PTD Original

Culture Confirmed?: Talking Games & Culture with Jeff Cannata

Jeff Cannata might be the hardest working man in popular culture.  Besides being an actor and improv performer, Cannata is a movie reviewer, alongside Miri Jedeikin, for Greedy Productions’ Reviews on the Run.  On internet network Revision3, he is one of the co-hosts of The Totally Rad Show (TRS), a creative exploration of all things good and bad offered by the popular media environment.  If that wasn’t enough, he is part of the regular cast of Shacknews’ Weekend Confirmed gaming podcast.

Such a description might seem to put Cannata into a ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ situation, but there is no doubt that he knows video games – which he started reviewing professionally as a teenager – and there is no doubt he has insights to offer about the cultural significance of games and their players.

Jeff Cannata sat down with Play Till Doomsday to talk about gaming culture at Fan Expo 2010 in Toronto.  With help from Comics and Gaming Monthly’s Eric Weiss, we discussed the cultural significance of shows like Fan Expo, what Scott Pilgrim suggests about the current influence of geek culture and the challenges faced by producers trying to monetize online media content, among other topics.

Brady Curlew: We are currently surrounded by tens of thousands of people, a large number of which are here because of digital games.  What do you think events like Fan Expo or PAX suggest about the contemporary state of gaming?

Jeff Cannata: I think the state of gaming is very strong and getting stronger, especially as gaming becomes more mainstream.  There is a whole generation of young people that has never experienced life without video games, and the nerd stigma that was attached to them when I was a kid, and when I started writing about them, is changing.  People who play video games are not pariahs anymore, it’s now a legitimate hobby.  That is proven both through dollars and through events like this.  One of the mottos of TRS is “nerd is the new cool” and I think that is very true.  I’m sure that the people here at Fan Expo would agree.

BC: Do you consider yourself to be part of video game culture given what you do?

JC: I’d like to think so.  On the shows I do, we certainly try to tap into and contribute to game culture.  And if I wasn’t doing what I do for a living, I would be coming to these types of events as a gamer.  I’d be following the industry and playing every game I could.  As much as this is my job, I do this because I love it and I believe games have something to contribute to society.  A lot of the criticism of gaming says that it is a solitary activity, and with stuff like Xbox Live and the predominance of online multiplayer gaming, we’re seeing that criticism break down.  Games are becoming as social an interaction as going to the park and playing pick-up basketball.  It’s less physical, of course…

BC: Less physical unless you’re playing Dance Central.

JC: [Laughs]. That’s right!  But it’s equally as community forming as a basketball game, and the communities established through some online games can be very valuable.

BC: I’d like to hear your take on video game culture permeating into other media.  Have you seen Scott Pilgrim?

JC: I have.

BC: That movie is not necessarily a video game movie, but at the same time it is very much a “video game” movie.  It’s not simply a game property that is licensed to be a movie but a movie that takes elements of the culture of gaming and expresses them in a different way.

JC: Absolutely.  It’s a celebration of video game culture.  I’m excited that it exists, and how well it turned out, but I’m disappointed by how poorly it has done at the box office.  Two films from this year, Scott Pilgrim and Kick Ass, are both expressions of what I consider to be the next wave of geek culture invading the mainstream.  We’ve seen lots of comic book and video game based movies that have attempted to take properties from these media and change them into something that is appealing to mainstream audiences.  Scott Pilgrim and Kick Ass are significant because they take movies and change them into geek things to make them palatable.  It’s shoehorning mainstream culture into the geek stuff, not the other way around.  It is distressing that both these movies didn’t perform well, but I think they are way ahead of their time and they’re going to have massive cult followings.  I wouldn’t be surprised if they become precursors to things we’ll see in the future.

Eric Weiss: The big budget Prince of Persia movie also came out this year, and producers like Avi Arad have been licensing the film rights to properties like Mass Effect and Uncharted.  It seems like Hollywood is trying to repeat with games the success it had with comic book IP over the past decade.  Are the qualities that something like Scott Pilgrim brings with it going to be over shadowed if, for example, Mass Effect does what X-Men and Spider-Man did ten years ago?

