Soren Johnson: Remix, and How to Make Video Games Matter

Soren Johnson was a SLE guest speaker on April 23.  He’s the developer of the computer games Spore and Civilization 4.  He was a double major in computer science and history at Stanford.  The topic of his lecture was “Can Games Matter?”  but he went over a bunch of different issues.  This was one of the best lectures that I’ve had this year. 

He talked about games as a unique medium because they are interactive and active, whereas watching a movie or reading a book is a static, non-participatory experience.  Video games can adapt depending on how you play.

He talked about authorship and remix.  When multiple people are creating content together, each leveraging off of what the other person created, who is the author?  For instance, in the youtube video “The Mother of All Funk Chords,” a remix artist collected videos of people playing short snippets or notes and saying things and remixed each of those individual notes into an actual song.  Who was the creator?  The creation would have been impossible without the remix artist and it also would have been impossible without each of the original artists.  Johnson argued that we have to move away from thinking of individuals creating and start recognizing that groups create things together.  In Spore, the users generate most of the creative content, and Johnson just made the tools that the users used to create.  Johnson thinks that everyone can and should be a creator, and that current copyrights are too restrictive, so they’re losing the battle, and the creators of intellectual property will have to adapt or lose out. 

He talked about the creativity within remix and user generated content.  User generated content allows for things that the industry cannot create.  There is a mod of Civilization 4 (a mod uses the underlying framework of something else – in this case Civ 4 – to create something new.  This mod had new rules, new technologies, and it was really a whole new game) that has 200,000 users.  That couldn’t have been a game produced in the industry, though, because 200,000 is too few sales for a commercial game, because some of the content was too edgy to pass reviews, because there was a backstory that was too long for some users, etc.  In other words, it was a fringe game, but it was still a good game. 

He also talked about how users leveraging off of original content leads the original artists to new creativity.  When people made a mod for Civ 4, the mod community had certain ideas that Johnson integrated into new versions of Civ 4.

The brunt of his lecture, though, was on how to make games matter.  He introduced the topic by presenting a distinction between theme and mechanics.  The theme of Mario games is plumbers saving a princess.  The mechanics is timing.  The theme of Age of Empires is historical warfare.  The mechanics is resource management.  The theme of Spore is evolution.  The mechanics is creativity.  Johnson argued that the important part of a game is not the theme, but the mechanics.  So even though the theme of Spore is evolution, the game is about creativity. 

However, the divergence between theme and mechanics or between theme and meaning is reducing the potential of games.  When the theme matches the meaning, the game can be educational, teach a skill, or be used for research. 

Regarding education, one example Johnson used was a gerrymandering game.  The objective of the game was to try to divide up the district lines so that his political party had more seats than the other party.  Even though Johnson knew about gerrymandering before he played the game, because games are a unique medium and are active, the experience of playing the game made him understand it much more and made him much angrier at the political system for allowing it. 

Regarding skills, the best example would probably be in the military.  With games like “America’s Army,” the US Military is teaching its soldiers and recruiting gamers to join by associating the army with fun and desensitizing gamers to violence.  There are also flight simulators and plenty of other games used for industrial education.

Regarding research, Johnson’s honors thesis was a computer simulation of a certain period of history.  It was a game where the theme matched the meaning and the player assumed a historical role. 

While games can be about more than fun, Johnson sees it as tragic that the current games industry cannot adapt to that.  That is, just as the mod to Civ 4 could not have come out of the industry, many of these educational games could not have come out of the game industry.  When playing a game for fun, users expect certain things like fairness, but in many cases the topic of education is an unfair society.  The game that Johnson wants is one that teaches or portrays the subject matter of Guns, Germs, and Steel, a book about geographic determinism.  Such a game would be intrinsically unfair because a society that started out near a bunch of rivers and oceans and in a temperate zone would fare drastically better than a landlocked, tropical society.  Such a game could only come out of academia or come as someone’s pet project.

In order to facilitate games that matter, our society needs to change what it thinks of games and of computer programming in general.  We need to teach programming in school as a skill like writing.  We need to foster a community of game developers that can leverage easily off of each other’s work by releasing software as open source so that dinner anyone else can easily make something new out of something old.

He stayed for, but I was called to go over to Palo Alto HS for debate – the person who usually coached on Thursdays didn’t come in, so the debaters were unattended.  My roommate, also a fan, got Soren Johnson to sign some DVDs for me and him, though.