Beholding the Beauty of Games With Frank Lantz

Published May 8, 2024

Hi! Can you tell us who you are and about your game?

Hello everybody! I’m Frank Lantz, the author of “The Beauty of Games”—a book that goes beyond games as a mere medium for entertainment and delves further into the work of art that it is. I’m… well, I have a very long history with games, more than two decades actually, and I’ve designed several games that have won numerous awards or gone viral, like Universal Paperclips. I’m the Founder of Everybody House Games, the Director and Founding Chair of the New York University Game Center, as well as a game design educator for several esteemed learning institutions, like Parsons School of Design and the School of Visual Arts.

The Beauty of Games is as it sounds—it’s a deep dive into the nature of games itself. It’s more than just fun. Games are so influential and impactful that they, in my opinion, should be considered an art form that is similar in significance to literature, theater or music. If the idea sounds provocative, then that’s how the book is supposed to be! Give it a read when you can!

What’s your favorite game to play these days?

Oh, well, these days, I think it would be a lie to say anything other than Balatro. Over the past month or so, I've been playing a lot of Balatro and having a lot of fun with it, not just because it's really great game and a really fun game, but also because there's a lot to think about in Balatro. It's a type of game that I find really appealing, which is, a game with very high variance. It's like a gambling game with lots of randomness, but also very high strategy. So there are lots of opportunities for calculation, problem-solving and figuring out the ways that the game works, the different elements of the game and extrapolating the rules of how they fit together. And so at any given point, there's an opportunity to actually do a lot of cognitive work to figure out what is the best move, which is like what happens in chess.

But at the same time, you're often in a position where you're kind of at the mercy of these big, very wide swings of variance, and you have to both accommodate that in your calculations and also respond to those things. They create little different kinds of problems. Every time you play that, you're always figuring out different kinds of problems. It’s a really interesting game, and I like games like that.

I think they're especially fun to think about and I kind of have to be careful with them, because part of what makes Balatro fun is this kind of slot machine energy of an intermittent reward, which we're familiar with from casino games, mobile games and other kinds of exploitative games. And you have to be careful with that as an ingredient. It's like alcohol or drugs or caffeine or something like that.

These are the fears of all parents of children.

More on exploitative games and addiction

I think that one of the things that isn’t taught in our society is how to manage addiction as opposed to having taboos about addictive things, which is maybe the right thing to do. Maybe it's just better to have these kinds of bright lines and say, “Oh, gambling is bad, and alcohol is bad. We still do them, but we know they're bad.” We kind of bracket them off. Often I'll talk to people who are very literate in games, and I'll ask them about World of Warcraft, for example. I played World of Warcraft for a year or two.

It was a profound experience. I think it was a deeply fun and rich experience, one that I look back on and value highly. It was really intense and really good. But often people will say, “Oh, no, I couldn't play World of Warcraft.”

It's just too, it's too addictive. I know my own personality. I know I would never be able to survive, you know, I'd never be able to get out of it if I started it. So I'm kind of bracketing it off and that just seems weird to me. Like, if you're a game designer, you should have the discipline and the skill.

Like, it's true that you have to figure out that there's no “off” ramp in World of Warcraft, you know, there's no quit button. You have to engineer that for yourself. It is, and it can be very dangerous. And I think some people's lives are destroyed by it, just like some people's lives are destroyed by alcohol, sports betting, cars, romance novels or stuff like that.

There are lots of things that can ruin your life. But I do think it is a valuable skill, especially for game designers, to be able to, like, imbibe those intensely addictive things. It’s important to understand them, deconstruct them, figure out how they work, learn what it's like to be inside of a game like that and have it really operating on you… letting it really take over. I mean, Universal Paperclips is a little bit like this, I think.

You know what I mean? Universal Paperclips tries to do this on purpose in a way, gets in your head, takes you over and then lets you go. Like, in the case that was very explicit in that game, I wanted it to end in a way that let people pull back from it because I think that's an important type of experience to have.

Can you tell us more about Universal Paperclips?

