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Penn Jillette Is Tired Of The Video Game Bulls***

by Ben Reeves on Nov 20, 2009 at 10:10 AM

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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.

Going back to Jack Thompson, it has been our experience working with him that he's fairly insane. What was your sense of him?

You know, it's very important for the structure of the show to find a villain, and he casts himself that way. Like a lot of people on Bulls***, he is a complete ***. He'll go on anything, and most people we meet are willing to go on anything. If you tell people that your show is called Bulls***, and that you disagree with them, they pretty much know they are going to be called c***pickle. They're hungry for attention, but also they are really really sure in their position, and he is very very sure in his position. He is simply wrong,

Flipping that on its side, do you think it’s possible that video games, or any other kind of medium, might actually encourage violence?

You know, this is the problem, people in the arts self aggrandize so much that they get themselves backed into a corner. You want to believe, when you are in the arts, and I use the arts very broadly to mean anything you do after the chores are done.  When you are in the arts you like to feel like you can change the world, and if you believe that, and state it, and actually push it, you can change the world for the worse. The truth of the matter is there have been so many popular songs that have been about peace and love, and they haven't turned the world into complete peace and love. Violence still happens. So the bad news is, you can't just put out “All You Need Is Love” by the Beatles and get world peace, and the good news is that first-person shooters don't turn people into killers.

The fact of the matter is that violence existed before video games, so therefore were done. Violence did not bump up after video games. In fact, it's gone down. Correlation is not causation, so you can’t use that. You have to be very careful not use the same lies that you are accusing other people of. I would never make the case that video games stop violence, but I would certainly make the case that they did not start it. Even if you add in Columbine, violence by teenagers is down. Billy the Kid and Jesse James did more damage at a younger age than anybody in modern times, and they didn’t play video games. There are all kinds studies that show that after someone has played an aggressive, exciting video game they are more aggressive. Those studies are real, but you have to remember that if you have someone go do a lot of push-ups they are going to be more aggressive too. Anything you do to get your blood going makes you more aggressive, so if you play a first-person shooter it has the same kind of effect as if you run around the block. If you're excited you're excited.

I get friends who play video games and they tell me about the wonders of getting into that head space, and to be perfectly honest I've played a few, but I won’t claim to have played them. I’ve played for an hour, and that’s just not enough. If you listen to Chopin for an hour or Stravinsky for an hour, or Miles Davis for an hour, you don't know jack s*** about them. It requires time and constant exposure to the culture. You can't listen to Stravinsky without listening to the other music of that time, and you can't understand a video game without knowing the antecedents and the peers of that game.

Going back to the show, you talked a bit about the Three Stooges…

Oh, I love the stooges...

Yeah, well on the show you talked about how the stooges would layer love and brotherly compassion over violence. Do you think it's possible to say something meaningful while using violence, which you couldn't say without violence?

Well you know, the reason we do art is because of the stuff we can't say with prose and the message and the motion of the Three Stooges are so incredibly complicated and tied into them being brothers and lifetime friends and tied in with comedy and tied in with the times that the message is so complicated you can't separate them, and certainly feelings people get from video games are so complicated and layered that there's all sorts of stuff to communicate that you couldn't communicate them any other way. If there were something there you could communicate any other way, they would exist. The very fact that people play them shows they have validity.

In the work that you do is seems like you are very passionate about getting people to think critically about they things they believe and their philosophies. Do you think interactive entertainment, such as games, is a good way to get people to work though those kinds of issues?

You know, I don't know. It's not everyone's job to do the same thing. Teller and I are very strongly atheists, we're very strongly libertarian, we're very strongly critical thinking. But that doesn't mean everybody has to feel the same way. There is certainly complete validity in other ideas, so I don't know enough to know what video games are in line with my heart and my feeling. I would have to be a real expert. If you asked me what Dylan songs are in line with my heart and my feelings, I could tell you that, but I don’t know video games that well, so I can't say. I can imagine, like in every other art form, they run the gamut. There are probably video games that I would deeply disagree with, but you can't have a disagreement with the form, only with the content. I’m one of those people who do not believe that the medium is the message. I believe the message is the message. You can do something I agree with in ballet or you could do it in heavy metal. It’s the ideas that matter to me.

In the mid-'90s you guys started working on the Sega CD title called Smoke and Mirrors.

