(Note: A portion of this interview ran on http://www.gamecareerguide.com/ December, 2011)
Johnny L. Wilson was the editor of Computer Gaming World magazine for about 10 years, and in that time he saw computers games rise to become the dominant game medium of the 20th century. He is the co-author of the book High Score: An Illustrated History of Electronic Games, and now works as lecturer at DePaul University. Mr. Wilson has a bunch of other amazing credits, but instead of listing them, you can real all about them in our in-depth interview.
The genesis of this interview arose from the death of Bill Kunkel last year. I was researching Kunkel's writing, and I stumbled across a regular column he wrote with Arnie Katz for Computer Gaming World about video games in the mid 1980's. It just so happened that Johnny Wilson was on the editorial staff of CGW at that time, so I looked him up to ask some questions about the column. I knew Mr. Wilson's name from CGW and I had always admired him as one of pioneers of game journalism. Instead of limiting my questions to the work of Bill Kunkel, I created a full slate of interview questions that Mr. Wilson happily answered. Then, when I saw that he had put so much effort into the answers I asked him more and more and more questions. We touched on everything from early mainframe games, to controversial decisions he made at CGW (i.e adding stars to ratings), to how religion affects gaming. What started a short informational interview turned into an enlightening and entertaining ride through 30+ years of game journalism. The result is on this page. I hope you enjoy it.
Who you consider the masters of the computer game design?
Sid Meier who taught me that if it isn’t “fun,” take it out. Richard Garriott who taught me that it can be important to reinvent the wheel in order to add freshness. Mark Baldwin who taught me that elegant simplicity is better than sophisticated anarchy. Tim Schafer who taught me that you can be both profound and funny at the same time. Louis Castle who taught me that hard work and research can be transformed into a new aesthetic (which he did at Westwood and EA over and over again). Bing Gordon (even though I don’t think he ever actually “designed” anything) who taught me that passion, dedication, and vision are vital to every aspect of this business.
Were you a fan of early video game consoles and/or arcade games?
I remember playing on the Magnavox Odyssey while I was in graduate school. I visited a family who had one. I thought the whole overlay thing was goofy because the hockey game didn’t feel any different from the soccer game or the tennis game—only the plastic overlay changed. I also remember playing Pac-Man on an Atari 2600 and thinking how flimsy the controllers were. So, the answer is that I was basically unimpressed with consoles. Remember, I was a turn-based strategy gamer and I still play board games and face-to-face role-playing games.
How did you get your start in writing and publishing ?
Like every other writer, I suppose I began as a kid. I loved to read and because I loved to read, I thought the coolest thing in the world would be to write stories. Whenever I found a piece of paper, I would fold it to make a four-page “signature” and would either print or type (via hunt and peck) a story. In junior high school, I started adapting short stories into plays. I didn’t know anything about intellectual property law so I ripped off Roald Dahl’s “The Sound Machine” and my eighth grade literature class performed it for an elementary school assembly. We couldn’t have a tree come crashing down inside the elementary school cafeteria, so one of our cast members smuggled some firecrackers up from Mexico and we literally blew up the cardboard prop representing our “sound machine.” I also did some pretty lame plays for our high school youth group at the time.
My first published gig happened when I was in high school. Knowing that I loved to write, my father (a Baptist pastor) recruited me to write a weekly column on church events for the Santa Maria Times. It was a column without a by-line for the Saturday “Church Page,” but it taught me how to craft my work to fit an editorial word count.
After that, all my efforts went into writing angry editorials for school publications and underground newspapers until I was in graduate school. In graduate school, I took a course on writing and managed to sell a week’s worth of devotionals to a Sunday School publication for Youth and that led to publishing several other pieces of Sunday School literature for my religious denomination.
My first GAME publication was an after-action report in an offset ‘zine called PW Review. This was a wonderful publication from the Potomac Wargamers and mostly contained rule variants, rules, and after-action reports on historical miniatures gaming. I adapted some “colonial skirmish” rules for the Jacobite rebellion (and Bonnie Prince Charlie). I had admired those guys for years, but had never dared submit my efforts before. It was pure “vanity.” I wasn’t paid, but it proved satisfying.
