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Interview with Henry Jenkins

Dale Weir's picture

With contributions from Chi Kong Lui, Brad Gallaway,
Mike Bracken, Mike Doolittle and Thom Moyles.

Henry Jenkins is the director of MIT's new comparative media studies program. He has written about games for more than a decade. He has testified before the Senate Commerce Committee and the Federal Communications Committee, conducted workshops with game designers, spoken to PTA meetings and the American Library Association.

Henry Jenkins

Last year, St. Louis enacted a law that required parental consent before children under 17 could purchase or play violent or sexually explicit videogames. The Interactive Digital Software Association (IDSA) argued that the ordinance violated the First Amendment and asked for a summary dismissal. On April 19, US District Judge Stephen N. Limbaugh S. decided that games weren't speech at all and therefore deserved no First Amendment protection. The ramifications of such a decision could be disastrous for the industry, yet it has received little to no coverage in the videogame or mainstream media. We speak to Mr. Jenkins, one of the most public videogame spokesmen in the industry, about this decision, its effect on the industry and the general state of games today.

Tell us about your position at MIT. How did that come to be and was it the first of its kind at the Institution?

MIT has long been a center for the development of new media technologies. The first computer games were built by the MIT Model Railroad club, for example. There is extraordinary work being done through the MIT Media Lab, the AI Program, the Laboratory for Computer Science, etc. We wanted to insure that MIT was also a center for the study of the social, cultural, political, and economic impact of media technologies. Four years ago, we opened the new Comparative Media Studies masters program. I am the founder and director of that program, which was one of the first graduate programs in the Humanities at MIT. Our interests extend far beyond games, including such questions as globalization, new media and democracy, branding in a transmedia environment, the cultural impact of intellectual property Doom III (top), Sim City 4 (bottom) law, etc., but from the first, the study of computer games has been central to my vision of the program. We have hosted two national conferences on games—one focused specifically on gender and computer games which we ran at the height of the girls game movement, another designed to bring together leading game designers and game critics to talk about future directions for the games industry. We have done the Creative Leaders workshop program with Electronic Arts, which involves brainstorming some of the aesthetic potentials and challenges confronting games—character, narrative, emotion, and community. We've done workshops at E3 and GDC. And perhaps most importantly, we've launched a new research initiative, Games to Teach, which is designed to research and prototype new approaches for deploying games for the teaching of core academic subjects at the advanced high school and early college level.

You have grown to become one of, if not the most visible champions for games. Was it a result of your position?

Partially. I have been trying to use my position—and the visibility which MIT offers me—to speak out on issues of cultural policy which seem important to me. I have always had a deep commitment to standing up for core civil liberties and so it has been exciting to put those principles into action by testifying before the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee defending gamers and goths after Columbine, speaking before the Federal Communications Commission about the importance of media literacy education, speaking to the governors of the World Economic Forum about the importance of defending "fair use" for scholars and fans in the face of corporate attempts to tighten control over intellectual property, and signing amicus briefs defending games against various local attempts to censor their content. I have also been using my new platform to write for the general public about central aspects of our changing media environment and to speak out to the media in hopes of better educating citizens about some of the choices which will impact our cultural environment. I have certainly used my position to promote the further development of video games as an artform, to challenge The Getaway (top), The Legend Of Zelda: The Wind Waker (bottom) attempts to censor game content, to encourage the industry to make a stronger commitment to the development of games for educational use, to push for more diversity in hiring practices within the industry, to foster the development of richer and more nuanced game criticism, and to provoke debates about how to create more "meaningful" representations of violence in games.

At the same time, my visibility is self-perpetuating. Once the media identifies someone as a spokesman for a particular position or an expert on a particular topic, they tend to return to that person over and over again. This is an optical illusion as far as games are concerned because it gives the impression that I am the only person taking a position in opposition to the censorship of game content and the stigmatization of game players. In fact, there are many researchers world-wide who share my concerns and have been doing research to complicate our understanding of the social and cultural impact of games. The media simply doesn't report their research, which tends to be more nuanced and less sensationalistic than the latest study which claims to have found that illusive link between media violence and real world violence.

