Digital Life


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

This year marks an important milestone in the world of video games. Mario, Nintendo's jumping mustachioed plumber--Mario turns 20. Two decades on, many of the children who once devoted hours to Super Mario Bros. have grown into video-gaming adults, and a few have become titans in an ever-expanding industry now worth some $25 billion. Much of the recent media coverage of video games has focused on two criticisms: the amount of time they absorb from our lives and the effect of violence in games like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas on children.

Authors of a new book about the video game industry called "Smartbomb" say both reflect the industry's reach. They argue that video games develop cognitive skills for the real world, not just acute hand-eye coordination and that the games themselves can be used in innovative ways by a growing roster of customers, who include the United States Army and Chevron Corporation. What's more, the video game industry is becoming a leader in the advancement of computer technology. In just a moment we'll talk with the authors of "Smartbomb" about the stories of the people who transformed this industry and about the fans who flock to gamer conferences and competitions.

Later in the program, we'll talk to Liberia's president-elect, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, and we'll read from your letters.

But, first, what video games do you play and why? We'd also like to hear from folks in the industry with questions about the history and the future of their business. Our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is

Joining us now are Heather Chaplin and Aaron Ruby. They're the authors of "Smartbomb: Inside the $25 Billion Video Game Explosion." They join us from the studios of member station KUT in Austin, Texas.

And it's good to have you on the program.

Mr. AARON RUBY (Co-author, "Smartbomb"): Thanks for having us.

Ms. HEATHER CHAPLIN (Co-author, "Smartbomb"): Yeah, it's great to be here.

CONAN: One of the things that I found fascinating about your book is that your argument that the appeal of video games, even from those very first fuzzy screens where somebody invented a game of tennis for two, was that they enabled you to make your own destiny at least virtually. Tell us about this issue of control.

Mr. RUBY: OK. Well, the first thing I'd say is that video games are not just the new cousin to traditional media, like film, television and print. They're actually an entirely new species of media altogether. One way of illustrating the difference between traditional media and video games is to consider the difference between getting directions and using a map. Both will get you from point A to point B, but while directions kind of operate descriptively by providing a list of statements describing a single path from where you are to where you want to go, a map serves as a model. So that--what I mean by that is that the map models the lay of the land directly by instantiating just those properties it's seeking to represent--in this case, distances and roads.

Video games, like maps, are models. They're dynamic computer models, to be precise. And as anyone who's ever used a map vs. directions will tell you, they require very different skill sets to navigate. The same thing is true of video games. Rather than leading you through a particular narrative path, video games drop you into a dynamic system and require you to explore the connections between cause and effect. So--and actually, you know, playing video games is very much like being a scientist.

CONAN: Heather Chaplin, I was interested in the argument primarily made, I guess most recently, against Grand Theft Auto 3 about the violence in the game and that that was one of the real keys to its success. And you argue, really, that what people found fascinating about that game was the ability to live in a virtual reality that you controlled.

Ms. CHAPLIN: Yeah, that's absolutely right. I mean, Grand Theft Auto is a fascinating series to talk about because it offended so many people both inside and outside of the industry. And, again, I went into this--I had not been a gamer and really didn't know what to expect when we first started writing the book in 2001. And when you talk to gamers about Grand Theft Auto, they won't go on about, `Oh, it's so great. You get to beat up prostitutes,' or, `You get to beat up cops.' They'll talk about the sense of freedom that they felt in the world, which is why I'm actually really glad Aaron started by saying what he did because that is--I think kind of gets to both your first question and the second one--is that the video game as a medium allows you to enter a virtual world and be in control of it; to be able to experiment with cause and effect; to see what happens if you do this, if you do that. And in some ways, that's a much more dynamic and exciting experience than just being an observer.

CONAN: And it's interesting, in writing about the history of the book, you say that you have your own nominee, but there is...

Ms. CHAPLIN: Yeah.

CONAN: ...a lot of arguments for whoever it is who created the first video game but no argument at all, you claim, for who created the video game industry.

Ms. CHAPLIN: Yeah. Nolan Bushnell is a fantastic character, and he is just one of the myriad of fascinating people we met when doing this book. I just have to say right at the beginning that when we first came in--you know, I've been a reporter for a long time, and I had never come into a story where wherever you turned, each person was sort of more interesting and had a better story to tell than the next. Nolan is a great example. I think of him as sort of a classic American personality. He's the entrepreneur. He's the guy who saw this game that a bunch of hackers at MIT in the early '60s had invented on a computer, which thrilled everyone in the, you know, nascent AI department. But they, you know, within five minutes of conversation, were like, `Oh, no one would be interested in this except, you know, us.' Nolan's the guy who came along and said, `Hmm, I think I can sell this.'

