In January 2003, Nokia invited me to Switzerland to present about Gaming Culture to their Scandinavian customers and staff. Nokia was preparing to launch a mobile phone focused on gaming, and so they asked me to speak about gaming culture, from the perspective of a gamer. This is about what I said to them - not a transcript, but an essay based on the outline I spoke from. There's slightly more content here than what they heard. My remarks were accompanied by a PowerPoint slide-show, mostly in-game screenshots; those have been included here for the most part.

A Life in Games
by Justin Hall
Nokia WinterConference 2003
20 January 2003 - Palace Hotel, Gstaad, Switzerland

It turns out that the twenty years of my life that I've spent mostly alone crouched over playing with computers is important. That's what I'm here to talk with you about today.

I'm going to give you some history of my life as a gamer, and some of the reasons that video gaming has excited me and frustrated me.

My gaming started when my mother bought our family a computer. It was 1981, and the Apple ][+ was the state of the art at the time - 1 mhz, 4k of RAM.

My Mom was smart. When she bought the computer, she found a balding young man named Miles with thick, square glasses, who would come over wearing red sweater-vests carrying five inch floppy disks filled with software. He was teaching my brother and I the basics of computers and even programming. But I was entranced by the games.

I would adventure through Wizardry's "Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord" with my party of six motley but faceless adventurers, taking on the likes of five pixelly skeletons with my collection of deadly spells. I can still remember one spell name today - "Tiltowait" the atomic bomb spell, the highest level damage spell. You had to type in the names of your spells, and believe me, by the time I could type that spell in, I wasn't going to forget how to spell it.

Wizardry I, Sir-Tech Software, 1981 Wizardry I, Sir-Tech Software, 1981
Wizardry I, Sir-Tech Software, 1981

Or I would sneak downstairs alone and play through the likes of Castle Wolfenstein, afraid that a guard might see me sneaking around the corner with my load of dynamite bound for Hitler's desk. If he did, he would demand to see my papers, and I can still hear the terrifying squawk of the Apple speaker saying something which sounded like DeutschPass! that had me shivering in my pajamas.

Castle Wolfenstein, Muse Software, 1981 Castle Wolfenstein, Muse Software, 1981
Castle Wolfenstein, Muse Software, 1981

For me, as a seven or eight or fourteen year old boy, I didn't often have control of my life. School, family and social relationships were often confusing and I had my share of trouble fitting in. But even if I couldn't always do very well on my spelling tests, I could at least fool that Wolfenstein guard into thinking I was a fellow Nazi. Shame on him that he didn't know I was a Allied infiltrator! Playing through these finite environments gave me a sense of accomplishment, something I could explore at my own pace, something I could learn to master and feel empowered for having done so.

Dan and I reading Yurtle the Turtle Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stephenson My father read to me as I was growing up. He passed away about a year after we got our first computer; we were in the midst of reading Robert Louis Stephenson's Treasure Island together. Treasure Island is a classic novel, a tale of adventure on the high seas, as a young man Jim Hawkins finds a treasure map and some unsavory companions to go along with it. I think my father wanted to share with me the fantastic feeling of immersion that comes from that kind bold writing.

Sea Rogue, Microplay, 1992 Years later I found that kind of immersion feeling playing Sea Rogue - a deep sea treasure hunting computer game.
Sea Rogue, Microplay, 1992
pick your crew of hale and hearty sailors, Sea Rogue, Microplay, 1992
search the seas, Sea Rogue, Microplay, 1992
hoping to find historical wrecks. Sea Rogue, Microplay, 1992
Then you comb over the wreckage with metal detectors Sea Rogue, Microplay, 1992
and maybe find some treasure. Sea Rogue, Microplay, 1992
Sea Rogue, Microplay, 1992
I loved this chance to immerse myself in the adventure of deep-sea treasure hunting.

I grew up, past early gaming on the Apple ][, and through PC gaming in my adolescence. I became an adult, with my own money to spend on games and gaming machines. Aside from a collection of hundreds of games bought, borrowed and picked out of trashcans, I have a growing list of dedicated game machines. (I have three PlayStations since I was trying to hack them so I could play Japanese games on an American machine, something prevented by Sony's PlayStation region encoding software. I have two PlayStation 2s because I gave up on that hardware hacking and decided to just buy a Japanese PlayStation 2 to go with the American PlayStation 2 in my house).

  • Game Cube
  • XBox
  • PlayStation 2 (x2)
  • PlayStation (x3)
  • Dreamcast
  • Nintendo 64
  • Super Nintendo
  • Nintendo
  • Vectrex
  • NeoGeo Pocket Color
  • Game Boy Advance
  • Game Boy Color
  • Game Boy
[I didn't have a photo of my console collection (mixed with Jane's) to show here. I was going to use a game-machine collection photo from D, but instead published a text list.]

Work in Games

As a child gamer I was drawn in by adventure, the promise of new worlds to explore and conquer - deep sea treasure hunting, or proving myself against skeletons in a dungeon. But as an adult gamer, I was drawn in by gaming itself. I wanted to know how games were made. I couldn't continue to spend so much time and money on these games and not want to participate in or examine the game industry.

