PTD Original

Ninja on the Playground: A Conversation with Shaun Hatton

Shaun Hatton is a cultural reciprocator: both the product of and contributor to video game culture.  A life-long player, Shaun is a co-founder of Canadian games blog Toronto Thumbs and a current host and producer for Greedy Productions’ Electric Playground.  Outside of these endeavours, he’s also a musician with Toronto band Cobra, spinner of records as DJ Finish Him and reluctant computer game coder.  Above all, he’s a passionate proponent of the best that pop culture has to offer, as well as an outspoken critic of its downsides.

Hatton was, however, not an easy person for me to interview in a conventional manner.  We are both prone to tangents, prone to meandering thoughts that reflect our ardent perspectives, opinions and judgments about games and gaming.  As such, despite not knowing him before this meeting, my time with Hatton unfolded more like a conversation with a friend than a conventional interrogation.  This is definitely not a criticism, but it does produce more topical twists and turns than my usual interviews.

Here Hatton and I playfully zigzag through a discussion about video games as culture and tools for identity formation, the state of Canadian games media and how to implement Canadian content into game narratives, all the while working in mention of Centipede, Phantasy Star and deer electrocution.  Enjoy!

Brady Curlew: Do you have any thoughts about whether or not video games are culturally significant?

Shaun Hatton: I believe that anything that someone does that is not for the purpose of sustaining life is culturally significant.  If you play with Lego as a child, that is culturally significant.  That is contributing to who you end up being, ultimately…  Basically, I would consider that anything you do with others for fun or for tradition is culture.  That includes games.  Some kids might have grown up playing Super Mario Bros. with their families.  In my case, it was a table top Q*bert game that could be passed to my parents to see who can get the best score on three lives.  That is a part of my family’s personal culture.

I Am 8-bit and the recent popularity of chiptune music are very indicative of games as culturally significant to wider populations.  But I think culture is mainly subjective, because it is a very individual thing.  You can, of course, be a part of and enjoy aspects of many different cultures. 

Games are definitely culturally significant for people of our age [both Shaun and I are in our early 30s] – we grew up with them.  When I was three years old, I played my first video game, a table-top Pac-Man game.  I understood what I needed to do, I enjoyed it, but I didn’t know Pac-Man was a “video game.”  It was just something that I enjoyed.

BC: Do you consider your work within games media, with Electric Playground (EP), with Toronto Thumbs, as a contribution to video game culture?

SH: I definitely do.  If someone else is enjoying what I do, that’s all I need to feel good and continue doing it.  EP is definitely culturally relevant, especially for Canadian gamers.  I started watching it when I was in high school… The fact that it has been on for twenty seasons is amazing.  It’s an indication that there is clearly a market for it and people respect the show’s quality.

BC: And that Victor [Lucas, EP’s creator] is dedicated to what he’s doing.

SH: Yeah, Victor is an amazing boss.  I’ll tell you a little story: when the other EP hosts and I are all together at events, we’ll sometimes call Victor “Dad.”  We say, “What are we doing next, Dad?”  Even though I swear he hasn’t aged.

BC: Speaking of Victor, he, along with you and the entire EP and Reviews on the Run casts appeared together on a panel at FanExpo.  During the panel, you mentioned that the classic Atari game Centipede was programmed by a woman, but Vic shot you down by saying it was programmed by a guy named Ed Logg.  Do you know you were partially correct?

SH: Yes – Centipede was co-programmed by Dona Bailey, I looked it up afterwards!  I felt like an idiot after the panel, but it’s nice to know I was half right.  I think I just extrapolated information I read somewhere about Centipede being an early game with a woman programmer and assumed she was the only one.  Remember, these early games were often coded by a single person.

BC: To the point when some games were released with the programmer’s name listed on the cartridge, like the early Activision games.  River Raid, by Carol Shaw, another female programmer, for the Atari 2600 is my analogue to your table top Pac-Man or Q*bert – it is the game that got me into gaming.  Have you played it?

