Travel, games and notgames: An interview with Jordan Magnuson

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In 2010, Jordan Magnuson did something special: He set out on a crazy adventure to travel Asia and make short computer games (and notgames) about the things that impacted him along the way. After 236 days of travel through five Asian countries (Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Cambodia and Malaysia), Jordan's adventure of "gametrekking" was completed, as well as 10 games made during and about this journey and the people and places he visited.

I contacted Jordan and asked him a few questions about travel, games and notgames.

VGT: Coincidentally, you and me have some things in common: we both travelled in Asia at the same time, for a similar amount of time. Contrary to me, you had a "mission" - to make games as well as travel. How did that work out? Did you find it difficult to combine the movement of travel with the sedentary business of making games?

Jordan: Overall, the gametrekking journey was incredibly rewarding: as I’ve said in my retrospective, I wouldn’t trade my experiences hitchhiking down the east coast of Taiwan, couchsurfing in the Mekong delta, or visiting the Killing Fields of Cambodia for anything. I love traveling purely for its own sake, but at the same time I’ve done a lot of traveling, so I enjoyed having a particular “mission”, as you put it, on this occasion: I like uncertainty and challenge, and Gametrekking provided me with plenty of both. Even after it was successfully funded, the project was somewhat unprecedented, and a big unknown in a lot of ways, which made things exciting.

Was it a challenge to balance travel with game creation? The short answer is yes :) . Going in, I sort of had this romantic vision of clicking away on my laptop, turning out games while riding through the streets of Hanoi on the back of a moto, or on the train to Bangkok, or while touring the remote wilderness of Cambodia by elephant. Turns out that elephants don’t have electrical outlets.

I’m being a bit sarcastic, but honestly, looking back, I think the whole notion of making games while dealing with the realities of day-to-day independent shoestring travel through Asia was a bit naive. On the one hand there are the practical issues of electrical outlets and internet access, but the larger issue, for me, was one of energy, capacity, and exhaustion: traveling independently for months on end, when you don’t know where you’re going to be spending the night from one day to the next takes a lot of physical, emotional, and creative energy. Making games also takes a lot of creative energy. Trying to do both at the same time nearly burned me out on a few occasions. I was always behind on my creative goals, and eventually came to accept the fact that it was just going to be that way: that I would get to the end of my travels and have a long list of things still to work on.

646"Grandmother" (Vietnam)

How much did the need to find ideas for games interfere with the "raw flow" of travelling? 

Well, the idea behind the project, really, was to let the games naturally emerge from the “raw flow” of travelling, rather than interfere with it: to capture the ideas that came to me out of that flow and use game design as a kind of creative travel journalism, or something. Generally I feel like things more or less worked out that way: I feel like the games I made for the project did end up coming naturally out of my travels, rather than interfering with them.

But at the same time, you can’t deny a kind of “observer effect” with this sort of creation: the fact that my travels had an added intentionality that was not entirely natural to the “raw flow” itself. You can see this same effect in action when you pick up a camera, or a journal: you start to look at things around you a little differently based on how you might frame them through your lens, or what elements lend themselves to interesting descriptions in your writing.

For a long time people have debated whether this kind of intentionality enhances one’s encounters, or “interferes” with them. Some people refuse to take photos, because they claim that it removes them from the raw experience of the moment; on the other hand, photographers often claim that they see more of the world when looking through their lens, because they are looking more intently. I think the reality is that one experiences a bit of both effects. There were times when I was “distracted” by my project, my need to create, my fear of not living up to expectations; but I feel that most of the time I saw more than I otherwise would have, because my eyes were wide open. Looking back, I think my experiences mean more to me in the aftermath of all my reflection and creation. But of course I’m also invested in believing that :).

In my travels, I found games in the most unlikely places: bamboo huts with two PS-consoles, surrounded by Indian kids eager to play GTACounterStrike-venues in downtown Yangon; giant airconditioned gaming cafes in Bangkok. Did you also have an eye on games culture in the countries you visited? Was there local interest in your project, i.e. did you show your games to locals you met? Would you agree that games form a sort of global culture?

To answer that last part of your question first, yes, I do think that games create a sort of global culture. In one respect, bestselling videogames serve to globalize in the same way that movies and books and fastfood chains do. Beyond that, there is perhaps a deeper connection involving a basic solidarity between people who commit time and energy and creativity to the primeval human act of play. Can play serve as a platform for engagement between people who would otherwise not interact, who might have different beliefs and live on opposite sides of the world?

Videogames serve to globalize in the same way that movies and books and fastfood chains do

I think the examination of different aspects of gaming culture would make a fascinating focus for any kind of global journey. It was not, however, the focus of my journey. I came into contact with gaming culture now and again as I traveled, but because I envisioned my interactive experiments in the vein of broader, more traditional travel writing, my energy generally went towards engaging the cultures I traveled through in broader fashion.