In 1999, I dicovered that Microprose, the company that published many of my favourite PC games growing up, they had an office just ten minutes from my house. So I printed out my resume, put it on a clipboard with a nice pen, put on my best three-piece suit, and headed over theres. I stood in the lobby looking for people that looked like game designers, and I would ask them to have lunch with me. Shortly thereafter, I was removed by security, but not before I learned that the company had been sold and its operations in California were closing.

I had been working up until this point as a freelance writer covering digital culture. So I thought perhaps I could break in to the game industry through journalism. My first job was as a game reviewer, getting paid $150 per game review. It wasn't much money, but I poured my thoughts into it; writing 4000 word treatises on non-player character interactions in role-playing games. Later I found out I was writing for a catalog, and they were cutting out about 3700 words from each of my pieces.

I was asked to review the likes of Might and Magic VI - a new edition of a game I had played as a boy. This time around, in my mid-twenties, I was horrified at the insipid dialog and shallow characters.

Might and Magic VI, New World Computing/3DO, 1998
Might and Magic VI, New World Computing/3DO, 1998

Simply weidling swords and spells was enough when I was twelve, but as an older gamer I wondered where I might find more wit and smarts. I wanted a game that I could identify with, that might challenge me to think, a game that expressed more complex emotions.

I was glad to find Fallout.

Fallout, Interplay, 1997
Fallout, Interplay, 1997

Fallout is a magnificent game, one of the first games I played with plenty of political humor. America, Canada and China have gone to war, over oil and nuclear power. The results - a bombed out Los Angeles and Las Vegas, populated by militant mutants, rag-wearing human survivors, armed vigilantes and kitshy nuclear-age hype and propoganda. The game crackles with smart media-commentary and memorable individual characters. I just played it through again this year. You can play Fallout as a brute-force fighter-type, bashing heads to get results, or you can play a sly, smooth politician talking people into helping you. Or a geeky scientist who uses machines to get what she wants, bypassing people all together. This kind of freedom to explore different sides of myself is increasingly what I crave as I age and continue to play games.

In mid-1999, there was plenty of money available for most improbable schemes, as long as they involved the Internet. A few young men from Berkeley decided to make the best gaming site on the web. They got $14.1 million dollars to hire their friends, to play games, and to write about it online. was a big vision - it was going to cover every game ever. Board games, card games, bone games, console games, pc games, portable games - anything ever played they were going to index, describe, review, rate and collect user comments on.

My little journalism experience made me one of the the most experienced editors on their staff; I was hired as a PlayStation editor, features editor, evangelist; eventually becoming Director of Innovation.

Matt Wenzel's desk, 2000 was like a gaming grad school. There were bearded bellied men who pushed metal miniatures around hexagonal maps. And 20 year old who didn't yet shave but woke up at 4am each day to check news from Nintendo. Our CEO was 23 year old Dennis "Thresh" Fong, the worldwide Quake champion of 1997. His mouse and keyboard reflexes were so good, and he knew the Quake shooter game so well, that he was able to win a custom Ferrari from the designer of Quake. The wall of the lobby to was knocked down and Thresh's Ferrari was driven in, so that when we looked upon it, we might see the pinnacle of gaming glory to which we might aspire.

At I had the chance to play - no, I was paid to come in for a week and play Dungeons and Dragons for hours each day. I made myself up as Glem Gaddle the Gnome Illusionist and I harassed my veteran role-playing gamers with insolent tricks.

Nat Baldwin 1999 Thresh and his hardened Quake expert buddies would play Counter-Strike, where small teams of terrorists and counter-terrorists do battle over hostages and bombs. And I would log on as "Hamma Time" and do battle with them (mostly losing, but at least loudly). Twelve young men staying late at the office, taking advantage of the LAN to do fevered battle. I would get so excited, I would froth at the mouth, shouting profanities until I was hoarse.

At this time I had friends who were artists, and writers, and filmmakers from my work in digital culture. And while many of them made time for movies, books, and even television, few played games. Most of them spent hours every day on the computer, working and communicating and surfing and exploring. But few understood the computer games I was playing, and the fun I was having playing them.

And then I remembered that after a week of hunkering down with snacks around the Dungeons and Dragons table, there was a slight smell and ingrown humor that emanated from our group. And we didn't care! And which of my non-gaming-culture friends would have liked to have been in the room while all these boys were shouting and killing each other online?

Few it seems. So it was perhaps good timing when folded much of their operations and laid me off. I wanted to find a world of games that was larger than just this merry crew of boys. And I needed a personal challenge.

I studied Japanese and moved to Japan, to study digital entertainment in Asia. The most exciting thing happening in games in Asia at that time was happening in South Korea.

South Korea

I mentioned that the former CEO Thresh was a 22 year old Quake champion. In spite of his Ferrari and fame, outside of the hardcore gaming world, few people would recognize him today. But in Korea, the winner of the "World Cyber Games," the Olympics of video gaming, he not only wins tens of thousands of dollars, he wins respect and admiration. And none are more popular than the winners of Starcraft. Starcraft is an online alien strategy game. It's fairly popular in the US and Europe, but in South Korea, it is the equivalent of soccer in South America, or baseball in 20th century United States - every young man has played it, and most everyone else knows the rules. Most of the time you turn on television in Korea, there is at least one channel broadcasting famous Starcraft matches, or matches from games like Starcraft.