SH: No, I haven’t.

BC: It’s fantastic – It’s from 1982, but I still play it today.  It is just as engaging now, especially when you see more and more of mobile or iPhone games moving towards similar, simple designs.

SH: You know, I still play Pac-Man and Q*bert today, whenever a new version of Pac-Man comes out, I have to get it.  I have the Namco plug-and-play device, because it has Pac-Man on it…

BC: Do you ever think about how these things have affected you? You are currently wearing a Boba Fett jacket, you perform as DJ Finish Him in a Scorpion costume, your band is called Cobra, and you have a history of dressing up as Cobra Commander.  Have you ever reflected on how much video games, as well as 1980s pop culture, have shaped your social identity, or impacted your creative endeavours?

SH: I don’t think I can say my band being called Cobra is because of me.  Originally, we were called Samus, but then noticed a lot of other bands were using that name.  We thought about Black Samus, but that sounded too much like a parody of Black Sabbath.  Then my band mate suggested Cobra.  I didn’t want to be the guy who jumped on that name – being known as someone who dresses up like Cobra Commander every so often, plus I have a Cobra tattoo on my forearm – me pitching that name might be overkill.  But when it was suggested, I didn’t fight it!  It’s a great name – so nerdy.

BC: Is it nerdy? A whole generation of people grew up with that stuff.

SH: Exactly.  Jeff Cannata says “nerd is the new cool” and I totally agree with him.  What is happening is that “nerd” culture is getting co-opted by the mainstream media industries.  But that’s okay – when the mainstream media companies move on to the next big thing, I’ll still be a nerd.

As for how pop culture has shaped my identity, I would not be the person I am today without Transformers, GI Joe and video games.  I can’t imagine life without games at this point.  It’s funny, I’m surprised when people our age aren’t into them.  For example, I used to work at Teletoon, and during the daily commute, I’d end up seeing the same guy on the GO Train and he looked like he was into games.  You can usually tell if someone might be into nerd things and he looked the part… Seeing the guy everyday, I started talking to him, trying to get a feel for if he was into the things I’m into.  I asked if he was into video games.  He said “no,” so I asked him how old he was.  He said “thirty.”  That surprised me, a thirty year old, nerdy looking guy doesn’t like video games!  Obviously, I’m playing with stereotypes, but you can usually tell.  To make conversation, I went through all the stuff I like – games, music, TV and movies, etc – and he basically didn’t like any of the same things.  He was into sports, which is probably the one form of entertainment that I like the least.  It made it things a little uncomfortable for me during future encounters with him, because we couldn’t go back to being strangers, but I didn’t know what to say.  At the time, referring to the things on my mind, I wanted to say “man, I’m excited about Super Mario Galaxy” because the guy looked like he’d appreciate the topic.  But that wasn’t the case.

We both had dogs though, so we became those guys on the train who talked about the funny things that their dogs do.  “My dog’s poop was a little mushy last night.”

BC: [Laughs] If only you could have been talking about Nintendogs.

SH: Yeah…  I have two versions of that game, but haven’t played much of it.  After trying it out, I realized I have a real dog…

BC: You’re obviously passionate about the cultural forms that interest you.  Does it bother you when people dismiss video gaming as a simply mindless or violent pastime?

SH: Video games, as one of the newest forms of entertainment, have come under unnecessary scrutiny from those who don’t understand them.  You fear what you don’t understand.  So people who didn’t grow up with video games, who haven’t witnessed the evolution of games, suddenly see something like Mortal Kombat and become totally outraged… That’s an outdated example, but Mortal Kombat was the first game that I remember being controversial in that respect because you could punch an opponent’s head off or pull out their heart.  But if you think about that game, it is so unrealistic and over the top, but it did open the door for more violent and gory games.  The media put that game into the spotlight and made an example of it, giving us age ratings.