BMX XXX (left), Animal Crossing (right)

Has such a label been a burden to carry?

Sometimes. Increasingly, the anti-game activists have been directing their fire towards me, trying to depict me as a paid apologist of the video game industry because I work closely with the industry to encourage the development of educational games and because I do workshops within the game industry to encourage creative experimentation and alternatives to the current ways of representing violence. David Grossman called me a "prostitute" the other week, for example, and Phil Donahue tried to besmirch my character on national television by raising the specter of corporate funding of my research in a context where it was impossible to respond to or contextualize those charges. So, let me be clear here: I have never received any money for my work against games censorship and in fact, I have spent a great deal of my own money on that cause. I don't charge any more for speaking to industry groups than I charge for speaking to educational institutions and in many cases, I get paid less. The games industry does not need me as their spokesman and indeed, I would be a most unreliable industry spokesman since I am often pretty critical of some of the decisions which the industry is making. I see myself much more as a consumer advocate and a civil libertarian than an industry advocate.

But, none of this is new. Moral reformers have always targeted those people who work for change within the system, tending to prefer throwing rocks from the sidelines to rolling up their sleaves and trying to foster Resident Evil (top), The Sims Online (bottom) creative solutions to their concerns. The same thing happened when comic books came under fire in the 1950s, for example, where Frederick Wertham, the leading anti-comics activist, tarred and feathered a range of educators and progressive reformers who sought to work with the industry to improve the cultural and educational content of comics. The assumption always gets made that it is impossible to speak to the industry without being corrupted by it. Yet, to make any real impact on the character of popular culture requires one to actively engage with the industries that produce that culture.

This past September, you joined 29 other scholars in filing a brief challenging the recent St. Louis ruling. Can you fill us in on the case and the significance of the decision?

On April 19, U.S. District Judge Stephen N. Limbaugh Sr. issued a decision, finding "no conveyance of ideas, expression or anything else that could possibly amount to speech" within contemporary video games, declaring that they therefore enjoy no constitutional protection. Limbaugh had been asked to adjudicate an appeal by the Interactive Digital Software Association of a Saint Louis law that restricted minor's access to violent or sexually explicit video games. The decision was astonishingly expansive, reaching a verdict about the current state and future development of a complex and evolving medium based on a cursory and superficial investigation.

While individual books like Lady Chatterley's Lover and Lolita have confronted government censorship, no one has ever considered them representative of all printed matter. The constitutional claims of a medium have historically rested on our understanding of its highest potential-not its worst excesses. Several decades of legal disputes over pornography have, if nothing else, determined that the works must be taken as a whole, rather than read in parts, to determine whether they were lacking in literary, political, or intellectual value.

But, somehow, games are different. Saint Louis County had presented the judge with videotaped excerpts from four games, all first-person shooters and all the subject of previous controversy. The IDSA had submitted videogame scripts designed to show their underlying dramatic structure. What does it suggest that neither side asked that the judge to actually play the games? His ruling misidentified Resident Evil as the "Resident of Evil Creek," misspelled Mortal Kombat, and incorrectly capitalized Doom. In other words, the judge couldn't even be bothered to get Grand Theft Auto III (top), ICO (bottom) the titles correct for three of the four works he examined. All of the games considered were more than five years old, suggesting that the judge understood the medium as static rather than as evolving. Neither side offered anything resembling expert testimony into the artistic potentials of games.

The impact of the decision from a legal perspective is likely to be minimal. It runs in the face of a whole series of other court cases at approximately the same level which have reached diametrically opposite conclusions. It will, in all likelihood, be overturned on appeal. But what it has done has reinvigorated the anti-video game reform movement which had disappeared off the radar for a while; it has sparked a whole new cycle of negative press about games and game players. Activists like David Grossman or groups like the Lion and the Lamb have felt empowered to launch national campaigns against Grand Theft Auto III. During the sniper attacks on Washington, we even saw one activist claim that the message, "I am God," was proof positive that the sniper was a gamer, assuming that it had to refer to the God Game genre. It says something about those so-called moral reformers that they imagine a world that has become so secularized that the only possible place anyone could learn about god would be playing a video game!

