22 Apr 2016

James Portnow - ethical gaming

From Nine To Noon, 10:08 am on 22 April 2016

Like many teens growing up in the 1990s James Portnow loved video games, but in his high school years that love became a damaging addiction.

Eventually, he overcame that compulsion and after a stint touring the United States as a rock musician, James became a game designer.

In his career, he has worked on games ranging from the massively popular first-person shooter series, Call of Duty, to the Facebook craze FarmVille.

But he's best known as the writer of Extra Credits, a web-series tackling the promise and pitfalls of games.

James is also interested in how game systems can be used for education - which he's explored through a side project, Extra History.

Read an edited snapshot of their conversation below:

Could you explain your own experience of [addiction] and then coming out of it?

Absolutely. I have been debating a lot between the word addiction and the word compulsion, because I think addiction is something much more chemical versus psychological, at least how we define it here in the US. But that is semantics. You are absolutely right.

In the ‘90s, there was a game called EverQuest and I’m actually good friends with the lead designer of that game these days, but it was a powerful game. It gave me a world that in some ways I liked better than my world at the time and that rewarded me for everything that I did and being the person who I am in a way that I didn’t necessarily see and wasn’t necessarily getting from the world that I lived in, from the real world as we call it.

Over time, eventually I had to realise that the real world was what I made of it and that it was my story, that I could make anything of it, that’s one thing that games taught me. I think the important thing that games teach is agency. They teach you that your choices matter, they have consequences and you are the star of the show. So I had to come to that conclusion.

Over the course of it, I lost a lot of things and it cost me a lot but at the same time it taught me a lot. There’s a lot about patience and understanding and even empathy that this experience taught me. It taught me how frail I actually am, in some ways. So I found that experience immensely valuable, although the cost was very high.

Did I read somewhere you saying that this addiction or compulsion, you reflect on it as being not so much about the game, but about what is going on in someone’s life, which you might, in fact apply to any form of addiction and compulsion. Was that something you wanted to draw attention to as well?

Yeah, absolutely because it’s one of those things that doesn’t only happen with this medium, right. We probably know somebody in our life who at some point or another just goes home, turns on the television and ignores everything else. It does really matter.

When you look at it among young people, because I have spoken to lots of young people who went through or are going through the same thing that I did… truth is, that much of it has to do with the rest of their life being worse than the game. That shouldn’t be the case. One of the reasons that we say games matter is because this is a tool we can use and things we learn from making these games are tools we can use to make the rest of our lives better.

If you look at our lives since the turn of the 20th Century. Since 1900 our leisure time has gotten so much more exciting, so much better with movies, television, games, all of these… it’s so much more exciting than when all people had to do was hit a ball with a stick and yet, the rest of our lives; our work time, our school time, has barely become more engaging and to me in some ways that is criminal. Therein lies the heart in why some people turn to these games as an escape, which becomes an addiction.