In the games that inspired me when I was making Universal Paperclips, there were a lot of great incremental games, and most of them kind of don't want to let go once they get you. Cookie Clicker just has this endless prestige system. And the Kittens Game, which was a big influence on me, also just keeps going.

Once it opens up, it just keeps going and going and going. And I was like, I don't want to make a hobby. You know what I mean? I don't need to make a game that people are then going to play for years. I mean, I do like games like that, and I do want to make games like that, but I didn't feel like that was a good fit with, you know, my vision.

Universal Paperclips was meant to be a small game by intentionally, like, it's minimalist in its presentation. It's like a little thought experiment. It's like a little fable. It's not meant to be this big, sprawling epic of the Lord of the Rings or something with hundreds and hundreds of hours of content. It's meant to be this really intense thing that you do.

And in some ways, that's the scope of what the game is describing, in contrast with how small it is as part of the fun. So I really wanted to kind of put the hooks in and then let people off the hook, but also because I really specifically wanted them to have this moment of reflection. And if you never get out of the game, you never have an opportunity to reflect on it. Honestly, I think that's one of the problems that games struggle with sometimes. 

Why is it with games, people still don't really think of them alongside things like books and movies as useful lenses with which to talk about the world and things that we care about?

And it's partly, I think, because, in a way, games are often these enormous universes. They are these hobbies that you go into, and then you're just kind of in them, and you kind of never get a chance to kind of pull back and say, “Oh, well, how did that make me feel? How does that relate to other things? What are some meanings I can extract from it, or how can I see these larger patterns?”

And so I specifically went to do that, and I'm happy. I think that's one of my favorite things about the game. Honestly, one of the things I'm most proud of is that the ending's good. Also, by the way, no spoilers!

But I was really happy when I thought of that ending. There's even that moment where I give you a choice at the end, and I'm sure you guys made the right choice because you can kind of keep going, but instead, it's like, no, no, I want to stop. And that's the right choice.

What brought you down this path of game design?

Big influences for me growing up were, I would say, number one, MAD Magazine. When I was a kid, I discovered MAD Magazine and I used to read these little paperback reprints. So I wasn't reading the comic book format of MAD. I was reading these little paperback-size things you could buy in the drugstore. And they would take a bunch of MAD Magazines from 10-20 years ago and bundle them up into a little paperback.

So I was reading MAD Magazine from the fifties, and I grew up in the seventies. In some ways, it's like the height of MAD Magazine, the time of Mort Drucker and all these geniuses. Amazing art. But it was like parodies of stuff that I'd never heard of, making parodies of like, old black and white TV shows that I'd never heard of and, like, trends that didn't exist anymore.

But I loved it. I wanted to be a cartoonist. I just thought this was so complicated and interesting and cool and then getting older, eventually things like discovering Monty Python, which was a big influence on me. Eventually, I started reading science fiction. I'm a big science fiction guy.

And so getting into science fiction, first the big Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov, but then eventually kind of more of the new wave stuff. J.G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick, Stanisław Lem, folks like that. And I just read voraciously and so.

And then video games, I played arcade games because I was still a bit young for other, more substantial stuff. I would go down to the arcade and we had like a home console, but it was like Pong, you know, it's like those early Atari and Sears Home Consoles. But then eventually, I guess when I was just starting college, I started to get into computers.

I got an Amiga and that was because I'm such a contrarian. I could get a Mac, or it was the early days of Macs and PCs, of course. I mean, I wanted to do like, graphics and things like that. So I really got into Amiga and that was like, kind of my first experience with really getting into computer games. And then I read Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach.

And that book made a huge impact on me and was a big influence. So those were all the things that were kind of rattling around in my head when I first started making stuff. Although originally I just wanted to be a painter. That was my goal. Kind of went to college and started figuring stuff out.

I was like, “Oh, these guys know what's up.” I mean, painters just seemed like the smartest and most interesting and weirdest and coolest domain to be in. So originally I just wanted to be a painter, but then I was trying to combine that with computer stuff and I was writing software to make images. And then I realized, “Oh, no. What I really like is the connection between software and images.”

