In Bit by Bit: How Video Games Transformed Our World, Andrew Ervin sought to explore the explosive popularity of video games and answer the question, “Are Video Games art?” To help answer this question the Philadelphia based novelist interviewed scientists and designers, tracing the history of the medium. He sat down with me recently for his own interview about video games, movies, philosophy, and his many geeky passions.
Andrew Ervin: What I’m trying to do is not make the argument that video games are art, but that they can be. That the art form has come far enough that in the right hands and with the right approach they can be works of art. Not to say that every single game is, no more than every single movie is, or every book is.
What games are you playing now?
Novelty is such a big part of the medium that it’s hard to get around that. It’s hard to play everything. My answer to the novelty, at least with console gaming, is to stay one console behind. I haven’t bought a Switch yet, I haven’t even bought a a PlayStation 4, because there are still so many great games for the PS3 that aren’t available now. I have been playing a lot of those games these days at great length instead of just trying to stay up to date with the newest and latest. I’m playing Spelunky right now which I haven’t played in a while. I go back to Shadow of the Colossus a lot on the PS2 because I really love that game.
That is most definitely an artistic game.
For sure, but why? What makes that artistic and other games not?
Visual style, the controls, the whole theme of it, I guess.
Yeah, all these different elements come together. It’s fun and that’s the most important thing for a video game, but it also does a lot of things on top of that which is really exciting. It combines music and…
Atmosphere is the perfect word for that game.
Those are the sorts of things I look for. I like some games that are just short, no time commitment involved. You can just get in and get out. But I also like some of the longer formal games games, or formalist games. I still have World of Warcraft on my computer I still poke at that. A couple minutes a week, not very often. That’s sort of an ongoing thing for me.
I played from Burning Crusade through Cataclysm. That was when the time and money investment stopped being worth it for me. It was also when most of my friends playing it stopped.
The social aspect of that game is super smart where it could be so enjoyable to play with people but, you know, once that dissipates it’s harder to get back into it.
How is the book doing?
It’s hit or miss. I don’t really know who the audience is, maybe it’s Geekadelphia people, maybe it’s academic people. I don’t know. It’s cool though, they ran an excerpt in Wired magazine. That was pretty great, so that got a lot of people interested. It’s a constant hustle. It’s not hard enough to just right a book. I have to figure out how to just hustle and hustle. The book just came out May second so I’m still kind of on that honeymoon.
Is this your first nonfiction book?
I enjoy writing fiction more, with nonfiction there is a lot more fact checking involved, a lot more hard research. A lot of research goes into fiction but not like, page by page fact checking, having works cited pages and things like that. That was a learning experience for me.
Do you think what you have learned will help inform your fiction writing going forward?
I hope so. I learned how to write a lot of pages on a fairly strict deadline, going bit by bit so if I can write my next novel faster I will be very happy. My second book was Burning Down George Orwell’s House and that took me maybe four to five years total. I think closer to four. I did not have that luxury with Bit by Bit.
What other geeky hobbies do you have?
Oh, all of them, you name it
Have you seen the new Guardians of the Galaxy movie?
I did. There was one scene in the new movie that bothered me a great deal. Beyond that, other than that one aspect I loved it. I thought it was great. I thought it was exactly what we want from a big overblown big budget Hollywood spectral.
The scene where Yondu is escaping from the ship where he is held captive and he goes through the spree with his arrow spear thing killing everybody. That to me was the worst excesses that we’ve seen in some Kubrik, but not nearly as artful as Kubrik, the worst excesses of Tarantino. The ultra violent mass murder with a music video, basically, going on. We have a music soundtrack and it’s played for laughs. The idea of mass murder for laughs, even in a big budget Hollywood movie still just doesn’t sit right with me. If Tarantino had done it, people would be scandalized, but because it’s a Disney movie, no one even notices it somehow. So that’s even more devious. Other than that I think the movie is great, I absolutely enjoyed it.
Since we touched on the ultra violence in movies, what is your take on the R rated Marvel Movies? Logan and Deadpool.
I haven’t seen Logan, I watched some of Deadpool. It was fun, it didn’t really strike me as all that different. The R rating seemed to be for language or nudity or something, not for the violence. It didn’t strike me as all that different from anything else. I have been wondering about this too with video games. There is a chapter in the book about first person shooters. I really don’t like the genre, it’s not my taste, but I recognize that they can be useful and they can be done well, it’s just a matter of taste. I’m kind of done with violence, whether it’s in video games or movies. It’s not sitting as well with me as it once did.
What did you do to prepare for the book?
I’ve basically done nothing but play video games for the last two years. For research, for interviewing video game makers…
It’s a good excuse.
It was, right?
If your wife is like, “Are you playing video games again?” And you can say, “It’s for the book!”
This is work honey! It’s true, I taught a class for Rutgers last semester. The class was online and we met in World of Warcraft. All of the students had avatars and we discussed Buddhism and identity and what does it mean to be a person. It was awesome. And I’ll do it again at Temple in the fall. But the idea of ‘what is person-hood, and what is person-hood now that you have so many avatars, so many profiles, and Twitter feeds. What constitutes Andrew Ervin exists as Walt Whitman’s multitudes in reverse. It’s no longer that I contain multitudes. I am no longer contained to this physical presence. I’ve got Twitter, I’ve got Facebook, I’ve got ten avatars in ten video games. I’ve got all these different things and these are all me, and these are all as much extensions of me as my eyeglasses. And the word avatar comes from Sanskrit. It’s the term for when a god would descend to Earth. There are all these great metaphysical ideas that go with these things. Things that we don’t even really think about anymore because they’ve become so mundane. That is sort of how this book got started and sort of become my serious geek passion over the past couple years. What is a ‘self’ now? How far can the self expand and still be the self? Is my World of Warcraft toon still me?
So what I wrote is a history of video games and a history of the medium but what it’s really about is what it means to be human in this digital age. What does it mean to experience art if a physical presence is no longer confined to one person? It’s mind bending. It’s baffling. And yet my background, my undergraduate degree is in philosophy and religion.
So you are already prone to these bouts of navel gazing anyway.
That’s right, without question. You put a controller in my hand and it just gets worse.
It’s notable that I wrote a book and not a video game, I’m a literary person.
If some video game developer came in and said ‘Andrew, we need a writer for this game we’re doing, what would your reaction be?
Oh hell yes! I’d do that in a heartbeat. I’d love to write for a video game and I did a little bit of video game development years ago. But I’m a book person, I’m a literature person but I see that we’re changing away from a literary culture to a digital culture. I don’t think that’s bad or as a negative development. I think that would be foolish. It’s a change. It’s a massive change but I’m not going to shake my cane at these young whippersnappers. Not yet. I will eventually. It’s a fascinating time, We’re seeing this transition go on before our eyes.
Bit by Bit: How Video Games Transformed Our World was released on May 2 and is available in whatever format you prefer for print media.