve passed by. That kind of cosy apocalypse can be very emotionally satisfying to read, but it’s ultimately a pretty horrible kind of narrative. It really is the kind of self-delusion that the problem is everyone else and you didn’t have any contribution to the problem: it’s everyone else’s CO2 emissions and not yours that are causing the problem.

Do you feel like you have more affection for the PC gaming scene, because of the robust modding culture that’s grown up around it, as opposed to say console games which tend to have more of a closed ‘you’ll play the game we give you to play’ kind of ecosystem?

I think all games have some inherent authoritarianism, right? Think of a table-top RPG, think of D&D. Ultimately the dungeon master makes a lot of rolls behind her screen and doesn’t tell you what number comes up. And if she’s very good, regardless of what number comes up, she will sometimes do whatever makes the game best: she’s not a slave to the dice, the dice are there to help add enough randomness to challenge her ability to tell stories that in turn she can challenge your ability to tell stories. That’s authoritarian in some sense but it’s a kind of benevolent dictatorship in the same way that you don’t get a vote when the punchline comes when you go to see a stand-up comic. Comedy depends on you wanting to know what the punchline is and not being told until the moment at which you…the breaking point. Putting you in suspense. Suspense is authoritarian.

So all games have an element of that, because the dungeon master – whether it’s a game you’re playing locally against an AI or over a network against AIs that have a rule-keeping function – at a certain point all this stuff is something like an authoritarian system, but one you opt into, a kind of consensus authoritarianism. There are a couple of things I worry about: one is I just don’t think that companies are authoritarian. I think authoritarianism gets good to companies. There’s something about the ability to be an unfettered authoritarian that a certain kind of company just falls in love with.

Give us an example of that?

Look at Blizzard and Where Blizzard had all these servers that didn’t work very well, and there were lots of things that they did that some players didn’t enjoy so players built their own free open-source version of the server and Blizzard went after them and sued them. And one of their arguments was ‘our games are more fun to play when we are the only people who are allowed to make servers for them’. And this was materially not true, right? These people had spent hundreds and hundreds of hours designing their own servers because they felt that the game was more fun to play when they got to design the servers.

So that’s a pretty good example. The other one is the undeniable fact that cheaters make games less fun, and the seductive lure of authoritarianism for players as a result where there are many players who will say to you yes, by all means, Blizzard should be allowed to install spyware with the game to see if you’re running a cheat hack and it should be illegal to tell people how the spyware works or how to remove it. And this is not a theoretical thing, there has been legal action over spyware installed by games programs that civil liberties groups have been involved with. And there’s this outcry from players to ‘keep these other guys in line’. Because if they can override the software and know how their computers are working they can cheat and the game will get a lot less fun.

It’s true that games are less fun when there’s cheating. My primary board-gaming these days is with a four-year-old who cheats like anything. She will just declare that we’re playing a different game after a while and that this is a game where she gets all of the money: I understand that cheating is not fun. I also think, though, no matter how un-fun cheating is, we really stand to lose something when we say our devices must be designed so that users can’t understand and can’t change them. That also plays out especially these days with mobile and tablets because one of the major arguments these days for locking down mobiles and tablets is controlling cheating in games.

Do you think it’s been a net positive for developers even though they’ve had to make some of these concessions – that the App Store has provided a fertile ground for indies to set up shop and sell games, not completely on their own terms, but with more freedom and direct access to player bases?

I don’t know how to define a net positive, I don’t know how you measure it. I can see the positives and I can see the negatives. I think the negatives are pretty important. Rather than calculating things on the basis of net positive and net negative you can divide the world into people who worry about how things work and worry about how things fail. I’m very concerned when it comes to technology with how things fail. How things work is pretty interesting, obviously everything I do is based on things that are working, not failing, but failure modes are pretty important.

Failure modes are especially important for technical people to pay attention to because we’re the only part of the population who are really equipped to consider what the failure mode is likely to be and understand it viscerally. Once you have lost a whole bunch of code, once you’ve experienced lock-in from a vendor on a platform, you have a direct experience that the people around you don’t and especially if you’re a geek it’s likely that the people around you look to you for their technology choices. So it benefits you to really be in-tune to that.

Whatever things iOS has done to help software companies deliver games to players, there are a couple of important things that it’s also changed. One of those things is that if you make a videogame and I have a device that can run that videogame, it is literally illegal for you to sell that game to me and for me to buy it from you, unless Apple approves it. I don’t know how anyone can think that it is good for creators to have a kind of hack on the legal system, on copyright law, that allows a company without any accountability to just deal, to just sell, and who doesn’t.  I know that’s the norm from the console world but it’s a crazy thing when you put it that way, right? You’ve got an easy chair and a light, I’ve got a typewriter and I’ve written a book. Why should it be illegal for me to sell my book to you to sit in your chair under your lamp to read it if the people who made the easy chair don’t agree? How crazy would that be?

