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Interview with News Games

This is the English version of an email interview from Frebruary 23, 2011 with Florent Maurin that can be found in French on the Le Monde blog "News Games" at .

Florent Maurin: Could you tell us a bit about you and your project: who are you, what is your background and how did you bump into the idea of trekking around the world making video games?

Jordan Magnuson: Let's see… well, I'm a generalist, a white guy, a physicist according to my bachelor's degree, and a halfway-decent juggler. I'm American, but my father is a cultural anthropologist, so I grew up overseas (in North Africa), with a love for travel and cultural diversity. I've also been interested in computer games for a long time, in both playing and making them. The creative aspect there thrilled me from a young age: the idea of making worlds that others could explore uniquely based on their own input. The novelty sort of wore off after a while, but then I started to ask myself… why? Why was I losing interest in computer games, while other creative fields continued to captivate and change me? I think there are multiple answers involved there, but basically most of them boil down to the fact that computer games aren't very mature as a medium. Potential isn't the problem. The problem is that we are lacking both breadth and depth of expression where interactive art is concerned.

To touch on the breadth issue, take writing as an example of an established form of expression, and look at the range that's there: we have everything from epic poetry to short haikus, Tolstoy's work to romance novels, political essays to travel writing, flash fiction to restaurant menus. I for one am hungry for that kind of breadth in interactive art and entertainment, so for the last couple of years my output has been much more experimental than in the past, as I've focused on exploring new avenues with computer games and notgames. For example I visited Freedom Bridge in the Korean DMZ a while back (I've been living in Korea for the last couple of years as an English teacher), and was moved by the experience. I thought about writing something about it, but then I thought, why not make a small computer game instead? We have all this travel writing, but where are the computer games stemming from experiences of travel? Unable to find any, I went home and made a small, minimalistic "notgame" about Freedom Bridge. That creation was fairly well received, one thing led to another, and I decided to make a project of traveling the world and making tiny games about the places I visit.

FM: Why make video games, instead of keeping a diary or a travel blog ?

JM: I think I've basically already answered this question, but to summarize: because no one else is doing it. We have been keeping travel diaries for hundreds and thousands of years, and you can log onto the internet right now and find a thousand new blog posts about adventures in every country of the world. People have been sketching, painting, singing about, writing poetry inspired by, and taking photographs of the places they visit for time out of mind. But as far as I'm aware, we haven't made any computer games specifically inspired by travel. I love all those other forms of expression that I've mentioned, and I don't think for a second that computer games are somehow inherently more valuable than any of them, but like I said before, I think computer games are lacking breadth of expression, where those other forms aren't. I want to do my best to change that situation ever so slightly.

FM: How do you choose your game's "subjects"? Do you think of the "subject" first, and then try to find a game idea that fits? Do you refrain from speaking about something you saw if you don't get any game idea related to it?

JM: As I mentioned in a recent blog post, I'm painfully aware of the fact that I cannot make games about everything I see and experience while traveling. To quote from that post in answer to this question:

While I cannot see everything there is to see of Taiwan, or Vietnam, or any other country, on my travels, it is a hundred times more evident that I cannot make games about everything there is to make games about. I can see a hundred or a thousand things, while I can make games about one thing, or two. Then there is my reading, which provides me with a vital balance to my experience in understanding the places that I visit, and also provides me with a thousand more game ideas. Should I make a game about Taiwanese pirates in the sixteenth century, or about that monkey that jumped in my lap in Kaohsiung? Should I make a game about Taiwan's political struggle with China, or about the many kind people who helped us while trekking?

I can do nothing but latch onto those things that jump out at me specially, those things that press themselves upon me, those things that make me especially happy, or especially sad, those things that seem especially important… or those things that suggest to me an interesting mechanic for play. Predictably then, the games I make may be more about me than they are about the places that I visit… more about my subjective position in the world, and my response to my own travels, than they are about the world as it exists, or travel as a universal concept. In seeking to make something for others, I can do nothing but make something for myself… and hope that it might be helpful or relevant to others in some way. But I think this is the same "dilemma" that all travel writers face, and more broadly, all creators.

