Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle J.C. Herz's Multi-track Mind

By Martin Wagner

MARCH 9, 1998:  Almost every review of J.C. Herz's Joystick Nation that I've read begins with "When I was a kid, I played Missile Command" or an equivalent sentiment: "I loved my Atari 2600." "I stole money from my mom to buy Space Invaders." Discussions of video games strike some primal chord within our psyches that makes us want to spill our guts about our experiences with them. Herz, of course, knows this and is used to playing therapist to a nation of journalists who need to wax nostalgic about the wonders of a digital childhood. But Joystick Nation contains so much more than ramblings about adolescent pleasures and is, instead, an examination of the culture they have helped form. With her degrees in biology and environmental studies, Herz is an expert of systems, a term that can be applied to both forests and pop culture, and she wields her knowledge with uncanny skill and a rapier wit. She has also applied her diagnostic power to other digital phenomena as well with her earlier book, Surfing the Internet, which reaped praise from many, including cyber-trailblazer William Gibson. Recently, Herz became the New York Times' first full-time digital media entertainment critic, writing her first few Thursday columns about online gaming and MAME, the Multi-Arcade Museum Emulator.

Personally, I never quite managed to find video game nirvana as a child, despite the fact that I was at the prime age to reap the bounty that followed Pong. I have no amusing tales of my own digital trials to gush to Herz (who will be appearing at SXSW Interactive), a delightful boon since it freed us up to talk about the paths that electronic media have worn into our society.

AC: Why did you write Joystick Nation?

JCH: After Surfing On the Internet came out, everyone wanted me to write about digital media. I took a look at the Web in 1994 and thought it was a big yawn. Certainly not worthy of a book, which I still don't think it is. I thought to myself, what was the first digital media? Video games. I went back home, found my old Atari 2600, and played with it. I realized that all of us grew up with this stuff. There's this huge emotional connection to those childhood toys. If you want to write about technology, usually what you have to do is glorify geeks. That's no fun. But if you have video games, they're colorful, they move, they're incredibly compelling visually and sonically and emotionally.

It's like Tom Wolfe and his Kustom Kars. These things are lurid. They're like candy for a writer. So I could write about the evolution of technology and not have to work myself into the ground trying to make it seem interesting. Video games are interesting.

AC: Are video games more than an amusing diversion? Do they have any influence outside of gaming communities?

JCH: One of the great things about video games is that they're always on the vanguard because they are so process-intensive. If you look at any given computer, the most demanding application on it will always be a video game because they use so much power for the graphics. They just chew power. A lot of the problems that people in the interactive and telecom worlds have to solve have already been solved by the video game people because they're further out against the edge of the technology envelope, problems like "how do you play Doom online?" The answers have applications in things like video-conferencing, which are actually much more forgiving than games. If the video signal slips a bit, you can deal with it in a video-conference. If those kind of snags happen in a deathmatch, you're dead. The solutions have to be better in the context of a video game than they have to be in any other kind of online interaction.

When I talk to corporate people, I tell them if you want to know what the future looks like, go to the nearest video arcade. People are talking about how to get consumers to pay for electronic media. "People don't want to pay for electronic media." This is what we hear from Web concerns who don't know how to make compelling content. I tell them, look, if you go down the street, you will see kids swiping smart cards through slots in arcade machines and watching 50 cents go away every three and a half minutes. It's not a question of willingness to pay for electronic content, it's a question of whether or not the content is worth paying for in its own right. You make your content worth paying for, people will pay for it. They don't have a roadblock about that. All you need is a machine that reads smart cards that you plug into your computer and some decent content, which is the hard part.

AC: How do online, interactive games fit into this system?

JCH: Online games are really about scale, how at a certain level game design becomes something like government because all of a sudden there's these social dynamics and all of this politicking. You really have a little society. So you have to institute all of these social policies in the code to encourage people not to tear the system apart. These are huge, massive mega-projects, the Aswan High Dam of interactive projects. Ultima Online would take you eight hours to walk across. If you put it on 17-inch screens, you could fill a football field with this world. I think those places are interesting just because of the engineering challenges they present. It's funny but in a weird way they're like the dream of modernism - you build this huge, man-made community up from scratch, based on principles that you set out from the beginning. We don't do this in physical space anymore. No one is building those monumental projects anymore, except in cyberspace. So everything comes back around.