BC: As clear as those ratings are, a lot of people still don’t understand them.  I know you’ve written about seeing parents buy mature rated games for young children…

SH: I think a lot of people just do what their kids want or expect to keep the kids happy because, lets face it, kids are annoying little human beings.  They are adorable at times…  But if you have this little person in your house all the time, constantly bugging you for Modern Warfare, and if they’ll chill out if they get Modern Warfare, people will go get it for their young kids. 

Seriously, I know it’s not easy.  Parents aren’t necessarily educated when it comes to the content of games, and this feeds the paranoia angle when the media targets a controversial game.  Parents find out about controversial games by hearing “Warning: this is what your kids might be playing with right now!” I think it is the parent’s responsibility to do research about the games they buy their kids – but I understand that it might not always be straightforward.  Of course, you can’t control if your kid plays it at a friend’s place, or watches an R-Rated movie, or listens to albums by artists that drop the F-bomb like Public Enemy, as was the case when I was growing up.  Albums getting banned – that was pretty crazy stuff.  To a reasonable extent, art should not be banned… 

Recently someone on Twitter asked me what I thought about the controversy surrounding Medal of Honor.  Apparently, you can choose to play as the Taliban.  I don’t understand that controversy.  The Taliban is the modern-day “enemy.”  The Western world is always going to have an enemy in the real world in the form of another country or another religion.  I disagree with this on a personal level, but I think people need an enemy.  It is a weird form of validation for one way of life – to point out the differences and disagreements with other ways of life.

These things can be oversimplified in a game that gives you the ability to be the Taliban, and that obviously will make some people upset.  But if those ideas upset you, if playing as a Taliban soldier shooting at US soldiers bothers you, I recommend you don’t play the game.  Or play it as a US soldier.  Take your frustrations out differently or find your escapism elsewhere.

BC: I’d like to shift focus and talk about video game media in Canada.  Can you comment on the state of games coverage here?

SH: In my experience, Canadian gaming media has been mostly blogs with some newspaper columnists and some magazine-like features.  In terms of the blogs specifically, the people doing it are not getting paid – or not getting paid much.  Depending on traffic, they may have some ad revenue, but the cost of being a games journalist is so high.  Not in terms of money, but in terms of opportunity – it is hard to find a paying games media job in Canada – and in terms of time. 

There are people who think if you get into games journalism you are going to get all this free stuff.  One, this is not necessarily true.  Two, even if you get free copies of games for review, they are not actually free because you have to do something in exchange for them.  Companies send you games because they want you to review those games and raise public awareness about them.  If you don’t write a review, don’t expect more free stuff.  Also, reviewing a game can take dozens of hours, especially if it has a long campaign.  Finally, between playing a game and writing a review, I think a good reviewer has to spend time thinking about the experience as well… If a game takes ten hours to finish and writing and editing something meaningful about it takes another five, you’ve spent fifteen hours of work on something that you got for free.  That’s great.  But at a part time job, for ten bucks an hour, you could make enough to buy the game new in half that time.  I’m not big on talking in financial terms, but the “return on investment” is not so great when you think about it, unless it is something you are really passionate about and people actually enjoy reading your work.  You also have to put up with receiving a lot of bad games.  But you might get a game that blows your mind too, and it’s human nature to want to share a positive experience with other people.  So if you enjoy thinking and talking about games, and you don’t mind the work it takes, reviewing can be rewarding.

The more mainstream media, like newspaper columnists or TV shows, we have greater access to things than someone running a blog.  For example, I’ve been doing more interviews with developers on EP, with some high profile people, something I didn’t do as much of at Toronto Thumbs because we weren’t big enough to acquire access.  It’s neat to chat with the creators behind some of my favourite games.  I got to talk with Yuji Naka at E3, and he programmed my favourite game of all time, Phantasy Star on the Sega Master System.  I knew in advance that I had been assigned the interview with him, so I took my copy of Phantasy Star down with me and after the interview, sheepishly asked for him to autograph the game through the translator and the PR person.  I asked the translator to tell him that I spent five years playing that game – that’s how long it took me to find the final boss – and that it meant a lot to me, something I played through multiple times.  Naka-san was very gracious and amazing.