The rest of my entry into publishing and writing is tied to my start at CGW, so I’ll hold off for now.
What was the first computer game you ever played?
My first year of college, I visited a former high school friend at Cal Poly—SLO. There, they were playing a game of Trek where you input moves with a toggle-switch and received a grid-based ASCII print-out on a narrow sheet of paper like an adding machine tape. Almost ten years later, I played Adventure using a 300 baud modem with acoustic couplers on the mainframe a friend maintained for a legal firm. A year later, I playtested Galaxy with Tom Cleaver on his Apple II and enjoyed playing Chris Crawford’s Tanktics on a friend’s PET computer with cassette tape drive. I also remember playing a very simple Computer Football game at a computer store, but I didn’t get my own computer until after I was already writing for Computer Gaming World.
When did you get your start with Computer Gaming World?
I was a friend of Russell Sipe who founded CGW. We had met while performing in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible during college and became gaming friends throughout college and graduate school. We played Stocks & Bonds, Acquire, Tactics II, D-Day, Blitzkrieg, Panzer Blitz, Baseball Strategy, and Football Strategy (board games), as well as Traveller, Fantasy Trip, and En Garde! (RPGs) and miniatures (General Quarters, System 7 Napoleonics, Fight in the Skies (based on the TSR board game), Skirmish, and Don’t Give Up the Ship (by Dave Arneson). It was at a wargame club that we met Tom Cleaver, a University of Louisville engineering prof, who was working on what would become Avalon Hill’s Galaxy. We play-tested that game and both of us were hooked on the idea of playing computer games. Russell eventually purchased an Apple II with an eye toward programming his own game, but soon discovered that there weren’t any review magazines out there. He filled that niche and Computer Gaming World was born.
I finished my Ph.D. and started teaching Old Testament while pastoring a church. One of my members was a school teacher who had an Apple II in her classroom. So, I would go to her classroom in the afternoons while she was grading papers and play games on the school’s computer. Then, I would go home and write up my experiences on an old typewriter and take them over to Russ’s office on my days off. Sometimes, I would play games there at Russ’ office on my days off and write up reviews using Magic Window (one of the first Apple word processors) there.
Eventually, I had to have a computer of my own. I noticed that there were Commodore Vic-20 games that needed to be reviewed, so I bought the Vic-20 with a cassette tape drive in order to review games AND have my own word processor. Unfortunately, that era didn’t last long—even though I expanded my Vic to 32K of RAM. In order to keep reviewing, I needed an Apple and purchased a used Apple II+ and expanded it to 64K. Then, events took a different turn.
Some pastors in my denomination (even without knowing that I was a gamer) decided that I was too “liberal” in my theology to influence young ministerial students. They never asked me about my positions; they just assumed from my textbook selections (and I always chose textbooks with different positions from my own). I wasn’t invited back to teach and figured that meant my career was over. I resigned my church as well as leaving my teaching position and started looking for a job. Russ needed a part-time editor to help with grammar and to write a little to fill in the gaps. I came on board at half-time pay and pretty well worked full-time, filling in my monetary needs by teaching at a business college at night.
Russ generously made me editor and part owner of the magazine before Ziff-Davis bought us and Russ went on to work in business development during the early days of the Internet while I went to San Francisco with Ziff-Davis.
How has your religion/faith affected your gaming? Do you see both
things are separate, or can you separate them?
I believe that authentic faith is inextricably involved with everything in one’s life. As such, I don’t think gaming can be or should be separated from one’s faith. That being said, I draw a distinction (not a separation, but an awareness of difference) between the assumptions within the magic circle of a game and the assumptions outside the game. Naturally, by using the term “magic circle,” I’m already compromised with some people because Huizinga’s use of this idea was built upon a simplistic understanding of thaumaturgical ritual (essentially, what is held within the magical ward stays within the magical ward unless it is violated). However, I find the magic circle’s idea of what’s in the game world to stay in the game world (hence, avoiding metagaming) to be a helpful concept.