I have decided not to limit myself to making "purely abstract" games or "purely concrete" games, "purely academic" or "purely experienced-based" games, because the two domains for me are too overlapping: I read because I travel, and I travel to provide context for my reading; political realities may be abstract, but they are also concrete in the lives of the people I talk to; knowledge of a place changes the way one experiences that place, while experiencing a place enriches and changes one's knowledge of it.

FM: Would you say you try to use gameplay as a language ?

JM: Well, if we define language broadly as an instrument for expression and communication, then I would say yes.

FM: What do games allow that written/recorded stories can't ? Isn't the "game" form of expression sometimes frustrating?

JM: Well, to answer the first question, the thing that sets games as a medium apart from written or recorded stories is their element of interactivity. That's your boring, textbook answer. I think if we are to expound a little bit on that, the reason the interactive element is an important distinction, is that it forces a certain level of engagement from its players. We all know that to "get the most" out of reading a book or watching a movie one needs to actively engage the source material, but we also know that a high level of engagement is not made mandatory by these mediums: that at the extreme end of disengagement people can read through paragraphs of text without knowing what they just read, or fall asleep while a movie plays on in the background.

Typically, that kind of disengagement isn't possible where computer games are concerned, the infamous "glassy-eyed stare" notwithstanding. A computer game will not move forward if you do not actively provide input, actively make choices and change things. I think there's an incredible power there that we've only just begun to understand and investigate, though we've been witness to it for some time: by binding player input to even the most primitive of avatars, an amazing amount of empathy and understanding can be achieved almost effortlessly, assuming the player is aware of, and wiling to accept, certain aspects of the "language" of video games. To put it another way, a player's efficacy within the story of a video game makes that story their own in a way that non-interactive forms of expression can rarely achieve. And so creations like Passage or Photopia, which are entirely simplistic and uninteresting in non-interactive form, are transformed into powerful interactive experiences (you can read at of how I turned Photopia into a non-interactive short story for comparison's sake). I've been exploring this reality in my own work with creations like Freedom Bridge and Loneliness, which are intentionally very minimalistic, abstract, short, and linear, forcing any power the things might have to stem entirely from empathy and engagement the player feels in response to the games' simple interactivity.

To answer your second question, yes, working with the "game" form of expression is always challenging to me, and at times quite frustrating. Even though I've been playing computer games for some years, I feel like my understanding of the grammar and vocabulary of interactive design is still quite primitive. If we take writing as an example once again, there are so many resources there, such a deep and broad wellspring of knowledge and example to draw from, when attempting to learn how to use words effectively and well. When it comes to computer games, there are a lot of poor examples of how to use a couple of medium-specific devices, but beyond that you've got to rummage on your own for those little-known artists who are making real headway with the language (people like Rohrer), and experiment, experiment, experiment.

FM: About your first two games. The first one is about Taiwan's geopolitical position, the second is far more "local," but both of them have an informational potential. Can you describe your intentions when making those?

JM: In some ways, I'm not sure there's much to say that I haven't already said. After a rich time in Taiwan, reading, traveling, talking with so many wonderful people, it was very difficult for me to decide what I was going to try and put into game form. Part of me really wanted to make something abstract about what was—from my subjective vantage point—the most essential aspect of the Taiwanese experience: to try and communicate something important about the country to others. In all of my reading and talking and traveling, I couldn't get away from Taiwan's struggle with China, the constant balancing act Taiwan has been engaged in for half a century, trying to maintain the status quo. And when I thought about it that way—as a balancing act—the mechanics for a simple game emerged naturally.

My second game, The Kindness of Strangers, was created out of my desire to make something less abstract, less intellectual, something that captures more of the "texture" of my actual trekking experience. We met so many incredibly kind people in Taiwan, and I really wanted to try and express something of the wonder of those encounters.

FM: What is your stance about it? Do you see yourself as a witness? A reporter? A simple tourist with a view on things?

JM: I see myself first as a simple traveler, and second as a dabbler in a medium that I find exciting, and don't yet understand. I have a desire to communicate something of my travel experiences to others, but as I come up against the limitations of my tiny subjective viewpoint, and small creative potential, day after day, it becomes increasingly obvious that I cannot do more than create some trifles for myself, and hope that a few others might find those creations meaningful or helpful or interesting in some way.