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Penn Jillette is a master entertainer. For years he and his partner Raymond Teller have been wowing audiences through their live magic act and various television appearances. In a recent episode of the duo’s Showtime program, Bulls***, the two explored the hot topic of video game violence. In issue 200 we talked with Jillette about his opinions on the subject and his history with interactive entertainment. Below is the full interview.
Recently you guys did an episode of Bulls*** where you explored video game violence.
We did our defending a videogame show. You know, I was about time; it had been on our list for a while. It just seems to be such prominent bulls***. With anything that kids like, there is some a**hole that will come along and take it down. Same argument has been used for comics, and rock 'n roll, and everything.
So this topic was on the list for a while. How did you guys decide that this was the year that it needed to be done?
You know right now we’re working on season seven, and all seven years everyone puts down a list of what they'd like to do on the show, and video games have been on my list and on Teller's list and on the producers' lists for at least five years. What happens is you get down to the 10 to 13 shows you are going to do in a season, and depending on what the producers are interested in and who we can get interviews with, we choose what we’re actually going to do. Video Games have been right near the top for five years or so, so we decided it was about time. We went into season seven with video games and the Vatican on our must do list, so you can definitely see where our priorities were.
There were a lot of facts and statistics in that episode. How do you go about researching something like that?
You know, we have an incredible research team and an incredible set of producers, and they do all the hard work. They did all the heavy lifting. We always have a sense for what kinds of things we wanted to in the show, but then they go and really dig around. For example, when we did the PETA episode, we knew there was some bulls*** there, but when the researchers came back with what they found we were just shocked. With video games that wasn't true. We knew there was some s*** going on before we got into it. I forget the name of that a**hole, the main villain we had on the show…Jack Thompson. We knew we wanted to get him very much. We knew about the Hillary Clinton thing. It was astonishing to me. That was probably the thing that pushed us over the top. It was astonishing to me that Hillary Clinton, when she first started the primary, her very first ad, the very first thing she led with, was trashing video games. You can kind of see people like Thompson doing s*** like that, but when someone who is supposed be taken seriously as a politician spends time attacking people different than themselves it’s just repulsive to me. And you know, neither Teller nor I play games, and I don't just mean video games, we don’t play games at all. We've never been games or sports people, but we do pride ourselves in understanding that other people can enjoy things that we don't, and that may be the one of the hardest things for human beings to do to. To simply understand that other people may like to do things that you don't, and there's nothing wrong with that.
Looking back at some of the anti-game studies you guys used for the show, what do you think were some of the fundamental flaws in their methodologies?
They were completely flawed. First of all, we can't get hard science on this thing. That's the thing that I found so fascinating was when we talk to the FBI, and the FBI said you can't really get data on this because everybody of every age plays video games, so it’s kind of like trying to correlate who brushes their teeth. I found it fascinating because I knew that everybody played video games, but I did know it was everybody in the way that the FBI sees everybody. I feel like I'm missing out a huge amount. The little amount that I've played video games for research I found them to be such an interesting artform, and the idea of discovering through gameplay someone else's heart is pretty fascinating to me. I don't know if I'll ever get the time to really sit down and play them properly, but one of these days I'm going to ask someone I trust to give me a game and I'll play it through, because I feel like I'm in the position of never having heard rock 'n roll.
You already talked a little bit about comics and rock 'n roll, and how they went through similar stages of misunderstanding. Do you think it is a fundamental flaw in humanity to fear new things or have misunderstandings about new art forms?
I don't know what it is. The phrase I use all the time is, “the kids are alright,” from the Who. It's amazing to me, you know, I'm 54 years old, and it's amazing to me watching my peers turn into these cartoons. They say, s*** like, “well you know, when we were kids we weren't this rude, and we wouldn’t say this stuff. I would have never done this.” And it's absolute f***ing bulls***, and we certainly have records going back thousands of years that adults always hate the younger generation. Adults always find a reason to hate people that are 20-years-old, and I don't know why it is. Clearly and provably every generation gets better. Every generation gets healthier, smarter, more sophisticated, and that's always been true. Twenty-year-olds are just better than us. Old people just can't seem to get it through their heads that things are getting better and that's wonderful. Not only do young people not have polio, not only are young people less racist, less homophobic, and less violent – not only is all that true, but they also have some really really cool art, and some of that art we don't understand. The problem is a question of time.
You know, when I was 15, 16, 17-years-old, I spent five hours a day juggling, and I probably spent six hours a day seriously listening to music. And if I were 16 now, I would put that time into playing video games. The thing that old people don't understand is – you know if you've never heard Bob Dylan, and someone listened to him for 15 minutes, you're not going to get it. You are just not going to understand. You have to put in hours and hours to start to understand the form, and the same thing is true for gaming. You're not going to just look at a first-person shooter where you are killing zombies and understand the nuances. There is this tremendous amount of arrogance and hubris, where somebody can look at something for five minutes and dismiss it. Whether you talk about gaming or 20th century classical music, you can't do it in five minutes. You can't listen to The Rite of Spring once and understand what Stravinsky was all about. It seems like you should at least have the grace to say you don't know, instead of saying that what other people are doing is wrong. The cliché of the nerdy kid who doesn't go outside and just plays games is completely untrue. And it's also true for the nerdy kid who studies comic books and turns into this genius, and it is also true for the nerdy kid who listens to every nerdy thing that Led Zeppelin put out. That kind of obsession in a 16-year-old is not ugly. It's beautiful. That kind of obsession is going to lead to a sophisticated 30-year-old who has a background in that artform. It just seems so simple, and yet I'm constantly in these big arguments with people on the computer who are talking about, “I would never let my kid do this and this in a video game.” And these are adults who when they were children were dropping acid and going to see the Grateful Dead. I mean, the Grateful Dead is provably s***ty music. It's impossible – it's theoretically impossible to make a video game as bad as the Grateful Dead. I throw that out there as a challenge.
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