CONAN: Yeah.

Ms. CHAPLIN: And he--for people who don't know, he founded Atari.

CONAN: But it was not a smooth pass to `Oh, I think I can make some money out of this,' and the next day he was a billionaire.

Ms. CHAPLIN: No, not at all. I mean, that's one of the great things. You know, now we live in this world where Silicon Valley and startups are just part of the vernacular. Everyone knows about it. But he really helped establish that culture. I mean, he founded Atari out of his two-year-old daughter's bedroom. He just read with us the other night in Los Angeles, and he was telling great stories about, you know, everyone at the office knew to try to try to cash their paychecks the minute they came in because the last people to cash them--probably they wouldn't clear.

CONAN: Oh, he may have worked in public radio before.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHAPLIN: So, yeah, it's a great, great startup story. And, you know, you really realize or--you know, as we delved further and further into the book that, you know, we tend to write off video game as either something horrible or something absolutely silly, but they really have been brought to us by the same people who brought us the technology revolution, who brought us Silicon Valley culture...

CONAN: And...

Ms. CHAPLIN: ...and the Internet, literally.

CONAN: And the Internet, literally. And, Aaron, you're saying one of the conclusions of this book is now the video game industry, because it's so profitable, is driving computer innovation.

Mr. RUBY: Yeah, and that's--well, that's actually been true pretty much for the last decade. You know, an easy way to think about it is you don't really need the most high-powered CPU and graphics cards to run Word or to keep track of your various addresses. What you do need them for is to be able to render these fantastically sophisticated and almost photo-realistic three-dimensional worlds in which the players find themselves navigating not only alone at home but, increasingly, socially over the Internet, where there may be--there are virtual worlds, for example, where thousands of people are interacting in the same world at the same time. And so the need to have computers that can meet these challenges has driven a lot of the innovation in the industry.

Ms. CHAPLIN: And it's the strangest thing we found because, you know, most of the computer industry really grew out of work that came from needs of military. You know, computers were really serious business for World War II, calculating ballistic missile tables before that for the Census. And what you see now is that the military, academia, science, medicine--they're turning to the video game industry for the most cutting-edge work being done in modeling and simulation, 3-D graphics, artificial intelligence and interface. So it's this really weird sort of flip has taken place.

CONAN: We're talking with Heather Chaplin and Aaron Ruby. They're the authors of "Smartbomb," which is just out. If you'd like to join us, (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is What games do you play and why? If you have questions also about the history or the future of the video game industry, give us a call.

Let's start with Chris. And Chris is calling from Boyne City in Michigan.

CHRIS (Caller): Hello.


CHRIS: I just would like to say I've been playing video games since the original Nintendo, and I really enjoy the older style of video games. And I feel that the industry is entering a very strange point right now with the massively multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft, where the video game replaces the real world almost with its intricacies and complexities. And I just would like to hear what you would have to say about that. I'll take my comments off the air. Thank you.

CONAN: OK, Chris. Thanks very much.

Aaron, go ahead.

Mr. RUBY: Yeah. Well, in a way you're right, Chris, but what I would say is that rather than being a replacement for real life or RL, as it's commonly referred to online, massively multiplayer online games offer an opportunity for people who, for whatever reasons, may feel isolated in certain aspects of their local culture, get on online, enter a virtual world and have a whole host of people with which to socialize. And although there are players who spend literally up to 60 hours a week online, in the main, you have people who, rather than seeing this as an either or, a real-life or a virtual life, they actually integrate their virtual life into their real life and aspects of their real life into their virtual life. So it's really just becoming, for a lot of people, another aspect of their identity rather than a replacement.

CONAN: Let's talk with Peter. Peter's calling us from San Francisco.

PETER (Caller): Hi.


PETER: Yeah, I would actually like to agree with that. I think that--you know, here I live in San Francisco, I have sailboats, and there's lots and lots of things to do here. And yet I play an online video game called Jumpgate. And I play that about, oh, an hour a day. Usually when I get up before I go to work on the morning, I get online and I play, and I'm playing with people from all over the world, you know--Germany, England, Australia. And I work at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. I'm a 50-year-old and I'm...