It's not like the images themselves. I just like the kind of logic and patterns and ideas that computers can create and play with, and so for their own sake. And so that's what eventually made me want to make computer games.

Comedy in games

It's very hard to do. But some of the greatest games of all time have done it really well. I would say Portal is definitely a strong candidate for the greatest video game of all time. It's up there. Sure, we could argue about whether it's the GOAT, but I think it's certainly up there. And also, maybe inarguably, the funniest game of all time. Very extremely well written. Eric Wolpaw is a genius.

And actually, the story of Portal is really interesting because Eric Wolpaw and his partner Chet Faliszek had an early game criticism blog called Old Man Murray. And it was the funniest thing. When I first encountered Old Man Murray, that was life-changing. I thought, “Oh my God, these guys!” For the first time, it was like someone writing in a way, that was both incredibly smart about video games and incredibly funny.

Because there is something absurd about games. In a way. It's like you kind of have to be funny. If you take them too seriously, you're kind of weirdly missing the point. And so it seemed like these guys really were some of the best writing that's ever been done about video games. And it was just this hilarious, off-the-wall comic, satirical, tongue-in-cheek reviews of games. And Gabe Newell loved Old Man Murray. And he said, “You know, at Valve, part of our design process, as we're making a game, we think, ‘What are the guys at Old Man Murray going to say about this?’” And so eventually, he just hired them.

And so they came on board and started working at Valve. Chet is still there. I don't know what Eric is doing, but so that’s when they started working.

The significance of game writing

On Portal, Eric did a lot along with the help of other people, I don't want to give him too much credit, but I think you can see his voice in that game and, yeah, I don't know, there's just so much bad writing in video games. It's a very hard problem. First of all, there's just too much writing in general. I'm sorry. I don't want to make anyone mad.

I think that people overemphasize writing partly because let's see… how can I put this? It comes from a good place. I think the people who overemphasize writing and narrative and games are doing it for good reasons. They're doing it because they recognize that all these things that we're saying about games, they want them to have more impact. They want them to be in conversation with the world and be participating in this process of civilization, all the stuff that we pretentiously want games to do more of.

They want that too. And I think that's what drives this motivation. To focus on story and narrative in a game is one way of trying to amplify its meaningfulness, instead of being just a black hole that you can pour attention and energy into. No, it should give you something in return. It should contribute something to your life. It should be a way of reflecting on the world and make you understand the world and yourself and other people and the way that a great poem does or the way a great novel does or the way a great movie does.

That's one of the angles by which they resonate with the world—language. And so I understand that impulse, and sometimes it works. I would call out, for example, Disco Elysium as another example of amazing writing in games and a brilliant work of kind of interactive literature in the form of a game. And, I mean, people love Kentucky Route Zero. I love plenty of really narrative-focused games.

Things like the Stanley Parable, The Beginner's Guide… I think these are masterpieces that really focus on stories and storytelling. But for the most part, let's be honest, for the most part, they're terrible. Like, if you love Assassin's Creed, then you are suffering through a lot of boring plotting cutscenes that are not well written, ones that would not make the cut in a mediocre TV show. In a mediocre TV show, people would look at that and say that it’s corny. Let's go back to the writer's room. Let's do it again. But in a game, because you have to make 12 million lines of dialogue… well, it becomes a real problem.

And also because you're mostly focused on the things that Assassin's Creed does well, which is this giant world and this clockwork city, and you're diving off of a tower into a haystack. And that stuff is hard. That's not easy to do. You're going to tell me I'm supposed to do all of that and then also be Shakespeare? Like, that's really, really hard.

So, anyway, it's a complicated issue. I mean, the challenge and difficulty of integrating these things and figuring out which way to go. So that's a topic that I think is controversial too because people will get mad at you. I mean, many of the students who come to the game center, you know, that's their passion. They want to be a narrative designer. They want to be a writer. And we want to accommodate that. We want them to do that.

We want them to do it well and meet their goals. But we also want them to have a broader sense of how games make meaning. We just can’t keep shoving narrative into things. We need to teach them not to focus too much on the things that wear a t-shirt that says, “I'm meaningful.” 