JC: It’s possible.  The “game movie” trend is a mixed bag.  I hope that as games become more story driven and quality-of-narrative gets emphasized, we will see them better adapted to film and other media.  Prince of Persia, for me, was a disappointment, but it is the kind of video game that we need to start seeing adapted since story is a large part of the series.  Past adaptations like Doom, Super Mario Brothers or Street Fighter haven’t really had much story to adapt.

EW: Part of making big budget movies from game properties might be an attempt to capture the expanded audience games have seen in the past few years.  Addressing that expanded audience, how has your experience covering or reviewing games changed since you started writing about them as a teenager?  Do you find yourself creating content for people who already have gaming experience or doing more now for a broader public than you did when you started?

JC: That’s a good question.  With the hardcore audience, there is more common language now than there ever used to be.  Early on, people focused on asking whether or not the graphics were good, asking if the sound was good, does the game run smoothly, etc.  Where gaming is now, that approach is not as important as it once was.  Now it’s about asking ‘does this experience make me want to purchase this over something else?’  We no longer have to sell people on the concept of video games at all, and instead we need to tell you why ‘this’ game better than ‘that’ game using the common language about the medium that we share.  I don’t need to explain parallax scrolling or texture mapping.  That stuff doesn’t matter as much anymore.  With consoles in so many homes already, people who play games are looking for experiences, interesting stories, those kind of things.

BC: This leads into my next question – about the experiences gamers are looking for in terms of wider games culture.  We know the box office numbers and DVD sales for game movies, and that speaks a little bit about the audience who follow such content.  We also get some regular, if limited, data about how many games consumers are buying.  However, we unfortunately don’t have numbers for just how many people consume the podcasts, web shows or other media of hardcore gaming culture because of the methods of distribution for these things.  Do you have any sense of the popularity, in terms of numbers, of Weekend Confirmed and TRS?

JC: We do pretty well in the space, from what we can tell, but the barrier to entry for our shows isn’t necessary being hardcore into games as you suggested.  For this event, we’re just in one city and there are 70 000 people here, and I would venture to bet that most of them would like these shows: shows about the geek stuff they’re into.  I’d also venture to bet that a lot of these people don’t listen to podcasts, not because of the content, but because of the distribution medium and some misconceptions about it.  It can be difficult to find good stuff on iTunes, and there are still people surprised to learn you don’t need an iPod to listen to podcasts.  It’s also so young – six years ago, who listened to podcasts?  These shows are in their infancy and I think as we continue to get the word out more people will find us.

BC: Do you think people’s future interactions with the media of a wider culture of gaming, like podcasts or video shows such as Totally Rad Show…  [Pauses] Sorry, I’m not sure how you classify TRS, video podcast?

JC: We call it a ‘show.’  We like to hold ourselves to the standard that you might find in any other medium.  Going forward, the goal for us is to make the thing you watch it on irrelevant.  You can watch it on your TV, watch it on your phone or watch it on a screen the size of your wall.  Regardless of that, it’s content that you want.  As media technology moves forward, as the internet and digital devices unify how we get and experience stuff, it is going to be less important that it’s a “podcast” or a “TV show” or whatever – it will just all be content you want to experience.

BC: Okay. Speaking to that convergence, do you think people’s future interactions with this content will be free or subsidized by more ad revenue? TRS has a relationship with certain advertisers, some fairly big-name, but shows like Weekend Confirmed don’t generally come with a lot of ads outside of a few niche gaming examples.  Do you think we’ll see the TV or radio advertising model brought to podcasts or shows like TRS more often?

JC: That is the issue we face doing this.  It is about monetizing the web, and the web loves free.  The web loves free and free wins…

BC: I love free.