I got to meet this year's Starcraft champion in Korea. I had just enough time to get his signature and see his business card before he was swamped by middle-aged ladies and young boys - all starstruck.

progamer business card The business card of a professional video game player in Korea. This card belongs to Im Yo Hwan, famous under the name "SlayerS_BoxeR." Here, he calls himself "an emperor of the terran" because Terran is his favorite type of army to play. He calls himself a progamer.
The card itself is a small CD-Rom, containing his resume, player-profile, action photos and head shots, and his Starcraft key-bindings and preferences, so you can boot up your game and try to emulate his technique.

South Korea is the land that consoles forgot. Tensions over Japanese Imperialist colonization of South Korea in the early part of the 20th century kept out Japanese technology and culture imports until very recently. Nintendo, Sega, Sony, Microsoft/XBox - they have no foothold here. This is PC gaming country. They play their games on personal computers.

And their gaming experience is social. There are computer cafes, PC Baang, all over South Korea. People finishing work, students, young and middle aged gather to play games and chat and relax. It's like renting a living room, with a powerful computer loaded with software and a fast Internet connection.

And South Korea is the most broadband wired country in the world. Over 60% of homes have broadband, and by 2005, the Korean government there has announced that all homes will be broadband ready.

So South Korea is a nation-scale experiment in multiplayer online games. The rest of the world is playing catch-up, connecting consoles and computers to scant broadband connections. Meanwhile Koreans are now playing the games that the rest of the world could be playing in years to come.

Besides the usual swords and sorcery software, you can play a pop star online (or a pop star's manager, or fan, or hairstylist) - the economy of celebrity fame made into a massively multiplayer online game. Or fashion design. Or car-racing. Or World War II.

There are a more diverse range of game genres available in South Korea, and these games attract a wider range of players. Especially girls.

South Korea - Future Gaming Capital

  • In Korea: Nintendo, PlayStation, Xbox
    - NEIN!
  • They love PC Gaming

  • > 60% of homes have broadband

  • PC Games + Broadband = serious South Korean multiplayer online gaming action
I've been empowered by games, and I've felt some great immersion from games. I've enjoyed discovering different parts of myself through games. But I've been feeling somewhat alone playing games. Now, looking at Korea, I felt like maybe this rich gaming experience I've enjoyed will spread. Korea showed me what games might be, that games have the potential to be rich simulations, involving different parts of the self, in conjunction with old friends and new friends.

This recent vision of gaming has left me with some questions, I'm going to close on these issues.

Broadening Culture

As different types of people begin gaming, they come in contact with the legacy culture of hyperactive, trash-talking boys. Video game culture has a challenge to preserve the fun for that core game audience while making it possible for other groups to get involved. To make a safe space for adults and women and young children to enjoy their own separate types of conversations, and still leave channels open between groups for knowledge-exchange and collaboration.

Consumers, Users and Citizens

The types of games that people are playing in South Korea present some thorny problems. Some of these online worlds are persistent, meaning you can make something online and find it there later. People spend hundreds of hours in these online environments, making friends and developing their online identity. Along the way, they customize their character, maybe making themselves a special outfit or two. They develop a collection of possessions and mementos. They earn treasure fighting monsters. In some worlds, they're allowed to spend that money to buy a house. Now they've got a house, a place of their own in this virtual world.

As a result, these people have a very strong vested interest in any decision the game provider might make about moving houses around, or banning houses of a certain size, or shortening the term of ownership, any other changes in the rules that affect these long-term, landed players.

Maybe, after all this time they've invested, these players want to get something back - they want to sell their character and the possessions they've earned. Some games don't allow this, some games encourage it. Disagreements emerge: Who owns that property the player creates within the game? Who controls the terms of use, and who settles disputes? Players may sign a service control with a game provider, but the fact that they pay a subscription and often literally labor within the game environment seems to make some players feel more like tax-payers, citizens rather that consumers.

In years to come, an increasingly diverse group of people from a growing portion of the world is going to be struggling with the issues of law and governance in online multiplayer games.

Serious Games

Finally, as gaming grows, more people are paying attention to how games might be used, beyond entertainment. I wonder myself, what are games doing to my mind? As a twenty year electronic gamer, do I read books differently? Do I watch TV differently? Do I work differently? These questions need to be studied.

Meanwhile institutions are waking up to the fact that games might be used to teach and train people. People will willingly spend twenty or thirty hours in a game environment - it can be hard to get people to pay that much attention to textbooks or seminars. So what if training and education might be fashioned in the model of commercially-viable entertainment software?

There's obviously a lot to learn about and learn from games; we have only just begun.

Thank you,

Justin Hall

Nokia paid for Jane to accompany me to Switzerland. She stayed up quite late with me the day or two before the conference, running over my remarks with me and making invaluable suggestions. Thank you Jane.


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