What is the cultural impact of games in your opinion?

I think this is maybe the most underappreciated part of the history of computer games and video games. They are, to a great degree, the continuation of a tradition of games that have been part of human civilization. We've always had games. And up until recently, they were always social in nature. Games were ritualized social interactions.

We get together and we compete or collaborate or problem solve in complicated ways together. It's a little kind of stylized, ritualized interaction between people. Deeply social, it's very psychological and emotional. And it involves bodies and faces and emotions, and you're interacting with people and stuff. And then we make computer games, and a lot of that gets stripped away in a single-player game. Now you're interacting with a complex system.

But it used to be that that complex system, a lot of it was driven by the complexity of other people. That's what you were. And now it's funny, because if you think about the meaning of a game like checkers… so much of the meaning of a game like checkers and what makes it rich and complex and beautiful in people's lives is now who you're playing with. The context of playing against your grandfather teaches you the game, and then you play it every Sunday sitting on the porch of your grandfather's house, and there's a big pitcher of lemonade there. And you're getting better.

Your grandfather beats you every weekend, every Sunday. And then eventually you win the first time. And then all of a sudden, this moment between you and your granddad expands over the years and you’re growing up. Now, sometimes he wins, sometimes you win, and now you're going back and forth.

Think of how complicated and rich that is. And then if you just think of checkers as a computer problem, that it's just you kind of figuring out what the optimal move is, that's so dry. So what we're going to do is we're going to paint one of those on the computer screen. We're going to paint one of those to look like a princess, and we're going to paint one of those to look like a big angry monkey. And now a little bit of that social juice comes back in this new way as a story because it's missing, you know what I mean? So much of that juice got drained out of it when it became just a piece of software.

Think of the way cooking is embedded in your home, in your relationships and your family and your friends and visitors and guests and your culture and your traditions and your history and all of that. And then think about games, which are also embedded in your lifestyle, but in a different way. And then, now think about the difference between growing up in a town where everyone plays football and versus being on Steam and looking for a game. What game am I going to play next?

Now, I'm growing up in a town where everybody plays the latest game, and so that's a different kind of context, right? Can I find a new thing and learn it and get good at it? Or League of Legends, which is more like the first one. League of Legends is basically the kind of this pervasive, ubiquitous game that everyone grows up playing.

It's weird, right? All of these things are at play, and they all contribute in different ways when you play a game, how is it meaningful? You know what I mean? What does it do to your life and when do you choose not to play? 

My kids are growing up in a town that is very driven by hockey and neither of them plays. That's a whole thing. Or we're in Minnesota. There's some hockey here. I know Massachusetts and the East Coast has some of these clusters as well. But the Game Center at NYU is about this culture. It says your mission is to graduate the next generation of game designers, developers, entrepreneurs and critics to advance the field of games by creating the context for advanced scholarship and groundbreaking work. 

I was wondering if across twenty years, you have an observation of the story arc of how a student thought about joining the Game Center twenty or ten years ago, and those that join now, given the role games are transitioning and driving culture for us.

More on the NYU Game Center

There are a lot of story arcs. I'm not sure if there's one single master narrative there, but first of all, I should say that I am officially retired now. So I've stepped down. I am Chair Emeritus, meaning it’s an honorary designation, and I've passed the torch to my colleague Naomi Clark, who is the new chair and is now leading the game center and doing a great job.

But I was there at the beginning along with many other colleagues, Eric Zimmerman, Jesper Yule and Charles Pratt. Eric and I were teaching games at NYU before the Game Center even existed. Yeah, Eric was kind of like one of the key people in terms of collaborating as game designers in New York City. He comes from an academic household.

His parents are teachers. And he was like, “Oh, we should be teaching game design.” And at the time, twenty years ago, whatever I said, we're just figuring this stuff out. “What do you mean, teach it? We don't know the first thing about what we're doing. We're just making it up as we go and figuring out what game design is.” 

And he said, “Yeah, teaching it will be a great way to do that and do it more consciously and do it better.” 