Ms. CHAPLIN: That's great. Yeah.

PETER: ...still caught up in it. So...

CONAN: Why do you--what is it that you find so compelling?

PETER: Well, the game that I play, Jumpgate, it's a space-simulator and, you know, it's--you're not using a mouse, you're actually a joy stick. There's a really steep learning curve trying to master the little spaceship that you're flying and the aliens you're attacking. And you can actually play with, you know, other people or at least other people's little tiny icons, their little ships flying around.

Mr. RUBY: And that's...

PETER: And, you know, there's camaraderie and you can get together with other players online and have a space battle. That's interesting. And it's something you can do when it's raining our or when it's dark or whatever.

CONAN: OK, Peter. Thanks very much.

Aaron, if you could keep it quick.

Mr. RUBY: Oh, yeah. I was just going to say that, you know, that's exactly right. You have parents who--one parent is stationed in Germany with the military, and using these online games is how they keep in touch with their families.

CONAN: Aaron Ruby and Heather Chaplin are the authors of "Smartbomb." More questions for them, more of your questions as well. (800) 989-8255, (800) 989-TALK. E-mail is All of that after the break.

I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

The video game industry has been with us for some decades now. Today we're talking about the that business: who benefits, how harmful video games might be or if they could be even be a useful educational tool. Our guests are Heather Chaplin and Aaron Ruby, authors of "Smartbomb: The Quest for Art, Entertainment and Big Bucks in the Videogame Revolution." We got the appropriate and correct subtitle for your book this time around. If you'd like to join the conversation, our number is (800) 989-8255, and our e-mail address is

Let's go to Bill. And Bill's calling us from Jackson, Michigan.

BILL (Caller): Hi. How are you?


Mr. RUBY: Hi, Bill.


BILL: I heard one of your guests saying that they weren't quite sure who the original inventor of the video game was. I actually took a video game history class in college in Florida, and a lot of credit is given to a man named William Higinbotham for inventing...

Mr. RUBY: Absolutely.

BILL: ...the first video game.

CONAN: And that's who gets credit in "Smartbomb" as well, but there are other nominees, aren't there, Aaron?

Mr. RUBY: Yeah. For a while, there was some contention whether you should count Higinbotham's contribution as an actual video game or whether Ralph Bear, who created the Magnavox Odyssey, which was kind of like the first home console that let you play, for example, a Pong-like game, whether he should get credit. The differences and the contention revolve around rather technical things. And in reality and in the spirit of what video games actually are, being dynamic computer models essentially, I think that the credit really does go back to Higginbottom.

Ms. CHAPLIN: And I just have to throw in there that Higginbottom--and this is, I just think, such a great example for people who think that--don't take games seriously, he was a nuclear physicist who actually worked on the Manhattan Project, and this was something he did in his spare time later in life, which I always find sort of fascinating.

CONAN: And which in your book you describe people coming up to him many decades later and saying, you know, `You're the grandfather of the video game.' He doesn't know what they're talking about.

Ms. CHAPLIN: No, exactly. Because he himself really had no interest. It was just something he put together for, you know, a science day at the Brookhaven, where he was working, which studied--you know, he dedicated his life to nuclear nonproliferation, actually. And then it was only later that a gaming magazine editor who had been one of those kids playing Higginbottom's game came and found him later in life and he got the name.

CONAN: Thanks, Bill, for the phone call.

BILL: Yeah, no problem.

CONAN: There's, I mean, a lot of characters. As you mention, this story is replete with characters. One of them is Will Wright, the designer behind the popular Sims franchise. And you portray him, you know, as much as an entrepreneur and a video game designer scientist in that respect or an engineer, a philosopher as well.

Ms. CHAPLIN: Will is one of the most interesting people you would ever have the opportunity to meet in your life. You sit down with him, and the conversation immediately turns to chaos theory, emergence. You know, he's a donator a the Santa Fe Institute. He really looks at what he does as an excuse to do science. And he really helped me understand what video games are about and what their potential are. And people don't always understand, you know, the Sims, which was his breakthrough game, was such a wild, novel idea, if for no other reason than it's not a nonzero-sum game. It's not competitive. There's no winning and losing, which, as the child of hippies who was taken to alternative game conferences as a kid, I remember that was a big dream. And so, you know, he really is one of these guys who--he just--he doesn't notice what the rules are. He's just following his own imagination, he's following what appeals to him. And he takes...

