According to the market research firm The NPD Group, 27 percent of America's entertainment dollar is spent on video games. According to New York Times Magazine author and game aficionado Clive Thompson, whether you play them or not, video games have changed the way way you interact with technology.
[VIDEO GAME MUSIC UP AND UNDER] BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. Bob Garfield is away this week. I'm Brooke Gladstone. This holiday season, sales of Call of Duty: Black Ops hit the one-billion-dollar mark in just six weeks, 27 percent of America’s entertainment dollars spent on video games. Recently, the Supreme Court heard a case in which California’s deputy attorney general argued that a 2005 state law restricting the sale of violent video games to minors, since struck down, should be reinstated. He noted in passing that the kung-fu fighting game Mortal Kombat might fall under its restrictions. The newest and youngest justice, Elena Kagan, replied that Mortal Kombat was an iconic game that probably, quote, “half the clerks who work for us spent considerable amounts of time in their adolescence playing.” The court has yet to render a decision about extending First Amendment rights to video games. [GAME SOUNDTRACK] Maybe you think they're mostly about murder and mayhem. Judging by sales, maybe that’s true. But they're also about blazing new trails in technology and art, and I assure you they are changing how you live, whether or not you actually play. After this hour, you'll know why, but first some history that starts, says New York Times Magazine writer and game aficionado Clive Thompson, with a simple tennis game, invented by Atari cofounder Nolan Bushnell in 1972, called Pong. CLIVE THOMPSON: He put it in this thing called Andy Capp’s Saloon, in a bar, and he got a call a day later saying, the machine’s broken, come fix it. And what had happened was that so many quarters were jammed in the slot, it was stuck. He knew right away, wow, this is clearly a compelling [LAUGHS] activity for people to do. [BROOKE LAUGHS] It was the first time that the average person sat down and used some sort of controls, in this case, a little spinning knob, to affect what was happening on the screen and to have a kind of a meaningful and fun experience. You got to remember - BROOKE GLADSTONE: Meaningful? CLIVE THOMPSON: Yeah, sure absolutely, I mean, in the sense that any game is meaningful. You know, it’s part of how we challenge ourselves, we challenge other people. And it illustrated something that computers can do really well, which is to let people sort of play with physics, ‘cause that’s all Pong was. Like, wow, if I try and put some real English on this ball, what do I get? [PONG BEEPS] And that was something that was very common in those early video games. [BEEPS] Pac-man and Space Invaders and Pong were almost like looking directly into the soul of the machine. Those games are what computers think about when we're not around, basically. [PONG BEEP] BROOKE GLADSTONE: We always say that arcade games came first, but I would argue that the home game actually preceded the arcade game, if you count Winky-Dink. [LAUGHS] That was a TV show that debuted in October of 1953. [WINKY-DINK THEME SONG/UP AND UNDER] What you do is you placed a clear piece of plastic that came in a kit across the TV screen and you connected the dots to create a bridge for this character Winky-Dink to cross to safety. So that not only makes Winky-Dink the first video game but the first interactive video game, and it started in your house. CLIVE THOMPSON: Winky-Dink was like, wow, you know, this thing is in our house. It’s kind of uncanny. It’s got these moving pictures on it. What happened if we touched it? You couldn't actually affect what was happening on the screen. If you drew the bridge incorrectly, the character would not fall, right? And so, the next step was really for the video game to come along and say, you’re gonna interact with what’s on screen and it’s going to change, based on what you do. I think this is what trained us for the explosion of computers in our everyday lives. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right, and what enabled us to be comfortable with doing that? The mouse. CLIVE THOMPSON: People forget this but the mouse was an incredibly complicated thing for people to wrap their heads around when it first came out. It really did feel like there was this disembodied thing happening, because you’re not looking at your hand. It’s off to one side and you’re moving it, and this little pointer’s moving on screen. That’s so normal to us now but the first time anyone does it, it’s very, very weird and unsettling, and actually hard. And so, one of the smartest things that Microsoft ever did, they put Solitaire on all versions of Windows, and it sort of trained them on how to use the mouse- [SOUND OF MOUSE CLICKS] - because they would click and drag a card over and lift the button up. Once you mastered using the mouse in Solitaire, you were ready to go on to use things like word processors and spreadsheets. I cannot tell you how many people I've talked to that have said that’s what got them past the hump back in the early '80s. The mouse completely flustered them. They played Solitaire for five hours and bang, they were in there with the machine. