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  • A Chat With Former CGW Head Johnny Wilson

    [12.22.11]
    - Steve Fulton
  •  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.

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