CONAN: I'm not great gamer, but I've left my city in ruins and I felt pretty much like I lost.

Ms. CHAPLIN: Well, but you know what? Will really was strong, and his publisher, when he finished it, kept saying, `It's not finished, it's not finished. What's the criteria for winning?' And he kept saying, `Well, that's the point. It's up to the player. If you want to have a city of fires and floods, well, that's up to you. That's your city. Here are the things you can do to make a good city.' But, really, the way Will sees that game is that it's an experiment in cause and effect...

CONAN: Ah-hah!

Ms. CHAPLIN: That it's teaching people, huh, well, if I don't build enough housing, I'm going to have homeless people and if I don't build a fire department, I'll have rioting. And he'll really argue with you and help you understand that that really is what games are. I mean, games are teaching tools. And what they do is they allow you in a low-consequence environment to experiment with the different aspects of your environment and sort of see what different things will happen.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Ayawin(ph)--I hope I'm getting that right--in Oracle, Arizona.

AYAWIN (Caller): Absolutely. I wanted to call up with two comments actually. Number one, my entire family plays a video game together. That's my mother, my father, my brother, my sister-in-law, myself, my fiance and my young niece. And our family has been playing, oh, for the last two decades, I think. And it really has come a whole long way from where it started. I can remember playing Hack when I was very, very little on a monochromatic screen.

And my other comment is being a female gamer, it's really nice to see how far games have come in giving you the option of having a male character or a female character. And a lot more games are doing that now. And it's really greatly appreciated. And I think it makes it more attractive for everybody to want to play.

CONAN: So when you adopt a persona in the game, you can either choose to be male or female, is what you're saying.

AYAWIN: Yeah, actually. And in fact, the two guys that I end up playing with in Guild Wars both have female characters.

CONAN: Really?

AYAWIN: Yeah. Yeah. And I do, too. But I think it's just funny that it's two guys and a girl, but it's three chicks on a screen.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHAPLIN: I just was about to jump in, and I'm so glad you brought that up because one of the things I was really struck by is that especially in the massively multiplayer online games that we were talking about earlier, it's something like 70 percent of men play female characters.

AYAWYIN: Oh, yeah.

Ms. CHAPLIN: And that's a whole 'nother conversation.

Mr. RUBY: You're exactly right.

AYAWIN: Yeah, it is a whole 'nother conversation.

Mr. RUBY: It...

Ms. CHAPLIN: Yeah.

Mr. RUBY: I mean, you're exactly right. One of the fascinating things about that is that these online games in particular, of which Guild Wars is one, they offer you the opportunity to completely negate the accident of birth. So that opens up a whole new dimension of social exploration that a lot of people who think about video games as this kind of monolithic clump of beeps and flashing lights don't really appreciate.

CONAN: Ayawin, thanks very much for the call and good luck next time. I hope you beat those guys, whoever they are.

AYAWIN: Thank you. Have a good day.

Ms. CHAPLIN: Neal, do you think that people understand what we're talking about when we say massively multiplayer game, or should we step back and explain that a little bit?

CONAN: Well, I think we've been talking about this little by little, but these...


CONAN: ...are the online games where thousands of people are playing and the action may be going on all over the place.

Ms. CHAPLIN: Exactly. They're persistent state worlds. So they run by the laws of physics or whatever laws of physics they establish in their universe. The sun sets, the sun rises. And I just have to say again as a non-gamer, when I first entered one of these games, it is literally one of the most intense experiences. You walk in, you create what they call an avatar, which is your persona for the game, and you walk in and you see all these other crazy-looking creatures of all different species running around, and you suddenly realize this isn't artificial intelligence. That one, that guy's a kid from Istanbul. That one, that's a kid from Salt Lake City. That one, that's maybe the 30-year-old, you know, who works at Lincoln Labs who, you know, called in. It's really an incredible experience.

And in fact, you know, when you talk to the guys who make those games in particular--and I just want to make sure we understand that's just a segment of the gaming universe--they really, really, really believe that what we're doing is, as Aaron was saying earlier, allowing people to have real experiences. People who maybe feel alienated in this world or who live in neighborhoods where, they don't really have that much in common with their neighbors, suddenly they go into this world. As Aaron said, it erases the accident of birth, it's supposed to be a meritocracy, everybody starts at the beginning. You achieve what you achieve based on your abilities. You're not judged by how you look or how you talk or who your father is, and you get to have experiences with other people. And it really is experiences that bond people together. So people in that segment of the industry will argue to the ground that what is going on in these games is real with a capital R.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. And this is Jake. Jake's calling from Cleveland.

