Interview with Jordan Magnuson, gametrekker

Jordan Magnuson is about to embark on a journey around the world that he will document through games. Having recently raised $5000 through Kickstarter, Mr. Magnuson will be departing this week for Taiwan from South Korea, where he has been for the past two years teaching English to middle school students and creating small experimental games. Play As Life managed to catch up with Mr. Magnuson just before he starts his Southeast Asia tour.

Play As Life: First of all, congratulations for raising money for your Kickstarter project! It seems like you’re going to be traveling for the next six months and blogging/creating games as you go. Is that a fair way to describe your project?

Magnuson: Yeah, I think that’s a fair way to describe it. The emphasis will be on creating small games about the places I visit, but I do plan to keep a blog about my experiences as well, that I hope will add some extra context to the games for those who are interested.

Play As Life: How will you use games as a form of creative expression?

Magnuson: My idea with game trekking is to use games to try and convey thoughts or ideas or feelings or historical events in the context of traveling, and the specific places that I visit… to use games as a sort of travel writing. If you’ve played any of the games I’ve made about Korea (Loneliness, Freedom Bridge, Being There), you’ll have an idea of what I’m going for. My emphasis is definitely on experimenting with the medium, and the exploration of place and how it relates to us as humans, over and against “fun” or gameplay as such (which is why I actually label most of my creations “notgames”). In terms of why use games, as opposed to an established form like the already-mentioned travel writing (which I hope to incorporate via my blog), the project itself is an attempt to answer that question: maybe at the end of it all people will look at the little interactive creations I’ve made and think that they’re stupid and useless… or maybe they’ll see them as a valid way of expressing something unique about the experience of travel. I don’t know. The whole thing is an experiment.

Play As Life: Let’s start with Korea, which is where you are now. Why are you in Korea (of all places)?

Magnuson: Well, my wife (Marisa) and I kind of have the travel bug… or bugs, if there’s one in each of us 🙂 . We’re both American, but both grew up overseas, traveling a lot. We went to college in the States, in Minnesota, and worked there for a bit afterwards doing a hodgepodge of freelance webdesign, ebay selling, and dealing in used books… But we kind of got antsy, and when one of my good friends told us about his plan to teach English in Korea, we thought that sounded like a lot of fun. Marisa had lived in Hong Kong as a teenager, but I had never been anywhere in east Asia, so that was a big part of the draw for me: I’m always keen to see new places, experience new cultures, and meet people who think differently than I do. So that’s what we’ve been doing for two years: teaching English to Korean middle schoolers in what Koreans consider the “boonies” of Jeollabuk-do. [Editor’s note: Jeollabuk-do is a rural province in S. Korea]

Play As Life:  Your blog says you studied “writing, philsophy, math, computer science, art history, Celtic spirituality” but got a degree in physics. That seems like a very rare combination. Where do games fit into this equation?

Magnuson: Haha. Yeah, I’m an incurable generalist, with far too many interests for my own good. I’m interested in synthesis, cross-disciplinary study, and broad understanding. I appreciate academia, but I also think that it can feel rigid and stale at times, and I think that learning is obviously something that precedes and transcends formal education. The creation and playing of games, to me, is a wonderful example of the human urge to play and discover and learn, in a very “pure”, informal, and unrestrained context. As an adult, I feel that it’s easy to get weighed down by the mundane, the boring, the trivial… things that sap your energy and steal your curiosity, your imagination, your creative potential–whether you’re working a nine-to-five job, or studying for an academic degree. I love games for their ability to restore in me that sense of wonder and curiosity and immediacy that I often felt as a child. To quote Steve Gaynor, “If adulthood familiarity with our own world leeches off wonderment and replaces it with cynicism, games offer us fresh worlds from which to derive the reinvigorating, electrifying wonder of the new.” Games that succeed in offering us truly fresh and reinvigorating worlds may be few and far between, but the potential is there in a uniquely strong way owing to the inherently interactive nature of gameplay, and that’s why I love the medium.

Play As Life:  You grew up in Tunisia and Egypt. How did this affect your childhood? Did you play videogames like many teenage boys do?

Magnuson: Growing up in Tunisia and Egypt affected my childhood in too many ways to list here. To limit my answer to the videogame side of things, I never had a console growing up, but my family did get a Power Macintosh when I was 11, which, looking back at it, was just the right age: not young enough to take computer games for granted, and not old enough to get bored of them quickly… Rebel Assault, Space Junkies, SimCity, and Power Pete are burned into my memory for ever as beautiful, electrifying experiences.

Play As Life: What kind of games do you like and why?

Magnuson: I like games that spur my imagination and ignite my curiosity by offering fresh worlds, creative gameplay, interesting mechanics, satisfying emotional exploration, etc. I don’t like the rigidity of genres, and to me this isn’t a genre question: it’s broader than that. I like strategy games like Civilization or SimCity that make me think and react and strategize on what feels like an epic canvas; I like little exploration games like Seiklus or Beacon that make me smile at and appreciate little things; I like big exploration games like Myst or The Last Express that blow me away with their level of immersion; I like experimental games that showcase new ways to be creative with the medium; I like games that are not games, that prove the medium’s ability to reach beyond entertainment; I like games that are short, because most games are too long for their own good. Ultimately, I like any game that makes me feel awake and alive and engaged, rather than bored, dazed, or drugged. I haven’t written a new one in a while, but my reviews at provide a somewhat larger answer to this question…

Play As Life: Was there any game that changed how you think?

