Talking about Games with James Portnow

October 5th, 2010 at 9:00 am · 12 Comments

Here at Sarcastic Gamer we appreciate many things, apparently the most important of those being bocce, parody songs, and racing games.  How any of those mix together I have no clue.

However, something that I definitely value is when people take an intellectual position towards the industry we all are a part of and adore.  Videos and blogs that examine what games are doing and how games can evolve in the future help show off the ever-growing platform that is our interactive media.

Extra Credits is a great example of people voicing what is wrong and right with the gaming industry. It’s a video game lecture series that started off on YouTube, but made its way to the popular online magazine The Escapist.  This series takes a look at many aspects of the videogames themselves and those that participate in making them what they are (developers, players, media, etc).

Here’s one of my favorites from the series so you can see what they do:

I had the chance to bother contact James Portnow, one of the co-creators of Extra Credits, for a “quick” interview on the gaming world.  James is currently the CEO of Rainmaker Games, and used to be the CEO at Divide by Zero Games.  He not only shares his views on the gaming industry, but he works in it to try to make the industry better.

He's had a busy week but managed to still do this for me!

So James, please sit down and make yourself comfortable. Would you like a beverage? Or some of these h’orderves that cost more than a doctor’s paycheck to make?

Okay none of that happened, this interview was done through e-mails.  But you can’t blame a girl for dreaming of being that classy though..

Let’s cover the basics, how did Extra Credits come to exist? Were you a part of it from day one?

Great question.  Dan actually started it as a class assignment.  His first episode relied in part on one of my articles and he reached out and asked if that was ok.  I believe my response was “OK?  That’s actually fantastic.” because I had been doing a great deal of writing for industry facing publications like Edge and Gamasutra, but I hadn’t figured out how to get them out to the broader consumer audience.

Dan hit the nail on the head so I told him “go ahead and use anything I’ve written…and then I just started writing new material for the show rather than showifying my articles, because reaching the consumer was just that much more important.I like to think of us as equal partners in Extra Credits, but honestly, there’d be no Extra Credits without Dan.

Extra Credits revolves around the concept that video games is a growing art form. Why do you feel so strongly about something others might just consider a past-time?

Because it is the first interactive mass media.  It is the first mass media in the history of the world where the audience isn’t merely audient but participatory.  This is an amazing thing.  For the first time the interactor is a vital part of the art.  This means that we can explore the human experience in ways that no other art can.  Losing that would be criminal.

This doesn’t mean we’re better than other arts, we’re just different.  Books, film, television will always be better at delivering a message, but we’re able to lay out a space of possibility and say to our audience “Explore.  Tell your own story.”   This means that we can enable our audience to discover how they would approach life rather than explain how we think life ought to be approached.

What needs to happen down the road for video games to get to the level of media it can be, where it’s as monumental as books, movies and music?

We simply need to stop hiding behind the mantra “We’re just making games.”

What’s your general opinion on game journalism?  Is it something that helps games evolve or is it another hurdle that needs to evolve along with video games?

We’re getting there.  I think the “review”-centric media that simply tells the consumer what’s in a game is a vital service but something we have to get past.  I’m going to give a shout out to Anthony Burch for his Rev Rants, but there are a million great journalists looking past simple news and reviews… it’s just unfortunate that right now most of the people elevating the level of the dialog don’t get the attention they deserve.

During a PAX panel you sat in, “Game Culture: How Gamers Impact Society & How Policy Affects Gamer Culture,” the definition of the term “gamer” was a controversial topic. In fact, there was even an Extra Credits video to try to better explain the word.  Why do you believe this is such a controversial issue when it seems so simple?

The problem is that it’s a loaded term, but we’ve lived with it for so long many people have adopted it as a badge of pride, as a symbol of our subculture.  Unfortunately our subculture was built up around being outcasts, so we have a tendency to be exclusionary.  We have to get past this and welcome new types of “gamers” with open arms if we’re really to evolve as a medium and a form of media.

There are many people who are very attached to the way the subculture is today though and they believe that by doing away with this term and bringing in new and different members into our community. Just like how real punk rock was able to survive being part of ‘rock’, the gamer culture will survive and just be a subset of the universal “people who play games”.

[Sidetrack] What’s your take on the recent controversy surrounding the Medal of Honor game, especially with the timing of the California Violent Video Game Law?  Before the Escapist, you had a video on YouTube surrounding “Six Days in Fallujah,” which covered a similar issue.

This issue isn’t quite as defensible as I don’t think it was done with the same respect and care.  No effort is being made to allow the player to explore any of the myriad questions surrounding why someone would ever join the Taliban or what we can do to resolve such intense hate against us (though I’m sure EA will disagree).  This means that the Taliban are being used as “Generic Opposing Force” like Nazis in WW2 games, sure the player can play them in the multiplayer, but we all know that just encourages racial epitaphs and religious discrimination over XBLA.

What game(s) do you personally believe stand out for setting the example for others to follow?  In other words, what games have helped with pushing video games to expand?

I could answer this one all day.  I’ll limit myself to a few recent ones…

Everything from Shadow of the Colossus to Today I Die,  Bioshock to Flow, World of Warcraft to a Tale in the Desert, Portal to Loved, Farmville to Cow Clicker (Yes Ian, I still love you despite our disagreements…)

Wow, that doesn’t even scratch the surface, but if I don’t move on we’re never getting done.

What do you think we can really learn from video games? How is there more value to the genre than just a past-time?

Video game’s potential as a teaching tool is limitless.  From the very broad, like learning we have agency over our own lives or learning not to give up, to the more specific like learning the scientific method through empirically testing the weakness of a World of Warcraft boss or learning what the Sephiroth is due to playing Final Fantasy 7.  Once we start actively rather than passively including  ideas which you can take with you once you get off the couch into our game design, I think the world of educational possibilities will open up.

(Note, edutainment is a different industry and usually tries just to hammer things home by making them look like games rather than making games that facilitate learning…which is what we, edutainment and the AAA games industry alike, need to do).

What games are you looking forward to for the rest of the year and/or next year?

The games I don’t know I’m looking forward to yet ;)

Overall, what’s next for Extra Credits? Are there any other side projects planned?

Right now we’re just getting down being able to put out the show and hold together our work lives (we’re all members of the industry and work a lot of hours).  But we’re open to suggestions ;)

Thank you James for your time and responses!

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