Which is another point of the book - nothing is new. There's a certain segment of technological boosters that would have us believe everything is revolutionary, whatever is coming down the pike is going to change everything, and nothing has come before. That's just not true. A lot of the same rhetoric that we're hearing about the Internet was used to describe radio in the early days. Or the telegraph. Or the railroad. There's a lot of lessons to be learned from history. On top of that, human nature is pretty static. Whatever we have inside our brains, whatever is wired, is going to express itself in whatever way, shape, or form. So you see these same patterns come back. It's inspiring in a way that you can have something completely new, like the Internet, and the same patterns will reassert themselves, because there's such a thing as human nature. Similarly with video games. We have these deep-seated needs to want stimulation. We crave the thrill of that fight or flight scenario so we find it. We make it.

People are also competitive, which is why multi-player games do so much better than the single-player games. It's a decent amount of fun to humiliate a computer but what's really fun is humiliating your friends. Given the choice, there's no contest. For anyone. The minute you can hook two people or four people up, and have them compete against each other, you've harnessed that basic, primal human drive to compete. You're good to go.

AC: Do you think kids that grew up with video games are better able to handle the huge information society we live in? Or are they interrelated - we have this huge information society because we grew up on video games?

JCH: They're interrelated, but I think all of those forces were put into motion before we came about, to grow up on video games. Kids who grew up on digital media have a buffer between them and insanity. That helps but there's always a trade-off. What digital media got kids used to doing is filtering and responding to information very quickly. You've got lots of different kinds of information and you react. Somehow you know whether to break left or break right. That's the correct response. The thing is that sometimes the correct thing to do is not react at all. Sometimes the correct thing to do is press "stop", step back, and reflect. That is what's being lost, the ability to reflect. You get so good at reacting that you forget to reflect. It's really dangerous because then you have a bunch of people just going around reacting. There's no higher level, long-term, sequential planning, just how can I deal with today or how can I deal with this week. You get a very near-sighted group of people.

AC: From one of the reviews of Joystick Nation, the writer said that playing a video game was "like touching the face of God." How do you respond to that?

JCH: Wow. I wouldn't go that far. One of the things I've found in the course of researching, writing, and promoting this book, is that my fan base is more zealous about this stuff than I am. A lot of this stuff inspires a lot of enthusiasm because it's really emotional and mental. Video games do great things to your bloodstream. They trigger these unbelievable cascades of hormonal responses. When you're playing a video game and there's something trying to kill you, or something you're trying to kill, that adrenaline is real. It's just a physiological thing. So video games, in that sense, are much more like music than they are like television. When you remember a piece of music that was playing on the radio in the few seconds before your first kiss, that takes you back to a specific physiological place. Even just thinking about it gives you an echo of that. It is spiritual, in a sense. It has to do with escaping into this space inside your head. I think that virtual worlds are a serious intellectual and spiritual trip.

I went to an exhibit at the Asia Society in New York about mandalas, these Eastern squares within circles within squares. What I found out was that in Tibet mandalas were not abstract patterns, but rather blueprints for temples, which were three-dimensional and had lots of levels, where God and Goddesses lived on another plane. So each of those squares is another floor of the temple. It's a projection. So, okay, you have a blueprint of this three-dimensional thing that exists on another plane. Essentially, you have these Tibetan monks talking about virtual reality. I think virtual reality people associate it with goggles, which is a mistake because goggles are really clumsy and they make you seasick. One of the greatest things that the whole interactive media onslaught has done is to force us to think about all sorts of virtual realities, like memory.

Memory is the most sophisticated form of virtual reality, because there's something that happened to you a long time ago and all you have to do is call it to mind and you're back there. There are moments in your life that crystallize, and when you think about them you can almost smell that place. You're back there. And where is it? It's not physical. It's all in your mind. Yet, you have this image, this feeling, you remember what it was like to be in a given place. That's VR as well.

What all this digital media does is give you a way to talk about how your memory works, how your imaging mechanism works, how the associations form in your mind. Every time you learn how to play a video game, there's a neurological pathway that is established that provides all of the shortcuts. For instance, when you dial your best friend's phone number, you don't think about the number, your fingers just do it. It's the same thing with video games. If you know you have to kick-jump-block and you do it 700 times, you're not going to think to yourself kick-jump-block. Your fingers are just going to do it. It's possible because in your mind that pathway has worn down into a groove. That's something you take forward from childhood into your whole life. Essentially, what these video games do is make some kind of physiological impact in the structure of your brain. Because you played Pac Man as an 11-year-old, there's something physically different about your brain.

That's kind of interesting to think about, when you start comparing generations - how we think, how we imagine. One of the key questions, for me, is how does technology change our imaginations? I don't think it changes our basic human nature but I do think our imaginations are incredibly malleable, and incredibly sensitive to the time and place in which we live.

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