So I was like, okay, let's give it a try. And so, yeah, we were teaching classes in game design very early, maybe among the first people at the college level to really try to think about what would it mean to teach game design as a creative discipline the way that you would teach writing or art or theater. So we weren't primarily teaching it as a subset of computer science, as many schools have for game development, but it's kind of a subset of computer engineering, software engineering and computer science.

Whereas we thought, no, no, no, we're going to teach this as a cultural form. You know, what does it mean to invent a new kind of game design, a new kind of game, and think about it creatively as a work of culture? And that was our primary focus. And I think that has continued to be the main thread of thought but there are different ways of approaching games as an academic subject, but that in particular was always ours. It was sort of like, yeah, the way a film program approaches film or the way an art program approaches art, we're going to approach games as a creative discipline, something that involves craft and expressive meaning.

But there's also an industry, right? It's also pop culture, something that you can have a career in, something that there's a market for. And so that's always been our approach. Now, having said that, we think it's important to acknowledge that there is a lot of programming involved. There is something important about the relationship between games as a creative form and computer science.

Even though we're saying we’re not going to consider ourselves a subset of computer science, we think we're like an art form. We're like, well, we're the art form of computers in a way, right? That's one way to think about it.

Because if you look at chess, if you look at Go, what are these things? They look like calculation machines. They look like an abacus, and there are sort of like little rules for moving logical units around, then seeing how they can explode exponentially and all of this stuff. And they're also like little exercises in problem-solving and calculation. But even sports, weirdly, have a little bit of that in them.

Even sports are about isolating physical activity and abstracting it and making it quantitative in a way that allows us to kind of calculate what is the optimal strategy or measure people's skills quantitatively and come up with an explicit outcome. You put these twelve guys together on the ice. I don't know how many people go into hockey, and then they do a kind of physical calculation and the output is the score of the game. You know what I mean?

How does your career affect your family dynamics?

Let’s take kids of today and their preferred video games like Fortnite. It’s hard for parents to make a connection between them and their kids with that game. But it also applies to them as well—they also find difficulty connecting with their parents’ interests. 

And this is one of the things that I've always had as part of one of my missions at the game center. I want to be some sort of a parent whisperer, the one who can sort of like, help connect families. So I get this wave after wave of kids who are so passionate about this thing and parents who are so confused, like, what is happening? Like, what is this thing? Because if you look at computer games, if you look at video games, they just look like nonsense.

I mean, they don't look like it, maybe they are nonsense… and sometimes they just are. And sometimes you're right. Your kid is just wasting their time. Sometimes your instincts are correct and your kid is spending way too much time playing this game and is just avoiding doing their homework or doing the dishes. And it's just that way, you know? Kids have their video games, and the parents have something like tennis or golf or skiing. And when you look at it like that, you start to understand. Your kid starts to understand, and that is a point of connection that they can see. So the next time your kid sees you doing something they don’t get, okay, well, your kid is doing something you also don’t get. You know what I mean?

More on the in-depth matters of games

It's not identical, but it has this idea of submerging yourself in a very simple kind of stylized activity that is nonetheless infinitely deep. Like, if you look at skiing, you can just put as much time and energy as you want into that, and you will always find ways to improve. You will always find new depths of ways to incrementally increase your skill and ability to understand and appreciate what skiing is or what tennis is. And there's, at least in every game, an opportunity for that kind of experience above and beyond the thing that it looks just like this cartoon. Weird wizards are going around casting spells, or people are shooting each other with squirt guns or whatever.

It's like, yeah, there's that. There's that surface. But under the hood, there is also something that is endlessly, almost infinitely deep in terms of how much attention it can absorb and give back. Cuz it's not just a slot machine that's stealing your attention and hypnotizing you, although it can be that.

And there's an element of that in many games, there's also an element of continuous, ongoing, incremental self-improvement, going deeper and deeper into a discipline that is constantly revealing new levels, new layers of problems to solve, new things to learn, new ways to understand and improve and get better. At least there's an opportunity for that and a potential for that. Understanding that a little bit better is also a good way to help your kid make better choices about the kind of games they should play and how they should play them and how.