So, within the magic circle, I can play Dungeons & Dragons even though its universe is polytheistic and its assumptions are that the false gods have the kind of power that Isaiah 40-55 specifically says “idols” do not have. Within the magic circle, I can play an evil character that deliberately violates my faith assumptions. I can do this because I perceive of the magic circle as a laboratory where those actions within the game universe don’t harm anyone outside the game universe. Naturally, this may not be as true as it once was, considering the idea of virtual property and the virtual community that may be counting on one’s character. But I can say that every time I have played an evil character [whether murdering a PC as a prime assassin in AD&D or accomplishing a “run” in Shadowrun that ensured an unblocked distribution channel for a designer drug, I had new insights into the consequences of “sinful” choices. The game experience helped me understand motivations that I may not have had in real life and underscored my rationale for not accepting those choices in real life.
The idea of “death” in electronic, pen-and-paper, and board games has informed my theology. Seeing how lightly some gamers can accept the idea of “death” in games—whether rebooting from a previous save position in the former, being raised or resurrected in a fantasy RPG, or committing pewter soldiers and cardboard counters into sacrificial actions and strategic feints in a board or miniatures-based war game—I refined my understanding of Bonhoeffer’s idea of “cheap grace” from a theological standpoint. The way Ron Gilbert handled “death” (by not letting you do anything with fatal consequences in the original The Secret of Monkey Island games versus the multiple “deaths” faced by Sierra gamers in some of their graphic adventures has refined my illustrations of God’s action versus human choice.
I don’t even think gender-bending role-playing is immoral within the magic circle. I used to be a notorious flirt, a skirt-chaser even when I knew I couldn’t be a skirt-catcher, in real-life. My behavior was, let’s face it, quite embarrassing—especially when there were lots of attractive women in the business who needed to be nice to me because of my powerful position as Editor [No, not THAT kind of “nice!”]. So, guess what happened to me in the first MUD where I played a female character? In true poetic justice, every male character who flirting with my female character constantly. Playing the female character, I had to handle the delicate balance of trying not to hurt any feelings while getting rid of their attention so that I could get on with my quest. What a pain! And you can be sure those insights translated into an attitude and a behavior change in my real-life character.
As a result, I don’t believe gaming and faith can be completely separated on all levels. However, I still respect the idea of the magic circle. And that’s why I am excited about teaching a course on Ethics in Games and Cinema at DePaul where we can discuss such issues.
I love the idea of the game Diablo, but I could not play the game because
of the spinning pentagrams on the interface. Has there ever been a game
that made you too uncomfortable to play because of the content?
Believe it or not, I was uncomfortable with the original Wolfenstein 3D and the whole concept of first-person shooters. Somehow, that just felt wrong because it seemed like I was shooting real people—even if they were Nazis. It didn’t bother me as much in Outlaws or MechWarrior because I saw my opponents as characters in a fictional setting. I had something of the same feeling when I first played CounterStrike, but those feelings were ameliorated when I attempted to protect the political leader (was it El Presidente in those first versions?) from the assassins instead of playing the assassins. Oh, yeah! I never played that Custer game on the 2600 where your (pardon the pun) stick men raped the Native American women and I’m not sure I could play the MW2 airport scenario. But, I’ll defend anyone’s right to do so. Oh, yeah! I even went on record in an interview with the Christian Science Monitor [No, I’m not a member of that religious group.] as stating that I was horrified with Interplay’s Kingpin about African-American street gangs. I couldn’t get past the language, the filthy rap lyrics, or the activities in which you had to engage. Guess you know how much I love GTA now, huh? I value them, but I don’t have a desire to play them. [I know. What a pious jerk!]
So for you, the idea of a complete fantasy realm with its' own universal properties (physics, races, planets, laws, gods, etc.) is acceptable because it represents a complete fantasy (the Magic Circle), but when those things step over the line into reality, (i.e. Nazis) you start to get uncomfortable?
