A Chat With Former CGW Head Johnny Wilson

By Steve Fulton [12.22.11]

 In this interview, former Computer Game World editor-in-chief Johnny Wilson reflects on the past and present of the games industry, noting his personal experience with games, his greatest influences, and his thoughts on where the business is headed.

Wilson served worked at CGW until 1999, and has since released his own book, and now teaches at DePaul University. Now, here's your chance to catch up with his thoughts on the modern game industry.

Who do you consider the masters of computer game design?

Sid Meier taught me that if it isn't "fun," I should take it out. Richard Garriott taught me it can be important to reinvent the wheel in order to add freshness. Mark Baldwin taught me that elegant simplicity is better than sophisticated anarchy. Tim Schafer taught me you can be both profound and funny at the same time. Louis Castle 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) taught me that passion, dedication, and vision are vital to every aspect of this business.

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 ripped off Roald Dahl's "The Sound Machine" and when my eighth grade literature class performed it for an elementary school assembly, we blew up our cardboard "sound machine" with firecrackers smuggled up from Mexico.

My first published gig happened when I was in high school,  a column without a by-line for the Saturday "Church Page" that  taught me how to craft my work to fit an editorial word count. My first GAME publication was an after-action report in an offset ‘zine called PW Review, a wonderful publication from the Potomac Wargamers for which I adapted some "colonial skirmish" rules for the Jacobite rebellion (and Bonnie Prince Charlie).

The rest of my entry into publishing and writing is tied to my start at CGW.

When did you get your start with Computer Gaming World?

I was a friend of Russell Sipe who founded CGW. We met while performing in Arthur Miller's The Crucible during college and became gaming friends throughout college and graduate school, playing board games, RPGs, and miniatures, as well as playing a pre-release version of Avalon Hill's Galaxy.

I finished my Ph.D. and started teaching Old Testament while pastoring a church. I started reviewing games on a borrowed Apple II and graduated to my own Commodore Vic-20. Russ offered me a job when 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 assumedand  I wasn't invited back to teach. So, I came on board CGW at half-time pay and pretty well worked full-time, earning more by teaching at a business college at night.

Russ generously made me editor and part owner of the magazine before Ziff-Davis bought us.

How has your religion/faith affected your gaming?  Do you see both things are separate, or is there overlap?

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. Huizinga used the term "magic" to express the idea that what is held within the magical ward stays within the magical ward unless the circle is violated.

So, within the magic circle, I can play Dungeons & Dragons even though its universe is polytheistic and its assumptions are against my personal beliefs. Within the magic circle, I can play an evil character because the magic circle is a laboratory where those actions within the game universe don't harm anyone outside the game universe. 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, 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 games has informed my theology. Seeing how lightly some gamers can accept the idea of "death" in games-whether rebooting from a saved position, being  resurrected in a fantasy RPG, or committing pewter soldiers and cardboard counters into sacrificial actions 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 refined my illustrations of God's action versus human choice.

I don't believe gaming and faith can be completely separated on all levels, but I still respect the idea of the magic circle. That's why I love teaching a course on Ethics in Games and Cinema at DePaul.

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.

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." 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.  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. 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. 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.

One of my students at DePaul who was involved with a campus-based religious organization was censured by some of the leaders because he played fantasy games. Good thing C.S. Lewis never came to their meetings!

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 many of the early games were written in BASIC and, if you didn't like the way they were designed, you could hack the code and change it.

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?

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, asits ad base wasn't crushed like EG's. In the late ‘80s, Russ and I bought into the idea of convergence between consoles and PC games. So, we wanted to gain credibility among the console publishers and console gamers who knew us as "PC snobs" before this convergence happened.

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. 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.

Was there any game or any moment that made you realize computer gaming had finally reached the main stream?

I would say that I knew we would never be the "red-headed stepchildren" of entertainment any longer when I saw theWorld of Warcraft parody on South Park.

Was there any moment that made you realize game journalism had finally become mainstream?

Considering the shoddy state of mainstream journalism today, I guess we reached that bottom-rung level a long time ago. When I was editor, I had definite ideals of serving the reader, avoiding conflict-of-interest, and getting behind the corporate facades to the real stories. I don't know of any modern publications-analog or digital-that have those ideals.

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:  popping the shrink-wrap, looking at the rules, and writing the review without finishing the game. I felt that European publications, because they had a more competitive environment (and efficient distribution system), rushed reviews to press.

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, 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.