JC: I love free too!  I can’t begrudge anybody wanting not to pay for stuff I make because of that.  Information yearns to be free, so monetizing content and making it possible for me to do this as a job is the challenge.  But trying to use an advertising model is an uphill battle too because a lot of old media advertising companies don’t get podcasts yet, they don’t understand that while we may have a smaller audience than a television or radio show, this audience is very engaged.  People seek out our content – it is content they have to find and download themselves.  It’s not just on in the background while their vacuuming their house.

BC: Have you heard that Giant Bomb recently announced that they are instituting a paid subscription model for access to some new things on their site? They haven’t released any details yet, but that does potentially change the way many people, especially young people, access and partake in game culture.*

JC: No, I haven’t heard that.  That’s one strategy, and who knows what will work.  As the medium matures, we’ll likely be able to convince advertisers that the people who love this kind of content are worth targeting as well.  But the challenge is finding the balance between advertising, or charging people subscription fees, and the “free” model that people are used to.  For the shows I do, we like to think that what we deliver is something that other people can’t or won’t deliver.  That gives them value, but how do we make the best use of that value?  That’s the challenge.

BC: Changing gears a bit, my approach to games, in part, comes from an academic stand point – I’ve been studying games and culture for the past few years now.  Do you have any familiarity with game studies, where video games might be treated like other media forms such as film, television or books and literature and analyzed from all sorts of perspectives – addressing their cultural value, their potential as teaching tools, or the social habits of their players, stuff like that?

JC: I’m fascinated by video game theory, and the idea of looking at a game as a storytelling medium, or looking at interactive media as teaching tools.  I’m fascinated by the idea of interaction in games as something that brings things to the table not found in other media.

BC: Wabash College in Indiana has recently put Portal on the curriculum of one of its classes as “required reading.”  Any thoughts on that sort of thing happening, and what that says about contemporary game culture?

JC: That’s great.  It’s a great choice, first of all, but it also shows that games are maturing and getting more interesting and accepted.  They are being recognized, to use a taboo word, as art.  And even if they aren’t art, they are at least subjects interesting enough to inform our day-to-day lives and culture.  Jonathan Blow, creator of Braid, talked a lot about this at GDC a few years ago – about how games are better at teaching systems of operation than any other form.  That’s a powerful idea.  Look at examples like Civilization or SimCity, they teach people how the real world works, in a certain sense, through interacting with them.  It’s something more schools and universities should acknowledge…   [laughing] …as I stand here on my preachy soapbox.

BC: [Laughs] Getting back to the moment where you mentioned art, I’ll have my preachy moment, I suppose.  I’d like to see the conversation go in such a way that “art” was put in the background and “culture” is prioritized – not hard to believe, I’m sure, given the questions I’ve been asking.  I say this because games, games in general not just video games, are already accepted as culture and recognized as having social meaning and value.  They’ve been around as long or longer than visual representation, if we see that as the root of art, and are tied to an inherently natural system of play.  Games are the formalization of play, and play exists beyond human behaviour since it’s found in animals.  So the way to legitimize what we do in terms of video games isn’t necessary by attaching games to art, which carries the baggage of “high art” definitions, but maybe by attaching it to other cultural phenomena out there that people can relate to.  Everyone can relate to play, everyone plays games – making a wider population understand that video games are related to these base conditions is perhaps where the conversation needs to go…    Not really a question, but care to comment?

JC: We’ve been addressing some of this stuff, or something related, on Weekend Confirmed recently.  A lot of people get hung up on the fact that a high percentage of games out there are about pointing a gun at something and killing it.  I think this creates a stigma that carries over into beliefs that games are frivolous.  It would be great if the industry could take this more into consideration.  Nobody thinks of chess as being a frivolous, juvenile activity, and there are video games that require just as much strategic thinking and mental acuity as anything in chess.  However, I believe these things will change as we move forward.

BC: We’ve taken enough of your time I think, but one last quick question: Is it difficult week in and week out to bring the “whimsy” to gamers.

JC: [Laughs] It’s a blast.  I’m very fortunate to do what I do, and I appreciate every minute of it.

BC: Thanks a lot.

JC: Thanks.

* This interview was conducted August 29, 2010, before Giant Bomb had detailed their paid subscription plans.

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