The short answer is "Yes." For example, the idea of killing people in a magical world or even a dark future world isn't totally repugnant to me because the rules of the universe have been set up to push me toward doing so because it is the only means of survival. Evil in the fantasy realm is visible, palpable, and vulnerable to force (whether physical or metaphysical). Defeating evil in the magic circle is a much simpler proposition than in "real life" because the magic circle is established for direct action while, sometimes, real life requires an expectancy that borders on inaction. In the magic circle, my character personally controls his or her destiny. In real life, my control may be dependent on someone or “Someone” else.
Now, I do recognize that the actions, characters, forces, and situations within the magic circle can be symbolic for real-life analogs. For example, everyone knows that Aslan in the Narnia series is a symbol of Jesus Christ as the Lion of Judah, but not all fantasy characters are direct ciphers for authentic persons. I suppose some people might see zombies in a horror game for an analog for the third world (terrorists?), so they might have as much trouble with Left for Dead as I did with Wolfenstein 3D. But I simply think that the closer we get to realistic representations of actual circumstances, the more careful we need to be in indicating that there is more than one solution. We also need to be careful about reading the analogs too literally. For example, it's pretty clear to me that Lord British was trying to say something about race relations in Ultima VI, but if the gargoyles were to be identified with any specific race or culture in the real world, the person who made the connection would be crucified. Indeed, I didn't have any problem with the negative portrayal of The Brotherhood in Ultima VII (am I remembering that correctly?) because this religious group was largely inspired by the work of L. Ron Hubbard in my mind. If I thought it was directly attacking Christianity (as in the film, The Invention of Lying), I might have been less complacent. On the other hand, I figure attacks on Christianity can be a wake-up call to us about how others perceive us. Maybe we need to pay attention.
Frankly, I don't even have any trouble beating people down in the Arkham Asylum series because I don't have Batman's resources and physical prowess, the villains are larger-than-life, and I don't really believe costumed vigilantes could work in real-life. So, again, I'm back in the magic circle even though those graphics and some of the movements are incredibly life-like. For such dark games, those are gorgeous graphically.
The sad thing was what I heard from one of my students at DePaul who was involved with a campus-based religious organization. He was censured by some of the leaders because he played fantasy games. Gee, I guess they wouldn't have let George MacDonald or C.S. Lewis speak at their meetings if they were alive. It's just so bizarre!
Why do you think Nazis have become the de-facto enemy (now maybe it's Nazi Zombies) that many people feel remorseless for killing in games?
You're not going to like this answer. Nazis have become the "de facto" enemy for multiple reasons. First, the very fact that atrocious genocide was attempted by that political party makes them natural villains. Second, the fact that modern Germany legally proscribes any reverence for that era dissociates them from the modern world. [The disassociation doesn't work for me because I drive through Skokie, IL on a regular basis--right by the Holocaust Museum where a neo-Nazi fired on a security guard within its first month of operation and where American Nazi Party demonstrations still occur. Others can treat them as "fictional" or "historical" villains while I have to see them as potentially real.] Third, the very Aryan white-bread look they so revered and cultivated make it easy, in an age that worships "diversity" in the sense of anything non-Caucasian, to make them the bad guys. Fourth, the uniforms, the goose-step, and the salutory gesture are distinctive. We really like distinctive looks for our bad guys. Fifth, there are all the cool conspiracy books about secret weapons, occult phenomena, alien technology, and Hitler's survival at that secret Antarctic base. It doesn't get any better than that when you need a quick plot developer.
Okay, let’s step back a bit. What was your favorite computer for game playing in the 80's?
In the early ‘80s, it was the Apple II. I liked it because almost every game eventually made its way to the Apple and because you could buy third party controllers, joysticks, printers, monitors, disk drives, and graphics tablets for the machine. The architecture was open and you could customize your system accordingly. Plus, many of the early Apple games were written in BASIC and, if you didn’t like the way they were designed, you could hack the code and change it. I remember having my 64K Apple when Russell had his first 256K PC. I told him it was a waste. Even programming as sloppily as I do, I’d never filled up the Apple’s programmable RAM (I had with my 32K Vic) and I could never begin to imagine filling 256K. I would certainly learn, wouldn’t I?