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. We wrote sneak previews based on what we hoped games would be like but reviewed them by a different standard when the games came out. Toward the end (and now, on the web), all it took was a screenshot and a bunch of PR hooey for a sneak preview. At CGW, we always tried to "touch code." I don't see that happening today.

I'd like to believe 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 think  I could have won the circulation battle by being more diplomatic with ZD's VP of Circulation. I wish I'd have had the moral courage to stand up to my younger editors and say that I was sticking with M. Evan Brooks and Scorpia I made an error in judgment. I thought I was right, but I'd change that decision if I could.

In general, though, I believe Computer Gaming World took the games and the industry seriously when no one else was. 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.

What events transpired when you left CGW?

When I left Computer Gaming World, PC Gamer was out-distributing us by between 100-150K. Where we were equally distributed, we were matching them or outselling them, but I couldn't convince Ziff-Davis to match their distribution. So, PC Gamer had more visibility and more momentum than we could manage. My staff and I always felt like we were working at a handicap.

ZD felt like I was graying, Terry Coleman was prematurely gray [which you wouldn't know from his red-orange hair today], and the average editorial age was considerably higher than those of our competitors. They felt having me as the spokesperson for the magazine sent the wrong signal, since I was a crappy FPS and RTS player at a time when those genres were the fastest growing titles in the industry. I kept getting second-guessed by executives in my own company.

Jon Lane, the best boss I ever had, helped me come up with the idea of becoming "Editorial Director" and letting a younger guy become Editor-in-Chief. In that position, I began to work on three projects: 1) a time-limited demo DVD for McDonald's play areas (we accomplished in a month what the eventual contractor took eight months to accomplish); a DVD-based trade publication with both demos and articles in the same "package" ( ZD decided not to make it  because they thought Gamespot had the demo scene covered); and 3) planning  my personal future.

At E3, I ran into a Wizards of the Coast executive I had known for years. She saida reorganization had put all of their magazines in her department. I proposed that she hire me as Group Publisher and I immediately began trying to redesign those publications to make them more newsstand savvy. So, I essentially stepped up when I left ZD. ZD was very good to me-not an evil empire.

You brought up "ageism" is regards to CGW.  Do you think the entire game industry (not just magazines) tends to have a very short memory about the history of gaming and game journalism?

When I was covering the game industry, I felt like most of the people on the development side were very much aware of the history of games. Today, most  don't see any value in looking back at failed interfaces, archaic design decisions, technological limitations, etc. I'm extremely thankful that DePaul's faculty has seen the wisdom of covering this material so I believe our students have a bigger bag of tricks than some because they know what's worked in the past and what hasn't.

How did your book High Score come about?

RuselDemaria had a dream of writing a coffee table book on the history of video games. When he talked to the editors at Osborne-McGraw Hill, they felt like the book would have more credibility (and probably more hitherto unpublished anecdotes) if it had more than one author. He suggested me, and Rusel approached me about writing a small portion of the book. We negotiated a deal where I'd do about a third of the work and he'd do the rest. The look and the approach is primarily Rusel's . I wrote what I wanted to write. Alas, there are still a lot of stories I tell in my History of Video Games class at DePaul University (with complete deniability) that I wouldn't feel comfortable putting in the book. I think it's a nice book, but I wish I could have proved that Multimedia Company X was laundering money for Mid-Eastern Arms Dealers or that Publisher Y was funded with money that came from organized crime so I could have published it.

How was High Score received?

High Score was a bestseller in its space. I heard from several professors in game development programs who used the book as a textbook and heard from others that it was more superficial than Kent's book. It's true that we don't have as much detail, but our goal was to make a very accessible volume. It's more of a trip back in time than an analysis.

High Score was released just after Steven L. Kent's The First Quarter. Why do you think there was an interest in gaming history at the time?

At the turn of the millennium, I believe the industry was just reaching a point of legitimacy. So, we were at a landmark point so that all of the kids who grew up with the earlier eras of electronic games had become adults. They were ready for some nostalgia and nostalgia often sells at turning points.

After Steven L. Kent published The Ultimate history Of Video Games he pretty much quit writing about games altogether because, I believe, he didn't think there was a place for real journalism (read: it didn't sell) any longer in the field of video games. Do you agree?

Recently, I read the most pretentious book of game "journalism" I've ever read (Extra Lives) and a very interesting book on the phenomena of gaming and the future of the industry (Tom Catchfield's Fun Inc.). Will game journalism sell? There's always a market if you package it right. Brian Fargo wants to do a book on the game business with me called The Bard's Tale. So far, we haven't figured out how to package it.