JAKE (Caller): Hi, Mr. Conan. Actually, I have one question for our guests and a comment. Earlier you said that there were thousands of people playing the online games. I play World of Warcraft. World of Warcraft actually four million users worldwide, four million people. The question that I have for your guests is there's a growing economy with people using real-world money to buy online currency. They'll go to Web sites and they'll...

Ms. CHAPLIN: Yeah.

JAKE: for gold in games. And they'll basically cheat their way to getting these in-came currency with real-world money. Did you get any solid figures on how much money these people are actually making?

Mr. RUBY: Well, it's--because it actually is a gray market--by that I mean that, by and large, the actual developers and the corporations that run these virtual worlds typically frown on this because obviously if you're just simply able to buy your advancement, can tend to diminish the sense of accomplishment for someone who doesn't. That said, there's an economist who studies online worlds. His name's Ted Castronova. He's estimated that this gray market is in the several hundreds of millions of dollars a year, approaching the billions...

CONAN: And we're the IRS is not listening.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHAPLIN: And also about the four million, yeah, the World of Warcraft is the game that has really broken through. They've been big in Korea for a long time, hitting the several million numbers, but this is the first American game to get that high. And I think what Aaron was saying when he said several thousand is the game is divided up by servers. So you'll play on a server with a few thousand people while there might be several million inhabiting the larger universe.

And this issue of the in-world currency crossing over into the out-world is actually fascinating. There have started to be conferences sponsored by Yale Law School, because if you think about it, it's a pretty weird situation because Sony will contend, `Well, that sword that you, you know, spent 18 hours working to get belongs to us,' and the player will say, `Excuse me, that was my 18 hours that I spent working for it. This belongs to me.' And I do think as these games become more and more a part of regular life, this is going to be a serious issue that we're going to have to sort out.

JAKE: It also damages the in-game economy because...

Ms. CHAPLIN: Yeah.

JAKE: ...when you try to purchase something, the people that do buy gold or do buy the currency, the people that sell the things online, they know that people are buying the gold and the currency, so they're able to jack up the prices over the heads of everybody that does not purchase the gold.

CONAN: So it's...

Mr. RUBY: Exactly.

CONAN: Yeah. So you run into these problems of supply and demand almost everywhere, don't you, Jake?

JAKE (Caller): Yeah. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Appreciate it.

Here's an e-mail we got from Sandra in Louisville, Kentucky. `By day, I'm a 32-year-old mother of two, wife and office manager. But at night, when the kids are in bed and the house has been tidied up, I'm an avid Sims PC player. I'm not so much a player, though, as I am a creator.'


CONAN: `I spend an average of 12 to 15 hours per week creating lots for Sims to occupy or I'm on forums that are driven by Sims play. Sims is my choice of games because of the build engine that has been made available. It is competitive, and those who are considered to be masters of it are held in awe by amateurs. I am by nature a creative person, and the Sims has become an outlet for that.'

And that's interesting. You write at one point that these games are--the competitions at conferences and stuff, if anybody showed up at one of those conferences and, you know, total unknown, out of the blue and played really, really well, the only conclusion anybody could come to was that he was cheating.

Ms. CHAPLIN: Those are actually for--we have a whole chapter called Dallas: First-Person Shooter Capital of the World that's about the competitions tend to take place in a genre of video games called first-person shooters, which are games like Doom or Quake or Unreal, Counter-Strike, and yes, it's highly competitive, but I do just want to address the issue that the e-mail writer was saying about being creative, because, again, that's something that people, you know, tend to think video games sort of deaden you, and in the Sims and particularly like Will Wright, who says his goal is to bring out more creativity in his players than they realize they have, and in a lot of these games, including one of the MMOs, Star Wars Galaxies, there's a big trend towards player-created content, so you really are starting to see that these games are allowing across the spectrum more and more room for human creativity to emerge, and if you are someone who was a technophobe, like me, that might be a little bit hard to get your mind around, but that was definitely one of the things that I grew to really have to appreciate after spending four years with these people.

Mr. RUBY: I mean, Will Wright, for example, I mean, his games in particularly, of which the Sims is one, the great revolution in design that I think he accomplished was precisely this ability to allow the players to become creative to the point where the line between producer and consumer is increasingly blurred. People like your e-mail writer will generate--you know, they will create their own furniture for Sims. They will then upload that furniture onto the Internet and allow others to download it and use it in their own Sim houses. So it builds this tremendous community of highly creative people and, like I say, it really is starting to blur the line between consumer and producer.