By the mid ‘80s, I had to have a Commodore Amiga in order to play Earl Weaver Baseball (not to forget SSI’s Kampfgruppe on the Amiga and Cinemaware’s Rocket Ranger with that great Bob Lindstrom score). The Amiga became my favorite game machine until I was absolutely forced to move to the PC. I’ve owned two Macs, but hated them.
At one point in in the late 1980s, Arnie Katz, Bill Kunkel and Joyce Worley
wrote a column about video games for CGW. Do you recall how that came
about, and why it only lasted 6 months?
I do, but you’re not going to like the answer. Russell had admired the trio since the days that they were technically competitors. Electronic Games from Reese Communications and Computer Gaming World launched the same Fall. EG covered all platforms; CGW only covered personal computers. The latter made it possible for CGW to survive the cartridge crash because, in a niche market (with smaller circulation), the magazine’s print run was less and, of course, its ad base wasn’t crushed like EG’s. In the late ‘80s, Russ and I bought into the idea of convergence. We thought there would be somewhat of a coming together of consoles and PC games and then, on to interactive television and networked (via cable) games. So, we wanted to gain credibility among the console publishers and console gamers who knew us as “PC snobs” before this convergence happened.
We figured it would be tough for Russell and I to gain that credibility. We had touted the superiority of PC games forever. But Arnie, the late Bill Kunkel, and Joyce had covered that scene from the beginning. They had great instincts, terrific contacts, and a very professional work ethic. Our hope was actually to include a Video Gaming World section in the magazine and, when the time was right, spin it off as its own (probably bigger) publication. As it happens, computer gamers also knew that there was more money in video game advertising and they were smart enough to know that ad pages generate editorial pages. They didn’t want to lose “their” magazine by having computer game coverage become marginalized. Our readership responded to the Video Gaming World section like soft drink consumers to New Coke. We had to cancel it before we started losing our base. It taught me a lot about readers that would pay off when I became Group Publisher of the Wizards of the Coast magazines. You have to be careful when diverging from bread and butter because the readers may not like Marmite (that yeast spread that is associated with toast in England) even if it’s supposed to be both different and nutritious.
Was there any game or any moment that made you realize computer gaming had finally reached the main stream?
It depends on how you define “mainstream.” If you simply mean that a game received attention from unexpected quarters, I’d say I felt that when SimCity was covered in Time magazine and I later realized how much gender crossover there was in the audience. I also felt like we were really getting there when Vince Vaughn made fun of EA’s NHL Hockey without the fighting in Swingers. If you mean really penetrating to mass market levels, I think it was when I saw the television campaign for Halo 2, the World of Warcraft commercials, and the parody on South Park. Then, I knew we would never be the “red-headed stepchildren” of entertainment any longer.
Was there any moment that made you realize game journalism had finally
reached the main stream?
Considering the shoddy state of mainstream journalism today (even some once-great newspapers are pure sell-outs), I guess we reached that bottom rung level a long time ago. I know that when I was editor, I had definite ideals of serving the reader, avoiding conflict-of-interest, and getting behind the corporate facades and into the real stories. The truth is that I don’t know of any modern publications—analog or digital—that have those ideals.
Was there an "apex" moment while you worked for CGW when you thought "thingswill never get any better than this?"
There were some great “apex” moments, but I never thought that things would never get better. We were always looking for the next great thing. We were always expecting to be surprised. And, since we were always seeing the new technologies being used in game development, we knew better stuff was coming. Every CGDC and every CES (later E3) brought new possibilities. I still have great hopes for this industry, but I’m not sure I’m as excited in this era of “packaged goods” type of design as I used to be. I used to think gaming would change the world, but I’m not sure that today’s emphasis on “gamification” is what I had in mind.
Do you think game reviews with percentages and stars somehow cheapened game journalism?