Regarding local interest, I did have the chance to talk about my project and show my works to some locals along the way, which was very rewarding. In some cases I was able to receive pointers, or get help with translations. These interactions have continued via the internet, and it always means a lot to me when I get a message in my inbox from a Korean who has just played Freedom Bridge, or someone from Taiwan who was touched by Status Quo.

647"The Heart Attack" (Vietnam)

Your short games strive to capture an atmosphere, an idea or a place, while still being interactive. Are you happy with the results? What's your favorite piece?

I like your description there of “capturing,” which suggests movement and transience, because I never intended my gametrekking creations to be viewed as standalone artworks, or games. I consider them, rather, to be sketches, doodles, short poems, which I hope might serve as springboards of inspiration for myself, maybe for others. I see the Gametrekking website, and my downloadable omnibus, as artifacts or scrapbooks from the road. As such, I am happy enough with the results (a scrapbook is a scrapbook, after all :). 

And no, I don’t really have a favorite piece: I like all the pieces well enough, for different reasons.

I found the Vietnam pieces the most interesting; particularly "Heart Attack", which uses game mechanics and presentation to thrilling effect. Did you find it challenging to reflect on history that way? 

Like most of my creative work (at least the work I end up being pleased with) I found “The Heart Attack” to be challenging until I started making it, at which point it just sort of came together. 

648"A Brief History of Cambodia" (Cambodia)

Speaking of history: Cambodia's recent past still shocks visitors and, honestly, moved me to tears on certain occasions. I found your two pieces on Cambodia to reflect that kind of helplessness, the inability to comprehend or take in the sheer scale of atrocities. Particularly, "A Brief History of Cambodia", which is the most "un-gamey" piece of them all, resorts, like "Taiwan" to symbolism and is open for interpretation. Did you find it particularly difficult to tackle the horrors of Cambodian history in game form?

It sounds terrible to talk about tackling the horrors of Cambodian history in game form. How can one presume to do such a thing? Isn’t the sadness too big? Doesn’t it belittle the tragedy? 

The truth of the matter, I believe, is that Cambodia’s history is too much for any of us to process. Cambodians themselves, even those who lived through the worst of it, cannot process it. So we are left with the choice of what to do: do we walk away and simply put the tragedy out of our minds... or do we interact with it as we can, attempt to understand it by baby steps as we can, attempt to discuss it as we can, attempt to create out of the anguish of our hearts as we can? My “games” about Cambodia’s history, which are also not games, are the fruit of my poor but best attempt to do the later. Is the extreme abstraction of a piece like “A Brief History of Cambodia” symbolic of my own inability to process Cambodia’s tragedy in a literal way? I don’t know.

You call some of your pieces "not-games", I assume in reference to Tale of Tales' nomenclature. I have my problems with this definition, mainly because I'd argue that it's essential to include these experimental games in gaming, just to ascertain that "games", not only notgames, have every right to be experimental, deep and thoughtful. Why would you consider some of your pieces games, some notgames?

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I’ve answered this question briefly and pragmatically in a few places, and I would point anyone who wants such answers to my interviews with PC Gamer, or Giant Bomb. I would point to Michaël Samyn’s original “Not a manifesto.” But I’m guessing you’re aware of these reasons, these “answers,” and that you do not find them satisfying.

So I will try to go a level deeper. Beware that everything which follows is nonsense.

Really, I think the answer to your question cannot be contained in an answer at all: the answer is the conversation that takes place, has already taken place, and will continue to take place around it. Words are extremely important; in other ways, they are not so important. Sometimes I care what I call my interactive creations; sometimes I don’t. Our effort to understand the importance of words, and the ways that they affect our lives, the people that we love, and the things that we create, leads to a dialectic involving all kinds of guards, rear guards, and avantguards: one person sees a way in which one word inhibits us from understanding something, or undertaking something, and they attempt to find a different word that will include what was excluded. Of course it’s not the word itself that is the problem, but its history and context. And of course it’s not the history or context that is the problem, but one particular version of a history, or context. And of course the word that is suggested to replace it is not a replacement, but a counterbalance, and not a counterbalance, but an input: the second word changes the first word slightly as it does and does not replace it, as the first word also changes the second word. And on and on like this. This is how we navigate language and meaning: like this paragraph, it is a mess of twisted symbols, signifying everything and nothing at the same time.

You’ve written critically on the signifier “notgame” recently, and you’ve made some very good points. Your points are an important part of the dialectic. But that does not mean that the suggestion of the signifier “notgame” was a bad idea. On the contrary, I would say that the suggestion was a vital part of the dialectic, and that your part could not exist without it.