BC: I’ve never played a Phantasy Star game, but I’m a huge into retro gaming, especially retro RPGs – should I pick up the series on virtual console?

SH: If you like early RPGs, yes…  We’ve talked about games being culturally significant, and how important they have been to my identity and development, and, for me, Phantasy Star fits the conversation.  It showed me that video games didn’t have to be limited to punching and kicking, or limited to a goal of getting the high score, or winning a sports match.  It showed me that games could have a really complicated overarching narrative that players could control.  If you wanted to explore the world, you could do that for as long as you liked before going back to the story.  Phantasy Star showed me that games could be more than something you played for fifteen minutes at time, or that they could surprise and startle you.  The game evokes moments of panic.  I still get that “oh my god” feeling when falling through a trap in a dungeon or trying to open a rigged treasure chest…    Having such a strong emotional attachment to Phantasy Star as a kid, I’m really inclined to play new games with the Phantasy Star label, but they are not the same.  I recognize that I’ll never get the same feelings from the new games… 

Sorry, that was a tangent.  Want to get back to Canadian games media?

BC: [Laughs] No worries, I’m just happy to talk about games…  In terms of Canadian games coverage, last year there was a bit of kerfuffle surrounding the launch of Heads Up Display (HUDisplay).  HUDisplay launched by saying they were the first and only games news site in Canada, something to which you and others, who had been around for years, strongly reacted.  For Toronto Thumbs, you wrote a very introspective response that seemed to deeply affect you.  Care to comment?

SH: It was a delicate topic for me to approach.  I didn’t want to just come out and say “Look, you guys are idiots,” which was my first reaction.  But that’s not the kind of writing I like to do.  I understand that there is a scene in Toronto made up of a few video game bloggers and it may be easy to miss if you are only looking for IGN-like Canadian sites.  But there are a lot of very good writers talking about games in Canada.  So I had to let the HUDisplay guys know that there are a bunch of us here.  The funny thing is, up until I saw their site, I didn’t realize how competitive I was being.  I always wanted Toronto Thumbs to be the best – to provide original content that just didn’t repurpose PR announcements.  I should have been thinking about it with this mentality: that we’re going to do something that we want to do, make it genuine and make it fun.  After the HUDisplay stuff, I realized I didn’t want to be Canada’s IGN, or try to be better than other sites, I just wanted to emphasize what we felt was cool about gaming.  If I wanted to post some interesting fan art of Mega Man, I’d do it, because it’s something I would want to see… 

A lot of the Canadian games mentality is left over from the Canadian entertainment mentality.  We have a “little brother” complex with America.  They are obviously a huge producer of entertainment media, and we feel second fiddle to them, accentuated because we are so close to them and we are a lot like them, while still being very different.  We have this weird love/hate relationship – we are so much like them, but so less successful.  When I say “successful,” a lot of people equate success only with money and I disagree. 

BC: Do you think that is reflected in Canadian games media, that it is done as a pursuit of passion?

SH: Think of artists and musicians, especially those who’ve gone from being relatively unknown to having some degree of success and recognition.  You can go back to their older material and see more frustration, passion and creativity, more willingness to take risks.  That is what is so great about Canadian game bloggers.  They don’t have the popularity on the world stage of a Destructoid or Joystiq, but they can take risks and speak what’s on their minds without the fear of advertisers or corporate parents getting pissed off.  GameNorth and NextGen Player do great things.  Maybe I’m too involved in it, but it is cool to read the local take on things.  We all go to the same events, but we all have different perspectives and bring different things to our writing, so no two articles by any of us will be the same.

BC: Do you have any perspectives to offer about Canadian content in games, given that we are the third biggest producer of games in the world, but our games marketplace is so small that our culture is never really reflected in the games we create?  Keep in mind the ambiguity of the term “Canadian culture.”