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Also, in the 1980s we saw Nintendo create the famous Game Boy. Did you have one? CLIVE THOMPSON: I did. I remember when I got it, I was so excited because there was this idea that, wow, I can play these games anywhere now. You know, I don't have to be in front of a TV. It had a little screen. It had sound. [GAME BOY SOUNDS/UP AND UNDER] When you look back at it now, what’s amazing is this is the first time ever that a lot of people – again, mostly young boys, although a lot of young girls, too – were carrying around a personal computer with them all day long. I mean now, of course, we think that’s completely normal. We have phones that are functional computers. We have iPads, laptops. But the first time in history that the average person just walked around with a - something that had a screen and really fast processing – [GAME BOY SOUNDS] - was the Game Boy. When computers first came along, they were these important work machines, right? All they had to do was display black and white text and spreadsheets, and that’s all the serious businessmen needed. The first person that ever came along and said, no, no, no, there should be pretty pictures onscreen, was the game makers, and so they went off and they basically built this huge billion-dollar industry trying to put beautiful pictures on screens. And then eventually the businesspeople go, oh, oh wow, of course, we need better ways to visualize our data. Thank you, you know, video game industry for inventing this for us. So, if you don't have any Game Boy forcing screen makers to make better and better screens every year – finally they have color and they have backlighting and they have better resolution – you don't get the iPhone in the long run. The video game industry absolutely laid the seedbed for all the ways that we interact with data onscreen right now. BROOKE GLADSTONE: It started in the arcade. Then it landed in your hand. Contemporaneous with that, you had at least Solitaire on your home computer. Then, in the early '90s, id Software popularized the infamous category of video games called first-person shooters. Not until id brought out Wolfenstein and Doom did they really catch on. CLIVE THOMPSON: That's right. Instead of looking down on the action, you were in a first person perspective. You were looking at things that looked to be 3D. You were looking down a hallway. You would move down the hallway, the halls would move past you. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Would you play with me right now? CLIVE THOMPSON: Sure, let's go play. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Come on. CLIVE THOMPSON: I haven't played this for a little while. [OFF-MIKE COMMENTS][GAME SOUNDS] Previous games would make you feel very engaged but this is the one that really made you feel, wow, I'm literally, in this sort of almost Tron¬-like way, inside the game itself. Obviously, that laid the bed for a lot of games to become increasingly immersive, where you’re physically inside these beautiful worlds that can really feel like genuine alternate realities. [GAME SOUNDS/UP AND UNDER] BROOKE GLADSTONE: So Clive, I wish that I could focus entirely on what you were saying, but - CLIVE THOMPSON: [LAUGHS] I know. BROOKE GLADSTONE: - I'm busy now - CLIVE THOMPSON: I know. BROOKE GLADSTONE: - killing Nazis. [GUNFIRE] Somebody’s shooting at me, but where? [GUNFIRE] Where are they? CLIVE THOMPSON: So I think the thing that these 3D games did has almost not even yet come to fruition, in terms of its real impact. I would not be shocked if ten years from now you've got glasses and heads-up displays. This idea that the world can have a 3D layer on top of it is gonna become a very, very interesting thing, and it’s gonna be very familiar to people that spent their lives, at that point in time, growing up playing 3D immersive worlds, where they ran around inside data, basically. [GUNFIRE SOUNDS] Oh, I just got killed. My health went down to zero. [OVERTALK] BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's go back to the studio. CLIVE THOMPSON: Let's go back. [LAUGHS] [VIDEO GAME MUSIC] I noticed, by the way, that you were really good at playing [BROOKE LAUGHS] Wolfenstein. And had you ever played it before? BROOKE GLADSTONE: No, never. CLIVE THOMPSON: So this is exactly what I'm talking about. You know, if you'd tried playing it back then, you