No, I think the desire to get the “first” coverage cheapened game journalism. In the pen and paper world, we used to talk about “shrink-wrap” reviews. I know that some of the early pioneers in the hobby game magazines would talk about popping the shrink-wrap, looking at the components, reading the rules, and writing the review without even pushing pieces around. My feeling was that European publications, because they had a more competitive environment (and efficient distribution system), rushed reviews to press. That doesn’t really serve the reader at all.
My argument with, for example, PC Gamer’s percentage system wasn’t that they used percentages, it was that an astute reader would notice that the magazine (at least, during the Gary Witta era) always had some sacrificial lamb of a product that they rated in low percentage ratings. But, if you looked at those games, a lot of them were never released in the U.S. and certainly weren’t advertisers in that publication. At CGW, we didn’t have enough editorial space to deal with games that weren’t going to be released in the U.S. So, we wouldn’t even have touched those games. On the other hand, there were times that lousy games we might have been tempted to ignore were actually advertised in our publication. If they were advertised, I felt an obligation to review them. And I had more than one advertiser yell at me that I shouldn’t treat them that way after what they had spent. I shrugged my shoulders on one occasion and said, “Ironically, I probably wouldn’t even have assigned the review if you weren’t trying to get my readers’ attention.”
But, did our star ratings cheapen our review work? No. If anything, the stars sharpened our efforts. The reviewers suggested a number of stars and the editor covering that genre was expected to defend that star rating in the general editorial [OK, “Star Chamber”] meeting where we debated the ratings. The meeting often required a half-day or more of heated discussions before we approved those reviews to go to press. We didn’t discuss the reviews among ourselves as much before the star ratings were implemented. To be honest, I resisted the star ratings for as long as possible. I wanted the readers to READ the reviews. But, the bottom line is that I just kept getting hammered by readers that we NEVER gave bad reviews when I thought it was clear that we gave bad reviews. I eventually realized that our readership was becoming younger and more casual and, as a result, we had to spell out what we really thought.
The world wide web was the death of game journalism. There simply isn’t any reliable metric to determine which site is really reliable and which journalists are legitimately trying to do their work and which are merely “fan boys” getting their dopamine fix by slamming people and using “tabloid” style headlines. It always makes me nervous when I read reviews on the web because I don’t feel like I can trust anyone to have played the game all the way through.
Is there anything you would have done differently in the heyday of CGW if
you had the chance to do it all over again?
I’d like to believe that I could have staved off the decline of journalism by pulling back on the Sneak Preview hype. I tried to explain to the readers that we wrote sneak previews based on what we hoped games would be like as we played with bits and pieces of the games and then, reviewed them by a different standard when the games came out. But toward the end (and now, on the web), all it took was a screenshot and a bunch of PR hooey and those articles were happening. When I was there, we always tried to “touch code.” But I don’t think that’s a criterion in today’s competitive and noisy atmosphere.
I’d like to believe that I would have stood up to ZD earlier about getting an online presence before they tried to buy “turnkey” solutions with Nuke and Gamespot. I’d like to believe that I could have won the circulation battle by being more diplomatic in my communications with ZD’s VP of Circulation. I’d like to believe that I would have had the moral courage to stand up to my younger editors and say that I was sticking with M. Evan Brooks and Scorpia no matter how problematic their approach was. I have apologized to Evan personally on at least two occasions and twice in writing on various sites. I made an error in judgment. I thought I was right, but I’d change that decision if I could. Scorpia was largely a victim of the changing industry. I don’t think she holds a grudge, but I think I should have held onto her as my primary RPG “go-to” person until I was ready to transition out.
In general, though, I believe Computer Gaming World took the games and the industry seriously when no one else was. I believe we were honest and responsible. I believe we made a difference in the industry. And, I believe that I was privileged (through no special skill or talent of my own) to surf a fabulous wave in time. I once sat with two of my editors in the lobby area of the Algonquin Hotel in New York City. We were mere feet away from where the famous roundtable (Perelman, Thurber, Parker, Benchley, Marx, et al) had held many a long and alcoholic lunch, punctuated by the wit and wisdom that would represent more than one generation in the heyday of New Yorker magazine. I really said to them, “Wouldn’t it have been great to have been part of a