SH: This is an issue that’s applicable to other forms of entertainment like TV or movies produced in Canada as well.  For all the production here, we are often doubling for Chicago or New York City – and the stuff that does represent Canadian locations as Canada is generally not well received, at least not by us.  In terms of representing Canada in video games, it would be something I’d love to see, but so many games are set in places that don’t exist – so I wouldn’t want to see Canadian culture crammed into a fantasy setting or on an alien world… and hopefully it wouldn’t be a hunting game.

BC: Do you think if we were to prioritize Canadian content, it would necessarily fall into the silly stereotypes: lumberjacks and beavers, hockey and Tim Hortons?

SH: I don’t think it’s something the CRTC should be involved with!

BC: The thing about Canadian content laws is that they are often misconceived as something that solely mandates Canadian topics be a part of the entertainment media in this country.  However, they are mostly about Canadian production, about the media industries in Canada producing content here, and employing people here.  For CanCon laws regarding radio, which stipulate 35% of music played must be defined as “Canadian” – that doesn’t mean songs have to be about universal health care or maple syrup, but that they must be composed, performed or produced by Canadian people or companies.

That being said, I wouldn’t mind seeing some elective Canadian subject matter covered in games.  I’d get a kick out of seeing a Red Dead Redemption-like game set in voyager times in early Quebec, or any video game that represented French Canada in any form.

SH: We could probably have those games.  We have had an interesting history as a country that could be translated to game narrative.  I know we’re forced to learn about Canadian history in school, but so much of it is really interesting, I find it fascinating.  I took history courses in high school and college, even when they weren’t required.

That doesn’t mean we need games about the formation of the nation.  But in terms of pioneer stuff, maybe set a game on a farm, where someone goes crazy, or is possessed or something.  You can obviously slip fantastical or psychological elements into a Canadian setting. 

One of my favourite graphic novel series is Essex County, by Jeff Lemire, which is set in a small town in Ontario.  Any reader, from anywhere, can take something from the story, which is very personal and moving, and Canadians can take something away from the setting and community, which might speak to rural Canada in a unique way, without being in-your-face with flag waving.  In terms of a game doing the same thing, it’s definitely possible, but it would have to be done right.  Don’t make a half-assed Toronto crime game…

BC: Grand Theft Auto Toronto? GTA: GTA?

SH: Yeah. I’d rather see someone do a Saskatchewan game.

BC: I think it would be great to have a survival horror game set in the far north, like Nunavut or the NWT.  The kind of place where the police for an entire town or region is just one or two RCMP officers.  I’ve planned out levels for a Dead Space type of game with ice monsters in such a place.  Something like that, I think, could appeal to a worldwide audience of the survival horror genre, but also play into Canadiana without having it drilled down the player’s throat.

SH: That would probably work.  The emotion of fear is easy to trigger and a lot of games do that well.  Setting a horror game up north – I mentioned earlier that people fear what they don’t know, and a lot of people, including a lot of Canadians, don’t know much about the arctic – it can make for a terrifying setting.  It’s the barrens, strange enough right there, but add in a supernatural element and it’s perfect for what you describe.

BC: Not unlike Reindeertase. Is that emblematic of a Canadian game?

SH: Santa Claus is totally Canadian, and the North Pole is in Canadian territory.  I don’t care what Russia thinks…

BC: Tell me about the process of making the Deertase games – did you have any idea about the interest they would generate?

SH: No. If I had made Deertase and Reindeertase and no one enjoyed them, that would have been fine because they pleased me.  The fact that people did enjoy them, and ask me when I’m making my next game, that’s thrilling to me.  My answer to them, unfortunately, is that I’m not going to make another game because it was hell.  I have such an appreciation for people that make games everyday – they are literally making something out of nothing.

BC: The first Deertase was made in one day, wasn’t it?