Yeah, Smoke and Mirrors, it never came out, but it’s bootlegged all over. One of the reasons it never came out was that one of our very good friends, Barry Marx, who was working on it had congenital heart problem and died unexpectedly. It really wasn't a case of business or anything like that. It was a case of the point person no longer being there. We worked on it very seriously, and one of the things that was there was a thing called Desert Bus, which was an answer to Janet Reno. Janet Reno, during the Clinton administration, was very very against video games, and she suggested that there be video games that prepare people for real life. So our answer to Janet Reno, besides “f*** you” was to do a video game that did pattern real life. In the game, there was a bus driver driving from Phoenix to Las Vegas on an eight hour route with no stops and nothing interesting happening between. The bus pulled a little to the right, and it had a speedometer that limited you from going over 55 mph. That was our performance art version of a video game. But within Smoke and Mirrors there was also a Penn and Teller adventure game, and there was a few other gag games. One game that we really liked was a Bee game that you played co-op, but the main player could tap in this signal and automatically the character they were playing with would win by a little bit. It would always be a close game, but you would always win. The computer might let your friend start to catch up, but then his jumps would stop working and you would always win.

We’re not sure if we could defined that as a game or more of an interactive trick.

Well Desert Bus was a performance artist thing and the Bee game was a trick, but then in this whole thing was a proper game that we worked on quite a bit. A real Penn and Teller game that let you go through New York City, and there were talismans to pick up and all sorts of stuff. It was, in a certain way, a traditional game using us as characters. But also on the CD there would be those other four or five trick-like games like we already talked about.

Desert Bus seems like a hefty investment. Did you expect anybody to actually play through it when it came out?

Well we expected some nuts to do it just for fun, and it turned out there was a group in Canada that does it for charity. In the end they got up to eight points, and if you think about it, it takes eight hours of driving just to get one point, so you get an idea of how long they play, but they play for charity. They raise money to buy video games for sick kids in hospitals. They raised like $25,000 to buy video games for sick kids, and they do it by doing this marathon Desert Bus game.

Some of those trick games from Smoke and Mirrors sounds a bit like the Chat Magic Trick you guys just released for the iPhone. Was this a resurrection of and idea from Smoke and Mirrors?

Not at all. We were both buying apps for our iPhones like crazy, and we had also bought every app that had to do with magic, and Teller really came up with this idea that he thought would fool the s*** out of people. We got together with a guy named Perry Freedman who’s done a lot of stuff with different apps, and he's a friend of ours and we started talking about it, and we got people playing with it and beta testing it. It was actually a stripper in Philadelphia, who would do the trick with every lap dance, who really sent us all the notes on the timing. She's astonishing at the trick. She can do the trick so well that I think she could fool me with it. Other people we're doing it two to three times a day and she was performing it like 40 times a night, so she had a lot of data points. It ends up being a phenomenally good trick. A lot of professional magicians are doing it during their close up and walk around. It really lacks a lot of bells and whistles, because the idea behind the trick was to really fool the s*** out of people, and when you really fooled the s*** out of people you don't want a great deal graphics. We worked hard with Apple, because Apple does not like you doing stuff that mimics their real functions. But they liked the trick enough that they let us mimic the chat function, which is what makes the trick work, the fact that you think you're really chatting with Penn or Teller is what sells the trick.

So do you think you’ll do more apps?

I don’t know. We tend to go with ideas when we get them. We had a great idea for an app, so we did that, but our idea was not to get into the app business. Our idea was let’s do a Penn and Teller thing here. So you know, we do movies, we do TV, we do a live show, and we did an app, but that doesn’t mean we have to do a zillion more. We’re really proud and happy with this one, and if people like it, and if we think of another idea we might do another one, but we don't feel forced to do another one just because we did one.

You said you don’t play game, so why do you think you’ve been so close to the industry so many times even though you’re not a gamer?

I don't know. I just think the people that are involved in gaming have always been people I get along with. They have similar sensibilities. I think that I have more in common with them than I do with magicians. A lot of my friends are in the computer world and the science world, and the computer and science world tends to overlap more with gaming than with magic. So its just the kind of people you gravitate to. It’s odd that I’m not a gamer, but it’s not odd that gamers are the kinds of people that I get along with.