WWF Smackdown 4 (top), Samba de Amigo (bottom)

Was the brief filed as a simple reactionary action or is it part of a more concerted effort to fight the growing number of court cases similar to this one?

The statement was important because it brought together a fairly broad coalition of scholars—across different disciplines, across different institutions, across different nations—who were ready to challenge the assumption that video games somehow caused or promoted real world violence. The reformers often act as if they had the entire academic community behind them and it simply isn't the case. Most criminologists would not consider media violence to be a significant factor in promoting violent crime. Most work in the anthropology of play would find the idea that significant numbers of people confuse play and reality to be absurd. Most work on media consumption would find this idea of people being programmed by games to be simplistic and naive as a way of understanding the complex ways people interact with media. Most psychologists would reject the stimulas-response models underlying media effects research as hopelessly out of date. And even the media effects researchers themselves tend to qualify their findings much more narrowly than comes across when they are presented by activists and politicians. Increasingly, these scholars are joining forces to speak out politically or participate in the legal process to challenge attempts to regulate media content. I wish I could say this amounted to a full fledged movement. For the moment, it is largely ad hoc with these scholars working in concert with a range of civil liberties groups, such as the Free Expression Network, which helped to pull together this particular document. Yet, the good news here is that the debate about video games is increasingly on the agenda of groups who care about the core Constitutional protections.

Mortal Kombat III (left), Shenmue II (right)

Surprisingly, the game industry and gaming community has shown little reaction to such a troubling decision like the one in St. Louis. Why do you think that is?

Most game designers I speak with are terrified to speak up in defense of their own industry for fear that they will become the targets of these moral reform groups and will thus face significant economic losses. Their lawyers tell them to remain silent and to rely on their lobbying groups to launch the defense. This is unfortunate on many levels. First, many of people in the game design community think deeply about issues of media violence and the social impact of their products and there has been enormous soul searching within the industry in the wake of Columbine. I have seen some real step forwards in terms of how violence gets dealt with in contemporary games and the result will ultimately lead games to become a more sophisticated medium. But, these efforts are hidden from view and thus the industry doesn't get credit for those steps forward. Part of what gives the impression that I am an industry appologist is that I am willing to stick my neck out and talk about these issues when most of the industry people are cowering behind their office doors. Outlaw Golf (top), Black & White (bottom) Secondly, I think the IDSA significantly bungled its handling of the Limbaugh case, treating it as a foregone conclusion rather than insisting that the judge examine a broader range of products or listen to expert testimony. They got caught with their pants down in St. Louis and I think many in the industry are frustrated that they were unable to adequately promote their interests. Thirdly, I think the game industry has often failed to have a larger view of the development and promotion of games as an emerging art form; they have been so focused on immediate payoffs that they have been unwilling to date to make real investments in promoting scholarship or professional training about their industry, in developing educational games which might exploit the medium's full potential, in experimenting with creative projects which may not be blockbuster hits, in expanding their potential audience to untapped demographic groups, or to educating the public about the debates surrounding their industry. The Film Industry has historically been much more proactive in each of these areas—though they have been less and less so as film has been absorbed into larger media conglomerates. All of this has allowed the media reformers to depict them as crazed, unethical, irresponsible, and uncaring, as cigar chomping crooks exploiting American children, and I think the public needs to hear the most thoughtful voices in the industry more often, needs to know more of the behind the scenes thinking which goes into making a compelling game.

Halo 2 (top), Rez (bottom)

The industry is coming under attack at a more frequent basis yet its defenders always seem to be on the defensive. Why hasn't the industry launched a preemptive strike? What is left for the industry to do to protect itself?

Absolutely correct. We are playing defense, they are playing offense, and that means they get to decide what games become the center of debate, where and when the battles take place, and they set the terms of the debate.