SH: Yeah, I think I posted it the evening after the deer was tased downtown.  It was four hours of programming.  What is interesting about the way I approached making video games – and you’ll appreciate this being around the same age as me – it was like writing a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novel, though much more complicated.  It’s about setting up interactive choice – if you want A to happen then do X, if you want B to happen, do Y.  I don’t know how other people make games, but that’s how I made Deertase.  I mapped out every possibility, then provided a means of navigating each of them.  And that took me four hours.  It’s just a simple game, very disposable.  You can’t do a lot in it, but that’s part of its charm, I think.  You can finish it in seconds.

Most surprising is that I figured I was making a crappy game to share with my friends, something they would think was funny.  But people other than my friends played it and enjoyed it.

Then around Christmas last year, my friend Jim Squires, who was writing for The BBPS.com (Bits, Bytes, Pixels and Sprites), suggested I do a holiday themed Deertase called “Reindeertase.”  I said no way, that’s too much work.  Then I sat down on my couch, starting drawing reindeer and decided “What the hell! There’s a couple weeks till Christmas, I’ll do it.”

It was two weeks of me not having any kind of social or family life at all.  I would get home, have dinner then lock myself in the office to work on the game.  My dog was really worried about me.  This time around, I was my own worst enemy.  I didn’t lay out everything I wanted to be in the game beforehand, so I kept adding things as I went along.  Everything in the game is a result of feature creep, a lot of things came out of comments on the older game.

It was a lot of work.  I’m very happy with how it turned out…  It was an all consuming project for me though.  I can’t even play the game’s music without my wife saying “oh no!”

BC: As a vegetarian, would you tase a real deer?

SH: I would not tase a deer… I think the cops who tased that deer, maybe they were just tired and had to put an end to the spectacle.  The deer had been distracting people and endangering itself for five or six hours.  Everyone stopped working, saying “Oh my God, there’s a deer in downtown Toronto!”  There were thousands of deer in downtown Toronto before downtown Toronto existed… is it really a surprise? Obviously, deer are powerful animals and can hurt people, but I don’t think it was necessary to tase the deer.  That was a little over the top. 

So, no, I would not tase a deer.  That’s only for the virtual world.

BC: Final question, if you had to suddenly fight evil right here, who would you want to have your back: Glacious and Flugore from Killer Instinct, or Blanka and E. Honda from Street Fighter?

SH: No question, Blanka and E. Honda.  Honda wouldn’t even have to do anything, just chill out in his hot tub.  Blanka could take care of everything.  First of all, he’s such a powerful character and often underestimated.  If you are someone who can really play Blanka and be unpredictable and crazy while playing, as Blanka would be in real life, then your competitors are in trouble. 

He’s so fast and he bites faces.  That’s a winning combination.

Catch Shaun on Electric Playground, which airs nightly in Toronto at 11:30 pm EST on CityTV.

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Discussion

One thought on “Ninja on the Playground: A Conversation with Shaun Hatton

  1. Great interview.

    As a Canadian who has written about games for the past ten years for a variety of different websites, I always found that we are extremely limited by our location. Getting to E3, PAX, and Comic-con, are all much tougher trips for us to make unless you are one of the lucky few working for a major newspaper or at Greedy Productions. And not only are they tougher, but the pay-off to making that kind of trip is in most cases not worth it unless you are a big name.

    Even someone like Marc Saltzman isn’t able to exclusively cover gaming. As a freelance video editor at CTV, the majority of the time I see him on our station he is talking about other technology. Though, having only met him once it’s quite possible that he wants to be the “tech guy” and not just the gaming guy.

    I often wonder if we’ll ever be able to establish our own gaming culture to the point where people like me can actually make a living from covering the videogame industry. Will there ever be an IGN, Joystiq, or Kotaku for Canada?

    Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy editing together a news story at CTV, but I enjoy my job exponentially more when I’m editing Webmania where Bill Hutchison is discussing the newest big console game. Writing, discussing, and editing video that is exclusively about the video game industry is a career option that has alluded me as someone living in Toronto.

    Posted by David Doel | October 18, 2010, 1:51 pm

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