How does one immerse oneself in eSport events based on what you’ve told us?

Yeah, that's a really interesting question. I myself watch a lot of GeoGuessr tournaments. I mean, first of all, that experience you're describing, I think, is one of the main ingredients that makes games what they are. Not every game experience provides this, or even tries to provide it, but occasionally they do. And when they give you access to that moment of what this famous psychologist Csikszentmihalyi calls the flow state, where you're just, it's kind of an optimal experience of attention and awareness where you aren't, where your mind is temporarily emptied of the chatter and the clutter of all of the busyness that is in there, and instead you have this moment of just being in the world and doing a thing. And it is like, you get why people go rock climbing.

I myself don't do rock climbing, but I think you can sense that there's this beauty of like, the thrill of life and death and maintaining focus because if I slip, I die. And while it's not true that in tennis, you'll die if you don't pay attention, it still is guiding you towards that same state, and then you can just be in the moment doing a thing, and it's just fabulous. You know, whether you can get that from watching sports or eSports, I think sometimes get a little bit of it and there's a version of it, or it's there as one of the ingredients in the cocktail. But I think it's a more complex thing when you're watching people stream a game, you're watching people stream a competitive game. But I really do love it.

In some ways, it's kind of cheating because you get a glimpse of the intensity without having to put in the effort. You get to kind of hitchhike along while someone is really drilling down into the depths of a game and you get to kind of surf on the surface. I enjoy watching them do that. But obviously, people love watching sports, and I guess that includes eSports. GeoGuessr is a recent one that is great, super entertaining and super fun to watch. And on that note, chess is surprisingly entertaining right now. Like, chess is kind of in a golden age right now. You would think that twenty or more years after Deep Blue humans would be over chess, because it's like, well, computers solve chess.

But instead, the opposite has happened. Chess is hotter than ever. We've got Magnus Carlsen, who's not only super charismatic, not just the best living chess player, maybe the best chess player who's ever lived, and he's out there making content and streaming and scandals and whatever, and we just had an amazing candidate's cup that was, like, super fun to watch. But when I'm watching chess, I'm mostly just admiring someone else's cognitive performance and seeing, like, just glimpsing a little bit because I'm not literate enough at chess to really understand what's going on.

But when I watch GeoGuessr, when my wife and watch competitive GeoGuessr, we are right in there participating. So as soon as the image comes up, we're like, “Okay, I guess. Could be Australia. I don't know, is it Australia or is it South Africa?” You know what I mean? “Oh, I bet it's south. Oh, maybe it's Lesotho, you know?” And so we're trying to kind of guess before they do. You get to play along and at a game that is genuinely weird and fun and cool, so it's a little bit closer to poker, and that's another game that we like to watch a lot. And in poker, you also get to play along with the players and think, okay, what would I do in this situation?

But you get the extra. You're given the superpower of knowing what the hole cards are of your opponent, so it gives you kind of this extra edge over Daniel Negreanu or whoever, that you actually know what their hole cards are. But you could imagine, you can sort of, like, think, okay, what would I do in this situation? Would I fold or would I call? And so it's a little bit of that vicarious playing along.

On difficult and substantial games that aren’t AAA releases

I just think, yeah, it's such a great time. There are so many things you can watch either on Twitch or YouTube. And there’s another card game, Bridge. We tried to learn Bridge, my wife and I, years ago, back when we were young enough that it was, like, cute. Oh, look at these young people playing Bridge. Now, we're old enough that it's not even interesting because we're just like all the other old people playing Bridge. We never got good at it, but we like to watch.

There are people who stream Bridge, and they stream this weird format where they're playing against robots, playing with robots, against other robots and stuff. Bridge is, and I've seen, like, looked at so many games and watched and studied and thought about so many games, Bridge is, I think, by far the most complex, most challenging game ever in terms of strategic depth. And the fact that it was at one time more popular than Taylor Swift, like that is a shock.

