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Magic and video games with Penn Jillette and Randy Pitchford

At DICE 2016 today, magician, comedian and Las Vegas icon Penn Jillette took the stage with Gearbox Studios founder Randy Pitchford to talk about the intersection of games, art, and magic.

At DICE 2016 today, magician, comedian and Las Vegas icon Penn Jillette took the stage with Gearbox Studios founder Randy Pitchford to talk about the intersection of games, art, and magic.

The pair, who recently announced that they're collaborating on remaking Desert Bus for virtual reality, kicked off the informal sit-down with a TV appearance by Jillette in which he defended violent video games.

Jillette described himself as a staunch defender of art, including video games, though he acknowledged he's not someone who regularly plays them. Yet he defends them, he says, because he sees an attack on video games as an attack on art as a whole.

“There’s one show business, and we’re all in it,” and it’s all worth defending, he said. “…We’re doing stuff to fulfill, enrich, inspire, and make the human heart more expansive.” To further elucidate how someone can staunchly support something without a personal interest in it, Jillette then pointed out that he’s also probably the only person to appear on the cover of High Times who has never smoked marijuana.

Jillette then recounted when Hillary Clinton promised in the 90s to crack down on video games, and compared that to the crackdown decades earlier against rock music.

“I’m sick of defending video games without being a part of it,” he said, talking about how he became a more regular player. “I want to be in the band now.”

On magic and games

Pitchford then explained how he and Jillette started brainstorming the intersection of magic and video game play and creation. “There are things we know about magic that we don’t apply to interactive entertainment,” Pitchford said.

“There’s a thing in magic,” added Jillette, “and it’s a very advanced concept, [called] multiple outcomes. [...] In multiple outs, it’s very possible that the magician doesn’t know what trick he or she [will end up] doing,” 

The magician may not even know which outcome will occur—it’s an interesting sharing of (a semblance of) control with the onlooker, as the magician exercises his or her options to maintain (actual) control and execute one of several magical outcomes.

It’s a concept applicable to video game design, as the designer and developer cede an amount control to players, while at the same time directing them. So much of a magician’s success, or maybe the game designer’s, is paying an incredible amount of attention to others’ attention, said Jillette, and acting upon that.

“We’ve been finding that one of the challenges in video games…is how to have someone make a totally free choice, put their attention exactly where they want, and know what that is,” said Jillette. “In magic, you don’t learn ‘how to magic’….what you learn is where’s peoples’ attention.”

That’s the most important skill of a magician, he said, a skill whose importance is not lost on game creators.

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