Was there any moment that you thought game journalism "jumped the shark"?

As used in Hollyweird, this is a plot gimmick used when ratings/box office are/is down. I don't remember ever deliberately gimmicking the magazine to get attention. Did I overhype convergence in the ‘90s? Yes! Did I think cable television, film production, and game development were going to come together? Pretty much! I blew it.

Now that video game news is updated 24/7 on the web, is there yet a place for a serious publication about gaming?

Absolutely not!

Retro Gamer magazine is one of the top-selling publications for Future in the UK.  Why do you think that might be?  Do you think there is place for nostalgia publications in the USA?

UK has a smaller, more efficient distribution system. You don't have as many returns in the UK as you do in US newsstand. That helps make it viable. If we ever do one in the USA, I want to write for it, but I wouldn't personally invest in it. The US has a cult of the NEW-especially in technology.

What are your thoughts on that game industry today?

The future of packaged games is questionable. The problem with downloadable content is that one has to know where to browse and the search engines are such that you don't get surprised like you do when browsing a shelf. However, I think we're going to see an explosion of content on tablet media (iPad and Android tablet) for a while. It  gives new talent a chance to break in at a decent budget level. The big publishers have to find a way to dial back their production budgets.

Do you think Facebook social games are the future, or simply a blip like many other blips in the past (i.e Tycoon games in late 90's)?

Blip! Who has time to constantly be bothered by other players-even folks you like? I think we're already seeing evidence of that.

What are your desert island top-10 games (or any type, board, computers, video game)?

  1. Sid Meier's Civilization (any edition) [PC]
  2. Heroes of Might & Magic (any edition) [PC]
  3. The Elder Scrolls (particularly post-Arena) [PC]
  4. Paths of Glory (a WWI card-driven boardgame) [Board]
  5. Dungeons & Dragons (3.5 or Pathfinder d20) [Pen and Paper RPG]
  6. Traveller (science-fiction role-playing) [Pen and Paper RPG]
  7. Empire Deluxe (editable turn-based conquest game) [PC]
  8. MechWarrior (any game in this giant ‘mech series) [PC]
  9. Naval War (or any of its clones like Tyrants of Rome, Modern Naval Battles) [Card]
  10. British Rails [or any of the Mayfair "rails" games] [Board]

And that list would change slightly every time I would be asked that question.

Can you tell us a bit more about your work at De Paul University?

I'm an incredibly minor player at DePaul University's College of Computing and Digital Media. The school allows me to teach a course for history credit ("History of Games") in which we build a history of western civilization around model games (like Senet, Medieval Chess, Faro, and Pokemon Trading Card Game), looking first at each civilization (Ancient Egypt, Medieval Iberia, Frontier U.S., and Modern Japan) and playing the game as we discover how the culture impacted the game and how the game impacted the culture. The first unit covers the history of racing games (Senet,  Nyout, Nard, etc.); the second considers war games (Go, Alquerque, Chinese Chess, Kriegsspiel, and miniatures/board wargames); the third touches on  the history of gambling games; and the fourth looks at  RPGs, video games, and trading card games). So, one gets history AND one gets game history in one place.

In addition to my History of Video Gameselective  for Game Design majors, I teach an "Ethics in Games and Cinema" course that uses film clips from games and movies, as well as game experiences like Diplomacy-variants to challenge assumptions about in-game/in-film ethics, as well as inspire would-be designers to include ethical dimensions within their games.

Do you have any discussions with your religious colleagues about games?

Well, Robert Don Hughes was a seminary professor and colleague of mine. He wrote the Pelmen the Power-Shaper series (If you haven't read Prophet of Lamath, you missed a treat.) We have a religious fantasy and science fiction class taught in the Religion Department here at DePaul, so I have talked to  that prof  (grin). Most of my church members play games and one of the elders of our church went with me to the World Boardgame Championships last year. My brother is a conservative pastor and his church hosted a local game club (at no charge) for a couple of years.

What are the future plans for Johnny Wilson?

I expect to keep teaching at DePaul. I recently spoke at a conference in China and would love to teach more over there. I serve as teaching pastor of a church in Chicago and actually spend more time playing FTF role-playing games and board war games  than PC games (currently, re-playing The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind before buying Skyrim. I also picked up Blood Bowl for nostalgia value.

Return to the web version of this article
Copyright © UBM TechWeb