That is amazing. That's a fact, a historical fact, that a game that's harder than Fortnite, harder than Hearthstone, harder than League of Legends, harder than DOTA, harder than Path of Exile, harder than whatever game you want to think of, that's a big, complicated, hard game to play. Bridge is just pure difficult, hard, abstract problem solving, and it was as popular as Taylor Swift in the world. How did that happen, and how can we make that happen again?

In my head, when I think of brain games, mind games and smart games, I think, “Okay, that is proof, that is existence, that people have an appetite for difficult, challenging, intellectually complex, abstract, strategic games.”

And given the right opportunity, we could get back to that. And wouldn't that be nice to have a game like that? Because I love all eSports and stuff, but I get tired of the wizards and the magic and the dragons and the Space Marines. Do you know what I mean? It's a little bit, after a while, you're like, what are we doing, guys? Are we really just like, do we really need these big billboards that say, “Hi, this is for eight-year-old boys.”

This is a hobby for young boys over and over again. Do you know what I mean? Do we need to have quite so many wizards and Space Marines? Can't we just, like, have something complex and difficult but is seemingly normal and accessible? And Bridge still exists, but its community is very, very small. There's a tiny little niche of people who are doing it. Most people don't even know that it exists, I think.

I don't know. For some reason, I just. I'm obsessed with this, and I kind of want it to. I want to understand the lesson and figure out how to get back to that. There's everything. There's psychology. There’s Math. There's gambling, because it is, you know what I mean? It's like poker in the sense that it's all statistical. It's all like you're comparing probabilities, you're constantly comparing probabilities.

But there's also just a lot of chess in there. There's a lot of straightforward deductive reasoning. And then there's a lot of psychology because the whole game is built around these weird conventions that we have for like communicating through this narrow channel where we're going to use our bids to say things about our hands to each other. And then extrapolating from that, oh my God, the game is so deep and rich.

On televising video games

Well, tennis is pretty good on TV. It's not as good as football or basketball or something like that. Look, football is great. Football is great on TV, and I think basketball is great on TV. There are just some sports and eSports that don’t look that good on TV.

But I would say that Fortnite is especially bad. I think it's interesting that Fortnite is a battle royale format but doesn’t look good when televised. It's just they haven't figured out a good way to make that into good TV content. It's fun to watch along as if you're watching one single streamer play through a battle royale. That's entertaining. 

But trying to watch an overall battle royale? I don't think they figured out how to do that. I think Counter-Strike is very hard to watch. I think shooters in general are hard to watch compared to Starcraft. I think the real-time strategy is great to watch and you could just see the whole thing and it looked hard but doable. 

And it's kind of sad that we've lost Starcraft as an eSport. It's no longer really a thriving eSport and there isn't a real-time strategy game to replace it.

Where should people go to find and learn about the beauty of games?

Step one. Everyone should buy my book, The Beauty of Games. Forget Bridge. Buy the book, okay? That's step one. Kidding aside, it's a good book, by the way, and I really hope you give it a read if you’re into the finer details of gaming in general.

I'm not big on predicting. I think it's like these things are too big and too complex to really predict. I like to try to identify things that are happening early enough that you can do, that you can get a sense of. I would love for games to continue to thrive, to grow and evolve, to continue to surprise us. We don't know where they're going. And I'm a novelty junkie, you know what I mean? Like I said, I grew up reading science fiction, and. And I love moments when you can confront something in the world, when you experience something in the world and you're like, oh, I'm living in the future.

Oh, man, this is weird and cool and, like, walking into a giant sports coliseum to watch the League of Legends World Championship felt like a science fiction moment. I'm like, whoa, this is weird and cool. Like, this is strange.

So I like those games, I want them to continue to just be surprising and weird and do and go places that no one is expecting. I would love for games to continue. I think I'd love for games to have more, to participate more in conversations about the world, about things that matter to us in the way that novels, film and music do. 

How does culture reflect and help us understand and interpret the things that are happening in the world? I would like for games to be kind of less isolated and off in their own little corner, and sometimes people look in and be like, “Oh, what's happening over there? Okay, well, go back to playing your games, guys. We're gonna go over here and whatever, do the important work of, you know.” 