Ms. CHAPLIN: We have...

CONAN: We're talking about the history and the future of video games.

And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Heather, I didn't mean to cut you off.

Ms. CHAPLIN: Sorry. I didn't mean to keep going.

CONAN: Well, that's OK. Well, why don't we just...

Ms. CHAPLIN: I was just...

CONAN: OK, go ahead. We'll get another caller on the line after.

Ms. CHAPLIN: I was just--OK, yeah. Sorry.

CONAN: All right. Let's talk with Daniel, and Daniel's calling us from--Where's that?--Sandwich, Illinois.

DANIEL (Caller): Sandwich, Illinois, yes, sir.

CONAN: Go ahead.

DANIEL: I have a question. Do girls play different games than boys--video games?

Ms. CHAPLIN: That's a great question. The Sims--as we keep--keeps coming up--that has I think at this point it's over 50 percent women. I think that's what Will told us the other night. I know it's hovered around there for a while, and I think it's actually crossed it. The other thing that's really interesting about women gamers is you notice that a lot of women don't self-identify as gamers, but if you probe a little bit further, you will find that they are indeed.

For example, I don't consider myself a gamer, but I am completely addicted to a Tetris-like game called Lumines, which I probably play for an hour or two every day before going to bed. Or one of my best friend's mother is a dean of humanities at Hopkins, and she was sort of scoffing at the subject. And I said, `Really, you don't play Patience or solitaire or any of those computer games?' and she went, `Oh, well, yeah, I guess actually I do.' So you start to realize that a lot of women, again, don't self-identify as gamers, but at this point it's--you start to feel like everybody plays them in some way or another.

CONAN: Daniel, thanks very much for the phone call.

DANIEL: Yes, sir. Thank...

CONAN: Here's an e-mail we got from Karen in Wisconsin. `My 22-year-old son was a video game junkie as a child in the late 1980s into his high school years. My husband and I were deeply concerned this would have a detrimental effect on his future. In fact, we were proved wrong. Next spring he graduates with degrees in molecular biology, Japanese and chemistry. Part-time he works at the University of Wisconsin at the advanced computer health desk. His interest in computers began with video games, and I believe gaming enhanced his critical thinking skills.'

Mr. RUBY: Yeah, as a person who trained in molecular biology myself, I think it's astonishing that, yes, on the one hand, there are a lot of concerns about violence in video games and the impact of the medium on our children, but at the same time you need to recognize that, you know, virtually--you talk to anybody in the computer industry who is a programmer or a designer of such and not just even in the video game industry; it could be somebody who models physics, all across the board. And video games served as a huge inspiration because--and one reason I think this is the case is that what video games did that television didn't is video games allow you and the computer science allows you to take control of the box, of the image.

CONAN: All you can do on the TV is change the channel, although that could be fun too.

Now we're going to take a short break. When we come back, we're going to continue our conversation about the history of video game industry. We'll also have your letters and a conversation with a person who could be Africa's first woman president, Liberia's President-elect Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.

I'm Neal Conan. Back after a break. It's the talk of the nation from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

And here are the headlines from some of the stories we're following here today at NPR News. Congress returned to work today with both chambers trying to finish budget-related bills that they've been struggling with for weeks. Moderate Republicans in the House of Representatives are balking at a bill that would cut spending for Medicaid, food stamps and school loans. And the Supreme Court ruled today that parents who demand better special education programs for their children must show that the current special ed program isn't sufficient. You can hear details on those stories and, of course, much more later today on "All Things Considered" from NPR News.

Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION, as new plans for prescription drugs take effect for American seniors this week, NPR's Julie Rovner will join us to help make sense of the sometimes bewildering array of plans that are being offered. That's tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION.

Today we're winding up our conversation about the video game industry. Our guests are Heather Chaplin and Aaron Ruby, authors of "Smartbomb: The Quest for Art, Entertainment and Big Bucks in the Videogame Revolution." And if you'd like to read the first chapter of "Smartbomb," you can go to our Web site at

And let's get another caller on the line. This is Tony. Tony's calling us from Norwalk, Ohio.