“Game” is a loaded word with a long history; it is an old word that needs changing

Some people take the view that the very suggestion of a word like “notgame” destroys something, or moves us backwards. But I don’t think that’s true. Or if it is true, then moving backwards is sometimes an important part of moving forwards. The interactive medium is relatively new, and our ideas of what are and are not games are under pressure and expanding. “Game” is a loaded word with a long history; it is an old word that needs changing if it is to become the word we need now, in the twenty-first century, and the suggestion of “notgame” is part of that necessary change: a dialectical stab of antithesis. It is not the end, and cannot be the end, because there is no end. You imply a “correct” path of linguistic progression, but in my view, there is no such path: “correct” is all the voices in dialog together. Attempting to shut out a term like “notgame” strikes me as futile and also ignores the historical realities surrounding the term’s existence. To put it another way, the word is important insofar--and only insofar--as it exists and is used, and since its importance correlates with its use, it cannot be made less important by lambasting it: any and all attacks only increase its significance, for a time.

To answer your question in short, I do not “consider some of my pieces games, and some notgames”: different words will be used in different contexts and different points in time to describe what I create, and the creations themselves are all of those words and none of those words at once.

Like I said: words are nonsense. But we try.

650"Freedom Bridge", S-Korea

In a recent piece on videogames and nomadism entitled "Confessions of a Videogame Tourist"  , I argued that games might well fulfill an ancient need for vagrancy. Do you agree? And on a different note, how did you adapt to sedentary life after your travels? (I know that coming home is the hardest part of travel, but maybe that's just me.)

That’s an interesting article. It’s hard to argue that the basic idea of armchair tourism is unique to videogames--as film, television, photography, and the written word have been used to similar purpose for a long time--but I do think that the gaming experience of “virtual tourism” is unique. Specifically, the way games potentially allow the player to make their own choices about which path to follow, which corner to turn, mimics original exploration in a way that the those other mediums cannot approach. Reading a book about someone else’s adventure is like “tourism on rails,” whereas a good videogame grants some of the freedom and agency that makes having the original adventure so compelling.

As far as adapting to sedentary life, I’m not sure I’m ever going to. I grew up in North Africa as the son of a cultural anthropologist, and have become pretty thoroughly nomadic. My wife also grew up overseas, moving around a lot, and we haven’t lived in the same country (or the same continent, really) for more than two years since getting married. Longer than that, and I start to get itchy.

Recently, "Far Cry 3" picked a main character the likes of whom you and me both are sure to have met in Asia: the carefree "millennial" gap-year traveller, bent on entertainment and thrills. I must admit that my personal experiences with that often unpleasant crowd even influenced my judgment of the game itself. Coincidentally, these travellers are surely game customers as well, "consuming" their travel experiences as well as games as products - sometimes at the same time (I remember a particularly douchy guy on a crowded Myanmar bus who rudely ignored all locals and scenery to concentrate on playing on his iPod). What's your take on this kind of consumer culture, both in regard to games as well as travel?

I guess the short answer is that I’m disaffected with consumerist culture. Once I get past my initial revulsion, though, I’m interested in the question of what creates such a culture (or individual), and how we can fight those forces. Can games play a role? 

651"The Kindness of Strangers", Taiwan

Finally, what are the lessons you took from your project - for your games, but also for yourself? Did your project inspire you to, maybe, do it again?

As one might expect of a ten-month journey, I took away a lot of lessons for myself. As one might likewise expect, some of those might be too personal to be of general interest. I tried to capture some of the things that stood out to me most in my travel writing reflections: things like the kindness of strangers, the remarkable nature of twenty-first century travel, the impossibility of history. People can follow the links if they want to know more.

I think from a creation perspective the main thing I learned is to be wary about trying to make games while traveling--or doing anything really intensive. For me, creation takes a lot of energy in the best of circumstances, and I’ve learned that inspiration is less likely to strike when I’m drained.

The project worked out, and I made it through, but if I were to do something like this again, I think I’d like to have more focus going in: to know what I was wanting to make a game about beforehand, so I could interact in a really intentional way while traveling, and focus on collecting the most relevant materials. With gametrekking, I always felt one step behind, because I would be traveling intensely, and then an idea for a game would come to me, and then I would inevitably be leaving the country in question once I started working on that idea, and then--once it was too late--I would realize what photos and sounds I wanted to go back and get--what people I wanted to go back and talk to--in order to make the game I envisioned. But in a way, that impossible attempt to capture the “raw flow” while traveling was sort of what this project was all about; the project I’m envisioning, with all the focus and premeditation, would be something different...

So no, I don’t think I will be “doing” gametrekking again, as such, because even if I tried to do it again it would be different. But the project has inspired me to keep moving forwards: to keep traveling, to keep interacting with people from all over the world, to keep making interactive sketches and doodles, games and notgames, and see where it all takes me next. :)

Thanks to Jordan for taking the time to answer. The project page is here, as well as the games, which can also be downloaded here in an "Omnibus edition".

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