I would like there to be a little bit more interaction there. And I think that, if you think about it in a broader sense, games have contributed, like, profoundly to things like, probability theory and many others. Probability theory is an important part of modern science and modern. And how we understand the world, comes out of studying games.

Probability theory has its roots in people studying card games. Mathematicians trying to understand how card games operate. Or you look at game theory, right? Game theory has transformed modern science and sociology and to a degree, philosophy and politics and everything else. And game theory came out of John von Neumann thinking about poker.

It wasn't just a metaphor. He literally played poker. He liked poker, he thought about poker, he invented game theory. And we're still living downstream of that. We still now have a whole new set of conceptual tools for thinking about competition, decision-making in situations of uncertainty, and when there are multiple agents and all of that stuff, that really helps us understand the world. I would like that to continue.

On artificial intelligence

Like, especially now, now that we're living in the age of AI. I think games have something to contribute there. Like what? How should we think about this question of synthetic intelligence and software that can do something that appears to be similar to thinking and software that appears to have some of the features of intelligence and agency? Where there are big questions about whether that is an existential risk, whether that's a danger, whether that's an opportunity, how is that going to play out and unfold?

I would love for people to recognize that games can contribute to that question. I mean, Universal Paperclips was about that, right? Like, that was about AI, you know, the risks of existential destruction that could come from a runaway AI. But it's also more about giving people a concrete way to explore a set of abstract ideas, instrumental convergence and what's called the orthogonality thesis about these issues about AI safety.

What’s your opinion on game podcasts and their social commentaries?

I love podcasts, but I honestly don't know that many names. There's a podcast called GameTech which a friend of mine does, which I like a lot, and it kind of touches on some of these issues.

But I'm trying to think about the podcasts that I follow, and I don't actually follow that many game podcasts. Many of them are just… they're really just more about video games as a hobby. I will say that there are some examples. 

Okay, so, like, Nate Silver is an interesting case, right? Nate Silver, the kind of quantitative journalist guy. You know, he started out as a poker player and then as a sports analyst. He's applying a lot of kind of game intelligence to larger issues about politics and democracy and things like that.

There's another guy that I follow, Zvi Mowshowitz. He's got a more intense version of that as well. And he started out as a Magic the Gathering pro and is now doing some kind of analytical journalism and punditry. So you do get nerds like that, you know, who are going to start out in games and then kind of get to a broader sense. But it would be nice if there was something. Yeah, like the New York Review of games. There probably is something literally called that, and there should be something like that. A pretentious, snooty intellectual.

But this is what Eric and Chet were, even back in the day, in the Old Man Murray days of twenty years ago, kind of making fun of this idea. They used to refer to themselves as “Cahier du Virtua Cop”. So Les Cahiers du cinéma is the famous French journal that… what was it… the French New Wave… ah! François Truffaut and Jacques Rivière!

I forgot some of the others, but those guys started out as journalists writing for this very pretentious French magazine called Cahiers du cinéma. And Eric Wolpaw. Yeah. Used to refer to OId Man Murray as Cahier du Virtua Cop. And just mockingly like, because there is something absurd of taking this hobby for nine-year-old boys, which is about dragons and Space Marines, and then trying to extrapolate, like, deep social truths or, like, what's actually going on here.

But that's the process that we're in. That is the way this stuff is evolving. And not just to become more intellectual and pretentious, but just to become more complex and to include within it the whole spectrum, the full spectrum. Just like film does, you know, from pornography to art and everything in between and journalism and everything else. 

You know, do it for fashion, we do it for food, you do it for art. So I think games are on the same journey. It's just complicated and circuitous.

Where can we go to learn more about you and your work?

Yes, I have a Substack called Donkeyspace. So if people just search for my name or Donkeyspace, they'll find my substack. And I write about games and art and AI and stuff like that.

I'm also on Twitter still or X or whatever it's called now and then. We've got some cool projects we're working on at Everybody House Games, which is my studio that I run with my wife and son. Actually. It's kind of a family game design studio. And we've got some cool projects that will be coming out later this year or next year, so keep your eyes out for that.

But, yeah, if you sign up for my Substack, you'll get all the news.

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