It does sound bizarre when you put it that way.

It really is. I do worry a lot about that, I think there’s a lot of potential harm that arises from that. Even though that’s the norm in the topsy-turvy world of consoles, I don’t think it’s a model we should be exporting. Rather, the rest of the world of computing should be exporting its model back into consoles.

How do you push in that direction? What does activism look like in a game development context?

Think of things like the Humble Bundle, where they’re modelling good behaviour and finding good behaviour coming back in return. This is something game developers talk a lot about in multiplayer game situations where have a group of players who behave well is a robust defence against players who troll. I think of Humble Bundle as demonstrating generosity and good behaviour.

Did you follow the player revolt in EVE? How useful are virtual worlds in understanding a phenomenon such as revolutionary uprising?

Running a virtual world is really about selling people to each other… providing a structured environment in which people entertain each other – it’s an orgy not a strip club. Having a group of people who don’t play, or who play by different rules, is potentially very disruptive to the environment. It is a small focus of power – very small – the amount of power a game company can build in, in terms of physics, etc, can make any character look as timid as a pussy cat. The one thing I found really interesting with the EVE Online guys was the creation of the Ponzi scheme and then they absorbed a huge amount of the merchant class’s capital and then resigned from the game, causing that capital to wink out of existence, causing an inflationary whiplash throughout the economy: that was pretty interesting.

A growing segment of the games industry has adopted free-to-play as their silver bullet in the struggle against piracy. If people get it for free, the thinking is, they’ll mine those willing to pay. Is there any elegance to this solution or do you see it as problematic?

I think the most interesting word in that question is ‘piracy’. The videogame industry is actually a pretty amazing example of coping well with piracy, in as much as every other industry has historically had lots of people in government rooting for it and when people said ‘piracy is destroying us’ whereas if you went to the halls of power and said ‘piracy is destroying videogames’ the average mandarin would rub his hands together and say ‘thank goodness, finally you guys are dying’.

So videogames have mostly solved piracy problems not through legislative solutions but through adaptation. When selling consumer packaged-goods games hung on peg boards and on floppy disks, wasn’t very tenable anymore, you had games that were server-based, not just for activation but because all the interaction happened over servers. Not only did it pave the way for a new kind of game that turned out to be pretty fun and was a huge success, but it didn’t displace entirely the other kind of game; the other kind of game just became a smaller part of a much larger ecosystem. All the different ways we’ve monetised games still exist, there are still coin-op arcades. Over and over again the response of the game industry – because they haven’t had access to legislative power – has been innovation. Every time that innovation has resulted in newer, cooler games, by newer, cooler people taking advantage of things that no-one had even suspected beforehand, inventing whole new artforms. That’s pretty amazing.

Remember that piracy is also the only way that gamers have history right now. You talked about GDC keynotes before. Bruce Sterling’s GDC keynote in 1992 – one of the points he makes is that videogame development is the only artform without a history because a platform dies. If you come in after Atari dies you can’t see Atari anymore. But of course that isn’t true anymore. If you’re a gamer or designer now, who isn’t old enough to have played the original round of Atari games but still understands them as part of the history of their trade knows them through downloading ROMs and playing them on emulators. It’s a double-edge sword. Piracy isn’t all bad for the industry, without some piracy the industry would have no history. That’s a pretty interesting thing and underappreciated fact about games.

In terms of free-to-play there’s the old aphorism that if you aren’t paying anything then you’re the product and that’s certainly true in lots of free-to-play games where you’re either the product because your use of the game is a strategy to gather data and monetise it that way or some free-to-play games are built around the idea that you’ve got students who have no money but lots of time spending hours grinding to amass virtual wealth that they can sell-through and exchange to people with jobs, no time and lots of money relatively speaking. So long as it’s not horribly coercive I’m ok with that.

The free-to-play social games, the Zynga games, I’m thankful that bubble seems to be bursting. Rather than explain all the things I find creepy about those, I’ll just refer you to Cow Clicker. They seem to be really weird those games, they’re the hyper-dispensive corn syrup of gameplay: they make the people who play them unhappy and unwell and yet they seem to play them longer and longer hours the more they’re developed. And thankfully interest in them seems to waning somewhat, and Zynga seems to be on the rocks itself.

Is that a grave you see people dancing on?

I don’t know if civilians will remember Zynga as something particularly evil, but I think a lot of game developers will be happy to see the back of them.