TONY (Caller): Yes. Hello. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

TONY: I was actually calling in concern. Throughout the years we've noticed that people always like to have a grand adventure, they like to go somewhere that they usually can't get in their day-to-day lives, and they did that by reading books and then television and movies came across and then we watched books kind of fade. But I was wondering do you think that video games offer the same thing as a reader, say, 70 years ago reading a book, you know, whether it's watching Carl Johnson's story unfold in San Andreas or the Prince of Persia and many other games?

CONAN: They certainly hope not 'cause they've just written a book. But let's let them answer.

Ms. CHAPLIN: You know, it's a great question and I wish I had a good answer. One thing I always do like to remind people is that, you know, almost every time--or every time a new medium is dropped into a culture it's met with fear, if not loathing. You know, Socrates thought that the written word was a terrible idea, that we'd lose the oral tradition. The novel, when it first was introduced, was thought going to lead to moral decay and, you know, so on up through the years. One of the questions that I know that I asked all of the developers that we would talk to went something like this: You know, when I read--I was a big reader; I still am a big reader--when I read a Tolstoy novel I feel enriched. I feel that I have learned something more about humanity and about the world, and I would always ask game makers do games do that. And I never really got a satisfactory answer. I mean, I think that that is a really good question. I think as games progress and more emotion is allowed in the games, you know, it's sort of this dance between technology and creativity, and as the technology reaches a point where it's not as much of an issue I think we will see more games that can genuinely be enriching, or as we were saying before, these games like the Sims or the MMO and I can think of, you know, a dozen other off the top of my head, they are offering skill sets and they are teaching you something. Now whether it's the same thing you'd learn from Tolstoy I not sure.

CONAN: Aaron, let me just bring Aaron in 'cause the emotion that is in most of these games, and maybe I'm just generalizing, seems to be adrenaline.

Mr. RUBY: Well, yeah, particularly among the games that get the most headlines. But you know, there are games such as Nintendogs, for example, is a huge game right now, and basically your job is to take care of a virtual dug and to nurse it and provide it the sorts of things that it needs in order to thrive. And you know, there are--more and more we're seeing the vocabulary of game design reaching a level where designers are able to approach and tackle some of the challenges involved in conveying elements of experience that we typically associated with let's say Heather refers to the way she felt enriched by a Tolstoy novel. A lot of that is just a function of this medium is very young, and because it's been so technologically driven, a lot of the more adrenaline-producing experiences have been what is focused on. But as technology starts to plateau with respect to graphics, there's a whole new dimension of game design that's starting to become more and more important and that precisely revolves around capturing and conveying emotion.

CONAN: And, Heather, let me ask you a question, and, Tony, thanks very much for the phone call.

Ms. CHAPLIN: Yeah.

CONAN: But let me ask you a question. As you go through the book, your progression almost seems to follow physical locations--the invention of the game in Silicon Valley, then a little bit more developed at MIT, then back to Silicon Valley to Japan where the great Miyamoto-san and all the other great designers put on that revolution to Dallas for the first-person-shooter-type game. Is there another location that you see as the next stop on the video game development?

Ms. CHAPLIN: China is--there's some really interesting things going on in China. Korea also has been--has adopted games in a way that Americans still haven't. I mean, it is really interesting because, you know, we have a tendency in this country, I think, to forget we're not the world, and in this industry in particular it really is global in nature. China, for example, has--it's been in negotiations to buy some of the video game engines from American companies in order to subsidize and jump-start its video game industry. In Korea, you've seen local economies get huge boosts by gaming cafes. I think Korea has the largest broadband penetration of anywhere in the world 'cause it was subsidized by the government. So you do see lots of--I mean, if we were going to write, say, `Smartbomb II,' I think you would definitely see us going to China. We're also, by the way, when we were talking about those online economies, there are sweatshops in China where people do nothing but what they call blitz through the missions of the games in order to win valuable items from more wealthy American players. But yeah, you would definitely see us going to China and Korea.

Mr. RUBY: And India.

Ms. CHAPLIN: And India. 'Cause they're starting also to farm out a lot of the work to those countries.

CONAN: Well, thank you both very much. We appreciate your time today.

Mr. RUBY: Thank you, Neal.

Ms. CHAPLIN: This was great. Thank you.

CONAN: The--we just heard from Heather Chaplin and Aaron Ruby. They're the authors of "Smartbomb," which is just out, and they joined us from the studios of member station KUT in Austin, Texas.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

NPR thanks our sponsors

Become an NPR sponsor

Support comes from