Magnuson: Let’s see… A lot of games have affected my problem solving and critical thinking abilities, and a number of others have spurred me to research any number of things (nanotechnology, city planning, medieval history, etc., etc.), but I assume that you’re referring to something that changed my opinion, or made me look at the world differently? I’d say most games that have affected me like that have done so in fairly nuanced and subtle ways–encouraging me to hope, or look more closely, or appreciate something about the world more… maybe not “Changing” me in a big way, but impacting me… In terms of more explicit change, I can say that my playing of Super Columbine Massacre RPG!, along with the research and thought that it provoked, changed my view of the incident (and school shootings in general) substantially. And then there’s Passage, which not only helped to inform my view of life’s transience, but significantly changed how I think about video games themselves.

Play As Life: Your game “Freedom Bridge” seems to have a strong political message. Was this inspired by a visit to the DMZ?

Magnuson: Yes, Freedom Bridge was inspired by a visit to the Korean DMZ, and to its namesake in particular. A lot of people have commented that it has a strong political message, and I think that the political realities surrounding it are undeniable, and inseparable from it; that being said, my foremost intention with the game was simply to express the sadness I felt at seeing this bridge called “Freedom” that divides a people group, separates families, and is impassable from either side.

Play as Life:  You founded Necessary Games, a website for games that contain “meaning” and “significance.” What do you mean by that?

Magnuson: Haha. Well, as I try to explain on my site’s about page, I’m using those terms fairly lightly. I realize that they are loaded, that brandying them about is pretentious, and that I am in no position to make any kind of objective judgements as to which games are or are not “meaningful” or “significant.” So why do I use those terms? As a prod, to spur discussion, to spur thought. The website is not about which games are meaningful and which are not, but about spurring a discussion of which games might be considered meaningful, or significant, and why.

Play As Life:  What makes a good “meaningful” game?

Magnuson: As I was just saying, that’s a huge question that deserves many separate discussions in its own right. The best one-sentence answer I can think of is not an answer, but a question, penned by Roger Ebert:

“The real question is, do we as their consumers become more or less complex, thoughtful, insightful, witty, empathetic, intelligent, philosophical (and so on) by experiencing them?”

Granted, Ebert posed this question in the context of invalidating games as art, and I don’t agree with that conclusion, but I don’t think that makes the question a bad one to ask.

Play As Life: What is your take on how society views games and game players?

Magnuson: See’s 5 Reasons It’s Still Not Cool to Admit You’re a Gamer. It seems to me that games are regarded by society at large as trivial, time-wasting, insignificant, and juvenile at best; violence simulators at worst. There’s some other perspectives out there, but they don’t seem to be very widespread–in general, society seems to be in a state of waging a defensive war against videogames. Which is hardly surprising considering that when games are featured in the media, its typically in connection with a school shooting, or studies concerning lack of productivity, or MMO addiction. And frankly, it’s also not surprising considering the quality and nature of the majority of games that we’re making: I agree with many of the critics (e.g., Ebert), that most of them have little of value to offer the world. Where I disagree with the critics is in the potential of games: I’ve played some good ones, but more than that I’ve seen some sparks, and that’s what excites me.

Play As Life: What are you hoping to learn from your travels?

Magnuson: Very broadly, I want to learn more about myself, more about the world at large, more about the people and places that make the world up; I want to increase my understanding, my compassion, my empathy for the diverse peoples and cultures of the world–learn how I am like them, and how I am unlike them…

Magnuson's game trekking route

Of course, such encompassing statements are laughable, but getting much more specific is also laughable, because the power of travel, in my experience, lies in encountering new things, unexpected things, things that you can’t prepare for. And so you are changed in ways that you never expected, and learn things that you never expected. Getting more specific is what the travel itself is for, and the writing, and the game making. If I knew what I was going to learn, in a specific sense, I wouldn’t have to go. So don’t ask me what I hope to learn–ask me, after a time, what I have learned.

Play As Life: I’m assuming you’ll be working from your laptop during your trip?

Magnuson: Yes, I will be working from my laptop. I have a 12-inch Lenovo x201 that serves me pretty well.

Play As Life: What kind of programs do you use to design games?

I use a variety of tools and languages to create my games… Python and PyGame with Eclipse for IDE, Mark Overmar’s Game Maker, Clickteam’s Multimedia Fusion, Inform 7 for interactive fiction, and most recently AS3 and FlashPunk with FlashDevelop. This last combination is what I will probably be using for most of my game trekking creations, as it hits the mark for quick development and easy cross-platform deployment for small 2D games. Game Maker is probably my favorite development tool, but lacks the key ability to deploy across platforms.

Play As Life: In what cases or scenarios would games be better than other media to learn things and/or send messages?

Magnuson: At the level of theory, that’s like asking when a photo is better than a painting, or when a movie is better than a photo… some people might say, “all the time”: the more dimensions at our disposal, the more senses being put to use, the better–always. As for me, I think that every medium has its strengths and weaknesses–the relative “simplicity” of one medium is what makes it uniquely powerful in some situations, and what hinders it in other situations; for every medium there are artists who know and understand it, and are able to express themselves powerfully with that medium in a way that they cannot with others… consequently, I don’t think there can be a simple answer to the question of when one medium is better to be used than another.

All of the theory business aside, it is relatively easy to understand of why the interactive medium is so full of potential, and why it might be the medium of choice for many authors: because it stands out for its ability to draw its viewers in and force them to become actors and co-creators in the world of the “artwork” in an explicit and unavoidable way. Take Super Columbine Massacre RPG! as a single example: unlike a book or a play or a sculpture or a film, the game forces its players to enter into the world of Columbine as active participants–not just active participants, but the central participants. Passive viewing is not an option: in order to “view the work,” players must act and make decisions… must enter into the skin of Harris and Klebold–or discontinue… and therein lies the game’s power to explore the incident not in an objective way, but in a profoundly subjective way that may shed far more light on how the reality of Columbine connects to each of us.


One response to “Interview with Jordan Magnuson, gametrekker

  1. Pingback: Reflections on games « Arctic Penguin·

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