If the industry doesn't want to focus its energies in defending media violence, then it needs to be devoting its energies more broadly towards educating the public about games. A lot of these controversies center around the fact that games are more and more being targeted at adult players who have different tastes and interests than child consumers, while many parents blithely assume that games are mostly about speedy little hedgehogs and plucky plumbers, as if nothing has changed since the first Nintendo systems shipped. This is a danger point for any media industry—they are broadening what they are producing and parents are being indiscriminate in making choices about what is appropriate for their kids. This is what got the comics industry in trouble in the 1950s—moral reformers targeted works aimed at adults and demanded to know why they were being sold to their kids. How much thinking would it take to decide that something called Grand Theft Auto III may not be the most prosocial and family friendly game ever made? Some of the energy has to go into expanding the educational function of ratings and informing consumers to make intelligent purchases. Right now, according to the Federal Trade Commission, the overwhelming majority of game purchases are made by adults, including those where the kid is the ultimate consumer, but that doesn't mean that adults know what they are doing when they are making those purchases. I know the IDSA is in the process of re-examining its ratings system and thinking more aggressively about how to educate the lay public about it. I applaud such efforts.

We need to promote game criticism—not simply the kind of hardcore gamer targeted writing that dominates most game magazines, but more broadly humanistic criticism which helps to explain to the consuming public why innovative games are important Dead Or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball (top), Civilization III (bottom) and provide a context for thinking about the aesthetic potentials of the medium. These writers need to be entering into general interest magazines where they reach people who are not already game enthusiasts, helping them to get a fuller picture of why the medium is going and why it matters. It is nothing short of scandalous that most of what gets written about games in newspapers and magazines is preoccupied with the violence question at the expense of any broader understanding of the social and cultural impact of games.

More generally, the industry needs to be putting some of its resources behind more prosocial uses of the technologies, such as developing compelling game titles which enhance k-12 education and working to develop curricular resources around games, such as Sim City or Civilization, which already have clear pedagogical potential. This is at the heart of the work we are doing with the Games to Teach project. THey should be doing this because it is the RIGHT thing to do, but they should also recognizing that getting teachers and parents on their side, helping them to see that games can be a lot more than first person shooters, is their best line of defense against moral panics.

What kinds of games do you play if any? What kind of games do you allow (or not allow) your children to play?

I have played a pretty broad range of video games in the name of research. In truth, I have very poor hand-eye coordination so most of the hardcore gamer titles are outside my range of competency. The games I enjoy are more the classic casual player games. I loved Tetris and now spend a lot of time with Snood and Super Collapse. I also have spent a lot of time experimenting with the Sims and have gotten very interested in Animal Crossing—a kids game but one that is engagingly fun.

My son is now 21. He doesn't exactly let me pick out his game titles for him anymore. When he was younger, we tended to be pretty permissive about what we let him play but we made sure we understood what it was and what kinds of themes or images it contained. I think it is essential that parents be informed and engaged with the media their children consume. Here's one of the ways we would do this from a very early age: We'd have him make up bedtime Panty Raider (top), PaRappa The Rapper 2 (bottom) stories which we typed into the computer; we'd print them out, he'd illustrate them, and he'd choose the best for a book to send to his grandparents for Birthdays or Christmas. Every step of the way this process gave us a window into his thinking process and created an opportunity for conversation. Much of what he wrote and drew built on video game imagery. He loved to map out levels for the games he played. And this would allow us to better understand his fears, his fantasies, so that we could make sure he wasn't getting himself in over his head with some mature content.

You say that the industry's need to promote more "game criticism." Can you name some sites or sources that are doing what you feel are doing that?

At the moment, my favorite site for game criticism is Joystick101.org which, in full disclosure, I should mention is edited by a member of our research staff. There is about to be an explosion of new books on games, many of them written by a generation of hardcore gamers who have made it through grad school and have smart things to say about the medium, some by game designers who want to share what they've learned about their craft. And, yeah, I am looking forward to seeing what happens with your site.

We'd like to thank Henry Jenkins for taking the time to talk with us.

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