would have been horrible at it. But you've spent the intervening 20 years interacting with things that are essentially the children of video games, and so you've absorbed some good video game skills without even playing video games. [WORLD OF WARCRAFT SOUNDS/UP AND UNDER]] BROOKE GLADSTONE: What was once a solitary enterprise that may have begun with Solitaire becomes World of Warcraft, a massive cultural exchange across nations and across time. CLIVE THOMPSON: Absolutely. When you go into World of Warcraft everyone you see, most of the people are real people, and they could be anywhere. I was on a reporting trip to China and I went into a Internet café and I saw these young Chinese soldiers in their uniforms off duty playing World of Warcraft, and they're running around in areas that I had been, just myself, about a week earlier. And I'm like, wow, I wonder if I ran into some of these Chinese soldiers when I was [LAUGHS] there last time. They form teams, so that they can do even more audacious quests. BROOKE GLADSTONE: They can speak to each other. CLIVE THOMPSON: They can speak to each other with voice or with text. The other thing that is really interesting about World of Warcraft is that you've got a meter that shows how strong you are, you've got a meter that shows what your next mission is. You've got a map showing where you’re oriented. You've got a chat stream showing what other players are saying. There’s an unbelievable amount of things you have to manage, and often in the heat of battle. But they make it really easy to do. Every tool is sort of around the edges of the screen, and it’s very good at giving you little ambient cues, little dings and bits of noise to let you know when something is happening. So you really feel in control. And this is really one of the other things that video games have pioneered, which is how to put someone in the situation where they have an unbelievable amount of information and they have to manage it, and how to do it in a calm, graceful way. [WORLD OF WARFARE MUSIC] There’s a lot of software over the last ten years that has slowly been catching up to video games. If you’re using a Mac, you'll notice that if you get a new instant message your little icon on the bottom of the screen will just bounce up and down, just very calmly letting you know, when you’re free, go check your instant messaging; someone is messaging you. That is absolutely a type of information disclosure that was pioneered and perfected by video games years before. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So if the decade of the aughts was managing huge amounts of data to create and build a world and maintain yourself within it, if that’s what happened in the earlier part of this past decade, what accounts for what’s happened in the latter part of it? I'm talking about going beyond mice or joysticks- CLIVE THOMPSON: Mm-hmm. BROOKE GLADSTONE: - to our whole bodies, with the Wii or the new Microsoft Kinect. CLIVE THOMPSON: The first company to do this was Nintendo with the Wii, where they basically said, you know, there’s a certain generation of people that are never going to figure out these joysticks. These joysticks, there’s like 18 buttons on it. There’s no way you’re handing that to my mother. So they said, well what if you just had to swing your hand and when you swung your hand you swung a tennis racket? [WII TENNIS SOUNDS] MAN: Love 15! CLIVE THOMPSON: And they, with that very smart idea, created the Wii controller, which has a little motion sensor, and so that’s exactly what you do. You swing your hand and the racket swings. And Microsoft recently took that further, where they basically have something that just sprays invisible rays across your room, senses where your body is and lets you just wave your arm or move your head or stand up and sit down to control the game. But a bunch of hackers have said, well no, I want to run my email and I want to run my Web browser and I want to run my computer using that, so they started hacking it. And sure enough, they figured out how to get the Microsoft Kinect to let them control their computers just with a wave of their hands. Now you can immediately see what the future’s gonna look like, right? You could be just standing in the middle of your kitchen and bringing up your email or bringing up the menu with a wave of your hands onto a local screen. You saw Tom Cruise doing that a little bit in Minority Report. I used to think, wow, that seems a little farfetched. But, as usual, I was betting against [LAUGHS] technology, which is a bad thing to bet against, and it looks like this stuff is gonna be coming down the pike within five years, if you ask me. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Clive, thank you so much. CLIVE THOMPSON: Not at all. BROOKE GLADSTONE: New York Times Magazine writer and techno wiz Clive Thompson.